GREECE [heart] MACEDONIA
New York City
Dusko Doder's assertion, in "Balkans Breakdown" [April 30], that Greece was against the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's (FYROM) existence is erroneous and unfounded, especially in light of Greece's continuous support for FYROM during the Balkan crisis. Besides condemning the terrorist attacks against FYROM's northwestern regions, Greece from the beginning firmly reiterated its support for its Balkan neighbor. In his message to FYROM Prime Minister Georgievski, Greek Prime Minister Simitis stressed that "Greece considers the sovereignty and territorial integrity of FYROM within its internationally recognized borders essential for the stability in our region and unequivocally condemns all violent acts aiming at its destabilization."
Simitis assured Georgievski that Greece, in close cooperation with its partners in NATO and the EU on the situation, called on the international community to take appropriate measures to avoid further escalation in that sensitive region. Greek Foreign Affairs Minister George Papandreou, who was among the first to visit Skopje and offer support, said that Greece was prepared to participate in a multinational force aiming at protecting FYROM.
Regarding Greece's position on the use by FYROM of the name "Macedonia," Simitis reiterated that in his recent talks with Georgievski they agreed that this matter must be resolved as quickly as possible.
Greek Press and Information Office
As an information official, Dr. Gemelos is paid to have a selective memory. A few facts: In 1992, both Greece and Serbia were engaged in relentless harassment of the new Macedonian state. The Greeks banned the tiny country's access to the port of Thessaloniki, while the Serbs banned export of food to Macedonia. The Serb and Greek leaders, Slobodan Milosevic and Konstantin Mitsotakis, actively considered Macedonia's partition. In April 1992, after Milosevic returned from Athens, he publicly proposed a Greek-Serb confederation. Prime Minister Mitsotakis backed away from this idea when some key people in the ruling New Democracy Party publicly broke away. The grand old man of conservative politics, George Rallis (the former prime minister, whose father and grandfather were also prime ministers) resigned his parliamentary seat protesting Mitsotakis's policy toward Macedonia, which he said was endangering Greece's ties to Europe.
Dr. Gemelos quotes George Papandreou, whose father was elected prime minister in 1993 on a platform denouncing the incumbent Mitsotakis for taking part in UN-sponsored talks to resolve the Macedonian crisis. "Greece cannot and should not accept a nation with the name Macedonia on its borders," Papandreou insisted. In November 1993 he terminated UN-sponsored talks on resolving the Macedonian-Greek conflict. In February 1994, he imposed a total embargo on Macedonia. The Greek government's slogan, which could be seen everywhere, was: "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years."
It is perhaps most telling that Dr. Gemelos does not refer to Macedonia as Macedonia but as FYROM--nine years after that unhappy territory became a fully fledged member of the United Nations.
TAKE THE TOYS AWAY FROM THE BOYS
Bill Hartung, in "Bush's Nuclear Revival" [March 12], asserts a view widely held by the peace community that the Bush Administration's nuclear posture review, and the push for a National Missile Defense (NMD), will rekindle a nuclear arms race. If only it were that simple. In all likelihood, the Bush review has intensified the internal conflict within the military establishment between burgeoning conventional- weapons spending and the enormous costs of supporting excessively large nuclear targeting requirements. There's a good chance that nuclear weapons will be cut further. DOE weapons labs are already looking for a new "niche market" by pushing for new, low-yield precision nuclear "bunker busters." In addition to enormous operations and maintenance costs of deployment, nuclear weapons states are being forced to internalize additional large costs of nuclear material legacies, and to shore up deteriorating and dangerous nuclear weapons facilities. These factors add greatly to the cost of maintaining the roughly 7,500 existing nuclear weapons. Even after significant reductions over the past ten years, the real costs of the DOE's nuclear weapons program have nearly tripled. In effect, the "balloon mortgage" of the nuclear arms race is just coming due.
If past is prologue, George W. Bush will have to contend with the legacy of his father, who after a similar nuclear weapons posture review in 1990 imposed a moratorium on nuclear testing, eliminated battlefield nukes and removed other tactical nukes from deployment, ceased production of fissile materials, initiated a major downsizing of the weapons production complex, entered into an agreement to purchase 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from Russian nuclear weapons, teed up the ratification of START I and initiated START II negotiations. George W.'s campaign rhetoric was very clear about his promises to take unilateral nuclear disarmament steps.
Specifically for Russia, deployment of NMD could mean serious harm to existing arms agreements, which is bad enough. However, the enormous expense of nuclear weapons is leading Russia to unilaterally slash its nuclear arsenal to pay for more urgent conventional-force requirements. To compensate for the loss of revenues from the Defense Ministry, the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry is actively trying to obtain hard currency by offering Russian sites as nuclear waste dumps for the commercial nuclear industry. A more imminent threat to the world than NMD comes from the spread of excess fissile materials in the former Soviet Union.
The nuclear arms buildup scenario by China is less certain, given China's minimal nuclear deterrent capability. However, the days of huge nuclear buildups based on the concept of "how many times the rubble will bounce" are over. China and other nations merely have to look at the enormous and tragic debacle created by the United States and Russia over the past half-century. Provocative acts not connected to NMD, like pushing for "usable" nuclear weapons, can unleash efforts by China and other countries to do the same.
The NMD program is meant to open the door for a major weaponization of space using an array of next-generation nonnuclear weapons. NMD is just the first step in achieving the Pentagon's long-range objective of US military domination of space, where weapons are envisioned to do things like cripple the electrical infrastructures of entire nations.
The consequences of NMD testing and deployment by other nations are likely to be mixed. They will probably take the form of economic and military acts that will alienate the United States from its historical friends and former enemies at a time of growing global political instability. But these problems should not be confused with a steep new cold war-era buildup of nuclear weapons. That nuclear arms race cannot be restarted.
New York City
I thank Robert Alvarez for his thoughtful response to my editorial. He has a long and distinguished record of dealing with nuclear issues, both as a nongovernmental expert and at the Energy Department, and I respect his judgment.
My concern about the Bush nuclear posture--at least the variant supported by advisers like Stephen Hadley and Robert Joseph, both of whom participated in the National Institute for Public Policy's hair-raising study on this issue--is not necessarily that it will lead to huge numerical increases in global nuclear weapons stockpiles. My concern is that by pushing a technical solution to nuclear dangers (missile defense) while pressing for a new generation of allegedly more "usable" low-yield nuclear weapons, the Bush Administration will re-legitimize nuclear weapons as an "acceptable" instrument of coercive diplomacy and outright warfare. This in turn could push China to build hundreds or perhaps as many as a thousand or more nuclear-armed missiles to augment its current force of eighteen. Russia would be more inclined to keep its nuclear forces on alert, increasing the possibility of an accidental launch in some future crisis. And all bets would be off in terms of capping the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan or the nuclear ambitions of states like Iran and Iraq. The danger would not be increasing numbers of weapons, but an increased risk that one of them might be used in a regional conflict.
I do not dismiss Alvarez's extremely important arguments. The economic and environmental costs of sustaining cold war-style nuclear arsenals are coming home to roost. There are obvious incentives for Washington, Moscow and Beijing to reduce these forces, if for no other reason than that they will gobble up resources that could be used for other military purposes. And given the daunting technical obstacles standing in the way of fielding even a modest missile defense system, Bush's dream of a multitiered missile shield is by no means inevitable. Funding priorities that may compete with ballistic missile defense in the Pentagon budget include weaponizing space, building a new generation of lighter, "smarter" weapons and increasing the mobility of US forces--not to mention building all those big-ticket weapons platforms left over from the drawing boards of the cold war. Even if the Pentagon decides not to pursue a major nuclear buildup, the Bush Administration's highly militarized approach to foreign policy is worth opposing in its own right, even if it is accompanied by some reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons, but that's a longer discussion.
Despite the excellent points made by Alvarez, my fear is that if Bush doesn't hear strong, clear opposition to the more destructive elements of his emerging nuclear doctrine--from the media, the public, Capitol Hill and cooler heads in his own party--he may resist the strong logic favoring denuclearization in pursuit of a deluded and dangerous ideology of nuclear superiority that should have long since been tossed into the dustbin of history. Given his Administration's behavior in its first few months, I'm not inclined to trust the good intentions or common sense of the Bush foreign policy team on a matter as sensitive and dangerous as nuclear weapons policy.
WILLIAM D. HARTUNG
May 23, 2001
"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate De
Daily life in the West Bank and Gaza: homes bulldozed, civilians bombed, people unable to get to the hospital because the borders have been closed, children shot with high-powered US rifles. Everyday life in Israel: the inevitable counterattacks, suicide bombers, children killed. Seven years after Oslo, it could break your heart. Despite the pusillanimity of the US press, the Internet has made it impossible to keep some of the Israeli human rights violations quiet (e.g., www.nimn.org). Appalled by the situation, 180 activists from five countries, most representing grassroots Jewish groups against the occupation, met at a "Junity" conference in Chicago May 4-6 to create a national network of Jewish Unity for a Just Peace.
Most participants see re-igniting discussion of the occupation among American Jews as a strategic question because of the central role played by mainstream Jewish organizations in funding Israel, lobbying the US government, suppressing criticism of Israeli policies and manipulating Jewish guilt and fear with constant invocations of the Holocaust and portrayals of Israel, a regional superpower, as a pitiful victim. This disinformation campaign has left American Jews in ignorance of the real reason for the breakdown of the Oslo peace accords.
For that all you have to do is look at a map, and one was prepared for the Junity conference by Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Despite government claims that Israel was willing to give up 95 percent of the occupied territories, the map reveals Israeli settler villages planted like bunkers all over what was supposed to be Palestine, "strategic hamlets" connected by "bypass roads" wider than three football fields put together. These roads are controlled by settler militias and the Israeli army. The Palestinians thought they were going to get a viable, independent state. But to be defensible, land must be contiguous; it cannot be cut through by a grid controlled by an occupying power. As Halper said in his keynote speech, making an analogy to a prison, the issue is not square footage but "the matrix of control." On a map of a prison, it might look like the inmates control 95 percent of the turf: cells, yard, cafeteria. But they don't control the walls, the communications system or the guards.
Halper's organization is one of a handful of Israeli peace groups that have kept on doing cross-borders work throughout the second intifada, during the long silence of Peace Now. This silence was finally broken on May 10 by a statement demanding a freeze on settlements, resumption of negotiations and acceptance of the report of the international committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell. The report recommends that Israel lift closure of Palestinian areas, cease home demolitions and use only nonlethal force against unarmed demonstrators, and that the Palestinians jail guerrillas and stop gunmen from firing from civilian areas.
