New York City
Doug Ireland's offhand comments about the Working Families Party's role in the upcoming municipal elections in New York City were inaccurate and hurtful ["Those Big Town Blues," June 4]. He wrote that the WFP "could have played a role in recruiting Council candidates" but did not because the progressive unions took no initiatives and ACORN was distracted by its fight against the Edison Corporation.
Speaking for two affiliates of the WFP--ACORN and SEIU/1199--I say that this is dead wrong. We have been involved in a marvelous WFP-initiated process that has included scores of neighborhood and borough meetings, a remarkable series of interviews with more than 100 potential candidates, worksite presentations on the issues by WFP workplace captains, the ongoing recruitment of neighborhood captains and much more. We had more than 1,000 people at a WFP mayoral forum and have won concrete commitments on our living-wage bill from candidates across the city. Until the WFP, there was no group trying to pull together a community-labor-religious coalition to move ideas, people, money and energy in contests from Nassau County to Niagara Falls.
The WFP slate for this year's city elections will have more union members, community activists and progressives than any slate in memory. We hope Nation readers will vote for, work for and send money to all the WFP-endorsed candidates for primaries and the general election.
SEIU State Council, WFP
New York City
As first-time candidates for public office, we want to say that the Working Families Party and its affiliates have been absolutely essential to our being taken seriously. The WFP endorsement opens doors, and its activists do real work on campaigns. The WFP is the only party that asks tough questions on issues.
The three districts we are running in--Far Rockaway and East Elmhurst in Queens, and Flatbush in Brooklyn--are not known for producing progressive leaders on the City Council. If that changes this year, and if instead there is an ACORN member (Sanders), an ex-cop turned NYCLU board member (Monserrate) or a human rights activist (Vernet) elected--it will be due in part to the persistence and support of the Working Families Party.
JAMES SANDERS JR.
31st council district candidate
21st council district candidate
45th council district candidate
Last fall The Nation ran a piece by Micah Sifry that began: "Today, for the first time in years, the political center of gravity in New York State is shifting." He went on to argue that some substantial portion of this welcome development was due to a hard-working, well-run, complex formation called the Working Families Party.
We're not perfect, but I cannot accept Doug Ireland's characterization of the party as "little more than a liberal adjunct of the Democratic Party." The challenge for a fusion party in our winner-take-all system--a challenge Sifry captured in his piece last fall but that eluded Ireland entirely--is how to be both independent and relevant. It's easy to be independent and irrelevant, but that's not our game.
The Nation tries to walk that same line and no doubt appreciates how difficult it can be. On balance, the WFP has done solid work building chapters, recruiting candidates, running issue campaigns, winning elections, training staff and so on. None of it is glamorous, but it's the very heart of what's needed to build power.
Executive director, WFP
New York City
Doug Ireland argues that the combination of term limits and the new campaign finance program has not, with a few exceptions, generated a "bumper crop of exciting, nontraditional candidacies" for this year's City Council elections. But take a closer look, and you'll find that in district after district, throughout the five boroughs, the field of candidates is crowded with "exciting, nontraditional" contenders--candidates who, were it not for the 4-to-1 matching program, would not be able to run competitively.
The three races identified by Ireland--Arthur Cheliotes, Steve Banks and Ydanis Rodriguez--are only the tip of the iceberg. All around town, activists who have worked in the movement and earned their stripes are running, and running to win--executive director of New York State's largest tenants' rights organization, Joe Heaphy; founder of St. John's University's first gay student organization, Jimmy Van Bramer; founder of the Latino Officers' Association, Hiram Monserrate; former chair of the New York State Women's Political Caucus, Gale Brewer; founder of the community development credit union Neighborhood Trust FCU, Mark Levine; immigrants and immigrants' rights activists like Kwong Hui, Morshed Alam and Margaret Chin; civil rights activists like Charles Barron and Rocky Chin; public interest attorneys like Brad Hoylman; ACORN leader James Sanders Jr.; the lead plaintiff on the historic Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, Robert Jackson; and the list goes on--they are all a part of the progressive movement, and they are all running. And to Citizen Action of New York, they are all proof that campaign finance reform is working in New York City.
Want further proof that the 4-to-1 matching program is working? Ask these "exciting, nontraditional" candidates where their contributions are coming from. The candidates, who have traditionally been left out of our electoral process because of a lack of personal wealth or access to people with money, are raising their campaign funds from people just like themselves.
You can see the strength of these grassroots campaigns as the many "exciting, nontraditional" candidates and legions of their volunteers are descending upon the streets of the city to collect signatures to get on the ballot. The grassroots movement is not absent in New York City, and after this historic election cycle, it will be even stronger.
MICHELE J. MAGLIONE
Citizen Action of New York City
New York City
I did not have space to list every nontraditional Council candidate, so I picked three with an even chance of winning. But Michele Maglione's list is somewhat deceptive. For example, Margaret Chin, Rocky Chin and Brad Hoylman are all running against one another in the same district. Gale Brewer, whatever her other qualities, has been a longtime patronage employee of the Manhattan Borough President's office--a very traditional path to elective office (and Ronnie Eldridge, the term-limited sterling progressive whose seat Brewer is seeking, has yet to make an endorsement in the race, a clear indication of her unhappiness with all three contestants). One is left with only ten districts in which the kind of candidate I described is present--of a total of fifty seats (I wouldn't call that a bumper crop). Only half of those on Maglione's list have a real chance of winning; it is possible that next year's Council will have a bloc of independent/progressive members no larger--perhaps even smaller--than the old one.
I have great respect for Dan Cantor's talents, energy and integrity, and Bertha Lewis has been an admirable leader of ACORN. As to the WFP, I broke the story of its creation in a lengthy, enthusiastic Village Voice article before its official public founding. At WFP events I was approached by a number of people, mostly young, who said they'd been inspired by my article to get active in the new party. I think that gives me some standing for the mild reproofs to the WFP in these pages.
Brother Cantor quotes my friend and sometime co-author Micah Sifry and suggests I walk The Nation's "line." Well, I've always had trouble following anyone else's "line"--I prefer to think for myself. But Sifry's article also said: "How not to be a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party...is a complicated problem that is rooted in the forces that birthed the WFP, and it is not an issue that is about to go away. Certainly the party's early and enthusiastic endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the Senate race puts the matter front and center. What kind of progressive third party gets into bed with a First Lady who once said, 'There is no left in the Clinton White House'?"
Consider the following: The WFP, to its credit, conducted a vigorous campaign for the primary item on its state legislative agenda, an increase in the minimum wage; the party held a press conference that starred Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver standing in front of a huge WFP banner. But just weeks before, Silver, at the behest of the hotel and restaurant lobbies, personally rammed through an amendment exempting more than 100,000 of New York's poorest-paid workers--those dependent on tips for a living--from the minimum wage law (a deal documented by Andy Hsiao in the Voice), with nary a peep of public protest from the WFP. Surely all those waitresses and waiters are members of "working families." Should Silver, therefore, be held out by the party as a progressive icon for stiffing them?
This year the WFP endorsed Bill Thompson for comptroller. Thompson got his job as president of the Board of Education in a deal with Rudy Giuliani that included opposing the multicultural Rainbow Curriculum and shredding meaningful safe-sex education. Since our city's school population is overwhelmingly kids of color, and with the front pages just having bannered the latest reminders of an appalling AIDS epidemic among black youth that's been known for some time, it is clear that Thompson--who is African-American--sold out his own community's kids for political advancement. Some kids of "working families" thus deprived of lifesaving information will die as a result. Stomach-turning? The WFP didn't think so. Human Rights Watch just came out with a 207-page report, Hatred in the Hallways, a study of school homophobia in seven states--including New York--where levels of violence and discrimination against gay kids are so great they cannot learn, a situation that the Rainbow Curriculum was designed to counter by teaching tolerance. Thompson won't get my vote.
Finally, my article clearly acknowledged that the WFP was one of two "significant" sources of support for progressive candidates. But the 100-plus interviews Lewis and Gaspard mention were of already-existing candidates, not WFP-generated ones. Right now the WFP is a ballot line, not a full-fledged political party, and it is dominated by the labor leaders who pay the bills, not a broad "community-labor-religious coalition." I hope one day it becomes large and diverse enough to act with more independence, and to rethink its criteria for endorsements. Until then, I stand by my assessment.
Next year's Florida gubernatorial election--which could pit presidential brother and current GOP Governor Jeb Bush against former Attorney General Janet Reno--is developing into the marquee melee
"How would you feel if your wife and children were brutally raped before being hacked to death by soldiers during a military massacre of 800 civilians, and then two governments tried to cover up the killings?" It's a question that won't be asked of Elliott Abrams at a Senate confirmation hearing--because George W. Bush, according to press reports, may appoint Abrams to a National Security Council staff position that (conveniently!) does not require Senate approval. Moreover, this query is one of a host of rude, but warranted, questions that could be lobbed at Abrams, the Iran/contra player who was an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years and a shaper of that Administration's controversial--and deadly--policies on Latin America and human rights. His designated spot in the new regime: NSC's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. (At press time, the White House and Abrams were neither confirming nor denying his return to government.)
Bush the Second has tapped a number of Reagan/Bush alums who were involved in Iran/contra business for plum jobs: Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. But Abrams's appointment--should it come to pass--would mark the most generous of rehabilitations. Not only did Abrams plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program, he was also one of the fiercest ideological pugilists of the 1980s, a bad-boy diplomat wildly out of sync with Bush's gonna-change-the-tone rhetoric. Abrams, a Democrat turned Republican who married into the cranky Podhoretz neocon clan, billed himself as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America--which entailed assisting thuggish regimes and militaries in order to thwart leftist movements and dismissing the human rights violations of Washington's cold war partners.
One Abrams specialty was massacre denial. During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? "My memory," he said, "is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it, because I'd have to go back and look at the cables." But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador's military. The massacre, as has since been confirmed, was real. And in 1993 after a UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies, Abrams declared, "The Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Tell that to the survivors of El Mozote.
