...AND APPLE PIE
Katha Pollitt's heart-wrenching "Happy Mother's Day" was, of course, a treat ["Subject to Debate," May 28]. But the crystalline masses of her prose were sometimes flawed by odd cracks. She rightly mentions how the bogus drug wars waste federal money, not to mention the ever-more-frenzied war on terrorism, which spent, by her calculation, $50 million "executing Timothy McVeigh...not counting plane tix for celebrity death witness Gore Vidal." For the record, my "tix" are paid for by Vanity Fair, which in 1998 printed a piece by me on the shredding of the Bill of Rights, causing McVeigh to begin a three-year correspondence with me. We were due to meet recently; then the Attorney General decided that he was to be sequestered during the weird endgame now begun. McVeigh, who has a sense of humor, proposed I witness his departure instead. Since I am an opponent of the death penalty, I said yes. Read all about it, Nation readers, in Vanity Fair this fall. Meanwhile, you have your mom--Katha.
THAT JERUSALEM PRIZE
New York City
Alexander Cockburn's first preposterous diatribe against my accepting the Jerusalem Prize was so full of fabrications that I hardly know where to begin. Now he wants to take credit for inspiring the attack on current Israeli government policies and military conduct I made in the speech I gave at the prize ceremony ["Beat the Devil," April 23, June 4]. Just three corrections: 1. It is a literary prize given not by the Israeli government but by the Jerusalem International Book Fair (among past winners: Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, Zbigniew Herbert, Milan Kundera, V.S. Naipaul, Octavio Paz, Don DeLillo, J.M. Coetzee). 2. According to the longtime director of the fair, my friend Nadine Gordimer has never won the prize, so could not have been in a position to decline it; according to him, she has never been a candidate. 3. I did not say, could never have said and obviously do not think that Mayor Olmert is "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person."
C'mon, Alex, you can fabricate a more plausible quote than that.
Alexander Cockburn was not the only one to pressure Susan Sontag. The Boston-based Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine sent a very strong letter to Sontag, following the letter publicized by the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. Two other prominent Israeli intellectuals, Professor Alice Shalvi and the poet Ada Aharoni, added their voices.
Coalition of Women for a Just Peace
To address Sontag's three points: Nowhere did I write that the Jerusalem Prize was awarded by the Israeli government, though I correctly identified the judges who honored Sontag, among them Shimon Peres, Israel's current Foreign Minister. I also mentioned that the person handing her the prize was Ehud Olmert, Mayor of Jerusalem and a leading ethnic cleanser.
Sontag may in retrospect find it incredible that she could have spoken with such warmth about Mayor Olmert, but on May 15 the Jerusalem Post reported her thus. On receipt of Sontag's letter, my colleague Jonathan Shainin contacted the Post's reporter, Greer Fay Cashman, and she responded thus: "Yes, she did say it. It was a spontaneous response to complimentary remarks Olmert made about her at the Jerusalem International Conference Center." As befits an employee of this extremist publication, Cashman added a note of praise for Sontag as being "sufficiently open-minded to be able to publicly say what she said about Olmert."
So far as Nadine Gordimer is concerned, Sontag knows perfectly well that a number of years ago Gordimer was approached by the Jerusalem Prize committee and asked whether she would accept the award if offered. Precisely in the manner I described in my first column she said she would not, and so the offer was never formally made. It is scarcely surprising that Sontag's director friend should have difficulty in recalling this episode.
Hal Espen, Outside's editor, makes two errors ["Letters," May 21]. He insists that during an interview with Jay Heinrichs, Ralph Nader said that, if forced to choose, he would vote for Bush. Espen then says the Nader campaign did not contact Outside to complain that the quotation was false. In fact, campaign staff did call Outside several times to object and spoke directly with Heinrichs. I was with Nader for roughly 200 days last year. During that time the which-would-you-choose-if-forced question was asked at least 100 times by ordinary folk and some of the nation's best political reporters. None received the "Bush" answer. Given that he got Nader's other remarks correct, Heinrichs either misunderstood Nader during their phone interview or simply manufactured the "Bush" answer.
STILL A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND
New York City
Ken Silverstein's April 23 "Diamonds of Death" is grossly misleading and contains several errors. The World Diamond Council, the Jewelers of America and others in the industry vigorously support effective, enforceable legislation to stop the traffic in conflict diamonds. Silverstein ignored statements by industry leaders making that point and ignored an obvious fact: All legitimate segments of the industry have every incentive--in both moral and business terms--to eliminate conflict diamonds.
It's true there's been disagreement on a handful of provisions in legislation that all concerned want Congress to approve. But industry representatives still search for common ground, even with some who publicly criticize us. Here are some examples of Silverstein's errors.
§ He says that on December 8, I announced that the World Diamond Council was "withdrawing support" from Congressman Tony Hall's bill, thereby killing a measure poised for passage in the final days of the session. Untrue. The WDC worked with Hall's office but did not agree to certain critical aspects of his draft. Further, it was a drastically different rider, originating in the Senate, that had been appended to the appropriations bill cited in the article.
§ Silverstein implies that the WDC then decided to draft its own legislation. Actually, that decision was made, and announced, much earlier. By December 8, drafting was well under way.
§ In an attempt to demonstrate a "hiring spree" of consultants allegedly assigned to oppose proper legislation, Silverstein mentions a "Shandwick Associates" and describes it as specializing in corporate grassroots campaigns. No such firm is associated with us, and no such campaign is being conducted.
§ Silverstein insinuates that the WDC retained the law firm Akin, Gump because its principals include "notable door openers." We went to this firm solely because Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, which they put to good use in drafting model legislation.
World Diamond Council
Ken Silverstein did prodigious research on lobbying by the diamond industry. But he erred when he wrote that "groups such as Global Witness, World Vision, Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International threatened to launch a consumer boycott until the industry changed its buying practices so as to insure that conflict diamonds are eliminated from international markets." None of the groups named nor any of the members of the 100-member Campaign to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds has ever advocated a boycott of diamonds. The CECD is the legitimate diamond industry's best friend. We are pushing for tough import controls that will eventually allow jewelers to promise their customers that the diamonds in their stores are clean. They certainly can't say that now.
Physicians for Human Rights
NATHANIEL A. RAYMOND
Physicians for Human Rights
Matthew Runci suggests that his industry is strongly supportive of efforts to eliminate conflict diamonds and that I overlooked the "rather obvious fact" that it has "every incentive" to do so. Runci overlooks one rather obvious incentive for companies to deal in conflict diamonds, namely profit. That's why De Beers until a few years ago was buying up almost the entire supply of conflict diamonds from UNITA, the Angolan guerrilla group. Runci's suggestion that the industry has always been deeply troubled about conflict diamonds is equally misleading. Diamond firms began responding to the problem only after NGOs put the issue on the public's radar screen and horrific images of victims of Africa's diamond wars began appearing in the media. The problem became too embarrassing to ignore, and the industry began emitting anguished wails about how something really must be done.
Runci denies withdrawing support for Hall's measure on December 8, but multiple participants at the meeting that day assert that he did just that, to the outrage of NGO representatives on hand. The rider attached to the appropriations bill did originate in the Senate, but there was a clear understanding among the various parties that Hall's measure would be substituted for it.
I don't doubt that Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, but everyone in Washington--except Runci, apparently--knows that Akin, Gump is one of the best-connected firms in town.
The diamond industry did engage in a "hiring spree," as I documented, though I did err in stating that Shandwick Associates is part of the industry's campaign. The confusion arose because Powell Tate, one of the firms working for the industry, bought a PR company called Shandwick International in late 1999 and for a time used the Shandwick name. A Powell Tate staffer named Larry Barrett--who as a younger and more hopeful man wrote for The Nation--gave his business card to various members of the NGO coalition during this period, and several told me that Barrett worked for "Shandwick." The only firm with that name that I came across in a lobbyist database was Shandwick Associates, hence, the mistake. (Powell Tate, by the way, is a specialist in grassroots campaigns. One of its greatest accomplishments, achieved on behalf of the drug industry, was defeating a Clinton Administration initiative to control the costs of childhood vaccines.)
Runci, like many diamond industry officials or lobbyists I spoke with, says that his side is seeking common ground with its critics. Perhaps that's true, but spending huge amounts of money to draft a competing bill and push it through Congress doesn't seem like the best way of demonstrating good faith.
To write a letter on behalf of Juan Raul Garza, as well as the other prisoners currently
on state and federal death row, visit our Death Row Roll Call.
The bombing of a Tel Aviv disco, in which twenty Israelis, many of them teenagers, were killed, was an atrocity of such horror that it seemed to shock both sides into taking steps toward installing a very tentative, precarious cease-fire. In the aftermath Secretary of State Colin Powell ritually urged Yasir Arafat to "take every action necessary to bring those responsible to justice" and continued to defend the Administration's refusal to become directly involved. This posture (barely modified by the dispatch of George Tenet to the region in response to growing international pressure) betrays an ongoing, willful and dangerous blindness to the consequences of US actions and inaction.
As events accelerated to what Powell called "the edge of a very deep hole," Secretary Powell has seemed almost eerily disengaged, intoning with bureaucratic punctilio when asked if he had requested Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not to retaliate, "I have not given that direct comment to the Israeli government." After telling Sharon a month ago to pull his troops out of their brief reoccupation of a sliver of Gaza, he ducked behind Bush's campaign-rhetoric Mideast policy of "Clinton not"--hands off until conditions ripen on their own to create a greater likelihood of an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. Yet it is Sharon--whose ruthlessness has been well demonstrated and who is a champion of the Israeli expansionism that's at the root of the Palestinian despair that drives more desperate acts--who should be curbed from using the senseless bombing as a pretext for drastic military reprisal intended to wipe out the Palestinian Authority's institutions.
And so, with no moral leadership being voiced by officials of either party in Washington and a press that is locked in a pro-Israel tilt, the American public casts a plague on both houses.
