Unions are gradually making fuller use of the Internet's capacities to improve communication with their own staffs or members. But increasingly they are also using the web to recruit new members or to establish "virtual communities" of union supporters in arenas not yet amenable to the standard collective-bargaining model.
Alliance@IBM (www.allianceibm.org) is an example of an effective Net-supported minority union, operating without a demonstrated pro-union majority and without a collective-bargaining contract at a traditional nonunion company. The alliance provides information and advice to workers at IBM through the web. A similar effort at a partially organized employer is WAGE ("Workers at GE," www.geworkersunited.org), which draws on contributions from fourteen cooperating international unions. The Microsoft-inflected WashTech (www.washtech.org) and the Australian IT Workers Alliance (www.itworkers-alliance.org) are open-source unions that are closer to craft unions or occupational associations. Both are responsive to the distinctive professional needs of these workers, such as access to a variety of job experiences and additional formal education, and the portability of high-level benefits when changing jobs.
The National Writers Union (www.nwu.org), a UAW affiliate, is another example of a union virtually created off the Net. It provides information and advice--including extensive job postings--to members, and it lobbies on their behalf, most spectacularly in the recent Supreme Court decision it won on freelance worker copyright rights. But most of its members work without a collectively bargained contract.
In Britain, UNISON (the largest union in the country) and the National Union of Students have a website that tells student workers their rights and gives them advice about how to deal with workplace problems (www.troubleatwork.org.uk). It is a particularly engaging and practical illustration of how concrete problems can be addressed through Net assistance.
Finally, for a more geographically defined labor community, take a look at the website of the King County AFL-CIO (www.kclc.org), the Seattle central labor council that uses the Net to coordinate its own business, bring community and labor groups together for discussion and common action, post messages and general information to the broader community, and otherwise create a "virtual" union hall with much of the spirit and dense activity that used to be common in actual union halls in major cities.
A DECADE after the end of the cold war, the peril of nuclear destruction is mounting. The great powers have refused to give up nuclear arms, other countries are producing them and terrorist groups are trying to acquire them.
POORLY GUARDED warheads and nuclear material in the former Soviet Union may fall into the hands of terrorists. The Bush Administration is developing nuclear "bunker busters" and threatening to use them against nonnuclear countries. The risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan is grave.
DESPITE THE END of the cold war, the United States plans to keep large numbers of nuclear weapons indefinitely. The latest US-Russian treaty, which will cut deployed strategic warheads to 2,200, leaves both nations facing "assured destruction" and lets them keep total arsenals (active and inactive, strategic and tactical) of more than 10,000 warheads each.
THE DANGERS POSED by huge arsenals, threats of use, proliferation and terrorism are linked: The nuclear powers' refusal to disarm fuels proliferation, and proliferation makes nuclear materials more accessible to terrorists.
THE EVENTS of September 11 brought home to Americans what it means to experience a catastrophic attack. Yet the horrifying losses that day were only a fraction of what any nation would suffer if a single nuclear weapon were used on a city.
THE DRIFT TOWARD catastrophe must be reversed. Safety from nuclear destruction must be our goal. We can reach it only by reducing and then eliminating nuclear arms under binding agreements.
WE THEREFORE CALL ON THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA TO FULFILL THEIR COMMITMENTS UNDER THE NONPROLIFERATION TREATY TO MOVE TOGETHER WITH THE OTHER NUCLEAR POWERS, STEP BY CAREFULLY INSPECTED AND VERIFIED STEP, TO THE ABOLITION OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS. AS KEY STEPS TOWARD THIS GOAL, WE CALL ON THE UNITED STATES TO:
§ RENOUNCE the first use of nuclear weapons.
§ Permanently END the development, testing and production of nuclear warheads.
§ SEEK AGREEMENT with Russia on the mutual and verified destruction of nuclear weapons withdrawn under treaties, and increase the resources available here and in the former Soviet Union to secure nuclear warheads and material and to implement destruction.
§ STRENGTHEN nonproliferation efforts by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, finalizing a missile ban in North Korea, supporting UN inspections in Iraq, locating and reducing fissile material worldwide and negotiating a ban on its production.
§ TAKE nuclear weapons off hairtrigger alert in concert with the other nuclear powers (the UK, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel) in order to reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized use.
§ INITIATE talks on further nuclear cuts, beginning with US and Russian reductions to 1,000 warheads each.TO SIGN THE STATEMENT, GO TO URGENTCALL.ORG OR SEND NAME, ORGANIZATION/PROFESSION (FOR ID ONLY) AND CONTACT INFORMATION TO URGENT CALL, C/O FOURTH FREEDOM FORUM, 11 DUPONT CIRCLE NW, 9TH FLOOR, WASHINGTON, DC 20036. WE NEED TAX-DEDUCTIBLE DONATIONS, MADE TO URGENT CALL, TO DISSEMINATE THIS CALL. PLEASE MAIL TO THE SAME ADDRESS.
THIS CALL WAS DRAFTED BY JONATHAN SCHELL, THE HAROLD WILLENS PEACE FELLOW OF THE NATION INSTITUTE AND THE AUTHOR OF THE FATE OF THE EARTH; RANDALL CAROLINE (RANDY) FORSBERG, DIRECTOR OF THE INSTITUTE FOR DEFENSE AND DISARMAMENT STUDIES AND AUTHOR OF THE "CALL TO HALT THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE," THE MANIFESTO OF THE 1980s NUCLEAR WEAPONS FREEZE CAMPAIGN; AND DAVID CORTRIGHT, PRESIDENT OF THE FOURTH FREEDOM FORUM AND FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SANE.
The FBI has come under harsh criticism in recent weeks for its failure to act on information that might have enabled it to thwart the September 11 attacks. Rather than deny the criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller has embraced it (easy for him to do, since he didn't start on the job until September 4) and then exploited it to argue that the bureau needs more power, more resources and fewer restrictions.
Both the criticism and the remedy are misguided. The dots that everyone now says should have been connected consist of a few leads spread over a three-year period: a 1998 memo from an FBI agent in Oklahoma suspicious about some Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons; a July 2001 memo from a Phoenix agent speculating that Osama bin Laden could be sending terrorists to flight schools here; and the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui for acting suspiciously in flight school. Viewed in hindsight, each points inexorably to September 11. But there is a world of difference, as any gambler, stock trader or palm reader will tell you, between perceiving the connections after and before the fact. On September 10 these three bits of information competed for the FBI's attention with thousands of other memos, leads and suspicious events pointing in thousands of other directions. We are engaged in a nationwide session of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
The remedy is worse. Shifting resources to fighting terrorist threats makes sense, but freeing the FBI from the minimal restrictions it has operated under in the past does not. The guidelines governing the FBI's domestic criminal investigations, which do not even apply to international terrorism investigations, had nothing to do with the FBI missing the September 11 plot. And it is likely that the changes in the guidelines announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft will actually reduce the FBI's effectiveness in fighting terrorism.
The old guidelines were sparked by revelations that in the 1960s and '70s, the FBI's COINTELPRO initiative targeted perfectly lawful antiwar, environmental, feminist and civil rights groups for widespread monitoring, infiltration and disinformation. The guidelines sought to remedy the FBI's proclivity for indulging in guilt by association and conducting intrusive and sweeping investigations of political groups without any criminal basis. They sought to focus the FBI on its mission, which, contrary to popular perception, has always been to prevent as well as to investigate crime.
But even under the guidelines abuses continued. One of the most prominent involved an investigation of the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) from 1983 to 1985. Under the rubric of counterterrorism, the FBI monitored student rallies, infiltrated meetings and identified attendees at CISPES events. In the end, the bureau had collected information on 1,330 groups--including Oxfam America, the US Catholic Conference and a Cincinnati order of nuns--but no evidence of crime.
Such investigations are likely to be commonplace in the post-
September 11 era. Ashcroft's guidelines expressly permit the FBI to conduct some investigations without even a shred of information about potential criminal conduct. And Congress has so expanded the definition of federal crimes that requiring a criminal basis is not enough to forestall political spying. Federal antiterrorism laws of 1996 and 2001 now make it a crime to provide any associational support to foreign groups we designate as terrorist, even if the support has no connection whatever to terrorist activity. Under those laws, the CISPES investigation would have been legal, on suspicion that CISPES was supporting the Salvadoran rebel movement.
The combined effect of the expanded statute, loosened guidelines and increased counterterrorism personnel at the FBI will be to bring in exponentially more information about the populace than the FBI has ever had. Some of the additional information obtained may, like the isolated leads developed before September 11, be related to terrorist plots. But those leads are almost certain to be drowned out by the barrage of information about innocent political activity.
An intelligence expert on a recent panel with me claimed that what we need now is "all-source intelligence fusion," meaning a group of analysts sitting in a room analyzing mounds of data for trends and patterns. Despite its techno-trendy title, all-source intelligence fusion is no substitute for good relations with the affected communities. If the FBI has information that the threat is likely to stem from Arab sources, it should be building bridges to the millions of law-abiding Arabs--instead of profiling Arab students without cause, holding Middle Easterners without charges and selectively registering all immigrants from Arab countries. You don't build bridges by infiltrating and monitoring legitimate political and religious activity.
