As expected, we were deluged with letters regardi
We knew that Danny Kohl's "GM Foods--Another View" [April 16], on genetically modified organism (GMO) technology used in food production, would provoke controversy, and we weren't disappointed. Below are edited versions of some of the letters that flooded in.
East Ryegate, Vt.
GMO technology epitomizes the contempt for life that is the basis of science and capitalism. Asian children do not need bioengineered "golden rice" to meet their vitamin A requirement. As the World Bank has acknowledged, eating leafy greens daily does the job, cheaply and efficiently, as Asian families have done for millennia. So why the vitamin A deficiency crisis? It was the Green Revolution, which came from the United States in the sixties, that destroyed families' access to a diversity of field greens. Its "miracle" monocultures displaced cultivated greens from grain fields, while its herbicides killed off the wild greens ("weeds") traditionally harvested along with crops.
Vitamin A deficiency, the most easily and cheaply remedied of the deficiency diseases, signals environmental degradation and poverty. GMOs will remedy neither. Food-based education projects, however, are already helping 3 million people in India combat vitamin A deficiency through home gardening and also by increasing diversity in their diets, to combat the malnutrition of which vitamin A is symptomatic. But few are willing to acknowledge the role of science and technology in degrading the environment and impoverishing the multitudes.
We in the First World face a moral challenge, which is to acknowledge that in our contempt for life, in our claim to be "conquering nature," we are destroying humanity and nature, in effect cutting off the branch on which we sit.
Danny Kohl's suggestion that genetically altered "golden" rice is the answer for the condition of 2 million children at risk of vitamin A deficiency-induced blindness reveals a tremendous naïveté. Vitamin A deficiency is a symptom, a warning sign of broader dietary inadequacies associated with poverty and with agricultural change from diverse cropping systems to rice monoculture. People do not have vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little vitamin A but because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing else. A magic-bullet solution that puts beta carotene into rice--with potential health and ecological hazards--while leaving poverty, poor diets and extensive monoculture intact, is unlikely to make any durable contribution to well-being.
Kohl argues that the development of golden rice was "supported entirely by the public sector and philanthropic funds." He fails to mention that all rights have been granted to corporate giant Astra Zeneca, which plans to market it in industrialized countries as a "nutraceutical" (food containing a pharmaceutical agent), while making it available free of extra charges above normal improved-seed costs to those poor farmers in the Third World who can demonstrate that their annual rice sales are below a magic threshold ($5,000 was suggested). Should the farmers bring their tax returns to the seed shop? Most peasant farmers have never paid taxes and probably don't have an identity card or proper title to their land. Nor do they usually buy expensive seeds, preferring to save their own for the next planting. And who would administer this anyway? Get serious.
PETER M. ROSSET
Food First/Institute for Food
and Development Policy
Danny Kohl's call to separate ideology from science or empiricism isn't possible--or desirable. All science occurs in a context; no empiricism is free from ideology. Biotechnology is no more value-free than nuclear power or automobile technology. Starvation is a social disease--caused mainly by poverty, poor food distribution and the conversion of farmland to other purposes. The pursuit of technofixes for hunger, even by well-intentioned scientists, as Kohl proposes, will lead us right back to the golden rice and Starlink messes we have now. The plight of the planet's 800 million starving people can't be addressed by science, absent the real world of political context. Did we learn nothing from the mistakes of the Green Revolution?
Kohl accuses critics of "indiscriminately rejecting GMO technologies," when that rejection is in fact frequently careful, responsible and science-based. The ceaseless promotion of a science that is not ready for prime time deserves more, not less criticism. While Dr. Kohl might well long for a pure examination of this infant science without messy ideological debates, it just can't be done.
Council for Responsible Genetics
When African delegates to a United Nations conference saw images of starving African children used in Monsanto ads claiming that genetic engineering is critical to feeding the poor, they wrote in response, "We...strongly object that images of the poor and hungry from our countries are being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environment friendly, nor economically beneficial to us.... We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."
Danny Kohl says yellow rice comes from a team of scientists whose sole intent is to bring it freely to the poor. In fact, the lead scientist on this team is a former Novartis researcher who currently holds an interest in dozens of Novartis plant patents. Although the rice was developed with public money, Novartis (through Syngenta, a company it formed in alliance with another gene giant, Zeneca) holds the rights to sell the rice, and a company spokesperson told the Financial Times, "We see it doing particularly well in Japan." The Rural Advancement Foundation International, which works with small farmers worldwide, rightly exposed this ripoff as "millions of dollars of public funding [being] surrendered to a multinational corporation."
Scientists have found yellow rice an unlikely solution to the problem it pretends to address. Dr. Marion Nestle has written in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "Food-based approaches to improving vitamin A status seem especially desirable. The addition of one or two nutrients to an existing food does not constitute a food-based approach."
The real problem the industry seeks to address is not malnutrition but public opinion. The propaganda value of yellow rice has been immeasurable, as industry has shamelessly used it in an attempt to quell growing US distrust of its experimental foods. Faced with a PR meltdown, the biotech/chemical industry is desperately plying the same message it promoted when its pesticides were first exposed as threats to the environment and our health. When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring brought the dangers of DDT to a national audience, the chemical industry responded with a PR blitz centered around its claim that poor people would starve without pesticides. Monsanto, one of the leading chemical polluters of the past century and infamous for its cover-ups (see www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/dirtysecrets/anniston/1.asp) today is the leading force behind the genetic engineering of our food. While proponents of this experiment distract us with unsubstantiated arguments about future wonders, Americans are unwittingly eating Monsanto's genetically engineered products in thousands of foods from our supermarket shelves. Like Monsanto's chemicals, none of these altered foods have been the subject of long-term study for their effects on the environment or our health.
Like other apologists for this industry, Kohl argues that economic and political solutions to problems of hunger "will not happen soon," implying that it is faster, easier and safer to alter millions of years of evolutionary ecology than to address the man-made inequalities that have been perpetrated over the past few decades.
Yellow rice has been in development for nearly ten years and is still several years away from even small field trials. After more years of research and millions of dollars, what will these researchers achieve? They hope the rice will have beta carotene that humans can assimilate, in quantities that matter, without side effects that harm the environment or human health. Meanwhile, every year and dollar spent on this rice is a year and dollar not spent on projects that truly address sustainable solutions to poverty and hunger.
Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign
The fundamental point upon which the GMO debate pivots is the matter of public trust--trust of government, researchers and corporations that they will be cautious not reckless, generous not greedy, humble not arrogant. While there may be a few geneticists scattered throughout the world working toward knowledge and technology "free of costs and restrictions on property rights," they will unfortunately always be in the overwhelming minority. Moreover, the knowledge created even by well-intentioned geneticists can turn on its creators and those it is designed to benefit. And we cannot put the GMO genie back in the bottle once we have released it. The promise of GMO technology today reminds one of the promise of nuclear power a half-century ago. Better our efforts were devoted to fighting the underlying causes of poverty and malnutrition.
DAREL E. PAUL
Professor Kohl is right about one thing: Corporate control over agriculture and over scientific research agendas is perhaps the most important issue underlying the debates over genetically engineered food. But having acknowledged this, he proceeds to outline a research agenda tailor-made to benefit his corporate benefactors.
Certainly there is a great deal of scientific knowledge to be brought to bear on the problems of hunger and malnutrition. But why is the question always "How can we address these problems through genetic engineering?" and almost never "What is the most appropriate course of scientific research to address human needs?"
A February 3 article in the British magazine New Scientist offered a very different approach to using science to aid the world's poor. Using an impressive array of very low-tech interventions--trap crops for common pests, polycultures replacing monocultures, changing planting times and patterns, etc.--farmers in Africa have been increasing yields by up to 100 percent. That's a huge advance beyond the marginal-yield advantages that Monsanto and the other biotech companies brag about incessantly.
The biotech industry supported the development of "golden" vitamin A rice to the tune of $100 million. Even if the beta carotene content could someday be increased fivefold, as Kohl suggests, it will still take 3 or 4 pounds of rice a day to satisfy a person's nutritional requirements, and that is only if other nutrients are in proper balance. There's much more beta carotene in traditional crops, from leafy green vegetables to squashes, melons and mangoes. The key is helping people regain the ability to feed themselves, exactly what the companies that have brought us genetic engineering are most threatened by. In emergencies, vitamin A supplements are available for just a few pennies.
Biotechnology does offer one clear advantage--to corporations--over more traditional low-tech solutions: the ability to "invent" new varieties of plants and animals that companies like Monsanto can patent and claim proprietary rights over. While the results of more traditional agricultural research often remain in the public domain--where they properly belong--genetically engineered varieties are subject to the most stringent "intellectual property" rules of the WTO. Farmers all over North America are finding this out the hard way, as they face severe legal penalties even when their crops are contaminated with Monsanto's proprietary genes due to cross-pollination.
For twenty-five years, the narrow agenda of genetic engineering has dominated scientific discussions in the public and private domains, corrupting scientific discourse while enriching those researchers who are most willing to feed at the corporate trough. It's time for a more honest discussion of how science can best benefit human health and well-being.
Biotechnology Project Director
Institute for Social Ecology
Danny Kohl argues that judgments on biotechnology should be based on facts rather than supposition. As a family farmer, I couldn't agree more. But is industry willing to make its GMO research available to farmers and consumers? No. Much like Big Tobacco, it spends millions on PR campaigns and resists all efforts to involve the government in the research, testing and regulation of GMOs.
For family farmers the promise of GMOs stands in stark contrast to the reality. For three decades US farmers have been told that if we are to survive we must (1) produce for the global marketplace, (2) reduce costs and (3) become more efficient. How does this play out with respect to GMOs?
Numerous countries in Europe and Asia have banned the use of GMOs because of consumer concerns, which in effect have closed markets to US farmers using GMO seeds. In fact, many European and Asian countries have begun to market GMO-free products and are paying farmers premiums for crops grown with conventional seeds.
Crops grown with GMO seeds are far more expensive to produce. In 1999 a GMO soybean system cost farmers about 50 percent more than comparable conventional seed and weed management systems. A recent Nebraska study found that GMO soybean yields were 11 percent lower than their conventional seed counterparts and concluded that genetic engineering, not farming practices, was responsible. Similar studies have shown 12 percent and 20 percent yield reductions in GMO cotton and canola, respectively. For the farmer, GMOs mean fewer markets, higher costs and reduced performance. For more information call toll-free (877) 968-FARM (3276).
Missouri Rural Crisis Center
Earthcraft Farm, Bringhurst, Indiana
Danny Kohl shares the hubris of his corporate master Monsanto that we can tamper with life at the basic level of the creation of novel species, and we can understand and control the consequences. What scientists today get corporate funding to keep track of the world's biodiversity with a view to its preservation? The life-and-death sciences have no concern about biodiversity, except to exploit little pieces of it and to turn them into commodities for profit.
And what about human societies in the next year, or next ten years? What is the impact on poor farmers and on native and indigenous people? Maybe they want to preserve and grow natural and traditional varieties of crops, free from genetic pollution. Maybe they have too much reverence for nature to fathom the arrogance of redesigning life. Maybe they just need land to grow food on so that they can feed themselves. But these political solutions "will not happen soon," thinks Kohl, and so he recommends an interim technofix, just like all the other technofixes, the ones that destroyed much of the resource base of viable communal agriculture.
We have an organic vegetable farm, and we sometimes use Bt, a natural biopesticide. Bt is now genetically engineered into many food plants so that they express toxin in every cell, all the time (in its engineered form, Bt does not quickly biodegrade, as it does in natural form). Since there are Bt crops in our area, we expect Bt-tolerant insects to develop and render Bt ineffective, thus making it more difficult to grow food organically. Corporate scientists have predicted this outcome for years. Corporations figure they can sell more toxic pesticides, and scientists count on working on the next technofix.
Monsanto recently won a lawsuit against a Canadian farmer who had Monsanto's GE canola growing in his field without having purchased its proprietary technology. Pollen drift from nearby GE fields ruined his crop and his livelihood. The international repercussions from this and similar outrages are just beginning.
JIM ROSE and SIGNE WALLER
Since a point-by-point response isn't possible in this limited space, I'll try to respond to some themes. For a point-by-point response, visit www.biology.wustl.edu/faculty/kohl.html, then click on the link, GM Food The Nation/April 21, 2001.