Of course, the image of the United States as a low-profile "honest broker" is false. The Bush Administration has been following the Clinton Administration's blindly pro-Israel policy since it took office. Last month, it failed to raise the issue of Sharon's deployment of American-made F-16s in a retaliatory strike. In January it increased military aid to Israel; in February it cleared the way for the sale of nine Apache attack helicopters to Israel; in March, it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an unarmed observer force.
What the Administration should be talking about is a new policy: putting pressure on Israel, not just the Palestinians. That could mean suspending military help or at least threatening to withhold the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid that goes indirectly into supporting and expanding the settlements. (Bush Senior issued such a threat, and the pressure helped move then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.) It should be calling not only for Palestinians to clamp down on terrorist operations but for Israel's adoption of the Mitchell report's proposed freeze on settlements, including no more expansion to accommodate "natural" growth of population, and withdrawal of its troops to pre-September 28, 2000, positions.
Ultimately, US policy must be predicated on the goal of creating a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and, to that end, the abandonment of all the Israeli settlements. This is the only solution that can insure Israel's security as well as the Palestinians' right to self-determination. As Richard Falk, a member of the Nation's editorial board who traveled to the region with a UN mission in February, recently revealed, conditions in the Palestinian territories have badly deteriorated. The mission found that Israeli policies of settlement expansion and bypass roads, destruction of Palestinian houses, commandeering of their land and water, random assassinations of their leadership and denial of access to education, jobs and healthcare have become intolerable. The mission concluded that Israel's use of force against the intifada has been excessive and that its conduct as occupying power and its callous treatment of Palestinian refugees have entailed numerous violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The mission called for an international protective presence in the territories, along with implementation of longstanding UN resolutions and the Geneva Convention.
If these things are not done, and if the Palestinians fail to see that terrorism is not just immoral but increasingly counterproductive, the consequences will be deeper immiseration of the Palestinians and demoralization of Israeli society. Americans should demand action by their government to halt a growing tragedy.
With each new look at the November election in Florida, the argument of the Bush Five on the Supreme Court--that manual recounts would lead to the unequal treatment of voters--appears more ludicrous. The election itself was a statewide orgy of unequal treatment. In a draft report, the US Commission on Civil Rights, which investigated election irregularities in the Sunshine State, depicts a voting system rife with bias. "African American voting districts were disproportionately hindered by antiquated and error-prone equipment like the punch card ballot system," the commission notes. Which means more black and low-income voters--who tend to vote Democratic--had their ballots invalidated. The commission confirms what The Nation and other publications have found: The sloppy and inconsistent use of error-laden purge lists prevented eligible voters from casting ballots. "The purge system," the commission observes, "disproportionately impacted African American voters who are placed on purge lists more often and more likely to be there erroneously." In some counties voters of Hispanic or Haitian origin were not provided ballots in their native language--despite federal laws that require it.
There were other inequities. When Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered a recount, eighteen of Florida's sixty-seven counties didn't recount the votes; they merely checked the math from the original count. In two counties, elections officers shut off the mechanisms on the voting machines that identified errors on ballots and allowed the voter a second chance. Other counties kept these devices on.
According to the commission, "widespread disenfranchisement and denial of voting rights" occurred, but "it is impossible to determine the extent of disenfranchisement or to provide an adequate remedy to the persons whose voices were silenced...by a pattern and practice of injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency." And Jeb Bush, Harris and other state officials were to blame--not for having "conspired to produce the disenfranchisement of voters" but for having ignored the needs of voters. The draft, which Jeb Bush denounced as unfair, notes that it would be appropriate for the Justice Department to investigate whether Florida state and county officials violated the Voting Rights Act. Jeb Bush's office squealed bias and grumbled about the timing of the draft's release.
As the commission's report and various media investigations show, thousands of Florida voters were the victims of widespread institutional neglect. That neglect may not have been designed as a campaign strategy, but it worked as well as if it had been. Republicans, after all, have long believed that their candidates fare better in races with low turnout. There is no question that Bush's twisted path to the White House was paved by voting-system problems unaddressed by his brother and Harris--and that he got the presidency because of the unequal treatment of Florida citizens.
On July 1 Larry Summers--the Wunderkind economist who ran the Treasury Department under President Clinton--takes over as president of Harvard University. "A fitting choice," editorialized the New York Times. But fitting in what way?
So far, Summers has maintained an eloquent silence on the activists who seized his future office for three weeks to demand a living wage for Harvard service personnel. Harvard may have an endowment of billions at its disposal, but Summers, who failed to respond to my requests for an interview, is unlikely to embrace the living-wage drive.
After all, if everyone were paid a living wage, where would we store hazardous waste? A decade ago, while chief economist of the World Bank, Summers put forward arguments for a "world-welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste" in an internal bank memo that expressed the value of a human life as the sum of its future earnings. "The costs of health-impairing pollution depend on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality," Summers wrote. So if pollution takes five years off the life of the average, well-paid American, that is more significant than the same pollution prematurely killing off the average someone in Mexico or some other lower-wage country. Wrote Summers, "The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to it."
Yes, it's a ten-year-old memo, and Summers has apologized for his suggestions, saying they were ironic and intended to push colleagues to think outside the box. But don't feel bad about asking him whether "impeccable logic" dictates that the death of a Harvard janitor paid $6 an hour matters less on some level than if the janitor is making $10.25. That's just one of the harsh questions Harvard's braver souls ought to be asking.
Here's another: Why did Summers, while he was a top official at Treasury, so ardently embrace the corrupt sell-off of Soviet industries? Russia's privatization czar, Anatoly Chubais, oversaw "auctions" of the oil companies, nickel mines and other crown jewels of Soviet industry that were openly rigged. How openly? The privatizers invited some of Russia's newly minted tycoons to organize the auctions--and then let those tycoons reject high bids and crown themselves the winners.
Long after those rigged auctions were over, Summers was praising their organizers as an "economic dream team" and was on a friendly first-name basis with them in official letters. That was consistent with the Clinton Administration's see-no-evil approach to Boris Yeltsin's boys--one that Summers helped design.
Summers's critics may find new ammunition in a Justice Department lawsuit brought against Harvard over its work on Russian privatizations. In United States of America v. the President and Fellows of Harvard College, Andrei Shleifer, Jonathan Hay, Nancy Zimmerman and Elizabeth Hebert, the Justice Department accuses a team from Harvard of having "defrauded the United States out of $40 million"--the amount paid to Harvard's Institute for International Development to work on Russian economic policy in tandem with reformers like Chubais. The Justice Department says that Shleifer and Hay, who ran Harvard's Russia project, secretly bought large personal stakes in Russian oil companies and in "GKOs"--wildly high-interest Russian treasury bills. Harvard University's endowment, by the way, was also heavy in GKOs. In other words, Harvard and its representatives were investing in areas they were being paid to help design and regulate.
Justice's ninety-eight-page civil complaint also says the Harvard team arranged for USAID to pay hefty salaries to people who worked on Hay's or Shleifer's private business projects (or those of their wives, Zimmerman and Hebert); some of those people rarely showed up for work "other than to collect their pay or for the free lunches." And the complaint says that "numerous" Harvard officials knew of these and other abuses, but those who complained were either ignored or, if they worked under Shleifer and Hay, bullied into silence.
Summers does not figure in the Justice Department's complaint, but he has for decades been a mentor to Shleifer. As an MIT professor, he hired Shleifer, then a Harvard undergraduate, as a research assistant, beginning what the Journal of Economic Perspectives described as "a long period of close friendship and mutual education." Even after Shleifer's work in Russia had come under investigation, Summers continued to embrace it--for example, writing in a blurb for a book Shleifer co-wrote on privatization that the authors had done "remarkable things in Russia." Now, as Harvard president, Summers will have to deal with the fallout from the legal case involving Shleifer--who still holds tenure at Harvard--and whatever further embarrassing details it may reveal.
Even then, the lawsuit involves only a portion of the Harvard-Russia relationship. Of equal interest is how the Harvard project and the Russian reformers cooperated to win control of the US government's aid money. And this is a story Summers should know intimately--the ins and outs of Russian economic policy-making were a major part of his brief at Treasury, while the Harvard-reformer nexus involving his friends Shleifer and Chubais has been chewed over by Congressional and General Accounting Office investigators.
Government money is usually handed out through a bidding process, but according to a GAO investigation, aid money to Russia broke that model. The GAO--the budgetary watchdog of Congress--says Harvard not only received tens of millions without any bidding, it also won "substantial control over the U.S. assistance program [for Russian economic policy-making]." Here's how it worked: The Harvard team befriended "reformers" like Chubais. (Friendship in action: When Yeltsin briefly fired Chubais over the rigged oil company auctions, the Harvard team used USAID money to hire Chubais, paying him $10,000 a month to be a "consultant.") USAID approvingly noted the "deep relationship of trust" between Harvard and the reformers, and cited it as a reason to give Harvard more aid money while sidelining projects run by other institutions. On rare occasions when USAID did dare to award money to a non-Harvard-approved organization, the reformers would nix it: For example, when a team from Stanford won a USAID competition to work with Russia's Federal Commission on Securities--a commission designed by Shleifer and Hay--the "reformer" heading that commission balked. Stanford lost that contract, and later Harvard was given money to do much the same work.
Rigging the game so that only Harvard could win sounds like the sort of crony capitalism associated with... well, with Russian privatization. But the Justice Department is going after only the personal behavior of Shleifer, Hay & Co., not the larger issue of how their superiors winked so long at cronyism in Moscow and Washington. Why were the Russian reformers allowed to play Harvard, and Harvard to play Washington, like a yo-yo? That's another question no one should feel bad about asking Summers--who, in one of those quirky ironies of fate, will also technically be on trial if United States v. the President and Fellows of Harvard goes forward.
