The ineffable good luck of George W. Bush seems to be faltering at last. The man became President by an electoral accident that resembled theft. His stock was sinking, his agenda stalled, when the tragedy of September 11 suddenly gave higher purpose to his Administration. Bush declared an open-ended war against terrorism with virtually the entire world a potential battlefront. His lieutenants swiftly converted the threat to national security into an all-purpose justification for oil drilling in protected Arctic wilderness, suspending selected constitutional guarantees and piling another $100 billion on America's already bloated military establishment. His political turn, frightening in its ambitions and occasionally ludicrous in the details, created in the minds of many Americans the illusion of a strong, resolute leader.
Recent events, especially the terrible bloodshed in the Middle East, have uncovered the original truth widely understood about Bush's stature. Underneath the cowboy lingo, the man is light in substance, weak on strategy and quite willing to cut and run from principled position if he feels a chill wind from politics. There's no comfort in that bleak observation because the Israeli-Palestinian situation is so desperately in need of wise US intervention. Bush made a reluctant foray, then meekly retreated before Sharon's belligerence, hailing him as "a man of peace" while the UN envoy described Sharon's accomplishments in the West Bank as "horrific and shocking beyond belief." A few days later in Venezuela, Bush's familiar preachments on spreading democracy to the world were likewise rendered moot. When oil business and military collaborators attempted a "regime change" smelling of US complicity, the White House responded ahead of the facts by blaming the ousted president, Hugo Chávez, for the coup, then had to swallow its words a day later, when the coup failed.
Domestically, as his inflated poll ratings shrink like an over-valued tech stock, Bush's presidency is naturally altered. Having provoked a polarizing fight over Alaskan oil, he scurried away from the battle, but Washington politicians did not fail to note that he lost--big. Al Gore returned onstage with a well-turned critique of Bush's environmental and energy policies, throwing stronger punches than he had as a presidential candidate. Democratic leaders are (too late) finding a critical voice, while GOP right-wingers freely tee off on the head of their party. Before long, we expect the media will again be highlighting the President's frequent malapropisms and writing more telling analysis of his leadership.
A cheerful way to describe this shift in the political zeitgeist is to suggest that Americans are finally getting over the intimidating aftermath of September 11--recognizing that this country doesn't work very well when people expressing diverse views are browbeaten into silence by "patriots." What does it mean that Michael Moore's astute and hilariously subversive riff on politics, Stupid White Men, went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list? "I think people are tired of being told they can't be Americans," Moore told the Los Angeles Times. "Many have found that by remaining silent, the guy in the Oval Office has been given carte blanche to get away with whatever (tax cuts for the rich, ducking Enron) he wants."
If Michael Moore is right, that would be truly good news for the Republic.
The numbers and diversity of the April 20 protests in Washington represented a giant step forward for the antiwar movement. The weekend's events dealt a lethal blow to the notion--stoked by media and government alike--that all Americans uncritically support George W. Bush's policies and value Israeli lives more than those of Palestinians.
That morning activists held two antiwar rallies, each of which drew thousands, almost within sight of each other. One, organized by ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), was on the Ellipse, near the White House. The other, sponsored by the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC), among others, and perhaps misnamed "United We March," was held at the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, the Committee in Solidarity for the People of Palestine protested the meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at the Washington Hilton, while the Mobilization for Global Justice and numerous anarchists protested the IMF/World Bank meetings.
In the afternoon, all the morning rallies converged in a march. "In the end," said Erica Smiley of the Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus, "we realized we were all fighting the same thing." That march ended in a rally by the Capitol of 50,000 to 80,000 protesters by several organizers' estimates, the largest pro-Palestinian gathering ever in the United States. Middle Eastern families--women in headscarves, strollers in tow--marched alongside pink-haired, pierced 19-year-olds. Samir Haleem, a Palestinian-American veteran who wore a Palestinian kaffiyeh and carried an American flag, said, "We have never seen so much support for Palestine in this country. Today is a beautiful day."
The afternoon's unity was a triumph over deep divisions, which at first glance looked like symptoms of that old left affliction, the narcissism of small differences. While the various groups had originally been planning events on different days in April, ANSWER moved its event to April 20 to avoid the turnout disaster of competing marches. Why not, then, hold one big rally and march? Student organizers cited many reasons for their desire to maintain independence from ANSWER, including the group's politics (it is closely related to the Workers World Party), its undemocratic structure and its reputation for unattractive behavior, including taking credit for work done by others. ANSWER organizers, for their part, felt the student coalition was too slow to take up the Palestinian cause.
Jessie Duvall, a recent Wesleyan graduate who was organizing the NYSPC rally, said diplomatically that the separation of the two rallies was "important for the integrity of both coalitions." ANSWER's rally--and pre-rally publicity--focused entirely on Palestinian solidarity, and it drew thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants, many of whom came on buses sponsored by their mosques. By contrast, while most speakers at United We March addressed the plight of the Palestinians, the pre-rally publicity emphasized the coalition's founding concerns: Bush's "war on the world" and its effects at home, particularly on students and young people, who dominated the crowd.
The students' fears about ANSWER turned out to have been well founded. "I'll make a deal with you," said an ANSWER organizer at the Capitol rally to Terra Lawson-Remer of Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC), who was coordinating media outreach for the NSYPC event. "We won't play the Mumia tape again"--ANSWER had already broadcast a taped speech by Mumia at the Ellipse--"if you'll tell the press we had 150,000 people here." Lawson-Remer was in a bind; she didn't want them to carry out this threat, but she believed the turnout was in the 50,000 to 75,000 range. The ANSWER organizers pressed the point, arguing that whatever they said, the media would report fewer. This was not a difference of opinion about the truth. "It's not about accuracy. It's about politics. It's not about counting," said ANSWER's Tony Murphy condescendingly. "It's us against them. [The pro-Israel] demonstrators had 100,000 here last week." (Responding to a web version of this article, ANSWER's legal counsel called this account a "disgusting fabrication," but I can attest to its accuracy because I was there.)
ANSWER is notorious for inflating its demonstration numbers--and clearly, its organizers don't play well with others. Yet they are also very good at calling a rally on the right issue at the right time and publicizing it widely. Both coalitions played an essential role in attracting very different constituencies, and turnout far exceeded expectations. Organizers on both sides acknowledge that working together was difficult, and neither looks forward to doing it again. But to build on April 20's momentum, activists may have to live with such alliances and, of course, enter into others.
Organized labor's absence from the weekend's events was hardly surprising; most of the events were antiwar in focus, and the mainstream labor movement supports George W. Bush's foreign policies. But in September, when anti-IMF/World Bank activists plan a large-scale protest around those institutions' meetings, labor and globalization radicals will have to work together.
The weekend also highlighted the growing Palestinian solidarity movement's need to distance itself from the anti-Semitism of its most ignorant adherents. STARC's Lawson-Remer, who is Jewish, says of some pro-Palestinian activists: "Their attitude toward me makes them as bad as Bush." In the middle of our conversation, I looked up and saw a sign that said "Chosen People": It's Payback Time. Some demonstrators' signs bore swastikas and SS symbols--intended to draw parallels between Hitler and Sharon, but easily construed as pro-Nazi.
Given these problems, the presence of Jewish protesters who stressed their own identity was all the more important. On Monday evening, when some 4,000 people gathered to protest the AIPAC meeting (addressed by Sharon via satellite), many carried signs with messages like Jews Against the Occupation and I Am Jewish and AIPAC Does Not Speak for Me.
Despite the squabbling and the dearth of media coverage, the success of A20 should be heartening to the antiwar movement. Lawson-Remer says, "This is such a demonstration that the consensus is not what they say it is." Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Latifa Hamad, a middle-aged Palestinian woman wearing traditional head-to-toe coverings agreed, saying simply, "We needed something good."
Earthquake. Cataclysm. Electroshock. The 9/11 of French politics. These were the recurring terms that established political leaders of both left and right used to characterize the April 21 presidential elections in France--in which nearly one in five voters cast their lot with the two neofascist parties of the extreme right, and racist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen edged past Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to become the sole candidate against conservative President Jacques Chirac in the May 5 runoff. How did it happen?
With opinion polls showing throughout the campaign that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate could find no difference between the programs proposed by Chirac and Jospin, the elections represented a stunning rejection of the French political establishment. Roughly a third of the electorate (28.8 percent) abstained--a record in France--or cast blank ballots. Only half of those who did vote supported the governing parties of the traditional left and right. The rest voted for one of the protest candidates in the field of sixteen, including three Trotskyists; a candidate claiming to represent the interests of rural France; an antihomosexual demagogue of the Catholic right; and the two neofascists, Le Pen (who got 16.9 percent) and Bruno Megret (the former Le Pen lieutenant whose tiny MNR Party got 2.35 percent). Thus, two-thirds of the voters rejected the perceived stasis of politics as usual.