More visionary demands have been developed by the left wing of the Israeli peace movement, in which feminists like the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace have played a leading role. One of the purposes of the Junity network is to act in solidarity with this peace movement and publicize its vision, which, as put forward by the women's coalition, entails:
§ an end to the occupation;
§ the full involvement of women in peace negotiations;
§ a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders (this means evacuating the settlements);
§ recognition of Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states;
§ a just solution for the Palestinian refugees and Israel's recognition of its share of responsibility for their situation;
§ equality, inclusion and justice for Palestinian citizens of Israel;
§ opposition to the militarism that permeates Israeli society, including recognition of conscientious objector status;
§ development of a civil society that gives equal civil, social and economic rights to all its citizens, including women and minorities;
§ Israel's cultural, economic and social integration into the region.
Solidarity activities being planned by the Junity network include witness trips to Israel and the occupied territories, vigils in many countries on June 8 in response to a call by Women in Black, events during the High Holy Days and a national education campaign. Go to www.junity.org and sign up. This is one of those moments in history when Jews who believe in justice may have to be resigned to being unpopular at family gatherings for a while, by saying, "Not in my name."
WHAT'S OLSON NOT TELLING?
"I was not involved in the project..." Could it be that Theodore Olson, who argued Bush's Florida recount case before the Supreme Court and is now his nominee to become Solicitor General, played as loose with the truth as Bill Clinton when he uttered those words in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee? Even Republican chairman Orrin Hatch said that possible discrepancies in Olson's testimony about his role in the Arkansas Project, a right-wing effort to dig up dirt on the Clintons, raised "legitimate" questions. (One example: Billing records for the Arkansas Project showed payments to Olson's law firm.) But when conservatives screamed "witchhunt," Hatch backpedaled and said no to a Democratic request for further investigation, making it likely that Olson's nomination will move through the full Senate.What happened to those Republicans who once argued that any lying under oath by a high-level government official deserves the most serious punishment?
Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, was given a free speech award by the Oakland branch of PEN in recognition of his willingness, all too rare in the US media, to give a fair presentation of Palestinian views alongside his own Zionist ones. Along with that honor, his fair-mindedness also earned him death threats on an Israeli "self-hate" website, which named him as one of the five main enemies of the Jewish people and published his home address and driving instructions of how to get there. Lerner turned to the Anti-Defamation League for help--its mission is fighting "hate crimes"--but was told he didn't qualify because he was being attacked for his political views, not his religion.
A report by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Space Commission advocates circumventing the intent of international laws that seek to keep space free from war and urges that the President "have the option to deploy weapons in space."
There is probably no punishment more painful to Timothy McVeigh than the great joke just played by the cosmos. In his fantasy life McVeigh has fancied himself a sort of stoic samurai, avenging himself on the FBI for Waco and then committing hara-kiri by halting appeals. In one letter McVeigh referred to his impending execution as a version of "suicide by cop"; he has planned as his last words William Henley's war horse "Invictus": "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul." It's taken another spectacular FBI blunder to puncture McVeigh's grand delusion. Now Attorney General Ashcroft promises that McVeigh will be executed in Terre Haute on June 11 come hell or high water, but don't bet on it. McVeigh's game is to control his story by any means possible, and he may still play the only Invictus card left in his deck by initiating the appeals he previously rejected.
In the weeks leading up to the May 16 execution date, pundits predicted that McVeigh's execution would restore popular confidence in capital punishment. Instead, we have gotten a national teach-in on one of the defining evils of capital trials: the fallibility and corruption of law enforcement. If the FBI can "misplace" a cache of documents in the most notorious death-penalty case since the Rosenbergs, is it any wonder that nearly 100 factually innocent people have ended up on death row in recent years?
While McVeigh's case has in many ways been historically unique, in this respect it is typical. Back-drawer evidence is part of the everyday landscape of capital punishment in America. According to Columbia University professor James Liebman's remarkable study "A Broken System" (available online at justice.policy.net/jpreport), vital suppressed evidence has led to dismissal of one in five capital cases since 1973. (More than half of capital cases, Liebman found, are dismissed or retried for "grave constitutional error.") When it comes to capital punishment, the last-minute "oops" is the norm, not the exception. That so many executions go ahead anyway is only because of the current Supreme Court's cavalier attitude toward evidence discovered after a death sentence is pronounced. Justice Rehnquist complains of the "enormous burden that having to retry cases based on stale evidence" would demand.
Why did President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft delay McVeigh's execution? To "protect the integrity of our system of justice," in Ashcroft's words, which he defined as "a more important duty than any single case." In other words, official malfeasance, undisclosed evidence and public uncertainty all demanded a timeout. Fair enough.
In reality, though, in capital cases "the integrity of the system of justice" is already nonexistent. Just since January, judges in Louisiana, Texas, New York and Massachusetts have ordered the freeing of two innocent death-row inmates and four innocent lifers--their stories full of coerced confessions, doctored documents and suppressed evidence. Consider Ronnie Burrell, released from Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary in January, who came within two weeks of execution in 1996 for a murder he didn't commit. He had been arrested by a small-town sheriff trying to distract attention from his own corruption and was convicted on the purchased testimony of a career con man. All this came out only because his appeal was taken up by a Minnesota corporate lawyer in search of pro bono work who had a family connection to Louisiana.
Unlike Burrell, McVeigh's factual guilt is not in doubt (although the bomber's degree of culpability and mental state could yet form the basis for appeals of his death sentence). If the FBI's suppression of documents in his case, intentional or not, justifies a timeout, what about the rampant errors in dozens of frame-ups like Burrell's? Doesn't the systemic accumulated record of lost evidence, law-enforcement misconduct and outright factual innocence demand a timeout on all executions? In the final irony of the McVeigh case, which so often has managed to pull the system inside out, George W. Bush and John Ashcroft have now offered one of the best arguments yet for a national death-penalty moratorium.
President Bush's first list of nominees to the US Circuit Courts of Appeal, unveiled on May 8, was deceptively conciliatory and seeded with hard-to-oppose minorities and women, stealth conservatives and even a Clinton holdover, Roger Gregory, who has been sitting temporarily on the Fourth Circuit during the stalled appointments process. Gregory, a black lawyer, was a bone tossed to the left, but Bush's list contains enough red-meat conservatives to please his loyal base. Republicans already control eight of the thirteen courts of appeal and could dominate three more if Bush is permitted to fill even some of the current thirty-one vacancies. On the Fourth Circuit, where Republican judges now hold a 7-to-6 majority, and the Fifth, where they maintain a 9-to-5 edge, there are five and three vacancies, respectively.
For the Fourth Circuit, the farthest right of them all, Bush named two judges who should have no problem fitting in. Terrence William Boyle, a federal district judge in North Carolina and former aide to Jesse Helms, is so off the charts that in a recent voting rights case, Hunt v. Cromartie, the Supreme Court slapped him down two times in a row for ruling in favor of white voters trying to weaken black Congressional districts. The other Fourth Circuit nominee, Dennis Shedd, a federal judge in South Carolina, was a top aide to Senator Strom Thurmond. Both men have the support of Jesse Helms, who blocked all Clinton's North Carolina nominees to the Fourth Circuit on the ground that it didn't need any more judges. On the contrary, as a result of Republican obstructionism the federal courts have 100 vacancies and a backlog of 50,000 civil and 48,000 criminal cases at the district level. Now the brakes are off, and the GOP is rushing to pack the Fourth Circuit so it will remain a conservative bastion for years to come.
Two other Bush first-round nominees to the District of Columbia Circuit Court, Miguel Estrada and John Roberts, could shore up the GOP dominance of that body. Estrada is a Honduran immigrant who attended Harvard Law School. At age 39 he'll sit on a circuit with a tradition of promotion to the Supreme Court. Now a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, he has left few footprints on the public record, but he's considered an Antonin Scalia clone. Roberts, a Washington lawyer, represents Toyota in a case challenging the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Among the women on Bush's list, Edith Clement, a federal judge in Louisiana and a member of the conservative Federalist Society, will add little diversity to the conservative Fifth Circuit. Defense lawyers consider her a hanging judge who always sides with prosecutors. And she has a record of "judicial junketeering"--accepting trips from conservative foundations and corporations that purvey a free-market economic philosophy.
For the Sixth Circuit, Bush nominated Jeffrey Sutton, also an active member of the Federalist Society, whose influence permeates the Administration's panel of judge-pickers. Sutton is a leader in the states' rights campaign and successfully argued a recent Supreme Court case that took away the right of disabled workers to sue state governments for discrimination.
The religious right will have a friend on the Tenth Circuit bench if the nomination of Michael McConnell, a University of Chicago-trained professor at the University of Utah College of Law, goes through. McConnell has argued pro-school prayer briefs before the Supreme Court and is antichoice.
The circuit courts are a crucial battleground in the Administration strategy of entrenching conservative policies in this country. As the Rehnquist Court steadily pares its docket--last year it issued only seventy-four signed opinions, compared with 107 in 1991-92--the circuit courts have become mini-Supremes, final arbiters on many important, enduring issues in their districts. Take the Fifth Circuit's drastic restriction of affirmative action in Hopwood v. Texas. The Supreme Court declined review, so that case is now the law in the three states (Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi) that make up the Fifth Circuit. The High Court also let stand the Sixth Circuit's decision in Equality Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Inc. v. City of Cincinnati, which effectively ignored the Court's holding, in Romer v. Evans, that gays and lesbians may not be excluded from the protection of antidiscrimination laws. Greenville Women's Clinic v. Bryant, in which the Fourth Circuit upheld onerous state licensing requirements--which apply to no other physicians--for abortion providers, still stands.
Much has been made of the need for ideological balance on the Supreme Court, but the argument applies with equal force to the federal circuit courts. Democratic senators should not just play blue-slip politics--vetoing nominees from their state whom they oppose--they should insist on hearings to review the state of the appellate judiciary circuit by circuit. The goal should be an intellectually distinguished bench and, at least, an ideologically balanced one. Nominees should be approved or rejected in this context. Democrats must also demand a full-blown, in-depth examination of each nominee's record (if this is "Borking," make the most of it). Only those candidates should be confirmed who have demonstrated a commitment to protecting the rights of ordinary Americans against powerful institutions, whether government or private, and to our national ideal of civil rights, women's rights and individual liberties; who respect Congress's power to legislate to protect the health and safety of workers, preserve the environment and enforce antitrust law.