In Washington, all politics is personality. Or so it often seems. After the Jim Jeffords jump, the media zoomed in on Senator John McCain and breathlessly penned a new chapter in the Bush-McCain psychodrama. Look, McCain is hosting Tom Daschle at his weekend home in Arizona! Is he about to bolt the GOP? McCain pals, including pundit/publisher/political strategist William Kristol, are meeting to ponder the possibilities of an independent McCain presidential run! Slap the news on the front page!
Ever since Bush whupped McCain in the GOP primaries, the will-he, won't-he game hasn't ceased--although McCain repeatedly pledges fealty to party and dismisses talk of a 2004 bid. But each denial stokes speculation, and much of the accompanying chatter has concentrated on McCain's ego. He can't get over being beaten by a putz. He still resents the dirty tricks pulled by Bush backers. He'll do anything to get on TV. No doubt McCain, like most pols, is driven by personal concerns. During the 2000 contest, he fell in love with leading what he considered (accurately or not) a grassroots movement for reform. Armchair psychology: It was as if McCain believed he was finally the hero he had long been portrayed to be by others. In McCain's mind, his Vietnam story--shot down and taken prisoner, refusing an early release as an admiral's son, then breaking under torture and signing a confession declaring himself a "black criminal" and attempting suicide--is not a heroic tale. "I failed," he once told an interviewer. Clearly, McCain was happy to develop a hero-through-politics narrative.
It's intriguing that McCain is trying to keep this story line alive, not only by hinting and then denying he'll go indy but by adopting a set of stands that are left of center, by conventional reckoning. The McCain soap opera isn't only about ambition and recovered heroism; it's full of policy subplots. McCain has joined Democrats Ted Kennedy and John Edwards to push a patients' bill of rights opposed by the White House, and he has also joined Democrat Joe Lieberman to offer legislation to tighten a gun-show loophole. With Democrat Russ Feingold, he pushed a modest, if problematic, campaign reform bill through the Senate over GOP objections. He even whacked Bush for abandoning the Kyoto global-warming treaty. During debate on the tax bill, he offered an amendment to scale back the tax cut for the wealthiest (the measure lost on a tie vote). Then he was one of two Republicans to vote against the bill. Not even hero-to-Democrats Jim Jeffords did that. (Jeffords had the power to gum up the relieve-the-rich tax bill, yet chose not to.)
McCain has developed a quirky agenda with a liberal leaning. He remains hawkish; he is still officially antichoice. But he's either using the prospect of a move to independence (and the attention that brings him) to push this non-Republican platform or exploiting this non-Republican platform (and the attention that brings him) to create the opportunity for a move to independence. Perhaps both. In any event, it's an encouraging development for Democrats, who, prior to the Jeffords jump, were unable to put forward much of their own message. In a closely divided Senate, a McCain in the spotlight can help them on several key fronts.
The odd sideshow here is Kristol. His associates say he has embraced McCain as a Teddy Roosevelt figure who can champion the somewhat vague but bombastic "national greatness" conservatism Kristol advocates. But McCain's acts of apostasy involve small steps to the left. Does Kristol, who was instrumental in smothering HillaryCare, really crave a strong patients' bill of rights?
McCain's latest shuffles probably bolster the Democrats more than his presidential ambitions. He'd have a tough time fully repudiating Bush and the GOP. At the Republican convention--only ten months ago--McCain said, "If you believe patriotism is more than a soundbite and public service should be more than a photo-op, then vote for Governor Bush.... I know that by supporting George W. Bush, I serve my country well." Can Mr. Straight-Talk Express renounce that statement and not seem an opportunistic crybaby? It's not as if Bush has veered from his campaign positions. To justify an exit from the party, McCain would have to proclaim: I've seen the light--Bush and the Republicans are wrong; I was wrong to support them, and it's time for me to go. Such talk might be too straight to utter. In the meantime, McCain--ambition-driven or policy-driven--has figured out how to do what many Democrats (paging Al Gore) have not: discomfit Bush, shape debates and advance a few policies that tilt left.
We're pleased to announce that John Nichols joins national affairs correspondent William Greider and Washington editor David Corn in covering politics and policy from the capital. As part of The Nation's expanded Washington bureau, Nichols will divide his time between DC and the road, telling Washington what Americans think and telling Americans what's happening in Washington. He has written "The Beat" for The Nation for the past year and a half, while serving as editorial page editor of the Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. Previously, he was a national correspondent and editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade. Nichols was honored by the Inland Press Association for writing the best editorials appearing in a US daily newspaper, and by Women in Communications International as best columnist at a major daily. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin and is a frequent lecturer on public affairs. Author, with Robert McChesney, of It's the Media, Stupid (Seven Stories), he is currently writing a book for The New Press on the 2000 election, focusing on the Florida recount debacle and democracy issues.
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. And for much of the spring it seemed possible that America's second-largest city would elect as its mayor a progressive Latino who at one time had a tattoo that read, "Born to Raise Hell." Antonio Villaraigosa hailed from the barrio, marched with striking workers, replaced municipal bromides about economic development with a call for "economic justice" and asked the right questions about the drug war, immigration and a tattered safety net. The high school dropout who parlayed a second chance into the Speakership of the California Assembly sought to build a rainbow coalition of the left in a rapidly diversifying city.
So Villaraigosa's 53-to-47 loss Tuesday to City Attorney James Hahn, the colorless scion of the city's best-known political family, was more than just another municipal dream deferred. It was a reminder to progressives in LA and nationally that coalition politics is always easier said than done. Villaraigosa's army of 2,500 union volunteers tripled Latino turnout from just eight years ago, but African-American voters--many loyal to the moderately liberal Hahn because of his father's long advocacy for communities of color, and others worried about losing political clout in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic--gave Villaraigosa barely one-third of their votes. And suburban Anglo voters were scared off in droves by a relentlessly anti-Villaraigosa campaign that portrayed the former president of the Southern California ACLU as soft on crime. Last-minute Hahn mailings to suburban neighborhoods sought to link Villaraigosa to a cocaine dealer and warned, "Los Angeles just can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa." Shelly Mandell, president of the LA National Organization for Women, said, "I've never seen anything worse done to a good person."
The viciousness of the final phase of the campaign was not typical of Hahn, whose record and rhetoric suggest he will be a more liberal leader than outgoing mayor Richard Riordan. But Hahn will never be the movement mayor Villaraigosa would have been.
The election was "a gut check," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute. LA didn't quite have the guts to embrace what the Los Angeles Times described as "the audacity of [Villaraigosa's] aspirations for the city." (Nor, if a close unofficial tally holds, did it have the guts to elect the audacious Tom Hayden to the City Council.) But in a year when New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other major cities--all experiencing their own demographic and political shifts--will elect mayors, opportunities remain for progressives to make the rainbow real. The challenge, and it is a big one, will be to recognize that the rainbow does not just appear; it must be created. And it must be strong enough to withstand the politics of fear and division that can dash even the most audacious aspirations.
The March 14 announcement by the Coca-Cola Company that it is scaling back its aggressive marketing strategy in public schools is a clear victory for opponents of schoolhouse commercialism. But it's unlikely that it will do much in the long run to halt the flow of sugary caffeinated drinks into the hands of schoolchildren. According to one soft-drink-industry insider, Coke has so little control over its independent bottlers and distributors that it couldn't turn off the school spigot even if it wanted to. "Local bottlers can't afford to turn down the contracts with schools, because they know a competitor will step right in--and Atlanta [Coca-Cola headquarters] knows this too," the industry expert told me. Executives at five large Coca-Cola bottling companies all said in interviews that they would continue to sign exclusive contracts with local schools if the schools still want them.
And want them they do. The sad reality is that public school officials are so thoroughly addicted to the cheap fix of soda money that they've become a chief ally of the soft-drink industry and a driving force behind school commercialization. In Ohio recently, local school officials defied a state order to stop peddling soda and candy to students while breakfast and lunch are being served (a violation of federal law) because it would have cut into their profits. The state is now threatening to withhold federal money from the schools. And in Maryland, school administrators and organizations like the National Association of Secondary School Principals joined forces with the bottlers, the vending machine lobby and companies like Channel One and Frozen to squash a bill aimed at limiting commercialism in Maryland public schools.
The measure--The Captive Audience/Stop Commercialism in Schools Act of 2001--would have required school boards to ban commercial advertising in schools, restrict soda and candy sales and prohibit the purchase of textbooks with commercial logos. "The lobbyists kicked my ass," said Democratic State Senator Paul Pinsky, the measure's chief author. Pinsky noted that his bill went down to defeat one day after Coke's announced policy changes and only after Coke lobbyists had checked back with the home office on how to proceed.
A similar scenario is shaping up in California, where a bill that would effectively ban sales of soda and junk food in state schools is facing opposition from school officials and the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association. Ironically, the measure was drawn up in cooperation with leading child nutrition experts and school nutrition directors, who increasingly find themselves on the opposite side of school-health issues from their bosses.
Through contracts with Coke and Pepsi, some schools are raising as much as $100,000 a year, money that pays for things like band uniforms, field trips, team sports and computer rewiring. But in exchange schools become indentured to the corporations. Typically, the contracts require that schools sell a set quota of soft drinks each year (with cash incentives for selling more). This transforms schools from the status of being mere custodians of vending machines into active sales agents for soda. In Colorado Springs in 1998, for example, school officials sent teachers a letter urging them to allow students to drink Coke in class and suggesting that they keep soda machines on twenty-four hours a day [see Manning, "Students for Sale," September 27, 1999].
There can be no solution to the commercialization of public education until public schools are adequately and equitably funded. The Bush Administration will offer little help. Education Secretary Rod Paige signed a $5 million, five-year contract with Coca-Cola while superintendent of the Houston public schools and has proposed no solutions to the school funding crisis.