Clearly, there is more than one reasonable opinion about the potential for golden rice to make a significant contribution to improving vitamin A nutrition. Some of the reasons the jury is still out were included in my article.
Brian Tokar is correct that for people with no other source of vitamin A, satisfying the Recommended Daily Allowance would require consumption of impossible amounts of rice. (Benefits to vision occur far short of RDA, by the way.) But benefits are not "all or none." Peter Rosset of Food First is, of course, correct. Golden rice is not the solution. The empirical question is whether it can make a significant contribution to improving public health. While many find vitamin A supplements an attractive alternative, it is not inexpensive. In 1994 the World Bank estimated the cost to be 50 cents per person per year (two doses, including administration costs). South Asia might have 1.25 billion people. If only 1 of every 12.5 people (children and adult women) requires supplements, that's $50 million per year.
But the golden rice project is important beyond its possible contribution to alleviating suffering. It suggests one model for allowing scientists to escape the iron grip of profit potential that determines which crops and diseases are addressed. And escaping industry's demand for profit is the task I consider to be the most important. In the case of golden rice, public sector (Swiss and EU science agencies) and philanthropic (Rockefeller Foundation) funds allowed scientists to pursue a product that did not have sufficient profit potential to interest a biotech multinational.
It is true, as Charles Margulis and Rosset say, that a multinational was granted the rights to market golden rice in the developed world in exchange for work done on obtaining waivers of the seventy intellectual property rights agreements that otherwise would have restricted free distribution of seed. I'm comfortable with this trade-off, since it will allow seeds to be distributed without royalties in the Third World. This collaboration with industry after the hard, basic science has been done does not change the fact that there was not enough profit potential to induce any corporation to attempt to develop the product from scratch. Other aspects of the venture worth emulating are the role assigned to public agencies, like the Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology, and the commitment to cross the trait into local varieties, among others.
If, as Margulis writes, in the past the lead scientist (I assume he means Ingo Potrykus) held patents along with a multinational, then I'm surprised Margulis doesn't welcome Potrykus into the light of public interest from the darkness of corporate co-patent-holder. Or does Margulis consider Potrykus to be beyond redemption? I could not agree more with Margulis's assessment that the biotech industry has shamelessly tried to turn golden rice into the poster child for the industry, especially since, contrary to the claim of Tokar, no industry money was spent to support its development. But I am puzzled by the apparent conviction that the golden rice project is somehow compromised by the industry offensive. Surely, we should denounce industry's shameless attempt, but why should their unprincipled effort to co-opt this publicly financed effort reflect badly on the product?
The product should be evaluated for what it is. Many predict it will fall far short of making a contribution to improved public health. If it turns out that way, so be it. But the logic of "my enemies' friends are my enemies" leads to strange places. One small indication that the biotech industry has succeeded in focusing attention on golden rice is that none of the letter writers mentioned my claim that science might contribute to improving cassava.
I admit to also being puzzled by the "either/or" paradigm presented in comments by Beth Champagne, Tokar, Rossett and Darel Paul. I think it's great that 3 million people in India are improving their lives with home gardens, even if (and I do not mean this sarcastically) that is only about 0.25 percent of the people at risk for vitamin A deficiency. I think we should vigorously support any strategy with promise for improving life for poor people, even if it is only an incremental improvement, recognizing that for the most part such projects do not compete for the same funds, such as money made available for science from the European Biotech Program. I absolutely agree that vitamin A deficiency, like hunger, is the result of poverty. GM foods will not cure poverty. The empirical question is whether they can make any contribution to human welfare without major changes in the social structure.
Clearly, Martin Teitel is correct that "all science occurs in a context." There can be no better example than the influence corporations have on the science agenda. What I had in mind when I mentioned "empirical, not ideological" questions were questions like those I asked in my essay; e.g., would golden rice be accepted by consumers, would the yield be less than the parental varieties into which it was crossed, etc. An extreme example of an ideological stance is the statement by Champagne that "contempt for life...is at the basis of science and capitalism." If this leads Champagne to reject all products of science, then we simply disagree. I, for one, am glad that my grandchildren have been immunized against disease, even if some corporation made a profit from it. (Immunization raises issues of benefit/cost ratio, but that's another story.) I'm glad that biotechnology techniques have resulted in bacteria that produce adequate insulin with consistent properties, a far better medicine than that isolated from pig and cow pancreas.
In my editorial, I called for increasing the stringency of the regulatory environment, including requiring multinationals to do the hard scientific work of making it virtually impossible for engineered genes to escape from the GM crop, a problem raised by Jim Rose and Signe Waller's letter. I did realize that this put at risk my status as a "hero of Monsanto," which a number of letter writers assigned to me. So it goes.
Since our very beginning, Pacifica Radio has been a tumultuous and
controversial experiment, striving to mesh together divergent views and
Joseph Heller would have had a field day with the hearings of the US
Commission on Civil Rights in Tallahassee last week.
As the Senate begins its hearings on the nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, it is important to focus on the different roles that his office plays in the administration of justice in
The Supreme Court, in the final week of June, handed down three decisions, each of which seems to endorse a valuable social principle.
In the first, involving the right of legal immigrants who have pleaded guilty to crimes in the past to a judicial review of deportation proceedings, the Court upheld the principle that no matter who you are, you are entitled to your day in court.
In the second case, the High Court affirmed the right of writers and artists to share in the wealth made possible by the new media. The case was brought by a group of freelancers who objected to the inclusion of their work in electronic databases without permission or remuneration; the group was led by Jonathan Tasini, the president of the National Writers Union and a man with an admirable mission.
In the third case, the Supreme Court made it more possible for Congress to provide correctives to the influence of money in politics by upholding Watergate-era limits on how much political parties can spend in coordination with candidates for federal office. Had the Court eliminated the restrictions, it would have legitimized the parties as cash-laundering machines for donors.
Left to be determined, in all three cases, are the appropriate remedies for the ills the rulings addressed, and the difficulty of fashioning these should not be underestimated. But it is heartening to see the Court acting in its proper role as the guardian of both the individual and society.
Thomas Jefferson was not anticipating a summer holiday when he told Lafayette that "the boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave." In Philadelphia, where Jefferson and his countrymen created a monumental wave back in 1776, a new generation of patriots will meet from June 29 to July 1 to turn a tide of anger over the denial of democracy in Florida into a national movement for electoral reform.
The national Pro-Democracy Convention, organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Nation Institute and others, comes at a moment of more activism on voting rights and electoral reform than at any time since the 1960s. From energetic voter-registration drives in Florida, where young people gathered in mid-June to kick off Democracy Summer, to a renewed push for instant-runoff voting in Vermont, to a move in Congress to make real the promise of the Voting Rights Act, there's a sense that from the disappointment that was Florida there may come a movement capable of assuring that, in the words of Representative Cynthia McKinney, "We will not allow a repeat of Florida 2000."
Essential to this movement is the recognition that Florida was only part of the story. Across the United States more than 2 million presidential votes went uncounted last November. Election officials actually discarded more ballots in Illinois than in Florida--3.9 percent compared with 2.9 percent. Added to this are concerns about aging voting equipment, restrictive registration laws, failed implementation of the federal motor-voter law and bans on voting by former prisoners that continue to deny millions of citizens--especially people of color and the poor--full access to the franchise.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, there's a chance to crystallize the energy of this new movement by passing the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act. Written by Chris Dodd, Senate Rules Committee chairman, and John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, the bill addresses basic issues of access and equal opportunity and sets universal standards for voting machines. It has the support of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, the National Organization for Women, the National Federation of the Blind and at least 172 Congress members. Citizens will have a chance to voice their support at hearings across the country this summer.
Meanwhile, the House is preparing for a post-July 4 showdown on the related issue of campaign finance reform. House majority whip Tom DeLay has vowed to defeat the reform effort, modest as it is, but supporters hope momentum created by Senate passage of a similar measure and by a Supreme Court decision upholding restrictions on party contributions to candidates will overwhelm defenders of what Senator Russ Feingold calls "a system of legalized bribery."
Electoral reforms are never easily won--just ask a suffragist, or, for that matter, the Civil Rights Commission members who were excoriated for exposing the "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" that disfranchised minority voters in Florida. No single law will cure what ails our democracy. But now is the time to take the first steps. American democracy was devalued last year, and it will require a wave of liberty to begin to set things right.
The census makes clear about Latinos what many of us have known for a long time: The power of culture and character is now reinforced by demographics. From a small minority struggling to achieve legitimate power, Latinos have become a very important group politically, one that must now learn how to use power. At this point the role of Latinos in the public world changes. They begin to appear more often in the general media, although not yet in what anyone would consider equitable proportion, and the marketers pay even greater attention to Spanish-language media. Democrats want to know what Latinos can do for them and Republicans want to know what Latinos are willing to trade for their votes. The question of what Latinos want for themselves is seldom raised. Even in the left/liberal press, coverage of Latino issues has been sparse. And what has appeared has been limited mainly to reportage.
There should, of course, be more reporting about Latinos rather than less, but there must be other kinds of writing as well. The reason for this seems obvious: The use of power is more complex than the struggle to obtain power. The dialogue among Latinos--rather than merely about them--on issues that affect the Latino community and the rest of the world should now appear with some regularity in the national left/liberal press.
There are many questions best debated by Latinos: What are the intergenerational conflicts, and how do they affect politics? Should ethnic loyalties trump political values at the polls? What is gained and what is lost by assimilation? Should Latinos criticize Latino elected officials? Will such criticism strengthen the community or tear it apart, vitiating its hard-won power? How can people of differing national origin within the community link with each other, and how can Latinos link with blacks, Asians, Jews, Native Americans and other minority groups? How should left/liberal Latinos deal with the growing Latino middle class and its rightward turn? These and other issues should be debated openly by Latinos, in a way and in publications that will also inform the thinking of non-Latinos.
Unfortunately, Latino voices have been little more than a whisper in the left/liberal press, including The Nation. And the kind of essayistic pieces born of the desire to influence the use of power are virtually unknown. Yet, there are more than enough good Latino writers, with an interesting variety of opinions. What must happen, in my opinion, will require some effort from Latino writers and from the national left/liberal press. The writers must make their ideas known to the editors, and the editors must try to discern the importance of the work presented to them.
In the great tradition of the left/liberal press, the result will be rages and rancors, but there will also be some incremental advance toward freedom and social justice. Perhaps the disagreements over the language and timing of this piece will provide a useful beginning.
Maybe that Karl Rove ain't such a genius. In the past few weeks Democrats have, with a touch of glee, been wondering about George W. Bush's Svengali-strategist as Rove has stepped into several cow pies. Shortly after the Jeffords jump--for which Rove took his lumps--the Associated Press revealed that in March Rove met with senior Intel executives seeking federal approval of a merger of two chip manufacturers--at a time when Rove held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Intel stock as part of a portfolio worth $2 million. Rove claimed he had not discussed this particular matter and merely referred the Intel guys to others in the government. But if someone knocks on the door of a Bush Administration official and can say, "Karl sent me," does that not help the visitor? Several weeks later, the Justice Department OK'd the merger--and Intel politely sent a thank-you note to several Bushies, including Rove.
In addition to his ethics, Rove's judgment has been questioned, as his ham-handed role in contentious policy decisions has made the Bush White House appear as political as its predecessor--a tough task! On the campaign trail, Bush the Outsider blasted the Slickster in Chief for governing by polls and setting policy by focus groups. Yet Rove has pushed the Administration to oppose stem-cell research, which involves human embryos, to advance his plan to cement Catholic voters into the GOP bloc. And when Bush announced that the Navy would halt bombing practice on Vieques in Puerto Rico in 2003, angry Hill Republicans questioned Rove's crucial part in the decision and assailed him for placing politics above national security.
Other bad news for Rove: A much-ballyhooed (and front-page) New York Times/CBS poll in mid-June showed Bush's key numbers in decline. Have Bush's (anti-)environment stands and coziness with Big Bidness taken a toll? In other words, is Rove losing his knack?