Republicans are already crying obstructionism, cynically ignoring their own blockade of centrist Clinton nominees. With the Administration's intentions now on the table, those who will be hurt most by them--minorities, women, working people, the elderly, environmentalists--should launch a missive attack on Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and the nine Judiciary Committee Democrats (who if they stay united have the power to thwart Bush's court-packing scheme) telling them to stand firm. (For information on what you can do, go to www.thenation.com.)
If all goes as the GOP has planned, George W. Bush will have on his desk by Memorial Day a $1.35 trillion tax bill that is wrongheaded and an utterly inequitable pander to the privileged. Every American should be clear about what this bill is: a blueprint that will define the political and social landscape we live in for decades to come. The immense tax cuts will not only disproportionately benefit the wealthy and increase the widening gap between rich and poor, they will also severely circumscribe the government's capacity to help improve the lives of all Americans. (As if to prove the point, the Senate Finance Committee voted out this tax giveaway the same day the Senate voted against increased funding for teachers to help reduce class size.) This downsizing--indeed, emaciation--of government is of course exactly what the right is aiming for. Grover Norquist, "field marshal" of the Bush tax plan, was quoted recently in these pages saying that his goal is "to cut government in half...to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
Under the plan, the 400 richest multimillionaires will receive tax breaks worth an average of $1 million a year. The poorest working families will get zip, even as the nation faces a growing investment deficit measured in children without healthcare, families without housing, overcrowded airports and neglected alternative energy and conservation. Senate "moderates" claim they improved the bill, which is true. Under the original Bush plan, 26 million children in low- and moderate-income families would get no benefit from the tax plan. Under the modified bill, that drops to 10.6 million. The $58 billion a year handed to the wealthiest 1 percent could be used to lift another 2 million children out of poverty, provide health insurance to 5.1 million uninsured children, fund universal preschool and expand childcare services to more than 9 million children--two-thirds of those eligible.
Besides being unfair, the bill, which stretches the cuts over eleven years rather than Bush's original ten, is dishonest--in reality a stealth raid on the Treasury. The Senate earlier voted to cut the Bush tax plan by 25 percent. To meet this, the Finance Committee simply backloaded the bill even more than originally planned--phasing in the full tax cuts later so they don't count under the ten-year limit used to estimate its costs. The $1.35 trillion giveaway balloons to $4.2 trillion in the next decade, after all the provisions kick in. It also calls for ending popular tax breaks in a few years--like the tax credit for research and development--in the confidence that no future Congress would choose to do so. Plus the bill is designed so that 40 million taxpayers will eventually be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax, insuring changes that will add dramatically to the total cost. And the Republican Congress is just warming up: Even now the K Street lobbyists are cooking up ways to lard a minimum-wage-increase bill with fat corporate tax cuts.
Bush has peddled this tax cut as the elixir for a good economy and a bad one, for rising gas prices and declining stock prices, for small businesses and waitress moms. The repeal of the estate tax is shamelessly presented as a way to save family farmers, even though advocates cannot locate one farm that has actually been lost because of the tax. It's all hype, lies and distortion.
Remember--in 2002 and beyond--those responsible, from Bush to the Republican majority that marched lockstep in support, to the handful of Democratic renegades who provided the margin. They must be held accountable for this travesty.
Enslave your girls and women, harbor anti-US terrorists, destroy
every vestige of civilization in your homeland, and the Bush
Administration will embrace you. All that matters is that you line up as
an ally in the drug war, the only international cause that this nation
still takes seriously.
That's the message sent with the recent gift of $43 million to the
Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, the most virulent anti-American violators
of human rights in the world today. The gift, announced last Thursday by
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in addition to other recent aid, makes
the United States the main sponsor of the Taliban and rewards that "rogue regime"
for declaring that opium growing is against the will of God. So, too, by
the Taliban's estimation, are most human activities, but it's the ban on
drugs that catches this administration's attention.
Never mind that Osama bin Laden still operates the leading
anti-American terror operation from his base in Afghanistan, from which,
among other crimes, he launched two bloody attacks on American embassies
in Africa in 1998.
Sadly, the Bush Administration is cozying up to the Taliban regime at
a time when the United Nations, at US insistence, imposes sanctions on
Afghanistan because the Kabul government will not turn over Bin Laden.
The war on drugs has become our own fanatics' obsession and easily
trumps all other concerns. How else could we come to reward the Taliban,
who has subjected the female half of the Afghan population to a continual
reign of terror in a country once considered enlightened in its treatment
At no point in modern history have women and girls been more
systematically abused than in Afghanistan where, in the name of madness
masquerading as Islam, the government in Kabul obliterates their
fundamental human rights. Women may not appear in public without being
covered from head to toe with the oppressive shroud called the
burkha , and they may not leave the house without being accompanied by
a male family member. They've not been permitted to attend school or be
treated by male doctors, yet women have been banned from practicing
medicine or any profession for that matter.
The lot of males is better if they blindly accept the laws of an
extreme religious theocracy that prescribes strict rules governing all
behavior, from a ban on shaving to what crops may be grown. It is this
last power that has captured the enthusiasm of the Bush White House.
The Taliban fanatics, economically and diplomatically isolated, are at
the breaking point, and so, in return for a pittance of legitimacy and
cash from the Bush Administration, they have been willing to appear to
reverse themselves on the growing of opium. That a totalitarian country
can effectively crack down on its farmers is not surprising. But it is
grotesque for a US official, James P. Callahan, director of the State
Department's Asian anti-drug program, to describe the Taliban's special
methods in the language of representative democracy: "The Taliban used a
system of consensus-building," Callahan said after a visit with the
Taliban, adding that the Taliban justified the ban on drugs "in very
Of course, Callahan also reported, those who didn't obey the
theocratic edict would be sent to prison.
In a country where those who break minor rules are simply beaten on
the spot by religious police and others are stoned to death, it's
understandable that the government's "religious" argument might be
compelling. Even if it means, as Callahan concedes, that most of the
farmers who grew the poppies will now confront starvation. That's because
the Afghan economy has been ruined by the religious extremism of the
Taliban, making the attraction of opium as a previously tolerated quick
cash crop overwhelming.
For that reason, the opium ban will not last unless the United States is
willing to pour far larger amounts of money into underwriting the Afghan
As the Drug Enforcement Administration's Steven Casteel admitted, "The
bad side of the ban is that it's bringing their country--or certain
regions of their country--to economic ruin." Nor did he hold out much
hope for Afghan farmers growing other crops such as wheat, which require
a vast infrastructure to supply water and fertilizer that no longer
exists in that devastated country. There's little doubt that the Taliban
will turn once again to the easily taxed cash crop of opium in order to
stay in power.
The Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own war drug war
zealots, but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure. Our
long sad history of signing up dictators in the war on drugs demonstrates
the futility of building a foreign policy on a domestic obsession.
This magazine has been inundated of late with missives from irate Naderites demanding that the editors immediately exile me to The New Republic, the DLC or worse. My last column on Nader, which merely pointed out that he and his campaign should be held morally responsible for the awful acts of the Bush Administration--since without Nader's candidacy there would be no Bush Administration--inspired 122 such responses, a high percentage of which were personally abusive. Yet when the man himself appeared in these pages to denounce the President whose election he abetted, only twenty-seven readers were so moved. These numbers point to a perennial problem for liberals: Such zeal and enthusiasm that exists for politics at all anymore appears to rest exclusively with the extremes of left and right. Too bad that instead of learning from the far right's march to power through a grassroots takeover of the Republican Party, the Naderite left seems intent on destroying the fragile gains of seven decades of social progress.
True, it's not easy to support a party with standard-bearers like Clinton and Gore, temperamentally conservative career politicians whose lifetimes of compromise have made them untrustworthy except as weathervanes telling the direction of the political winds. Many (though not all) Democrats are no different. Yet virtually every day the Bush Administration reminds the non-Naderites among us that the only alternative is far worse. And so long as leftists are too weak to create a movement to rival the Republican right, the fight against Bush, DeLay & Co. will require whatever imperfect weapons we have at our disposal. The problem is how to excite people about such unexciting prospects.
Fortunately, the landscape is not entirely barren. Beyond the useful-but-wonkish American Prospect and the well-written but frequently neocon New Republic, the niche economics of Net publishing has spawned a number of sites that manage to combine sensible politics with humor and enthusiasm. Most are tiny operations run on love and charity, largely dependent on their communities of readers for information and support. As such, they have remained pretty much invisible to the mainstream media. Here are a few of my favorites.
§ Despite its criticism of this magazine and some of its columnists--an argument I think I'll stay out of--www.mediawhoresonline.com has a wonderful joie de vivre and some great punchlines. They view the mainstream media as being the captive of the right wing, whether for reasons of ideology or, as the site would put it, "whorishness." Most of the site's material and commentary is designed to insure that the media's "credibility in the public mind be brought in line with its genuine lack of credibility." To do this, they're willing to "mimic the tactics of the wingnuts," referring to all with whom they disagree as "whores" or occasionally "fascists" and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they deem to be that of a "non-whore." Hypocritical, you say? "We don't believe it is hypocrisy at all to follow their standard, but fairness," responds Jennifer Kelly, the site's guiding spirit. "And what's more, it's really easy and doesn't require anything in the way of conscience or diligence." I don't follow this philosophy myself, but take my word for it: These people are as funny as they are fearless. Unfortunately, they are a bit unfair to actual whores...
§ www.bartcop.com began as a critique of Rush run by a fellow who wishes to remain anonymous but describes himself as "your average Okie liberal with too much time on my hands." It's developed into a very smart, funny critique of the right and is financed to the tune of $600 a month by Marc Perkel of San Francisco, who simply liked it and offered to pay the freight.
§ www.buzzflash.com, run by Mark Karlin, provides a liberal antidote to Matt Drudge, offering a bit less in the obnoxious self-promotion department and a bit more in the way of accuracy. Turn to it for up-to-the-second reports on, and links to, the Bush Administration's outrage du jour, frequently with smile-inducing headlines ("Yes We Have to Post It Twice: Doobie Brothers Guitarist Is Helping Design Bush's Missile Defense Shield").