It's important to remember that these elections took place against the backdrop of the ongoing, hydra-headed political corruption scandals making headlines for a decade, which have revealed that all the major parties with the exception of the Greens--the Socialists and Communists as well as the conservatives--were involved in highly organized systems of bribes and kickbacks on the letting of government contracts, with secret corporate contributions, laundered money and Swiss bank accounts.
In this context of massive voter alienation, it is the defeat of the governing left that stands out. Only 195,000 votes separated Le Pen from Jospin, but as Serge July editorialized in Libération, "the left defeated the left." A bit of history: When the Socialist Jospin--with the support of the Greens, the Communists and two tiny left parties--lost the 1995 presidential runoff to Chirac, he obtained 44 percent of the vote, which represented the maximum strength of the united left. After leading his "plural left" coalition to victory in the 1997 parliamentary elections, Jospin as prime minister dedicated himself to finding the 6 percent of votes he needed to eventually win the presidency by governing to the center-right on economic matters.
Jospin's austere, technocratic style of governance created legions of the disaffected among "le peuple de gauche" (the left-identified electorate), all the more so when he appeared impotent in the face of industrial plant closings by multinationals with rich profit margins, which threw tens of thousands of workers into the streets. Le Pen, who blames the immigrants for unemployment and high taxes, got twice as many working-class votes as Jospin did this time around, according to exit polls. Jospin, who proclaimed early this year that his was "not a Socialist program," was further undercut when the two most significant Trotskyist candidates garnered a surprising 10 percent of the vote.
Chirac succeeded in making "insecurity"--the French code-word for crime, blamed largely on immigrants--the central issue of the campaign, and Jospin played into voters' fears on this issue by repeatedly claiming that Chirac had "copied my program." Both Chirac and Jospin thus legitimized the central discourse of Le Pen, whose law-and-order immigrant-bashing has long been his staple stock in trade; and, as Le Pen never stopped proclaiming, many voters "prefer the original to the photocopy." September 11 only heightened fear of the immigrant Arab population, as did the recent wave of violent anti-Semitic incidents by French-Arab delinquents in the wake of the Israeli war in Palestine (303 in March alone). Le Pen's victory reflected the growing, Continent-wide wave of racism that has led to startling breakthroughs by the xenophobic extreme right, whose parties now participate in the governments of Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Austria.
Although the parties of the French "plural left" lost 1.5 million votes this time compared with their 1995 first round score, the traditional right lost more: 3,846,000. France's president is relatively powerless, and the real test of political strength will come in the two-stage parliamentary elections on June 9 and 16. The left could well win these elections if the National Front achieves the 12.5 percent district-by-district threshold to stay on the ballot in the second round of voting and divides the conservative vote. The Communists and the Greens have already agreed to join the Socialists in supporting united candidacies of the left in swing districts. Many of those who cast protest votes for the Trotskyists to pressure the "plural left" back to the left will return to the fold and support them. Meanwhile, Chirac has just created a new formation, the Union for a Presidential Majority, to run unified conservative candidates in June--but so far two smaller parties in Chirac's coalition (they got 10 percent of the vote in the presidential first round) are balking at joining. Whoever wins in June, the incoming government will have to work creatively to heal the social and racial fracture the presidential election revealed--and to stop the racist virus from spreading even further.
California GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. has portrayed himself as a savvy businessman who can deal successfully with the state's financial woes. But Simon's ties to Enron, the bankrupt energy company that has been charged with manipulating the electricity market in California and is under federal investigation, raise questions about his business acumen and his fitness for the state's top post.
Former business associates of Simon say that he personally persuaded Enron to invest in Hanover Compressor, a Houston company he founded in 1990 and on whose board he sat between 1992 and 1998. Hanover makes pumps that move natural gas and oil through pipelines and from wells. According to several people at Enron and Hanover involved in the transaction, the Enron investment was made in 1995 through an Enron partnership called Joint Energy Development Investments, or JEDI, which is now at the center of the federal investigation into Enron's collapse.
Simon held a 1.4 percent stake in Hanover, which after the JEDI investment was worth tens of millions of dollars. His father, William Simon, the former energy czar and Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon, ran a private investment firm, William E. Simon & Sons, which owns more than 4 percent of Hanover. The younger Simon declined requests for an interview. He has previously dodged questions about his relationship with Enron.
JEDI was at one time Hanover's second-largest shareholder, with an $84 million stake in the company, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Last June, JEDI shifted most of its shares to another off-balance-sheet Enron partnership. JEDI's stake in Hanover allowed the Enron executives who managed JEDI to attend Hanover board meetings. Hanover executives said Simon and Enron came up with several joint-venture ideas.
Simon was also involved in Hanover in matters separate from the Enron deals that could raise legal concerns. Hanover said in February that it would have to restate its financial results beginning in January 2000 because of improper accounting for a partnership that--as with Enron--made the company appear more profitable than it was. Over several years during this time, according to the Wall Street Journal, Hanover officers sold millions of shares of stock--again much like Enron, where officers who were allegedly aware of the company's accounting practices were encouraging employees and others to buy shares even as they were selling their own. Hanover is now the target of at least four class-action lawsuits by shareholders who have alleged the company misled investors; and it is also under investigation by the SEC.
Simon wasn't a member of Hanover's board at the time of the improper accounting, but a week before Hanover made the announcement, the company reported that every annual report it has issued since going public in 1997 contained errors. Simon, as a member of Hanover's audit committee, was responsible for approving the company's annual reports. The audit committee, according to Hanover's investor relations department, was held responsible by Hanover for the error.
Simon helped Hanover set up a partnership in the Cayman Islands, Hanover Cayman Limited, as a tax shelter. In addition, he assisted Hanover in setting up a joint venture with Enron and JEDI to construct a natural-gas compression project in Venezuela.
Jamie Fisfis, Simon's campaign spokesman, said Simon has been forthcoming about his business dealings with Hanover and Enron. But when asked about JEDI's investment in Hanover and what role Simon played, Fisfis said he did not know and would only confirm that Simon was a member of the Hanover board at the time. Moreover, he could not offer an explanation when asked about the other joint ventures with Enron that Simon's former business associates said he had a hand in creating. Simon has told reporters on the campaign trail that he was barely involved in Hanover's business activities, but Hanover executives say Simon was intimately involved during his six years on the board. When Simon left the board in 1998, he sold most of his 430,000 shares in the company. However, he still has more than $1 million invested in Hanover, according to the Associated Press.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar of the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development, said Simon has to start answering questions about his dealings with Enron, "whether it be good or bad," or risk alienating voters. "The symbol that Enron has become is negative, cheating and ruthless."
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Governor Gray Davis, who currently trails Simon according to the latest polls, said Simon's close ties with Enron pose questions about his track record: "For a man who touts himself as a business manager, these types of activities raise questions whether that's true."
Nothing is more to be despised, in a time of crisis, than the affectation of "evenhandedness." But there are two very nasty delusions and euphemisms gaining ground at present. The first of these is that suicide bombing is a response to despair, and the second is that Sharon's policy is a riposte to suicide bombing.
A long time ago I dated a 28-year-old man who told me the first time we went out that he wanted to have seven children. Subsequently, I was involved for many years with an already middle-aged man who also claimed to be eager for fatherhood. How many children have these now-gray gentlemen produced in a lifetime of strenuous heterosexuality? None. But because they are men, nobody's writing books about how they blew their lives, missed the brass ring, find life a downward spiral of serial girlfriends and work that's lost its savor. We understand, when we think about men, that people often say they want one thing while making choices that over time show they care more about something else, that circumstances get in the way of many of our wishes and that for many "have kids" occupies a place on the to-do list between "learn Italian" and "exercise."
Change the sexes, though, and the same story gets a different slant. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, today's 50-something women professionals are in deep mourning because, as the old cartoon had it, they forgot to have children--until it was too late, and too late was a whole lot earlier than they thought. In her new book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Hewlett claims she set out to record the triumphant, fulfilled lives of women in mid-career only to find that success had come at the cost of family: Of "ultra-achieving" women (defined as earning $100,000-plus a year), only 57 percent were married, versus 83 percent of comparable men, and only 51 percent had kids at 40, versus 81 percent among the men. Among "high-achieving" women (at least $65,000 or $55,000 a year, depending on age), 33 percent are childless at 40 versus 25 percent of men.