But it wasn't his lies about mass murder that got Abrams into trouble. After a contra resupply plane was shot down in 1986, Abrams, one of the coordinators of Reagan's pro-contra policy (along with the NSC's Oliver North and the CIA's Alan Fiers), appeared several times before Congressional committees and withheld information on the Administration's connection to the secret and private contra-support network. He also hid from Congress the fact that he had flown to London (using the name "Mr. Kenilworth") to solicit a $10 million contribution for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. At a subsequent closed-door hearing, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton blasted Abrams for having misled legislators, noting that Abrams's misrepresentations could lead to "slammer time." Abrams disagreed, saying, "You've heard my testimony." Eagleton cut in: "I've heard it, and I want to puke." On another occasion, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger complained, "I wouldn't trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North." Even after Abrams copped a plea with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, he refused to concede that he'd done anything untoward. Abrams's Foggy Bottom services were not retained by the First Bush, but he did include Abrams in his lame-duck pardons of several Iran/contra wrongdoers.
Abrams was as nasty a policy warrior as Washington had seen in decades. He called foes "vipers." He said that lawmakers who blocked contra aid would have "blood on their hands"--while he defended US support for a human-rights-abusing government in Guatemala. When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.
So Bush the Compassionate may hand the White House portfolio on human rights to the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human-rights abusers. As Adm. William Crowe Jr. said of Abrams in 1989, "This snake's hard to kill."
George W. Bush's European trip came at a time when American policy-makers, who once dismissed the European Union for its weakness and indecision on the world stage, are worrying about Europe's more assertive foreign policy. More than once this year, Washington has found itself upstaged as Europe showed itself willing and able to defy Washington on behalf of the larger global interest--organizing international opposition to the White House's repudiation of the Kyoto accords and taking it upon itself to keep the prospects of détente alive on the Korean peninsula, not to mention the role it played in voting the United States off the United Nations Human Rights Commission and its International Narcotics Control Board.
Still, the real danger is not a European-American divide, as serious as that would be, but a Europe that reverts to its old docile self when faced with Bush Administration pressure, deferring to Washington on issues like missile defense and NATO enlargement even when it disagrees with US policy. Although more confident in the foreign policy arena than it once was, the European Union is still struggling to develop a common foreign and defense policy and is reluctant to antagonize Washington on issues central to the transatlantic relationship. But it would be a mistake for European leaders to appease this Administration in the name of good relations with Washington. For on issues like global climate change, diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, missile defense and NATO enlargement, the EU better represents American interests and moral concerns than does the current Administration.
An immediate challenge is Washington's repudiation of the Kyoto accords on global warming. Europe is currently considering whether to continue with the treaty without the formal participation of the United States, which accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse gases. The Administration hoped that Bush's more moderate tone of late would persuade Europe to back down or that there would be a lengthy renegotiation of the accord, but his pre-departure speech flopped. Many Americans will support Europe's decision to press ahead by demanding that US companies and local governments reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Even without full American compliance, it would keep the Kyoto accords alive.
European leaders must also stand firm on the question of missile defense. Many Americans share Europe's concerns: that Bush's missile defense will not work, that it will renuclearize great-power relations, and that it will eat up resources desperately needed to promote economic development and stability in the Balkans and other troubled regions. Only if Europe speaks with a clear and confident voice will it be possible for these American opposition voices to gain leverage in the US debate. The Administration hopes European governments will buy into the program and even cover part of the cost. But a Bush speech in Brussels to leaders of NATO countries was met with open doubts.
The Administration's plan for NATO enlargement, said to include the Baltic states, will be another test of European foreign policy. Many European leaders are skeptical about the wisdom of extending the NATO alliance up to Russia's borders. They know that what the countries in Eastern Europe need now is not a military alliance but more economic reform, more investment and more trade. They also know just how important Russia is to European security. Europe needs a constructive and reasonably strong Russia, one that can keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, that can supply Europe and its eastern neighbors with cheap energy, that can help keep Belarus and the Ukraine from collapsing and that can help maintain order in the Caucasus and Central Asia. NATO expansion would unnecessarily put this critical relationship with Russia at risk and distract EU candidate countries from necessary economic reforms.
Europe may be reluctant to question Washington's lead on NATO issues for fear of weakening the US military commitment. But nothing should prevent Europe from staking out a contrary position on NATO that would be shared by a significant part of the US foreign policy establishment. Indeed, Europe has more leverage with Washington than at any time in the long history of the transatlantic relationship. There is now no military threat in Europe or even in the larger European zone that requires an American military presence. To be sure, Europe would prefer to have the United States shoulder part of the burden in the Balkans, particularly in Kosovo. But there is no reason it can't handle these problems without America's high-tech military, especially in light of the Pentagon's now-famous reluctance to put US soldiers at risk.
On a range of international issues, Europe brings an important perspective and experience to world affairs. It understands better than does the Bush Administration that foreign policy is more than a matter of advancing national power, and that economic development is more than imposing a free market economy without the requisite social and political institutions. Indeed, Europe's recent experience--after centuries of conflict--of pooling sovereignty, of knitting together diverse national perspectives, of encouraging democracy and economic reform and of managing more powerful neighbors is exactly what countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa might learn from. What Europe has been able to do over the past several decades and what it is trying to extend to the countries of Eastern Europe is what other regions could do to overcome decades of mutual suspicion to tackle common problems, reduce trade barriers and cooperate to stabilize currencies.
But this example will be lost if Europe remains in America's shadow, if it follows Washington's lead and makes missile defense and NATO enlargement the capstones of its international policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century. US interests and values would be better served by a Europe that acts as both a balance and a complement to American power.
Strange as it may seem, Timothy McVeigh and George W. Bush shared the same analysis of McVeigh's execution Monday morning, June 11, in Terre Haute. The Oklahoma City bomber, intoned Bush, "met the fate he chose for himself six years ago"--the perfect mirror of McVeigh's own vision of himself as "the master of my fate," in his citation of William Ernest Henley's "Invictus."
The notion of "fate"--a predetermined outcome--sanitizes state-sponsored killing even as it fulfills McVeigh's megalomaniacal delusions. But fate had nothing to do with it. Death sentences are a matter of caprice rather than legal predetermination, as evinced by the twenty-one of twenty-three federal death-row inmates remaining in Terre Haute whose "fate" was to be born nonwhite. Myth: "The severest sentence for the gravest of crimes," as Bush declared that Monday, employing McVeigh as a handy fig leaf for a federal death row even more racially out of kilter than its state counterparts. Reality: The capital trial norm remains "the death penalty not for the worst crime, but the worst lawyer," in the words of litigator Stephen Bright.
One salient political and legal fact received scant consideration Monday: Because it was a federal execution, McVeigh's killing was the first in two generations on behalf of all of us. But "all of us," or even the majority of us, no longer support the death penalty. The government has gone back into the killing business at the very moment when the national capital punishment consensus has eroded, as indicated by polls showing support for death sentences slipping below 50 percent if replaced by life terms without parole. McVeigh's execution was supposed to turn this trend around. Instead, the FBI's documents blunder and the generally sordid spectacle from Terre Haute only fed public unease.
Sanitizing was pretty much the universal order of business Monday. The news media made much of their sensitivity to Oklahoma City's survivors. But only the Daily Oklahoman consistently noted the diversity of survivor opinion on McVeigh's execution, and among broadcasters only KWTW, an Oklahoma City station, reported that nearly a third of the 325 people who had reserved chairs for the closed-circuit telecast elected not to show up. And only the Chicago Tribune has bothered to report--in an interview with an anesthesiologist shortly before McVeigh's original execution date in May--that lethal injection deaths like McVeigh's are often far more painful than they may appear to witnesses. The closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's killing also offered powerful ammunition against the argument from some leading abolitionists that public broadcasts of executions would lead to widespread outrage against them. "It was such a peaceful death. That made it more palatable," witness Archie Blanchard said on NBC, after confessing that before the telecast it had been "hard to think about being there."
Also missing from press coverage was any recognition of McVeigh's forgotten conspirators. Not John Doe #2, but the wide range of "mainstream" right-wing politicians and broadcasters and publishers and gun lobbyists who exploited the Branch Davidian deaths in Waco with wild conspiracy theories, ratifying McVeigh's delusional rage and naming his enemy. Just a few of those sharing collateral guilt: the National Rifle Association, which not long before Oklahoma City called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "jack-booted government thugs, federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens"; Representative Helen Chenoweth, who declared that America's national parks had been taken over by the United Nations; Senator Bob Smith, who temporarily dropped his GOP affiliation in favor of the paranoid, antigovernment populists of the US Taxpayers Party; and antichoice fanatics who pointed the way to Oklahoma City with their abortion clinic bombings in the early nineties. It is easier to treat Tim McVeigh as an inexplicable aberration who can be evicted from history than to recall just how widely evident were obsessions like his.
President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft now turn their attention to Juan Raul Garza, scheduled for execution on June 19. In between, Bush traveled to Europe, arriving in Spain, which was in an uproar over a falsely convicted Spanish citizen recently released from Florida's death row. America's death penalty has for years baffled our European partners, but it is only now becoming a serious diplomatic and political issue. France is refusing to extradite Buffalo abortion doctor shooter James Kopp until prosecutors agree to spare him from capital charges, and Germany is suing the United States over the execution of a German national who was never informed of his consular rights. In Ireland, voters on June 7 overwhelmingly approved a referendum permanently abolishing capital punishment from the country's Constitution. Capital punishment now isolates the US abroad as it divides Americans at home. The McVeigh execution, instead of marking a new era of federalized capital punishment, may turn out to be the high-water mark before the long-overdue retreat of the capital punishment tide.
Christ killing has been back in the news. It seems that my ancestors are once again catching hell for their alleged betrayal of God's son, this time from fundamentalist Christian basketball player Charlie Ward and fundamentalist Christian political organizer Paul Weyrich.
Speaking to The New York Times Magazine, the New York Knicks' point guard set off a controversy in April when he informed a Jewish reporter, "Jews are stubborn.... why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept?" and added, "They had his blood on their hands."