Consequently, parents and community activists should encourage local school boards to find other solutions to their budget problems. One obvious solution is higher taxes, an option that school districts are loath to propose. But as Andy Hagelshaw, the director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, points out, none of the approximately 250 exclusive cola contracts in effect nationally pay out more than $10 to $15 extra per pupil per year, less in bigger school districts. Surely, paying $10 a year more in school taxes is a good investment if it helps eliminate corporate hucksters and exploitation in schools. There are other funding alternatives as well, many of which the center helps schools adopt and implement: For example, instead of relying on the soda subsidy, many school districts are negotiating beneficial arrangements with smaller local businesses that contain no advertising or commercialism. Nationally, the Algebra Project, which produces a math curriculum and provides teacher training to urban schools, has accepted corporate underwriters who receive nothing in return except a brief mention in an annual report.
The failure of educators to think critically about the impact of school commercialism on the quality of schools is a terrible ethical lapse. It's time for the education establishment to think twice before it sells out its students to the highest bidder.
Memo to editors of campus papers: When the next right-wing ideologue shows up with an ad full of nonsense, just take the money and print it. That way, they will not be able to pose as the victim of "political correctness," they will not get millions of dollars' worth of free publicity and their ideas will not acquire the glamour of the forbidden. By the same token, you will not look afraid of debate and controversy, nor will you have to explain why you rejected their ad while printing something equally false, offensive or stupid on some previous occasion.
Never mind that the people accusing you of censorship practice it themselves: In an amusing riposte to David Horowitz's flamethrower ad opposing reparations for slavery, Salon's David Mazel proved unable to place an enthusiastically pro-abortion ad in papers on conservative campuses; and as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting points out, the Boston Globe, which editorialized against students who rejected the Horowitz ad, itself rejected an ad criticizing Staples, a major advertiser, for using old-growth forest pulp in its typing paper. So there, and so there! But you're in a better place to make such arguments stick if you can stand--however cynically and self-servingly--on the high ground of free speech yourself.
Just as Horowitz faded, having shot himself in the foot by refusing to pay the Daily Princetonian after it printed his ad but editorialized against it, up comes the soi-disant Independent Women's Forum--you know, that intrepid band of far-right free spirits funded by the ultraconservative Sarah Scaife Foundation--with an ad in the UCLA Daily Bruin and Yale Daily News urging students to "Take Back the Campus!" and "Combat the radical feminist assault on Truth." The IWF charges "campus feminism" with being "a kind of cult" in which "students are inculcated with bizarre conspiracy theories about the 'capitalist patriarchal hegemony,'" a fount of "Ms./Information," "male-bashing and victimology." Brainwashing isn't exactly what comes to mind when I think of the revolution in scholarship that has produced such celebrated historians as Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Joan Scott, Rickie Solinger, Leslie Reagan and Kathy Peiss. The sweeping, paranoiac language gives it away--this is IWF member Christina Hoff Sommers speaking from her perch at that noted institution of higher learning, the American Enterprise Institute.
The bulk of the ad consists of a list of "the ten most common feminist myths" and the "facts" that supposedly prove them false. Much of this is lifted from Sommers's Who Stole Feminism?, a book that attempted to deploy a few gotchas against hyperbolic statistics and questionable studies to deny the significance of violence, sexism and discrimination in women's lives. I mean, how important is it that "rule of thumb" may not derive, as some feminist activists believe and some newspapers have printed, from an old legal rule permitting husbands to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than their thumb (Myth #4)? Feminists did not make this folk etymology up out of nothing--actually, according to Sharon Fenick of the University of Chicago, writing on the Urban Legends website, it probably goes back to the eighteenth century, when the respected English judge, Francis Buller, earned the nickname "Judge Thumb," for declaring such "correction" permissible. That it was legal for premodern English husbands to beat their wives within limits is not in dispute (in her book, Sommers obscures this fact by omitting the Latin phrases from a passage in Blackstone's Commentaries); nor is the fact that wife-beating, regardless of the law, was, and sometimes still is, treated lightly by the legal system under the rubric of marital privacy. Thus, in 1910 the Supreme Court, in Thompson v. Thompson, barred wives from suing husbands for "injuries to person or property as though they were strangers." (I learned this, and much else relating to the history of American marriage, from Yale feminist historian Nancy Cott's fascinating Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.)
And what about Myth #2, "Women earn 75 cents for every dollar a man earns." That doesn't come from some man-bashing fabulator squirreled away in a women's studies department. It comes from the US government! The IWF argues that the disparity disappears when you take education, training, occupation, continuity of employment, motherhood and other factors into account--but even if that were true, which it isn't, to overlook all those things is itself advocacy, a politicized way of defining sex discrimination in order to minimize it.
And then there's #1, the mother of all myths: "One in four women in college has been the victim of rape or attempted rape." The IWF debunks this number, which comes from the research of Mary Koss, by citing the low numbers of reported rapes on college campuses, but the one-in-four figure includes off-campus and pre-college rapes and rape attempts. Are Koss's numbers the last word? Of course not. In 1998 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among all women, one in five had experienced a rape or attempted rape at some point in her life. In January the Justice Department released a report claiming that 3 percent of college women experience rape or attempted rape per school year, which does add up over four years.
Does irresponsible, lax or even slanted use of facts and figures exist in "campus feminism"? Sure--and out of it, too. (Try economics.) But what does that have to do with women's studies, a very large, very lively interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry, in which many of the supposed verities of contemporary feminism are hotly contested? The real debate isn't over the merits of this study or that--in social science "results" are always provisional. Now that the IWF has thrown down the gauntlet, feminist scholars should call for that real debate--Resolved: Women's lives were more seriously studied and accurately understood when almost no tenured professors were female. Or, Resolved: Violence against women is not a major social problem. Or, Resolved: If women aren't equal, it's their own darn fault.
It was, take it for all in all, a near-faultless headline: HENRY KISSINGER RATTRAPÉ AU RITZ, À PARIS, PAR LES FANTÔMES DU PLAN CONDOR. I especially liked the accidental synonymy of the verb rattraper. What a rat. And such a trap. It was in this fashion that the front page of the Paris daily Le Monde informed its readers that on Memorial Day the gendarmes had gone round to the Ritz Hotel--flagship of Mohamed Al Fayed's fleet of properties--with a summons from Judge Roger Le Loire inviting the famous rodent to attend at the Palace of Justice the following day. In what must have been one of the most unpleasant moments of his career, noted Le Monde, the hotel manager had to translate the summons to his distinguished guest. Kissinger left the hotel, surrounded by bodyguards, and later announced that he had no desire to answer questions about Operation Condor. He then left town.
Operation Condor [see Peter Kornbluh, "Kissinger and Pinochet," March 29, 1999, and "Chile Declassified," August 9/16, 1999] was a coordinated effort in the 1970s by the secret police forces of seven South American dictatorships. The death squads of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia agreed to pool resources and to hunt down, torture, murder and otherwise "disappear" one another's dissidents. They did this not just on their own soil but as far away as Rome and Washington, where assassins and car-bombs were deployed to maim Christian Democratic Senator Bernardo Leighton in 1975 and to murder the Socialist Orlando Letelier in 1976. The Pinochet regime was to the fore in this internationalization of state terror tactics, and its secret police chief, Col. Manuel Contreras, was especially inventive and energetic.
Thanks to the efforts of Representative Maurice Hinchey, who attached an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act last year, we now know that this seven-nation alliance had a senior partner. At all material times, those directing the work of US intelligence knew of Operation Condor and assisted its activities. And at all material times, the chairman of the supervising "Forty Committee," and the key member of the Interagency Committee on Chile, was Henry Kissinger. It was on his watch that the FBI helped Pinochet to identify and arrest Jorge Isaac Fuentes de Alarcón, a Chilean oppositionist who was first detained and tortured in Paraguay and then turned over to Contreras and "disappeared." Contreras himself was paid a CIA stipend. Other Condor leaders were promised US cooperation in the surveillance of inconvenient exiles living in the United States.
Judge Roger Le Loire has had documents to this effect on his desk for some time and is investigating the fate of five missing French citizens in Chile during the relevant period. He has already issued an arrest warrant for General Pinochet. But he understands that the inquiry can go no further until US government figures agree to answer questions. In refusing to do this, Kissinger received the shameful support of the US Embassy in Paris and the State Department, which coldly advised the French to go through bureaucratic channels in seeking information. Judge Le Loire replied that he had already written to Washington in 1999, during the Clinton years, but had received no response.
On the Friday immediately preceding Memorial Day, another magistrate in a democratic country made an identical request. In order to discover what happened to so many people during the years of Condor terror, said Argentine Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, it would be necessary to secure a deposition from Kissinger. And on June 4 the Chilean judge Juan Guzmán Tapia asked US authorities to question Kissinger about the disappearance of the American citizen Charles Horman, murdered by Pinochet's agents in 1973 and subject of the Costa-Gavras movie Missing (as well as an occasional Nation correspondent). So that, in effect, we have a situation in which the Bush regime is sheltering a man who is wanted for questioning on two continents.
Partly because I have written a short book pointing this out, I have recently been interviewed by French, British and Spanish radio and TV. Indeed, if it wasn't for that, I might not have learned of Kissinger's local and international difficulties for some days. The Financial Times carried a solid story on the Paris episode, with some background, the day after Le Monde. But in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post--not a line. And where were Messrs. Koppel and Lehrer? They usually find the views of "Henry" to be worthy of respectful attention. I admit my own interest, but I still feel able to ask: By whose definition is Kissinger's moment at the Ritz not news?
It is, meanwhile, practically impossible to open the New York Times without reading a solemn admonition, either from the Administration or from the paper itself. Colin Powell lectures Robert Mugabe. George Bush takes a high moral tone with Serbia. All are agreed that wanted men should be given up to international law. All are agreed that however painful the task, other societies must face their own past and shoulder their own grave responsibilities. For a long time I have found it somewhat surreal to read this righteous material, but the experience of ingesting it now becomes more emetic every day.