Why don't more professional women have kids? Hewlett's book nods to the "brutal demands of ambitious careers," which are still structured according to the life patterns of men with stay-at-home wives, and to the distaste of many men for equal relationships with women their own age. I doubt there's a woman over 35 who'd quarrel with that. But what's gotten Hewlett a cover story in Time ("Babies vs. Careers: Which Should Come First for Women Who Want Both?") and instant celebrity is not her modest laundry list of family-friendly proposals--paid leave, reduced hours, career breaks. It's her advice to young women: Be "intentional" about children--spend your twenties snagging a husband, put career on the back burner and have a baby ASAP. Otherwise, you could end up like world-famous playwright and much-beloved woman-about-town Wendy Wasserstein, who we are told spent some $130,000 to bear a child as a single 48-year-old. (You could also end up like, oh I don't know, me, who married and had a baby nature's way at 37, or like my many successful-working-women friends who adopted as single, married or lesbian mothers and who are doing just fine, thank you very much.)
Danielle Crittenden, move over! Hewlett calls herself a feminist, but Creating a Life belongs on the backlash bookshelf with What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, The Rules, The Surrendered Wife, The Surrendered Single (!) and all those books warning women that feminism--too much confidence, too much optimism, too many choices, too much "pickiness" about men--leads to lonely nights and empty bassinets. But are working women's chances of domestic bliss really so bleak? If 49 percent of ultra-achieving women don't have kids, 51 percent do--what about them? Hewlett seems determined to put the worst possible construction on working women's lives, even citing the long-discredited 1986 Harvard-Yale study that warned that women's chances of marrying after 40 were less than that of being killed by a terrorist. As a mother of four who went through high-tech hell to produce last-minute baby Emma at age 51, she sees women's lives through the distorting lens of her own obsessive maternalism, in which nothing, but nothing, can equal looking at the ducks with a toddler, and if you have one child, you'll be crying at the gym because you don't have two. For Hewlett, childlessness is always a tragic blunder, even when her interviewees give more equivocal responses. Thus she quotes academic Judith Friedlander calling childlessness a "creeping non-choice," without hearing the ambivalence expressed in that careful phrasing. Not choosing--procrastinating, not insisting, not focusing--is often a way of choosing, isn't it? There's no room in Hewlett's view for modest regret, moving on or simple acceptance of childlessness, much less indifference, relief or looking on the bright side--the feelings she advises women to cultivate with regard to their downsized hopes for careers or equal marriages. But Hewlett's evidence that today's childless "high achievers" neglected their true desire is based on a single statistic, that only 14 percent say they knew in college that they didn't want kids--as if people don't change their minds after 20.
This is not to deny that many women are caught in a time trap. They spend their twenties and thirties establishing themselves professionally, often without the spousal support their male counterparts enjoy, perhaps instead being supportive themselves, like the surgeon Hewlett cites approvingly who graces her fiancé's business dinners after thirty-six-hour hospital shifts. By the time they can afford to think of kids, they may indeed have trouble conceiving. But are these problems that "intentionality" can solve? Sure, a woman can spend her twenties looking for love--and show me one who doesn't! But will having a baby compensate her for blinkered ambitions and a marriage made with one eye on the clock? Isn't that what the mothers of today's 50-somethings did, going to college to get their Mrs. degree and taking poorly paid jobs below their capacities because they "combined" well with wifely duties? What makes Hewlett think that disastrous recipe will work out better this time around?
More equality and support, not lowered expectations, is what women need, at work and at home. It's going to be a long struggle. If women allow motherhood to relegate them to secondary status in both places, as Hewlett advises, we'll never get there. Meanwhile, a world with fewer female surgeons, playwrights and professors strikes me as an infinitely inferior place to live.
It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but penetrated through and through by our historical situation. Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images. For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own historical moment becomes an artist's subject. It was particularly rare in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era conscious of itself through his art.
German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation. How to be an artist in postwar Germany was part of the burden of being a German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art. Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside his images to realize the violence to which they refer.
Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which continued to exemplify Hitler's aesthetic well after Nazism's collapse, than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art. It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to destroy. The content of Documenta 1--Modernism of the twentieth century before fascism--could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But Modernism, and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York School--Abstract Expressionism--that some internal pressure began to build in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time. The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic Republic.
It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go abstract--or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist, the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to identify oneself with Art Informel--the European counterpart of the loosely painted abstractions of the New York School--as many German artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political matter in the 1970s. If ignorant of the political background of such choices, visitors to the magnificent Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Richter's work since 1962--the year after his momentous move from East to West--are certain to be baffled by the fact that he seems to vacillate between realism and abstraction, or even between various styles of abstraction, often at the same time. These vacillations seemed to me so extreme when I first saw a retrospective of Richter's work in Chicago in 1987, that it looked like I was seeing some kind of group show. "How can you say any style is better than another?" Warhol asked with his characteristic faux innocence in a 1963 interview. "You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling that you have given up something." For most artists in America, it is important that they be stylistically identifiable, as if their style is their brand. To change styles too often inevitably would have been read as a lack of conviction. But what the show at MoMA somehow makes clear is that there finally is a single personal signature in Richter's work, whatever his subject, and whether the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from the protective cool to which I referred--a certain internal distance between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a kind of above-the-battle tranquility that comes when one has decided that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without feeling that something is given up. That cool is invariant to all the paintings, whatever their content. As a viewer one has to realize that abstraction is the content of one genre of his painting, while the content of the other genres of his painting is...well...not abstraction. They consist of pictures of the world. So in a sense the show has an almost amazing consistency from beginning to end. It is as though what Richter conveys is a content that belongs to the mood or tone, and that comes through the way the quality of a great voice does, whatever its owner sings.
Before talking about individual works, let me register another peculiarity of Richter's work. He paints photographs. A lot of artists use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs are his reality. He is not indifferent to what a photograph is of, but the subject of the photograph will often not be something that he has experienced independently. In 1964 Richter began to arrange photographs on panels--snapshots, often banal, clippings from newspapers and magazines, even some pornographic pictures. These panels became a work in their own right, to which Richter gave the title Atlas. Atlas has been exhibited at various intervals, most recently in 1995 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, at which venue there were already 600 panels and something like 5,000 photographs. These photographs are Richter's reality as an artist. When I think of Atlas, I think of the human condition as described by Plato in the famous passage in The Republic where Socrates says that the world is a cave, on the wall of which shadows are cast. They are cast by real objects to which we have no immediate access, and about which, save for the interventions of philosophy, we would have no inkling. But there is an obvious sense in which most of what we know about, we never experience as such. Think of what the experience of the World Trade Center attack was for most of us on September 11 and afterward. We were held transfixed by the images of broken walls and burning towers, to use Yeats's language, and fleeing, frightened people.
The first work in the exhibition is titled Table, done in 1962. Richter considers it the first work in his catalogue raisonné, which means that he assigns it a significance considerably beyond whatever merits it may possess as a painting. It means in particular that nothing he did before it is part of his acknowledged oeuvre. Barnett Newman felt that way about a 1948 work he named Onement. He considered it, to vary a sentimental commonplace, the first work of the rest of his artistic life. Next to Table, one notices two photographs of a modern extension table, clipped from an Italian magazine, on which Richter puddled a brushful of gray glaze. Table itself is an enlarged and simplified painting of the table in the photographs, over which Richter has painted an energetic swirl of gray paint. It is easy to see why it is so emblematic a work in his artistic scheme. Whatever the merits of the depicted table may have been as an object of furniture design, such tables were commonplace articles of furniture in middle-class domestic interiors in the late fifties. In 1962 it was becoming an artistic option to do paintings of ordinary, everyday objects. We are in the early days of the Pop movement. The overlaid brushy smear, meanwhile, has exactly the gestural urgency of Art Informel. So Table is at the intersection of two major art movements of the sixties: It is representational and abstract at once. Warhol in that period was painting comic-strip figures like Dick Tracy--but was dripping wet paint over his images, not yet able to relinquish the talismanic drip of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in 1960 he painted a Coca-Cola bottle with Abstract Expressionist mannerisms--a work I consider Table's unknown artistic sibling. Richter gave up Art Informel in 1962, just as Warhol dropped Abstract Expressionist brushiness in favor of the uninflected sharpness and clarity of his Pop images. By 1963 Richter had begun painting the blurred but precise images that became his trademark. Richter's marvelously exact Administrative Building of 1964 captures the dispiriting official architecture of German postwar reconstruction, especially in the industrial Rhineland. And his wonderful Kitchen Chair of 1965 is a prime example of Capitalist Realism, the version of Pop developed by Richter and his colleague, Sigmar Polke, in the mid-sixties. Richter and Warhol had fascinatingly parallel careers.