In this issue, on the twentieth anniversary of the June 12, 1982, march of a million people in Manhattan's Central Park protesting nuclear arms, we publish an appeal calling on the public to demand that the United States commit itself, together with the other nuclear powers, to the abolition of nuclear weapons--and to take prompt, concrete steps toward that goal. The appeal will be introduced in Congress by Representative Ed Markey as a resolution on June 11.
As it happens, the cloud of nuclear danger is blacker at this moment than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear danger has spread, as it was destined to as long as the United States and the other cold-war-era nuclear powers insisted on holding on to their arsenals. Now the grim drama is being played out in a new locality, South Asia. The hatred is not ideological but religious and ethnic. The millions of potential victims are not the rich and powerful but the poorest of the poor. The antagonists, partitioned in 1947, are twins from a single zygote. Nuclear suicide would also be fratricide.
The United States, which actually did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki what the South Asians so far only threaten to do to each other, and which for more than a half-century has been the trailblazer in the development and rationalization of nuclear weapons, cannot condescend to the newcomers to the game. At the end of May the United States announced that it will be building a plant for the construction of brand-new nuclear weapons, to be ready for use in 2020. And George W. Bush has announced that deterrence no longer works--"pre-emptive" attacks will be the order of the day for our military. Such are the actions of the US officials now on their way to South Asia bearing scenarios showing the awfulness of nuclear war and counsels of "restraint."
But all that doesn't prevent us from noticing that India and Pakistan are writing new chapters in the book of nuclear folly. When India tested five nuclear weapons in 1998 and declared itself a full-fledged nuclear power, it proved, in the words of its Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, that there was to be no "nuclear apartheid" in the world. Now it seems bent on proving that there is no apartheid for nuclear madness either. One of South Asia's distinctive contributions to the field is a flippancy in discussing nuclear danger, adding a new dimension to Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil." Early in the crisis, General Padmanabhan, India's army chief, commented, "If we have to go to war, jolly good! If we don't, we will still manage." Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, retired chief of Pakistan's armed forces, commented, "I don't know what you're worried about. You can die crossing the street, hit by a car, or you could die in a nuclear war. You've got to die someday, anyway." Die, yes, but must we all be killed?
Around the same time, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said that Pakistan's President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, should not use nuclear weapons because "I'm sure he doesn't want to kill all the Pakistanis." Of course, it would not be Musharraf but Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Defense Minister Fernandes who would kill all the Pakistanis, in retaliation. Have they reflected that a threat to kill all Pakistanis is a threat of genocide, the gravest of all crimes against humanity? There was no sign that they had. The world should tell them.
Meanwhile, the human imagination, brought once more to the brink, fitfully tries--and mostly fails--to take in the news that 12 million people (according to a Pentagon estimate) might die immediately in a nuclear war in South Asia. Millions more would die slowly. (One television station labeled the story with the logo "Nuclear Distraction." Presumably, the danger of nuclear war was breaking its concentration on the squabbles between the FBI and the CIA over September 11 warnings.)
Yet from South Asia there also came at least one voice that offered the imagination something to hold on to, a way to begin to grasp the awful prospect--the voice of novelist Arundhati Roy. Her foreign friends asked why she doesn't leave New Delhi. Doesn't she think the threat of nuclear war is real? "It is," she answered, "but where shall we go? If I go away and everything and every one--every friend, every tree, every home, every dog, squirrel and bird that I have known and loved--is incinerated, how shall I live on? Who shall I love? And who will love me back?"
And so she and friends have decided to stay. "We huddle together. We realize how much we love each other. And we think what a shame it would be to die now. Life's normal only because the macabre has become normal. While we wait for rain, for football, for justice, the old generals and the eager boy-anchors on TV talk of first-strike and second-strike capabilities as though they're discussing a family board game. My friends and I discuss Prophecy, the documentary about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.... The dead bodies choking the river. The living stripped of skin and hair.... We remember especially the man who just melted into the steps of a building. We imagine ourselves like that. As stains on staircases.... The last question every visiting journalist always asks me: Are you writing another book?
"That question mocks me. Another book? Right now? When it looks as though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature--the whole of human civilization--means nothing to the fiends who run the world? What kind of book should I write?
"It's not just the one million soldiers on the border who are living on hairtrigger alert. It's all of us. That's what nuclear bombs do. Whether they're used or not, they violate everything that is humane. They alter the meaning of life itself."
If the world can attune itself to this voice, it will abolish nuclear weapons, and there will be no nuclear war.
Sinn Fein, generally known for its historical association with the Irish Republican Army and the peace process, has made a breakthrough in the twenty-six-county Irish Republic by garnering five seats in the Dublin Parliament. For those unfamiliar with the Irish electoral system, an equivalent achievement by Ralph Nader and the Green Party would have meant doubling their national vote and taking twenty Congressional seats in the 2000 election.
The recent victories for the left-wing Sinn Fein are a challenge to globalization and sharply contrast with the right-wing populism recently surfacing in other European elections. Sinn Fein campaigned against the Treaty of Nice, which would have expanded the European Union and which was rejected by Irish voters in a June 2001 referendum. The EU cannot be expanded without voter approval, and the Irish political and business establishment vows to set another referendum for later this year.
Fears of Irish immersion in an unaccountable European megastate underlay Sinn Fein's opposition. At the same time, Sinn Fein campaigned strongly against the growing wave of anti-immigrant nationalism in the Irish Republic. This strategy of progressive rather than reactionary nationalism was voiced best by Danny Morrison, once a Sinn Fein leader and now an independent writer in Belfast, in an article on NATO: "The world has to remain a rainbow coalition of independent and good people, and if 'nationalism' means denying the bad people the authority to aggrandize power, and in our name to bomb people and nations we do not know or understand, who are of no threat, then 'nationalism' has to be for us."
That would be a defeat for US officials who hope that a pro-business Irish Republic would become "America's gateway" into Europe. The largest single foreign presence in the south of Ireland is that of US multinationals, mainly computer and pharmaceutical firms, using the island as a platform for business in the EU. Sinn Fein's success, coupled with the six seats already held by the environmentalist Irish Green Party, means a strong bloc of progressive opposition to US-style globalization inside the Dublin Parliament.
Sinn Fein also showed the possibility of progressive populist politics at a time when traditional liberal politics has become centrist. The party campaigned for restoring and expanding the public health service, jobs and social programs for those left behind in the neoliberal "Celtic Tiger" economy. None of these issues, however, overshadowed voter attention to Sinn Fein's role in the Northern Ireland peace process and its roots in armed struggle against British rule.
During the thirty-year conflict in the North, Sinn Fein advocates were subject to official censorship, harassment and arrest in the South. The intent of the Dublin government, while paying lip service to its founding nationalist ideals, was to quarantine the Troubles on the northern side of the border. In turn, during those decades, Sinn Fein's opposition to partition led to a policy of abstention from the British and Dublin parliaments, which they considered illegitimate.
All that changed--changed utterly, to borrow from Yeats--when the IRA initiated a cease-fire in 1994 and peace talks led to electoral opportunities for Sinn Fein in the North. The organization has become the largest nationalist party in the Stormont Assembly and subsequently dropped its abstentionist posture in the South, where it began community organizing in urban slums and border counties, leading to this spring's electoral breakthrough. Sinn Fein's presence in the Dublin Parliament may implant a spine in the government led by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, in the form of diplomatic efforts for peace with justice in the North.
When polls this spring showed that Sinn Fein was gaining with voters in the South, all the major parties ganged up to declare that they would never include Sinn Fein in a coalition government until the IRA fully disbanded. Ironically, this was opposite the stance taken by the same parties toward the peace process in Northern Ireland, where they fully endorsed the entry of Sinn Fein into electoral competition north of the border. The message to southern voters, in sum, was that a vote for Sinn Fein was a wasted vote for an isolated party with continuing terrorist associations.
The voters, however, weren't buying that line. In the most intensely watched constituency, in North Kerry, the Sinn Fein candidate was Martin Ferris, who had spent ten years in prison for IRA gunrunning on a trawler out of Boston. The Gardai (state police) arrested the candidate in the run-up to the election, roughed him up, floated claims that he knew something about a vigilante attack on drug dealers four months earlier, then released him without pressing charges. Ferris, who endured a forty-seven-day hunger strike in 1977, won the seat easily from Labour's Dick Spring, a former Irish foreign minister who was a favorite of the Clinton Democrats.
While other guerrilla movements of the left have withered or failed to make the electoral transition, Sinn Fein keeps growing, despite the chilling impact of the war on terrorism and the close British-US alliance. Although its total vote in the Republic's proportional system is at 7 percent, its leader, Gerry Adams, has equaled and at times even topped the popularity of Prime Minister Ahern. And unlike any other party, Sinn Fein now has seats in Parliament in London, the Assembly in Stormont and the southern Irish Dail, or Parliament. The Bush Administration has been unhappy with this Irish exceptionalism to the generally conservative trend in the wake of the war on terrorism.