The White House stood by him--for Rove is the White House--and quickly tried to douse the Rove/Intel story. "My level of confidence with Karl Rove," declared Bush, "has never been higher." White House press-spinner Ari Fleischer pooh-poohed the Rove matter, claiming, "The American people are tired of these open-ended investigations and fishing expeditions." How did he know? Did he take a poll? And how convenient for the GOP to gripe about free-for-all investigations now. Dan Burton, the conspiracy-chasing Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who investigated every speck of controversy hurled at the Clintons, is still pursuing the Clintonites, most recently by probing a nine-year-old prosecution in Florida that tangentially involves Janet Reno. In any event, when Fleischer made his statement, there was no Rove investigation under way. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on Burton's committee, had merely written Rove, asking him to answer six questions regarding his stock holdings and whether he had conducted meetings with representatives of other companies in which he owned stock, including Enron, the Texas energy company. (At press time, Waxman had yet to receive a reply.)
Perhaps Democratic senators--who, unlike Waxman, possess the power to initiate an investigation--ought to consider poking into Rove's finances and, more important, the influence of corporate contributors and lobbyists at the White House. (Of course, the latter would invite similar questions about the Democratic Party.) Yet they have not pounced. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said publicly, "Democrats want to legislate, not investigate." But Waxman and Democratic Representative John Dingell have tried to push beyond the Rove/Intel episode. They asked the General Accounting Office, the Congressional watchdog, to examine the meetings of Vice President Cheney's energy task force and determine who--and what interests--helped shape the Bush energy plan.
Cheney's office balked. "We have not released a list of names so that people could choose whether or not they wanted to air [their] views publicly," explained Mary Matalin, a Cheney aide. Funny, Republicans weren't this respectful of privacy several years ago, when they demanded information about the proceedings of Hillary Clinton's healthcare task force. But few Democrats have raised a fuss about White House reluctance to release the information. The GAO, though, told Cheney he must comply with its request. And still Cheney has not turned over the material, setting up a potential clash.
The bloom may be off the Rove, but he's far from wilted. After all, Rove got a fellow widely derided as a boob into the White House, and then he guided a gigantic relieve-the-rich tax cut through Congress. Those are damn good first--if not last--laughs. Now Bush can also thank Rove (and Cheney) for helping to show that his White House is a down-home hoedown of corporate and political favoritism.
Last August, amid the final throes of President Alberto Fujimori's scandal-ridden administration in Peru, he bowed to US pressure and announced that Lori Berenson's conviction by a secret military court would be voided and that she would be granted a new civilian trial. Thanks to nearly six years of poisonous publicity, Berenson, who in January 1996 was sentenced to life in prison for "treason against the fatherland," was widely viewed by Peruvians as a gringa terrorista who had come to Peru to join the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), an unpopular guerrilla organization. So when her new trial finally opened this past March, Berenson's supporters held out little hope that it would yield a just verdict.
As expected, on June 20 the panel of three judges handed down a conviction on the reduced charge of collaboration with terrorism. Sentencing Berenson to the maximum of twenty years in prison, the court declared that she was not an active member of the MRTA but neither was she a "mere spectator" in the house she shared in Lima with fifteen MRTA militants. Because of the more than five years she has already served, she is scheduled to be released in 2015.
As Peru's fragile democracy grapples with the legacy of Fujimori's war on guerrilla movements--carried out by notorious spymaster and former CIA collaborator Vladimiro Montesinos, recently captured in Venezuela after an eight-month international manhunt--Berenson's trial was an opportunity to show how far the country has come since the days of hooded military judges, doctored evidence, coercion of witnesses and trumped-up terrorism charges. Sadly, the answer turned out to be, Not far enough. In many respects Berenson's new trial was a vast improvement over the last--she was able to confront her accusers, her lawyers cross-examined witnesses and the proceedings were open to the public. But Peru's judicial system has yet to resolve the thorny issue of how civilian courts should deal with evidence that may have been tainted or even fabricated by Fujimori's ruthless antiterrorism police force. While hundreds remain in prison on the basis of no evidence at all, thousands more, like Berenson, are serving lengthy sentences as a result of circumstantial evidence and untrustworthy investigations [see Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo, "The Lori Berenson Papers," September 4/11, 2000]. Peruvian courts must devise an approach to those cases that respects international standards of fairness and due process. In the absence of that, Berenson's pending appeal to the Peruvian Supreme Court is unlikely to succeed, although the court might decide to reduce her sentence.
Incoming President Alejandro Toledo, who could pardon Berenson when he takes office on July 28, disappointed her supporters when he said on a late June visit to the United States that he would not interfere with the court's decision. Toledo pointed out the need to respect the independence of the courts, but surely there is a difference between a president meddling with the judiciary to enhance his own power, as Fujimori did, and using executive authority to pardon someone denied a fair trial.
Granting clemency to Berenson and others like her is no long-term solution, however. Peru still needs far-reaching judicial reforms, beginning with the repeal of the draconian antiterrorism laws enacted in 1992. That would be an important step forward in the long process of exorcising the ghosts of Fujimori and Montesinos, and restoring the faith in government shattered by their corrupt rule.
John Elias, my patient, has a dilemma. He can't afford to buy his medicines and also pay his rent. I'm sure he won't give up his apartment just to keep his veins filled with my chemical suggestions. But he is willing to take whatever free drug samples I provide. Luckily, drug company representatives visit my office regularly and drop off oversize, brightly colored boxes of pills, one or two pills per box. Sometimes I can fill a plastic bag with enough medicine to supply a patient's needs. Still, my sample closet is not as well stocked as the local pharmacy.
The explosion of samples occurs most often when two drug companies are competing over a similar product. When I have one set of pills, it's Elias's diabetes that's treated; when I have another set, it's the hypertension. He does not die, but his blood pressure goes up and down, and his blood sweetens with rising sugar, which lowers whenever I happen to have the right pills. Elias leaves my office smiling, more comfortable with his predicament than I am.
"See you in a month, Doc. And don't worry. I got enough pills here to last me a good ten days."
I do worry--about the remaining twenty days, about his risk of a heart attack or a stroke--but samples arrive at the drug company's rate, not in response to my urgent requests.
Elias is disabled, the result of a spine operation that didn't go his way. He has Medicare, but like millions of other disabled and elderly Americans, he's unable to afford the secondary insurance that would include a drug plan. He earns too much in his part-time clerical job to qualify for Medicaid, which also covers prescriptions, or to be accepted into a drug company's "Share the Care" program. He does qualify for New York State's EPIC plan, which allows some Medicare patients to fill all their prescriptions for under $100 per month, but he says he can't afford even that. He says he won't consider leaving his job to get Medicaid as others have done; he's proud of the fact that he can still work.
Elias lives in his wheelchair; the levers and locks are extensions of his arms, the wheels his legs. He navigates the street outside my office, leaning back on two wheels to jump the curb. His arching wheelies are another man's sidestep. But he has not managed to navigate his other diseases the way he has his paralysis. When I tell him the dangers of not controlling his diabetes and his high blood pressure, his smile fades. "When you're out, then I'm out," he says simply.
Meanwhile, the same company that makes his diabetes pill offers to fly me, all expenses paid and with a $1,000 stipend, to a frolicking weekend in Naples, Florida, where I would hear lectures for three hours a day on a drug I already prescribe, before adjourning to the surf and a sightseeing sunset booze cruise. The competitor invites me to the corporate box at the ballgame, with a lobster buffet and a live calypso band to entertain us between innings.
The drug salesman infiltrates the somber atmosphere of my medical office, trailed by a huge sample case on tiny wheels. It's uncanny: He knows how much of his drug I prescribe, and he wrongly assumes that I will respond to his enticements. He provides catered lunches to my office staff where the only apparent cost is listening to him harp on about a product that he freely admits I know more about than he does.
Despite the money spent on massive advertising, the manufacturers insist that exorbitant drug prices are the result of research and development. Several of the industry's best researchers are former professors who have been wooed away from the universities for higher salaries and better laboratories, and for every participant in the drug pipeline, from discovery to production, the excitement is almost palpable. New medicines for arthritis, hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes improve the quality of life with fewer side effects. However, the new drugs are sold in Canada and Europe for a much lower price--a $15 pill in Detroit may cost $5 across the river in Windsor, Ontario--and there are foreign chemists producing these drugs in the laboratory and companies selling them for a fraction of their cost in the United States.
The more expensive the drug, the more difficult it is to determine how it is going to be paid for. Recently, a new wonder drug for arthritis became available in two formulations, one oral, the other intravenous. The choice of which form to use illustrates a basic problem in reimbursement. Since Medicare pays only for the more expensive intravenous, patients are being hospitalized unnecessarily to receive it.
As a doctor, I'm frustrated by the current system's inability to consistently provide for a patient's medicinal needs. Clearly, there is a need for government to intervene, but it's crucial that this intervention include an understanding of inflated costs and a plan for combating this inflation. As Medicare expands to cover pills, will the federal government drive a hard bargain and negotiate a lower price per pill the way HMOs, hospitals and other countries already do? I don't see how taxpayers can avoid being penalized if the government agrees to pay top dollar.
This year, after many insufficient attempts to maintain his health with samples, Elias wheels into my office with, if wheels were legs, an almost detectable swagger. All his years in service as a clerk have finally paid off. He is now the recipient of secondary insurance with a drug plan. He is one of the lucky ones. Now all his medications will be covered, at least for the moment.
"I'm ready to be healthy," he says with a grin that reveals his neglected teeth. "Lay those prescriptions on me."
Bush and Putin talk together,
To each other's charms succumb.
Bush thinks Putin can be trusted.
Putin thinks that Bush is dumb.
Bush and Putin end their meeting,
Smile until their mouths are numb.
Bush thinks Putin can be trusted.
Putin thinks that Bush is dumb.
The United States has one of the highest rates of intrafamilial violence of any nation in the world. As a statistical composite, we Americans are a nation of grieving adults and idealized infants, grim cynics and lost innocents. Given our daily headlines, this should not come as a complete surprise, I suppose. But it is interesting nonetheless, our erstwhile obsession with the perfect child in the perfect family, yet our collective unwillingness to provide the kind of social safety net that other industrialized nations enjoy. From the Menendez brothers to Susan Smith, the media-projected national family dynamic sometimes makes one think of the Greek god Kronos devouring his children whole, ultimately forced to vomit them, kicking and vengeful, back out again.
For anyone seeking what's left of the stereotypical, honest-to-God-sanctified-by-marriage American household, the past few weeks have been particularly good for grim cynics, particularly bad for lost innocents. In Massachusetts, for example, Leo Felton, the Aryan supremacist son of a white mother and black father, was arrested for trying to ignite a race war. His wife, who took a sledgehammer to his computer so as to destroy evidence, claims to have been motivated only by a deep sense of wifely duty and a divinely mandated commitment to her marriage vows. The couple are converts to Greek Orthodoxy. Felton's girlfriend, on the other hand, who helped him stockpile a goodly amount of ammonium nitrate, appears to have been somewhat less devoutly faith-based in her initiative. (The race war was to have been waged against blacks or Jews, in case you're wondering. Freud would have been busy in contemporary America.)
In Idaho, meanwhile, where crazed Easterners seem to flock in order to pass as fierce mountain men and have standoffs with mustachioed local lawmen, there is the odd, sad tale of Michael McGuckin. McGuckin, a graduate of the exclusive Groton preparatory school and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the less-than-perfect son (he didn't go to Harvard, he married beneath his station) of a Boston Brahmin family whose ancestors founded, among other institutions, the venerable firm of Shreve, Crump & Low. Over the years, McGuckin and his wife found religion, home-schooled their children and retreated further into the literal wilderness of Idaho's backwoods, as well as into the figurative thicket of their own fears. After he died of multiple sclerosis in May, the family's strange, impoverished living conditions came to the attention of outsiders, and McGuckin's wife was arrested for felony child neglect. When social service workers came to the house, six of his eight children held off local authorities at gunpoint for five days.
But the case generating most attention of late is undoubtedly that of Andrea Yates, the Houston housewife who drowned her five children in the bathtub. "Both of us really went into our marriage, you know, saying we'll just have as many kids as came along," said her husband, a computer programmer with deeply held evangelical Christian convictions, of her postpartum illness that had increased with the birth of each child.
In a mothers' Internet chat room I once logged onto, the site with the most hits belonged to a woman who had nine boys including two sets of twins, all of them under the age of 9. Any advice? she pleaded. Birth control! read the first reply. So how many girls do you have? read the second. Prozac, read the third.