The deep interpretative question in Richter's art concerns less the fact that he worked with photographs than why he selected the photographs he did for Atlas, and what governed his decision to translate certain of them into paintings. There are, for example, photographs of American airplanes--Mustang Squadrons, Bombers and Phantom Interceptor planes in ghostly gray-in-gray formations. Richter was an adolescent in 1945, and lived with his family within earshot of Dresden at the time of the massive firebombings of that year. The photograph from which Bombers was made had to have been taken as a documentary image by some official Air Force photographer, whether over Dresden or some other city. The cool of that photograph, compounded by the cool with which that image is painted--even to the hit plane near the bottom of the image and what must be the smoke trailing from another--cannot but seem as in a kind of existential contrast with the panic of someone on the ground under those explosives falling in slow fatal series from open bays. But what were Richter's feelings? What was he saying in these images?
And what of the 1965 painting of the family snapshot of the SS officer--Richter's Uncle Rudi--proudly smiling for the camera, which must have been taken more than twenty years earlier, shortly before its subject was killed in action? Tables and chairs are tables and chairs. But warplanes and officers emblematize war, suffering and violent death. And this was not simply the history of the mid-twentieth century. This was the artist's life, something he lived through. We each must deal with these questions as we can, I think. The evasiveness of the artist, in the fascinating interview with Robert Storr--who curated this show and wrote the catalogue--is a kind of shrug in the face of the unanswerability of the question. What we can say is that photographs have their acknowledged forensic dimension; they imply that their subjects were there, constituted reality and that the artist himself is no more responsible than we are, either for the reality or the photography. The reality and the records are what others have done. He has only made the art. And the blurredness with which the artist has instilled his images is a way of saying that it was twenty years ago--that it is not now. Some other horrors are now.
The flat, impassive transcriptions of Richter's paintings are correlative with the frequent violence implied by what they depict. That makes the parallels with Warhol particularly vivid. It is easy to repress, in view of the glamour and celebrity associated with Warhol's life and work, the series of disasters he depicted--plane crashes, automobile accidents, suicides, poisonings and the shattering images of electric chairs, let alone Jackie (The Week That Was), which memorializes Kennedy's funeral. Or the startlingly anticelebratory Thirteen Most Wanted Men that he executed for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Compare these with Richter's 1966 Eight Student Nurses, in which the bland, smiling, youthful faces look as if taken from the class book of a nursing school--but which we know were of victims of a senseless crime. Warhol's works, like Richter's, are photography-based. The pictures came from vernacular picture media--the front page of the Daily News, or the most-wanted pictures on posters offering rewards, which are perhaps still tacked up in post offices. These were transferred to stencils and silk-screened, and have a double graininess--the graininess of newspaper reproduction and of the silk-screen process itself. And like Richter's blurring, this serves to distance the reality by several stages--as if it is only through distancing that we can deal with horror. I tend to think that part of what made us all feel as if we were actually part of the World Trade Center disaster was the clarity of the television images and the brightness of the day that came into our living rooms.
Whatever our attitude toward the prison deaths of the Baader-Meinhof gang members in 1977, I think everyone must feel that if Richter is capable of a masterpiece, it is his October 18, 1977 suite of thirteen paintings, done in 1988 and based on aspects of that reality. These deaths define a moral allegory in which the state, as the guarantor of law and order, and the revolution, as enacted by utopian and idealist youths, stand in stark opposition, and in which both sides are responsible for crimes that are the dark obverses of their values. But how fragile and pathetic these enemies of the state look in paintings that make the photographs from which they were taken more affecting than they would seem as parts, say, of Atlas. Who knows whether Richter chose the images because they were affecting, or made them so, or if we make them so because of the hopelessness of a reality that has the quality of the last act of an opera, in which the chorus punctuates the tragedy in music? There are three paintings, in graded sizes, of the same image of Ulrike Meinhof, who was hanged--or hanged herself--in her cell. The paintings do not resolve the question of whether she was killed or committed suicide. They simply register the finality of her death--Dead. Dead. Dead. (Tote. Tote. Tote.)--in a repetition of an image, vanishing toward a point, of a thin dead young woman, her stretched neck circled by the rope or by the burn left by the rope. That is what art does, or part of what it does. It transforms violence into myth and deals with death by beauty. There was a lot of political anger when these paintings were shown in 1988, but there was no anger in the gallery on the occasions when I have visited it in the past several weeks.
By comparison with the ferocity of human engagements in the real world, the art wars of the mid-twentieth century seem pretty thin and petty. But it says something about human passion that the distinction between figuration and abstraction was so vehement that, in my memory, people would have been glad to hang or shoot one another, or burn their stylistic opponents at the stake, as if it were a religious controversy and salvation were at risk. It perhaps says something deep about the spirit of our present times that the decisions whether to paint abstractly or realistically can be as lightly made as whether to paint a landscape or still life--or a figure study--was for a traditional artist. Or for a young contemporary artist to decide whether to do some piece of conceptual art or a performance. Four decades of art history have borne us into calm aesthetic waters. But this narrative does not convey the almost palpable sense in which Richter has grasped his times through his art. One almost feels that he became a painter in order to engage not just with how to be an artist but how, as an artist, to deal with the terribleness of history.
What date shall I assign to Chris Marker's magnum opus, A Grin Without a Cat? This rugged oak of an essay-film, whose gnarls trace the growth and withering of decades of leftist politics, is now playing for the first time in the United States, where it's being shown in the form Marker gave it after
the demise of the Soviet Union. I might say it's a film from 1993; and yet the version we now have is the revision of a work completed in 1977, when Communism was still alive, and anti-Communism was more than the hungry zombie it's since become.
Communism was still alive, but even then Marker perceived a change. The last major event he incorporated into his essay was the 1974 election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to the presidency of France. In the film, this election represents the end of a period of turmoil that had begun in 1967: the year of campus uprisings in the United States against the Vietnam War, increased union militancy in France, bloody student protests in Berlin against the visiting Shah of Iran, the death in Bolivia of Che Guevara. It's fair to say that the main body of A Grin Without a Cat deals with these years, so I might date the film 1967-74.
But then, the historical marker slips back even further. To explain why Che perished as he did, to account for his prestige in death, to suggest how that martyrdom shaped the period that followed, the film revisits 1962, when Douglas Bravo launched a guerrilla war in rural Venezuela. Believing that a few militants could spark revolution on their own, Bravo and his followers abandoned the discipline of the Communist Party. That was the good news. The bad news was, they also abandoned the party's political base. In Marker's words (which are spoken throughout the film by several voiceover narrators), the guerrillas made themselves into "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat."
The phrase brings to mind Lewis Carroll, and maybe Gogol, too. I will have something to say about the rude adventures of this grin. First, though, a question: Assuming there was once a whole cat, what did it look like?
Marker gives a filmmaker's reply: He goes back in time to The Battleship Potemkin. His picture begins in that other movie--begins twice, in fact. As his first gesture in A Grin Without a Cat, Marker shows us Eisenstein's celebrated vision of the Potemkin mutiny, in which a sailor faces a line of riflemen and wins them over with a single shout: Brothers! Out of that moment, Marker develops a great, thrilling montage sequence of his own, spanning half a century of conflicts in the streets and ending on Eisenstein's Odessa steps, more or less in the present day. There, as if to begin the film again, Marker shows us a pleasant young woman who sits in the sunshine, chatting with an offscreen interviewer. She is a French-speaking Intourist guide, and she can testify that this site is very popular. She brings people to it two or three times a day.
We might conclude that the not-quite-mythical cat was on the prowl sometime between these two historical moments, the first of inspiration, the second of nostalgia. We might decide that A Grin Without a Cat is dated 1925-93.
During those years, was anything left unfilmed? To watch this picture is to be astonished at the world of footage that's been piled up here, some of it shot by Marker himself, most of it recorded by others, both known and anonymous. The raw materials of A Grin Without a Cat include images of a US pilot bombing Vietnam, as seen from the cockpit; scenes of carefully staged party congresses in Havana and Beijing and of an unscripted, on-the-run congress in 1968 Prague; views of the festive Cat Parade in Ypres; broadcasts of the Watergate hearings and of the Shah of Iran's grandiose party for himself in Persepolis; raw footage of Communist and Trotskyist workers getting into a fistfight at a factory gate; interviews in the jungle with Douglas Bravo, in the Pentagon with a counterinsurgency expert, in the Citroën headquarters with that firm's managing director; Soviet newsreels from World War II; a student collective's newsreel from 1967 Berlin; shots of Giscard d'Estaing playing the accordion and of The Who destroying their instruments; behind-the-scenes pictures of training sessions at the School of the Americas; and the usual amalgam of flaming automobiles, flying tear-gas canisters, descending truncheons and human beings lying in pools of blood.