If you read about this and thought, Who cares what some basketball player says about who killed Christ?, I'm with you. And if you were wondering whether the New York Knicks organization, the National Basketball Association or Madison Square Garden also blame the Jews for the Crucifixion, well, you can relax about that too. All three have helpfully issued statements putting that rumor to rest. But two people who have seemed oddly sympathetic are Florida Secretary of State Katherine (Cruella De) Harris and Governor Jeb (Fredo) Bush.
Cruella chose Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy playing college football in Florida, as the state's "Born to Read" literacy campaign spokesman. When the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee asked her to reconsider in light of the fact that the guy was spreading what used to be called a "blood libel"--one that has led, historically, to the murder of countless Jews, who happen to make up a significant portion of the state's citizenry--she demurred. That's when Fredo stepped in: "If we're going to become so rigid as a country to be able to disallow speech, even though it may not be politically correct, I think we're in danger."
Strictly speaking, the First Little Bro was absolutely right. But his statement had nothing to do with the controversy it purported to address. Nobody is denying Ward's right to speak as an ignorant anti-Semite, or even to play point guard in this highly Jewish metropolis as one. The issue is whether, in light of his comments about Jews, he remains the best possible representative of Florida's literacy campaign. Bush seems to have taken to its logical extreme the conservative habit of labeling any community standards of speech, no matter how sensible, "political correctness" gone mad, unless they involve protecting a citizen's right to threaten the lives of abortion doctors or to own assault rifles. If Democrats in the land of King Condo can't beat this anti-Semite-enabling creep next year, they should find another country.
Another staunch defender of the anti-Semites' right to blood-libel Jews is David Horowitz. When Paul Weyrich announced on his Free Congress website that "Christ was crucified by the Jews who had wanted a temporal ruler to rescue them from the oppressive Roman authorities.... He was not what the Jews had expected so they considered Him a threat. Thus He was put to death," a previously obscure right-wing pundit named Evan Gahr denounced him quite sensibly as an anti-Semite. The denunciation went up on Horowitz's website, which, like Weyrich's Free Congress movement, is heavily funded by conspiracy nut Richard Mellon Scaife. But it was ordered expunged by the same fellow who can currently be found whining at your local college about his own victimization at the hands of something he calls "the fascist Left."
While an unhealthy proportion of the far right has always had a soft spot for this kind of theological anti-Semitism, virtually all mainstream Christian churches have explicitly repudiated it. But Gahr was not only informed that his work would no longer be welcome on Horowitz's generously funded site; he was kicked off the masthead of The American Enterprise, the magazine published by the Scaife-funded think tank of the same name. Next, the Scaife-funded Hudson Institute, where Gahr had been employed (and Norman Podhoretz still is), also sent him packing. Stanley Crouch, the neo-neoconservative, compared the right's treatment of Gahr to a Stalinist purge ("Horowitz and Stalin: Together Again").
Personally, I can live with the injustice done to Gahr, who first came to attention as a media gossip/hatchetman for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. Live by conservative attack-dog tactics, die by them, I say. But what does it reveal about modern-day American conservatives that they cannot countenance a denunciation from within their ranks of the kind of ignorant anti-Semitic remark that has historically led to mass murder?
Horowitz notes, allegedly in Weyrich's defense, that he made his statement in his "capacity as a Melkite Greek Catholic deacon." He might have made it in his capacity as the Pillsbury Doughboy for all the difference it makes. Weyrich, as Joe Conason pointed out, has long been swimming in anti-Semitic sewers. There's his early involvement with George Wallace's American Independent Party, along with his foundation's long association with Laszlo Pastor, who was convicted of Nazi collaboration for his World War II role in the violently anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, and who was tossed off the Bush/Quayle campaign in 1988. Conason notes that another longtime Weyrich aide served on the editorial board of the Ukrainian Quarterly, an ethnic rightist publication strongly influenced by former Nazi collaborators.
All in all, it's rather odd that somebody--however deluded--who claims to be both a Jew and a champion of free speech should be censoring a writer who condemns the most disgusting kind of anti-Semitism, but then again, it's a bit counterintuitive to find a governor who also happens to be the President's brother defending his state's right to choose the same type of anti-Semite to represent it to children and others trying to learn to read.
No wonder Jim Jeffords wanted nothing to do with these goofballs. One Republican, writing on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, has already accused the Vermonter of a "pattern of betrayal." I sure hope Jeffords has a good alibi for Good Friday, 33 AD.
Where's the fashionable rendezvous for the World Secret Government? In the good old days when the Illuminati had a firm grip on things, it was wherever the Bilderbergers decided to pitch their tents. Then Nelson and David Rockefeller horned their way in, and the spotlight moved to the Trilateral Commission. Was there one Secret Government or two? Some said all the big decisions were taken in England, at Ditchley, not so far from the Appeasers' former haunts at Cliveden and only an hour by Learjet from Davos, which is where jumped-up finance ministers and arriviste tycoons merely pretend they rule the world.
Secret World Rulers spend a good deal of time in the air, whisking from Davos to APEC meetings somewhere in Asia, to Ditchley, to Sun Valley, Idaho, though mercifully no longer to the Clinton-favored Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina. But comes next July 14 and every self-respecting member of the Secret World Government will be in a gloomy grove of redwoods in northern California, preparing to Banish Care for the hundred and twenty-second time, prelude to three weeks hashing out the future of the world.
If the avenging posses mustered by the Bohemian Grove Action Network manage this year to burst through the security gates at the Bohemian Grove, they will (to extrapolate from numerous eyewitness accounts of past sessions) find proofs most convincing to them that here indeed is the ruling crowd in executive session: hundreds of near-dead white men sitting by a lake listening to Henry Kissinger, plus many other near-dead white men in adjacent landscape in a state of intoxication so advanced that many of them have fallen insensible among the ferns, gin fizz glasses gripped firmly till the last.
These same gaping posses would find evidence of bizarre rites, though not perhaps the Satanic sacrifice of children, as proposed in one new documentary. Why so many games of dominoes? Why the evidence that a significant portion of the Secret Government appeared to be involved in some theatrical production involving the use of women's clothes and lavish application of makeup?
Many an empire has, of course, been run by drunken men wearing makeup. But a look at the Bohemian Club, its members and appurtenances, suggests that behind the pretense of Secret Government lies the reality of a summer camp for a bunch of San Francisco businessmen, real estate plungers and lawyers who long ago had the cunning to recruit some outside megawattage--Herbert Hoover, a Rockefeller, Richard Nixon--to turn their mundane frolics into the simulacrum of Secret Government and make the yokels gape.
The Bohemian Club began as a San Francisco institution in 1872, founded by journalists and kindred lowly scriveners as an excuse for late-night boozing. The hacks soon concluded that Bohemianism, in the sense of real poverty, was oppressive. So they pulled in a few wealthy men of commerce to pay for the champagne, and the rot set in. Within a very few years the lowly scriveners were on their way out--except for a few of the more presentable among them to lend a pretense of Boho-dom--and Mammon had seized power.
Near the end of the last century the cult of the redwood grove as Nature's cathedral was in full swing, and the Boho-businessmen yearned to give their outings a tincture of spiritual uplift. The long-range planning committee of the club decided to buy a grove some sixty miles north of the city near the town of Monte Rio. Soon the ancient redwoods rang to the laughter of the disporting men of commerce.
The Bohemian Club is set up along frat house lines. Instead of Deltas and Pi Etas there are camps, some 120 in all, stretching along River Road and Morse Stephens canyon. Their names follow the imaginative arc of American industrialists and financiers over the past hundred years, from Hillbillies (George Bush Sr., Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley) to Ye Merrie Yowls.
The waiting lists for membership are so long it takes years for the novitiate to be admitted. A friend of mine, big in Reagan's time, has been on the doorstep for fifteen years. He says he likes it that way. He's spared the sign-up fee of around $10,000 and annual membership dues and has to pony up only when he's invited, which is every two years. Particularly in the more sumptuous camps it takes plenty of money too, sharing bills for retinues of uniformed servants, vintage cellars, master chefs and kindred accoutrements of spiritual refreshment.
There are lakeside talks and increasingly popular science chats at the Grove's museum. There's skeet-shooting on the private range. There's endless dominoes--the Grove's boardgame par excellence. There's Not Being at Home With the Wife. But best of all, there are the talent revue and the play. Visit some corporate suite in San Francisco in June or early July, and if you see the CEO brooding thoughtfully before his plate-glass window overlooking the Bay Bridge, the chances are he is not thinking about some impending takeover or merciless downsizing. He is probably worrying about the cut of his tutu for the drag act for which he has been rehearsing keenly for many months.
In the nineties the Grove's reputation as the site of Secret Government was in eclipse. The young Christian zealots of the Newt revolution were scarcely Boho material, and Newt himself--he did give a lakeside talk one year--was a little too tacky in style for the gin fizz set. But here we are in the Bush II era, and the Bush Clan is echt Secret Government, all the way from the old Rockefeller connection to Skull and Bones and the Knights of Malta. Dick Cheney's a Grover.
So spare yourself the expense of traveling from Quebec to the next session of the WTO. Voyage to Sonoma County and muster against the Secret World Government. For details of the rally, call the Bohemian Grove Action Network, whose Mary Moore has been chivying the Grovers for twenty years, at (707) 874-2248 or check out www.sonomacountyfreepress.org.
Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, I suppose we're all supposed to stop talking about it--to "enjoy closure," a bit like the election.
But McVeigh's execution was troubling on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. It was alarming to watch the procedural impatience, the official "just get it over with" mentality, despite defense lawyers' not having had a chance to go through more than 4,000 pages of FBI documents that no one disputes ought to have been turned over before McVeigh's trial.
It was distressing to hear the semantic shiftiness of our President as he described the event. To us individualists at home, he said that it was McVeigh who "chose" this method of reckoning; to a European audience it was "the will of the people in the United States." Like some libertarian Pontius Pilate, Bush washed his hands of any responsibility, skillfully uncoupling the role of the executive from execution. It's bad enough to have a death penalty; it is positively chilling when the chief poohbah shrugs it off as though helpless, assigning federally engineered death to forces beyond him.