Andrea Yates had been prescribed antipsychotic drugs much stronger than Prozac, and she clearly had longer-term mental health problems than just a lot of children. But the Yates case revealed a deep gender divide about the isolation and stress of family and motherhood in a society that extols self-sufficiency as its premiere human value. From Anna Quindlen to Marie Osmond, a remarkable range of women publicly confessed a kind of empathy for Yates--for what Quindlen called the forbidden understanding: "There is the unimaginable idea of the killings. And then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of 7."
On the other side of the gender divide were voices like those of Howie Carr, a shock jock with the harshly complex voice of a smashmouthed Puritan elder. "Whaddaya think?" railed Carr, challenging his viewers to call in. "Should she fry?" Seventy percent of Carr's viewers thought that yes, Andrea Yates should be fried at once. And indeed, Texas prosecutors--scrupulously avoiding the vulgarity of such words as "fry"--charged Mrs. Yates with capital murder, for which execution is a likely penalty.
In 1892 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published The Yellow Wallpaper, her fictional critique of the marital exemplars of the time: controlling martinet husband who nevertheless embodied civic virtue; genteel obedient wife, confined by the so-called cult of true womanhood to her duties in the nursery, slowly and surely going mad. If Gilman were writing today, I think her novella would not be so very different but for a few updates. It would feature a wife as the promise-kept prisoner of a divinely driven, hovering husband, as still home alone in the nursery but taking all kinds of prescription drugs to help keep things moving serenely. Perhaps she may even have attended (with her husband, of course) the fifth annual Smart Marriages, Happy Families convention in Orlando, Florida--"a grand bazaar for the growing relationship-building, marriage-promotion business," according to the Boston Globe. She would stay in her marriage with no thought of divorce, for fear of becoming one of those welfare recipients whose antithesis she supposedly represented, those women with no husbands whose street-schooled children are hooked on all those terrible, numbing nonprescription drugs.
Andrea Yates purportedly told police that she killed her children because she was a bad mother who had permanently damaged them. And so perfection chases intolerance chases cruelty, collapsing in a heap of tragic paradox. We are a nation of individualists, with little sense that, just beyond the back fence of our fear, we could be building the villages that might help us, if just a little bit.
WILLIAM KRISTOL KIDNAPPED BY ALIENS--
REPLACED BY SILLY, DISHONEST IMPOSTER
"I admit it. The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."
--The real William Kristol,
The New Yorker, May 22, 1995
"The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there's too much liberal bias.... There's too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes."
--William Kristol imposter, in a Weekly Standard subscription pitch, June 2001
NEW YORK TIMES WRITERS/EDITORS
LOVE-BOMBED INTO BRAIN DEATH
Remember when the Times's Frank Bruni thought George Bush's boots "peeked out mischievously" from beneath his trousers in Mexico? Well, Bruni's condition--enabled by apparent narcolepsy on the part of his editors--appears to be deteriorating. First, there's the prose. Bruni noted that upon meeting Tony Blair, Bush "broke into a smile, indulged a mischievous impulse and offered him a greeting less formal than the ones the British leader usually hears. 'Hello, Landslide!' Mr. Bush shouted out. It was a reference--an irreverent, towel-snapping one at that--to Mr. Blair's recent re-election, and it recalled the playful dynamic...when he cracked during a news conference that he and Mr. Blair liked the same brand of toothpaste." An "irreverent, towel-snapping" reference? Methinks Bruni spent too much time in the sauna. Recalling the "playful dynamic" of the toothpaste "crack"--how about "doltish" dynamic? And, hello, Blair did actually win in a landslide. (And so should have Gore!) Now, if the Prime Minister had greeted the Court-appointed Bush as "Landslide," that might qualify as "irreverent."
Perhaps the Times editors might also be willing to offer us a short seminar on the rules and purpose of the official "background" quotation in their newspaper. Two days before he began snapping presidential towels, Bruni quoted a "senior administration official" offering up the following explanation of the European reaction to Bush's missile defense proposal, in language identical to that frequently used by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "It was, 'We very much appreciate the President's decisions to consult fully, we understand that there is a threat, we want to work with the United States.'"
We have a few problems here. First off, the statement is false. One paragraph earlier, French President Jacques Chirac, who, after all, is one of the people reacting, is quoted condemning the idea as a "fantastic incentive to proliferate" (which Vladimir Putin proved almost immediately by promising to "reinforce our capability by mounting multiple warheads on our missiles" should Bush go ahead with missile defense). Second, Bush, who presumably outranks said "senior official," offered up virtually the same quote on the record. "Still pumped up," according to Bruni, Bush professed to detect "a willingness for countries to think differently and to listen to different points of view." The Times rolls over because someone in the Administration finds it convenient to spin reporters and readers while avoiding responsibility for her (?) misleading comments. I know why "senior officials" do this, but why does the Times allow it?
And finally, before bidding adieu to Mr. Bruni, how long are we going to keep reading stories celebrating the fact that the President did not pick his nose in public? "Rarely," Bruni wrote, "have the two nations' leaders so surpassed the limited expectations of their meeting." Oh really? How rarely? Whose expectations? How limited? Limited to what? I guess Bush surpassed the expectations of those who didn't know he could see into people's souls, but I don't think pandering to viewers of the Psychic Friends Network is going to help much when it comes to missile defense.
SAY WHAT YOU WILL ABOUT GEORGE WILL, THE MAN HAS GOOD TASTE IN PLAGIARISM...
George Will...calls Chris Matthews "half-Huck Finn, half-Machiavelli."
--New York magazine, June 18, 2001
"Imagine if you will, a guitar-wielding political synthesis of Huck Finn and Machiavelli..."
--Eric Alterman, "GOP Chairman Lee Atwater: Playing Hardball,"
The New York Times Magazine, April 30, 1989
MORE LIBERAL MEDIA MUSH: THE NUMBERS SPEAK
Number of weeks the New York Post's new editor took to fire Jack Newfield, its most distinguished and only liberal columnist: six. Weeks it took same to fire the Post's only black editor, who, by the way, has breast cancer: same.
While we're on the topic of the Post, Rupert Murdoch, who has already been granted more than his share of waivers to hold on to his extremist, Republican/Chinese Communist-pandering scandal sheet, is now back before the Senate communications subcommittee, seeking yet another special antidemocratic dispensation to allow him to become the first mogul to control, in addition to the Post and The Weekly Standard, a major broadcast network (Fox), a major cable network (FNC) and soon, a fast-growing satellite distribution system that already has 10 million subscribers (DirecTV). If this sounds like an Orwellian nightmare to you, to say nothing of the onslaught of right-wing sleaze, sensationalism and suck-ups to torturers it will likely produce, contact the committee at (202) 224-5184 (phone) and (202) 224-9334 (fax), and get on their case.
We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.
After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.
By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.
The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.
Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.
Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
"What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.
"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."
Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.
Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.
Could the State Department's antidrug contractors in South America possibly
be dabbling in narcotics trafficking?
The state's justice system crushes poor people like Ernestina Rodriguez.
For HERE president John Wilhelm, building the union always comes first.
Ron Radosh seems an easy target, so easy that a toy pistol (or automatic writing) should be weaponry enough--and no need to bother Nation readers, keen folks that we are, with a detailed analysis of the turncoat's latest piece of folly.
It isn't that simple. Radosh's newest book can't be as facilely dismissed as one might like. About half of Commies is yet another red-diaper memoir, some of it vivid and charming, most of it familiar and unexceptionable. The book's second half, however, requires more attention. It contains some closely reasoned arguments, particularly about the Sandinista revolution and (yes, once again) the Rosenberg case. There are those on the left convinced that definitive judgments, one way or the other, on those issues have already been rendered.
But for those who remain less certain, Commies contains a critique that must be dealt with; Radosh's arguments may not convince, but they do trouble the waters. And they give some credence to his long-standing claim that he is not a knee-jerk right-winger but rather an antitotalitarian liberal in the tradition of those dissenters (Sidney Hook, say) who refuse to pledge automatic allegiance to every left-wing hero (Castro, say, or Daniel Ortega) who comes down the pike.
As a way of assessing Radosh's "antitotalitarian" credentials, I want to concentrate, as Radosh himself does, on the Sandinistas and the Rosenbergs. But first, it's important to emphasize that Radosh is an exceedingly slippery writer. Avoiding the heavy-handed polemical style of, for instance, a David Horowitz, he opts instead in Commies for quietly dropping in a loaded adjective here, subtly highlighting (or ignoring) a given piece of evidence there. This can sometimes make Radosh's biases difficult to detect, but they are decidedly present, and the reader needs to stay on steady alert.
This is worth spelling out in some detail. Radosh writes, for example, that Paul Robeson "squandered his early success by dedicating himself relentlessly to a vigorous defense of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin." This is not untrue, but neither is it the full truth. By choosing to remain silent after Khrushchev's 1956 revelations about Stalin's crimes (he did not, publicly or privately, "vigorously defend" against Khrushchev's indictment), Robeson did give his enemies ammunition, and to that degree can be said to have "squandered" his career. But he had already had his passport lifted and his concert bookings canceled. The conservative hound dogs, led by J. Edgar Hoover, had long since determined to bring Robeson down--not solely because he was pro-Soviet but even more, perhaps, because of his militant insistence on black rights, his socialism, his outspoken critique of American imperialism. In failing even to mention these other ingredients in the FBI's and CIA's hounding of Robeson, Radosh places the full responsibility for his decline on the man himself, letting the government's colonialist policies and vicious racism entirely off the hook.
Another example is Radosh's guileful treatment of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. "The local police," he writes, "stormed the Black Panther's home and killed him in the ensuing confusion." This makes it sound as if the police and the Panthers were equally muddled--and thus equally responsible for Hampton's death. But there are solid grounds for believing that the police deliberately set off on a mission of assassination and cold-bloodedly murdered Hampton in his bed.
It has to be said that the few African-Americans who appear in Commies are portrayed as either unlikable or downright villainous. Radosh refers at one point to the mugging of Conor Cruise O'Brien by "neighborhood black thugs." (Is it possible to believe that they may have been desperate, frightened and remorseful--something more than, other than, "thugs"?) Radosh describes John Davis, the project director of the American Negro Reference Book and a man for whom he briefly worked, as a terse martinet, who quickly and unfairly fired him and had no redeeming qualities. And he characterizes educator and anthropologist Johnnetta Cole, egregiously, as someone who cast in her lot with the cause of "Communist totalitarianism."
And that's about it for the African-American cast of characters who appear in Commies (except for a cameo appearance by David Dinkins: "Once David Dinkins became mayor, the city grew markedly worse"). It seems odd (I'm trying to be charitable) that Radosh can, impressively, find generous things to say about any number of whites, including William Appleman Williams, Michael Harrington and Marshall Brickman, with whose politics he disagrees, whereas if there are any black people he felt as charitably toward, they haven't made the final cut.
At this point, I suspect, readers of The Nation are impatiently wondering why I ever suggested in the first place that Commies should be taken seriously. Only, I meant, in part--the part that focuses on the civil war in El Salvador, the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua and the Rosenberg case. It's time to look more closely at each.
I am not a Latin America expert, and perhaps for that reason alone I pretty much believed what I read at the time in the left-wing press about events in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Namely, that José Napoleon Duarte was simply a tool of the right-wing military, and that the guerrilla assault on his rule was in the name of democracy and thus wholly justified. And additionally, that the successful Sandinista revolution against the brutal Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua was an uncomplicated triumph for the good.
These views were common on the left, despite some dissenters, and to a considerable extent they still are. Radosh's argument is that our enthusiasm was naïve and misplaced--and he includes himself among the naïfs. In the early 1980s Radosh still thought of himself as a person of the left, though he had begun to waver ideologically. Nonetheless, he organized a folk music benefit on behalf of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (the political body allied with the FMLN guerrillas), attended any number of street demonstrations on their behalf and insisted that the armed rebellion against Duarte was "an indigenous protest against a repressive government" that ruled in the name of landowning oligarchs and a vicious military.
That the military death squads were omnipresent and the landowning class determined to yield no ground is not in dispute, certainly not by Radosh. But much else, he argues, is. Duarte, he reminds us, was himself once a political exile from military dictatorship and saw himself, not inaccurately--as we should have understood--as a social democratic reformer who was out of sympathy with the Salvadoran right wing.