So complete is the filmed record on which Marker draws, and so associative is his method of using it, that he can show us a statement made in 1968 by a Czech national hero, Emil Zatopek, just before he was stripped of his military rank for protesting against the invasion; Zatopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when he famously swept the distance running events; and Zatopek in 1972, when he was released from the mines and trotted out to look solemn at the Munich Olympics, when the games continued despite the murder of eleven Israeli athletes. But then, Marker comments, "I had been in Mexico City in 1968, when 200 people were killed so the games could begin," and we have that footage, too.
This sort of thing can make your head spin; but since it should also make your head clear, Marker's montage is not only associative but diagrammatic as well. A Grin Without a Cat is divided into two main sections. Part One, "Fragile Hands," concentrates on the events of 1967 and 1968, up to the fizzling of the May revolt in France. Part Two, "Severed Hands," begins with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, continues with the rise and fall of Salvador Allende (and the Gang of Four) and concludes with the fading of the cat's grin, late in the 1970s.
Marker tends to present these events in big loops. He'll jump from source to source, place to place, to develop an argument (about the concept of a revolution in the revolution, for example); he'll digress to examine the way people gestured with their hands, or how they either filled or did not fill the space between striking workers and police; and then he'll swing back to close the loop, concluding one phase of his essay and moving on to the next. At each phase (at least in the earlier part of the film) he also introduces elements that I might as well call dialectical. When he shows a group of war protesters preparing to burn their draft cards in 1967, he also shows a rally of the American Nazi Party. When French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit comes into the picture, so does Giscard d'Estaing. We watch the New Left rise in tandem with the New Right. In Marker's view of history, the development of the New Right may have been the New Left's greatest achievement.
If so, then the Old Left contributed ample help. Marker makes the point with stunning force during his section on Czechoslovakia, when he unexpectedly closes one of those big loops of montage. Citizens of Prague have surrounded a Soviet tank driver and are berating him--"How could you, a Communist, be doing this?"--when that intertitle from The Battleship Potemkin pops onto the screen again, in a way that's now heartbreaking and futile: Brothers!
And since Marker is a moviemaker above all, A Grin Without a Cat also makes its point as a movie should, through the actions of its star. Yes, there is a lead actor in this film: Fidel Castro, whose many performances, interspersed throughout the picture, amount to a little drama of their own, complete with a nasty plot twist. Here is Fidel on the podium, addressing a night-time rally with wit, vigor and good sense. Here he is again, sprawled casually on the grass for the benefit of the camera, giving a very good impersonation of a man speaking spontaneously, sensitively, about popular militancy and his comrade Che Guevara. And here, giving a radio broadcast, Fidel appears to work himself into a fury against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as a dramatic overture to praising the Soviets for their tanks.
This is dense, complex, allusive filmmaking, encyclopedic in ambition, profound in understanding, playful enough in form to make you smile sometimes at the tricks of history. Though Marker has made an elegy to the left, he would prefer that you leave the theater invigorated, feeling that power is still abroad in the world, and that you and your friends might still disrupt its dirty work.
My only complaint is that the film could have sent you home feeling even better. During the period Marker covers, the feminists got a few things done, often without bothering to define their relationship to the Communist Party; but feminism shows up very late in A Grin Without a Cat, as a mere afterthought. Africa doesn't show up at all; yet activists from around the world made some changes there too, such as ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic state. You may choose to add to the list a third or fourth victory. We've had a few, despite all of history's tricks.
That said, A Grin Without a Cat was made for you, Nation reader. It premieres in America on May Day, at New York's Film Forum.
Abbas Kiarostami's most recent documentary, which premieres in the United States on May 3 at New York's Cinema Village, is about nothing other than Africa and feminism. Made on behalf of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, ABC Africa is the record of a trip to Uganda, during which Kiarostami investigated the effect of AIDS on women and children.
The effect, briefly stated, is that children are orphaned, and women are left to care for them: six, eleven, thirty-five at a time. According to the film, there are now more than 1.6 million orphans in Uganda, out of a population of 22 million. The Catholic Church helps by offering a wretched level of care to the suffering, meanwhile insuring there will be more suffering by discouraging the use of condoms. By contrast, the Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) helps with a program that encourages women to band together and become economically self-sufficient.
I lack the space in this column to describe even a part of what Kiarostami recorded with his digital video cameras. It's enough to say that, while he captured images on the run, he somehow made a Kiarostami film. ABC Africa is devastating, as you'd expect. It's also lyrical, beautiful and quietly inventive.
The Nation announces the winners of Discovery/ The Nation, the Joan
Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize. Now in its twenty-eighth year, it is an
annual contest for poets whose work has not been published previously in
book form. The new winners are: Linda Jenkins, Gregory McDonald, Andrew
Varnon and Stefi Weisburd. This year's judges are Catherine Bowman,
Carolyn Forché and Paul Muldoon. As in the past, manuscripts are judged
anonymously. Distinguished former winners include Susan Mitchell, Katha
Pollitt, Mary Jo Salter, Sherod Santos, Arthur Smith and David St. John.
This year's winners will read their poems at Discovery/The Nation
'02 at 8:15 pm on Monday, May 6, at The Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd
Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue (92nd Street and Lexington Avenue) in
New York City.
--Grace Schulman, poetry editor
The Lewis & Clark Snowglobe
There exists one, anti-gewgaw, memento
ingenuous as any wonder,
though I've never seen nor heard of it, and yet--
as is revolution of heavenly body, of colony--
all's a given. The only question being which scene
of scenes? Spring 1804: keelboat,
all fifty-five feet of it, curses
the Missouri's sawyers--
Shake it and snow that falls in summer
plagues unseen men--Clark's "misquetors."
Or Lewis gazes, dizzy with May and his first
"plain and satisfactory view" of the Rockies'
plastic expanse, its blue-lipped ardor soothing
words Northwest Passage forever.
In a roadside gift shop,
Sacagawea proves false
an old adage; Home again Home again, swirls
her first moments back
among the Shoshones; with a knick-knack's economy,
sixteen mounted warriors become
one or two; her lost brother has become chief,
and they embrace:
novelist's fantastical turn.
It's the day a horse takes badly a Bitterroots precipice, the group--
ravenous, anonymous, androgynous--proceeds,
one colt divided among thirty-plus bellies. It's Clark,
jubilant at the first
(if false) view of Pacific.
It's hermetic 1806 St. Louis,
its sluicy tempest of rounds and cheers.
And not famed, not at all likely
to be the scene, yet Washington's elite toasts Lewis
with a ball; outside, glitter falls--and Lewis, triumphant, drunk
off the New Year, raises his glass, voices
a toast of his own:
"May works be the test
of patriotism as they ought, of right, to be of religion,"
as they ought (redundant or no) to be of love.
It was in an Age of Such Incredible Secrets
It was in an age of such incredible secrets
that my mother began to paint her toenails
the color of eggshells, and my father
learned how to make love with his hands
at his side. I saw them practicing once,
but all I could think about was our icebox
full of fish and ketchup, and the small wooden bird
above my grandmother's bed, rocking back and forth,
dipping its red beak into a bowl of water.
What I Remember
I lift the bottle every time you catch me
looking at you. In all the apartment
complexes down Alafaya Trail,
I roll on the floor away from the wet nose
of a basset hound. Pennies spill
that I will forget; lips are moving but
I can't keep my footing in the mud.
Spanish moss hangs from a tree, there is a frog
and everybody throws water balloons.
A black dress with pink flowers
A storm over the gulf at sunrise
Empty beach chairs face turquoise
Traffic lights change without cars
I chase you with whiskey and chase
whiskey with beer and chase an armadillo
around the art gallery, muttering something
about "plasticity" or "negative space."
The search lights catch up with me. I walk
out the back door too easy, afraid of fists
that put holes in your wall. Mine
is the long walk home under streetlights
with only beat cops and that one Muddy Waters
song I know to keep me company, me and that
thirsty head full of wilderness I'm so afraid of.
Elegy For Two
A yowling pulls like tides at our blind ear
from down the hall. The sound of Baby's ire
at God knows what, the broken night, the leer
of suns, I said. The nurse spit out: Liar.
Eyes of fruit and cinder block conspire.
His cries would fever milk and wrench the bed.
A letter in my husband's hands perspires.
For the love of God, it's just a cat, my nurse said.
But cats don't antidote true love or shred
the film of sleep with shrill ballistic shrieks
or tick heart's tomb, slash the vagrant thread,
tear the doll to wipe the bloody streaks.
Cats don't rasp or beg with gnawing squall
on stairs to help the helpless totter, fall.
