'YO MAMA' IS A BIGOT
New York City
Arthur C. Danto contends that Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper is not anti-Catholic and deserves First Amendment protection ["In the Bosom of Jesus," May 28]. He should listen to the artist's own words and then reread the First Amendment. Renee Cox, debating me on CNN and other media outlets, made it clear that her art is designed to attack the Catholic Church. Her claims ranged from "the Catholic Church is all about money...about big business" to "40 percent of the slaveowners in the South were Catholic." As far as the First Amendment is concerned, she has a constitutional right to show her bigoted work. What she doesn't have is a right to the public purse. If taxpayers' money can't be used to further one's religion, how can it logically be permitted to be used to denigrate it?
Director of Communications
New York City
My article on Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper concerned a photograph, rendered controversial by some ill-considered remarks by Mayor Giuliani to the effect that it was indecent and anti-Catholic. The burden of my analysis was that it is neither. Scully's letter is not about that picture, but about some ill-considered remarks the artist is alleged to have made on CNN. They have no bearing on the work or on First Amendment policies.
Scully's letter reminds me of nothing so much as the transcript of the trial in which the painter Paolo Veronese was brought up before the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Venice in 1573 for having depicted Mary Magdalene in what is described there as "The Last Supper, which Jesus Christ took with his disciples in the house of Simon." The inquisitors wished to know whether Veronese felt that it was "fitting at the Last Supper of the Lord to paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities." Veronese said, "I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits"--and he cited the precedent of Michelangelo, who painted "Our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the Heavenly Host. They are all represented in the nude--even the Virgin Mary--and with little reverence."
The Holy Tribunal was an anticipatory version of the Decency Panel under Giuliani's counterreformation in New York. There was, of course, no First Amendment at the time. My own view is that a fair amount of tax money in Veronese's Venice went into the suppression of images; it instead goes into supporting their exhibition in New York today, for the larger intellectual benefit of our society, whatever the collateral opinions of the artists who make them.
One incidental issue puzzles me. In view of profound biblical paintings by such Protestant artists as Rembrandt, by what right do critics like Giuliani or Scully infer that images treating biblical incidents in ways they find displeasing are anti-Catholic rather than simply anti-Christian? It was the strategy of the Counter-Reformation to use images to strengthen faith. It was one strategy of early Protestantism to destroy images, based perhaps on the same psychology. By Rembrandt's time it was recognized that the church ought not to exercise a monopoly on religious representations. The taxpayers' money supports institutions that house painting after painting intended in their time to further the artists' religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. Where did Scully get the idea that this is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment?
ARTHUR C. DANTO
Art Winslow is absolutely correct in his analysis of today's art environment ["The Wind She Blows," June 11]. If we continue losing independent art spaces we'll end up with mediocre art, and artists and intellectuals will be outcasts. But all is not gloomy! Here in San Antonio last May 15 the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center won an important legal battle. Federal Judge Orlando Garcia courageously ruled that our mayor and city council violated the US Constitution and Texas's Open Meeting Act when they conspired to defund the center's art projects. Read the ruling at www.nysd.uscourts.gov/courtweb/pdf/D05TXWC/01-05845.PDF.
ANTONIO C. CABRAL
THE MISSING LINK
New York City
Thanks to everyone who wrote in to recommend more "sites for sore eyes" ["Full-Court Press," June 4], as well as those of you who added to the count of obscene and abusive letters in support of Ralph Nader. Of the many recommendations I received, I am happy to add those below to the list of intelligent and occasionally funny places to go on the web for political good sense and, in the case of Consortium News, investigative reporting. Happy surfing.
SINS OF THE FATHER
Dusko Doder is right to correct the Greek Press Office's extremely partial account of Greece's relations with Macedonia ["Letters," June 4]. But he is wrong to blame Foreign Minister George Papandreou for the sins of his father, Andreas. Papandreou the younger has made serious efforts to move Greek foreign policy beyond the paranoid nationalism fostered by Papandreou senior. With Prime Minister Costas Simitis, he helped to broker the peaceful removal of Slobodan Milosevic despite the Serbian dictator's considerable popular support in Greece. Simitis and Papandreou have also been constructively involved in efforts to resolve the current crisis in Macedonia--it is, after all, in their interest to do so. The cause of peace in the Balkans is best served by giving credit where credit is due.
For the record, the Greek government never quite claimed, as Doder says, that "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years." At the peak of nationalist hysteria in the 1990s, posters of archeological artifacts from Greek Macedonia with the legend "Macedonia: Three thousand years of Greek history" were displayed for the benefit of foreign visitors. There were also posters proclaiming "Macedonia was Greece ever," obviously Englished by some subversive mole.
THE CRIMSON & THE BLACK
Why are people surprised that Harvard is not acting in a socially just fashion [Benjamin L. McKean, "Harvard's Shame," May 21]? After all, the Harvard Corporation (which just inducted its first minority member and until a few years ago was an all-men's club) to its lasting shame never divested from South Africa (although it later gave Nelson Mandela an honorary degree). And when we alumni/ae successfully elected four petition candidates to the Board of Overseers on a prodivestment platform, the big U responded by changing the rules to make it far more difficult to elect someone not on the official slate.
It took a student strike back in 1969-70 to get the university to establish an African-American studies program. And, as the recent New York Times story on NYU's belated award to those protesting the collegiate sports world's "gentlemen's agreement" pointed out, Harvard, too, in the 1940s honored an opposing team's request not to field a black player. There's much more.
We can hope that Harvard will do the decent thing by way of a living wage for its employees, but I wouldn't count on it.
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
CAN WE AFFORD DAYCARE?
It seems I'm a rare bird indeed: a feminist who doesn't think that daycare is necessarily a fabulous thing, particularly for kids under 2 ["Subject to Debate," May 14]. Katha Pollitt is correct, as usual, that the National Institute for Child Health and Development's recent study purporting to link immersion in daycare with aggressive behavior probably can't infer causality but will be used to hurt moms who want to work outside the home. But political agendas aside, let's face it: It's widely considered better, developmentally speaking, for children up to 2 (the age when they really have something to gain from socializing with their peers) to interact one on one with their caregiver.
In my house, the care of my infant daughter is split; my husband and I both have part-time jobs (mine offers benefits). For children's sake, I'd like the childcare debate to include a discussion of how to give more part-time workers access to health insurance and how to convince conservatives and progressives alike that except for breastfeeding, dads can do everything for children that moms can.
Thanks to Katha Pollitt for succinctly pointing out why research into the effects of daycare is misdirected. The investigations should rather focus on the pay rates for daycare workers and the difficulty all but the very rich have in finding daycare or preschools that come close to the care provided in France and other enlightened countries. I have been a teacher's aide in a school where a high percentage of the kids qualified for free lunch, and I've also worked in a suburban school. You can guess which kids showed the most hyperactivity and aggression. (It wasn't the ones who had been going to the best preschools.) Searching for preschools for my own two children, I realized that my whole salary wouldn't cover the cost of the schools that met my standards. The bottom line is money--for parents, for state-run daycare with well-paid, qualified teachers, for family leave.
WHY, IT'S A SILVER BULLET...
Way out here in the Arizona desert, this cowgirl had been waiting for someone to ride to her rescue. Wasn't too long ago the guys in the white hats looked to win the shootout at the OK Corral. Then they were ambushed. Ever since, daily scans of the horizon turned up nothing but coyotes.
Then out of nowhere, in a cloud of dust, rides the Lone Ranger: Senator Jim Jeffords! God bless you, sir. May you ride tall in the saddle and turn the right-wing stampede before it carries all of us over the cliff.
Click here to review some of the more perceptive comments on the Scalia Five's judicial coup d'etat.
On a late June day that will surely have been picked by the political astrologers around him, Kofi Annan of Ghana will likely be coronated for a second five-year term as Secretary General of the United Nations. The 63-year-old Annan's first term doesn't end until December, but since there's no opposition to him, the Security Council--which decides on such things--seems inclined to formally name him in June.
The timing, of course, couldn't be better, both for Annan and the beleaguered UN system, which is hurting financially because the United States, its biggest donor, owes it more than $1.2 billion in arrears and continues to refuse to pay. A freshly crowned Annan will clearly wield re-energized clout as the General Assembly opens a special session on HIV/AIDS on June 25, a three-day conference that is expected to draw even leaders known to harbor antipathy toward the UN--such as George W. Bush.
Annan has made AIDS his special cause this year. He has established a global fund; the initial target was $7-10 billion. Bush has pledged $200 million, a sum that most AIDS activists consider inadequate. It's quite likely that Annan will coax another $300 million out of the Western Europeans. It's not at all certain that the AIDS session will end up as an exercise in effective fundraising, but its value may well lie in drawing unprecedented attention to the subject.
It's probably uncharitable to suggest that Annan's engagement with the AIDS issue flows from concern about the incipient actions of the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Prize Committee. But if Annan is honored by this body, it may well be because of the extraordinary steps he's been taking to advance public support for helping victims of HIV/AIDS. Until recently the UN's approach had been to let the issue be handled by a small, quiet unit in Geneva called UNAIDS. It is headed by a Belgian physician named Peter Piot, who has traveled the world articulating fearful statistics associated with the AIDS pandemic and gaining the reluctant cooperation of various feuding UN agencies. But Dr. Piot lacks Annan's stature and does not enjoy the benefit of his bully pulpit. Moreover, there are many competing issues within the UN system.
Whether Annan will be able to mobilize additional resources for AIDS is an open question. The world's thirty richest countries--members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development--currently give less than $40 billion annually to the poorest 135 nations. The trend has been downward for several years now, since the record foreign-aid high of $75 billion some fifteen years ago. Some suggest that the $7-10 billion target for Annan's new global fund is a conservative figure, considering that the number of AIDS-affected people worldwide may well double in the next decade from the present 33 million. Most of the victims are in poor countries--especially in Africa--where economic and social development is already faltering.
Annan's strategy has been to link AIDS to the broader issues of jump-starting economic growth and insuring environmental security. The AIDS session in New York is only one of several international meetings that Annan is convening in the next eighteen months. The idea is that these conferences will serve as a sort of continuum and fashion a body of work on development issues. The idea is also to get leaders of rich and poor countries to commit at least modest new amounts of money to tackle the widening problems of poverty. And last, the idea is to project a recharged image of the UN.
Thus, a General Assembly special session on the plight of cities was held in early June; after the AIDS conference, there will be another assembly session, on the wide misuse of small arms and light weapons, especially in poor countries, where children are often employed as soldiers and vigilantes. During the summer, there will be a climate conference in Bonn, where the Bush Administration's stance against full recognition of the harmful effects of global warming--and renunciation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol--will surely be a major item on the agenda. Then the UN will convene in Durban, South Africa, to mobilize world support against racism and other forms of discrimination. There's a summit on issues relating to children's rights and a world food summit in Rome, both in the fall; a conference on financing for development next spring in Mexico; and a conference on the problems of aging, also in the spring, in Madrid.