§ Despite its unpromising name, www.democrats.com has no relationship to the somnolent party it seeks to revive. Its sponsors tell me, "We think the progressive Democratic message is the winning message, but the party needs to live up to its message by fighting for its principles." Bob Fertik, Dave Lytel and some 200 local chapters do this by highlighting news of interest to progressives, connecting a community of progressive Democrats, publicizing demonstrations to "Irk the Smirk," as Mediawhoresonline puts it, to protest the "stolen election of 2000." They try to fill "an enormous void left by the Democratic Party, which keeps Democratic activists at arm's length."
§ www.americanpolitics.com is a terrific place for links, satires and cartoons. It's also a great place to find incriminating quotes by the bad guys. Oh, and check out the shapely "firstname.lastname@example.org" before someone makes them take her down. Similarly comprehensive, www.onlinejournal.com contains original reporting from a sensibly leftish perspective.
§ www.bear-left.com offers first-rate in-depth analysis of whatever topic strikes the fancy of its authors, Paul Corrigan and Tim Francis-Wright, including an insanely detailed recent analysis of Skull and Bones's tax filings. See also its fantastic links page at www.bear-left.com/links.html.
§ www.mediatransparency.org does not really belong on this list, since it's more of an intellectual and political resource for journalists and scholars doing research on the connections between right-wing foundations and public policy. But it does deserve recognition for its public service and the widest possible audience for the tireless research on this neglected topic undertaken by its founder, Rob Levine.
§ And if you need cheering up, try www.bushorchimp.com, but remember it's a joke. The left got rolled for years by Ronald Reagan's dumb act, and I fear "W" is no dummy either--appearances, quite obviously, to the contrary.
The FBI knows every way
To put a case in disarray.
For years they managed to mislay
Some tapes a Birmingham DA
Could use against the KKK.
Because some files had gone astray
It seems that Timothy McVeigh
Will live to die another day.
The FBI knows every way
To put a case in disarray.
I was driving my son to soccer practice not long ago, listening to a National Public Radio wrap-up of President Bush's first hundred days in office. My son, who was just a baby when Bill Clinton was elected, observed idly: "If Bush stays in office as long as Clinton did, I'll be almost 17 years old before we have someone new."
It was lucky I had both hands on the steering wheel. My heart began to pound, a foggy sense of doom misted my eyes, and random bits of Milton began to echo in my ears. "Help us to save free conscious from the paw/Of hireling wolves, whose Gospel is their maw," I muttered.
My son, oblivious, sat in the back seat playing with his calculator. "Only two thousand, eight hundred and twenty days to go, Mom."
No one on National Public Radio had been grim enough to look that far into the future; I guess they had their hands full trying to sort out the mess of the first three and a half months. But the thought that struck me hardest was: Strom Thurmond will be 106! (For unlike certain foolish prognosticators who would have him with one foot in the grave, I know Faustian fanoodling when I see it. That man is going to live forever.)
I was also thinking about all that Bush has undone in his first hundred days, then trying to multiply it by a factor of twenty-nine and two-tenths. I was envisioning a missile defense shield protecting Texas from attack by Northern liberals. I was seeing corporate lobbyists clinking flutes of champagne in the newly renamed ExxonMobil Bedroom of the White House. And I was imagining oil derricks pumping away on the front lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, brought to you by Beautiful and Profitable America, the First Family's attempt to one-up Lady Bird Johnson. ("National treasures and effective resource management can coexist," Laura Bush would say with Jacqueline Kennedyesque breathlessness.)
Within the first hundred days and while media pundits were absorbed with wondering whether Chelsea Clinton had political aspirations, Colin Powell's son became head of the FCC. William Rehnquist's daughter was nominated for Inspector General with Health and Human Services. Antonin Scalia's son was made Solicitor of Labor. Clarence Thomas's wife was nominated for a top position in the Office of Management and Budget. And Strom Thurmond's son, only three years out of law school, was handpicked by Strom himself to be South Carolina's US Attorney.
At this rate, eight years from now Rudolph Giuliani's son will be our new Decency Czar, Newt Gingrich's fourth wife will head up the Compassionately Conservative Commission on the Alarming Breakdown of Family in the Inner City and Linda Chavez's favorite charitable donees will be directing the Spanish-for-the-House-and-Garden Literacy Campaign.
"That's sixty-seven thousand, six hundred and eighty hours more, Mom..."
In the first hundred days, the United States military had unfortunate accidents involving a Japanese fishing boat, a Chinese jet and, in Peru, a planeload of American missionaries. Salvadoran officials have alleged that USAID-funded relief organizations were dispensing help only to those traumatized earthquake victims who renounced Catholicism and took an evangelical Protestant Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The White House offices on women and on race were abolished in favor of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. And the Supreme Court ruled that individuals do not have the right to sue under Title VI for de facto discrimination in the administration of federally funded programs.
Over the next few years, I fear whole "accidental" wars. I foresee Latin America having the most devout bread lines in the world. And I predict that the notion of equal opportunity will be used to prohibit race-, gender-, age- or disability-conscious contemplation of disparity in any public place at any time (unless you're a frat boy or professional athlete, in which case it will fall into the category of God-given free speech).
If Bush is elected (or whatever) for a second term, it will be the year 2009 before he's turned out to pasture. During the first hundred days, the United States was voted off the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The Supreme Court upheld the right of police officers to arrest people for minor traffic violations. The American Bar Association--denounced by this Administration as too left-wing--has effectively been fired from its role in determining the fitness of nominees to the bench, while the ultraconservative Federalist Society has all but changed its name to the Federal Judiciary. Orrin Hatch has been suggested as an odds-on favorite for the Supreme Court. (I am trying hard not to think about what he will look like in a Justice's billowing black robes, waving that copy of The Exorcist to which he referred with such crazed eloquence during the Clarence Thomas hearings.)
In years to come, it is not hard to imagine Attila the Hun being denounced as too left-wing. We already have serious scholarly discussions about how to make public executions this nation's most civic-minded reality TV. Not a Survivor, I guess they'd have to call it. Taking the lead from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (who suggested that Timothy McVeigh make his last meal a vegan one so as to advertise their cause--McVeigh declined politely, saying time was too short to debate the matter further), I can see Kentucky Fried and Burger King having infinitely more luck with a catchy script like "In thinking about that all-important last meal when off to meet your maker..." Which I suppose is something we should all be thinking about inasmuch as the hole in the ozone seems to be growing in inverse proportion to the Bush Administration's commitment to clean air.
"Only four million, sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes left, Mom..." He'll be driving, I think. He'll be almost old enough to vote. And then, in his persistent, still-a-little-boy voice, I hear a gravitas he cannot fully grasp: "What comes after that?"
Susan Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Haaretz the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians."
In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements, and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall.
Sontag told the Jerusalem Post that there'd been a lot of pressure on her not to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and accept the prize. Publicly--at least in this country--I think my columns (e.g., here on April 23) constituted the only such pressure. Maybe they helped firm up Sontag to make the remarks noted above. Anyway, I'm glad she did. Out of interest, I asked my colleague Jonathan Shainin to check the record to see if she'd said anything critical about Israeli government policies in the past. He didn't find much, but one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert.
Back on February 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center. It began as follows:
"We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem, for what the Israeli Government first called 'subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence.'"
The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him. "We are concerned that the Israeli Government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war."
This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag's public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Haaretz ran a commentary titled, "What Freedom, What Society?":
Yesterday evening Jerusalem's Mayor conferred the "Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society" to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to "shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh" was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.
In a different world, Sari Nusseibeh would be a leading candidate for such a prize, rather than the Jewish-American writer who was involved naively in a celebration of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. A Palestinian prince and cordial, dignified philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh has built a splendid academic research framework. Not the type to surrender to threats, or to physical blows or the temptations of power, he had created bridges of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and furnishes original ideas and plans to resolve the dispute. This is the man depicted by Israel's establishment as "a security threat," rather than a culture hero.... In a different world, people of culture and supporters of freedom would have suspended such an awards celebration, waiting for circumstances to arise under which universal meaning to the concept "freedom and society" might crystallize.... One should marvel at the prize givers' ability to compartmentalize and the ability to reconcile the contradiction between "freedom of man and society," and a "plan" designed not only to ruin human freedom, but also a society located just a few hundred meters from where the prizes were conferred.... One of the last, still operating, joint Al-Quds University-Hebrew University projects is a botanical catalogue, an attempt to identify and describe the flora of the shared homeland. When will these botanists be recognized as the ones whose works should be lauded, rather than those of righteous hypocrites?
So Sontag accepts a prize from a group that's trying to boot Nusseibeh out of East Jerusalem--the very same man whose detention she petitioned to end ten years ago, during the first intifada! She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further. For example, she praised the man giving her the prize, Mayor Olmert, as "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person." This is like describing Radovan Karadzic as a moderate in search of multiconfessional tolerance. Olmert is a fanatical ethnic cleanser, one of the roughest of the Likud ultras. During his period in office, he has consistently pushed for the expropriation of Arab property and the revocation of Arab residence permits. Olmert was a principal advocate of the disastrous 1996 tunnel excavation underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. During the ensuing demonstrations, Israeli security forces shot dead about fifty Palestinian civilians. The mayor was also instrumental in the seizure of Palestinian land at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, another link in the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem. This too led to prolonged rioting.
Such people have no right to award a prize on "freedom."
Best known as a place where the Air Force shoots satellites into orbit, the
Eastern Space and Missile Center--just south of the Kennedy Space Center in
Florida's Brevard County--would appear to fo
As the election nears, the weather is rotten and the glow is off "New Labour."
Oil companies are partners with Khartoum in waging a cruel civil war.
"Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land. To Britain after a second term of Tony Blair." With these words, Conservative Party leader William Hague began a speech in March that has helped to reignite one of the ugliest political debates over race that Britain has seen since the 1970s. Hague insists that the speech had nothing to do with race or immigration, but many observers here see it as a subtle but calculated attempt to appeal to the worst instincts of the "worst sort of Tory."
About a week after Hague's speech, the leaders of all major parties (Hague included) signed a statement sponsored by the Commission for Racial Equality promising that they would not play the race card during the general election. The statement was then circulated to all MPs. Three Tory backbenchers refused to sign it, citing freedom-of-speech concerns. Among them was John Townend, who claimed that immigration was threatening Britain's "Anglo-Saxon society." Hague condemned Townend's remarks but refused to sack him, arguing that to do so would be a hollow gesture only days before the dissolution of Parliament. Many senior Tories are furious with what they perceive as Hague's lack of leadership. The most vocal has been Lord Taylor of Warwick, the most prominent black Conservative, who is now threatening to leave the party.