Alan Dershowitz prides himself on his credentials as a civil libertarian, and to judge by most of the essays in his latest book, Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age, he has good reason to do so. The Harvard law professor has built a considerable reputation on his defense of free speech, due process and the separation of church and state, to say nothing of his propensity for controversial clients and clamorous talk shows. Shouting Fire is a pastiche of fifty-four essays, some of them new, most of them not, the earliest dating from 1963. The impetus for the collection appears to be at least in part a desire to reassert the importance of civil liberties, even in the face of such national security threats as those posed by the events of September 11 and their aftermath. Moreover, Dershowitz admirably offers what rights advocates rarely do: a philosophical grounding for civil and political rights beyond the mere positivist assertion that "that's the law."
If this were all Dershowitz had done in Shouting Fire, the book might have received its share of kind reviews and headed off to Remainderland. But in less than two of the book's 550 pages, he manages to guarantee the collection a longer shelf life. For in an addendum to a 1989 article in the Israel Law Review, Alan Dershowitz, civil libertarian, champion of progressive causes, counsel to human-rights hero Anatoly Shcharansky, makes a case for torture or, more exactly, for the creation of a new legal device that he dubs a "torture warrant." And then, through a deft combination of newspaper editorials, public appearances and an extended interview on 60 Minutes, Dershowitz has expanded upon that proposition in a way designed to make talk of torture routine and, not incidentally, banter about his book robust.
Dershowitz's proposal, therefore, deserves careful scrutiny, not only because it comes from a respected voice but also because sources in the FBI have floated the possibility that torture will be applied against prisoners or detainees who refuse to tell what they know about terrorists. Last October 45 percent of Americans approved of that. Today, thanks to Dershowitz and others having lent the idea the patina of respectability--Jonathan Alter writing in Newsweek, Bruce Hoffman in The Atlantic--the number may be higher.
Dershowitz starts with the familiar scenario from every freshman philosophy class, the case of the ticking bomb. Suppose the authorities are holding a suspect who knows where a ticking bomb is located, a bomb that will kill hundreds of people if it explodes. Would they be justified in torturing the suspect to procure the information and thereby save innocent lives?
Dershowitz contends that whether we like it or not, the officials would inevitably resort to torture and, what's more, the vast majority of us would want them to. But because any officer who did so might be subject to prosecution, despite the availability of the common law defense that a crime may be justified if it is necessary to prevent a greater evil, the onus of responsibility should not be left on the individual official. Instead the authorities should apply to a court for a "torture warrant," similar to a search warrant, so that the courts must bear the burden of authorizing torture or the consequences of failing to do so. In another context Dershowitz has offered the reassurances that "the suspect would be given immunity from prosecution based on information elicited by torture" and that "the warrant would limit the torture to nonlethal means, such as sterile needles being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life."
Despite these precautions, however, Dershowitz's proposal has not met with universal acclaim, and in recent weeks he has appeared to be distancing himself from it. In a February 17 letter to The New York Times Book Review responding to a critical review of Shouting Fire, Dershowitz claims that "the only compromises [with civil liberties] I suggest we should consider, and not necessarily adopt, relate directly to protecting civilians against imminent terrorist attacks [emphasis added]." But there is no hint on the two relevant pages of Shouting Fire that Dershowitz's "torture warrant" proposal is merely hypothetical. Indeed, in commenting on the decision by the Supreme Court of Israel that prompted the idea in the first place, he chastises the court for leaving interrogating officers vulnerable to prosecution if they use torture and says, "The Supreme Court of Israel...or the legislature should take the...step of requiring the judiciary to assume responsibility [for torture] in individual cases." Dershowitz is stuck with his "torture warrants" just as surely as Arthur Andersen is stuck with its Enron audits.
So what, after all, is wrong with that--other than the fact that torture violates both the Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994, and the Constitution? The first thing that is wrong is that the act of torture, unlike that of searching for something, is in itself both universally condemned and inherently abhorrent. Under international law, torturers are considered hostis humani generis, enemies of all humanity, and that is why all countries have jurisdiction to prosecute them, regardless of where the torture took place. The fact that a US court or legislature might offer its approval of the act does not abrogate that internationally recognized standard any more than a court in Singapore that authorizes the jailing of a dissident journalist makes Singapore any less guilty of violating the rights of a free press. Tyrannical governments often try to cloak their human rights violations in national statute. It is interesting, however, that no country has ever legalized torture except, arguably, Israel, until the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the provision for the use of "moderate physical pressure," and even while that provision was on the books, the Israeli government argued vehemently that such pressure was not the equivalent of torture.
To see more clearly the shoals upon which the "torture warrant" flounders, consider this. There is no doubt that despite official efforts to eradicate it, police brutality is practiced in many US jurisdictions and probably always will be. Some police officers will claim, in their more candid moments, that the use of excessive force is often the only way to protect the lives of officers and the general public. Why ought the police not be able, therefore, to apply for "brutality warrants" in specialized cases? Why ought police officers who believe that a little shaving of the truth on the witness stand is worth sending a bunch of drug pushers to prison, thus protecting hundreds of youngsters from a life of drugs and crime, not be able to seek "'testilying' warrants"? Why ought correctional officers who argue that allowing dominant male prisoners to rape other prisoners helps preserve order among thugs and thus protects the lives of guards not be allowed to seek "warrants to tolerate prisoner rape" in particularly dangerous situations? The answer in all cases is the same: because the act itself (brutalizing citizens; committing perjury; facilitating rape) is itself abhorrent and illegal. Dershowitz's analogy to search warrants fails because, while a particular search may itself be illegal, the act of searching is not ipso facto unethical or a crime. For a society to start providing its imprimatur to criminal acts because they are common or may appear to provide a shortcut to admirable ends is an invitation to chaos.
But even if torture were a licit activity under some circumstances, there are very good pragmatic reasons to reject its use. If the ticking bomb scenario were designed only to establish the abstract moral calculus that the death of X number of people constitutes a greater evil than the torture of one, it would certainly be possible to make a plausible utilitarian argument for torture. The problem is, however, that the proponents of the ticking bomb scenario want it to serve as the basis of public policy, and unfortunately reality rarely conforms to scenarios and life doesn't stop where the scripts do. How strange that though the ticking bomb scenario has been used for decades to justify torture, its defenders are unable to cite the details of even one verifiable case from real life that mirrors its conditions.
Perhaps, upon reflection, that is not so strange. For what the ticking bomb case asks us to believe is that the authorities know that a bomb has been planted somewhere; know it is about to go off; know that the suspect in their custody has the information they need to stop it; know that the suspect will yield that information accurately in a matter of minutes if subjected to torture; and know that there is no other way to obtain it. The scenario asks us to believe, in other words, that the authorities have all the information that authorities dealing with a crisis never have.
Even aficionados of ticking bomb torture agree that its use can only be justified as a last resort applicable to those we know to a moral certainty are guilty and possess the information we seek. That 45 percent of Americans who reported last October that they approved of torture were approving of the "torture of known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks." But how do we know all that? The reason torture is such a risky proposition is exactly because it is so difficult to tell ahead of time who is a terrorist and who is not; who has the information and who does not; who will give the information accurately and who will deceive; who will respond to torture and who will endure it as a religious discipline. The fact is that many people suspected of being terrorists turn out not to be, as our experience since September 11 has proven so well; that, historically, many of those subjected to torture are genuinely ignorant of the details the authorities seek; that the information protracted with torture is notoriously unreliable; and that torture almost always takes a long time--days and weeks, not hours and minutes--to produce results. Torture is of course extraordinarily common. Almost three-fourths of the world's countries practice it. But not to find ticking bombs. To punish political opponents. To intimidate their allies. To cow a citizenry. The ticking bomb scenario in its purest form is a fantasy of "moral" torture all too easily appropriated by tyrants as an excuse to justify the more mundane variety.
And if the ticking bomb scenario is a fantasy, the Dershowitzian addition of a "torture warrant" makes it into a chimera. Here is a situation Dershowitz envisions for the warrant's use:
Had law enforcement officials arrested terrorists boarding one of the [September 11] airplanes and learned that other planes, then airborne, were headed toward unknown occupied buildings, there would have been an understandable incentive to torture those terrorists in order to learn the identity of the buildings and evacuate them.
This assumes that those law enforcement officials would have had time in the hour and a half or so between the boarding of the planes and the impact on their targets to (1) take the suspects into custody; (2) ascertain with enough certainty to warrant torture that the suspects were (a) terrorists who (b) had the needed information in their possession; (3) apply to a judge for a torture warrant and make the case for one; (4) inflict torture sufficient to retrieve the necessary facts; (5) evaluate the validity of those facts in order to be assured that no innocent plane would be identified and blown out of the sky; and (6) take the steps required to stop or mitigate the terrorist act. Perhaps after John Ashcroft has been Attorney General another three years, law enforcement will have learned to cut enough corners of the legal niceties to accomplish this feat. But at the moment, given the INS, Tom Ridge, bureaucratic infighting and all, it seems unlikely.