All these conferences will lead up to a World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, in September 2002. Annan wants every head of state or government to attend, and he wants to review what's happened in the fields of environmental protection and poverty alleviation since the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. World leaders, including Bush the Elder, promised to act on the Earth Summit's Agenda 21, a sort of blueprint for global economic development, and said that the world's thirty richest nations should commit $125 billion each year in development assistance to the 135 poorest countries. Of course, no one's kept the promise.
Annan and India's Nitin Desai, his Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, aver that the decline in development assistance is unacceptable, especially at a time when globalization is leaving more and more people further behind. They cite the fact that despite worldwide improvements in such matters as infant mortality and literacy rates, some 2 billion people out of a global population of 6 billion live in poverty.
But Annan knows it's unlikely the rich nations will pony up more cash for development, particularly when public support for foreign aid is steadily losing ground in many wealthy countries. So he's trying to rally big business behind his plans. On the eve of the UN meeting on AIDS, former US ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke said that with Annan's encouragement, he has agreed to head the Global Business Council on HIV and AIDS, a UN initiative. Annan also recently persuaded outgoing Shell chairman and CEO Sir Mark Moody-Stuart to chair a new "business action council" for the Johannesburg 2002 summit. Moody-Stuart, a soft-spoken man who acknowledges that the energy industry's environmental record has been less than commendable, wants to devise ways whereby the business community can generate culturally and socially sensitive economic development in the poor countries; he says more economically healthy and socially stable societies are in everyone's self-interest: "Less confrontation, more cooperation--let's give it a try," he said in a London interview.
Nice sentiment. But already some nongovernmental organizations are alarmed that big business may unduly influence the UN at a time when the world body has never been more vulnerable financially. While it's unlikely that various UN organizations would rescind carefully negotiated protocols on subjects like the environment, it's not at all clear that the UN would be able to resist some sort of reciprocity for business largesse. What might such reciprocity consist of--co-branding, such as combining corporate logos with that of the UN? Or perhaps something more troublesome, such as designating UN personnel to serve as de facto commercial representatives?
No one is insinuating, however, that Kofi Annan can be bought. Indeed, the prevailing consensus in the donor community and in the corridors of the UN is that a cozier UN/big business relationship can bring another source of strength to the world body, not to mention burnish Annan's own reputation as a dynamic secretary general.
Third term, anyone?
Democrats and Republicans alike are claiming the education bill as a victory. The national testing plan--mandating annual tests in grades three through eight, plus one in high school--is a significant departure from the past. As right-wing pundit Chester Finn once observed, liberals have traditionally hated the word "testing" and conservatives have hated the word "national." But old principles gave way to current political imperatives. Democrats seized on words like "accountability" and Republicans armed themselves with "compassion."
The bill is not, however, a victory for children in public schools, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Harvard Civil Rights Project has shown that poor and minority children are hurt the most by an excessive reliance on high-stakes testing--in which performance on standardized tests determines promotion to the next grade, graduation or even the survival of the school. High-stakes tests are associated with high dropout rates, an escalating problem among African-American boys. Exams alone don't motivate struggling students and can even have the opposite effect, according to a Boston College study.
What students need are tests that truly measure how well schools are teaching basic skills, accompanied by constructive responses to weak points--tutoring, after-school programs that go beyond remediation, summer school (when necessary) that does more than rehash the year's curriculum and, above all, expertly trained, decently paid teachers for all our schools, especially those serving a high concentration of poor students. The education bill emerging from Congress guarantees none of those things. Instead, failing schools receive as little as one year of technical assistance, and students get tutoring and transportation subsidies to attend another school; within five years the failing school could face total "reconstitution," meaning the staff would be fired.
A critical difference between the House and Senate bills is the method of measuring school success. The House would require schools to break out test scores by race, exposing schools where well-off white students are thriving while minority kids are stuck in the low-performing track (the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that Bush is fond of lamenting); the Senate lets schools average their test scores, masking any racial achievement gap. Bush is under intense pressure from the Republican-dominated National Governors Association--conservative governors fear having to pour resources into schools revealed to be neglecting their minority students--to support the Senate's version on this point.
Ted Kennedy and the other Senate liberals hailing the education bill as a triumph focus on the dollar signs. They can claim that the Senate bill authorizes $33 billion--including more money for teacher training, improving school buildings and programs for disabled and immigrant children--versus Bush's $19 billion and the House's $24 billion. But even the Senate figure falls woefully short, and getting the funds appropriated down the road will entail a messy fight, given the promised tax cuts. That inconvenient fact could spoil the bipartisan fun.
FIRST AMENDMENT BEDFELLOWS
Every once in a while it behooves this 135-year-old journal (136 on July 5!) to remind ourselves that, like the broken clock that is right twice a day, the conservative nuts and true believers aren't always wrong. That's why we are pleased to join William Safire, the editors of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, and Dave Shiflett of National Review Online--all of whom shouted "First Amendment!" when Senator Patrick Leahy asked R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the editor of The American Spectator, to turn over materials related to the nefarious Arkansas Project for hearings on Theodore Olson's nomination to be Solicitor General. Olson had served as the Spectator's lawyer and on its board of directors, and even wrote, anonymously, some of its anti-Clinton articles. But we agree with the above rogues' gallery of the right that the First Amendment requires that magazines, like the rest of the press, be immune from such Congressionally compelled turnovers. The Senate has since confirmed Olson, so we're stuck with him, but nothing in the First Amendment stops reporters from investigating the Spectator's $2.4 million Arkansas (Get Clinton) Project. Which articles did Olson write? Did he lie to the Senate when he swore he had no involvement with the A-Project? In the spirit of the First Amendment, we urge the Spectator to cooperate with inquiring journalists--but not at the expense of its Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
CAROL BERNSTEIN FERRY
Carol Bernstein Ferry, who died on June 9 after a long illness, was, with her late husband W.H. (Ping) Ferry, a friend and generous supporter of this magazine. The DJB Foundation, which she administered with three others after the death of her first husband, Daniel J. Bernstein, was a model for such enterprises. It distributed its entire capital of $6 million and the accrued income thereon as quickly as possible--without bureaucratic hurdles or petty conditions. Its giving, she wrote, "turned more and more away from usual objects of philanthropic attention toward the victims of what seem to us increasingly to be official malevolence and indifference." A memorial service will be held on June 27 at 5:30 pm at the Cosmopolitan Club, 122 East 66th Street, New York City.
At The Nation's 136th Anniversary Dinner held June 18 in New York, the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation Ltd. announced the first recipient of the $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship--to be given annually to "an individual who has challenged the status quo through distinctive, courageous and socially responsible work." And the winner is--civil rights leader and math-literacy advocate Bob Moses. In the early 1960s Moses organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Following six years of teaching mathematics in Tanzania, Moses was working toward his PhD at Harvard when he noticed that his daughter wasn't offered algebra in the eighth grade. He subsequently founded the Algebra Project, which devises curricular materials, trains teachers and provides other support for schools seeking to improve their math curriculum. It now reaches some 10,000 students a year in ten states. The Puffin/Nation prize is the brainchild of Perry Rosenstein, founder of the New Jersey-based Puffin Foundation, and is administered by the Nation Institute.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Representative James Hansen, Utah Republican, illuminates the Vieques issue: "I dunno, I come down to the idea that I don't see where Puerto Rico should get any favored treatment over the rest of these people. Now what have they done to get it? They sit down there on welfare and very few of them paying taxes. Got a sweetheart deal, I don't really see the equity in it."
When George W. Bush announced from Sweden on June 14 that he planned to pull the US Navy out of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by 2003, it struck some as odd when he referred to the people of Vieques, all US citizens, as "our friends and neighbors" who "don't want us there." It was as though he was saying Puerto Rico is a foreign country.
In reality, Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. A consequence of this is the situation in Vieques, where the Navy has reigned over people who at another period in history were simply subjects. But the people of Puerto Rico are also human beings with a right to live and prosper that brute force cannot deny. And the fact that they are US citizens makes them more than just the President's "friends and neighbors," and connects their plight to the United States in a very direct way that the President cannot ignore.
The struggle to force the Navy out of Vieques, which goes back sixty years to when the Navy first took over most of the small island, has gathered steam since the accidental killing of a civilian Navy employee two years ago. Besides the environmental destruction and resulting health problems associated with the Navy's presence, now there was an actual victim to mourn and organize around. The people of Vieques and Puerto Rico were outraged, and the consensus that emerged was dazzling for an island nation long divided about its political status.
The pro-statehood governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, cut a highly unpopular deal with President Clinton to hold a referendum this November to ask the people of Vieques whether they want the Navy to leave by 2003. The action cost his party the gubernatorial race last year. Buttressed by protests on Vieques in the rest of Puerto Rico and by the stateside Puerto Rican community, the new pro-Commonwealth governor, Sila María Calderón, called for an earlier referendum, to be held at the end of July, and has led the movement to have the Navy leave Vieques immediately.
In addition to such opponents of the Navy bombings as Rubén Berríos Martínez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, the move to oust the Navy has gained unlikely supporters such as singer Ricky Martin, boxer Felix Trinidad, actor Benicio del Toro and the new Miss Universe, Denise Quiñones August. Backing has also come from the African-American leadership, with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joining the protest, and from Republican New York Governor George Pataki, whom Calderón recently endorsed for re-election even though she's a Democrat. Some of these unusual alliances result from politicians' perception of the growing clout of Latino voters and some from Puerto Rico's need for GOP support in Washington for federal funding for the island, which has no votes in Congress (it has a nonvoting resident commissioner in the House).
There were also lawsuits against the Navy by people like high-profile environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. and the arrests of more than 180 protesters in Vieques, including Sharpton and three New York Puerto Rican politicos. There was even a virtual protest that tied up the Navy's website for a while. The Vieques issue has gone mainstream.
Besides bringing environmental and health problems to Vieques, the Navy's presence has been an assault on democracy. The Navy has reneged on a succession of agreements it made with Puerto Rico to respect the environment and economy of Vieques and reinvest in its development. The treatment of the many protesters by Navy personnel has also brought criticism about the abuse of their rights, especially after prominent Puerto Rican officials and members of Congress were physically intimidated by the Navy, with unnecessary body searches and manhandling.
Another issue is the strong nexus between the US military and the federal judiciary in Puerto Rico, a politically unhealthy alliance that is probably more responsible than anything else for the inappropriate sentences given to many of those who practiced civil disobedience on Vieques. The federal judge meting out these harsh sentences, who is presiding over one of the major environmental and civil rights suits on Vieques, is Chief Justice Hector Laffitte, who represented the police officers who murdered Puerto Rican independentistas in the notorious Cerro Maravilla case in 1980. There has been widespread speculation about possible ties between him and the Navy, especially after his overriding of the established federal lottery system for assigning cases so that he could personally dispose of the ones concerning Vieques.