The seven Condor countries, groping their way back to democracy after decades of trauma, are making brave and honest attempts to find the truth and to punish the guilty. Time and again, commissions of inquiry have been frustrated because the evidence they need is in archives in Washington. And it is in those archives for the unspeakable reason that the United States was the patron and armorer of dictatorship. There is a heavy debt here. Is there not a single Congressional committee, a single principled district attorney, a single leader in our overfed and complacent "human rights community," who will try to help cancel it? Or are we going to watch while the relatives of the murdered and tortured seek justice by lawful means, and are waved away by armed bodyguards if they even try to serve a scrap of paper on the man whose immunity befouls us all?
They thought that Jeffords was their bane,
But now they see that John McCain,
Who shrugs off efforts to restrain
His longtime love of speaking plain,
And likes to jerk George Bush's chain
And demonstrate complete disdain
For rules Republicans maintain,
Could cause them even greater pain--
Could, thinking he's the knight Gawain
(Or pilot of a fighter plane),
Just bolt, and run his own campaign
To be a sagebrush Charlemagne.
In him they don't know what they've got.
One thing's for sure: Trent Lott he's not.
It's difficult to get over the idea that we failed Timothy McVeigh and that his execution fails us all. How deceptive a finale it is that leaves history neatly packaged in the cemetery of our imagination, safely removed from the festering reality of life. It happened, it's over, and we can now move on when we ought not to.
By killing McVeigh, we served only the purpose of avoiding responsibility for his creation. How convenient to not have a living reminder that this callow, awkward, unformed youth was a product of mainstream American culture--varnished by the "be all you can be" Army, no less--and not some easily dismissed dropout aberration. No, he was us in our darkest moments, even as we acknowledge gratefully that he was possessed by malevolent forces that the healthy can conquer.
If he was the devil, how did he get that way, this product of a strong Catholic family that raised a son to be a patriot, a son who then suddenly took his own government to be the enemy? What did he learn from us, his neighbors, the media and the government, that left him plotting in seedy motel rooms, manufacturing a weapon of mass destruction, while singing the disturbed loony tunes of the assassin?
His execution is to be denounced because it brings to an all-too-tidy conclusion a phenomenon that cries out for more complex and sustained examination. That's true in any capital case, but all the more so that 168 innocent men, women and children died at his hands, and scores of others were injured. It hardly serves their memory that McVeigh at worst will be venerated as a martyr by generations of lunatics to come and at best be dismissed as a weirdo actor in a script that is not of our hand.
We are told that the grieving relatives of those killed in the bombing need "closure," an unattainable state that has become the basic mantra of denial of harsh reality. It's a word now inevitably accompanied by the horrid phrase of "getting on" with the next phase of one's life, invoked even by McVeigh's lawyers before the execution to refer to their client's "future." But the so-called closure afforded by capital punishment, as some relatives of the dead have noted, cheapens the quest for real healing, which can never be an act of amnesia but rather requires the search for meaning in even the most dastardly of events.
For that we needed McVeigh alive, to be tormented every day in his own mind by the enormity of his crime, to the point where that smug self-righteousness of the killer would be pierced, and he finally would have to confront the pain of mass death as something other than a clinically ordered act of ideological game playing.
But we too, the uninvolved, needed his presence as an open wound to remind us of the pain that political madness, no matter its source, induces. In this case, the madness was, in effect, condoned when an unshaped youth was taught by his government to kill.
It should be a matter of deep national soul searching that we as a nation sent McVeigh to roam the desert on a Bradley fighting vehicle inflicting the "collateral damage" of the Gulf War. Did his military training prepare him to differentiate between what he did as his government's agent in Iraq and his own subsequent war on civilians? The absurdly celebrated mayhem of the Gulf War was the alternative to the college experience McVeigh never had. He was at least in need of a crash course on the distinction between what he called the "collateral damage" of the Oklahoma City bombing and the morality of shooting Iraqi draftees as they fled the battle.
Unfortunately, McVeigh completed his education at desultory gun shows in which patriotism often is equated with a defiance born of personal failure, and fire power is the means to dignity and freedom. That and the literature of angry white men, who believe their skin color and a musket should be all that is needed to make them meaningful players in the computerized global marketplace.
The merchants of madness will now exploit the government's execution of McVeigh as confirmation of their paranoia. Better to have had McVeigh as an aging reminder of how horrible the taste can be when the American brew is curdled.
The two sisters from the Our Lady of Angels convent had driven down from Pennsylvania with a message for their Congressman: Say no to Star Wars. It was proving a tough sell.
A Nation analysis finds that benefits to Bush, Cheney and the Cabinet could top million.
The biggest brand name in for-profit education is floundering.
A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."
The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.
Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.
In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.
What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:
§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.
§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.
§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.
§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.
How serious are these threats? In the lifetime of this graduating class, the bell has already tolled at least four times. In 1983 a Soviet Russian satellite mistook the sun's reflection on a cloud for an incoming US missile. A massive retaliatory launch was only barely averted. In 1986 the worst nuclear reactor explosion in history occurred at the Soviet power station at Chernobyl. In 1995 Russia's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American missile, and again a nuclear attack on the United States was narrowly averted. And just last summer, Russia's most modern nuclear submarine, the Kursk, exploded at sea.
Think of these tollings as chimes on a clock of nuclear catastrophe ticking inside Russia. We do not know what time it is. It may be only dawn or noon. But it may already be dusk or almost midnight.
The only way to stop that clock is for Washington and Moscow to acknowledge their overriding mutual security priority and cooperate fully in restoring Russia's economic and nuclear infrastructures, most urgently its early-warning system. Meanwhile, all warheads on both sides have to be taken off high-alert, providing days instead of minutes to verify false alarms. And absolutely nothing must be done to cause Moscow to rely more heavily than it already does on its fragile nuclear controls.
These solutions seem very far from today's political possibilities. US-Russian relations are worse than they have been since the mid-1980s. The Bush Administration is threatening to expand NATO to Russia's borders and to abrogate existing strategic arms agreements by creating a forbidden missile defense system. Moscow threatens to build more nuclear weapons in response.
Hope lies in recognizing that there are always alternatives in history and politics--roads taken and not taken. Little more than a decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, along with President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, took a historic road toward ending the forty-year cold war and reducing the nuclear dangers it left behind. But their successors, in Washington and Moscow, have taken different roads, ones now littered with missed opportunities.
If the current generation of leaders turns out to lack the wisdom or courage, and if there is still time, it may fall to your generation to choose the right road. Such leaders, or people to inform their vision and rally public support, may even be in this graduating class.
Whatever the case, when the bell warning of impending nuclear catastrophe tolls again in Russia, as it will, know that it is tolling for you, too. And ask yourselves in the determined words attributed to Gorbachev, which remarkably echoed the Jewish philosopher Hillel, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"
Policies are more confused than at any time since the weapons were invented.
Those inscrutable Japanese. They've inspired more trash between hard covers over the past century than anyone--far more than the Chinese, if that's what you're thinking. Mysterious Japan, Japan Real and Imaginary: They come by the cartload, and they aren't books so much as specimens. You learn little of Japan in them, but something of their moment in the West--in these two cases the early 1920s. They are about folly, in the end, and the human habit of cultivating blindness toward others. Cracked and discolored, they are old mirrors worth but a few moments' gaze. "A thousand books have been written about Japan," Lafcadio Hearn noted in his best on the subject, "but among these...the really precious volumes will be found to number scarcely a score." This observation is not quite a century old; Hearn made it at the start of Japan: An Interpretation, which he completed not long before his death in Tokyo in 1904. But the genre lives on, certainly: The tap rushes or drips only according to the trade tensions, it sometimes seems. I put these unhardy annuals under the heading "JAJB." Each one is Just Another Japan Book.
We have seen superb work on Japan over the past few years, it must immediately be added. John Dower's Embracing Defeat and Herb Bix's recent biography of Hirohito swept the prizes, and so they should have. They announce an era of revision and demystification, and numerous other writers are up to the same thing. It's a rich time, it seems to me, for the simple reason that there is so much in our accounts of Japan that requires revising and demystifying. And now we have a compendium of Donald Richie's work to remind us that beneath the blanket of cold war claptrap and beside the running stream of JAJBs, this essayist, film critic, fiction writer, screenwriter, portraitist and master of the journalistic feuilleton has built an honest, revealing body of work that spans the entire postwar era. Richie is neither a Dower nor a Bix, because he's not a scholar. Is he a Hearn? The work requires no such flattering light to claim its place, but the comparison is useful--and more than moderately apt.
Most readers--Richie among them, one suspects--come to Hearn via the productions of his fourteen years in Japan. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Kokoro, the aforementioned Interpretation: This is the stuff he's remembered for. But the pre-Japan period was formative. Son of an Anglo-Irish father and a Greek mother, he was abandoned early and at 19 departed the old world for the new. After some years newspapering in Cincinnati, he left the industrial North for New Orleans and the pre-industrial South. From there it was on to Martinique--ever-deeper into the nonwhite world--and by then Hearn had identified that which he detested most. "One can become weary of a whole system of life, civilization," he wrote a friend in 1889. "Such is exactly my present feeling,--an unutterable weariness of the aggressive characteristics of existence in a highly organized society.... One feels this especially in America,--the nervous centers of the world's activities." All Hearn needed at that moment was an objective correlative. He found it when he docked in Yokohama a year later.