Radosh's argument here is in part persuasive: One could even agree that Duarte had decent instincts and did not regard himself as a tool of the ruling military/landowner clique. Yet that doesn't mean that the policies he adopted didn't end up serving the right-wing cause, making him, despite his intentions, their proxy. And it certainly doesn't mean, as Radosh apparently believes, that the left-wing guerrillas in opposition to Duarte were "a pro-Soviet revolutionary group." The proof of that, according to Radosh, is that they failed to inspire massive and sustained support from El Salvador's poor. But it can also be argued, as Radosh does not, that the guerrillas were simply too factionalized and ideologically divided to animate a mass movement.
Radosh gives far more attention in Commies to the Sandinistas. Once again, he started out a supporter, thrilled that the Front for National Liberation had, in armed conflict, toppled Somoza's cruel dictatorship, believing that the Sandinista regime would be democratic and pluralist, and appalled that the United States was backing the contras in a brutal civil war. But in 1983, on assignment for The New Republic, Radosh went to Nicaragua for a firsthand look. And what he concluded, over a period of time, led him to change his mind.
When the Sandinista regime proclaimed a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties and political rights, when it jailed some domestic dissidents, including labor militants, and when it attacked the Miskito Indians on the Caribbean coast, Radosh decided--too uncomplicatedly, I believe--that the Soviet Union had become the Sandinista Front's material support and Castro's Cuba its political model: The front had fallen into the hands of "ultrarevolutionary Marxist-Leninists."
Many left-liberals, including Irving Howe (rightly, in my view), rebuked Radosh for taking an exaggerated position, pointing out that the Sandinista leadership included many democrats as well, and that in any case, the Sandinistas should not be publicly criticized while "under attack" by the American empire. Radosh replied, with some justice, that the same adamant advice (and ostracism) had been handed out by American leftists fifty years earlier to those who, like Emma Goldman, pointed to the betrayal of the Russian Revolution.
Not wanting to rely solely on my own limited knowledge of Central America, I asked the respected expert Laird Bergad, director of the CUNY Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, to read over a few of Radosh's pages on the Sandinistas. "Fundamentally," Bergad told me, "Radosh is right. There were too many Stalinists among the leadership. By following the Castro model they did submerge democratic impulses, and their attack on the Miskito Indians was a huge blunder."
Bergad also felt, however, that although some of Daniel Ortega's acts were regrettable, Radosh overuses Ortega as the personification of the Sandinista regime. And we would do well to remember, Bergad added, that the Sandinistas were responsible, after all, for overthrowing the feral Somoza regime--a dictatorship far worse than that of the Sandinistas.
We should also add, on Radosh's side, that he has valuably reminded the left in this country that we have all too often in the past greeted insurgent movements uncritically and turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of repression; when the evidence could no longer be dismissed, we've sometimes resorted to ethically dubious slogans like "you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs" or "the revolution may be less than perfect but we have to maintain solidarity with those resisting the encroachments of the American Empire."
As for the Rosenbergs, Radosh's name has been centrally connected to their case for some twenty years. The 1983 book The Rosenberg File, which he wrote with Joyce Milton, billed itself as a disinterested, scholarly "search for the truth," and indeed the book's conclusions could be considered moderate--that is, when measured against the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the case in the early 1950s, when the Rosenbergs (who were executed in 1953) were denounced for having "stolen the secret of the atom bomb" and given it to the Soviets--"the crime of the century," J. Edgar Hoover called it.
By the time the Radosh/Milton book appeared, public views had become less apocalyptic. It was understood by then that there hadn't been any single secret central to making the bomb, that the Soviets' own scientists had already made headway toward producing atomic weapons--and the spy who had most helped them was not Julius Rosenberg but the British physicist Klaus Fuchs.
In general, The Rosenberg File confirmed those views. It insisted that Julius had run a spy ring, but that the evidence of Ethel's complicity was weak; that a scientific sketch obtained by David Greenglass (Ethel's brother) and passed through Harry Gold to the Russians was in fact of low-level importance and certainly not the secret for making an atomic bomb; that both the prosecutorial and defense lawyers--indeed, almost everyone involved with the case--had behaved badly, depriving the Rosenbergs of a fair trial.
In Commies, Radosh claims that when The Rosenberg File was published in 1983, he "never received an iota of public support from the democratic socialist intellectuals." (But, weirdly, he then goes on to mention favorable treatment in print by Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, historian Maurice Isserman and James Weinstein--hardly chopped liver in democratic socialist circles.) In this regard, Radosh singles out for special attack the historian Eric Foner and The Nation's Victor Navasky.
Foner's paramount sin seems to have been his ongoing insistence (one that I share) that the Communist Party USA was not simply, or even primarily, a recruitment agency for spies but rather contained a broad spectrum of idealistic left-wingers who joined the party for reasons that had nothing to do with espionage. Radosh's anger at Navasky focuses on his 1983 review of The Rosenberg File in The Nation, which, according to Radosh, attacked the book in "the crudest of political terms."
To evaluate Radosh's claims, I not only read Navasky's review but asked both him and Foner to respond to Radosh's complaints against them in Commies. I asked them, too, whether the publication two years ago of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, had to any degree changed their minds about the culpability of the Rosenbergs and, more generally, about the amount of espionage engaged in by members of the CPUSA. (Venona analyzes the nearly 3,000 pages of deciphered cables between Moscow and its US agents--some 350 people, in the authors' estimate.) When Venona appeared, it was widely hailed in the mainstream press as having conclusively demonstrated that the CPUSA was indeed a significant "fifth column" working against our country's interests, with the added implication that the anti-Communist crusade undertaken by McCarthy and others was therefore justified.
First, the matter of Navasky's 1983 review of The Rosenberg File. I found it subtle and evenhanded--not by any fair-minded stretch a "crude" political attack. Time and again, in fact, Navasky actually gives Radosh and Milton the benefit of the doubt in weighing their claims against those of Walter and Miriam Schneir's protestations of Rosenberg innocence in Invitation to an Inquest. Navasky even cautions the reader, and more than once, that his own political views may be affecting his evaluation of the evidence. But the review does target what I believe is Radosh and Milton's central weakness as historians: They have a low tolerance for ambiguity. They prefer to see--and proclaim--absolute truth where others would be more likely to see uncertainties. This shows up most clearly in their penchant for accepting the reports of FBI agents at face value.
As someone who has worked with FBI files for a biography of Paul Robeson, and also in researching the early years of the gay movement, I can testify to the frequent inaccuracy of agents' reports, and their sometimes laughable distortions (which don't make them any less dangerous). In regard to the gay movement, I've read FBI reports that defined transvestites as "a militant group of women," referred to the early 1970s countercultural university of "Alternate U" as "Ultimate You" and mislabeled the gay Marxist study group Red Butterfly as prototypically anarchist (they "do not recognize authority of any kind").
As regards Robeson, FBI headquarters learned from its various agents, along with much else, that Robeson had taken out formal membership in the Communist Party (which he never did); that he and his brother Ben "do not get along" (it was Robeson's wife, Eslanda, who didn't get along with his brother); that the union members who volunteered to form a cordon around Robeson during his dangerous Peekskill concert, and who held various political allegiances, were all "Communists endeavoring to recruit delegations." One FBI agent even managed, during the run of Othello on Broadway--in which Robeson co-starred with Uta Hagen and Joe (José) Ferrer--to report that he hadn't been able to identify the "Joe" mentioned in a phone log, though he thought "Joe" might "possibly [be] associated with Paul Robeson's show."
None of which is to say that the FBI didn't often get things right, only that its agents were and are human, with blind spots, prejudices, areas of ignorance and ambitions to make a mark or please a boss. Too often Radosh and Milton relied in The Rosenberg File on a single agent's report, uncorroborated by independent evidence, treating it as the full story, unblemished and unbiased.
In Commies, predictably, Radosh hails the release of the Venona files as conclusive proof that Julius Rosenberg committed espionage; "all doubts," Radosh writes, "have been laid to rest." But not everyone is convinced, and besides, Radosh is strangely mute about whether Ethel should be regarded as guilty; far too often he writes about "the Rosenbergs," lumping husband and wife together as co-conspirators, whereas many of us feel that although Ethel may well have had knowledge of her husband's work, any evidence that she directly shared in it is weak; that she may in fact have been framed by the US government; and that the depth of her involvement, in any case, hardly deserved the death penalty.
As to Julius, the Venona evidence has changed minds on the left. Navasky, for example, told me that he has shifted "from agnosticism to the belief that Julius did something." And contrary to Radosh's portrayal of him as Julius's rigid defender, Foner (before the release of the Venona files) never claimed that Julius was innocent, only that the case against him had not been proved. Since Venona, Foner's opinion has, he told me, "to some extent changed," but only toward accepting the possibility that Julius (not Ethel) may have engaged in some sort of low-level espionage. Walter and Miriam Schneir, writing in these pages, noted that although the account would be "painful news for many people," as it was for them, Venona had convinced them that while there was no evidence against Ethel, and key elements of the atomic spying charge were not confirmed, "Julius Rosenberg was the head of a spy ring gathering and passing nonatomic defense information."
Yet we can't even be sure of the nature of that information: We still don't know what portion of the total number of Venona documents transmitted to the Soviets by US espionage agents has in fact been released. Nor do we know how or why particular code names in the documents have been linked to given people like Julius Rosenberg. Radosh and others feel entitled to declare that the Venona material has "proved conclusively" Julius's guilt, but they can't tell us precisely what sort of "secrets" Julius was guilty of passing to the Soviets.
In addition, if we put aside nationalistic fervor, we might dare raise a broad question that Radosh, the zealous patriot, refuses to go near: Why do we seem unable to feel some compassion and extend some understanding toward those who chose, often at enormous personal sacrifice, to give primary allegiance to a country that they believed (however mistakenly, we might feel today) stood, alone among the great nations in the 1930s and '40s, for antiracist, anticolonialist principles (gleeful crowds in the American South were still enjoying the community spectacle of a burnt, lynched black body)?
The principles, we now know, were mostly window dressing in the Soviet Union; beyond the windows stood the most ghastly horrors. But the point remains: If someone managed to produce a statistical study of those Americans who became espionage agents in the 1930s and '40s, my guess is that the motivation of the larger portion by far would turn out to have been not material considerations but humanitarian ones. (Awright, Ron, fire off that outraged Letter to the Editor, in which, once again, you applaud Sidney Hook's dictum that despite its "failings, drawbacks and limitations, the defense and survival of the West was [and must remain] the first priority....")
Toward the end of Commies, Radosh concludes that "the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg Case, but about most everything else...the entire socialist project was wrong." He doesn't offer his definition of socialism, but I have always been drawn to the one that stresses ends, not means: "The highest social priority must go to the needs of the least fortunate."
And that can be "wrong," it seems to me, only if, like Radosh, you believe our country is under attack from within, which at the present moment he defines as attack from "radical feminism, ultra-environmentalism, pro-Arabism, political correctness [and] the new anarchism"--meaning the young protesters "who trash Starbucks and picket the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund."
And what about poverty, healthcare, racism and the like? Well, what we do, it seems, is simply change our vocabularies. Here is how Radosh works the trick: "Walking our son, Michael, to public school we were often accosted by bums--or the unfortunate homeless, as some of my friends called them." If "unfortunates" become "bums," is it any wonder that all Commies become spies?
When the New York Times Op-Ed page called and asked whether I thought the death of Gus Hall, the perennial US Communist Party candidate for President who served time for "conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force," marked the end of an era, and would I like to write about it, I said yes I did, and yes I would.
Arthur Miller once observed that "an era may be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted." It occurred to me, as I typed my 750 words, that during his lifetime Hall, who criticized Gorbachev's reform program and remained a hard-liner to the end, never seemed to give up his illusions. But I also thought to use the occasion to observe that even as Hall passed from the scene, a new cadre of cold war historians seems obsessed with perpetuating a counterillusion--seizing fragments from cold war archives, ambiguous intercepts from cables between Moscow and its US-based operatives, and other ephemera to prove that the CPUSA had indeed not been a bona fide political party but rather was control-central for a nest of spies, as "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy had charged--that McCarthy, despite his bad press, had been right after all.
"The matter, I would suggest, is still in dispute," I wrote, and I went on to say that although most illusions about Soviet-style Communism may be exhausted, the paranoia left over from those years persists.