Bush's decision to stop the bombing by 2003 was an obvious concession to the fact that the people of Vieques would choose to do this anyway in the referendum. By eliminating the embarrassment of losing in a popular vote among the more than 9,000 residents of Vieques, Bush could save face and have the bonus of looking as though he was being responsive to the growing "Latino vote." The hard right in Congress and the media criticized him, however, for compromising US military readiness, while everyone else, including the odd duo of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Governor Pataki, felt it was too little, too late, and called for the Navy's immediate withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the President's political expediency on this issue resulted in his undermining of the Navy's complaints about the lack of alternative training sites, which was the only compelling basis it had for arguing that it needed to remain in Vieques. Now that the Navy has resumed its bombing of the island, leading to further protests, we will soon see whether the contradictions of colonial administration in a postcolonial world will come home to roost. But whatever the outcome, it is clear that Vieques has become yet another symbol that the costs of empire may be too high even for the powerful in this new century.
With the Bush Administration, the corruption isn't hidden in the Lincoln Bedroom. It's paraded in your face. On June 18 Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill lunched with executives of leading financial houses at Windows on the World high atop New York's World Trade Center. His unstated purpose was to help raise $20 million from the companies he regulates, as an initial ante for a private advertising campaign to promote Social Security privatization. When George W. Bush joked during the campaign that the rich were "my base," he wasn't kidding.
The Administration has lurched straight from its tax cut to privatizing Social Security. On June 11 the sixteen members of Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, all handpicked by the White House for their prior support of private accounts, announced that they are unanimously in favor of using part of Social Security taxes to create "individually controlled personal retirement accounts" to be invested in the stock market. Commission co-chairman Richard Parsons, co-chief operating officer of AOL-Time Warner, made the costs clear, saying the panel would consider raising the retirement age and cutting benefits. "For future retirees, you can consider everything on the table," he said.
A coalition of citizen organizations led by the Institute for America's Future and including labor, women's groups, the National Urban League, senior and youth groups, and disability activists immediately denounced the commission members as "astonishingly unrepresentative of the views held by most Americans concerning Social Security's future." A week later two members of the House Ways and Means Committee ran into a Midwestern version of the same citizens' coalition in Missouri when they conducted a "field hearing" to promote privatization. According to the St. Petersburg Times, committee chairman Bill Thomas had envisioned the hearing as an opportunity to foment an "intergenerational clash" between retirees and Generation Xers on Social Security reform. Instead, seniors and young people demonstrated for "intergenerational solidarity" against privatization.
Similarly, O'Neill's airy power lunch was punctuated by a protest rally organized by the AFL-CIO, the Institute for America's Future, the New York Statewide Senior Action Council, the 2030 Center (for young people) and other groups. Joined by Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Jan Schakowsky, the protesters denounced the blatant impropriety of O'Neill's helping solicit private funds to lobby for a plan that will generate billions for financial barons like Morgan Stanley, American International Group, Citigroup and Deutsche Bank, all of whom were expected to be at the lunch.
To repeat what we've said before: Social Security is not in financial trouble now and may never be; just tweak the actuarial assumptions used by the privatizers and any shortfall disappears. But even if more money is needed at some point to pay benefits, sensible solutions are at hand--the simplest being to raise or remove the cap on the amount of earnings on which Social Security taxes are levied. That idea, of course, does not go down well with the high-income crowd that supports Bush.
By the fall, the Bush Administration will hang around the neck of every Republican running for Congress a detailed plan for privatization, and Bush and O'Neill will be publicly identified with the campaign designed to sell this lemon to the American people. In 2002, Americans will have a clear choice to make.
Though Bush intends to drop the missile treaty,
He's happy that this Putin guy's so neat, he
Will prove to be the nicest sort of Roosky.
So just relax, and crack yourself a brewski.
Most of the time I think of gay rights, women's emancipation and the decline of male dominance as irreversible historical processes, blah blah, driven as they are by powerful material, social and intellectual forces, blah blah blah. Then comes the Bush Administration and I find myself thinking: Yeah, right. Who would have imagined, for example, that the bright and shiny year 2001 would see the President moving to take away contraception coverage in insurance for federal workers? Is birth control "controversial" now? And what would Karl Marx say about abstinence education--slated for a huge increase in the budget, despite studies suggesting it is as worthless as the missile defense shield? Or about the angels-on-a-pinhead debate over stem cell research? I mean, why help actually existing people with painful fatal diseases when you can give an embryo a Christian burial?
According to the census, American families increasingly come in all shapes and sizes--single moms (7.2 percent), single dads (2.1 percent), live-togethers with kids (5.1 percent). "Nuclear households"--two married parents with children--are down to 23.5 percent of all households, the lowest ever. The census doesn't measure gay and lesbian parents, but their numbers are on the rise as well. So this is exactly the moment for Wade Horn, head of the Fatherhood Initiative and scourge of nontraditional families, to be nominated as assistant secretary for family support at HHS, where he'll be in charge of a vast array of programs serving poor children and families--from welfare and childcare to child support, adoption, foster care and domestic violence--and will have a great deal of influence over the reauthorization of welfare reform, coming up next year.
For Horn, "fatherlessness" causes every woe, from the Columbine massacre (hello?--both killers came from intact families) to "promiscuity" among teenage girls. "Growing up without a father is like being in a car with a drunk driver," he told the Washington Post in 1997. In other words, a woman raising a child alone, like a drunk driver, is the chief and immediate source of danger to that child--maybe she should be in jail! The cure for single motherhood is marriage, to be imposed on an apparently less and less wedlock-minded population by public policy. In his weekly "Fatherly Advice" column in the far-right Moonie rag the Washington Times, Horn has advocated giving married couples priority in public housing, Head Start places and other benefits, although he now says he's abandoned that idea--maybe someone clued him in that such discrimination was unconstitutional (tough luck, Sally, no preschool for you--your parents are divorced!). Horn favors paying people on welfare to marry (ah, love!), opposes abortion ("states should operate under the principle that adoption is the first and best option for pregnant, single women"), thinks spanking is fine, blames contraception for unwed pregnancies and STDs, and has kind words for the Southern Baptist dictum that wives should "submit" to their husbands--who are, in his view, rightly the primary providers, disciplinarians and "foundations of the family structure." Anyone who thinks gender roles aren't set in concrete--like maybe in some families Mom is "results-oriented" and Dad's a softie--is a "radical feminist," like those man-hating harpies at the National Organization for Women.
A long list of gay, feminist, welfare-rights, community activist and reproductive rights organizations have signed on to a letter protesting Horn's nomination; the Senate Finance Committee begins confirmation hearings on June 21. Unfortunately for those who want to blame the Republicans for everything, many Democrats share Horn's belief in marriage as a panacea for social ills--this is a favorite communitarian theme, after all, and Clinton's welfare reform bill explicitly called for marriage as "the foundation of a successful society." Readers of this column will remember that no less a progressive icon than Cornel West signed the Institute for American Values' Call to Civil Society, endorsing "covenant marriage" and the privileging of married people for public housing and Head Start and so on. The Child Support Distribution Act passed the House last year by a 405-to-18 vote and was just reintroduced--this would divert more than $140 million of welfare funds from poor mothers and children to job training and counseling for poor noncustodial fathers in the hope that the dads will pass along some of their earnings to their children (in one 1998 pilot project reported in the New York Times, the dads squeezed out an extra $4.20 a month).
Horn's not the only Bush nominee trying to turn back the clock on modernity. Fervent Bush supporter Scott Evertz, the new head of the White House AIDS office, whose major experience in AIDS education has been working with Catholic groups, was a fundraiser for Wisconsin Right to Life and fought to keep the antichoice plank in the state's Republican Party platform. Nonetheless, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force praised the appointment--after all, Evertz is the first open homosexual to be appointed in a Republican administration! So much for those organizations' commitment to reproductive and "human" rights.
For the true flavor of the Middle Ages, though, consider John Klink, whose name has been floated for Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Klink is currently employed as a diplomat with the Holy See's Mission to the United Nations, in which capacity he has opposed any and all use of condoms and contraception, not to mention abortion. He was a major mover in the Vatican's defunding of UNICEF, on the grounds that it supported postcoital contraception on request for refugee women who had been raped, and he has led the Vatican's attempts to sabotage UN consensus documents on women's right to "methods of fertility regulation which are safe, efficacious, accessible and acceptable." Only "natural family planning" for the millions of women, very few of whom are Catholic, fleeing war, tyranny and famine around the globe!
Forward to the past, or a cynical bid for the Catholic vote? Stay tuned.
SENATE SHUFFLE It was a remarkably different Senate that convened following Vermonter Jim Jeffords's switch from Republican to Independent status. The Jeffords jump did more than put a spring in the step of new majority leader Tom Daschle; it put a number of progressive players in a position, if not to pass all the bills they'd like, to use their control of key committees to alter significantly the tenor of the debate. "There's been a general view that you're only doing something when you are actually passing a piece of legislation," says incoming Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman Paul Sarbanes. "I think you can also perform a very important service if [committees] exercise a careful oversight over the government departments and agencies and over the economic sectors for which they're responsible." Sarbanes plans hearings on predatory lending and perhaps credit-card-company abuses. While Daschle and Edward Kennedy continue to counsel caution and bipartisanship on the part of Democrats, other senators are leaping into action. Days after taking over as chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Russ Feingold, the Senate's most ardent death penalty foe, convened a hearing that gave supporters of his bill seeking a death penalty moratorium a rare forum on Capitol Hill. On the same day that Feingold grilled aides to Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding discrepancies in their statistics on bias, the Justice Department announced it would initiate a comprehensive review designed to answer the question Feingold asked at his hearing: "How did we end up with 90 percent of the people on [the federal] death row minorities?"
SHOOTING DOWN STAR WARS With the Senate shift, few activist groups have seen prospects for lobbying success improve more dramatically than those opposing President Bush's National Missile Defense scheme. Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, is promising tough scrutiny of the bloated Defense budget, while Star Wars skeptics Joe Biden and Carl Levin now chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively. Biden and Levin showed up at a session organized by the Council for a Livable World, where, according to Chris Madison, director of the CLW Education Fund's National Missile Defense Project, "They both made clear their extreme skepticism about where the Administration is going." Peace Action stepped up its "Star Wars Is a Lemon" campaign with a June rally at the Capitol and a lobbying push that included 115 meetings with legislators and their staffs. Peace Action's twenty-six state chapters are following up with an effort to deliver 300,000 "Star Wars Is a Lemon" postcards to Congress.
ELECTION INSPECTION Election reform initiatives that were expected to be unavoidable following last fall's Florida fiasco got buried in Trent Lott's Republican-dominated Senate, but that's likely to change now that Chris Dodd has taken over the Rules and Administration Committee. Dodd and Representative John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have proposed the sweeping Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act, designed to help states adopt uniform systems to assure that voting is easy and accessible, and that all votes are counted. Dodd is expected to arrange hearings not just on his bill but also on the broader issue of electoral disfranchisement. The opening comes just as activists are stepping up the pressure on the issue. A US Commission on Civil Rights draft report--characterized by the stark observation that "it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election"--has given new impetus to a Democracy Summer campaign backed by groups ranging from the Institute for Policy Studies to the NAACP Youth and College Division and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. More than 100 young people from around the country gathered in Tallahassee in mid-June for a Democracy Institute at which Representative Maxine Waters urged them to re-create the "freedom rider" energy that led to passage of the original Voting Rights Act. Just prior to July 4, a Pro-Democracy Convention will bring activists to Philadelphia to make what IPS's Karen Dolan calls "the move from outrage to action." The groups are campaigning for an agenda that addresses problems that came into focus during the Florida recount, including bad ballot designs, outdated voting technologies and the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners.