The short, orphaned itinerant, the olive-skinned misanthrope who held on to nothing and never belonged, the seer and sayer with one blind eye and the other enlarged, sank instantly into Japanese life. He wore yukata (robes) at home and sat on tatami (mats). He took a Japanese wife and then her family name--he is still Koizumi Yakumo in Japan--and in time became a patriot and a citizen. Japan was a rising power in Hearn's day; it was leaving one life behind and borrowing another from the West. So it gave Hearn space to elicit all the regret and loss he considered implicit in anything beautiful. In Japan he found the superiority of the "primitive" he had always sought, and he could at last defend the soul and the shadow--the inner and the unseen--as against the hard, material substance of "civilization." In all of this he gave expression to the two souls his parents imparted to him, "each pulling in a different way," as he once put it. Japan, then, was more than the object of brilliant reportage: It was at bottom a canvas upon which to paint an unconscious self-portrait. "Japan gave Hearn nothing," one of his later editors said a bit too baldly. "He himself, not Japan, is the interesting subject in his writings on Japan."
There is a kind of template here--a couple of them, actually. Japan as mirror is an old idea, stretching back to the first Western arrivals in the 1540s. One saw in it the inverse of all one was, believed in, treasured, thought. Since its defeat in 1945, Americans have simply reversed the reflection: Being a nation of narcissists now, we look across the Pacific and think we see only ourselves. But Japan as a freshly gessoed canvas awaiting one's oils--that is a tradition Hearn can be credited with inventing, more or less. It rests, paradoxically, on the "otherness" we still assign to the Japanese (and which many of them claim often enough) and the simultaneous sense some round-eyes have of arriving home upon arriving in Japan--of seeing things there that long ago fell by the wayside in the West. Then there is Japan as a site of eternal regret. Because it came so late to the modernization process, you can still affect to see the old gods and old ways as they fade into faint traces. "What is there, after all, to love in Japan, except what is passing away?" Hearn once asked. Again, too bald. But many writers have posed the same question since, and they haven't all produced JAJBs.
"And I realized that my quest was over--at least part of it. Sitting in the sunny Hiroshima station.... I understood what I had guessed earlier: that the voyage had not been to find them, but to find myself, and that--to an extent--I now had." That isn't Hearn, though it could be, apart from its cleanliness of style. It is Richie, toward the end of the The Inland Sea, which recounts his midlife journeys--and midlife crisis, fair to say--over many warm months spent along the coasts of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu islands. Many consider this book, first published in 1971 (and which Stone Bridge is due to reissue in a handsome new edition later this year), Richie's masterpiece. Richie calls it fiction, perhaps because he reshaped multiple voyages into one. But it's a fine line, and what it is in this respect hardly matters in any case. From the title onward, it is an almost perfectly realized effort to express the self through what one sees--without slighting either.
Learning from Hearn, then? Perhaps even consciously, as the rest of the passage just noted suggests. It is worth quoting at length because it could easily stand as a statement of Richie's lifelong purpose in swimming ever toward the bottomover five decades among the Japanese (while accepting that he would never touch the sand and rocks that lie there):
In the train, looking at the flat, bright coast, traveling to the ferry station, I suddenly, and for no apparent reason, thought of Lafcadio Hearn dying and penning a few last bitter pages. The book was called Japan: An Interpretation, but he, like all of us who come to this land--attractive, mysterious, and impenetrable as a mirror--was writing about himself; the tender, myopic, beauty-loving Lafcadio was being, finally, interpreted. I mingled with the others who left the train, waiting for the gates of the ferry to open. This disillusioned end I would be spared, I thought, I hoped. I would never find them, the real Japanese, because they were always around me, and they were always real, but I might at last decide what my own real self was, and hence create it. But it was too nice a day just to sit and ponder. So, for the first time in my life, I was able to achieve the feat I had so long admired in the Japanese: I shook my head and put aside perplexing thoughts. Then I turned with a smile to the waiting, open day, and--along with all the others--boarded the boat.
The boat Richie first boarded to Tokyo arrived by way of Okinawa on New Year's Eve of 1946, a year and a few months after the surrender. There wasn't much left, Richie the occupation sailor wrote in a journal entry included in The Donald Richie Reader. But there were those things wars don't destroy. And Richie, like Hearn, was immediately enthralled. "I remember Tokyo moving slowly in front of me, fittingly undressed in the hot summer night, showing a beauty and an innocence and a naturalness by which I, from the rigid West, was alternately ravished and enlightened." In 1949 came a trip home for five years of study at Columbia (and another, from 1968 to 1972, during which Richie was curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). In between and after came thirty-odd books on everything from Zen gardens and Japanese cookery to biography and history, along with many decades of (as yet unpublished) journals and enough rent-paying literary journalism (some for The Nation) to put most full-time correspondents to shame.
Hearn once wrote admiringly of "civilized nomads," and there is something of this rare type in Richie's sprawling output as well as in his life. One could argue that Hearn anticipated and Richie found his own use for that practice of purposely purposeless drifting that Guy Debord, the peripatetic Situationist, used to call dérive. It seems especially suited to the expatriate in Japan. But Richie's method is not Hearn's: He seems never to have sought a place in the folds, or to write from within: He preferred surface and sunlight to all that. Japan, he notes in a later essay called "I Like Myself Here,"
allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me--I am considered too much the outsider for that, a distinction I owe to the color of my skin, eyes, and hair--and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me.... Our basic agreement permits an amount of approval, some of it mutual; our basic differences allow me to apprehend finally that the only true responsibility a man has is toward himself.
Japan as proscenium? Well, to an extent. And there's something learned from the postwar existentialists in this, too--as Arturo Silva, who edited this volume, points out in his lengthy and finely considered introductory essay. But neither notion should be taken to suggest that Richie has been a dishonest observer, or that he never truly had his eye on the ball. He hasn't, and he has rarely taken his eye off it. Better to recognize, it seems to me, that Richie accepts two things Hearn never did: On the one hand, surface and substance are joined in Japan; on the other, one's nomadism is to be entered into, for--gift or curse--it is never to be overcome.
It can hardly be a surprise that film was Richie's principal milieu for much of his life in Japan. Today one recognizes Japan's mastery of surfaces in everything from fashion to the placement of objects in shop window displays. But it was in the golden age of Japanese film--the first decades after the war, before the big studios commodified it--that this preoccupation was best expressed in a modern art form. Film was his escape as a child in Lima, Ohio, Richie explains; in Japan, it became a form of embrace. He saw his first Japanese movie during the occupation, when it was against the rules to fraternize with the locals. He was soon writing criticism, standing at the edges of sets, and watching rushes with Akira Kurosawa and other directors.
Richie chatting with Yasujiro Ozu or Kon Ichikawa; Richie behind the camera on the set of Futari: These are among the pictures peppered through The Donald Richie Reader, and they suggest the story, if they don't quite tell it. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, which he wrote with Joseph Anderson and published in 1959, brought Richie recognition as an authority. Books on Kurosawa and his beloved Ozu followed--along with screenplays and films of his own. Here and in his lectures, Richie tells the marvelous story of watching Ozu spend obsessive hours arranging the cushions on a sofa before he let a camera roll. "Ozu was perhaps primarily interested in pattern, in the design that Henry James called 'the figure in the carpet,'" Richie writes in the excerpt here from Ozu (1975). It is among Richie's best books. In it you see how, even in a critical study, Richie manages to evoke Japan's eternal dedication (and his own) to the reality of appearances.
I came to Richie's writing via film, as one comes to Hearn via Japan. But as with Hearn, there are immense other plots and prairies to explore. And this is the great pleasure of The Donald Richie Reader. The work spills across genres and subjects like a river without banks. All of his best books are properly represented: The Inland Sea and the film volumes; A Lateral View and Partial Views, his two gatherings of essays; and The Honorable Visitors, a 1994 collection of portraits of expatriates from Pierre Loti to Henry Adams. Sprinkled throughout are entries from the journals, more portraits from his 1987 collection, Different People, and various pieces in the short, discursive form known as thefeuilleton, on gods, gardens, temples, tattoos, television and--well, you see where it all goes.
It is a strength and a weakness, this profligate wandering. While it makes the Reader a handsome whole, it also seems over the years to have diffused interest in Richie on this side of the Pacific, so that his output--in terms of reputation, I mean--is not quite the sum of parts. I doubt Richie cares; one can't imagine him entering into "the quality lit biz," as Terry Southern used to call it, the way young American writers market themselves now with distasteful enthusiasm. The Reader's imaginative, broken-up layout is, if anything, a celebration of Richie's mosaic. And the surprise for me is the extent of the fiction--and the extent to which Richie's graceful, easy style works when applied to it. Apart from The Inland Sea (a special case, in any event), there are stories from a collection called A View From the Chuo Line and parts of two novels. The first is called Where Are the Victors? and the second Tokyo Nights. They make a fine frame: The former is from 1956 and concerns the occupation; the latter is Richie's droll take on the bubble of the 1980s, when the Japanese at last finished their century-and-some game of catch-up with the West.
Somewhere in the 1970s, Arturo Silva points out, Richie's writing began to reflect his disappointment in the Japan he saw emerging from the postwar ashes--the consumption-crazy Japan that eventually produced the bubble. He wanted his "nourishing void," that emptiness at the center that Roland Barthes famously identified in Empire of Signs, to remain unblemished and unfilled. Long earlier, Richie had recognized that much of what there is to admire in the Japanese--their aesthetic, the old proximity to nature--grew from a culture of poverty. "If you don't have furniture, then you pay a lot of attention to empty space," Richie tells Silva in an interview included here. "And if you have only mud, then you pay a lot of attention to pottery." It's gone now, he laments--the pathos, the folkways, the demotic culture of the city's poorer quarters--gone from film as it is gone from life, lost to "cultural carpetbaggery and nouveaux riches." So there arrives a touch of the old, familiar regret. Richie, like Hearn, has not been spared after all.
He ought to have known. The 1940s were to Richie precisely as the 1890s were to Hearn: Japan was rising again, becoming other than what it had been. The transformation Hearn witnessed is described in all the histories as radical and swift, and the one that Richie has watched for half a century has been no less so. The best of what is offered for tasting in The Donald Richie Reader will last beyond its time. But it has a time--a very specific one. Richie's Japan is cold war Japan. His work presents life observed during that period, now also coming under renewed scrutiny by such scholars as John Dower. It lends much of what Richie has done a value never intended and a unity never sought.