Sinn Fein's chief burden, being identified as the IRA's "political wing," is also the source of its strength, at least as long as the IRA's guns remain silent. Continued provocation by loyalists in the North, like the relentless pipe-bomb attacks on Catholics this past year, might still provoke the IRA to respond, though the chances are minimal. The IRA cease-fire enables Sinn Fein to compete successfully for the middle-class peace vote, especially north of the border, and to stake a claim in the South as the movement that ended the war on a just note for nationalists. Perhaps the greater burden in the South, shared by parties of the left all over the world, is how to tap the middle-class vote in a time of relative prosperity and voter comfort. For that challenge, Sinn Fein will have to find a way to link its leadership charisma and peace program to a revival of social and economic democracy.
Father Desmond Wilson, a respected independent priest from Republican West Belfast, voiced this challenge that the new politics still faces after hearing the election returns: "Will Ireland in its prosperity become an example of how you can really get rid of poverty and bring equality? Will Ireland succeed in convincing the world that militarism should be stopped, that the world should be taken care of and its people most of all, even if it means reducing the lifestyle of the potentially very rich? Nobody needs to be very rich, but everybody needs to survive with dignity." It appears that some people are listening.
Let's say I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and I get a job in an understaffed emergency room where, following the dictates of my conscience, I refuse to assist with blood transfusions and try my best to persuade my fellow workers to do the same. How long do you think I'd last on the job? And after my inevitable firing, how seriously do you think a jury would take my claim that my rights had been violated? Five minutes and not very, right? A similar fate would surely await the surgeon who converts to Christian Science and decides to pray over his patients instead of operating on them, the Muslim loan officer who refuses to charge interest, the Southern Baptist psychotherapist who tells his Jewish patients they're bound for hell. The law rightly requires employers to respect employees' sincerely held religious beliefs, but not if those beliefs really do prevent an employee from performing the job for which she's been hired.
Change the subject to reproductive rights, though, and the picture gets decidedly strange. In 1999 Michelle Diaz, a born-again Christian nurse who had recently been hired by the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center, a public clinic in Southern California, decided that emergency contraception, the so-called morning after pill that acts to prevent pregnancy if taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected intercourse, was actually a method of abortion. She refused to dispense it or give referrals to other providers; the clinic offered her a position that did not involve reproductive healthcare, but when she told temporary nurses at the clinic that they too would be performing abortions by dispensing EC, Diaz, who was still on probation as a new hire, lost her job. She sued with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the religious-right law firm headed by Jay Sekulow. At the end of May a jury agreed that her rights had been violated and awarded her $47,000.
Excuse me? A nurse at a public health clinic has the right to refuse to provide patients with legally mandated services, give out misleading health information in order to proselytize her co-workers to refuse as well, and keep her job? The low-income women who come to Riverside desperately in need of EC and abortion referrals are flat out of luck if they happen to turn up when the anti-choicers are on shift? Riverside is the largest public health clinic in the county, serving 150-200 patients a day, but it operates with a staff of four nurses--should those four people decide what services the clinic can offer? What about the patient's right to receive standard medical care? Or the clinic's responsibility to deliver the services for which they receive government funds?
Some states, California among them, have "conscience laws," permitting anti-choice healthworkers to refuse to be involved in abortions. EC, however, is just a high dose of regular birth control pills that prevents ovulation and implantation. It is not abortion, because until a fertilized egg implants in the womb, the woman is not pregnant. A long list of medical authorities--the American Medical Association, the American Medical Women's Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Harvard Medical School--agree that EC is not an abortifacient, and a 1989 California court decision itself distinguishes abortion from EC. There are lots of mysteries about the Diaz case, ranging from why Diaz took a job she knew involved practices she found immoral in the first place, to how the jury could possibly have come up with a decision so contrary to law and public policy. Did Diaz take the job with the express intention of disrupting services? Was the jury anti-choice? Interestingly, the jury pool was partly drawn from San Bernardino County, which last year unsuccessfully tried to bar its public health clinics from dispensing EC.
Whatever the jury's thinking, the Diaz case represents the latest of numerous attempts by the anti-choice movement to equate EC with abortion and move it out of normal medical practice. Pharmacists for Life International, a worldwide organization that claims to have some 1,500 members, calls it "chemical abortion" and urges pharmacists to refuse to dispense it. The ACLJ is currently litigating on behalf of one who did. Wal-Mart refuses to stock it at all. Anti-choicers in Britain made an unsuccessful attempt to prevent EC from being dispensed over the counter by placing it under an archaic law that prohibits "procuring a miscarriage." Some anti-choicers have long argued that not just EC but conventional birth-control methods--the pill, Norplant, Depo-Provera and the IUD--are "abortifacients": In northern Kentucky anti-choice extremists are campaigning to force one local health board to reject Title X family-planning funds; according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the board's vote, scheduled for June 19, is too close to call.
Although secular employers are expected to make reasonable accommodations to religious employees--or even, if the Diaz verdict is upheld, unreasonable ones--religious employers are not required to return the favor. On the contrary, the Supreme Court, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos, permits them to use religious tests to hire and fire personnel as far from the sacred mission as janitorial workers; if a Methodist church wants to refuse to hire a Muslim security guard, it has the blessing of the Constitution to do so. As often noted in this column, religious organizations can and do fire employees who violate religious precepts on and even off the job. A pro-choice nurse could not get a job at a Catholic hospital and declare that her conscience required her to go against policy and hand out EC to rape victims, or even tell them where to obtain it--even though medical ethics oblige those who refuse to provide standard services for moral reasons to give referrals, and even though Catholic hospitals typically get about half of their revenue from the government.
According to the ACLJ, however, secular institutions should be sitting ducks for any fanatic who can get hired even provisionally. The Riverside clinic has asked the judge to set aside the Diaz verdict. If that bid is unsuccessful, it will appeal. I'll let you know what happens.
One mystery I've tried to disentangle:
Why Cheney's head is always at an angle.
He tries to come on straight, and yet I can't
Help notice that his head is at a slant.
When Cheney's questioned on the Sunday shows,
The Voice of Reason is his favorite pose.
He drones in monotones. He never smiles--
Explaining why some suspects don't need trials,
Or why right now it simply stands to reason
That criticizing Bush amounts to treason,
Or which important precept it would spoil
To know who wrote our policy on oil,
Or why as CEO he wouldn't know
What Halliburton's books were meant to show.
And as he speaks I've kept a careful check
On when his head's held crooked on his neck.
The code is broken, after years of trying:
He only cocks his head when he is lying.
As all reputable news outlets assure us, privatization benefits everyone--which is lucky, since these same outlets report that privatization is inevitable. We live out a happy fate, which rolls on despite the occasional need to report, say, the resignation under fire of Britain's transport secretary, Stephen Byers. Mr. Byers comes to mind because I happen to be writing to you on the very day he stepped down, following the bankruptcy of his privatized Railtrack service, and also the fifth fatal rail crash in six years of newly efficient service.
You may have noticed that when the route of progress bumps over such inconveniences, all reputable reports concentrate on the disappointment of the privatizers (who nevertheless must go on) and of consumers (who certainly will be happier sometime soon). Nobody ever seems to report on the experience of the privatized workers--nobody, that is, except for Ken Loach. His new film, The Navigators, finds drama in the resentments and resistances, adjustments and accommodations of a crew of track repairmen in Yorkshire, who yesterday worked for British Rail and today begin working for a new company, Midlands Infrastructure, which in another two weeks will be called something else entirely. Not that the name matters. Twelve more weeks down the line, and the men will all be working for themselves--that is, for an employment agency, which will hire them out to contractors who needn't bother with sick pay, vacation time or a superstitious regard for safety rules.
The Navigators is now about to receive its US premiere as the opening-night feature of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival will be on view June 14-27 at New York's Walter Reade Theater, in Lincoln Center, where Ken Loach is also scheduled to receive the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award. An unaffectedly modest man, Loach will probably try to blend in with the audience, as if hoping someone else will show up to claim the prize. But as The Navigators shows, it's his by right. Every performance in the film is effortlessly convincing; every scene plays out with its own easy rhythm. There's time and space in The Navigators for domestic trials (as when a man attempts to court his estranged wife and winds up feeding a bouquet of roses through the mail slot), casual slapstick and practical jokes--even for a spirited defense of day labor. "There's plenty of work, at top dollar," declares one of the crew, who seems happy now to be an entrepreneur of his own labor power. And so, when doom strikes, it seems foreordained but not at all forced.