MAKING MUD The Bush Administration's energy plan may be DOA in a newly Democratic Senate, but real alternatives to utility company excesses are the province of the grassroots, especially in energy-strapped California. San Francisco activists launched a campaign in June for MUD, a proposed Municipal Utility District that could use eminent domain to take over Pacific Gas & Electric Company's electricity transmission and distribution systems. A November ballot initiative to create MUD has been endorsed by five San Francisco Commission members, California State Senate leader John Burton and the San Francisco Labor Council. "If we are able to take the power away from PG&E and put it in the hands of the people of San Francisco," says Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, "we will send a louder signal regarding the answer to power problems than anything you hear coming from the Bush Administration."
Arriving to record a television debate at the Hoover Institution here a few months ago, I found the personnel of the preceding show still standing around and chatting. Prominent was the rather chic figure of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who has become almost dandyish and svelte since his second marriage, to a prominent local socialite. He was reminiscing about the first time that Ballistic Missile Defense, or "Star Wars," was being marketed to the American people. It was Ronald Reagan who set up the first Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, headed by Lieut. Gen. James Abrahamson. This officer duly arrived, accompanied by a uniformed associate, at Shultz's office on the fifth floor at Foggy Bottom. The Secretary bade him welcome and said he had a number of questions about the new scheme, some of which had to do with its feasibility. Whereat the general turned to his assistant and asked, in a rather show-stopping manner, "Is the Secretary cleared for this conversation?"
Of course, Shultz ought to have turned the man out of his office right then and there. (He had, after all, refused to have anything to do with the Oliver North operation, another military usurpation of civilian authority. And while at Treasury in a previous administration, he had rejected Nixon's demand for confidential tax information on political opponents.) As it was, he was recalling the moment as one of slightly sinister absurdity. But the core of the anecdote is the clue to the utter stupidity of the press coverage of the Bush "listening tour" of Europe. It is not true that the United States wants a missile defense, while "the Europeans" remain skeptical. The Turkish military, after all, has already signaled its sympathy for the scheme. So have the yes-man regimes that owe Washington a debt for the fantasy of NATO enlargement. I would expect Tony Blair to fall into line without very much demur. (It is, after all, what he's for.) It is the people of the United States who remain substantially unpersuaded, for excellent reasons, and who have never been given an opportunity to vote for or against this gargantuan, destabilizing boondoggle.
Reagan's original speech on the subject, which purported to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," was cleverly and explicitly designed to defuse the mass appeal of the nuclear freeze movement, which nineteen years ago this June drew a million people to Central Park. By suddenly discovering that mutual assured destruction was "immoral and unstable," it spoke to the years of effort, on the part of countless physicists and activists, to point out precisely that.
The Bush propaganda scheme is typically narrower and more parochial. It may call for an empire of science-fiction hardware on earth and in heaven, but its selling point is essentially isolationist: "We" can have our very own shield against "them." (Indeed, the earlier impetus given to the project under Clinton and Gore, who could and should have stopped the demented plan but didn't, derived from poll findings showing that millions of Americans believed that the United States already had a missile-proof roof arching above its fruited plains.)
Thus, as presented and packaged, the Star Wars proposal is the apotheosis of the Bush worldview. It appeals to the provincial and the inward-looking in American culture, while simultaneously gratifying and enriching the empire-building element in the military-industrial complex. If only it could be run on oil-based products alone, it would be the picture-perfect reward for the donor-based oligarchy that underpins the regime. And, by drawing on the imagery of shields and prophylactics, it neatly conceals its only conceivable utility, which--if it worked at all--would be the development of an impregnable first-strike capacity.
Just as the MX missile, advertised as a "silo-busting" weapon, was obviously not going to be fired at empty silos, so the "shield" would be a guarantee that an aggressive launch could take place; the aggressor possessing the ability to parry any retaliatory move. There is, quite literally and obviously, no other reason for wishing to possess such a system. Once in place, it would make its own decisions, and no elected politician would ever again be cleared for any discussion of it. The militarization of the state would be complete.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once summarized the preparation for nuclear war as the willingness to commit genocide and suicide at the same time. It has never been put better. The delusion of "Star Wars" is the delusion that the "suicide" bit can be taken out of the equation. That's why we hear the absurd term "nuclear umbrella" being circulated--possibly the greatest concentration of stupidity ever packed into any two words in apposition--while the words "suicide bomber" are reserved for small-time Levantine desperadoes, of the kind who can evade any known laser or radar.
Given the Clinton/Gore sellout on this greatest of all issues, and the extent to which the commitment to "research" has already been made, the Democrats will have to move very fast to outpace the juggernaut. I'm not holding my breath. I suppose there exists one faint hope. On advice from his daddy, the President abandoned his customary unilateralism and, against the temper of his Congressional right wing, upheld the US commitment to the United Nations. A few weeks later, again after urgent paternal representations, he reversed himself on North Korea. (The conduit in this case was Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and once Bush Senior's fall guy for Iran/contra matters.) This isn't much more heartening, for those of us who would like to live in a democratic republic, than reading of Prince Charles getting a dressing-down from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It's not all that encouraging to think of our first line of defense being old-style, pinstripe Republicans, from George Shultz to Donald Gregg, who survived the wreckage of previous administrations, but it may be all that we've got.
What's wrong with this picture?: Slobodan Milosevic will be dragged
before an international war crimes tribunal while Robert McNamara tours
American college campuses touting his latest book on how to achieve world
peace, and Henry Kissinger advises corporations, for a fat fee, on how to
do business with dictators.
Clearly, when it comes to war crimes, this nation is above the law.
The United States has supported, nay imposed, a standard of official
morality on the world while blithely insisting that no American leader
ever could be held accountable to that same standard.
The persistent, if implicit, argument, made since the time of the
Nuremberg post-World War II trials, is that we get to judge but not be
judged because we are a democratic and free people inherently accountable
to the highest of standards. Dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians
was, therefore, a peaceful gesture because it shortened the war. Wouldn't
we judge such a claim as barbaric if employed by any other nation to
justify using such a weapon?
As the war in Vietnam further demonstrated, we are deeply invested in
the righteousness of war against civilians, but only when we are the
warriors. Now we will judge Milosevic a war criminal because he did the
Whatever the horrors inflicted upon noncombatants during Milosevic's
tenure, they pale in comparison to what McNamara did during the eight
years that he presided over the Vietnam War, in which millions died
because of the lies he told and policies he ordered.
Milosevic is accused of using military force to wage a campaign of
terror against the civilian population of Kosovo. Yet it was McNamara who
defined the largest part of the Vietnamese countryside, populated by
peasants, as a free-fire zone. At no point was the population of Kosovo
systematically raked with anti-personnel bombs and incinerated with
napalm, as were the Vietnamese under the McNamara-directed policy.
McNamara refused to discuss his role in Vietnam for twenty-seven years after
leaving his post as Secretary of Defense, yet the acts over which he
concedes guilt in his 1995 memoir certainly could have formed the basis
of war crimes investigations of both McNamara and Lyndon Baines Johnson,
the president he served. In his book, McNamara makes clear that neither
he nor Johnson believed that the United States had a moral right to carpet-bomb
the Vietnamese into submission to achieve irrational US policy goals.
In a letter McNamara wrote to Johnson in 1967, the Secretary of
Defense conceded that the United States was flirting with war crimes and cautioned
the President that "there may be a limit beyond which many Americans and
much of the world will not permit the United States to go." He added:
"The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously
injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny
backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly
disputed, is not a pretty one." But LBJ and McNamara were never held
accountable in a court committed to those human rights limits, and their
successors, Richard Nixon and his key warrior, Kissinger, promptly
escalated the war, carpet-bombing North Vietnamese peasants and
destroying all normal life in neutral Cambodia. The fierce bombings that
destroyed the Cambodian countryside also collapsed civil rule there,
paving the way for Pol Pot, a mass murderer who killed more than a
million of his own people and yet later became an ally of the United States. It was
only when he was no longer useful to US policymakers that they
considered him worthy of a war crimes trial. By then he was infirm.
Certainly Milosevic would seem to qualify as a war criminal, but
forcing him to trial while McNamara and Kissinger enjoy acclaim as elder
statesmen is to desecrate the standard of moral accountability. McNamara
was forced to address the war crimes issue last week before a USC
audience. He said he wished that international standards had been in
place when the United States was in Vietnam. Well, there was a standard. It was
established at Nuremberg, and McNamara and company clearly violated it.
As for Kissinger, his offenses are not restricted to any one
continent. He recently said he was too busy to answer a subpoena ordering
him to appear before a Paris judge investigating crimes by the
Kissinger-backed Pinochet regime in Chile.
Milosevic may well be a war criminal, but what arrogance to condemn
Yugoslavia's butcher of civilians when we have exonerated our own.
Read Richard Kim's report on the Stop Global AIDS March here.
Read the UN Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS here.
I'm sitting in a drab back room in the Gaza Strip's Deir al Bala refugee camp, discussing the latest stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict with a half-dozen or so young Palestinian men.
New York City; Saturday, June 23, 2001--The Stop Global AIDS March today brought together thousands of AIDS, debt relief, anti-racist and anti-globalization activists from around the world
The Kerrey revelations raise anew issues of morality and military power.
An early US AIDS group employs direct action to oppose injustice everywhere.
In the progressive playbook for 2001, labor is called on to assume a leading role.
In the marriage movement conservatives and centrists find a home together.
The concept captures fundamental characteristics of today's world order.
Three million American soldiers--men for the most part--participated in the US invasion of Vietnam over the decade-long duration of that war for us--roughly 1964 to 1973.
"The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg." What a marvelous subject! Does any other person's life express more intensely the contradictions of American experience during the past fifty years?
Daniel Ellsberg. That young man with boundless promise who graduated third in his Harvard class of 1,147 in 1952, when America too seemed boundlessly promising. Ardent patriot and anticommunist, Ellsberg marched off in 1954 to become a model officer in the Marines. He next became a superstar theoretician of cold war tactics and strategy for the Pentagon, attaining the ultimate civil service grade of GS-18, equivalent to a major general, by age 33. Not content with planning wars for others to fight and defending the Vietnam War on college campuses, Ellsberg volunteered in 1965 to go to Vietnam, where he served almost two years on the team of Gen. Edward Lansdale, who had initiated US covert warfare there in 1954. In Vietnam, Ellsberg displayed such personal bravery in combat that some, like his present biographer, claim he must have been suicidal.
Daniel Ellsberg. The man who in 1971 revealed to the world the secret government that ruled by conspiracy and who thus lit the fuse that exploded the Nixon presidency. Pacifist and apostle of New Age lifestyle. Impassioned activist during seven national administrations, with dozens of arrests for civil disobedience against nuclearism and the American warfare state.