"There is no simple cut to 'The End,' no surge of music to indicate a final cadence," Richie writes in a concluding piece. "Life, not being art, knows no such conventions." No, not for a writer now in his 70s, and not for a nation still finding its way forward. Japan stumbles on now in search of nobody knows quite what. Only itself, in my view. And to judge by this fine collection, this record of a quest, that may be what Donald Richie has all along admired most about it.
It's been six years since Dogme 95 nailed its ten-point "Vow of Chastity" to the door of world cinema. Lars von Trier's gang of four Danish film rebels flung an inkwell at the father of Hollywood lies, calling for an end to auteurist indulgences, corrupt special effects, duplicitous props and sets, backslider's reshoots and the devil's tricks with camera and soundtrack. As pious as my Lutheran Grandma Dyveke, they demanded an overnight reformation. And now they've finally unveiled the fourth film from the movement, Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive. Apparently, nothing takes longer than absolute spontaneity.
It took the Dogme-ticians only 150 seconds to devise each of the ten rules of the Vow of Chastity, and from the start they were fully prepared to violate them all. Dogme directors are expected to submit a list of their "sins" in making their films-- the parts of the Vow they've broken. Yet their playfulness about the creative process is also dead serious. They view their allegiances the way Mary McCarthy was said to regard marriage. They need a worthy ideal to be unfaithful to.
Von Trier remains the high priest of the movement, even though 1998's The Idiots, his only film made under formal Dogme rules, was by far the worst of the four. An encounter-group-grope movie, whose big nude scene he directed in the nude, The Idiots is completely overshadowed by his great, albeit grandiose, proto-Dogme epic Breaking the Waves, about a simple country girl (Emily Watson) whose crippled husband manipulates her into having sex with thugs who kill her, and the semi-Dogme musical Dancer in the Dark, about a simple country girl (Björk) manipulated by a suicidal man into killing him.
But even when they're not strictly Dogme-tic, von Trier's films make the world safe for certain Dogme qualities: a restless, handheld camera; jolting edits; a grainy look; a love of ugliness; an ensemble cast gradually reverting to savagery; a burning urge to live in the moment; and a Sade-esque compulsion to put a stink up God's nostrils.
Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 The Celebration was the first hit Dogme flick. In place of von Trier's gathering of orgiasts getting in touch with their inner idiots, Vinterberg stages a family reunion at which the son rebukes the patriarch for raping him and his sister as kids. To me, it was smug, sentimental, bad Bergman pastiche, but the film world ate it up and clamored for more.
What they got was Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's 1999 Mifune, a screwball comedy. To make a genre movie overtly violates the eighth commandment of the Vow--"Genre movies are not acceptable"-- but the constraints of spontaneous filmmaking can make Dogmeteurs revert to narratives more generic than Hollywood's. No problem: Be it ever so sinful, Mifune is humane and fresh where von Trier and Vinterberg are lumbering and sulfurous. It's a gas--a giddy, romping shaggy-dog tale wherein a Copenhagen businessman revisits his ramshackle family farm in the country, ruled by his beguiling half-wit brother (Jesper Asholt), an aficionado of samurai films and crop-sculpting aliens. Kragh-Jacobsen calmed down the Dogme shaky-cam and made a virtue of available light sources. The film has champagne spirit on a beer budget.
For my money, Kragh-Jacobsen was the top Dogme dog, but Levring's The King Is Alive has given me second thoughts. It looks sensational, walks the minimalist tightrope with balletic brio and, like many good things, begins in sin. A closeup of a face on a bus yields to a shot of a bus from above, rolling down a bleak road; this image gives way to a glimpse of coldly remote mountains. Clearly, Dogme-flouting technology was involved--you're not supposed to use tripods, let alone aerial shots. But Levring honors the spirit of the law: The movie is about the human-scale consequences of confrontation with implacable nature.
At the wheel of the bus is Moses (Vusi Kunene), a gentle black African whose name is a gag--he's about to get his passengers horrifyingly lost in the desert, because the compass on his dash is busted. Moses pulls the bus into the best Dogme set you ever saw: a tiny ghost town called Kolmanskop. A globe-trotting director of TV commercials, Levring knew just where to find an exceptionally evocative set--crucial when you're forbidden to construct one to your specifications. It's an abandoned mining burg in the Kalahari, maintained by the Namibian government as a museum, and so it helpfully contained old-fashioned kerosene lamps, mining tools, weathered furniture and rooms half filled with sand spilling through the open doors, driven by winds hauntingly captured by Levring's multiple microphones.
Though the Vow is a bit muddled concerning precisely which bits of technology are forbidden, I think those many mikes constitute another sin, illustrating an intriguing contradiction of Dogme. The quest to capture the true moment clashes with its low-tech strictures: You better your odds of nailing spontaneous greatness with more and better technology. In the interview on the DVD of Dancer in the Dark, von Trier says he shot the musical sequences with 100 cameras, but would have preferred 1,000, and looks forward to the day when technology permits 10,000 cameras. Will the Vow be altered to accommodate technology's inexorable march? Maybe; but the Dogme-ticians won't lose sleep over their crimes. Sin boldly! That's the Dogme spirit.
When Moses discovers that Kolmanskop's gas tanks are all dry, the passengers panic. A take-charge Aussie (Miles Anderson) strides up to the sole human in town, an old African (Peter Kubheka), viewing the proceedings from some mysterious otherworld. What's he doing there, unthinkable miles from nowhere? Waiting for an ensemble to arrive so he can comment on them in portentous voiceover. (He's not the most successful character in the film.)
The Aussie passes on the old man's wisdom: The only food in town is a cache of tinned carrots, some poisonous, and to survive, they must learn to drink dew. "Above all, we stay positive and we keep our spirits up!" (Positive? Doesn't he know he's in a Dogme film?) Then he marches into the desert for help. The others are to wait five days for his return, then start picturesquely blackening the sky with burning tires to attract airplanes, because if he's not back, he's dead.
A shot of a roomful of sand yields to footsteps in the desert. Efficiently, Levring has placed us with the protagonists in one hell of a Jack London jam.
The tourists know just what to do: They freak out. Guzzle hooch, start arguments and bonfires, jump and jive in the flames and shadows. The prospect of death makes them horny, and very pissed off. Several cordless cameras roamed while the cast went on a wild chase, each to find the depths of his or her own character, none ever certain when on or off camera. It kept them honest. The twenty-minute setups permitted by location shooting and state-of-the-art videocams enabled Levring to get around the no-reshoots rule: He kept rewriting scenes and then shooting them in altered forms, merging rehearsal and performance, until he got pure takes. And who needs makeup (a Dogme no-no), when for six weeks you've got the sun to bake faces and whittle away at bodies until they resemble contestants on TV's Survivor?
What passes between the passengers is not embedded in any structured story, and the emotions don't make much naturalistic sense. A big woman (Janet McTeer) unhappily married to a bland man (Bruce Davidson) lashes her husband with cat-o-nine-tails insults and tries to provoke Moses in an ugly racial come-on. An angelic party girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with excelsior for brains and a Walkman instead of a mental life tries to make nice with an irascible French intellectual (Romane Bohringer), who heaps contempt in French on the uncomprehending kid.
Watching the group get ever more nasty, a grizzled old Brit tourist (David Bradley) murmurs, "Is man no more than this?" He gets the notion to jot down what he can remember of King Lear and get the others to enact it, to pass whatever time they've got left. The ragged, fragmentary scenes don't add up to a play-within-a-play; Shakespeare is just another existing light source under which to study characters. It works better than, say, Gus Van Sant's hippified Shakespeare in the otherwise exemplary My Own Private Idaho; Levring doesn't attempt to update the Bard, and he's not aiming at a large thematic statement or strained parallel. He more modestly uses bits of Lear to spotlight aspects of character. "Howl! Howl! Howl!" spoken by the old Brit dramatizes his grief, the Leigh character's self-destruction and the death of his own long-lost daughter. The Brit's half-remembered Lear is, like the mining town, a timeless found ruin occupied by a Dogme 95 fairy tale.
Why does The King Is Alive live, even though it's so artificial and disconnected? It creatively unleashes the actors while preventing the usual scene-stealing games. The scenes don't exactly add up, but they are riveting while they last, and the countdown to calamity or rescue provides a sustaining tension in place of a plot. The voluptuous curves and lurid lights of the desert are stunningly photogenic, and the cheap but sophisticated equipment achieves operatic effects. This may be Dogme's best shot.
But does it really do what the revolutionaries set out to do in 1995? Does it truly "force the truth out of...characters and settings"? No, because there is no single "truth," and only a narrow zealot would claim to find one. Like all the Dogme films, its real sin is to do what they promise: to "regard the instant as more important than the whole." Ultimately, and however salubrious its influence on moviedom, Dogme film is a dead end, because in art, the whole is more important than the instant.
But my God, does it have its moments.
Let's begin with a Denis Johnson moment. One Saturday, in Los Angeles, I venture out to buy a newspaper; when I get home, I discover, wedged between its C and D sections, a grainy flier offering spiritual aid. The flier is signed by a guy named Steve, who's a member of something called the Motorcycle Church of Christ, and right there on the paper is his phone number, inscribed neatly in ballpoint pen. Normally, I'd just throw it in the garbage without thinking about it; if I need help, I won't be looking to a flier in the newspaper, and anyway, the Motorcycle Church of Christ? But this day, I'm feeling buffeted, aswirl in signs and incantations, indications that there's something bigger going on. On my walk to the newsstand, I'd seen a young girl wearing an athletic department T-shirt, only instead of "Property of USC" or "Property of L.A. Dodgers," it screamed out "Property of God." Weirder, though--chilling, even--is this: When I left the house, I was in the midst of reading Johnson's essay "Bikers for Jesus," which recounts a trip he made to Newark, Texas, for the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally, a three-day evangelical revival featuring, among other born-again bikers, the selfsame Motorcycle Church of Christ.