The race-pledge row is only the latest episode in a year of worsening race relations, in which an increasingly xenophobic "Little England" note has been struck by parts of the country's tabloid press, exploited by the Conservatives and worsened by the Labour government's apparent unwillingness to take a strong stand against it. The ugliness began last spring when Hague, responding to claims by some tabloids that Britain was being besieged by a tide of "bogus asylum-seekers" and illegal immigrants, delivered a speech excoriating the Labour government for allowing Britain to become "the biggest soft touch in the world" and for not doing enough to stem the "flood" of opportunistic refugees. His remarks were not only insulting but also poorly timed, coming less than a year after the release of the MacPherson report on the murder of a black teenager. (That report concluded that Britain's police were "institutionally racist" and called for tough action against indirect racism in public institutions.) The Daily Mail, the flagship tabloid of "middle England" and self-styled enemy of political correctness, hailed Hague's speech, calling it, "in this insidious climate of racial McCarthyism, courageous."
To its credit, the Labour government criticized the use of the word "flood" as being inflammatory, but did little else. Determined not to give the Tories an issue to run on, New Labour avoided pointing out the obvious--that Britain has some of the toughest immigration policies in Europe; that the 78,000 people who sought asylum here in 2000 were overwhelmingly law-abiding individuals desperate to escape persecution; that the cost of providing basic food, clothing and shelter to them was minuscule (a controversial voucher scheme provides a meager £35 (about $50) a week for food and clothing, and housing is often substandard); and, most of all, that immigration is a healthy thing for a modern, open society.
Instead, the government seemed eager to be seen as "getting tough" on asylum fraud, and more concerned with not losing the treasured support of the middle-income suburbanites who had been so crucial to its electoral success in 1997. One of the most controversial provisions of the insidious Asylum and Immigration Act, introduced soon after Hague's speech, was a policy of enforced dispersal of asylum claimants. Home Secretary Jack Straw argued, perversely, that the measure would protect asylum-seekers from the resentment that would inevitably occur if they were allowed to concentrate in large numbers in particular areas. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Until the dispersal policy was introduced, 90 percent of asylum-seekers lived in heavily multicultural London, where they fit into established communities of people from their native countries. Now, immediately on arrival, they were being packed off to places like Dover, with its 99.4 percent white population. A Dover Express editorial moaned about having to receive "the backdraft of a nation's human sewage." Within a short time, the debate between Labour and Conservatives over the asylum issue had become so ugly that the third-party Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, called on the Commission for Racial Equality to carry out an investigation into whether the two main parties were inciting racism, and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stepped in to condemn the tone of the debate.
But the Conservatives had a surprise in store at their autumn conference. Unbeknownst to many, Hague had spent a few days with the Bush campaign, taking furious notes, and he returned all aflutter with ideas for how to "modernize" the Tory party. "Caring conservatism" and "working families" became buzzwords at the conference, as Hague told the party faithful that he wanted more ethnic minorities to be placed on short lists for parliamentary seats. The Tories' true colors soon showed through, however, after a black 10-year-old, Damilola Taylor, was apparently murdered walking home from school in late November. The police, keen to show the lessons they had learned from the MacPhersonreport, tripped over themselves to appear cooperative and respectful to the bereaved family. Only two weeks later, though, Hague drew a specious link between the report and the boy's death, encouraging police to rebel against "politically correct race awareness courses" and spend more time fighting crime.
Straw, meanwhile, still insists on peddling the myth that the Labour government is one of the most aggressively antiracist ever. True, a new Race Relations Act, which just went into effect, widens previous antidiscrimination legislation to cover police activities, and true, Straw's Tory shadow, Ann Widdecombe, who recently proposed that all asylum-seekers be locked up in "secure detention centers," gives pause to anyone thinking about changing his vote. But the reluctance of the Labour government to take a firm, principled stand has left a scar on the lives of black Britons that is likely to remain, and likely to hurt Labour at the polls. Hughes told me recently, "We now have significant support from the black and Asian communities, more than we've ever had before."
The real effects, of course, are felt most acutely in the lives of people far removed from the hurly-burly of Westminster politics. Britain, for all its problems, is probably one of the least racist countries in Europe, but racially motivated crimes have risen steeply: March saw a threefold increase in reports of racial harassment in London, while race crimes in Britain as a whole were up 107 percent in 2000. A Reader's Digest/MORI poll reports that 66 percent of the public now think that there are too many immigrants in Britain, up from 55 percent a year ago. Many of Labour's black supporters blame Labour more than the Tories for the backlash. Among them is Bill Morris, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, who argues that "by heralding measure after measure to stop people entering Britain, the Home Office has given life to the racists."
The limits of New Labour's commitment to racial equality became clearer than ever when it emerged that ten of its twelve new black and Asian candidates are standing for election in what the party admits are "hopelessly" safe Tory seats, including John Major's seat in Huntingdon. This from a Prime Minister who came to power in 1997 pledging to increase the number of black and Asian MPs "to reflect the makeup of Britain." If this is Blair's idea of Britain, then William Hague's "foreign land" will surely be a long time in coming.
New York City voters aren't thrilled with their options in the fall elections.
Bright and eager, bouncy and buoyant, sharp-eyed and quick-eared and passionately in love--those are a few of the ways you could describe Calle 54, director Fernando Trueba's tribute to a dozen Latin-jazz stars of three generations. Among them: Chico O'Farrill, Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Tito Puente, Chucho and Bebo Valdes, Paquito D'Rivera and Jerry and Andy Gonzalez.
The result is a catchy, discerning performance film about Latin jazz, one sure to be numbered among the few outstanding movies about music, with Dolby Surround sound to die for.
The 46-year-old Spanish director has a long and interestingly twisty oeuvre. The Year of the Awakening (1986) followed a Spanish boy's discovery of sex with a nurse in a sanitarium. Belle Époque (1992) copped an Oscar for its bawdy picaresque tale of pre-Franco Spain, where a young pacifist army deserter finds refuge with a wealthy man and his four voluptuous and seductive daughters. Two Much/Loco de Amor (1996) starred Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah in an updated screwball comedy where con man Banderas beds both women by pretending to be two different men; the film got a lot of attention because of the off-camera sparks between Banderas and Griffith.
Trueba says it was the magic of improvisation--what Whitney Balliett called "the sound of surprise"--that Latin jazz ensnared him with twenty years ago. His fluidly dynamic camera work demonstrates just how thoroughly he understands and has internalized and formalized the technique into his cinematography. Shooting the performance footage in a historic environment (Sony, once Columbia, studios in midtown Manhattan) that is both easily controlled and sonic heaven, Trueba maxes out on sound and vision. Not only does he make sure we see how, for instance, Chucho Valdes's huge hands careen up and down the keyboard, he cross-cuts shots avidly along the music's flow. That way he can dart around the bandstand, alighting on each of the musicians at work, effectively re-creating the sense of conversational dialogue that underlies truly effective improvisation.
At least that's the intellectual frame that, like a lot of good art, Latin jazz energetically bursts out of. Trueba replicates that process too, via the daring and exuberant elegance of much of his camera work. Take his characteristic languid pan that starts from Eliane Elias's bare foot tapping against her piano pedals, moves up her leg, lingers briefly over her décolletage and focuses on her flashing virtuoso's hands. Or the way his cameras bob and weave around Puente, his face a series of kinetic masks, as the timbales virtuoso capers around the stage: It's as if they were dancing.
Though it's more performance film than history, Calle 54 does serve up some backstory about the performers, suggesting the serpentine coils shaping both their own and their music's development. Each musician gets a chapter, usually beginning wherever each calls home.
Puente, for instance, is shot in his City Island restaurant in the Bronx, where he tours the camera through the pictures of Latin jazz greats hanging on the wall--the closest the movie comes to formal genealogy. O'Farrill briefly recalls the postwar days when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza and Machito were formulating Cubop, or Afro-Cuban bebop, and he became the new music's chief organizer and orchestrator. (In the studio, Trueba shoots O'Farrill and his big band in evocative black and white.) Chucho Valdes joins his father, Bebo, a virtuoso in his own right who performed with the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole at Havana's famed Tropicana hotel in its heyday, for a wonderful, musically and emotionally charged duet; the episode also gives us a sidelong glimpse into the Cuban diaspora. (Bebo left his family and bolted the island when Castro took over, married a Scandinavian woman and has never returned; Chucho, who still lives there, leads the privileged life of the Cuban artistic elite and sees his father every few years when he's touring.) Andy Gonzalez visits the nondescript South Bronx house where he and brother Jerry, still in high school, first conceived the Nuyorican-soul hybrid that powers their ironically named Fort Apache Band.
But it's in the old Columbia studio that Calle 54 really delivers. Trueba's cameras seem to be everywhere--lurking over drummers, swooping up and down at pianists, dancing around horn players. His eye is as active as the music and helps create the illusion that you're moving in your seat--an illusion the music, with its emphasis on solo flights and fierce rhythms, demands. And to pump the adrenaline, the sterling sound puts viewers center stage. (The soundtrack CD is stellar.)
Calle 54 was released last fall to qualify for the Oscars. It didn't get one, but its planned one-week run last October stretched to three, thanks to popular demand. Sources say that for its rerelease Miramax, its distributor, is relying largely on word of mouth to put it over. Calle 54 will surely get that in plenty, but in the post-Ken Burns world, it would be shortsighted not to flex some serious marketing muscle for this film. It wouldn't take much to break this flick out of its expected niche.
A tidal wave is coming. Soon I am sure. It will sweep all of us away.
--The opening lines of Eureka
One of the more familiar works of Japanese art--particularly in the West, where it has shown up everywhere from ecocampaigns to the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift catalogue--is Hokusai's Shogun-era The Great Wave. Everybody knows the picture: a massive, percolating arch of water, dwarfing the far-off Mount Fuji and frozen at the instant of breaking. The wave has been hanging there, imperiling the painting's tiny fishermen, since the early part of the nineteenth century.