Of the pictures I had a chance to sample in this year's festival--there are thirty-three in all--The Navigators struck me as being both the freshest and the most Old Masterly. This is hardly a definitive statement; I wasn't able to preview such big bookends of the festival as the new feature films by Costa-Gavras and Chris Eyre or the new documentary by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the team that made Jung: War in the Land of the Mujaheddin. But here are a few recommendations:
Lourdes Portillo went to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, to make Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman), a documentary on the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of women over the past decade. You may be aware that workers from the booming assembly factories in Juárez have been turning up dead in the desert, after having been raped, mutilated and burned. What you may not know is that the authorities to date have arrested exactly one suspect, whom they blame for everything; that the killings continue, despite the chosen culprit's imprisonment; that the police officers investigating these cases maybe ought to handcuff themselves; and that in the eighteen months Portillo spent in making this film, another fifty young women disappeared. Although Portillo brings a skeptic's sensibility to these events, I wish she'd been more skeptical still. Some of the testimony that she accepts strains credulity, despite its coming from victims. But, that said, she isn't preparing a legal brief. She's creating a meditative investigation--or is it an investigative meditation?--and doing it with real poetic power.
Of the many films in this year's festival that deal with conflict in the Middle East, most seem to me to be sketches toward a movie, rather than finished works. Valuable raw information emerges about Palestinian and Israeli attitudes in Michal Aviad's Ramleh, Mai Masri's Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, Jean Khalil Chamoun's In the Shadows of the City, Avi Mograbi's August; but you have to sift through self-indulgence, self-righteousness, clumsy fictionalizing or diffident storytelling to get at the data. The exception, among the films I was able to preview, is Rachel Leah Jones's 500 Dunam on the Moon.
Jones had the wit to seize on a revelatory topic for her picture and the patience to develop it fully, telling the story of three villages in the Galilee. The first was Ayn Hawd, an old Arab settlement that Israeli forces emptied in 1948. The second village, built from the first, is Ein Hod, an artists' colony established in 1953 on Dadaist principles. (I wish I were kidding, but I'm not.) To this day, Ein Hod remains a well-frequented site for the production and sale of bad Israeli art. And to this day, nearby, many former residents of Ayn Hawd live in the third, makeshift village, Ayn Hawd al-Jadida (New Ayn Hawd), a place that officially does not exist, even though its inhabitants do the heavy labor in Ein Hod, helping to keep their former homes picturesque.
Finally, let me mention two films from The Nation's orbit. The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a brisk, well-argued documentary directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, based largely on Christopher Hitchens's book of similar title. Unlike Lourdes Portillo's documentary, this one really is put together like a legal brief, and a very effective one at that. Of course, as a Nation type, I've always thought of Kissinger as a war criminal and am glad to see the filmmakers make the case. I complain only that they may have been a touch too adulatory to the writer who has guided them. However estimable his work, Hitchens is not quite the lone, precedent-shattering crusader that he appears here.
Then again, at the mere mention of the Hitchens name, Gen. Alexander Haig trembles with rage and sputters, "He, he's a sewer-pipe sucker! He sucks the sewer pipe!" This is an enviable endorsement, on which we should all congratulate the author.
Congratulations also to John Friedman and Eric Nadler, whose documentary Stealing the Fire will have its US premiere at the festival. An investigation of the traffic in nuclear weapons, following a tortuous trail from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, Stealing the Fire is a CinemaNation production.
Since there's no point in watching human rights unless someone or something gets liberated, let me now join in the celebration of freedom that is Undercover Brother. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover Brother is not the first pastiche, in MAD magazine style, of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Keenen Ivory Wayans was there first, with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, just as Mike Myers and the Austin Powers team were a little quicker to collage into the present a pop-culture character from the recent past. Even so, you will understand how right Undercover Brother gets everything when I tell you that it runs just ninety minutes and stars a magnificently Afro'd Eddie Griffin, who is so cool that he winks at the camera in every damn scene.
The plot--do you really care about the plot? Griffin steps out in a wardrobe of platform shoes, flared pants and shirts cut to show off the discus-size Black Power medallion he wears around his neck. He drives a Coup de Ville convertible, drinks large quantities of orange soda and is aptly described by the film's kung-fu-kicking love interest (Aunjanue Ellis) as "a Soul Train reject with a Robin Hood complex." Recruited by a secret organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Griffin learns that the most weed-addled fantasies of Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle) are actually true. There really is a fantastically wealthy and powerful white man--called The Man--who keeps black people down.
From this point on--I'm three minutes into the movie--the jokes really get cheap. They're also consistently, wildly funny, despite being based without exception on the stale scheme of "White folks do this, but black folks do that." Sure they do. But then, as the chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. explains, his goal is to "help black people of all races," which clarifies everything.
The role of the white she-devil is capably played by Denise Richards.
My wife issues literary judgments on an irregular but reliable basis; so when she took her half-read copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and hurled it against the wall, I knew this was a book I should not pick up. As a result, I can't tell you how much the new movie of the same title might deviate from Rebecca Wells's gazillion-selling novel. I went to see the picture only because it's written and directed by Callie Khouri, who also wrote Thelma & Louise. I can report as follows:
Divine Secrets is a sandwich made of two slabs of angel food cake around a slice of raw liver. The sticky-sweet stuff is women's friendship and the mother-daughter bond, tributes to which are layered onto the movie at the beginning and end. The liver is the very long middle section, in which Ashley Judd (the film's one saving grace) shows how sexual frustration and the demands of childrearing can drive a woman crazy. Apparently, this truth is unknown to Ashley's daughter, Sandra Bullock, who must be told, at excruciating length, what everyone in the audience has guessed in a flash.
Every scene in Divine Secrets is expository. Every performance demands that the actress wave her arms energetically (perhaps to swat away clouds of gnats in acknowledgment of the Louisiana setting). Every character is affluent and white, except for a loyal black maid who says things like "I knew it wuz trouble. Just yestiddy I heerd dat screech owl." Every sequence ends like a dinner plate hitting the floor, and every new sequence begins with a fresh plate being dropped.
Cans of 35-millimeter film are heavy, and projection booths tend to be locked. I went home, found my wife's copy of the book and gave it a fresh ride.
Late in her life, Lorine Niedecker collected several dozen of her poems in handmade books that she gave to three friends. One poem common to all three books is "Who Was Mary Shelley?," a Gothic ballad in which the author of Frankenstein dwells not in possibility but anonymity. "What was her name/before she married?" Niedecker wonders. What was she thinking when she "Created the monster nights/after Byron, Shelley/talked the candle down."
When Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was shrouded in mystery as well. During the half-century she spent writing poems, Niedecker published in the best little magazines and earned the praise of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. Nevertheless, opinion of her poetry remained dominated by hearsay and caricature. The view of George Oppen, who had met Niedecker just once, during her stay with Zukofsky in Manhattan in 1933, is typical. Niedecker was "a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always," Oppen told a friend in 1963, adding that she "was too timid to face almost any job. She took a job scrubbing floors in a hospital near the run-down farm she inherited, and is still living in that crumbling farm house and scrubbing floors. Someone in Scotland printed a tiny little book of her poems, which are little barely audible poems, not without loveliness." In a similar vein, the Jargon Society published Epitaphs for Lorine in 1973, and several contributors memorialized Niedecker with the diminutive "poetess."
The portrait of Niedecker as the Grandma Moses of American verse can't be attributed entirely to the provincialism or paternalism of the avant-garde poetry world. When Oppen wrote to his friend, Niedecker had just two books in print (the second being a redaction of the first), and both books contained, well, poems rarely longer than four lines. But Niedecker didn't write just "little" poems, and access to the rest of her oeuvre improved in 1985 with the publication of Cid Corman's The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker and Robert Bertholf's From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker. The problem was that Corman and Bertholf presented contrasting Niedeckers. Corman's text contains less than half of Niedecker's poetry, and it emphasizes her lyrics about nature and domestic life on Black Hawk Island in south-central Wisconsin, her home for all but a few years of her life. Bertholf's volume includes those lyrics plus Niedecker's poems about history and politics, but it teems with textual errors (misattributions, mistranscriptions), and so its emphasis on the Niedecker who probed the world beyond Black Hawk Island is useless.
"Isn't it glorious? Let's trim green thought in one place and let it grow wild in another," says a character in "The Evening's Automobiles," one of two short stories that Niedecker wrote in the 1950s. Jenny Penberthy has let Niedecker's green thought run wild by restoring poems that either went unpublished in books or periodicals during Niedecker's lifetime or were trimmed from or mangled in posthumous editions. Collected Works includes Niedecker's two published collections, New Goose (1946) and North Central (1968); three complete unpublished manuscripts, "New Goose" (a collection of twenty-nine poems in the same style as the forty-one poems in New Goose), "For Paul and Other Poems" and "Harpsichord & Salt Fish"; the gift-book poems; uncollected poems, both published and unpublished; and published and unpublished fiction and radio plays. Though one regrets the exclusion of essays Niedecker wrote on Zukofsky and Corman, the range of forms and ideas is still electrifying. Not since the appearance of the facsimile version of The Waste Land in 1971, which clearly established how T.S. Eliot's poem had been transformed by Ezra Pound's editing, has a new edition of an American poet's work shattered the prevailing sense of that writer's art. Niedecker may have lived in a marshy backwater, but thanks to Penberthy's meticulously edited volume she can no longer be treated as an unintellectual pastoral miniaturist. Isn't it glorious?