It was incredible to see anti-death penalty commentators apologizing constantly, always having to blither "of course no one condones his actions"--as though arguing for life imprisonment made one the squishiest, most bleeding-heart of moral equivocators. As a New York Times commentary observed, "Experts said it was the wrong case to debate--many people who do not approve of the death penalty wanted Mr. McVeigh to die."
Yet if one really wants to test the commitment of a civilization to its expressed principles of justice, the McVeigh case is exactly the right case to debate. There was little question as to his guilt (even if the question of conspiracy remains an open one in some quarters), his crime was inexpressibly reprehensible and he maintained a demeanor of controlled, remorseless calculation to the end. In other words, it is precisely the dimension of his evil that presses us to consider most seriously the limits of state force. The question is whether we want to license our government to kill, rather than just restrain by imprisoning, the very worst among us.
Much recent debate about capital punishment has focused on probabilities: the repeated demonstration that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a matter of considerable uncertainty and outright error. I have recommended before Actual Innocence by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and I do so here again. These lawyers' work with the Innocence Project has led to dozens of releases from death row and to calls for moratoriums in states where pro-death penalty sentiment once ran high.
There is also the question of disparate impact, particularly upon minorities and the poor. "There are no racial overtones in [McVeigh's] conviction," wrote the New York Times in an editorial. Perhaps that's true if considered in a vacuum, but certainly not with regard to its procedural legacy. If the FBI couldn't get right the most important and supposedly most careful investigation in its history--and still no stay was granted--then there is no hope in any other case. McVeigh's "nonracial" fate, moreover, will surely be invoked highhandedly in all those more routine, less highly scrutinized cases. The fact that of the remaining federal death row inmates only two are white is, according to John Ashcroft, merely "normal." For more on this aspect of the debate, I recommend reading Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future, by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and The Nation's own Bruce Shapiro. Forthcoming from The New Press, it is an eloquent argument against the inequity of the death penalty's administration and makes a compelling case against its violent irreversibility, its unredeemable finality as pursued by prosecutors, judges and juries who are, after all, far from all-knowing or divine.
One of the saddest parts of the McVeigh saga was listening to the endlessly amplified testimonials of those survivors and family members whose sentiments were premised on vengeance being "mine" rather than the Lord's. One woman wished the electric chair had been used, because it would have been more painful. Another said, "I think bombs should be strapped on him, and then he can walk around the room forever until they went off and he wouldn't know when it would happen."
Such traumatized expectations led to predictable disappointment. "I really wanted him to say something," said one witness. "I wanted him to see me," said another. "I thought I would feel something more satisfying, but I don't," said a victim's son. "For him just to have gone asleep seems unfair." This sort of desire for "more" leaves us poised on the edge of an appetite for re-enacted violence and voyeurism. Given the horrific losses McVeigh's crime incurred, this primal hunger can be almost seductive--a howl of mourning very hard to resist, never mind debate. But it is dangerous if it allows us to lose sight of the fact that the debate we must have is, again, about the limits of state force, not about devising the perfect mirror of each victim's suffering.
But the bottomlessness of that individual trauma is not something we can afford to ignore either. For a wise and extremely moving reflection on this dimension, I recommend Susan Brison's Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, forthcoming from Princeton. Brison, a Dartmouth College philosophy professor who was raped, strangled and left for dead, analyzes the post-traumatic stress syndrome that still colors her life and reflects on the resilience needed to carry on. "Trauma," she writes, "destroys the illusion of control over one's life. It fractures the chronology of a life's narrative--not in the way a stopped watch makes time look like it's standing still, but like the thirteenth chime of a crazy clock that throws everything that came before into question."
"9:03" reads an inscription on the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Would that we could undo that awful moment in Oklahoma City by sacrificing McVeigh's one life for all the others, but the difficult paradox of healing is having to live on and through that wilderness of grief with no illusion of control.
If Georgia's Miller did decide
He's really on the other side,
The Democrats might then connive
To make Strom prove he's still alive.
Despite early stumbles, George W. Bush has the potential to be an
effective foreign policy president. But his willingness to back off from
the "Star Wars" missile defense, which has been soundly rebuked by our
allies, will be the test of his ability to lead.
Although poorly prepared for his world leadership role by a woeful
absence of foreign policy experience or even the benefit of tourist
travel, Bush is an affable and curious fellow who's capable of cramming
on the essentials. On last week's trip abroad, he proved open to
acknowledging that even the world's greatest power must go along to get
along when it comes to dealing with other powerful nations, a number of
which also possess weapons of mass destruction.
That much is clear from Bush's meeting with Russian leader Vladimir V.
Putin, after which Bush pronounced the former KGB leader as "a man deeply
committed to his country and the best interests of his country."
It was a bold and honest recognition of the humanity and skill of an
adversary, akin to Ronald Reagan's appraisal of then-Soviet leader
Mikhail S. Gorbachev after their first meeting at Reykjavik. Recall that
moment when Reagan came out into the hall to report to his shocked,
hawkish aides that he and Gorby had just agreed to eliminate all nuclear
Unfortunately, aides to both men cooled their leaders' enthusiasm for
that sensible project, but their wisdom launched the dismantling of the
cold war and at least led to the last serious spate of nuclear arms
Today, with the continued existence of massive nuclear weapons
arsenals and the deterioration of control over the spread of weapons
technology and material, the world is in many ways an even more dangerous
Despite the end of the cold war, the US and Russia still stand
poised to destroy all life on Earth. Russian control of its nuclear
weapons industry is fitful at best; the risk of accidental launch is
real, and the recruitment of unpaid former Soviet weapons scientists and
the selling of nuclear weapons-grade material to even less stable regimes
is alarming. So-called rogue nations such as North Korea and Iraq are
said to be developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass
destruction, and the historic tension between India and Pakistan has
spurred a nuclear arms race that threatens the survival of humans as a
As a result, it's possible to be pessimistic about controlling and
then eliminating nuclear weapons--the aim of arms control--and in
desperation consider a go-it-alone effort at building a "shield" against
That such a shield will never work, however, has been well known since
the failure of the nuclear pumped X-ray laser developed at the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory in the 1980s, which promised what lab
scientists referred to as Buck Rogers space fighting machines. Before the
bad news came in that the X-ray laser was a bust, nuclear physicist
Edward Teller had managed to convince President Reagan that a magical
security solution was at hand. But the X-ray laser project has been
abandoned, and antimissile defense is back to relying on hitting a bullet
with a bullet, a game in which the offense, with its maneuverability and
decoys, will always prove the winner.
Another problem with missile defense, even if it could be made to
work, is that one side's defense appears as offense to others. That's why
Richard Nixon, one of the most skilled of modern US foreign policy
leaders, warned that the danger of building a shield is that others will
view it as not just protecting the US but as a means of thwarting
another's retaliation to a US first strike. Thus the end of the concept
of "mutually assured destruction," which has kept the superpowers in line
for four decades.
For example, China, which has abided by the terms of the test ban
treaty and which has been content with a puny intercontinental ballistic
missile force of primitive liquid-fueled rockets, is now threatening to
expand its program in the face of Bush's commitment to an antimissile
program. The nuclear forces of the US and Russia, with their nuclear
warheads based on a triad of land, sea and air forces, would survive such
a first strike. Not so with a country like China, which would be faced
with the ghastly prospect of using or losing its nuclear missiles in the
face of an attack, real or imagined.
This is not an argument lost on hawks in China, who, in the face of
Bush's missile-defense talk, are pressuring for a rapid modernization of
the Chinese nuclear force to make it less vulnerable to US attack.
Bush has dismissed arms control as a "relic" of the cold war, but
abandoning the antiballistic missile and other treaties is the easiest
way to provoke a new cold war with many players, led by China. Missiles
are the true relics of the cold war; they have no operative military role
in the absence of a face-off of the superpowers.
The focus on missile defense represents a denial that the real threat
to the security of the American people comes from terrorists and has
nothing to do with developing an antimissile system. Even if an effective
system could be built to intercept nuclear-armed missiles--and there's no
evidence, after twenty years and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of
dollars, that it's possible--it would not make us safer from the attacks
of terrorists, be they state-sponsored or freelancers.
And for terrorists, the ICBM would hardly be their weapon of choice.
Any nation responsible for firing a nuclear-armed missile at the US
would be obliterated quickly as a matter of established US policy.
That's why terrorists would seek to conceal the base of their operation
and the sponsoring country and instead rely on far more primitive weapons
and delivery systems.
The likely terrorist strategy would be to smuggle into half a dozen
US cities primitive nuclear bombs, which are simpler, easier to produce
and more reliable.
Or, why go nuclear at all when biological and chemical warfare can
more reliably terrorize a civilian population? As the Oklahoma City
bombing demonstrated, even a fertilizer bomb constructed by a couple of
scientific illiterates and transported in a rented truck can create
The emphasis on the ICBM threat is a knee-jerk response that equates a
Soviet-style threat to that of weaker nations and the terrorists they
might support. The Bush Administration has frequently cited the
Commission to Assess US National Security Space Management and
Organization--the so-called Rumsfeld Commission--to support the view that
North Korea, Iran and Iraq could conceivably field a few unreliable and
inaccurate ICBMs, and thus the need for a missile shield. Yet according
to Richard L. Garwin, the commission, on which he served, stressed that
those same countries "already possessed short-range cruise or ballistic
missiles that, if launched from ships against coastal cities, would pose
an earlier, more accurate and cheaper threat to the US population." He
went on to say that a nuclear or biological weapon "could be delivered by
a ship that need go no closer than the harbor to devastate a port
city--without any missile at all."
That is well understood by Donald Rumsfeld, who was the commission's
chair and is now secretary of Defense. But inexplicably he has supported
the deployment of an antimissile program, even if we have no reason to
expect it to work. Clearly, missile defense is valued as an illusion of
safety rather than as an example of the real thing.
Dealing with the threat of terrorism is a complex matter involving
first-rate intelligence utilizing the most sophisticated surveillance
technology as well as old-fashioned on-the-ground spying. It requires
extensive international cooperation to control the materials needed by
such groups to create weapons of mass destruction. It would be far better
to spend the hundreds of billions that will be eaten up by an antimissile
program on those efforts, and yet the inescapable conclusion is that
politicians don't support this approach because such measures are a
less-exciting sell to the public.