Were I living in a different universe, I might call this a coincidence, the kind of synchronicity that arises when you have something on your mind. But in Denis Johnson's universe there is no such thing as coincidence, only hints, clues, patterns of connection that let us see the world in a new light. His novel Already Dead is nothing less than a metaphysical passion play, in which life and death, soul and substance, come together like the threads of an elaborate tapestry, until we're no longer sure where reality and illusion begin or end. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, meanwhile, posits God as the ultimate conspirator, less a deity than a puppetmaster whose intentions are never clear. What's extraordinary about this vision is that for all its spiritual uncertainty, it offers moments--flashes, really--of revelation, although it's up to us to decipher what those mean. Nowhere is this more deftly rendered than in Johnson's story cycle Jesus' Son, where a hopeless drifter, junkie and occasional criminal navigates a middle road between transcendence and despair. "What a pair of lungs!" he crows in "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," describing a woman who has just learned that her husband is dead. "She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere." Such lines can't help but rewire our expectations, not only because of Johnson's willingness to sink down deep into the darkness but because, even in the throes of loss and degradation, it is often wonder that he finds.
Johnson's first book of nonfiction, Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond, stakes out a similarly elusive territory, featuring eleven pieces that move fluidly, sometimes within the span of a single sentence, from memoir to meditation to reportage. Much of this material first appeared in mass-market publications--Esquire, Harper's--but to call Seek a collection of magazine work would be to miss the point. Rather, in much the same way as Johnson's fiction, the accounts here mean to get beneath the surface of their circumstances, to root out the ambiguities, the question marks, the inexplicable juxtapositions--those moments when, without warning, everything is cast in doubt. Don't get me wrong; it's not a metaphorical world that Seek reports on: From the shattered, warred-upon landscapes of Afghanistan and Liberia to the neo-hippie enclave of the Rainbow Gathering, these are actual places full of actual people, living actual lives. But if there are no ghosts wandering California's North Coast, no junkies having mystical visions in the backs of family cars, as in Johnson's fiction, Seek evokes an equivalent sense of rawness, the idea that, at any instant, we may step through the looking glass into a domain unknown. "Another night under a strange sky in a different realm," Johnson writes in a dispatch from Somalia.
I listen to the reports on the shortwave of bombings, attacks, plagues, even witch-burnings (seventy elderly women burned in South Africa in the last ten months) and I feel I'm living in a world where such things are all there is...I've got a pocket New Testament, but I can't read much of it--because I'm living in the Bible's world right now, the world of cripples and monsters and desperate hope in a mad God, world of exile and impotence and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. A world of miracles and deliverance, too.
The question, of course, is how we reconcile this--the desperate hope and the deliverance, the miracles and the attacks and plagues. For Johnson, the answer is a kind of studied incredulity, which allows him to approach most situations with eyes wide open and no preconceptions, other than those he needs in order to survive. In "Three Deserts," he visits a religious sect called the Children of the Light at their fertile compound in the Arizona desert, where they live "as virgins and eunuchs in the Reign of Heaven...they do not expect to die." Such a setup is ripe for skepticism, but Johnson goes the other direction, writing about the group's miraculous discovery of a freshwater lake 200 feet underground as if it could be luck or blessing, or a little bit of both. It's not that he suspends judgment exactly, just that judgment isn't what he's after. Rather, his purpose is to leave the question open and allow us to decide for ourselves. The closest he gets to any real conclusions comes in "Hippies," when, reflecting on the Rainbow Gathering, he notes that "here in this bunch of 10,000 to 50,000 people somehow unable to count themselves I see my generation epitomized: a Peter Pan generation nannied by matronly Wendys like Bill and Hillary Clinton, our politics a confusion of Red and Green beneath the black flag of Anarchy; cross-eyed and well-meaning, self-righteous, self-satisfied; close-minded, hypocritical, intolerant--Loving you!--Sieg Heil!" Lest it appear he's exempting himself, though, Johnson soon reveals his complicity by ripping off an old friend in a mushroom deal. "Back at my tent," he admits, "I dig out my canteen and prepare to split the stuff, whatever it is, with Joey while he finds his own canteen so we can wash it down quick. And here is why I can't permit myself even to try and co-exist with these substances: I said I'd split it, but I only gave him about a quarter. Less than a quarter. Yeah. I never quite became a hippie. And I'll never stop being a junkie."
The reason all this works is Johnson's honesty, which carries a sense of relentlessness about it. His "Hippies" riff is just the tip of the iceberg; throughout the book, he revels in the idea of being caught off-guard. That's a difficult trick to pull off, especially with nonfiction, where, in the thirty-odd years since Terry Southern, Hunter S. Thompson, and other New Journalists first sought to efface it, the line between reportorial observer and participant has come to appear nonexistent at times. Yet Johnson gets away with it because, for the most part, his personality remains secondary to what he's seeing, the often fragmentary substance of the world. In several pieces, he goes so far as to write about himself in the third person, constructing a series of personas not unlike the muddled men who motivate his fiction, and even at his most overtly personal--"Down Hard Six Times," about his honeymoon panning for gold in Alaska, or "Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells," a reminiscence of his Boy Scout initiation, circa 1962--he maintains a reserve, a filtered quality, framing his experiences through some larger issue (self-sufficiency, say, or weakness) that goes beyond self-reflection or memoir.
On the surface this might seem to distance us from the subject, yet paradoxically it draws us closer by letting us engage with the material on our own. In "The Small Boys' Unit," for instance, which recounts a 1992 trip to Liberia to interview military strongman Charles Taylor, Johnson meanders along, overwhelmed by African inefficiency, until the very notion of the interview starts to seem beside the point. He gets the runaround, he may or may not be arrested, he feels ineffectual in the face of poverty and civil war. What this does is lull us into an equivalent state of torpor, so that when Johnson finally opens up, it's unexpected and profound. "My parents raised me to love all the earth's peoples," he writes in one of Seek's most ruthlessly self-lacerating passages. "Three days in this zone and I could only just manage to hold myself back from screaming Niggers! Niggers! Niggers! until one of these young men emptied a whole clip into me."
It's unsettling to read something like that--unsettling, hell, it's disturbing in the extreme. But it's also deeply meaningful, a moment that lingers, resonates. Once you get over the initial shock, you realize that Johnson's throwing down a gauntlet, not about race so much as about assumption, challenging us to rethink all the things we take for granted, to consider them from another point of view. In many ways, that's the defining ethos of the collection, and if any one piece reflects this, it's "The Militia in Me," a response to the Oklahoma City bombing, originally published in Esquire in the summer of 1995. Here Johnson humanizes those in the militia movement by acknowledging his sympathy--not for their methods or their ideology but for their discontent. "This is a free country," he tells us. "I just want to be left alone." Then, he describes the ways our rights have been eroded, from the FBI's standoff with survivalist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, to Johnson's own confrontation with an INS officer sixty miles north of the Texas-Mexico border:
"Can we have a look in your vehicle?" "What if I said no?" "Then we'd bring the dog over and he'd tell us we'd better search the vehicle." "You mean he'd give you probable cause for a search?" "Just your refusal to let us search," the officer says, "would be probable cause."
This is dangerous work, daring work, not least because it asks us to think rationally about an issue so thickly layered with emotion there's very little room for common ground. "I believe the State should be resisted wherever it encroaches," Johnson argues. "But the bombers of that building will demonstrate for us something we don't want demonstrated: There's no trick to starting a revolution. Simply open fire on the State; the State will oblige by firing back. What's harder is to win a revolution, and the only victory worthy of the name will be a peaceable one."
What's most compelling about "The Militia in Me" is the sense we get that Johnson is walking an intellectual and emotional tightrope, suspended between polarities of belief. "I want to float above the fray," he confesses, "want to be like Walt Whitman, 'both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.' But when the violence starts, I'm not aloof. I'm in the middle, pulled both ways." Although in a different essay Johnson's confusion might be a liability, here it assures us that he's on to something--albeit something with a quicksilver quality. There's considerable power, after all, in watching a writer wrestle with his material as it rearranges his mind and ours; it's the kind of power that makes you trust him. Even down to its structure, Seek operates like such a line of inquiry, each installment building on the last. It's only fitting that "The Militia in Me" occupies the exact middle of the collection, where it can function as a fulcrum, just as it's appropriate that the other pieces form an ensemble in which ideas, references, even bits of narrative echo back and forth until some subtle harmonies arise. How are we to see the Rainbow Gathering and the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally if not as parallel events, a pair of traveling tent shows meant to offer solace in a universe of faith and terror? And how should we read the militia movement's don't-tread-on-me rhetoric and Johnson's desire for solitude except as the public and private faces of a single impulse, the need to preserve some space, some identity, against a society gone out of control?
If any resolution can be drawn from this, it's an elliptical one, although that, too, seems fitting in the end. What Johnson is saying is that every one of us, regardless of allegiance or background, is equally lost, equally longing, equally hungry for meaning in our lives. Were this an earlier age, we might look to church or state or family for connection; but we live in a time when those systems have long since failed us, leaving us adrift. Given such a world, it probably makes less difference what answers we come up with than which questions we choose to raise in the first place. It's tempting to regard this as a form of nihilism, and there's some nihilism in it, to be sure. But Johnson's peculiar, even visionary, genius is how he turns that around on us, until we have no choice but to reassess our terms. Is it nihilism to imagine abortion-clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph's retreat to the caves of North Carolina as a symbolic return to the womb? Or to acknowledge, as Johnson does more than once here, his sense of failure in the face of circumstance, his feelings of being overwhelmed? No, for Johnson, this is all simply part of the picture, which comprises equal parts light and darkness, heaven and hell. His is a universe where patterns manifest themselves in the most unlikely places. Even a flier from the Motorcycle Church of Christ.