"The old words have reached the age of retirement. Let us pension them off! We need a twentieth-century dictionary!" This is Eugene Jolas, writing in the pages of transition in 1932. With contributors like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Jolas's transition crackled with Surrealist-tinged linguistic experiment. It was also one of several little magazines that Niedecker read faithfully in the early 1930s. The standard story of Niedecker's career is that she became a disciple of Zukofsky after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry he edited in 1931. Collected Works opens with several dozen poems from the early 1930s--all previously unpublished in book form--and they reveal Niedecker's preoccupation with a surrealism at odds with Zukofsky's focus on the affectless object. Typical is the beginning of "Synamism": "Berceuse, mediphala/and the continent. German and therefore unidentified./Cricket night, seismograph and stitch. All tongues backed/by a difference." Absent from Niedecker's early poems are Surrealism's heroic sadism and insane hallucinations. Instead, she prefers a surrealism of language, a poetry that takes root in neologisms and portmanteau words and swirls into an aural collage of illogical but syntactically sound phrases. "Close the door and come to the crack quickly./To jesticulate in the rainacular or novembrood//in the sunconscious...as though there were fs/and no ings, freighter of geese without wings," she writes in "Progression." By mixing the abstract and discursive, Niedecker sought to create a poetry capable of evoking different levels of thought and feeling. She sought the "rainacular," a nonsense not without sense because it records its own kind of testimony--a fluid vernacular, lived speech.
In the late 1930s, Niedecker recalibrated her explorations of language's subliminal texture. She started to use idiomatic phrases, casting them into the hey-diddle-diddle artifice of Mother Goose: "She had tumult of the brain/and I had rats in the rain/and she and I and the furlined man/were out for gain." Though not hermetic, Niedecker's "New Goose" poems still create an aura of deceptive lucidity, due in part to the unwavering march of their trochaic rhythms. In poem after poem the ephemeral suddenly turns serious, but one isn't exactly sure why. "Scuttle up the workshop,/settle down the dew,/I'll tell you what my name is/when we've made the world new." Niedecker had tapped the cryptic sounds of Mother Goose, but she wasn't writing bedtime verses. In the late 1930s, she was employed by the Federal Writer's Project, working as a research editor on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State. In New Goose and its many corollary poems, Niedecker extends the study of local speech and lore she had undertaken for the guide:
What a woman!--hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband's teeth.
She'd sell dirt, she'd sell your eyes
fried in deep grief.
Many of the New Goose poems are ballads that distill a specific local incident to its pungent emotional essence. Together they tell the history of an old, weird Wisconsin, a place of desire and Depression, betrayals and bombs, politics and privations. What's remarkable about New Goose is Niedecker's ability to blend a surreal aesthetic with a documentary impulse without diluting local character or dulling her sometimes caustic attitude toward it. Had Niedecker used a camera instead of a typewriter to make her art, her photographs would have resembled the early work of Walker Evans. Like Evans, Niedecker conveys the abstract textures of everyday life without reducing everyday life to an abstraction. "There's a better shine/on the pendulum/than is on my hair/and many times//I've seen it there." New Goose is Niedecker's rainacular.
Several years before New Goose appeared, in 1946, Niedecker began a job as a proofreader for a local trade journal, Hoard's Dairyman. Deteriorating eyesight forced her to quit Hoard's in 1950. Seven years later, amid financial difficulties, she started a job as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital. (Niedecker's poor eyesight and floor scrubbing are the two facts Oppen got right in his letter to his friend.) Until she retired from the hospital in 1963, when she married Al Millen, Niedecker had little time for writing poetry, or at least for further refining the variety of forms and styles of "For Paul and Other Poems," which she composed in the early 1950s. Addressed to Zukofsky's son, "For Paul" includes persona poems, ballads, quasi epigrams and blues songs. They are written in brisk free verse or stanzas bristling with riddling rhymes and range in length from four to 204 lines. Niedecker developed a new style during her six years at the hospital: a concentrated five-line stanza in which lines of one to six syllables are organized more by sonic stresses than syntax. The role of sound as the poem's organizing force is intensified by ellipsis, with verbs and transitions being the most frequently omitted words.
The virtues of such compression are apparent in one of Niedecker's most remarkable poems, "Lake Superior," which she wrote following a road trip through Wisconsin, Canada and Minnesota that she and Millen made in 1966. "Rock creates the only human landscape," W.H. Auden told a friend in 1948 while he was writing "In Praise of Limestone." Auden was speaking figuratively, for in his poem he uses the limestone terrain of the Italian island of Ischia as an allegory of the human body. Some of the oldest rock in North America is exposed around Lake Superior. That azoic rock is the core of Niedecker's poem, and her approach to it isn't allegorical.
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock
Niedecker sustains this taught, unpunctuated equilibrium through the next six sections, as she considers the fate of several explorers who have preceded her. Among them is the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson, who in the mid-seventeenth century became the first European to traverse the lake. "Radisson:/'a laborinth of pleasure'/this world of the Lake," Niedecker writes, "Long hair, long gun//Fingernails pulled out/by Mohawks." Niedecker's estimation of the cost of wonder--for humans and the landscape--is interrupted in the eighth section of the poem by an eruption of sensuality.
Ruby of corundum
from changing limestone
kicked up in America's
you have been in my mind
between my toes
Instead of possessing the landscape's mineral wealth, Niedecker is mesmerized and possessed by it. But that wealth is linguistic too, for Niedecker's description vividly echoes her early Surrealist poems. "Corundum" is a mineral that crystallizes into ruby and sapphire, but it might very well be a corruption of "conundrum." "Sard" is a type of quartz but could also be a fusion of "snarl" and "bard." It's as though the rainacular had percolated through fissures in Superior's limestone. "The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and language," Niedecker remarks in her notes from the 1966 trip, and in her poem she portrays Superior as a Precambrian compost pile, a place where words and things are pulverized and transformed, where North American rocks acquire Greek names, where "Sault Sainte Marie" becomes "the Soo."
In the poem's penultimate section Niedecker synthesizes these issues.
The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
the leaf beside it
once was stone
Why should we hurry
These lines, and their uncharacteristic surfeit of verbs, would be unsettling if they opened the poem, but coming at the end, after Niedecker's geological meditations, they are soothing. Niedecker has found a home, in both an eschatological and epistemological sense. The stone may preordain her end, but it also is the product of a profound creative pressure, which "Lake Superior" answers in kind. Niedecker acknowledges the stony transformation that awaits her and her reciprocal desire to compress and recompose that fact ever so briefly into the sensuous, fleeting order of her poem.
"Lake Superior," like much of Niedecker's late poetry, expresses a fundamental Modernist idea: All ages are somehow contemporaneous. "'The ancient present. In me the years are flowing together,'" as the narrator of "The Evening's Automobiles" explains. Niedecker, however, never overlayed her lyrical historicism with an epic mythology. She drew a map of the world but never pretended that it was anything other than her own. Consequently, despite the riches of its localism, "Lake Superior" is unlike, say, Williams's Paterson because it does not seek to be a perfect, absolutely metaphorical America.
This is most clear in "Darwin," Niedecker's final poem. Her Darwin is neither the avid reader of Shakespeare nor the eccentric who played the trombone to his French beans. He has the intellectual bearing of the Darwin in Auden's 1940 "New Year Letter," who "brought/Man's pride to heel at last and showed/His kinship with the worm and toad." But unlike Auden, Niedecker doesn't portray Darwin as a dark angel of intellectual cataclysm. Instead, her Darwin suffers doubts and frustrations as he struggles to reconcile his understanding of the animal appetite for survival with the precarious pleasures of human intelligence. The struggle consumes him even on his sickbed. Stricken by a fever in the Andes, he writes to his wife, "'Dear Susan.../I am ravenous/for the sound/of the pianoforte.'"
In fact, the person whom Darwin most resembles is the Niedecker of "Lake Superior," the poet mesmerized by the geological remnants of lava, glacier and sea. The naturalist's and poet's temperaments are blended through the very form of "Darwin"--a collage of elliptical quotes from Darwin's writings that gain the tincture of Niedecker's voice as they are recast into stepped four-line stanzas. Just as when Niedecker catalogues Superior's minerals in a melodious trance, Darwin's senses open his mind to matters beyond his mastery.