It is time to cut our losses on this program.
As our most trusted allies have pointed out to Bush, antimissile
defense is an expensive and dangerous distraction from the work at hand:
how to stop the spread of horridly destructive weapons in the hands of
terrorists that are not made the less dangerous because they are
low-tech, cheap and easily deployed.
Bush seems at times to be a realist, and the notion of quietly phasing
out the antimissile program while at the same time strengthening,
expanding and ratifying the existing arms control treaties, should be a
If Bush reverses himself and takes on the feathers of the dove, he
will be in a fine tradition of Republican presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon,
Ford, Reagan and his own father.
Republicans, less vulnerable than Democrats to attacks from the
weapons hawks, make good peacemakers when they come to their senses.
The good news is that Bush has finally been to Europe. One can only
hope that while there he learned something from other world leaders about
the importance of arms control and the folly of his antimissile defense
On May 8 twenty-three jubilant, grubby Harvard students left the offices of university president Neil Rudenstine after a twenty-one-day sit-in, the longest in Harvard's history. The students had demanded that the university pay its workers what the City of Cambridge had determined was a living wage--now the minimum for all municipal employees--$10.25 an hour. A university committee had ruled against a similar proposal a year earlier, but this time, after the sit-in drew three weeks of coverage critical of the university in the local and national media, the administrators gave ground, agreeing to reopen serious discussion.
Several commentators pointed out the incongruity of privileged Ivy Leaguers taking up such a blue-collar cause, but what the coverage often missed was that the Harvard sit-in was part of a growing movement on US campuses emerging from a burgeoning alliance between student activists and organized labor.
A significant factor in the Harvard students' victory was the support of local and national unions. The carpenters' local and the Boston office of the progressive, union-backed group Jobs With Justice organized a community march in support of the students. The dining-hall workers' union, itself in the middle of contract negotiations, listed amnesty for the student protesters among its demands and twice held rallies outside the president's office. In the last week of the sit-in, AFL-CIO leaders, including president John Sweeney, staged a 1,500-person rally at Harvard, and AFL-CIO lawyers helped shape the students' final agreement with the administration.
Across the country, according to Jobs With Justice, living-wage campaigns are now active on at least twenty-one college campuses, and those at Wesleyan and the University of Wisconsin/Madison have already claimed victories. Meanwhile, students elsewhere are working on related campus labor issues, like outsourcing, benefits and organizing nonunion workers--not to mention the catalyzing cause of sweatshops.
The AFL-CIO's student outreach program, Union Summer, has played a key role in turning simmering concerns on campus about sweatshops, globalization, the decline in real wages and the growing gap between rich and poor into effective campaigns. Union Summer, which was part of Sweeney's platform when he was campaigning for the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, gives 200 interns--mostly, but not exclusively, college students--a small stipend and a few days' training in labor history and organizing, and then sends them out for monthlong stints with labor campaigns around the country.
After a month talking with people who work twelve-hour swing shifts and support a family on $6.50 an hour, the students often feel that returning to sheltered college life is no longer an option. "It was a transformative experience for me," says Dan Hennefeld, a Harvard graduate who's now employed by the garment and textile workers union, UNITE, and who attended the first Union Summer in 1996, after his freshman year. "It made me want to be in the labor movement," he says. When Hennefeld got back to Harvard that fall, he helped start a group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement, which became the driving force behind the recent sit-in (three of the organizers were also Union Summer grads).
The nearly 2,000 graduates of Union Summer have played a major role in spreading awareness of labor issues on campus. In addition to those at Harvard, student labor leaders at Duke, Brown, Georgetown and the universities of Tennessee, Connecticut and Wisconsin are all Summer alums. To make room for an increasing number of applicants, the AFL-CIO is offering three specialized, ten-week internships this summer: Seminary Summer for future religious leaders (mostly seminarians, novices and rabbinical students), Law Student Union Summer and International Union Summer, now in its second year, which places a few college students in organizing campaigns in such countries as Egypt, Mexico and Sri Lanka.
During their brief stints the interns are schooled in organizing techniques and tactics. "I'm blown away by how smart and focused the student leaders today are," says Paul Booth, currently assistant to the president of AFSCME and one of the writers of the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society. And, he adds, they've taken to heart an essential principle of today's campus activism: organizing campaigns around the school itself. Students understand, Booth says, that "they ought to be getting the institutions they relate to to do things that are meaningful."
Says Harvard's Hennefeld, "We realized early on that we wanted to focus on Harvard and the way it fits into labor issues. That potentially made the most sense to students, and it seemed the most effective use of whatever power we had." As on many campuses, this school-focused work quickly centered around their colleges' connection to overseas sweatshops, where underpaid workers turn out the sweatshirts the students wear to advertise their privileged status. These targeted antisweatshop campaigns have so far convinced seventy-eight colleges to join the Workers' Rights Consortium, the strictest of the independent groups that monitor conditions under which university garments are made.
For many antisweat student activists, the transition to campus labor issues seemed only natural. "While we were doing our antisweat work, we talked to a lot of people who said, You've got to look at what's going on here. It would be hypocritical not to," says Becky Maran, one of the leaders of UConn's successful wage campaign. "With the energy and momentum from winning [the antisweatshop] campaign, we felt we had the strength to move on."
Students' domestic labor campaigns have taken a variety of forms. At the universities of Pittsburgh and Utah, student labor groups have latched on to pre-existing citywide living-wage campaigns. At Harvard and Johns Hopkins, located in cities that had already adopted a living wage, student campaigns have focused on pressuring their administrations to adopt the city's wage floor. And at the University of Tennessee, where "right to work" laws make a living wage at best a distant goal, labor campaigns have used the mere idea of a living wage to encourage workers to organize. Recent UT graduate Anna Avato, now an AFL-CIO organizer, says that after a media campaign was launched, "Workers were calling us and saying they wanted a meeting. By the end of the week, we had 150 workers at our first action." Within a year, the UT campus workers had formed an independent union, put an end to forced overtime and, in May, fended off a subcontracting threat.
On many campuses, activism that started as a living-wage struggle has spiraled off in other directions. Harvard students, with their newly strengthened ties to campus labor, are helping out with upcoming contract negotiations and continuing to organize among those janitors and dining hall workers still without a union. At Wesleyan, where a union wage fight for campus janitors was won a year ago, students have spent the past year working with the bus drivers of Middletown public schools to pass a Middletown living-wage ordinance. At Johns Hopkins, where a seventeen-day sit-in in March 2000 convinced the administration to pay its workers a living wage a year earlier than planned, students have been working on a half-dozen campaigns, allying themselves with locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), UNITE, the service employees' union (SEIU) and ACORN, a grassroots organizing group. At UT, with the independent campus workers' union up and running, students have taken a back seat to the workers themselves, helping to recruit new members and keeping up the pressure on the administration.
No matter what economic justice issue these campus efforts focus on, the thread that ties them together is their collaboration with labor. Encouraged by the students' successful campaigns, their enthusiasm and their ability to attract media attention, local and national unions are showing increased interest in working with student groups. UNITE pledged $25,000 to United Students Against Sweatshops to get it started in 1997 and continues to collaborate with USAS on ways to expand antisweat work. Jobs With Justice has joined the progressive United States Students' Association to form the Student Labor Action Project, which advises campus labor campaigns across the country and puts them in touch with local unions. And SEIU is planning an effort to bring young organizers, SEIU staff and student leaders together for discussions about how to reach out to more students.
Campus leaders, for their part, are eager to learn from the organizing experience of their union partners, as well as to get involved in real-world struggles for economic fairness. While such collaborations can be tricky--neither the student movement nor organized labor wants to give up its independence--both students and labor recognize the potential benefits. Dan DiMaggio, a Harvard freshman who participated in the sit-in, says that it "definitely galvanized workers. We went to a union negotiation the other night, and they gave us a standing ovation as they were about to receive their final offer." He adds, "The unions are very receptive to this idea of working together, and if the unions work together, that's pretty serious. If the unions and the students work together, that's pretty serious too."
Despite local outrage, Feds approve an expansion of toxic waste storage.
The right-wing crusade to roll back gay civil rights is gathering momentum.
Civil wars do not start overnight. You do not simply wake up one morning in what has been a peaceful country only to discover organized armed forces trying to destroy each other. One of the great insights of genuine conservatism (not the vulgar market fundamentalism that tries to pass for sound political philosophy today) is that human beings have a strong yearning for order and stability, and will put up with unfairness, even gross injustices, rather than risk violent chaos. Even when civil wars seem to emerge suddenly into the world news--as in, say, Sierra Leone in the nineties or Sri Lanka the previous decade--closer inspection invariably reveals many years of groundwork, of deteriorating economies, weakening governments, ethnic or social discrimination, of a cycle of earlier riots, vicious repression, attempted or successful coups, revenge.
Civil wars are rare as well. What is surprising about the world today is not how many there are but how few. In the early 1990s, people on both the left and the right warned that some combination of globalization and its disruptive changes, worsening unemployment and inequality, the rise of ethnicity and the end of the cold war international system meant that killing of the sort taking place in the Balkans, say, or Somalia, was likely to spread widely. Yet there is no pandemic. There are a half-dozen or so conflicts in Africa (a continent of fifty-odd nations), and a few more in south and central Asia. And Latin America, which was ripped during the 1980s by violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and by an earlier dirty war in Argentina, is basically peaceful. Except for Colombia.
We are lucky to have an on-the-spot look at the war there from one of the best and most experienced Latin American correspondents around, Alma Guillermoprieto, as part of her important and topical new book, Looking for History. She includes a brief but touching description of a "lively and doll-eyed" young guerrilla named Claudia, whom Guillermoprieto met in San Vicente del Caguán, the small town on the edge of the rainforest in southern Colombia that is the main base for the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC, in existence since 1964, is the largest left-wing insurgency in recent Latin American history and is the main target of $1.3 billion in American aid to the government, most of it military.