As if to prove my point, no sooner did my piece appear than cold war historian Ron Radosh and former New Left journalist David Horowitz, not to mention the center-liberal New Republic, serially attacked the New York Times for...well, let me quote The New Republic: "[for allowing] a prominent writer [me] to play his tiresome and sickening games with history" in its pages.
I of course took the opportunity to ask in a letter to the editor of The New Republic whether it was possible to be both "tiresome and sickening" at the same time. But more seriously, I expressed curiosity as to whether that magazine really believed that the incorruptible one-man-band, maverick journalist I.F. Stone, "in the end agreed to work for the NKVD"; that J. Robert Oppenheimer was a "conscious collaborator with the Soviet secret police"; and that Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt's intimate friend and White House adviser, was a "Soviet agent." These were among the conclusions of the latest book drawing on cold war archives, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors, by Herbert Romerstein and the late Eric Breindel. Did The New Republic really contend that such claims are beyond dispute?
Replied The New Republic: "Victor Navasky...only confirms his desire to continue playing 'games with history.' He ignores the consensus among historians that the Venona project files confirm the guilt of many accused in the 1950s of spying for the Soviet Union in the previous decade, including Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg...and [others]."
Now what is going on here? On the surface it appears to be either a fifty-year-old dispute about the guilt or innocence of various alleged American spies for the Russians and the nature of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and 1940s, or a new dispute about whether, given the newly available evidence, the old dispute is now beyond dispute. But just beneath the surface lurks a contest over the image of the man whose name has come to symbolize the era in question, Joe McCarthy himself. An irony, by the way, since the phenomenon we now call McCarthyism came on the scene some years before old Joe burst forth with his fake 1950 boast that "I have here in my hand a list of 205--a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party" (later he turned out to have an empty hand). And its legacy persisted long after the Senator departed from the scene, having disgraced himself at the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and drowned in alcohol two years later.
Revisionist historians have proposed substituting the term Trumanism for McCarthyism because, they argue, Harry Truman accelerated the domestic witch hunt when he signed Executive Order 9835 in March 1947, which established a loyalty-security program for all federal employees and revived the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations. More recently, the historian Ellen Schrecker proposed that it be called Hooverism, after FBI Director J. Edgar, who presided behind the scenes over the anti-Communist crusade. The claims of the new cadre--those we may call the counterrevisionists--matter because, in the first place, until we come to terms with our cold war past we seem condemned to persist in its outmoded assumptions and thought patterns; and in the second, those whom one writer has dubbed "the new McCarthyites" (see below) would use the past to discredit the left-liberal project today. Thus the debate about the domestic cold war--including what to call the repression that was part of it--tells us that while the cold war may be over, its ghosts linger on. And they continue to haunt.
The reconsideration of Senator McCarthy may be said to have been jump-started in 1995, with the unveiling and release by the intelligence community of the Venona Project, nearly 3,000 decryptions of early 1940s cables between Soviet operatives working in New York, San Francisco and Washington, and their masters in Moscow. It has proceeded episodically in reviews and essays, books, documents retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act and from other archives, memoirs and even a novel, The Redhunter, by that old private-sector red hunter himself, William F. Buckley Jr. Much of that output has been made possible courtesy of right-wing foundation funding, although it's not merely a matter of the right: My friend the iconoclastic Nicholas von Hoffman, anything but a right-winger, has written in the Washington Post, "point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him"; and "McCarthy may have exaggerated...but not by much." To me, "twenty years of treason"--McCarthy's famous charge against the Democrats--is "much," but oh, well.
It surfaced most blatantly with the publication of a new biography, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator, by Arthur Herman, the coordinator of the Western Civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, which argues, as the New York Times's reviewer, historian Alonzo Hamby, accurately summarized, that McCarthy "was an unfairly maligned patriot who ultimately became a victim of the immense conspiracy he was attempting to expose."
In March of 1999 Joshua Micah Marshall had complicated the matter. Writing in the liberal biweekly The American Prospect, he identified a cadre of middle-aged historians--among them Radosh, Harvey Klehr, John Haynes and the formerly radical journalist David Horowitz--as practitioners of what he called "the New McCarthyism," which he said "seeks to paint liberalism in general as a philosophy that is careless of the national interest, prone to being hoodwinked by malevolent forces, and even capable of sinister acts of betrayal." Moreover, "the New McCarthyism seeks not only to discredit Cold War liberalism by revising history, but also to attack liberal internationalism in foreign policy today by using the tactics pioneered by the red-baiters of a half century ago."
The New York Times Magazine lumbered into the fray some months later, in November, with an article titled "Cold War Without End" by Jacob Weisberg, although it dealt less with the substance of the issue than the psychology of those "obsessed" with these particular culture wars of yesteryear. Weisberg also observes in his Times magaziner that Herman's book echoes McCarthy and His Enemies, a forty-five-year-old apologia by Buckley, then a fiery young right-winger, and his brother-in-law Brent Bozell. Buckley puts forth a more warty take on the Senator in his fiction, which he calls "a documentary novel." Weisberg quotes Harry Bontecou, the character who stands in for Buckley, as saying, "It was one of Joe McCarthy's ironic legacies that it became almost impossible in future years to say that anyone was a Communist because you'd be hauled up for committing McCarthyism." Weisberg goes on to argue that "what unites Herman and Buckley is the belief that 'McCarthyism' is a millstone that shouldn't hang around the neck of the American right any longer."
But Weisberg's most original thought is that the deeper one delves into such battles, the greater the feeling that
these are not primarily arguments about historical fact at all. Espionage charges, initiated by subterranean and frequently unreliable sources, are a way of arguing about the past as if it were still present, a continuation of ideological politics by other means among people who are, charitably put, obsessive. Listening in, you get the sense that these arguments are less a posthumous sorting out of the cold war than a sublimated continuation of it.
The New Republic was nevertheless right about one thing: Most of the historians and journalists cited above--including, by the way, Weisberg and Marshall--share in the "consensus" that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, defendants in the two most famous cold war cases, and scores if not hundreds of others, were Russian spies. Further, they believe that, as Radosh, Klehr and Haynes collectively put it in The New Republic, "the CPUSA was not just another American political party.... Its Soviet ties defined its very raison d'être." It was, in other words, primarily an instrument of the international Communist conspiracy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the rehabilitation. The same cadre of historians and journalists who share the consensus and would seem to be endorsing the von Hoffman proposition that McCarthy was, after all, more right than wrong, still want to distance themselves from McCarthy himself. David Horowitz, for example, took to cyberspace to make clear that neither he nor any of those dubbed New McCarthyites by Marshall deserved the label. Each of those denominated, he complained in a column he writes for Salon,
is on record as a sharp critic of McCarthy and McCarthyism, specifically his demagoguery and recklessness with the facts, his contempt for legal process and his unscrupulous attacks on innocent or half-guilty individuals. Each member of the group, me included, has also been careful in his writings to credit anti-Communist leftists with their actual achievements in the battles against domestic totalitarians and not to confuse them with the pro-Communist factions of the "progressive" cause.
And so they have. Radosh, Haynes and Klehr, for example, wrote in 1998 that "if Americans are ever going to understand their history, it is essential that McCarthyism and anti-Communism be disentangled."
At a conference on "McCarthyism in America" held on February 9, 2000, sponsored by the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, the Yale University Press and the National Archives and Records Administration, although scores of historians and journalists were present, including many of those mentioned above (but not Herman), not a single one was willing to endorse Herman's thesis, his attempt, in a book "frankly admiring of his subject," as Sam Tanenhaus wrote in The New York Review of Books, "to vindicate McCarthy's claim to being the leader of a serious responsible movement." Tanenhaus, by the way, is the author of a frankly admiring biography of Whittaker Chambers.
During the darkest days of America's domestic cold war, many liberals (and others as well) would say of McCarthy, We approve of his (anti-Communist) goals but we detest his methods. What is new about the counterrevisionists is that they would disown the man and his methods but would retain his main contention: that the United States was seriously threatened by an internal red menace. To paraphrase another icon of the period, Richard Nixon, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not arguing the merits here. Of course the Russians spied on us, even as we spied on them. And I believe there is much to be learned from Venona and other archives in the way of hypotheses about who stole what from whom in the great game of cold war espionage.
So, let us assume for the purposes of argument that any or all of the above are on to something. I include: Jacob Weisberg's dismissal of the combatants as better explained by Freud than Marx; David Horowitz and Radosh-Klehr-Haynes's call for disentangling McCarthyism from anti-Communism; Sam Tanenhaus's evisceration of Arthur Herman for attempting to refurbish McCarthy's image; and even Joshua Micah Marshall's mugging of most of the above as New McCarthyites. What is significant is that much as they may disagree with one another, they have three things in common: (1) They all make absolutist pronouncements about cold war matters that at best are still ambiguous--particularly with regard to the symbolically loaded Hiss case; (2) they all ignore or downplay evidence that contradicts what they increasingly prefer to call the "consensus"; and (3) they all treat those who challenge the so-called consensus with condescension. This is not the place to sift through the voluminous and complicated evidence--new and old--on the great cold war spy cases. It is, however, appropriate to note the fragmentary, incomplete, half-blacked-out, unsourced, out-of-context and ambiguous basis on which some of the more dogmatic claims have been made, and the ways in which inconvenient and contradictory evidence has been ignored.
Take, for example, the Hiss case, which post-cold war historians cite as Exhibit A when they argue that in effect McCarthy & Co. were right all along. Technically, the case had to do with whether Whittaker Chambers was lying when he called Hiss a Communist and produced microfilm of State Department papers that Hiss had allegedly passed to the Soviet Union through him. But the Hiss case is symbolically important, because as his accuser Chambers wrote in his bestselling 1950 memoir, Witness, "Alger Hiss is only one case that stands for the whole Communist penetration of government." Of what does the new evidence consist? There is, first and foremost, the single Venona cable (out of 2,900) said to implicate Hiss. As Time wrote, "the Venona message seems to remove reasonable doubt about Alger Hiss's guilt."
I have in front of me Venona document No.1822, dated March 30, 1945. The message refers to an agent code-named "ALES," and in a footnote dated August 8, 1969, ALES is identified as "probably Alger Hiss." On its face, this looks incriminatory, although as I and others have noted, we are told neither who wrote the footnote nor on what basis the anonymous footnote writer made this judgment. Perhaps, in the twenty-four-year interim, some new evidence had come to light. Perhaps it was simply guesswork based on the similarity of the initials ALES and the letters in Alger's name. Or perhaps the fact that Hiss had served time did the trick, and the footnote was mere speculation by an agent out to make points with his famously and obsessively anti-Communist boss, J. Edgar Hoover. We have no way of knowing. In another Venona cable, however, this one a fragment that is otherwise incoherent, Hiss is mentioned by his own name. Yet, in the world of Venona, spies are supposed to be referred to only by their code names. Typically, Time, along with a battalion of columnists like George Will and Robert Novak and other media heavies who make no claim to having done their own independent research, neglects to mention this possibly exculpatory fact, concentrating instead on the possibly incriminating one.
The omission of inconveniently exculpatory material seems something of a pattern. Thus Allen Weinstein, the new factotum of the Hiss-was-guilty school, omitted from the new edition of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, his book about the Hiss case, the fact that a half-dozen key sources denied his claims in the first edition of Perjury that they had confirmed Chambers's version of what happened. (He did briefly mention the one who sued and won a settlement and an apology.) Weinstein and his former-KGB co-author, Alexander Vassiliev, refer to but do not reproduce in their methodologically challenged book about Soviet espionage in America, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era, a message that says ALES was one of four members of the US delegation at the Yalta conference "who returned to the US via Moscow." Because Alger Hiss returned via Moscow on a plane with three others, none of them spy material, on its face this seems an incriminating fact. But The Haunted Wood neglects to mention that there were 110 Americans in attendance at Yalta and surely more than four of them stopped in Moscow on their way home. In 1993 a Hungarian historian claimed to have discovered an incriminatory "bombshell" in the files of Hungary's Interior Ministry. Typically, Sam Tanenhaus, who relies on Weinstein's research but like Weinstein neglects to mention the half-dozen critical sources who deny his account, printed all the incriminatory material from the Hungarian archives in his Chambers biography but omitted half of the exculpatory material, relegating the other half to a footnote. Along with most members of the "consensus," he quotes historian Maria Schmidt, one of two Hungarian scholars granted access to Noel Field's 2,500-page dossier (Field was imprisoned as a CIA spy in Hungary during the cold war), who read the file as implicating Hiss in spying; he doesn't mention that Ethan Klingsberg, an attorney and former executive director of the Soros Foundation's Institute for Constitutional and Legislative Policy, who saw the identical material, contends that at best the files are inconclusive. Similarly, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr in their book (Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America) quote former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky, who said in a memoir that Hiss was a spy; but (as attorney, filmmaker and Hiss defender John Lowenthal has noted) they fail to quote another KGB officer, Gen. Vladimir Pavlov, who says in his memoir that Hiss was not a spy. And so forth.