Which leads to the question of whether, if the United States were to become the first country in the world to adopt "torture warrants," they would make us safer. That, after all, is presumably the only ultimate rationale for their use. But here is another place where the traditional ticking bomb case explodes in the face of reality. For it assumes that there are no further detrimental consequences once the victims of the bombing are saved--no retaliatory strikes, for example, by the torture victim's comrades to pay back the inhumanity done to their brother. It doesn't take much imagination to see how quickly officially authorized torture would diminish the credibility of a struggle against terrorism that is being fought in the name of defending American values and the rule of law. How many people would need to be tortured before our allies threw up their hands in disgust and our adversaries started celebrating their moral victory? How many innocent people would have to be brutalized before their resentment and that of their friends and family would spill over into violence? In his book No Equal Justice law professor David Cole has shown how mistreatment of the innocent by US police can alienate entire communities and result in increases in crime. Torture, similarly, is a sure-fire way to manufacture an embittered opponent of the United States where there was none before. And make no mistake that innocent people would be tortured, warrant or no, for, after all, if close to 100 innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death in this country despite all the protection our legal system offers, how much more likely is it that miscarriages of justice will flow from the pen of a single judge? Whatever leadership the United States can claim in the world is intimately linked to our practice of values universally regarded as fundamental to a civilized people.
So how could a distinguished human rights advocate like Alan Dershowitz have strayed so far from the mark? Part of it may have to do with the philosophical basis for rights that he sketches in the beginning of his book. Wisely rejecting the notions that rights are derived from deity or natural law and yet unconvinced that positivism alone provides sufficient heft for rights claims, Dershowitz adopts what he calls the "experiential-advocacy approach." In effect, he says, we should look to history to identify prototypical instances of injustice (slavery, for example) and then, based upon that human experience, construct a set of rights--free speech, due process--that are most likely to bring about the type of society in which we would want to live. So far, so good. Human rights are assuredly derived from human experience.
But what if you disagree with my vision of the good society? The best we can do, Dershowitz insists, is to try to argue you out of your myopia: "That is all I can do," he says. "Defend my preference for [certain] rights.... But I make no claim for these rights beyond my ability to persuade you to agree with me that history--especially the history of wrongs--has shown these rights to be important enough to be given a special status in the hierarchy of preferences. It may surprise you to learn that for me there is no sharp line...separating rights from strongly held preferences." It is here that Dershowitz stumbles.
For while rights are, in a sense, preferences, they are also more than that: They are norms, behavioral norms necessary to create and sustain a good society. And they become norms not through argument alone but through its conclusions, through an articulated consensus of the international community. One of the most astonishing lacunas in the philosophical section of Shouting Fire is the absence of even one mention, if the index and my reading are to be believed, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For while the UDHR did not set out to be a legally binding treaty (the State Department called it in 1948 "a hortatory statement of aspiration") and hence avoids the limits of positivism, it does reflect--imperfectly, to be sure, but as well as possible within the current limits of human endeavor--what St. Augustine called our "overlapping loves," our common measures of a decent world. To those who disagree with its vision of that world, we can offer much more than a shouting contest, much more than any one person's reading of history or any one nation's perception of its needs. We can offer the collective wisdom of the human community as hammered out, written down and, more and more frequently, enforced. And part of that wisdom is that torture is wrong. Everywhere. In all circumstances. With or without warrants.
Alan Dershowitz may not like that. And he is certainly entitled to go on arguing about it. He is a persuasive fellow and eventually he may even succeed in helping erode the international prohibitions on torture. That will be a sad day, no doubt, but how comforting it will be to know at that point that, thanks to the professor, the needles will be sterile.
When I was a teenager on my first trip to Paris, I remember looking out at the Parisians from the window of a taxi as we proceeded along some splendid boulevard and thinking, But do these people take themselves seriously, really? They're not Americans, after all. Sorry. It's true, though embarrassing. I felt sorry for them because they weren't us. I needed a reality check, which the French were only too happy to provide. They soon taught me how superior to us, and to me, they were in every way, especially intellectually and in matters of literature, fashion, proper cigarette inhalation and the application of maquillage.
Well, let that pass. Now Granta has published the greater part of an issue (Spring 2002) devoted to Their perceptions of Us, called "What We Think of America." Interestingly, the writer who is possibly the most violently anti-American in the collection, or who admits to the most violently anti-American feeling, is not French, or Arab, but Latin American. Ariel Dorfman, the US-born Chilean writer, tells about the time he watched an American toddler tumble into a swimming pool at a resort in the Andes and carefully measured what his own reaction might be--after all, the kid had been behaving badly (loud, blond, white, Anglophone, whining, stupid, spoiled, exploitive, rapacious, intervening, assassinating legitimate heads of state, financing coups, training torturers... oops... but really, you catch Dorfman's drift). In the end, though, he did dive in after the brat.
There is the gentler French person, badboy Benoît Duteurtre, author most recently of the novel Le Voyage en France, which won the 2001 Médici prize. Duteurtre criticizes Europe for proclaiming a high ground in human rights from which to criticize the Americans, as if, he says, to disguise from itself that it belongs to exactly the same world and is mired in identical contradictions. He makes fun of the way the French use the word Disneyland (pronounced Deez-nee-lahhhhnd) to refer to the entire American polity. President Jacques Chirac--that unsuccessful chameleon--comes in for a smacking, too. In Chirac's speech after September 11, Duteurtre writes, "I heard the inferiority complex of a Europe deprived of its role as world leader...but still quick to judge good and evil."
The effect of Granta's roundup is shockingly human: Here are no, or few, diatribes, and much affection--through tears--from Arab and Muslim contributors. A piece that perhaps explains well what led to September 11 (which I take to be the ostensible reason for Granta's package) is Pankaj Mishra's "Jihadis," a beautiful, brilliantly observed essay about Pakistan (by an Indian!) and its troubled identity, as well as about the US and Pakistani governments' growth and nurturing of the jihad movement. Gives you an idea, too, of the level of corruption that made the initially pure-minded Taliban attractive--at first.
This, to me, is the best issue of any magazine trying to explain September 11. There is also Ziauddin Sardar's "Mecca," both funny and instructive about the rituals of the hajj and of Saudi society in general. Don't forget to appreciate the photo essay on Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak: It captures the dust, the mud, the turbans, the mountains, as well as Northern Alliance soccer, burqa ladies buying their liberation pop-music cassettes and the eerie ruins of eternal Kabul, after the attacks.
Out on the Links
Sometimes, the problem with online magazines like The Black Commentator (www.blackcommentator.com) can be the links. For example, in the inaugural (April 2002) issue, there's a very persuasive piece on the much-discussed Cory Booker, running for mayor of Newark in the Democratic primary against the picaresque Sharpe James. Booker, another dang Rhodes scholar, seems to pride himself on adopting some of the meretricious conservative bent of Bill Clinton. The TBC piece attacks Booker for his support of school vouchers and goes on to map out in great detail the web of conservative groups that have supported the Booker movement in Newark--not a pretty picture. It argues that Booker is another pawn in the right's effort to develop African-American politicians it can work with and manipulate.
The piece has no byline. But at the end, it has a feature possibly more meaningful than a byline: "sources that contributed to this commentary," followed by a series of hyperlinks to information both pro- and anti-Booker. In his speech at the Manhattan Institute, you can hear--behind Booker's pro-voucher position--not only the clink of money and financial backing and the Evil White Rich Men Who Run The World but also the will of a black electorate with whom Booker, having lived in Newark's projects and spent month after month on a notorious never-cleaned-up corner in Newark's drug-dealing inner city, is not unfamiliar. The problem with TBC is its paranoid style: I'd like to see it address the question of why there seems to be a drift among African-American voters toward conservatism--something that doesn't just tell me the new black pols are being paid for it but that considers the electorate as well, considers Booker's supporters: what they think of people like Colin Powell or the improbably named Condoleezza Rice, or of Cory Booker, who's no idiot. Don't some black families hold these successful conservative types up as examples to their sons and daughters, or is that just too Cosbyfied?
Al-Ahram Weekly, a venerable English-language publication based in Cairo (www.ahram.org.eg/weekly), is another paper that for themoment is focusing on an oppressed people--in this case, the Palestinians. Al-Ahram is a useful corrective for my formerly peace-leaning Jewish friends who feel that the US media, especially the New York Times and CNN, are increasingly biased against Israel. It's a real source for uncovered news about what's happening in the territories, with much less of the myth-making and demonizing that characterize so much of the Palestinian stuff coming out of the West Bank over the Internet in these impossible times. Much less paranoia here but, still, a painful and useful reality check.