Daniel Ellsberg became 70 years old on April 7. As a birthday surprise, his son Michael unveiled a website containing celebration messages from hundreds of well-wishers. Many told how Ellsberg had inspired them, touching and transforming their lives. Almost all spoke of his "integrity," "courage" or "passion," and many used the word "hero," in phrases like "a true American hero" and "THE hero of the 20th century." Benedictine sister Joan Chittister wrote:
You don't know me. You never will. But you have had a great deal to do with the shape of my life. I like to think that I have always believed in justice, honesty, and integrity the way you do. But it was you who showed me what it looked like, up close and dangerous.
When you released the Pentagon Papers, that very action ripped away the last bit of pseudo patriotism clouding my mind that made it impossible for me to recognize real patriotism, real faith, real integrity. I saw in you what it meant to live beyond self-interest. It was a turning point in my life that I'm still learning to honor.
Thank you for that act of genuine humanity. It raised the humanity of us all. Your life has been a gift to my own.
Is there anything more that any of us would wish to have said about us? Eloquent tributes came from Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, John Dean, Jeffrey Masson, Randy Kehler, Barbara Dane, Max Frankel, Howard Zinn, Gar Alperovitz, Michael Lerner, Paul Krassner, Peter Dale Scott, David McReynolds, Senator Mike Gravel, Tom Schelling, Donna Haraway, many Vietnam veterans including Horace Coleman and Ron Kovic (author of Born on the Fourth of July), and Ellsberg's commanding officer in the Marines, who called him "the best platoon leader I had." Other veterans told of powerful emotional experiences reading the Pentagon Papers in Vietnam. Bruce Gagnon (now a key figure in the movement to prevent the militarization of space) described how Ellsberg's action converted him--a "Young Republican for Nixon," son of a military family and a 1971 Air Force enlistee--into a peace activist.
Besides all the messages centered on Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers, many paid tribute to his selfless activism for peace and justice in the subsequent three decades. Some said how proud they were to be arrested with him at demonstrations or to spend many frigid nights with him sitting in on the railroad tracks at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.
Thirty years ago now exactly, when Ellsberg shook the nation by releasing copies of the 7,000-page top-secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War, millions of Americans, Vietnamese and other people around the world responded with the same emotions. But of course many others reacted with fury, labeling him a traitor, a betrayer, a freak, a madman.
Nowhere did the fury rage hotter than in the Nixon White House. Although Richard Nixon himself at first did not seem especially alarmed on learning that the New York Times had begun publishing excerpts from a history ordered by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, he was quickly thrown into a desk-pounding frenzy by Henry Kissinger, whose own wild tirade characterized Ellsberg as a fanatical drug-crazed sexual pervert, "the most dangerous man in America," who "must be stopped at all costs." After moving on the legal front, first in failed attempts to block the Times and other newspapers from continuing to print excerpts from the Pentagon Papers and then initiating criminal proceedings against Ellsberg and his confederate Tony Russo, Nixon and his gang began to explore other ways to "neutralize" Ellsberg. Perhaps thinking it somewhat impractical to implement Kissinger's exhortations to "kill" Ellsberg, Nixon decided that the most effective way to "destroy" him would be to ruin his public image with "nasty stories" and "dirt" that could be smeared on his motivation. So he recruited the FBI, the CIA and a ruthless gang of thugs to construct Ellsberg's "psychological profile" and investigate his motivations.
Ellsberg's psychological profile and "motivations for releasing the Pentagon Papers" are also, in author Tom Wells's words, "central to this book." Wells opens with a scathing depiction of the White House Special Investigations Unit, who called themselves the Plumbers (their job was to stop leaks)--ex-CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, former Batista-regime secret policeman Bernard Barker and other Cuban-exile gangsters--as they carry out their infamous burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Ellsberg is then introduced, through the perspective of the conspirators, as "the traitor."
Then comes a long, strange paragraph that characterizes "the traitor" and spells out his motives. Starting off as the conspirators' grotesque view of Ellsberg, the paragraph imperceptibly segues into and merges with Wells's view. Was this, I wondered, just a rhetorical blunder? The answer comes in the following 600-plus pages, which, despite well-researched and sometimes powerful accounts of Ellsberg's achievements, constitute what amounts to an extended character assassination.
In 1971 Richard Nixon and his accomplices failed in their attempts to destroy Ellsberg's "public image," and their bizarre machinations led ultimately to the downfall of the President and prison for some of his gang. Now, three decades on, Wells seems to be trying to finish their botched job. It's easy to understand the motives of Nixon and his henchmen. Wells's motives are less obvious and of no particular interest. If we accept his avowal that he approves of Ellsberg's act, we might speculate that for some reason Wells simply has a visceral distaste for the man who carried it out.
The Wild Man of the title is a disorganized and undisciplined "egomaniac" and "narcissist" with a voracious sexual appetite, overweening ambition and an overpowering craving for adulation and public attention. He is incapable of completing work or maintaining personal loyalties. Wells never misses an opportunity to disparage Ellsberg's character. He even unearths evidence that he didn't bring any means of paying when he invited one couple out to dinner and that another couple living below his apartment called him a noisy neighbor. Finally, Wells skims over Ellsberg's last three decades as an activist, suggesting that this role was forced upon him because he couldn't hold down a job and is constitutionally incapable of completing books.
This last issue is central to Wells's account of his main question, Ellsberg's motives in leaking the Pentagon Papers. Although while working at the RAND Corporation, the Air Force's favorite think tank, Ellsberg in 1959 had been appalled to discover the Dr. Strangelove scenarios that defined US nuclear policy, he remained a committed and esteemed cold war theorist. In 1967, after returning from Vietnam, he was one of the first analysts recruited by the Pentagon to research its own history of US involvement there from 1945 on. Armed with security clearances so high that their very existence was buried in secrecy, Ellsberg burrowed deep into Pentagon archives. What he found helped initiate a metamorphosis in his view of the war. As a principal contributor to this Pentagon history, Ellsberg, once again at RAND, was later commissioned to write his own study of the war. RAND possessed two copies of the Pentagon Papers, logged in so covertly they bypassed the corporation's own document control system. Ellsberg was given permission to have one of these sets in his own office safe and thus became evidently the first person to read the entire report.
Like millions of other Americans stunned by the strength of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, Ellsberg had come to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and therefore ipso facto immoral. In the fall of 1969, he took the fateful step that was to prove the defining act of his life and a crucial event in the life of the nation. Aided by Russo, a former RAND analyst and committed radical, Ellsberg spent months making and secreting multiple photocopies of the Pentagon Papers, followed by more than a year of efforts to get them to the American people.
Why? Although Wells gives obligatory nods to Ellsberg's moral anguish about the genocide being perpetrated in Vietnam and the sordid history revealed in the Pentagon Papers as well as his increasing personal contacts with the antiwar movement, his main explanation comes in hundreds of pages of pop-psych deconstruction of Ellsberg's character. A central thesis, which he buttresses by printing reports from the CIA psychiatrists and to which he returns again and again, is that Ellsberg "couldn't finish his own Vietnam study" because of his "narcissistic" and "undisciplined" personality, and therefore his "egomania" prompted him to release the Pentagon Papers to attain the fame and adulation he craved. "Copying the Papers," Wells argues, would "afford Ellsberg a way out of his study."
What Wells reveals here is his own failure to understand what the Pentagon Papers were (which he never adequately explains) and their effects (which he continually belittles). Indeed, nowhere is there evidence that Wells has actually read extensively in the Pentagon Papers, which he refers to as merely a "study." Only 3,000 of the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers consisted of history and analysis. Unlike Wells, Ellsberg knew that no study, neither his own nor even those 3,000 pages, could possibly have an impact comparable to the explosive package he released to the world. True, those 3,000 pages revealed that the government itself knew that its public version of the Vietnam War and its history was a concoction of outrageous lies, but many other published studies had already made the same revelations. The real bomb that not only blew open the true history of the war but exposed to full view the hideous nature of every post-World War II US government was the other 4,000 pages: the classified documents reproduced as sources for the study.
Wells acts as though the only measure of the Pentagon Papers' effects is whether they shortened the Vietnam War, and he makes it seem as though they didn't. "Only a modest 51 percent of Americans were even aware of the Papers' publication," he argues. Modest? Isn't that a majority? Has the majority of Americans ever been aware of the publication of any other papers or book in the twentieth century? The paperback edition of the excerpts published by the Times sold 1.5 million copies, "though," Wells argues, "few people actually read it." But the impact, especially of the documents, was astonishing.
Nobody has described this more potently than W.D. Ehrhart, the wounded Marine who has since become one of the great poets and writers of nonfiction produced by the war, in a whole chapter of his memoir Passing Time devoted to his reading of the Pentagon Papers: "Page after page after endless page of it. Vile. Immoral. Despicable. Obscene.... I'd been a fool, ignorant and naive. A sucker. For such men, I had become a murderer. For such men, I had forfeited my honor, my self-respect, and my humanity. For such men, I had been willing to lay down my life."
Like Ehrhart and unlike Wells, millions recognize that the Pentagon Papers remain relevant today because they allow us to see what we were never meant to see, because they offer a priceless chance to eavesdrop on how our leaders talk when they think we will never be able to hear.
Take a single example. Many of us knew, before the Pentagon Papers proved, that President Kennedy was lying when he disclaimed any responsibility for the conspiracy to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, the man he and his father had helped choose to be Washington's puppet ruler of the fictitious state of "South Vietnam." But what we could only infer was the ideology underlying the conspiracy, as expressed by Henry Cabot Lodge, our ambassador to Diem, in a top-secret cablegram to Washington included in the Pentagon Papers:
We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government.... there is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration, still less that Diem or any member of the family can govern the country in a way to gain the support of the people who count, i.e., the educated class in and out of government service, civil and military--not to mention the American people.
If one of Ellsberg's main goals in copying the Pentagon Papers was fame and adulation--as the CIA's psychiatrists, the Plumbers and Wells would have it--then how can one explain what he did next? Although Russo, who had fewer illusions about politicians, was urging him to make immediate and dramatic disclosure, Ellsberg instead spent months pleading with antiwar senators and representatives--such as J. William Fulbright, George McGovern and Paul (Pete) McCloskey--to release the papers, only to be brushed off. Fulbright's main aide dismissed the papers as "dull and boring," and McGovern told him to go to the Times.
Which is what he finally did. With intricate intrigue, Ellsberg provided a full set to Neil Sheehan, who in turn orchestrated a byzantine operation within the Times, which published the first excerpts on June 13, 1971. At this point, as Ellsberg enters what Wells calls his "battle mode," Wild Man becomes truly exciting and hints of the book it might have been.