It would be hard to imagine that Aoyama Shinji, director of another epic and audacious Japanese import, Eureka, didn't have Hokusai's lurching wave somewhere in his mind while building his three-hour-and-forty-minute film. (In an era when Hollywood's current top stars seem constitutionally and/or contractually incapable of appearing in anything under two hours and fifteen minutes, it still seems necessary to mention Eureka's unorthodox length, if only because in this case it works.) Not only is the film poised, from murderous opening to rapturous conclusion, on an emotional precipice of imminent danger and delirium; it is, like The Great Wave, a work suspended between cultures: Hokusai created a supposedly classical Japanese painting by marrying Eastern imagery to Western artistic innovations. Aoyama's movie presumes on the surface a most Japanese serenity, while at its heart is soul-shaking psychological and spiritual violence, ignited by a very Western cinematic sensibility. No cars blow up, only souls.
Despite the opening weather forecast--voiced over by the film's delicate Kozue, who will be given such a moving and virtually mute performance by young Miyazaki Aoi--what comes closest to physically resembling a tidal wave in Eureka is a bus, cresting a hill in a heat-vapor haze and bearing a distinct air of menace. We've seen a woman in a bonnet waving goodbye from a hillside to her children en route to school; older brother, younger sister, they seem to adore/tolerate each other silently, routinely. They board that bus and what follows is a sequence of dispassionately considered horror: the entrance of an obviously disturbed character, his suit a careless attempt at white-collar respectability; the bus parked in an otherwise empty lot; bodies splayed on the gravel; one fleeing passenger shot dead in his tracks. The camera observing helplessly, possibly against its will.
The cops arrive, at last. And what adds to our rising sense of dismay is that we know so much more than they do. (What people know and when they know is essential to the fascination of Eureka.) They phone the madman, who has covered the inside of the bus windows with newspaper, shot several of its occupants and is clearly in that space where reason has evaporated and only more killing can diminish the sense of crime: The more bodies, the less each can mean. It's a sentiment that will haunt the survivors of this "incident" throughout the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the cops ring Busjack Man's cell phone. Kozue covers her ears.
Because he collapses in fear while being walked around the lot by Busjack Man, the driver--named Makoto, and played by veteran film star Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance?, The Eel, Sleeping Man)--allows the sharpshooters an opening. But the shot's not clean: The wounded Busjack Man gets back on the bus, managing to kill everyone on board but the kids. It's not that he doesn't try to be thorough--his gun, and his eyes, are trained on the two at the moment the police shoot him dead. And it's not that he doesn't succeed, in his way: That he is himself finally killed prevents nothing, really, but an actual bullet leaving an actual chamber.
Eureka is not a film about a bus hijacking. (With more than three hours to go, how could it be?) Nor is it, exclusively, about the serial killings that punctuate the movie. It's a ghost story, about the almost-killed being viewed as if they were. Or worse--that they've become dangerous, walking time bombs whose experience has placed them beyond the common law of common experience, and rendered them entirely unpredictable.
But how can life possibly be lived once random murder has come so close and with such mad indiscretion? How can life be lived as a form of death? Having survived their ordeal, our characters become personae non grata, treated the way terminal cancer patients are often treated--like they're not quite there, or are stubbornly, inconveniently delaying the inevitable. Makoto, Kozue and Naoki (played by actress Aoi's real brother, Masaru) have their distinct postbus experiences: Makoto leaves home to wander, is eventually divorced by his wife and treated as an embarrassment by his family. The kids' mother abandons their unhappy household, their father subsequently dies in a car crash (we're pretty sure it's suicide), and the two wind up living alone, unspeaking, in their squalid house. But common pain proves a common bond: Only when Makoto seeks them out and they set up housekeeping--sleeping in the shape of a torii (if we're not reading too much into it), with the kids parallel to each other and Makoto serving as the bridge--does their dream state start to lift.
Aoyama alludes to François Truffaut's 400 Blows, employs Western music to make certain sometimes cloying points and eventually winds up adapting the road movie to his metaphysical survivors' tale. Despite the Ozu-inspired angles and distance of his film, his taste for sentiment is hardly an un-Western inspiration. But he's certainly indicting Japanese culture. Had this been a Western film, the Holocaust would likely have been an unavoidable issue (how differently its survivors are treated, for instance, and why). Grief counselors would have stopped the kids' story in its tracks. Tom Cruise would have been the lawyer fighting their damage suit against the bus company.
Instead, the culture of Eureka explodes the idea of Japanese family into something as twisted as Busjack Man's psyche. Kozue listens silently on the phone as her auntie says how much she has meant to visit, how much she really wanted her and her brother to live with her...and is the insurance money still coming in? The prodigal Makoto tells his family he's OK. "He said he's OK," his brother says, "now leave him alone." Naoki, the most damaged and silent and unapproachable, exhibits strange reactions to everything, including the extended visit of his cousin Akihiko (Saitoh Yohichiroh), a wack-job college student who is probably a family plant, but who provides much of the movie's much-needed humor. The secretary at the construction firm where Makoto works (his redemption is incremental; he rides a bicycle before he boards another bus) reveals that she too lost her parents as a child and was put into an orphanage by relatives who stole her insurance money. Makoto develops a mysterious cough.
Eureka is the most novelistic film to hit these shores since...well, at risk of revealing some kind of pro-Asian prejudice, Edward Yang's Yi Yi, another film with a seriously unhurried approach to construction. One of the most intriguing and seductive things about Aoyama's film, as was the case with Yi Yi, is how we're never so captivated by the obvious as we are by the painfully subtle. The serial killings that follow our quartet around (our suspicions flow like tides between the characters) seem almost incidental next to their inner lives. Likewise the pursuit of Makoto by the police inspector (Matsushige Yutaka) who killed Busjack Man, and who clearly wants to achieve absolution for the slaughter by proving Makoto's gone bad. "Your eyes were the same as the killer's," he tells Makoto. All we can remember is Makoto dissolving in shame and nerves.
No, the moments of Eureka that wring out your brain are more delicately devastating. Kozue--the movie's principal character when all is said and done, its conscience, its emotional bridge-builder, its selfless repository of pain--crosses a railroad track with her bicycle, stopping to consider the oncoming train, staring full-faced into the camera as if to ask our approval for whatever she does. Then, in an insidious bit of Joycean coincidence, unknowable by anyone but us, Makoto gets off that train. Krzysztof Kieslowski used to devise moments of such tantalizing realism of possibility, although they were usually a little less terrible than this particular moment of Eureka.
Aoyama's movie played at Cannes last year--one screening, no doubt because of its inconvenient length. It then played at the New York Film Festival. (For purposes of full disclosure, be advised that this writer was on the festival's selection committee.) It now opens courtesy of the invaluable Shooting Gallery Film Series, which has already made it possible for New Yorkers to see Marziyeh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman, among other otherwise unreleased films. And there's more good news: Aoyama returns to Cannes this year with a new film called Desert Moon. On the promise of Eureka, Aoyama makes it a very attractive prospect to head for the sunny French Riviera, to sit in the dark.
Henry Adams liked to say that his pedigree and eighteenth-century upbringing had hobbled him in the races of the twentieth century. The scion of not just one but two Presidents of the United States--the second, John Adams, who helped formulate the principles of the Constitution, and the sixth, John Quincy Adams, who drafted the Monroe Doctrine--he had, as a young man, given every indication of being destined for an equally visible career of public service. During the Civil War, he was an indispensable aid to his father during the latter's tenure as Minister to England. In the 1870s and 1880s, he inhabited a Richardsonian mansion on Washington Square and, with his wife, Marion 'Clover' Adams, hosted one of the most luminous salons of the era. Presidents and notables of various persuasions eagerly scurried across the square to tap his knowledge, which was far more prodigious than anyone else's. Not one President, however, offered him employment.
Perhaps they recognized a snob when they saw one. One journalist of the 1870s wrote that he was like a begonia, his foliage showy and irrelevant. The epithet hit Adams hard. Had he become outmoded? For the next thirty years--years of frenetic intellectual output--Adams pondered the question. Too astute to refute the charge, he ultimately took to trumpeting his irrelevancy, grandiosely interpreting his apparent failure to effect change as part of a larger paradigm shift in values. The world of his forefathers, based on the revolutionary ideals of the Constitution and of Truth, Duty and Freedom, was clearly defunct. The new world, dominated by what he called "goldbugs" and power-hungry capitalists, had stamped out the class into which he was born. Money had replaced principles in determining policy. In such an environment, an Adams could not help but be as "antiquated as a mollusk from the Silurian period."
Of course, this self-serving pose of aristocratic disdain was not endearing to Adams's contemporaries; it helped secure him a reputation as a rather hopeless blue-blooded aesthete. Even Henry James, the friend of his youth, wrote in a much-quoted letter that Adams was burdened by an "irresponsible self-conscious [e]xtravagant pessimism, the fruit not wholly unnatural...of a disappointed and ineffectual personal career." Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that Adams wanted power "handed to him on a silver platter" and, when it wasn't, narcissistically proceeded to turn everything to "dust and ashes." The fact that most of Adams's predictions (for example, that the Occidental world would very likely blow itself up in 1917 or thereabouts, that scientists would chase power into the atom some decades after, resulting in nuclear conflagration) were uncannily correct has not changed this viewpoint.
The third installment of Edward Chalfant's new biography forces a radical revision of this view. Thanks to unprecedented access to various archival sources, including the Worthington Chauncey Ford Papers at the New York Public Library, and to various additions to the Letters, Chalfant reveals the startling extent of Adams's political activity. It appears that Adams deliberately chose to act behind the scenes and that most of his political work was in fact anonymous. That he would have liked to be offered power on a silver platter is undoubtedly true. That he might have refused the platter is a possibility. He was, after all, plagued by that triumvirate of characteristics that define so many who aspire to greatness: ambivalence, insecurity and ambition.
Adams was not a partisan politician; but Chalfant's biography makes it clear that he was nonetheless deeply and personally enmeshed, by virtue of pedigree as well as inclination, in the fate of the United States and its Constitution. He wrote about the past, but it was to understand the future. By 1891, when Chalfant begins the third volume, Adams's output had already been prodigious by any standards. In the 1870s and '80s he churned out biographies of Albert Gallatin (1879), John Randolph (1882) and a nine-volume History of the United States (1889-91). He also penned two novels, Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884), the former a bestselling satire of Washington politics; significantly, both were published anonymously. Adams taught medieval history at Harvard, edited the North American Review and reported on national affairs. In 1885 his wife, brilliant but manic-depressive, committed suicide, which ended what by all accounts had been a highly successful union. Haunted by her death, he restlessly traveled to various exotic places, including the South Seas, and wrote about them.