Guillermoprieto notices that Claudia "had taken to bumping up against me and squeezing me...with a persistence I was beginning to find alarming until I thought to ask how old she was. 'Seventeen,' she answered. And how long had it been since she'd seen her mother? 'Four...no, five years,' she said."
Claudia is one of the 2 million Colombians already displaced by the growing civil war. Something has gone dramatically wrong in a country when a 12-year-old has to leave her mother and join a guerrilla army. Soon fifty American-made helicopters will join the Colombian military that is already trying to kill her.
Guillermoprieto is an indispensable corrective to the cool and fragmented mainstream reporting from Colombia, which, following the conventions of the genre, does indeed set down some of the facts. We do learn, approximately, of the rising number of political deaths (some 6,000 last year), the deepening economic crisis (20 percent unemployment) and the surface area of coca plants supposedly eradicated.
But we miss many of the human truths. Colombia is not a chess game in which various armed forces move around a map, advancing and retreating. Nor is it an intellectual debate, in which bureaucrats from the US government and Washington Post editorial writers (the Post favors American intervention) cleverly score points. It is a terrible civil war, one that is getting worse. It did not start quickly, and it will not end quickly, and before it does, many 17-year-old girls will die.
Guillermoprieto started off her American journalistic career at the Post, where she (along with Raymond Bonner of the New York Times) courageously reported on the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, in which the American-backed army slaughtered nearly 1,000 people. The Reagan Administration denied the killings for years. Then she went off to write one of the great books about how poor people in the Third World live. Samba (1990) is her dazzling account of a year spent with Mangueira, one of the samba "schools" in a slum of Rio de Janeiro, preparing for the fierce music and dance competition that takes place at Carnaval. You learn about more than just the contest, interesting as that is; you get to know fascinating people and are introduced to an entire way of life.
Since then, Guillermoprieto, thoroughly bilingual and bicultural, has reported from all over Latin America for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Looking for History is the second collection of her articles, following The Heart That Bleeds (1994). This time around, she deals almost exclusively with Colombia, Cuba and Mexico.
Her firsthand reporting on Colombia could not be more timely. One of Bill Clinton's most evil legacies is Plan Colombia, the military assistance program that will fail in its purported aim--to reduce the drug problem in North America--but that is already adding to the violence farther south [see Marc Cooper, "Plan Colombia," March 19].
Arguably her most valuable work is based on her visits to territory held by the left-wing FARC. Back in 1986, she met the reclusive FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, whose nickname is Tirofijo, or "Sureshot," in a remote spot in the Andean foothills, and last year she visited the group's present main base in San Vicente.
She is unsentimental about the FARC, pointing out that it raises funds by kidnapping civilians, a clear violation of international humanitarian law. The guerrillas also freely admitted to her that they are connected to drug production but insisted that they do not grow or traffic coca themselves, only "tax" the people who do in the areas they control.
Colombian small farmers plant coca to survive economically, not because they want to poison Americans, Guillermoprieto asserts. "Colombia had found what most developing countries lack," she writes, "a cheap crop that can produce levels of employment, return on investment, and national growth that only industrial goods normally provide." World prices for other primary commodities--like coffee, Colombia's other major export--continue to stagnate, a grim fact of life in the Third World that the cheerleaders for globalization usually ignore. She also emphasizes that drug production is by no means limited to areas controlled by the FARC or the ELN (National Liberation Army), a different (and sometimes rival) left-wing group. The right-wing paramilitares--who have been growing in recent years and who, according to Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups, are responsible for three-quarters of all human rights violations in Colombia--are much more deeply implicated in the drug trade, getting significant financial support from the smaller and more numerous trafficking networks that replaced the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels of the 1980s. Yet Plan Colombia's coca defoliation efforts so far have concentrated on the FARC areas in the south, not in rightist-controlled territory elsewhere.
Probably Guillermoprieto's most important point is one invariably left out of the pro-Plan Colombia editorials and State Department briefings: that the FARC did try to advance its cause peacefully, back in the 1980s, forming a legal party called the Unión Patriótica. The group ran candidates in mayoral elections in 1988, winning in eighteen locales. "Thirteen of these mayors were subsequently assassinated, often after having been forced to resign," she reports. "No one has ever been charged with these murders, but it is widely assumed that members of the military, which has historically operated more or less independently of the chief executive, and sometimes at loggerheads with it, played a role."
She continues with an understated but quite astonishing summary: "By 1992, 3,500 UP militants and leaders of the legal party, including two presidential candidates, had been assassinated (although only a handful of those murders have ever been brought to trial). The guerrillas had lost nearly all of their urban, better-educated, politically minded leaders." Even so, as she reports, the FARC has not turned into a fanatical messianic movement like the Khmer Rouge, nor is it enslaved in a cult of personality, like Peru's Shining Path, now thankfully in decline after years of spreading terror in the Andean highlands.
Colombia's president, Andrés Pastrana, apparently recognizes that the guerrillas have deep roots in parts of rural Colombia, and he has been making what Guillermoprieto (and other observers as well) regard as genuine efforts to negotiate. But Colombia's central government is weak, and the right-wing paramilitares, with the collusion of key elements of the army and police, are undercutting his efforts by invading and terrorizing areas in which the left has support, and by murdering more labor leaders and human rights activists. The government did in fact recently stage a raid on a northern paramilitary stronghold, Montería, seeking information on the largest right-wing paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Forces, but the move will do little to slow the rapid growth of the armed right. (Up-to-date information is available at www.colombiareport.org.)
Guillermoprieto is hopeful that Colombia's worsening polarization might be slowed by a massive grassroots movement for negotiations. In October 1999, a nationwide march for peace attracted 5 million people--a significant showing in any country, but in a country of 40 million, astounding.
Plan Colombia will add to the killing, however. Last August, President Clinton waived human rights requirements in American law so he could disburse the aid--because he knew the Colombian military could not otherwise qualify. The psychological impact will be even greater than the money, significant as that is to a Third World army. Colombia's generals and colonels understand exactly what they are being tacitly told: Crush the left-wing guerrillas by any means, pretend to move against the right-wing paramilitares, and America will look the other way.
Colombia could be on the road to an even more bloody reprise of El Salvador. There, several billion dollars in US aid promoted a twelve-year war in which 75,000 people died, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, other Salvadoran priests and American nuns murdered by right-wing death squads. Yet the Salvadoran government could not defeat the guerrillas and had to reach a negotiated settlement in 1992. Without American dollars, the war would have ended much sooner.
Guillermoprieto's reporting on Cuba is also gloomy, but for very different reasons. The island's impressive and undeniable advances in social welfare are stained by the fact that its leader is a tiresome and sometimes vicious megalomaniac. She reminds us of the disgusting Ochoa trial of 1989, a tropical repeat performance of Stalin's 1930s Moscow show trials. (Fidel Castro almost certainly ordered a general and national hero named Arnaldo Ochoa framed and then executed for drug trafficking, possibly in part because Castro feared Ochoa's popularity--and he televised the trial.) After the brave human rights activist Elisardo Sánchez gave an American reporter details about the show trial's aftermath, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, where he joined hundreds of other political prisoners; Guillermoprieto suggests that Castro cynically uses them to bargain with the outside world.
Cuba has survived economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union partly from increased tourism, which has now far surpassed sugar as a foreign exchange earner. But not just run-of-the-mill tourism. Guillermoprieto explains, without sensationalizing, that "the island has become an established part of the world sex tour circuit." The revolutionary government has become a de facto pimp, because "how [else] could Havana hope to compete with the likes of Martinique, Santo Domingo, Curaçao, or Cancún? Not on the basis of its shabby hotels, limited food supply, or terrible flight connections, certainly."
The tone of Guillermoprieto's reporting suggests she is personally disappointed. She respects Cubans who are still loyal to the revolution, and she is careful to make a distinction between their genuine idealism and power-madness at the top. But she notes that consumerism is growing, encouraged by tourists and visiting exiles bearing gifts. Consumptionism is a real force all over the world, one the left has historically gravely underestimated (and often too harshly dismissed). But it may have special potential here, as a safe outlet for human expression in a country whose one-party state stifles independent grassroots organization and cultural freedom.
Guillermoprieto then turns to Mexico, and finishes her remarkable book with optimism. She portrays a defining epoch in Mexican history, which opened with the Zapatista uprising on New Year's Day 1994 and reached one culmination in the July 2000 election of the first opposition president in the country's modern history, Vicente Fox.
Once again, Guillermoprieto has done her legwork, visiting the Zapatista home area in the southern state of Chiapas and interviewing Subcomandante Marcos sitting in a car in the middle of the night. She provides a much needed revisionist view of the Zapatistas, recognizing their importance without romanticizing them. She starts off with some genuine globalist analysis, not the unreflective cheerleading in the mainstream press, by pointing out that the collapse of the world coffee price in 1989 increased human misery among the small growers in Chiapas, aiding the insurrection (the same kind of economic pressure that induces some rural Colombians to turn to coca).
But she points out that the first reports that the Zapatistas constituted a huge avenging army of the poor were greatly exaggerated; "it turned out that they had no military strength and were in reality an armed pressure group." The Zapatistas survived because the Mexican public was tiring of the ruling party, the PRI (the oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party), and would not have tolerated a military crackdown.
In early 1993, The Economist said that the PRI president, Carlos Salinas, "has a claim to be hailed as one of the great men of the 20th century," an honor the magazine conferred for his supposed courage in trying to impose market fundamentalism on Mexico. This judgment, typical of the mainstream world press at the time, was already more than a little starry-eyed; Salinas had almost certainly stolen the 1988 election. In time, though, this hero had to flee Mexico. Guillermoprieto reports that he had become "the person most deeply hated by most Mexicans," because of his links to corruption, drug trafficking and possibly murder, and because of his responsibility for the catastrophic collapse of the Mexican economy following the devaluation of the peso at the end of 1994 (which required a US bailout of nearly $50 billion).