When Gen. Dimitri Volkogonov, Boris Yeltsin's military adviser and overseer of all the Soviet intelligence archives, ordered a search of all Soviet intelligence files in response to a 1992 request from Hiss, he reached the conclusion that Hiss was never an intelligence agent for the USSR. Yet the counterrevisionists either ignored his finding or dismissed it as underresearched. This despite the fact that among others, he had enlisted in his search Yevgeny Primakov, then-director of the Foreign Intelligence Services and subsequently prime minister. When Volkogonov later agreed with a persistent reporter that perhaps he should have qualified his declaration of Hiss's innocence because it's impossible to prove a negative, the counterrevisionists proclaimed that Volkogonov had "recanted."
What is more noteworthy than their failure to consider inconvenient evidence is the counterrevisionists' condescension toward those who present it. Listen to Weisberg's voice in The New York Times Magazine, that beacon of objectivity, praising Tanenhaus for not bothering to deal with contradictory evidence: "Rather than obsess about those who fail to accept the obvious conclusion that Hiss was guilty, Tanenhaus ignores them. Instead, he concentrates on bringing to life a historical and human drama."
Only one more example, I promise. Weinstein asks how "to account for [KGB defector] Oleg Gordievsky's identification in 1988, over a half-decade before the decoded Venona cable was made public, of Hiss's Soviet alias as 'ALES'?" The answer to this rhetorical question may be at hand. As Eric Alterman pointed out in The Nation [April 29, 1996], Gordievsky's cited source was a New York Review of Books essay by Tom Powers, whose source was a counterintelligence agent who had seen the same Venona cable. So, perhaps Weinstein has the goods or perhaps he is using Venona to confirm Venona. We don't know which because even though Alterman's essay was out in time for Weinstein to include, and perhaps even try to refute, in the new edition of Perjury, he forgot to mention it. Help!
On the surface, the new Venona evidence appears to document that Julius Rosenberg, while no atom spy, may indeed have been involved in low-level espionage (in which Ethel was probably too ill to participate, had she been so inclined). Check it out! But Venona won't resolve, and shouldn't be expected to resolve, core questions, not to mention existential ones, such as, What was the essence of the Communist Party USA? Yes, as the counterrevisionist scholars argue, Venona half-documents that some CP leaders knew about and may have been middlemen for the receipt of secrets, and perhaps they even recruited some spies. But missing from Venona is the experience of 99.9 percent of the million comrades who passed through the CPUSA during the 1930s and early '40s--stay-at-homes who contented themselves with reading (and sometimes shouting at) the Daily Worker, demonstrators who sang along with Peter Seeger and social activists who organized trade unions and rent strikes in the North and fought lynching and the poll tax in the South.
In Appendix A to their book on Venona, Haynes and Klehr list 349 names (and code names) of people who they say "had a covert relationship with Soviet intelligence that is confirmed in the Venona traffic." They do not qualify the list, which includes everyone from Alger Hiss to Harry Magdoff, the former New Deal economist and Marxist editor of Monthly Review, and Walter Bernstein, the lefty screenwriter who reported on Tito for Yank magazine. It occurs to Haynes and Klehr to reprint ambiguous Venona material related to Magdoff and Bernstein but not to call up either of them (or any other living person on their list) to get their version of what did or didn't happen.
The reader is left with the implication--unfair and unproven--that every name on the list was involved in espionage, and as a result, otherwise careful historians and mainstream journalists now routinely refer to Venona as proof that many hundreds of Americans were part of the red spy network.
My own view is that thus far Venona has been used as much to distort as to expand our understanding of the cold war--not just because some researchers have misinterpreted these files but also because in the absence of hard supporting evidence, partially decrypted files in this world of espionage, where deception is the rule, are by definition potential time bombs of misinformation.
Although I don't underestimate the value code-breaking can play in wartime, I tend to agree with I.F. Stone, who told an interviewer in 1984 that
secrets play a very small part in human history. You don't come to understand what's happening by peeping through keyholes.... In writing history or journalism you get to understand by looking at the fundamental struggles, the interests, the classes, the ideas that become facts and you try to make sense of all that.
The virtue of a free society is that it doesn't have to depend on spies and secret police.... These people are all paranoid, trained to look for plots, but history is not made of conspiracies, history is made by fundamental forces.
"Espionage" is one of those words that is often out of context when applied to what went on in US left circles in the years leading up to and including World War II. There were a lot of exchanges of information among people of good will, many of whom were Marxists, some of whom were Communists, some of whom were critical of US government policy and most of whom were patriots. Most of these exchanges were innocent and were within the law. Some were innocent but nevertheless were in technical violation of the law. And there undoubtedly were bona fide espionage agents--on both sides. Even as in the 1980s, when our State Department was in high dudgeon over Soviet attempts to bug our embassy in Moscow at the very moment, we now learn, that the United States was building a tunnel to try to eavesdrop on their embassy in Washington. So it goes. For me, the political scientist Michael Rogin captured the essence of the McCarthy era when he wrote of the notion that "some kind of alien external force had entered the body politic and threatensto destroy it from within." During the 1940s and '50s the alien force was Communism, and the countersubversive tradition expressed itself by demonizing the American Communist Party (and by extension fellow travelers and pinkos and eventually liberals), making Communism an evil caricature of itself. The most frightening image of the cold war culture was the atom spy, linking the atomic bomb (which stood for ultimate destruction) and spy (which stood for ultimate betrayal). The fact is that whatever espionage went on--even if it were to turnout that Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Harry Dexter White et al. were all guilty as charged--there was no serious internal Red Menace. Communists undoubtedly used undemocratic methods to "infiltrate," "penetrate" and otherwise influence politics, the trade union movement and the culture; but they never really jeopardized the country's security.
McCarthyism was but a particularly virulent and nasty example of the countersubversive theme that has been the dark side of the American tradition since the beginning of the Republic--a force that has usually done more damage to our values than the subversion it was mounted to oppose. After the Revolutionary War we had the Alien and Sedition Acts. Before, during and after World War I we had the prosecution of 10,000 people under the Espionage Act, we had the Palmer Raids, and after World War II we had the great red scare, whose legacy is still with us.
Now that the cold war is no more, one would think the old images would lose their power. But no. The same mix of resentment (by Republicans, who had lost five consecutive presidential elections from 1932 to 1948) and triumphalism (by the world's one and only nuclear power) that informed and fueled America's domestic cold war may be at work again today: Republican resentment against their exclusion from power during the Clinton years and American exaltation over the meltdown of the former Soviet Union. Back in the 1940s, as Jessica Wang pointed out at the Eisenhower Center Conference, "the widespread presumption of the Atomic bomb as the cornerstone of American national security and the concomitant fear that Soviet-sponsored atomic espionage posed the gravest possible threat to the safety of the US lent an added sense of urgency to the anti-Communist quest for absolute security against the enemy within." This mentality of the vital secret and a misplaced faith in official secrecy as the best way to ward off the dangers of nuclear proliferation has apparently survived into the present day.
In the 1940s atomic espionage was real. Klaus Fuchs, who served nine years in prison in Britain, and probably Ted Hall, who left Los Alamos for Britain, passed on classified nuclear information to the USSR. What was unreal was the myth of the "vital secret" and the companion hysterical belief that the United States was threatened by an internal red menace. Way back in 1945 three of our leading scientists wrote in Life, "The fact is that a fundamental secret of the atomic bomb simply does not exist." The belief that if we could stop or prevent atomic espionage somehow America's security would be guaranteed simply had no basis in fact. Yet a half-century later, our inability to distinguish between real and imagined threats remains, and the image of "the vital secret" continues to exert its weird influence. There is no better illustration of the continuing hold that cold war modes of thinking exert over the American political culture in the nuclear realm than the fiasco surrounding the incarceration, amid wild spying changes, of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born US citizen singled out for vilification because of his ethnic background.
Even as Republican angst fueled the frantic Congressional inquisitions of the McCarthy era, the Wen Ho Lee case had its origins in a Republican-sponsored Congressional committee whose real purpose was to search for political evidence to impeach the by-then demonized President Clinton. The whole episode was eerily reminiscent of the 1940s and '50s, when, to deflect Republican critics, Harry Truman signed on to their red hunt. The Clinton Administration, recovered from impeachment and mired in a campaign finance scandal (including the charge that Beijing had secretly funneled money to the Democrats), worried that the China issue could be used effectively against Al Gore in the election. Like the Truman Administration a half-century earlier, the Clinton Administration went along. "[It] wanted to prove to its critics that it was tough on Chinese spying, whether or not that spying existed and whether or not it had anything to do with Wen Ho Lee," as Robert Scheer put it in The Nation [October 23, 2000].
Eventually, when the government's case against Lee crumbled, it agreed to dismiss fifty-eight of the fifty-nine counts that had been lodged against him, but only after the spy hysteria whipped up by the Cox Committee and the press had taken a terrible toll on the life of the scientist and, as Scheer reported, "cast suspicion over the entire community of Asian-American scientists, many of whom are now boycotting employment in the nuclear weapons labs." The furor has reflected more than Clinton-era factionalism. It also reminds us that the cold war mentality has not gone the way of the cold war.
Historians of American nativism have long contended that the nativist impulse connects the radical, the foreign or alien, and the immoral, linking them all as the Enemy Other. During the McCarthy era, as Arnold Forester, the general counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, once observed, "There was an evident quota of anti-Semitism in the McCarthy wave of hysteria. Jews in that period were automatically suspect. Our evaluation of the general mood was that the people felt if you scratch a Jew, you can find a Communist." Fifty years later, where national security is concerned, the Jews seem to have given way to the Chinese. In the policy arena, the reinvigoration of NATO, the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the decision of the Bush Administration to cancel talks with North Korea and the intent of the Administration to go forward with its Strategic Defense Initiative are all of a piece, as China (along with other nonwhite countries) begins to replace Russia in America's post-cold war demonology.
There is something in the national mood that is a stark reminder of the ugly underside of the McCarthy era. The hysteria over Wen Ho Lee; the expulsion of fifty Russians as possible spies after the discovery that one FBI man had been spying for the Russians; the malicious, inappropriate and disproportionately impassioned Republican attempt to impeach the President for sex-related lying; the blatant disregard for due process, legal precedent and constitutional doctrine by a partisan Supreme Court bent on installing a Republican President; even the incessant harping on and front-page recycling of charges--in the absence of proof--that Clinton staffers committed large-scale acts of vandalism before departing the White House; and the idea that his ill-advised pardon of Marc Rich might justify the removal of the pardon power from the Constitution, are reminiscent of nothing so much as the bullying and power plays of that bygone era when the country temporarily lost its moorings.
None of this is to deny that there are real-world problems out there, that like all countries in the intelligence game we are targets for friend and foe alike. Vide, Richard Hanssen, the FBI agent who still denies that he sold secrets to the Soviets and their Russian successors, while his lawyers bargain for his life; vide, Jonathan Pollard, now serving a life sentence for his espionage efforts on behalf of our ally, Israel; and vide, the brouhaha and continuing diplomatic disaster-potential of our surveillance flights near (or is it over?) China's borders.
But once again the security dangers proclaimed by the middle, near and far right seem based more on paranoia than reality. It would thus be a mistake to regard the rumblings from the right as solely a partisan matter, just as it would be a mistake to regard the fulminations of the counterrevisionists as solely an academic matter. Party politics and academic politics are both beholden to and work their influence on the surrounding political culture, just as they did in the overheated days of the domestic cold war. Together they send a troubling signal. The cold war is over, but it was never buried. The ghosts of the cold war--its culture and apparatus--live on, perhaps with consequences as troubling as the irrational forces that possess us.