On June 15, the government got a temporary injunction that stopped the Times. Now Ellsberg's genius for tactics came into play, as he began to deploy the multiple copies he had stashed in secret locations. On June 17 he and his wife, Pat, went underground. While eluding a major nationwide FBI manhunt, they kept outmaneuvering the White House. On June 18 the Washington Post began publishing excerpts from a copy Ellsberg had smuggled to them. As soon as the Post was enjoined, excerpts began appearing in the Boston Globe. And then the Chicago Sun-Times. Next the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As soon as one paper was enjoined, another would start publishing until seventeen newspapers got into the action. The White House's attempts at damage control were no match for Ellsberg's cloak-and-dagger operations. While ABC and NBC were broadcasting news about the nationwide dragnet for Ellsberg, Walter Cronkite was interviewing him on CBS in a seedy clandestine apartment. Ellsberg's most decisive stratagem was smuggling a copy to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who promptly got it into the Congressional Record, thus making it forever an open public document.
On June 28 Ellsberg surrendered to face criminal charges under the Espionage Act. On June 30 the Supreme Court overturned all the injunctions against publishing. After many months of legal maneuvers--and illegal government maneuvers--the trial of Ellsberg and Russo finally opened in January 1973, the same month the United States officially ended its war in Vietnam (a fact that escapes Wells's notice). By that time, the Plumbers had burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, tried to attack Ellsberg physically at a demonstration, developed plans to firebomb the Brookings Institution (because Nixon thought Ellsberg had hidden documents in its vault) and burglarized the Democratic Party's national office in the Watergate Hotel during the 1972 election campaign. During the trial, Nixon's Chief of Staff, John Ehrlichman, twice tried to bribe the presiding judge with the possibility of being chosen to head the FBI. These facts were brought into the trial, which was now taking place during the Watergate hearings. Finally, when evidence of previously undisclosed White House wiretaps of Ellsberg was introduced, the judge was forced to dismiss all charges. As David Rudenstine pointed out in his 1996 The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (a more informative and helpful book), the Plumbers' machinations against Ellsberg "helped form the basis for two of the three impeachment articles adopted against President Nixon" the following year. So Nixon's attempts to destroy Ellsberg led to his own destruction.
In telling the story of Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Wild Man breaks little new ground not already tilled by Rudenstine and Peter Schrag in his 1974 Test of Loyalty: Daniel Ellsberg and the Rituals of Secret Government. He also fails to contextualize Ellsberg's life historically, almost forgetting the "Times" of his title. Without some sense of what it was like to grow to adult consciousness during the late 1940s and 1950s, one cannot understand either the utter normality of Ellsberg's militant anticommunism and profound faith in American democracy or the effect of discovering the secret truth.
Nor does Wells probe that arcane realm of the government-contract think tanks, where civilians answerable to no elected official formulate policies and concoct plans that can shake the world. This think-tank sphere was the immediate matrix that both formed Ellsberg the cold-war theorist and inspired him to expose its dark secrets. Wells's methodology is to interpolate into the story a pastiche of pieces of the 236 interviews he conducted, many with people who have strong motives to discredit Ellsberg, like his former associates at RAND who consider him, as Wells acknowledges, "a loathsome traitor."
So the main value of Wild Man depends on the usefulness of Wells's analysis of Ellsberg's psychology and motivation. But this raises what may be the most important issue, one never articulated in Wild Man: How should we compare Ellsberg's psychology and motivation with the psychology and motivation of all those who kept the secrets he revealed? When Ellsberg tries to explain to Wells in an interview the psychological power of possessing secrets, Wells interprets this as a damaging personal confession rather than an explanation of the cult of secrecy endemic to the secret government. Why did Kissinger call Ellsberg the most dangerous man in America? Because unlike himself and the other insiders of the secret government, Ellsberg was violating their most basic code.
Wells presents Ellsberg as an example of unhealthy psychology, implicitly suggesting that the Strangeloves at RAND happily grinding out their plans for the destruction of Vietnam, not to mention global thermonuclear war, are healthy. If Ellsberg had not released the Pentagon Papers and dedicated the rest of his life to peace and justice activism but instead had stayed inside the secret government, would Wells then consider him a normal person? Much of the book consists of the opinions of Ellsberg's character, motives and psychology expressed by the war planners and war makers. If Ellsberg is a "wild man," what are they?
And what were Ellsberg's motives? They were not fundamentally different from those of other betrayers of the secret government, like Philip Agee in his Inside the Company and Ralph McGehee in his Deadly Deceits. Nor were they very different from those of the soldiers who fragged officers who ordered them out on search-and-destroy missions, the sailors who sabotaged every major aircraft carrier engaged in bombing Vietnam or the supersecret Air Force unit court-martialed for going on strike and refusing to provide in-flight intelligence to the B-52s during the Christmas bombing of Hanoi on the eve of the trial of Ellsberg and Russo.
The psychological issue as posed by Wild Man reminds me of the case of Lieut. Steven Gifford, a missile-launch officer in training, who was shocked to learn that he would be expected to carry out first-strike nuclear annihilation of cities. Told that firing missiles should be a "Pavlovian reaction" and that he "should salivate at the very thought of turning the missile ignition key," Gifford said he might have to think about it first. Therefore the Air Force sent him to a psychiatrist and gave him a less than honorable discharge. His "only problem," according to the psychiatrist's testimony, "was an active conscience."
Nancy Chan is a postfeminist icon of sorts. The ultimate lady entrepreneur, Chan--the title character of the popular serial Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, catalogued on Salon.com--has an enviable collection of Prada bags, a pricey pad on the Upper East Side and a little black book full of Wall Street power brokers. Nancy's creator, Tracy Quan, is a former working girl herself, who describes her past life as a whirlwind of lucrative dates: "Here I was," she writes breathlessly, "a New York call girl, routinely bedding CEOs, foreign nobles, and entertainment moguls in the city's five-star hotels."
What would antipornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who electrified a generation of women's studies majors, think of Quan and her resourceful, business-minded creation? Addressing an audience at the University of Michigan law school in 1992, Dworkin admonished that society might want us to "feel a kinky little thrill every time you think of something being stuck in a woman. I want you to feel the delicate tissues in her body that are being misused." All prostitution, she maintains, "whether the event took place in the Plaza Hotel or somewhere more inelegant," is a violation of women's bodies and their civil rights.
What's missing from both sides of the theoretical divide is the "work" half of the sex worker's job description ("sex worker" is a term preferred by many in the industry to the old-fashioned "prostitute" or the derogatory "hooker"). For women who make their living in strip clubs, brothels, massage parlors or in front of the pornographer's camera, sex is part of the job description, and the work is often as dull and unstimulating as telemarketing or stitching sleeves in a garment factory.
Describing the monotony of her job, Miss Mary Ann, a peep-show dancer, complained in an essay, "Labor Organizing in the Skin Trade":
The job has always been defined in MY mind by the repetitive manual labor it demands. Punch a time clock, spot an open window, make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stilletto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven't shaven off, repeat these ten steps until the customer comes, then move on to the next window, repeat the process until your shift's over, punch out.
Miss Mary Ann works at the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco, which was recently the site of a bitter--and ultimately successful--unionization campaign (chronicled in the critically acclaimed documentary Live Nude Girls UNITE!).
Of course, a good stripper can never let on that she is thinking about collective bargaining and the picket line while she's working the stage. One of the requirements of the job is to pretend you're having a great time--as Miss Mary Ann says, to pout, wink and swivel your hips. Until recently, writing about the sex industry followed suit. Tell-alls like Madam: Chronicles of a Nevada Cathouse and Confessions of a Part-Time Call Girl satisfy our curiosity with a liberal ratio of sex scenes to story line. As the study of sex work has crept into the academy, usually through the backdoor of cultural studies but on some campuses in unabashed porn studies classes, volumes like Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition are beginning to reconsider sex work in the context of the historically limited employment opportunities for women.
Brothel, Alexa Albert's account of her four years spent observing life on and off at the Mustang Ranch, one of Nevada's legal brothels (while she also attended Harvard Medical School), is a mix of these two genres. Part serious reflection on the realities of working in the sex industry, part fluffy exposé, what Albert has to say is worth noting, if you can disregard how she says it. Think feature story in Oprah's O magazine, nestled somewhere between the life lessons and the daily goals calendar.
Albert's aim is to convince her squeamish, middle-American audience that prostitution can be a legitimate job and brothels a valid workplace. Or, as she puts it in her cloying girl-chat: "Nevada's legal brothels were far less repugnant than I had expected. They appeared to be clean, legitimate workplaces, and the women were not shackled hostages but self-aware professionals there of their own free will." Of the working girls themselves, Albert waxes even more sappy, declaring that "their hopefulness in spite of what they know about human nature makes my heart ache. These women are just like the rest of us."
It's the right sentiment in exactly the wrong tone. When Albert says that sex workers are "just like the rest of us," she means that even though they're whores, they have feelings, hopes and dreams too. She could have added that the troubles they face at work--everything from long hours away from their families to lack of health benefits and overtime compensation--are just like the problems many low-skilled Americans experience on the job.
For instance, management at the Mustang Ranch considers its seventy-five-odd women to be independent contractors, which means that for all legal purposes they aren't employees but freelancers working on temporary assignment. By claiming that they only provide a venue for paid sexual encounters to occur, the brothel's owners can avoid paying employee-related taxes and giving their "girls" health insurance, sick leave and workers' compensation. Such nonstandard and, in a way, deceitful working arrangements are by no means unique to the sex industry but are widespread in construction, manufacturing and the service sector as well. Subcontracting--by which employers avoid paying benefits--and an increased reliance on part-time work are posing a serious threat to job security and have come under fire recently by living-wage activists at Harvard University and workers at Boeing and UPS.
Just by bringing up taxes and health insurance--two highly unsexy topics--Albert goes a long way to redirect our image of sex work away from both the sanitized rags-to-riches fable of Pretty Woman and the sordid morality tale à la Hard Copy. Neither of these Hollywood types rings true to Albert; she writes, sounding a little like Al Gore during the populist phase of his presidential campaign, that the women she met possessed "a profound sense of personal responsibility and an unwavering commitment to their families that ultimately drove them to do this 'immoral' work." Over one-third of the women Albert met at the ranch have children, and because the brothel's residence policy requires sex workers to remain on the premises while working (often for weeks at a time), they cannot spend much time raising them. The concerns of women like Donna, who brings home hundreds of dollars in presents on her weeks off, echo the worries of all working parents: Should I take that second job and sacrifice the time I could be spending at home with my kids? Can quality time or piles of presents make up for my long hours at the office?
The difficulty of separating personal life from work, a common gripe in an age of cell phones and telecommuting, is particularly hard for the sex workers Albert got to know. Every woman has her own method of emotionally differentiating between her professional sex-kitten persona and her private sexual self. An older, seasoned prostitute, Linda, declared that a true working girl never enjoys sex with her clients. "I think about the money," she says honestly. "The calculator is always cha-ching-ing while the guy's fucking me." Baby, a wilder, free-spirit type, disagreed, saying just as sincerely that "if you're gonna have sex with strangers, your best bet is to try to make the most of the situation."