At the turn of the century, Adams was working on what would become two American classics: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907). Seeming to shun popular literary fame, he privately printed 100 copies of each to distribute to his friends; Chalfant has carefully ferreted out who was favored (mostly nieces) and who slighted (his brothers, a few senators). It is worth remembering that the Education has endured the critical climates and vicissitudes of a century whose atrocities it predicted. A phenomenal bestseller in the years after Adams's death in 1918, in 1999 it was ranked No. 1 on the American Modern Library's list of the century's 100 most important nonfiction books written in English. Edmund Morris, a member of the board, concedes that in the Education Adams's wit can be abrasive, but Morris cites as factors in the selection Adams's intellectual omniscience (which can't do other than educate us!) and his courageous modernity, which ventured to exchange a medieval Virgin for a dynamo as the ultimate symbol of power. Adams was too rational to be religious, but he was quite sure that the dynamo's despotic reign in the twentieth century was anything but therapeutic.
Chalfant's biography repeatedly insists on the radical disjunction between the "Henry Adams" of the Education and Henry Adams the historical figure. The Adams of the Education is ineffectual, indecisive, reclusive, pessimistic, neurasthenic, an eighteenth-century creature adrift in a twentieth-century "multiverse." Henry James may have helped secure Adams's reputation, but Adams also did his part to look begonia-like. In the new multiverse, the forces unleashed by science act autonomously, and "Adams" is described as a charged absence devoid of any kind of agency: "Forces grasped his wrists and flung him about as if he had hold of a live wire or a runaway automobile." This Adams is reduced to the role of neurasthenic spectator to his own demise: a forerunner in many ways of the poststructuralist self of literary critics.
For Chalfant, this Adams does not hold much interest; it is merely a mask designed to serve a particular didactic purpose: to show the inability of an education based on causality, accumulated knowledge and moral principle to fit a man for the new world. Chalfant is far more interested in the historical Adams than in the existential one. And the historical Adams was every bit as intent on improving the world as his forefathers, however Sisyphean the task--hence the title of Chalfant's book. On the domestic front, for instance, Adams desperately wanted the United States to be something other than a nation of "goldbugs." To this end, he enlisted his neighbor, Senator James Donald Cameron, and wrote three speeches that Cameron then docilely delivered in his own name to the Senate. In this case the world listened but did not act: Adams, hoping to wrest power from Wall Street, argued for silver in the wake of the 1893 financial panic; the world stayed with the gold standard.
Chalfant also shows that Adams worked tirelessly and more successfully for Cuban independence from Spain, and indeed fought European imperialism on all fronts. He was greatly distressed by the US occupation of the Philippines, feeling that it was counter to the principle of the self-determination of peoples. Cuban and Philippine emissaries clandestinely visited him to seek advice. Adams also spent a great deal of time in Tahiti researching just how much European diseases, zealous missionaries and English aggression had desiccated a culture that no imperialist "care[d] to know": In 1769 there were 200,000 Tahitians; in 1803, 5,000. Adams had to know all, and so, between 1893 and 1901, wrote and revised a history of Tahiti titled Memoirs of Marau Taaroa. Among other things, it outlined the devastation wrought by Captain Cook's imposition of English notions of kingship on the native tribes. In the course of his research, Adams himself became Tahitian when his friend, an ex-chiefess, named him her "adoptive son." Clearly flattered, he also felt this identity as "real," insists Chalfant; perhaps it felt as real as his Adams pedigree, and a good deal less burdensome. At once colonizer and colonized, insider and outsider, white Brahmin and South Sea native, Adams seemed increasingly to relish stretching the boundaries of selfhood. Indeed, rather than being antiquated, in the last third of his life he begins to seem daringly modern, especially when, in his book on Tahiti, he speaks in the first person as a Tahitian woman!
Throughout the 1890s and beyond, Adams also monitored the growth and ascendancy of US monetary power (providing the Bureau of Statistics with precise figures), watched with gleeful interest and then growing alarm the retraction of England, foresaw the problem presented by Germany's desire to expand and pondered the solid mass of Russian inertia--which he predicted would one day collide head-on with the United States. The culmination of his freelance political career came in 1898, when his closest friend, John Hay, agreed to take the position of Secretary of State under President McKinley--but only if Adams shared the responsibility. Chalfant writes:
[Adams] had made it an object to become America's leading politician in his time. The means he chose was political service without the official holding of office, in combination with secrecy, anonymity, pretended uninvolvement, and even feigned non-existence. The result had been successes far beyond what could have seemed likely even to him, culminating in work as sharer with Hay in the management of the country's foreign affairs.
The two men, who both occupied houses on Washington Square, took a daily two-hour stroll, much of it spent discussing how to bypass Congress. The result was the China open-door policy and the North Atlantic free-trade treaty, with which Adams hoped to build a vast "defensive" system linking the United States, England, France and at least the western part of Germany in order to counter Russia and contain German military aspirations. In these years, Adams was like a chess grandmaster, clandestinely giving advice not only to Hay but to a potpourri of foreign ministers (to England's Cecil Spring Rice, for instance, on Germany) in the hopes of forging an equilibrium that would avert catastrophe. As Chalfant is eager to point out, such activity in itself belies the portrait of Adams as "irresponsible extravagant pessimist."
The exigencies of trying to equilibrate the world's powers had by 1905 completely broken Hay's health; he died that year. Aside from the ever-energetic Teddy Roosevelt, who was, in Adams's inimitable phrase, "pure act" (i.e., untroubled by the vicissitudes of thought), Adams's friends seemed to be breaking down en masse. Though devastated by Hay's death, Adams himself was remarkably robust as he entered his seventh decade, gallivanting across continents and time periods, disappearing into the twelfth century just when he seemed to be manning the valves of power in the twentieth, seeing everyone who was anyone and rescuing his myriad "nieces" (his wife's nieces, his own and a growing herd of adopted ones) from nervous breakdowns. "My nieces do nothing but get married and break down," he wrote a friend in 1906. He took them on therapeutic tours of the Virgin's cathedrals, taught them medieval history, shared his insights on world events and speculated on the future. Chalfant is highly attuned to the tenderness that motivated Adams's efforts on their behalf. The nieces, for their part, were clearly devoted to their wry, erudite, vastly entertaining self-appointed uncle and tour guide.
Adams did not just share a secret partnership with Hay. Chalfant performs another bit of revisionist history when he insists, and rightly so, that Mrs. Cameron, estranged from her aforementioned husband, was a full albeit secret partner in the last thirty years of Adams's life--from 1892 till his death. Confidante, friend, talented writer, acute reader of the political scene, probably co-author with Adams of the so-called Cameron reports on Cuba, Elizabeth Cameron was an equal. Critics have speculated for eons on whether the pair were lovers. Chalfant has no proof that they were or were not, despite having combed through 6,491 and more pages of correspondence that Elizabeth Cameron gave Chauncery Ford after Adams's death in 1918. In 1894 she wrote to Adams:
I have been doing such a lot of thinking lately about you and what you have been to me. I was in the darkness of death till you led me with your gentle guidance into broad fields.... Even sorrow and trouble lessen under your light--a light so calm and still. I wonder if any man was ever so big as you.
And as usual, Adams does not reveal more than he intends, his language at once intimate yet guarded, sexually charged yet less erotic than his paeans to the Virgin or to the South Sea Woman. What Chalfant highlights is the pair's loving interest in the minute details of each other's lives and health. Neighbors on Washington Square (by fortuitous chance) and on the avenue du Bois de Boulogne in Paris (by design), they were, in fact, more often than not separated by an ocean, and so letters flew back and forth and account for much of what Chalfant reveals of Adams's daily life. It was to Elizabeth Cameron that Adams sent the poems he showed no one else, to her he revealed his whereabouts when he wanted to remain otherwise out of reach.
Chalfant's biography thus successfully destabilizes the Jamesian vision of Adams as brittle aesthete--and does so with a minimum of speculation and a maximum of evidence, both hard and circumstantial, much of it new. He does not theorize at any length about the task of biography. Rather, he amasses details from a variety of sources that inexorably build to a full-blooded portrait of his subject: a subject whom, it is clear, he greatly admires. At the same time, he does not shrink from the more unpleasant aspects of Adams's personality: his pose of aristocratic disdain, his coy reticence (that, for instance, always led him to claim to be doing nothing when he was frantically busy on a new project) and his peevish anti-Semitism that yoked the growing materialism of American culture to the ascendancy of the Rothschilds. Chalfant is less concerned than Adams's earlier biographer, Ernest Samuels, with the details of Adams's grand scientific narratives of energy degradation and his mathematical formulas that, applied to history, showed the world careening toward catastrophe. Chalfant paints them as conceits designed to "annoy the complacent"; for Adams, one suspects they were also an intellectual's attempt to arrest a seemingly deterministic trajectory by understanding where it came from and where it was going.
In any case, the end result of Chalfant's biography is that Adams appears to have the last laugh over his contemporaries. His pedigree and intellectualism might have been as showy as the begonia's, and he might have been peevish on the subject of money-grubbing capitalists, but he was remarkably accurate in his prognostications and, as Chalfant shows, extraordinarily powerful behind the scenes, inordinately full of life and interests, and beloved by his intimates. His myriad undercover activities are still coming to light--and will doubtless continue to do so. Adams may have "failed" to become President, but after reading Chalfant's biography, we are left with the impression that he succeeded remarkably well at the game of life--despite the vicissitudes of his twentieth-century "multiverse."
In the last decade of his life, he traipsed around France searching for the Virgin's stained glass, and he continually annotated and revised his master and traveling copies of the Education. Chalfant undertook a massive search for the master copy, but it appears to have disappeared somewhere in Florence. Elizabeth Cameron, the nieces and some nephews were Adams's intermittent companions. In his mid-70s, in the teens of this past century, he found a new motive force in the form of medieval chansons. Despite failing eyesight, he scoured the libraries of Europe for forgotten scripts and mobilized his friends to do the same. Aileen Tone, a singer and devoted companion of his last years, sang him to sleep each night with a selection of his favorite chansons to the Virgin. It was to her he gave the master copy of the Education. Occasionally, Bernhard Berenson visited, and he too listened to the songs, in presumably respectful silence. In Washington the young Eleanor Roosevelt, who also lived on the Square, visited and recorded some of Adams's witticisms for posterity. The bevy of nieces came as well. According to Chalfant, so did a string of publishers eager for the Education that Adams still refused to relinquish to the public.