In a famous sequence of photographs, Henri Matisse documented, over the course of six months in 1935, twenty-two states of his evolving Large Reclining Nude. On impulse, I recently made photocopies of these and fastened them together as a kind of flipbook. This yielded a crude approximation to a cinematic experience in which the nude figure turned and twisted and fluttered her legs up and down, while parts of her body swelled and subsided. It was in fact quite sexy but did not seem quite to fit what Matisse spoke of, figuratively of course, as a motion picture film of the feeling of an artist. So I shifted into a sort of slow motion, and register the following tentative observation: In the first state, recorded on May 3, Matisse's model is depicted in a fairly straightforward way, occupying roughly the lower half of the canvas. By September 6, her head has been disproportionately enlarged, and it has become a recognizable portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, his poseuse. On October 30, the head has grown disproportionately small, the features are schematic, the torso has grown lank and her bent arms fill the canvas from top to bottom. It really felt as if I had been able to track the artist's feelings toward the model, who becomes for him an individualized woman about midway through the painting's development. If so, the sequence does more than document the stages of a painting. It charts a transformation, from an external relationship between artist and model to an intimate relationship between man and woman. The motion picture film then yields something we could not easily get from the completed painting itself, marvelous as that great work is, and it shows something about the limitations of painting as a medium. Who knows if Matisse did not begin photographing his painting because he sensed there might be a deeper story to tell than the history of how a painting changes.
The artist's emotional involvement with Lydia Delectorskaya has remained a Matisse family secret, but it is difficult to suppress the thought not only that a change of feeling toward her took place in the course of executing Large Reclining Nude but, more boldly, that Matisse used painting as a way of discovering what his feelings were. The South African artist William Kentridge speaks of drawing in almost these terms: "The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world. It is in the strangeness of the activity itself that can be detected judgment, ethics and morality.... So drawing is a slow motion version of thought.... The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning." Note the cinematic metaphor through which Kentridge characterizes mental process and how, though his artistic ambitions otherwise resemble those of Matisse to no appreciable degree, he also sees drawing as an avenue to self-discovery.
South Africa was invited to exhibit in the Venice Biennale in 1993 in acknowledgment of the repeal of apartheid; and in 1995 the first Johannesburg Biennale was organized as a gesture that South Africa was now part of the international art community. Kentridge himself exhibited in the Fourth Istanbul Biennale, held that same year, and ever since he has been widely shown and highly admired for his animated films, based on his drawings. But the drawings themselves have an independent authority, in large part, I believe, because of the palpable evidence they provide of their author's search for meaning and even for personal meaning. It may seem curious that in work with so marked a political intention as Kentridge's, there should be the same preoccupation with self-understanding that we find in Matisse, who seems almost flagrantly hedonistic as an artist. But upon reflection it is no less curious that someone who created for himself a world of luxe, calme, et volupté--to use an early title that Matisse appropriated from Baudelaire--should, at a somewhat advanced age, use painting as a method of self-analysis.
In point of style, Kentridge's work has a certain retrospective aura, as if it belonged more to the era of Matisse than to the contemporary world. The drawings and, indeed, the animated films for which they serve as material feel much in spirit as if their provenance were the art world of Mitteleuropa from the early part of the twentieth century. Kentridge himself has commented on this:
Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America during the 1960s and 1970s seemed distant and incomprehensible to me.... The impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa. The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure. I remember thinking that one had to look backwards--even if quaintness was the price one paid.
It is perhaps testimony to the deep pluralism of the contemporary art world that the language of early Modernism should be accepted and even admired as a vehicle for expression and exploration today. Kentridge is rightly considered a very important artist, which explains why he is the subject of a major exhibition at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art (until September 16). It will then travel to the MCA in Chicago, the CAM in Houston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before its final venue in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, from December 7, 2002, through March 23, 2003.
Kentridge draws primarily in charcoal, a medium versatile enough to have been used in the achievement of the demi-teinte drawings prized by the beaux-arts academies of the nineteenth century, as well as in the broad expressive drawings of German Expressionism. Kentridge appreciates charcoal (enhanced by a sparing use of pastel) for its softness and quickness on paper. But with its sensitivity to pressure, to revision and overdrawing, to erasure and smudging, it lends itself particularly well to the kind of probing exploration for which Kentridge prizes drawing as an activity. The final result often stands as a kind of palimpsest of the stages of its emergence as an image. There is, moreover, an internal connection between drawing in charcoal and the exceedingly primitive technique of animation Kentridge evolved. One can photograph a drawing, then modify the drawing, then photograph that--and continue this process until one has transcribed, through sequences of smudging, erasing and overdrawing, a complete transition not just in the drawing, physically considered, but in what the alterations in the drawing sequentially depict. In short, the photographs taken at various stages of a drawing's alteration literally become frames in a filmstrip that, when projected, show a change in the reality depicted. Animation enables Kentridge to get beyond the limits that Matisse circumvented by means of serial photography.
An example will make this clear. Consider a sequence of fourteen frames from Kentridge's 1991 film, Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. Each of these is a photograph of the same drawing, as it has undergone a series of changes. In the first frame, we see a factory building in a somewhat dated modernesque style of architecture, drawn in a correspondingly dated Modernist style that Kentridge has made his own. The factory, sharply highlighted, stands against the sky, alone in a barren landscape. In the next frame, the artist has begun to scribble a sort of dark mass, like a dust cloud, at the building's base. In the third frame, the artist has begun to erase, hence lighten, the top part of the cloud. This cloud grows larger and lighter through a number of frames. Meanwhile, he has begun to rub out the drawing of the building. The building grows fainter and fainter as the cloud engulfs it. Now the artist begins to erase the cloud so that there is a frame in which a ghostly pentimento of the building hovers over the thinning cloud. Finally, as the dust has settled, the artist has drawn the figure of a man standing in what remains of the cloud, his back to us, facing where the building used to be. In the final frame, the figure of the man is darkened. He stands alone before the traces on paper of an erased factory. As with Matisse's Large Reclining Nude, where there is only one canvas, the changes in which have been documented by his photographs, here there is only one drawing, systematically modified. But where Large Reclining Nude shows no signs of the changes Matisse made, the final photograph in Kentridge's sequence shows the stages it has gone through--the erasures, the scribbles, the darkening, the outlines of the factory that used to be there, the shape of the man who entered the picture only in the final stages of the drawing. It is like a face that bears the marks of its owner's experience. "What is interesting about doing the animated films," Kentridge told interviewers, "is that it's a way of holding on to all the moments and possibilities of the drawing." His drawings record the struggle to achieve them.
Put another way, the changes in Large Reclining Nude were not made for the sake of being photographed; the photographs merely document those changes. The changes in the drawing of the factory, by contrast, were narratively driven, and made for the sake of the photographs, because it is through them, as a film sequence, that a story is told. It is the story of a world falling apart. The figure in the drawing is internally related to the factory. He was in fact the factory's owner, as we know from the film from which this sequence has been extracted. We have been shown the fact that his world has fallen apart, that he is left alone in the landscape in which his factory once stood. The figure is that of the industrialist Soho Eckstein, a character Kentridge invented--the star of his series of allegorical films, which he calls "Drawings for Projection," of which Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old is the fourth.
Soho is an overweight, balding, ruthless man, with a heavy cigar and an emblematic pinstriped suit and striped necktie. The suit-and-tie is his attribute--as much so as keys are the attribute of St. Peter or a chalice of blood that of the bereaved Madonna in Christian iconography--or a silk hat and moneybags the attributes of The Capitalist in left-wing iconography. Soho is never shown not wearing it, whether working or sleeping, or lying in a hospital bed, or in a symbolic pool of water, embracing his alienated wife. In the first of the films in which he is introduced--Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris--Soho Eckstein is the embodiment of greed and rapacity. He has bought up half the city of Johannesburg, and sits at his desk, running his vast network of enterprises, or at a table swilling down mountains of food with bottle upon bottle of wine. Outside, we see an industrial wasteland, punctuated with pylons and floodlights, and traversed by the expropriated masses. In Monument, Soho addresses a crowd as a benefactor, at the dedication of a monument to the Working Man. In Mine--a wonderful pun, since the mine is mine--the film connects Soho with his mining enterprises. We see rows of miners blasting away in dark precincts, and we see Soho orchestrating their activity from a desk, on which are displayed pieces of African art as trophies. But things have begun to go very badly for Soho in Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. His empire has collapsed. He is alone in a world for whose barrenness he is largely accountable.
But the loss is more personal by far than my narrative thus far would suggest. Soho's wife has been taken away from him by his alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, a moony artist who looks like a somewhat leaner Soho with his clothes off. Aside from these differences, Felix and Soho look much alike, which suggests that together they constitute a self-portrait of the artist, since he resembles them both. And that is another illustration of how drawing leads to self-knowledge.
As in the final frame of the collapsing factory, we see Soho alone against an empty sky--a mere smudged blankness onto which the artist has superimposed the words, printed in block letters:
And we find ourselves feeling sorry for poor Soho, a human being after all, with a broken heart.
Kentridge's commentators see the films as filled with references to the political drama of South Africa, and doubtless the artist's countrymen will be able to read these in terms far more local than are available to us who have not lived through the agonies of those struggles. At the same time, the films attain a level of allegory that makes them almost universal. Soho is an inspired invention, but he corresponds to the hard-nosed kind of industrialist commonplace in the representation of capitalism since at least the time of Marx and Engels. "I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose," Marx wrote in his preface to Capital. But here individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests. Were it not for lettering in "Johannesburg"there would be no way of knowing that the masses represented in Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris were African blacks. The image could have been by Käthe Kollwitz or some illustrator for New Masses. There is thus something generic in the relationship between Soho and the country he exploits, into which the particularities of apartheid have to be read. But similarly, it is by virtue of romantic allegory that Soho's guilt is internalized as insensitivity to his wife's emotional needs. And where in South African political reality does the sensitive and artistic figure of Felix Teitlebaum exactly fit? In Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old, the political becomes the personal. There is a wonderful image in that film in which the essential triangle of Soho, Mrs. Eckstein and Felix is represented. Soho, holding a cigar that gives off the dense black smoke of one of his factory chimneys, is gazing into what I take to be a loudspeaker, while luscious Mrs. Eckstein lies beneath Felix, her eyes closed either in dream or rapture, while--in the animation--a kind of fish swims from Felix to her. It is exceedingly erotic, as the film itself at moments is, though it is difficult to know whether the love scenes are imagined by Soho or enacted by the couple, or, for that matter, imagined by them. In a way, Soho, Felix and Mrs. Eckstein--Tycoon, Artist and Wife--form as rich an allegorical triangle as Offissa Pupp, Ignatz and Krazy Kat in George Herriman's inspired landscape. The films Kentridge made afterward are deeply introspective exercises in which both Soho and Felix undertake, in their different ways, to construct meanings for their lives. Mrs. Eckstein is not developed further.
I am very impressed by the way, as an artist, Kentridge seeks to reflect political problems through interpersonal relationships. In her instructive catalogue essay, Lynne Cooke cites Kentridge's way of seeing his situation as an artist who is at once engaged and disengaged: "Aware of and drawing sustenance from the anomaly of my position." At the edge of huge social upheavals, yet also removed from them. Not able to be part of these upheavals, nor to work as if they did not exist. That is the way I see his art--not part of the upheavals but to be understood through the fact that they exist and in some deflected way explain the art. In the end, if one thinks about it, this is the way artists have often dealt with political upheavals: at their edge, and in the framework of love stories. Think of Hemingway or Tolstoy or, if you like, Jane Austen or possibly Matisse.
The films are the heart of the exhibition, as they are the crown of Kentridge's oeuvre, and I would head for them immediately. After that you can work your way back through the gallery, in which some of the stills--the drawings he used for the films--are on display. On your way in, you will have passed a sort of animated Shadow Procession, in which silhouetted figures, which inevitably remind one of the disturbing cutouts of the brilliant Kara Walker, sweep past your vision. It is a little soon to pronounce the show unforgettable, but I have not been able to erase from my memory the song by Alfred Makgalemele, which accompanies the Shadow Procession, and my feeling is that certain of the images will be with me for a very long time.