Sex workers often find--surprise, surprise--that work can get in the way of building stable romantic relationships. Straitlaced Brittany is married to Jon, who found himself bothered by the nature of her job (though he is one of her former clients). To silence his misgivings, Brittany told him that she is able to emotionally detach from her work. "She sees blackness and nothingness where the man's face should be," Jon told Albert, and then he wondered, "what am I, a wimp, because I can't block it out and she can?" Equally troubling for their relationship is Brittany's sexual timidity on her weeks off; she associates initiating sex with work, and she confided that as soon as he starts becoming sexual, "I become almost frigid."
The need to negotiate the often blurry boundary between one's professional and personal selves is not a problem unique to sex work. Nannies and home healthcare workers often experience an emotional attachment to their clients that can leave them feeling estranged from their own family. Professors, counselors and therapists must take care to distinguish their professional rapport with younger students and patients from inappropriate attention.
But comparing the stresses of sex work to the problems faced in other service jobs is not to underestimate the particularities of prostitution. Irene, the tough den mother at the ranch, warns new recruits that "this job is tough. Some of these guys are fat, some are ugly, and some have BO," but if you want to make money, you can't be choosy. When the bell rings, signaling that a customer is at the door, you have to join the lineup, smile coyly and "spread your legs." To soothe the irritation of frequent intercourse--a form of repetitive stress--women insert vitamin E capsules into their vaginas and coat their tampons with mentholatum. Sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, are another unique occupational hazard, though Albert notes that since mandatory AIDS testing began in 1986, none of Nevada's sex workers have tested positive. Regulated brothels like the Mustang Ranch require condom use for all forms of sexual contact.
For all their hard work, the women of Nevada's legal brothels are treated as a class of untouchables, prohibited by management from leaving the grounds while on duty. Five days into her first visit to the ranch, Albert realized that she hadn't been outside. "It had struck me that the brothel residents actually lived like animals in a zoo," she writes. "Whereas the non-'working' staff and the customers are at liberty to come and go, the working girls were...let out for fresh-air breaks only in the enclosed front- and backyards." Women are required to rent a room--which doubles as an office and a place to sleep--from the brothel and to pay staff runners to do their errands in town. Though the women are supposedly independent contractors, their every move is carefully monitored: They are not allowed to sit out a lineup during their shift, and a floor manager listens to their private negotiations with clients over a secret intercom system to discourage the women from withholding part of management's cut or trading sex for drugs.
Brothel owners justify this near-captivity on a number of grounds, including the worry that their women will use their time off to expand their customer base on the side, cutting management out of the deal. Local governments are just as happy with this informal segregation of prostitutes. Ten of Nevada's seventeen counties allow prostitution in licensed brothels (one of the exceptions is Las Vegas's Clark County, which is prevented from doing so by a state law that applies only to counties with a population above 400,000). In 1998 local governments collected more than $500,000 from brothel licenses and associated fees. Yet, despite their financial interest in the legal sex industry, most counties tolerate prostitution only grudgingly and try to confine the unsavory business to the edges of town.
Nevada is not alone in this not-in-my-backyard approach. Even in Amsterdam, notorious for its thriving sex trade, it's hard to tell whether the strings of red lights marking off the red-light district are intended to attract clients or to separate the working girls from the rest of the city. In most of Europe and parts of the Third World prostitution itself is illegal but profiting from the proceeds of sex work (by pimping or running a brothel) is not. The real criminals, the thinking goes, are not the prostitutes but their greedy and abusive managers. Spend time in a brothel, and you'll be exposed not only to a lot of hard work but to a lot of sex. Despite all her insight into the "work" question, Albert quickly slips into the role of tawdry Dateline anchor in her accounts of brothel-style sexuality, offering her audience the vicarious thrill of exploring an underground world at a distance. Like a dutiful Jane Pauley, she joins the girls in trying on lingerie from a traveling salesman's collection, confiding "I couldn't help imagining myself in various risqué outfits." She chooses a slinky red number to surprise her husband. Nervously, she consents when Baby, and then Brittany, two of her closest friends, invite her to watch them "party" (the euphemism favored for turning a trick) and then spends days wondering, "Did I even want to watch? Would I feel uncomfortable? Embarrassed? Sickened?"
Despite all her questions, Albert never admits feeling the slightest bit turned on--but I don't believe her. At the very least, she is fascinated by the world of appearances and performance; at heart, she is a voyeur. "I spent hours on the parlor sofas watching the lineup," she writes without a hint of irony, "entertaining myself by silently handicapping each woman, asking myself who was most eye-catching, or whose outfit was most shameless. Was it the wet-pink vinyl, lace-up cat suit, or the sheer, sapphire baby doll?"
With little awareness of her appropriating gaze, which renders the women she befriends and elsewhere writes of so humanely as so much sexual fodder, her language is straight out of Penthouse Forum:
Though very different in appearance, all were surprisingly attractive, I found myself thinking, from a buxom Native American with silky-smooth black hair to her waist and bloodred fingernails, to a bleached blonde with serpent tattoos spiraling up her calves.... Ashley, for instance, a statuesque working girl in her early twenties who wore a sheer black peignoir trimmed with lush marabou over a rhinestone-studded black bikini and matching black marabou slippers.
Compare this to Rebecca Mead's description of Air Force Amy, one of the top bookers at another Nevada brothel, the Moonlite Bunnyranch, in an April 23 New Yorker article: "Amy has been a legal prostitute in Nevada for ten years; she has white-blond hair and blue-white teeth and wears a D cup; she is 35, though parts of her appear to be of more recent vintage." For Amy, a D cup is just a uniform to be worn, along with bleached hair and capped teeth, makeup and a G-string, to improve job performance.
In a few well-chosen words, Mead picks up on an essential fact that Albert ignores: For sex workers, "sex" cannot be divorced from "work." Dress, style, grooming and a well-timed moan are just tools of the trade, much like an artist's portfolio or a writer's clip file. The girl who presents herself in the lineup ready to party, a girl named Cherie or Desiree, is really a worker on duty, and when her shift is over, she punches out.
In the summer of 1986 I was traveling in Nicaragua, working on the book of reportage that was published six months later as The Jaguar Smile. It was the seventh anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, and the war against the US-backed contra forces was intensifying almost daily. I was accompanied by my interpreter, Margarita, an improbably glamorous and high-spirited blonde with more than a passing resemblance to Jayne Mansfield. Our days were filled with evidence of hardship and struggle: the scarcity of produce in the markets of Managua, the bomb crater on a country road where a school bus had been blown up by a contra mine. One morning, however, Margarita seemed unusually excited.
"Bono's coming!" she cried, bright-eyed as any fan, and then added, without any change in vocal inflection or dulling of ocular glitter, "Tell me: Who is Bono?"
In a way, the question was as vivid a demonstration of her country's beleaguered isolation as anything I heard or saw in the frontline villages, the destitute Atlantic Coast bayous or the quake-ravaged city streets. In July 1986, the release of U2's monster album The Joshua Tree was still eight months away, but they were already, after all, the masters of War. Who was Bono? He was the fellow who sang, "I can't believe the news today, I can't close my eyes and make it go away." And Nicaragua was one of the places where the news had become unbelievable, and you couldn't shut your eyes to it, and so of course he was there.
I didn't meet Bono in Nicaragua, but he did read The Jaguar Smile. Five years later, when I was involved in some difficulties of my own, my friend the composer Michael Berkeley asked if I wanted to go to a U2 Achtung Baby gig, with its hanging psychedelic Trabants. In those days it was hard for me to go most places, but I said yes and was touched by the enthusiasm with which the request was greeted by U2's people. And so there I was at Earl's Court, standing in the shadows, listening.
Backstage, after the show, I was shown into a mobile home full of sandwiches and children. There were no groupies at U2 gigs; just crèches. Bono came in and was instantly festooned with daughters. My memory of that first chat is that I wanted to talk about music and he was keen to talk politics--Nicaragua, an upcoming protest against unsafe nuclear waste disposal at Sellafield in northern England, his support for me and my work. We didn't spend long together, but we both enjoyed it. Bono was less taken with Michael Berkeley, however. Years afterward he told me he'd felt condescended to by the classical composer. My own view is that there was a misunderstanding--Michael isn't a condescending man, but a high culture/low culture rift had opened, and that was that.
Two years later, when the giant Zooropa tour arrived at Wembley Stadium, Bono called to ask if I'd like to come out on stage. U2 wanted to make a gesture of solidarity, and this was the biggest one they could think of. When I told my then-14-year-old son about the plan, he said, "Just don't sing, Dad. If you sing, I'll have to kill myself." There was no question of my being allowed to sing--U2 aren't stupid people--but I did go out there and feel, for a moment, what it's like to have 80,000 fans cheering you on. The audience at the average book reading is a little smaller. Girls tend not to climb onto their boyfriends' shoulders during them, and stage-diving is discouraged. Even at the very best book readings, there are only one or two supermodels dancing by the mixing desk. Anton Corbijn took a photograph that day for which he persuaded Bono and me to exchange glasses. There I am looking godlike in Bono's wraparound Fly shades, while he peers benignly over my uncool literary specs. There could be no more graphic expression of the difference between our two worlds.
It was inevitable that both U2 and I would be criticized in Britain in bringing these two worlds together. They have been accused of trying to acquire some borrowed intellectual "cred," and I of course am supposedly star-struck. None of this matters very much. I've been crossing frontiers all my life--physical, social, intellectual, artistic borderlines--and I spotted, in Bono and Edge, whom I've come to know better than the others so far, an equal hunger for the new, for whatever nourishes. I think, too, that the band's involvement in religion--as inescapable a subject in Ireland as it is in India--gave us, when we first met, a subject and an enemy (fanaticism) in common.
An association with U2 is good for one's anecdote stock. Some of these anecdotes are risibly apocryphal: A couple of years ago, for example, a front-page Irish press report confidently announced that I had been living in "the folly"--the guest house with a spectacular view of Killiney Bay that stands in the garden of Bono's Dublin home--for four whole years! Apparently I arrived and departed at dead of night in a helicopter that landed on the beach below the house. Other stories that sound apocryphal are unfortunately true. It is true, for example, that I once danced--or, to be precise, pogoed--with Van Morrison in Bono's living room. It is also true that in the small hours of the following morning I was treated to the rough end of the great man's tongue. (Van Morrison has been known to get a little grumpy toward the end of a long evening. It's possible that my pogoing wasn't up to his exacting standards.)
Over the years U2 and I discussed collaborating on various projects. Bono mentioned an idea he had for a stage musical, but my imagination failed to spark. There was another long Dublin night (a bottle of Jameson's was involved) during which the film director Neil Jordan, Bono and I conspired to make a film of my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories. To my great regret this never came to anything either.
Then, in 1999, I published my novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in which the Orpheus myth winds through a story set in the world of rock music. Orpheus is the defining myth for singers and writers--for the Greeks, he was the greatest singer as well as the greatest poet--and it was my Orphic tale that finally made possible the collaboration we'd been kicking around.