I remember, he said
those tropical nights at sea--
we sat and talked
on the booms
Tierra del Fuego's
shining glaciers translucent
blue clear down
(almost) to the indigo sea
Darwin stands not against the world but within it, conscious of its awesome mutability as well as of the need to understand that force on a human scale so as not to be philosophically annihilated by it. (The possibility of nuclear annihilation was on Niedecker's mind at the time as well. In "Wintergreen Ridge," from 1968, she writes: "thin to nothing lichens/grind with their acid//granite to sand/These may survive/the grand blow-up/the bomb.") Like Niedecker, Darwin realizes the world is something he knows but can't control or own. Yet he still possesses an idea, and it encompasses more than the fact of his kinship with the worm and toad:
not built by brute force
but designed by laws
The details left
to the working of chance
"Let each man hope
what he can"
"Darwin" is a defense of the individual task of imagination and understanding, and Collected Works allows one to appreciate how passionately and carefully Niedecker took up that task. Like Darwin, Niedecker felt at home even when she was away from home, her subtle and sensuous words disclosing her belief that the actual earth is often fantastic enough.
The SAT has been on the ropes lately. The University of California system has threatened to quit using the test for its freshman admissions, arguing that the exam has done more harm than good. The State of Texas, responding to a federal court order prohibiting its affirmative action efforts, has already significantly curtailed the importance of the SAT as a gatekeeper to its campuses. Even usually stodgy corporate types have started to beat up on the SAT. Last year, for example, a prominent group of corporate leaders joined the National Urban League in calling upon college and university presidents to quit placing so much stock in standardized admissions tests like the SAT, which they said were "inadequate and unreliable" gatekeepers to college.
Then again, if the SAT is anything, it's a survivor. The SAT enterprise--consisting of its owner and sponsor, the College Board, and the test's maker and distributor, the Educational Testing Service--has gamely reinvented itself over the years in myriad superficial ways, hedging against the occasional dust-up of bad public relations. The SAT, for example, has undergone name changes over the years in an effort to reflect the democratization of higher education in America and consequent changes in our collective notions about equal opportunity. But through it all, the SAT's underlying social function--as a sorting device for entry into or, more likely, maintenance of American elitehood--has remained ingeniously intact, a firmly rooted icon of American notions about meritocracy.
Indeed, the one intangible characteristic of the SAT and other admissions tests that the College Board would never want to change is the virtual equation, in the public's mind, of test scores and academic talent. Like the tobacco companies, ETS and the College Board (both are legally nonprofit organizations that in many respects resemble profit-making enterprises) put a cautionary label on the product. Regarding their SAT, the organizations are obliged by professional codes of proper test practices to inform users of standardized admissions tests that the exams can be "useful" predictors of later success in college, medical school or graduate school, when used in conjunction with other factors, such as grades.
But the true place of admissions testing in America isn't always so appropriate. Most clear-eyed Americans know that results on the SAT, Graduate Record Exam or the Medical College Admission Test are widely viewed as synonymous with academic talent in higher education. Whether it's true or not--and there's lots of evidence that it's not--is quite beside the point.
Given the inordinate weight that test scores play in the American version of meritocracy, it's no surprise that federal courts have been hearing lawsuits from white, middle-class law school applicants complaining they were denied admission to law school even though their LSAT scores were fifty points greater than a minority applicant who was admitted; why neoconservative doomsayers warn that the academic quality of America's great universities will plummet if the hordes of unwashed (read: low test scores) are allowed entry; why articles are written under titles like "Backdoor Affirmative Action," arguing that de-emphasizing test scores in Texas and California is merely a covert tactic of public universities to beef up minority enrollments in response to court bans on affirmative action.
Indeed, Rebecca Zwick, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, wrote that "Backdoor Affirmative Action" article for Education Week in 1999, implying that do-gooders who place less emphasis on test scores in order to raise minority enrollments are simply blaming the messenger. And so it should not be surprising that the same author would provide an energetic defense of the SAT and similar exams in her new book, Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education.
Those, like Zwick, who are wedded to the belief that test scores are synonymous with academic merit will like this concise book. They will praise its 189 pages of text as, finally, a fair and balanced demystification of the esoteric world of standardized testing. Zwick and her publisher are positioning the book as the steady, guiding hand occupying the sensible middle ground in an emotional debate that they claim is dominated by journalists and other uninformed critics who don't understand the complex subject of standardized testing. "All too often...discussions of testing rely more on politics or emotion than on fact," Zwick says in her preface. "This book was written with the aim of equipping contestants in the inevitable public debates with some solid information about testing."
If only it were true. Far from reflecting the balanced approach the author claims, the book is thinly disguised advocacy for the status quo and a defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams for college and university admissions. It could be more accurately titled (without the bothersome question mark) "Fair Game: Why America Needs the SAT."
As it stands, the research staff of the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, Zwick's former employer, might as well have written this book, as she trots out all the standard arguments those organizations have used for years to show why healthy doses of standardized testing are really good for American education. At almost every opportunity, Zwick quotes an ETS or College Board study in the most favorable light, couching it as the final word on a particular issue, while casting aspersion on other studies and researchers (whose livelihoods don't depend on selling tests) that might well draw different conclusions. Too often Zwick provides readers who might be unfamiliar with the research about testing with an overly simplistic and superficial treatment. At worst, she leaves readers with grossly misleading impressions.
After providing a quick and dirty account of IQ testing at the turn of the last century, a history that included the rabidly eugenic beliefs of many of the early testmakers and advocates in Britain and the United States ("as test critics like to point out," Zwick sneers), the author introduces readers to one of the central ideologies of mental testing to sort a society's young for opportunities for higher education. Sure, mental testing has brought some embarrassing moments in history that we moderns frown on nowadays, but the testing movement has had its good guys too. Rather than being a tool to promote and protect the interests of a society's most privileged citizens, the cold objectivity of standardized testing remains an important goal for exercise of democratic values.
According to this belief, standardized testing for admission to college serves the interest of meritocracy, in which people are allowed to shine by their wits, not their social connections. That same ideology, says Zwick, drove former Harvard president James Bryant Conant, whom Zwick describes as a "staunch supporter of equal opportunity," in his quest to establish a single entrance exam, the SAT, for all colleges. Conant, of course, would become the first chairman of the board of the newly formed Educational Testing Service. But, as Nicholas Lemann writes in his 1999 book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Conant wasn't nearly so interested in widening opportunity to higher education as Zwick might think. Conant was keen on expanding opportunity, but, as Lemann says, only for "members of a tiny cohort of intellectually gifted men." Disillusioned only with the form of elitism that had taken shape at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges, which allotted opportunities based on wealth and parentage, Conant was nevertheless a staunch elitist, an admirer of the Jeffersonian ideal of a "natural aristocracy." In Conant's perfect world, access to this new kind of elitehood would be apportioned not by birthright but by performance on aptitude tests. Hence the SAT, Lemann writes, "would finally make possible the creation of a natural aristocracy."
The longstanding belief that high-stakes mental tests are the great equalizer of society is dubious at best, and at worst a clever piece of propaganda that has well served the interests of American elites. In fact, Alfred Binet himself--among the fathers of IQ testing, who would invent the first version of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, the precursor to the modern SAT--observed the powerful relationship between one's performance on his so-called intelligence test and a child's social class, a phenomenon Binet described in his 1916 book The Development of Intelligence in Children.
And it's the same old story with the SAT. Look at the college-bound high school seniors of 2001 who took the SAT, and the odds are still firmly stacked against young people of modest economic backgrounds' beating the SAT odds. A test-taker whose parents did not complete high school can expect to score fully 171 points below the SAT average, College Board figures show. On the other hand, high schoolers whose moms and dads have graduate degrees can expect to outperform the SAT average by 106 points.
What's more, the gaps in SAT performance between whites and blacks and between whites and Mexican-Americans have only ballooned in the past ten years. The gap between white and black test-takers widened five points and eleven points on the SAT verbal and math sections, respectively, between 1991 and 2001. SAT score gaps between whites and Mexican-Americans surged a total of thirty-three points during that same period.
For critics of the national testing culture, such facts are troubling indeed, suggestive of a large web of inequity that permeates society and the educational opportunities distributed neatly along class and race lines, from preschool through medical school. But for Zwick, the notion of fairness when applied to standardized admissions tests boils down to a relatively obscure but standard procedure in her field of "psychometrics," which is in part the study of the statistical properties of standardized tests.
Mere differences in average test scores between most minority groups and whites or among social classes isn't all that interesting to Zwick. More interesting, she maintains, is the comparative accuracy of test scores in predicting university grades between whites and other racial groups. In this light, she says, the SAT and most standardized admissions tests are not biased against blacks, Latinos or Native Americans. In fact, she says, drawing on 1985 data from a College Board study that looked at forty-five colleges, those minority groups earned lower grades in college than predicted by their SAT scores--a classic case of "overprediction" that substantiates the College Board claim that the SAT is more than fair to American minorities. By contrast, if the SAT is unfair to any group, it's unfair to whites and Asian-Americans, because they get slightly better college grades than the SAT would predict, Zwick suggests.
Then there's the odd circumstance when it comes to standardized admissions tests and women. A number of large studies of women and testing at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan and other institutions have consistently shown that while women (on average) don't perform as well on standardized tests as male test-takers do, women do better than men in actual classroom work. Indeed, Zwick acknowledges that standardized tests, unlike for most minority groups, tend to "underpredict" the actual academic performance of women.