World War I, which Adams took as a personal failure and which proved his apocalyptic theories all too correct, brought on the nervous collapse that had already felled so many of his friends. Nonetheless, he wrote to Elizabeth Cameron that despite the fact that the world was now insisting on killing itself, he and she had been fortune's beneficiaries: "It has been a wonderful picnic. We have flitted from one strange scene to another.... We have really lived and seen life. I had no idea I had so much life left in me."
Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes--once the nation's largest public housing project--is currently being dismantled. Half of its buildings have already been torn down, and of those that are still standing only some are occupied. It is only a matter of time before the remainder will meet the wrecking ball.
Completed in 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes at one time housed more than 27,000 residents, all African-Americans, in twenty-eight identical sixteen-story buildings. While the housing project replaced one of Chicago's worst slums, it became itself the stuff of legend--one of the nation's most infamous and troubled housing communities. It is being demolished in response to federal pressure on the grounds that the projects are no longer habitable.
Sudhir Venkatesh's new book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, is both an ethnography and a history of the Taylor Homes from the 1960s through the mid-1990s. Venkatesh spent a year and a half hanging out, as he puts it, primarily with longtime tenant leaders and gang members. The result is a fascinating study of community dynamics between various groups of tenants, including leaders and members of the Black Kings gang, and how they created and lived what Venkatesh refers to as an "ordered environment"--against incredible odds.
One of the ironies of this story is that the Taylor Homes were named after a black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) who served in the 1940s. Robert Taylor was committed to racial integration during a time when virtually all power blocs were opposed, albeit for different reasons. After the Federal Housing Act was passed in 1949 providing funds for more than 800,000 new units of public housing, Robert Taylor submitted a number of sites for the construction of a new housing project, which included vacant land in white communities. Chicago's City Council--with the support of powerful black machine politician and political broker Congressman William Dawson (in power from 1942 to 1970), ministers of the largest black churches and the Chicago Defender--supported urban renewal instead: the razing of existing slums with the purpose of keeping the housing project inside Chicago's black belt. The CHA used the federal funds to buy up poor neighborhoods and turn them over to private companies at bargain prices for demolition and commercial redevelopment. The residents of the slums were forced to move into different slums with the promise that they could apply for public housing sometime in the future. Robert Taylor's career in public housing ended in 1950 over the issue of urban renewal, well before the projects named after him were completed.
Venkatesh's portrayal of the Taylor Homes during its first decade depicts a complicated arrangement that to the uninitiated appears to have bordered on lawlessness and social instability. Tenants and the CHA maintained social order largely through such informal and formal female-led tenant organizations as the Mama's Mafia, Mothers on the Move Against Slums, elevator committees and citizens' committees, and CHA-organized Building Councils, which comprised tenants who were theoretically elected but often appointed. Each member of the community had his or her role in maintaining economic solvency and social control: There were the tenant leaders who had informal relationships with the local police, and the off-the-books entrepreneurs, including marijuana dealers, car mechanics, clothing sellers, pimps, prostitutes and proprietors of gambling parlors--all of whom paid taxes to tenant leaders who in turn paid off the police, thus avoiding investigation and allowing the much-needed informal economy to prosper. One informant, who operated an off-the-books car repair service with his brother in the Taylor Homes parking lot, recalled, "We paid our [tenant leaders] real good, so they'd keep the pigs off of us."
The tenant leaders' informal relationships with the police, writes Venkatesh, afforded "a practical means of working with a city agency that people generally distrusted and from whom they did not expect timely service." Tenant leaders became the police department's first point of contact, and as the testimony of a number of residents indicates, they had more to fear from tenant leaders than from the police department. One longtime resident recalled, "Hell, we never saw [the police] when I was growing up," adding "just look who caught me. [It was one of the tenant leaders] not the police. She was the one who called them to bust my ass."
The underground economy and the tenant leaders' informal relationships with the local police were, according to Venkatesh, what made the Taylor Homes "viable." Indeed, here lies Venkatesh's main argument, which provides the name of the book. The residents of the project--just like residents of any American community--faced the challenges of building a habitable community by procuring city services and controlling the behavior of local youth. Only, in this instance, with a more than 90 percent unemployment rate, "it is almost assured that aspects of daily life will be somewhat unique and possibly at odds with institutions in the wider world."
As obvious as this point should be, it is a useful heuristic device not so much for its sagacity but to offset a tendency to regard long-term ghetto residents as pathological and living beyond the pale of human decency. Venkatesh situates himself in the company of recent social scientists and historians, including Adolph Reed, Michael Katz and Kevin Phillips--to name just a few--who have attacked what William Julius Wilson infamously referred to as the "tangle of pathology"--a term that has attained popularity in the press and that has become a central component of the New Right's political lexicon. In contrast to those who indulge in underclass explanations for poverty--and they range from those who would situate themselves in the liberal camp (Nicholas Lemann) to those on the extreme right (Charles Murray)--Venkatesh focuses on complex internal social patterns of obligation, reciprocity and expectation. He shows that Taylor Homes residents, including gang members, had a work ethic just like most other Americans. And despite the high percentage of single heads of household (near 75 percent in the 1980s), he avoids the politically charged rhetoric of family values--another New Right buzzword--that stigmatizes female-headed households and absurdly identifies out-of-wedlock births as the root cause of poverty.
Venkatesh is to be commended for rejecting the perception of the black ghetto as a morally deficient space, and for letting the voices of the tenants be heard. The result is a rich account of the political lives of the leaders and some of its residents. Some of the book's most compelling narration is of 1960s tenant activism, which took place in the context of the Black Power movement in Chicago. The signal success of this activism, according to Venkatesh, was the creation of the Local Advisory Council, which grew out of the CHA-sponsored Building Councils. What once had been "the shouts of parents became the voices of empowered citizens," and the "female head-of-household stood at the political vanguard." Community control--another buzzword, this time of the left--intersected with Lyndon Johnson's program of maximum feasible participation and had become all the rage by the late 1960s. All of which sounds promising on the surface, but it ultimately failed to provide the residents of the Taylor Homes with more city services. If Venkatesh had weighed in with some of the more sustained critiques of LBJ's War on Poverty that began (but didn't end) with Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in the 1970s, his contribution to the literature on poor people's responses to urban poverty would have been richer.
Decentralization and local control, as the historian Thomas Jackson has shown, was not a panacea for eradicating poverty. Decentralization ultimately gave the state a role in regulating political dissent when it reached into black political life and reshaped networks and political loyalties. Steven Gregory, in his recent study of Corona, Queens, has taken this point further, arguing that the War on Poverty reframed explicitly political issues of racial and class inequality, which led to the "articulation of new forms of political subjectivity and action." Urban poverty, in other words, was now a black problem, and inequalities that were exacerbated by the economic restructuring of the 1970s and '80s helped to define places like the Taylor Homes as the problem--so the links between urban poverty and broader structures of economic and racial subordination became obscured.
In what sense was the 1960s activism and the spawning of the Local Advisory Council a marker of success? Jackson and Gregory have suggested that this was the moment when social inequality became depoliticized, as local leaders, once militant and agitating from the outside, became political brokers. At the same time, the ghetto itself became a hyperpoliticized site on the American landscape. Venkatesh succeeds in transcending the trope of the black ghetto. But if this had been a mere starting point and not the denouement, his exploration of local power dynamics and how they intersected with larger social processes and politics might have been more thorough.
The idea of local control as a way to achieve more equitable distribution of resources that the federal government has made scarce remains alive today. Our public education system, for example, which is being dismantled--a process that began during the Clinton Administration--has been met by some community activists with a cry for more local control.
As an ethnography, American Project is an innovative, insightful and valuable examination of internal project politics. Venkatesh's research method enabled him to explore in fairly minute detail a multitude of tenants' positions and conflicts with one another and various organizations that sprang up in the projects over a thirty-year period. "The patterns of hidden work and the complex schemes for policing social problems," he writes, "offer a clue as to how the poorest sectors of black Americans coped with the growing impoverishment of their communities," especially during the 1970s.
As a history that attempts to explain the failure of the projects, however, it is incomplete. Its almost exclusive reliance on the oral testimony of tenants and gang members--("I let the voices of [the] tenants chart our course")--is the crux of the problem. The author pays too little attention to municipal and federal policy, and to senior CHA and police officials, especially after the 1970s. This bottom-up approach leaves the reader with the impression that tenants' failures to create and sustain an "ordered community" were stymied by their inability to form a consensus on whether to include gang leaders and members in their efforts to build a political movement that could successfully win adequate resources for the Taylor Homes in the mid-1990s. "With the discussion so sharply polarized," writes Venkatesh, "it was difficult to see how tenants could move forward together in a practical effort to address their concerns." Those who supported inclusion of the Black Kings in order to achieve at least short-term benefits--most notably safe public spaces--lacked effective mediation skills. Those who were opposed were unable to provide a workable program for addressing the social ills--some of which were gang-related--that confronted the tenants.
Venkatesh's success in portraying the residents of the Taylor Homes not as victims but as individuals actively searching for ways to create a habitable living space contributes to a weakness in his overall argument. It is a contradiction that cries out for resolution. Inadvertently, by paying too little attention to the larger political and economic context in which the projects existed, he lays blame for the failure of the tenants to secure more government resources on the tenants themselves. Not until the last few pages of the book is there mention of structures or institutions of racial and class inequality, and even then it's only as a generality and not with any historical or topical specificity. A more effective social history that attempted to locate the underlying causes of the Taylor Homes' failure would have to examine tenant strategies not in a vacuum but in the context of policies enacted by those with access to power and resources.
The most immediate question, of course, is what happens to the remaining residents of the Robert Taylor Homes. More than forty years ago, poor black people who lived in the same area were also told to pack their things and get out. Then they were told to wait for public housing. Both times city officials made promises they couldn't possibly keep. In recent years the federal government's approach has been to rely more heavily on private market forces to eradicate poverty. For some, this has resulted in new spaces of apartheid--this time in the suburbs. According to researchers at Northwestern University and elsewhere, there have been limited benefits, but the problem of structural poverty has not been addressed at all. Others have remained in their old neighborhoods, which have become "empowerment zones." Their new neighbors might be middle class and professional--and some might even be white--and even though the long-term residents might not be able to afford the $5 coffee drink at Starbucks, a few might find employment there. How does this private initiative benefit them? Aside from saving on subway fare, in a negligible way at best. So it seems that the main beneficiaries of mixed-income urban housing are the new homesteaders, who buy their properties at bargain prices, and the quality-of-lifers, as unseemly urban blight becomes slightly more hidden.