Guillermoprieto does describe this economic debacle, but she might have devoted even more attention to it. "Transparency" is one of the buzzwords of market fundamentalism, the idea that governments and businesses should provide a free flow of information so people can make informed decisions. What actually happened was that the Mexican government, Wall Street and the US Treasury Department essentially cheated the Mexican people out of a free election in August 1994 by holding back key information about the deteriorating economy until after the ruling party's candidate had won. Then, too late, Mexico devalued, causing $5 billion in investment to leave within days, triggering a serious depression and making necessary a bailout of the (just privatized) banking system that is costing the Mexican people proportionally much more than the S&L rescue did here.
Mexico's story does have a happier tenor, at least for now. Vicente Fox, a maverick from the right who is nonetheless not afraid to listen to his high-ranking leftist advisers, seems set to consolidate democracy. The old ruling party is still reeling, having just lost a gubernatorial election in Yucatán, one of its former strongholds. Guillermoprieto credits the left's standard-bearer, the honest and courageous Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, with making change possible by breaking with the ruling party and then continuing the fight for democracy even after being robbed of the presidency in the 1988 election. Millions of Cuauhtémoc's supporters, seeing he would fall short this time around, cast strategic votes for Fox.
During one of Guillermoprieto's visits to the Zapatista base area in southern Mexico, some of the campesinos, or rural poor people, reversed roles and asked her: "Were there many campesinos in this city I wrote for, New York? I informed them that in truth, there were very few left. That was too bad, one of them said--they had wanted to send their regards. 'But in any case,' [one] added, 'please convey our very best greetings to the people you know in that place.'"
Fortunately, the lives of Guillermoprieto's campesino friends in Mexico are improving, however slowly, without real civil war; genuine land reform is even coming to Chiapas. The friends Guillermoprieto has in Colombia are not as lucky.
"I want to know everything, everything...and I'm going to. I want to visit the theatre and the opera and the art galleries. I want to meet people. I want to learn...." The words are expressed by the youthful hero of Carl Van Vechten's 1924 novel The Tattooed Countess (reissued by the University of Iowa), but they reflect precisely the feelings of the author, who had become by that time an ebullient connoisseur of culture. His three consecutive careers--as a critic, novelist and photographer--left an exceptional imprint of and on American life and the celebrity icons who dominated it.
Van Vechten, who died in 1964 at the age of 84, also conducted another, unofficial career. He understood that letters bonded souls. An intimate form of communication, they permitted a relaxed freedom of phrase and individuality of style. The quality of paper, its cut and color, the pen and ink or the size of type, plus cross-outs, errors and quirky doodles, all represented Personality, which is the starting point for everything. Surely, he would protest today, there is nothing more clinical and intrusive than a perfect computerized missive that seems to smack of chain-mail from an Orwellian corporate sphere. The "imperfect" letter, he would argue, with its personal touch, capturing varying moods and spontaneous thoughts, is a social organism.
Starting as a journalistic gadabout before World War I, he reveled in the art of writing letters to just about anyone he knew, and this spirited original who cautioned others against mediocrity knew everyone (more or less) during the course of his life. His letters to Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Ronald Firbank, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Virgil Thomson, to take a quick peek, number in the thousands. There were twice-a-day communiqués to his wife of fifty years, Fania Marinoff, when they were apart--an apartness that seems to have held them together--and 10,000 letters over three decades to a beau who later became a boon companion. A consummate sophisticate, Fania, an actress with the Theatre Guild, once advised an opera diva with an ambivalent spouse, "You don't divorce your husband just because he's sleeping with another woman--or man, that's not civilized." Meantime, he wrote seven novels, nine volumes of musical and literary criticism, two books about cats and hundreds of articles and reviews.
The Letters of Carl Van Vechten, selected by his astute executor and biographer, Bruce Kellner, were published some years ago by Yale University Press. Depending on the recipient, they present an epigrammatic attitude, a disdain for philistines (who are always with us), and they form a social mirror of American cultural life, with its heavenly oddities and devilish defects. Significantly, this batch of letters piercingly reveals a cultivated tolerance for others, particularly in relations between whites and blacks. "Race prejudice," Van Vechten asserted, "is an acquired taste, like olives. It's something you have to learn."
At the time of his death, in a full-page tribute, Newsweek wrote, "More than anyone else, he promoted black culture, bringing unknown writers, artists and musicians to the attention of a wide audience." He publicized the black singer and critic Nora Holt, who became the first black American to earn a Master of Music degree; he became personal friends with the singer Ethel Waters, who said, "He was the only person in the world who ever has understood the shyness deep in me." He encouraged the artist Beauford Delaney, who eventually settled in Paris. And he discovered the gifted poet-novelist Langston Hughes when they met in 1924.
A mentor and lifelong friend to Hughes, for the next forty years Van Vechten exchanged nearly 1,500 letters with him. He had a special capability for friendship. A chunk of these letters have been insightfully edited, selected and annotated by Emily Bernard, who teaches African-American studies at Smith College. The book, Remember Me to Harlem, is a wondrous trip through American history, both socially and artistically. She gives us, with the letters, the hilarity and crises and emotional hurts that one or the other endured with a civilized smile, and offers us dramatic topical situations that open your imagination. Two fading men are recalled to life, with an extravagant cast that includes Mabel Dodge Luhan, Blanche Knopf, Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith and Chester Himes, with cameos by Tallulah Bankhead, Vachel Lindsay and George Jean Nathan, among others.
Van Vechten hailed from a privileged background; Hughes was striving to pull himself up out of poverty. During the hectic and zesty 1920s, poor Americans appreciated education and achievement. Even in the bread lines of the Depression, we feel, people longed to be smarter, not dumber. Hughes, like the hero of The Tattooed Countess and its author, wanted to know everything, everything. He wanted to learn, he wanted to meet people. When the two were introduced, Van Vechten, at 44, was a famous, occasionally flamboyant cultural visionary. As a music critic, he'd acclaimed Stravinsky and Satie, and drawn attention to the operas of Richard Strauss. Later he championed ragtime and jazz, and cheered George Gershwin, who played the piano at his parties. He jolted Americans into an awareness of Gertrude Stein and became her unofficial literary agent here. Then in 1922 he began his series of novels, mostly meringue comedies of American manners. Edmund Wilson, in his book The Twenties, mutters with astonishment at "The Vogue of Van Vechten."
Langston Hughes, at 22, was a sensitive, intelligent youth with an independence of mind. He moved easily in any society. He'd acquired an armor of worldliness from odd-job sea ventures that took him to Africa and Holland. From there, it was on to Paris, almost penniless, where he was a dishwasher in a boîte where Bricktop would sing, and onward to the beaches of Italy. He had been writing poetry since the age of 13 but yearned for expanding experiences. When the two were introduced at a benefit party in Harlem, Hughes had just returned from ten months abroad. The literati of what would be called the Harlem Renaissance had already heard about his poetry. During the movement's first stirring, Bernard reports, Hughes was considered one of its most promising talents. Soon he and Van Vechten would start the chronicle of letters and an eternal friendship.
Bernard further reminds us that as the Harlem Renaissance (or evolution in black American art) took shape, Van Vechten's role was regarded with suspicion by some black intellectuals. They didn't know that his father helped establish a school for black children or that as a student at the University of Chicago, Van Vechten visited black churches and nightspots. His interest in black culture became intense, she adds, as the renaissance was born. His biographer Kellner, author of the scholarly Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, says he was impressed by black singers and dancers as well as black humor. Curious, passionate, obsessive, he seldom let go of anything once the addiction began. His book on cats, The Tiger in the House (Dorset), is a 300-page history on the manners and habits of the feline personality.
A year before his death, he told The New Yorker that he was "mad" for Simone Signoret. He had photographed her and hung a drawing of the actress in his foyer with a poster from a Signoret film. Back in the 1920s, his keen interest in LangstonHughes aroused obvious, possibly jealous, questions. Van Vechten never bothered to keep secret his sexual peccadilloes. Hughes was, as people are wont to say, a "very private person." It's not unlikely that the two may have rumbled into a Harlem club that would unbalance your Aunt Edna. But as Blake remonstrates, "Excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
Bernard confesses that while working on the letters she was constantly asked whether "Carlo" (his signature to all) and Hughes were lovers. She argues that they were not, and Kellner agrees. It's an ungenerous question, of course. Slyly, then, and deliberately, Bernard asks, "What was the secret that kept their friendship alive?" She replies simply: "Langston loved him." This hits upon an ordinary truth that may peeve the salacious-minded.Hughes, who died three years after Carlo, must have wept with joy upon reading in Newsweek that Van Vechten was "an adventurer in the realms of gold when others cultivated cabbage." For some of that gold symbolized Langston Hughes.
Hughes entered Van Vechten's life after the publication of his first novels, like Peter Whiffle, a whimsical biography of imaginary persons. Within a short time, Van Vechten was sending Hughes his novels and Hughes was sending Van Vechten poetry. Admiring some of Carlo's characters, Hughes wrote: "In a really perfect world, though, people who are beautiful or amusing would be kept alive solely because they are beautiful or amusing, don't you think?" A Van Vechten dinner party, Hughes realized, was similar to a fictional affair by Van Vechten. Among the beautiful or amusing he'd sup with might be Gershwin, Dalí, Bankhead, Ethel Waters or Man Ray. These salons were among the first in New York to integrate blacks and whites. "Carl's parties were so Negro," Hughes later recounted, "they were reported as a matter of course in the society columns. He never talks grandiloquently about democracy or Americanism. Nor makes a fetish of those qualities. But he lives them with sincerity--and humor." Van Vechten's last and best work, Parties (Sun & Moon Press), is arguably the wittiest and darkest swan song to the twenties.
Van Vechten believed that the secret of life was to know what you want, always, and to go after it while it was there. His fondness for Hughes deepened when he learned that the young poet shared this belief and was tirelessly, while working in Washington, DC, finding "sweet relief," as Hughes put it, turning out dozens of poems, happy and sad, relating to the racial rhythms he felt and heard.