But on this question, as with so many others in her book, Zwick's presentation is thin, more textbookish than the thorough examination and analysis her more demanding readers would expect. Zwick glosses over a whole literature on how the choice of test format, such as multiple-choice versus essay examinations, rewards some types of cognitive approaches and punishes others. For example, there's evidence to suggest that SAT-type tests dominated by multiple-choice formats reward speed, risk-taking and other surface-level "gaming" strategies that may be more characteristic of males than of females. Women and girls may tend to approach problems somewhat more carefully, slowly and thoroughly--cognitive traits that serve them well in the real world of classrooms and work--but hinder their standardized test performance compared with that of males.
Beyond Zwick's question of whether the SAT and other admissions tests are biased against women or people of color is the perhaps more basic question of whether these tests are worthwhile predictors of academic performance for all students. Indeed, the ETS and the College Board sell the SAT on the rather narrow promise that it helps colleges predict freshman grades, period. On this issue, Zwick's presentation is not a little pedantic, seeming to paint anyone who doesn't claim to be a psychometrician as a statistical babe in the woods. Zwick quotes the results of a College Board study published in 1994 finding that one's SAT score by itself accounts for about 13 percent of the differences in freshman grades; that one's high school grade average is a slightly better predictor of college grades, accounting for about 15 percent of the grade differences among freshmen; and that the SAT combined with high school grades is a better predictor than the use of grades alone. In other words, it's the standard College Board line that the SAT is "useful" when used with other factors in predicting freshman grades. (It should be noted that Zwick, consistent with virtually all College Board and ETS presentations, reports her correlation statistics without converting them into what's known as "R-squared" figures. In my view, the latter statistics provide readers with a common-sense understanding of the relative powers of high school grades and test scores in predicting college grades. I have made those conversions for readers in the statistics quoted above.)
Unfortunately, Zwick misrepresents the real point that test critics make on the question of predictive validity of tests like the SAT. The salient issue is whether the small extra gains in predicting freshman grades that the SAT might afford individual colleges outweigh the social and economic costs of the entire admissions testing enterprise, costs borne by individual test-takers and society at large.
Even on the narrow question of the usefulness of the SAT to individual colleges, Zwick does not adequately answer what's perhaps the single most devastating critique of the SAT. For example, in the 1988 book The Case Against the SAT, James Crouse and Dale Trusheim argued compellingly that the SAT is, for all practical purposes, useless to colleges. They showed, for example, that if a college wanted to maximize the number of freshmen who would earn a grade-point average of at least 2.5, then the admissions office's use of high school rank alone as the primary screening tool would result in 62.2 percent "correct" admissions. Adding the SAT score would improve the rate of correct decisions by only about 2 in 100. The researchers also showed, remarkably, that if the admissions objective is broader, such as optimizing the rate of bachelor's degree completion for those earning grade averages of at least 2.5, the use of high school rank by itself would yield a slightly better rate of prediction than if the SAT scores were added to the mix, rendering the SAT counterproductive. "From a practical viewpoint, most colleges could ignore their applicants' SAT score reports when they make decisions without appreciably altering the academic performance and the graduation rates of students they admit," Crouse and Trusheim concluded.
At least two relatively well-known cases of colleges at opposite ends of the public-private spectrum, which have done exactly as Crouse and Trusheim suggest, powerfully illustrate the point. Consider the University of Texas system, which was compelled by a 1996 federal appeals court order, the Hopwood decision, to dismantle its affirmative-action admissions programs. The Texas legislature responded to the threat of diminished diversity at its campuses with the "top 10 percent plan," requiring public universities to admit any student graduating in the top 10 percent of her high school class, regardless of SAT scores.
Zwick, of course, is obliged in a book of this type to mention the Texas experience. But she does so disparagingly and without providing her readers with the most salient details on the policy's effects in terms of racial diversity and the academic performance of students. Consider the diversity question. While some progressives might have first recoiled at the new policy as itself an attack on affirmative action, that has not been the case. In fact, at the University of Texas at Austin, the racial diversity of freshman classes has been restored to pre-Hopwood levels, after taking an initial hit. Indeed, the percentage of white students at Austin reached a historic low point in 2001, at 61 percent. What's more, the number of high schools sending students to the state's flagship campus at Austin has significantly broadened. The "new senders" to the university include more inner-city schools in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, as well as more rural schools than in the past, according to research by UT history professor David Montejano, among the plan's designers.
But the policy's impact on academic performance at the university might be even more compelling, since that is the point upon which neoconservative critics have been most vociferous in their condemnations of such "backdoor" affirmative action plans that put less weight on test scores. A December 1999 editorial in The New Republic typified this road-to-ruin fiction: Alleging that the Texas plan and others like it come "at the cost of dramatically lowering the academic qualifications of entering freshmen," the TNR editorial warned, these policies are "a recipe for the destruction of America's great public universities."
Zwick, too, neglects to mention the facts about academic performance of the "top 10 percenters" at the University of Texas, who have proven the dire warnings to be groundless. At every SAT score interval, from less than 900 to scores of 1,500 and higher, in the year 2000, students admitted without regard to their SAT score earned better grades than their non-top 10 percent counterparts, according to the university's latest research report on the policy.
Or, consider that the top 10 percenters average a GPA of 3.12 as freshmen. Their SAT average was about 1,145, fully 200 points lower than non-top 10 percent students, who earned slightly lower GPAs of 3.07. In fact, the grade average of 3.12 for the automatically admitted students with moderate SAT scores was equal to the grade average of non-top 10 percenters coming in with SATs of 1,500 and higher. The same pattern has held across the board, and for all ethnic groups.
Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, is one case of a college that seemed to anticipate the message of the Crouse and Trusheim research. Bates ran its own numbers and found that the SAT was simply not a sufficiently adequate predictor of academic success for many students and abandoned the test as an entry requirement several years ago. Other highly selective institutions have similar stories to tell, but Bates serves to illustrate. In dropping the SAT mandate, the college now gives students a choice of submitting SATs or not. But it permits no choice in requiring that students submit a detailed portfolio of their actual work and accomplishments while in high school for evaluation, an admissions process completed not just by admissions staff but by the entire Bates faculty.
As with the Texas automatic admission plan, Zwick would have been negligent not to mention the case of Bates, and she does so in her second chapter; but it's an incomplete and skewed account. Zwick quotes William Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates, in a 1993 interview in which he suggests that the Bates experience, while perhaps appropriate for a smaller liberal arts college, probably couldn't be duplicated at large public universities. That quote well serves Zwick's thesis that the SAT is a bureaucratically convenient way to maintain academic quality at public institutions like UT-Austin and the University of California. "With the capability to conduct an intensive review of applications and the freedom to consider students' ethnic and racial backgrounds, these liberal arts colleges are more likely than large university systems to succeed in fostering diversity while toeing the line on academic quality," Zwick writes.
But Zwick neglects to mention that Hiss has since disavowed his caveats about Bates's lessons for larger public universities. In fact, Hiss, now a senior administrator at the college, becomes palpably irritated at inequalities built into admissions systems that put too much stock in mental testing. He told me in a late 1998 interview, "There are twenty different ways you can dramatically open up the system, and if you really want to, you'll figure out a way. And don't complain to me about the cost, that we can't afford it."
Zwick punctuates her brief discussion of Bates and other institutions that have dropped the SAT requirement by quoting from an October 30, 2000, article, also in The New Republic, that purportedly revealed the "dirty little secret" on why Bates and other colleges have abandoned the SAT. The piece cleverly observed that because SAT submitters tend to have higher test scores than nonsubmitters, dropping the SAT has the added statistical quirk of boosting SAT averages in U.S. News & World Report's coveted college rankings. That statistical anomaly was the smoking gun the TNR reporter needed to "prove" the conspiracy.
But to anyone who has seriously researched the rationales colleges have used in dropping the SAT, the TNR piece was a silly bit of reporting. At Bates, as at the University of Texas, the SAT "nonsubmitters" have performed as well or better academically than students who submitted SATs, often with scores hundreds of points lower than the SAT submitters. But readers of Fair Game? wouldn't know this.
One could go on citing many more cases in which Zwick misleads her readers through lopsided reporting and superficial analysis, such as her statements that the Graduate Record Exam is about as good a predictor of graduate school success as the SAT is for college freshmen (it's not, far from it), or her overly optimistic spin on the results of many studies showing poor correlations between standardized test scores and later career successes.
Finally, Zwick's presentation might have benefited from a less textbookish style, with more enriching details and concrete examples. Instead, she tries to position herself as a "just the facts" professor who won't burden readers with extraneous contextual details or accounts of the human side of the testing culture. But like the enormously successful--at least in commercial terms--standardized tests themselves, which promote the entrenched belief in American society that genuine learning and expert knowledge are tantamount to success on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-type multiple-choice questions, books like Fair Game? might be the standardized account that some readers really want.