It happened, like many good things, without being planned. I sent Bono and U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, pre-publication copies of the novel in typescript, hoping they would tell me if the thing worked or not. Bono said afterward that he had been very worried on my behalf, believing that I had taken on an impossible task, and that he began reading the book in the spirit of a "policeman"--that is, to save me from my mistakes. Fortunately, the novel passed the test. Deep inside it is the lyric of what Bono called the novel's "title track," a sad elegy written by the novel's main male character about the woman he loved, who has been swallowed up in an earthquake: a contemporary Orpheus' lament for his lost Eurydice.
Bono called me. "I've written this melody for your words, and I think it might be one of the best things I've done." I was astonished. One of the novel's principal images is that of the permeable frontier between the world of the imagination and the one we inhabit, and here was an imaginary song crossing that frontier. I went to McGuinness's place near Dublin to hear it. Bono took me away from everyone else and played the demo CD to me in his car. Only when he was sure that I liked it--and I liked it right away--did we go back indoors and play it for the assembled company.
There wasn't much after that that one would properly call "collaboration." There was a long afternoon when Daniel Lanois, who was producing the song, brought his guitar and sat down with me to work out the lyrical structure. And there was the Day of the Lost Words, when I was called urgently by a woman from Principle Management, which looks after U2. "They're in the studio and they can't find the lyrics. Could you fax them over?" Otherwise, silence, until the song was ready.
I wasn't expecting it to happen, but I'm proud of it. It's called "The Ground Beneath Her Feet." For U2, too, it was a departure. They haven't often used anyone's lyrics but their own, and they don't usually start with the lyrics; typically, the words come at the very end. But somehow it all worked out. I suggested facetiously that they might consider renaming the band U2+1, or, even better, Me2, but I think they'd heard all those gags before.
There was a long al fresco lunch in Killiney at which the film director Wim Wenders startlingly announced that artists must no longer use irony. Plain speaking, he argued, was necessary now: Communication should be direct, and anything that might create confusion should be eschewed. Irony, in the rock world, has acquired a special meaning. The multimedia self-consciousness of U2's Achtung Baby-Zooropa phase, which simultaneously embraced and debunked the mythology and gobbledygook of rock stardom, capitalism and power, and of which Bono's white-faced, gold-lamé-suited, red-velvet-horned MacPhisto incarnation was the emblem, is what Wenders was criticizing. Characteristically, U2 responded by taking this approach even further, pushing it further than it would bear, in the less-well-received POP-Mart tour. After that, it seems, they took Wenders's advice. The new album, and the Elevation tour, is the spare, impressive result.
There was a lot riding on this album, this tour. If things hadn't gone well it might have been the end of U2. They certainly discussed that possibility, and the album was much delayed as they agonized over it. Extracurricular activities, mainly Bono's, also slowed them down, but since these included getting David Trimble and John Hume to shake hands on a public stage and reducing Jesse Helms--Jesse Helms!--to tears, winning his support for the campaign against Third World debt, it's hard to argue that these were self-indulgent irrelevances. At any event, All That You Can't Leave Behind turned out to be a strong album, a renewal of creative force and, as Bono put it, there's a lot of good will flowing toward the band right now.
I've seen them three times this year: in the "secret" pre-tour gig in London's little Astoria Theatre and then twice in America, in San Diego and Anaheim. They've come down out of the giant stadiums to play arena-sized venues that seem tiny after the gigantism of their recent past. The act has been stripped bare; essentially, it's just the four of them out there, playing their instruments and singing their songs. For a person of my age, who remembers when rock music was always like this, the show feels simultaneously nostalgic and innovative. In the age of choreographed, instrumentless little-boy and little-girl bands (yes, I know the Supremes didn't play guitars, but they were the Supremes!) it's exhilarating to watch a great, grown-up quartet do the fine, simple things so well. Direct communication, as Wim Wenders said. It works.
And they're playing my song.
Franky Four Fingers. Bullet Tooth Tony. Boris the Blade. Barry the Baptist. Porno king Hatchet Harry, who coshes his victims with a fifteen-inch black rubber cock. These are just a few of the horrible bastards who have captured the hearts and minds of young Brits over the past two or three years, thanks to the cinematic crime wave launched by Guy Ritchie's hugely successful Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Lock, Stock..., its follow-up Snatch and the entourage of cocky British gangster films that have followed in the wake of Ritchie's success personify an in-your-face--think Oasis, think art-world bad boy Damien Hirst, think Maxim, FHM and Loaded--British export drive to show the world that there's more to British culture than the mummified exhibits displayed on PBS.
And there's no sign anywhere of a lull in the crime wave, as British producers, smelling filthy lucre, are courting and flattering ex-cons by the dozen. Rumor even has it that Ritchie's planning to make another gangster flick, this time a bio-pic of Ronnie Knight, the former husband of soap star/siren Barbara Windsor, whose involvement in Britain's biggest cash robbery earned him seven years at Her Majesty's pleasure. It's enough to make one scream, "Do me a bloody favor!" (as Ritchie's characters often do). Well, Ritchie's charms may have won over Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro and Madonna, to whom Ritchie's married, but his films are too smugly ironic for their own good; there's a vile, penny-dreadful take on working-class East London--so typical of Ritchie and middle-class England's fascination with all things cockney, the patois of the area--that reduces and romanticizes gangland Britain to no more than a cockney minstrel show.
The fuel that Ritchie's films run on is the rich East London vernacular, its celebrated rhyming slang, its vicious comic irony. Ritchie is clearly intoxicated by it, and his films are stitched together by verbal gags that sometimes sparkle but more often than not have a peculiarly depthless feel--like listening to a suburban white boy rap. There's no sense of fear: The younger crooks in his films, the small faces trying to hustle their way into the criminal big time via the card table or the boxing ring, resemble the Ant Hill Mob from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, while the older crooks are sharp suits and funny nicknames in search of a character.
Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, however, is the perfect antidote to Guy Ritchie, the heist movie that Harold Pinter never got around to writing. Like Pinter's early plays, what's between the words is as important as the words themselves. There is real menace here, a context of violence that is more than style. The authenticity and danger, especially when its two leads go mano a mano with each other, come from the use of silence and pauses, and from Don Logan's (Ben Kingsley) sudden, almost Tourette's-like outbursts. To say that Sexy Beast is an evolutionary leap for the New Brit gangster film assumes that those following it will emulate its innovations. I doubt they will. But Sexy Beast dares to do something different: It makes its thugs think, and it treats the gangland milieu seriously.
Glazer's strikingly mature and reflective directorial debut is about what happens to a middle-aged crook when he loses his yen for villainy and drops out. Gal Dove (a brilliant Ray Winstone), an old gangland legend, has decamped to Spain's Costa Del Crime, leaving his gangster pastback in a grotty old England, which he's quite happy to do, ta very much. He's a beet root-skinned, thickset, ex-pat Brit who's spent nine no-risk years sunning himself by his swimming pool, tempting skin cancer. Every day is a long hot summer, a still life, interrupted only by Deedee, the sexy ex-porno actress wife he adores, returning from her high-end shopping trips. And the occasional falling boulder that rolls down the hillside to which his villa is attached, and into his pool.
The falling boulder heralds the arrival of Don "Malky" Logan, an embittered and very scary former rival/colleague from Gal's old manor who has his sights on bullying Gal into joining him and an elite firm of crooks who are masterminding a grandiose bank robbery. Don is an extraordinary amalgam of ressentiment and rage, and the fear he strikes in Gal, Deedee and their two friends, Aitch and Jackie, is matched by the fear he strikes in the viewer. Voices tremble at the mere mention of his name, let alone his company. He has the frame, gait and dress sense of a former jailbird who spent his years inside methodically. His tidy muscularity complements his smart but casual appearance, and his head's shiny phallic texture recalls, in a rather wicked way, Kingsley's celebrated performance as Gandhi (there's a mischievous moment when we see Don, stripped to his undies, watching soccer on the telly in the meditative pose of the Mahatma). Gangster No 1., an earlier Brit flick from Acid House director Paul McGuigan, captured this menace in fits and starts. But in Don Logan, whether it's the casual way he misses the toilet bowl when he pisses, or how he refuses to extinguish his cigarette on the plane, it's constant. There hasn't been such a frightening gangster since Joe Pesci said, "Do I amuse you?" to Ray Liotta in GoodFellas.
It's Don's subtle and ruthless verbal jabbing of Gal, first in an informal, almost matter-of-fact way when he tells him, "You're wanted in London this Friday," that starts Gal's unraveling. Gal finds all kinds of ways of trying to say "No," but you don't say no to Don Logan, especially when he can probe every one of your weak spots. There's a touch of the Gestapo in his interrogatory manner: the staccato drill of Don's monosyllabic orders, the relentless exhortation to "Do the job," the barking, prodding "yes, yes, yes, yes" to Gal's "no," and the sheer "fuck-offness," as Don would put it, of his "Are you going to stand there like Porky Pig, hiding behind your ex-porn star wife's skirt?"
Don's got something here, and in fact, it's Deedee who saves Gal's skin. But it's obvious that Don's annoyance at Gal's recalcitrance reveals a deep-seated loathing that goes beyond his animus toward Gal's cushy domestic life: "They used to call you Gorgeous Gal," Don taunts him, exhuming Gal's memory of when, before exile softened him up, he was one of the London underworld's most celebrated faces. Their exchanges, however, expose Don's own wounds. Underneath his pit-bull exterior is a man of many torments; the way he verbally beats up on Gal and Deedee implies the motivations of a spurned lover. That we wonder whether Don holds some sort of torch for Gal is indicative of the new directions Sexy Beast takes us in, a stark contrast to Guy Ritchie's sexually squeamish and closeted world.
Part of Sexy Beast's surprise comes from the fact that it's a restoration work. Deedee may have bailed Gal out, but he returns to a rain-soaked London anyway, to the patria of his old stomping grounds, hoping to make peace and avert the suspicions of kingpin Teddy Bass (Ian McShane)--"Mr. Black Magic himself"--who wonders why Don Logan never returned from Spain. We go back in time here: Gal returns home, and so does the film, to the noirish pigment of the 1960s gangster flick, to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, John Boorman's Point Blank and even Mike Hodges's later Get Carter. The casting of McShane--who played Richard Burton's gangland boyfriend in 1971's Villain--as kingpin Bass, and James Fox--who was unforgettable as Chas, the repressed, possibly homosexual East End face in the wild and bohemian Performance--as Bass's former lover who runs the bank that Bass plans to rob, is a respectful nod to, rather than a pastiche of, the 1960s gangster film. It's also a symbolic return of the homoerotic subtext that has been lost in the new Brit gangster film.
Who would have expected this from a director of commercials and pop videos? But Glazer, aided by a pitch-perfect script, is a sorcerer who expertly marshals Winstone and Kingsley, and extends the territory of the genre with his mesmerizing command of space, contrast and color, and his vigorous timing. Sexy Beast starts slowly with the sharp, rich blues and yellows of Gal's sweltering but sedate Almerian hideaway, turns apoplectic with the pitch-black fury of Don Logan's nocturnal horror show and then cascades into the grimy kind-of-blue shades of gangland Britain. What starts so modestly as a meditation on the pleasures (and perils) of doing damn all has in its last movement the nerve and velocity of the gangster film at its purest and most primal.