Bernard cites no less a cultural figure than W.E.B. Du Bois for being convinced that art "should be approached with gravity, even reverence." Hughes had other ideas, though. He was bored, she asserts, by the smug black middle class but totally inspired by the blare of jazz bands and the rich contralto of Bessie Smith singing the blues. How would he express this distinctive vision? With a personal style. "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame," proclaimed Hughes.
Excited by a collection of poems that Hughes titled The Weary Blues, Van Vechten wrote him in the spring of 1925: "Your work has a subtle sensitiveness...the poems are very beautiful.... Knopf is lunching with me today and I shall ask him to publish them." The book came out in January 1926, with Vanity Fair printing some of the poems; publication was accompanied by a reading by Hughes in Baltimore and, of course, the inevitable party in New York hosted by Carlo. Langston Hughes was launched. But for most of his life he was pursued by financial anxiety. "Being broke is a bore," he wrote Van Vechten. Sometimes he'd ask for a loan of $100. Months later Van Vechten would graciously acknowledge the repayment. Although Van Vechten was independently wealthy and, miraculously, untouched by the stock market crash, he apparently never, spur of the moment, dashed off a check to Hughes--even when he knew Hughes was working as a busboy at a hotel in Washington. The letters show mutual trust and respect, but never a hint of nostalgia over any past discreet liaison between the two.
Van Vechten felt that blacks should climb to fame "with material which is the heritage of their race," and some members of the Harlem Renaissance accused him of wanting to glamorize the culture. Never mind that Hughes also believed in revisiting familiar images. A music buff, Van Vechten predicted that the blues, someday, would be as respectable as religious songs. "I know very little to tell you about the blues," Hughes explained. "They always impressed me as being very sad, sadder even than the spirituals because their sadness is not softened with tears but hardened with laughter, the absurd." Hughes added that he first heard them sung as a child by a blind orchestra that wandered about the slums, singing for nickels or pennies or a fish sandwich. Anyway, there was no music in the world sadder for him than the blues. "But I was a kid then," he concluded.
Within time, Hughes, in a larky mood, was corresponding from California. "I find it amusing and not unprofitable working for Hollywood," he admitted. He was assigned a costume (pre-Civil War) script for the child singing star Bobby Breen. It involved an orphaned lad on a plantation and his faithful slaves. Sharing studio nonsense with Carlo, he noted that the producer had commanded, "Make a man out of Bobby Breen. Nothing sissy because he's already that." Soon the script, he added, was torn apart by a dozen people, but his contract was extended and then he was needed for story conferences. "Their time is spent in story conferences. And since I'm not much of a talker, I'm afraid I didn't help any. Eight people and three secretaries engaged a full hour in a story conference," he ended incredulously. "And that is Hollywood!"
Fleeing the bogus reality of the studio, he hurried north for some ennobling culture, catching, in San Francisco, the legendary soprano Kirsten Flagstad in Tristan und Isolde. The promenading opera crowd presented another view of society. "Diamonds by the ton," Hughes marveled, "and orchids like rose bushes"--droll throwaway lines that conjure up a dowager era of visual grandeur now extinct, except when re-created in period movies.
In 1940 Hughes publishedThe Big Sea, the first volume of his autobiography. Van Vechten urged him to write his personal story because "you have an amazing subject.... treat it romantically, be as formless as you please, disregard chronology if you desire." Appreciating this daunting task, Van Vechten proposed that he get down 300 words a day. Some days, who knows, he might want to write 2,000 words. "Try to be as frank as possible, but when your material runs a little thin, don't be afraid to imagine better material." Always encouraging, he was a shrewd editor for Hughes.
Van Vechten's adversaries fret about his influence on Hughes, or certainly did in the early years. Without noisily butting into his life, without being a dreary schoolmarm, Van Vechten--between gleeful bites of gossip ("Did I tell you that John Reed was a great friend of mine? I went abroad with him once")--sought to give counsel, when needed, in the mildest way. In any case, Hughes did not ask him about everything. He made a decision or two, and even ignored Van Vechten's advice, but that came back to haunt and hurt him years later.
The promotional tour for The Big Sea was fraught with troubling interruptions. Back in 1932 Hughes and a group of black actors and artists had gone to Russia, presumably to prepare a film on American race relations. He was still in shock from the Scottsboro case, in which nine young blacks were hauled off a train by an Alabama mob and falsely accused of raping two white women. It made international headlines and gave the Russian propaganda machine a chance to tweak America: Come on over, Mother Russia understands! The film was never made. However, watching a military parade "with a sea of workers bearing banners," as he wrote to Van Vechten, he was grazed by the revolutionary spirit and inspired to write a collection of "proletarian poems." Van Vechten bluntly told him the poems were merely revolutionary tracts and basically discouraged their publication. The tactful Blanche Knopf proposed that she and Hughes talk when he returned to America. Ultimately the poems were published in 1958 by a labor organization.
One of those poems, thoughtfully reprinted by Bernard, is titled "Goodbye Christ." It teases the Lord, the crackpot evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and The Saturday Evening Post--telling them to prepare for a new, leftist world. Sister Aimee picketed a Los Angeles appearance that Hughes had scheduled, and his talk there was canceled. The commotion soon vexed The Saturday Evening Post, which spitefully reprinted the poem for its vast readership. It would all be insanely funny if it weren't so terribly sad.
Further perils lay ahead. In 1953 Hughes was hauled before McCarthy's committee on "un-American activities." Bernard reports that he neatly put his work into historical context (invoking the Scottsboro case as a motivating force) as a leftist flirt, and he smoothly survived, though it must have been a shattering experience. He did not write to Van Vechten about this session. Less than sympathetic, Carlo had earlier observed, "To mix metaphors, the wages of writing controversially about politics is that you have to face the music." Van Vechten remained loyal, enthusiastic over Hughes's continuing output (stories, poems), and was shortly writing to him, "I am delighted with you and your work.... I think you have completely grown up and represent the Negro at his BEST. Pardon the applause, please, but that is the way I feel."
Their last decade: The two continued to write each other, but the letters are often shorter, devoid of detail and sometimes lifeless. Carlo was frail and going deaf. Other than photography, and rounding up memorable black and white "sitters," he was focused on the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection that he'd gathered at Yale. Author, diplomat and executive director of the NAACP, Johnson, a close friend, had died in a car accident in 1938. Van Vechten, once again obsessively, amassed recordings, letters, photographs and manuscripts by blacks to forge a history of black America. Though Hughes would still confess financial fears--"Brokeness suddenly descended upon me.... I was shocked!"--he completed the second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander, and had anthologies and selected poems published. He edited a treasury of essays and stories by black Africans, wrote Off-Broadway musicals and saw a revue based on his own life. He needed his own secretary. Van Vechten exclaimed, "I am beginning to believe you have finally arrived as a BIG Name."
There is so much exuberant, jazzy lyricism in the poetry of Langston Hughes, but for me, his triumphant legacy is heard in the opera Street Scene (1947). Elmer Rice based the libretto on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Kurt Weill composed the score, and Hughes wrote the sun-and-moonlight lyrics. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called the opera magnificent. George Jean Nathan said, "It makes a dent in intelligent emotion." The letters don't reveal anything about the collaboration, but Bernard says Hughes was thrilled to be working with Rice and Weill, and proud that they'd asked a black writer to participate in a project about whites caught on a baking summer day in a callous city--a compassionate tenement tragedy. "They wanted someone who understood the problems of the common people," Hughes said. "I did not need to ask why they thought of me. I knew." The run lasted about five months, but it wasn't a "show"--it was, after all, an opera. Within a few days of its opening, along came two highly competitive classic musicals: Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon. That was Broadway in the forties.
While Hughes seemingly soared, I'm certain that Carlo obsessively pondered a decision that he'd made long, long ago--spurning advice--a decision that may have given him regrets in old age. For the past is always with us.
In 1926, Van Vechten, whose interest in blacks was already upsetting cabaret tables, published a fifth novel that he titled Nigger Heaven. It centered on an elevator boy who wants to be a writer and his girlfriend, a librarian. Black aristos, racketeers, bootleggers, fancy ladies--they're all there. It was, said Nora Holt, a view of blacks they did not wish to admit. It was the title, however, not the plot that caused outrage among blacks. For many, it was unforgivable. Van Vechten's father cautioned against the title, but Van Vechten knew it was provocative--and ironic. The hero calls out, "Nigger Heaven! That's what Harlem is. We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theatre and watch the white world sitting down below.... occasionally, they turn their faces up...hard, cruel faces to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon."
Gertrude Stein wrote Van Vechten that he'd never done anything better. The Saturday Review hailed the novel as a frontier work. The critic Louis Kronenberger said that to get beneath the skin of another people was a conspicuous achievement. The black press seethed, but Van Vechten had black defenders like James Weldon Johnson, who called it "the most revealing, significant and powerful novel based exclusively on Negro life yet written." Later, in a letter to Van Vechten, Johnson asked, "Has anyone ever written it down that you have been one of the most vital factors in bringing about the artistic emergence of the Negro in America?"
Bernard salutes both Hughes and Van Vechten for helping to make the Harlem Renaissance, adding that this gives their story significance. But she stresses that the more important chronicle is of the warmth and devotion between two disparate men. Still, the literary controversy here is disquieting. Bernard comments on the boldness with which Van Vechten asserted his rights to "exotic material" and believes it was a combination of naïveté and arrogance that made him think he was unique and could get away with the Nigger Heaven title. According to her, both Johnson and Hughes encouraged him to mull alternatives.
In today's "just chill out" culture, maybe it's time to reflect anew on the lensthrough which Van Vechten saw his world. I am reminded of what Mary McCarthy once wrote about Oscar Wilde. Giving himself extreme freedom, she averred, he presumed on the acquaintanceship of his audience. "Oscar's real sin," she concluded, "(and the one for which society punished him, homosexuality being merely the blotter charge), was making himself too much at home."
And there you have it. I'd say the same thing about Carl Van Vechten.
When you spread your hand over the globe,
across mountain range, island, intuitive seas,
nothing disappeared, just as my first touch,
fingering down the rocky spine of your back,
ended in the confusion of whether to return
or continue. Furthest from home, the traveler
turns home, no matter where he turns.
But it was you I turned to, when I turned.