NOT AN APOLOGIST FOR ISRAEL
His justifiable zeal to defend Palestinian rights leads Alexander Cockburn to call me an apologist for "policies put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct" ["Beat the Devil," June 3]. Since I share Cockburn's criticism of reflexive support for every Israeli policy and I agree with much of what he says about false claims of anti-Semitism, I wish he'd accompanied his identification of my possible inconsistencies with accurate reporting of what I actually wrote. Ascribing to me words I'd never say and views I reject is either sloppy or dishonest.
My essay in Salon suggested the pro-Palestinian left should address, where it exists, anti-Semitism, superficial argumentation and difficulties of communication. I end with this: "The justice-based left must seek analyses and solutions built on general principles, and reject those that make new forms of oppression inevitable."
I also say this: I march to protest Israeli policy; Israel has committed past massacres and West Bank atrocities; ending Palestinian oppression is central; the occupation must end; expulsion of Palestinians would amount to ethnic cleansing; the pro-Israel explanation of how Palestinians became refugees in 1948 is unsupported; armed resistance (though not against uninvolved civilians) is legitimate; a Palestinian call for militant nonviolent resistance is welcome. And I say clearly that opposing Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic.
Cockburn's absolutism is matched by his opposites. A letter to my local newspaper, for which I write a column, claimed that my views would lead to "the destruction of Israel and create a danger to Jews throughout the world." That writer, too, sees only what he wants to see.
I continue to advocate justice-focused discussion. Please see people.uis.edu/dfox1/politics/israel.html for more.
There was nothing sloppy or dishonest about what I wrote. The third paragraph of Fox's letter is fine, and if my column pushed him to make it clear, it served its purpose. I wish he'd written it in his Salon piece.
NOT AN ON-THE-RECORD SOURCE
Jason Leopold's "White Should Go--Now" [May 27] is built upon lies and unethical reporting. Not only did Leopold unethically list me as an on-the-record source, he attributed comments to me that were never discussed and are absolutely not true.
In reference to energy contracts signed with major California customers in 1998, the article incorrectly states, "Jestings said he told [Thomas] White that EES [Enron Energy Services] would actually lose money this way, but White said Enron would make up the difference by selling electricity on the spot market...which Enron had bet would skyrocket in 2000." The article continues the lies by stating that "Jestings said he continued to complain to White that the profits declared by the retail unit were not real." These statements were never made to Leopold and are absolutely false. I had significant responsibility for these 1998 contracts and believed that they would be profitable, and therefore I would never have made such statements. Furthermore, if Enron believed the spot market would skyrocket in 2000, it would never have signed long-term, fixed-rate contracts with these California customers in 1998!
Leopold then states that "Jestings said he resigned from EES in 2000 because he did not agree with the way EES reported profits." Again, this is not true. I resigned in early 1999 for personal reasons and not because of the way EES reported profits. In fact, EES was not making profits when I left.
It is clear that Leopold is trying to build a picture of cover-up and manipulation by White using statements falsely attributed to me. This is irresponsible reporting at its worst. In my short tenure at EES, I developed great respect for White. He is an honest and ethical man and deserves fair reporting.
During my hourlong conversations with Lee Jestings on not one but three different occasions leading up to the publication of this story, I reminded Jestings that I would be using his comments in print. Simply put, Jestings was well aware that he was on the record. He cannot retract his statements after the fact and then accuse me of being unethical and a liar. I sought out Jestings, and when I found him he chose to respond to my numerous questions about EES and Thomas White. I did, however, mistakenly report that Jestings left EES in 2000.
Jestings says that EES did not show a profit when he left. However, EES under White's leadership reported that the unit was profitable in 1999 after Jestings left the company. But Enron was forced in April to restate those profits because they were illusory. Moreover, Jestings said during the interview that he had taken issue with EES's use of "mark to market" accounting, in which the unit was able to immediately book gains based on contracts signed with large businesses. Jestings never said during the interview that he believed these contracts would eventually become profitable. But that's beside the point. Jestings said EES's use of aggressive accounting tactics during White's tenure left shareholders believing the company was performing better than it actually was.
Jestings says White was honest and ethical while he was vice chairman at EES. My report indicates otherwise.
NOT SMALLER THAN A DAISY CUTTER
West Orange, NJ
There was a critical error in "Relearning to Love the Bomb" by Raffi Khatchadourian [April 1]. Khatchadourian says that so-called mini-nukes of about five-kiloton yield have smaller explosive effects than the US conventional "daisy cutter" bombs. This is clearly wrong. A five-kiloton explosion is equal to 5,000 tons of TNT, while the daisy cutter weighs only 7.5 tons. Even allowing for the development of modern explosives more powerful than TNT, the difference between the weapons, and their relative destructive potential, is of several orders of magnitude. The following excerpt from the Federation of American Scientists' Military Analysis Network (www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/dumb/blu-82.htm) directly addresses that point.
"The BLU-82B/C-130 weapon system, nicknamed Commando Vault in Vietnam and Daisy Cutter in Afghanistan, is a high altitude delivery of 15,000-pound conventional bomb, delivered from an MC-130 since it is far too heavy for the bomb racks on any bomber or attack aircraft. Originally designed to create an instant clearing in the jungle, it has been used in Afghanistan as an anti-personnel weapon and as an intimidation weapon because of its very large lethal radius (variously reported as 300-900 feet) combined with flash and sound visible at long distances. It is the largest conventional bomb in existence but is less than one thousandth the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb."
No useful analysis of nuclear policy can be made by equating large conventional bombs with even the smallest nuclear bombs in any way. An analysis of policy and decision-making regarding the conventional/nuclear threshold demands a clear understanding of how very powerful and devastating nuclear weapons are. The author seems to be blurring the lines of allowable nuclear-weapons use far more than the Administration he criticizes.
New York City
Let me begin by pointing out that I said "five kilotons or less." Some proponents of new nukes have pushed for weapons of lower tonnage. Others argue that five kilotons is roughly optimal.
C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, demonstrates
the debate: "I'm not talking about sub-kiloton weapons...
as some have advocated, but devices in the low-kiloton range, in order to contemplate the destruction of hard or hidden targets, while being mindful of the need to minimize collateral damage." In April, Benjamin Friedman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, wrote: "What is revolutionary about current proposals is the idea of reducing the yield of tactical nuclear weapons to levels approaching those of conventional explosives, to around one-tenth of a kiloton, which would theoretically bridge the gap between a conventional and a nuclear weapon."
The United States has developed "sub-kiloton" atomic weapons before. One such weapon, the Davy Crockett, contained warheads weighing only fifty-one pounds, with explosive yields near 0.01 kilotons (roughly 10 tons of TNT). We made 2,100 of those between 1956 and 1963.
When my article was written, it was unclear what size the Bush Administration's defense team envisioned for its nuclear bunker buster. To a degree it still isn't, although some now suggest it could be above five kilotons. However, this doesn't change what's being contemplated: a weapon that appears to avoid the kind of casualties that put current nukes outside the boundary of political acceptability.
I regret if I seemed to suggest that a five-kiloton nuclear warhead could be smaller in explosive power than the world's largest conventional weapon. That is inaccurate. I attempted to illustrate that on the continuum of weaponry, a gap that appeared inconceivably wide not so long ago is now being pushed closer. As the recent Nuclear Posture Review demonstrates, narrowing that distance is as much a matter of ideas as a matter of tons.
NOT THE GREAT WHITE HOPE?
Katha Pollitt is right on about great white hope Dennis Kucinich ["Subject to Debate," May 27 and June 10]. The boys who disparage abortion rights as a foolish, single-issue orthodoxy don't have a clue. Here's a hint for you guys. "Abortion" is about equitable reproductive health services for women, obviously including the ability to end a pregnancy, but it's also about how we think of women, and how we treat them. Are women valued as the sum of their reproductive parts, or as human beings?
We know where the fundamentalists stand: Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalisms, as well as secular dictatorships, are united on the need to control women's bodies. And now, thanks to Pollitt, we know where Kucinich stands. He moves or he loses.
New York City
As co-directors of an organization of the economic left, we second Katha Pollitt's admonition that Dennis Kucinich cannot claim the mantle of an economic progressive while being virulently anti-choice. Reproductive freedom is not just a matter of personal morality, it is a fundamental element of economic justice. No woman can determine her own economic destiny without the freedom to choose whether to bear a child. Progressives looking for champions cannot be so desperate as to overlook such a fundamental right. There are numerous other members of Congress--of course, we'd like a lot more--who understand that reproductive rights are part of the fight for economic justice.
RICHARD KIRSCH, KAREN SCHARFF
Citizen Action of New York
My weekly ritual of reading the Nation cover to cover on Monday was stymied last week when my postman left my mailbox door open on a soaker of a day. I got home eager for the week's insights only to find a soggy Nation limp in the box. Eek! I ran upstairs and spastically looked for options. My girlfriend with astonishment: "What the heck are you doing?" when she saw me using the hair dryer to dry my coveted pages one by one. Did you ever know how important your work is!