ENRONED OR NOT, HERE THEY COME
Rocky River, Ohio
I was unable to digest William Greider's "Enron Democrats" [April 8]. It's important to know about Dems who had Enron ties, but to consider them unacceptable as presidential candidates is nonsense. Any potential candidate will have liabilities, but comparison on issues is what's necessary. Progressive Democrats always manage to damage potential candidates who aren't "perfect," which makes a unified response to the right impossible. Let me introduce you to the real world. It's OK to feel guilty that these Democrats did not do the right thing, but shooting ourselves in the foot is not the way to relieve our guilt. It just might be the way to support the right wing.
William Greider is right on: We do have a problem of viable candidates in the Democratic Party. Here's a list of those I believe could get the job done, based on speaking ability and intact ethics: John Kerry, Russ Feingold, Mark Udall, Dennis Kucinich and Chaka Fattah. Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt may be qualified but won't get the votes, and our erstwhile ex-VP has taken far too much money from Enron to even be considered.
"Enron Democrats" explains why I left the Democratic Party in the early 1990s. As near as I can tell, the main difference between Democrats and Republicans in economic matters is that the Democrats feel sheepish about doing the bidding of big business while the Republicans consider it a virtue.
New York City
I enjoyed William Greider's article, including his mention of Terry McAuliffe's overlapping role at Global Crossing. The political intricacies of Global Crossing are astonishing, given its five-year history relative to Enron's seventeen-year one.
Global Crossing isn't simply the fourth-largest US telecommunications-industry bankruptcy; it leads the list of telecommunications bankruptcies of more than $60 billion filed just in the past year. This list includes ancient darlings like Exodus, Winstar, PSInet and 360 networks. It may grow to include Qwest and Worldcom as the SEC and Congressional investigations gain steam. It may also include XO and Metromedia, tottering under heavy debt. A major Democratic Party cause of this meltdown was Bill Clinton, who signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Republican Tom Bliley, chairman of the House energy and commerce committee at the time (and buddy of Leo Hindery, ex-CEO of Global Crossing) helped. Both lobbied the WTO to pass their 1998 telecommunications liberalization rules, which allowed the globalization of deregulated networks.
Global Crossing's Republican ties also include co-chairman Lodwrick Cook's $862,000 election gift for George Bush Senior's 1988 presidential campaign while he was CEO of ARCO, the seventh-largest oil company. Republican exDefense Secretary William Cohen sat on Global Crossing's board as he helped pass key defense initiatives enabling growth of its fiber optic networks. Global Crossing Development gave more than 62 percent of its $1.33 million political donations to the GOP. Gary Winnick and Cook are trustee and board member, respectively, of the George W. Bush Library foundation. Campaign finance reform may help untangle future corporate-government ties but will unfortunately not undo the myriad of past bipartisan damage.
THANK GOD I'M AN ATHEIST
Katha Pollitt was dead right in identifying and roundly criticizing the hypocrisy and immorality of contemporary religion, from Boston's Cardinal Law to violent fundamentalists of all stripes ["God Changes Everything," April 1]. The question, however, is what all this tells us about the nature of religion in general; and my hunch is that it tells us very little. A
lot of people use their religion to justify all sorts of horrible things; but a lot of people use their religion to justify all sorts of progressive, positive things.
"God changes everything" for Rabbis for Human Rights and for the West Bank settlers, for engaged Buddhists working for peace and ecology and for Buddhists who fight with Hindus in Sri Lanka, for courageous Christian peacemakers like the Mennonites and Sant'Egidio and for Osama bin Laden. The problem is not with religion; and the problem with religious violence and suppression is violence and suppression, not religion. I imagine Pollitt would be irritated if we talked about how "the secular changes everything" and by implication lumped Stalin with Eugene Debs, Margaret Thatcher with Robin Morgan, and Henry Kissinger with Ralph Nader. The secular IMF, World Bank and WTO can match the destructiveness of any crazed Islamic, Jewish or Christian fanatic. In our tortured time, religion has not cornered the market on sin, nor secular politics, on virtue.
ROGER S. GOTTLIEB
God and his/her/its adherents can be blamed for much human misery, but they've had lots of help from nonbelievers. There is Nicolae Ceausescu, Idi Amin, Jonas Savimbi, Slobodan Milosevic, Roberto D'Aubuisson, Gen. Rios Montt (a born-again Christian but not killing in God's name), not to mention Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, the rulers of Red China. And those are just a few of the twentieth-century butchers. None of these blood-stained "leaders" benefited their compatriots, nor was any god the inspiration for their murderous acts. Clearly, human beings don't need a deus ex machina to take the blame for their violence.
ROSA MARIA PEGUEROS
Too bad Andrea Yates wasn't a priest. Had she been, the Catholic Church would have moved her quietly to another town where she could have begun another family; she would have been assured a living wage and become a pillar of spiritual and moral leadership until the next time her psychosis overtook her. She would have had the backing of a powerful and moneyed patriarchal institution pressuring the community to suffer her crimes in silence. Instead, the delusional Mrs. Yates will pay dearly for killing her children in an attempt to save them from the devil, while those sane priests who harm children for pleasure will be flanking Cardinal Law at the bake sale to pay off their legal debts.
South Orange, N.J.
Every time I read Katha Pollitt I have one comment, and "God Changes Everything" was no exception: Amen.
In "The Politics of Ethics" [April 8], Randy Cohen levels two laughable and false charges against Reason magazine. First, he asserts that Reason is "right wing," lumping us in with the weekend Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator and National Review. That Reason is right wing is news to me. We have praised vulgar culture as liberatory, argued that illegal drugs can be used responsibly and should be legalized, and raised serious civil liberties concerns regarding the war on terrorism. We support gay marriage, open immigration, choice and human biotech--none of which was particularly popular on the right the last time I checked. To be sure, we're not left wing, either; authoritarianism, wearing a Che beret or a bishop's miter, leaves us as cold as Lenin's corpse. But I'd expect a professional ethicist to understand that American politics is not simply the bipolar, manic-depressive spectacle it often seems to be.
Second, Cohen mischaracterizes Reason's critique of his column. "There was something particularly vituperative about these screeds," writes Cohen of his detractors en masse, also referring to "the virulence of these attacks." Make no mistake: In 1999 Reason panned his "Ethicist" column as trivial, but the critique is made in measured tones, with ample evidence. Unless Cohen believes that to criticize him is inherently virulent and vituperative--alas, a position held by windbags irrespective of ideology--I'd say he's mistaken. In fact, I'm tempted to say he's willfully mistaken. The alternative is that he's simply delusional. (Nation readers can judge for themselves by reading the Reason column at http://reason.com/9912/co.jl.the.shtml.)
editor in chief, Reason
New York City
It seems to me that the only people absorbed by the precise taxonomy of Reason are its editors and its readers, assuming it has readers. What insensitive American was it who, when asked what his countrymen think of Canada, replied: "Well, er, we don't"?
'CITY OF THE WESTERN WORLD'
Like Jonathan Schell ["Letter From Ground Zero," April 1], I too was born, raised, live in and love New York City and am worried about the destruction of this incredible place and its people. But he offers no prescription for having the iconic city of the Western world de-targeted by terrorists. Instead he frets about the Nuclear Posture Review, which will "inspire those targeted to do likewise to us."
Aren't we already targets of these nations, as they finance and supply terrorists? The difference between a fuel-laden plane crashing into a skyscraper and a nuclear weapon detonating in a shipping container is one of the magnitude of destruction; it is not a question of motive or intent. The intent to destroy us is already present, as it was in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and in every attack before and since.
Leo Szilard was right; nuclear weapons will eventually be available to all. During the cold war, the Soviet Union had a lot to lose in a nuclear exchange, just as we did--the primary reason a nuclear war never occurred. But the ghettos of the Middle East, Africa and every other poor place on earth produce people who feel they have nothing to lose. The terrorists and some of their state sponsors are not interested in our world. They don't just want to be left alone or to get along, they want us gone. We face nihilistic, theologically extreme enemies. No amount of negotiation will yield the results they seek, so we will not be de-targeted.
The prescription must have three components: a strong defense, a renewed commitment to nonproliferation and a long-term commitment to lifting the poor out of their misery. A strong defense requires us to signal potential enemies that they will lose everything, including their states and lives, if they are governments supporting terrorism (the reason the Nuclear Posture Review was leaked), and we must capture or kill terrorists. Nonproliferation must be pursued not because it is effective but because it is right. And while not generally effective, the treaties and negotiations surrounding nonproliferation may be useful tools. A long-term commitment to lift the poor out of their misery will require us to change the way we interact with the world, and it will require the rise of local leaders who have the best interests of their people in mind, another factor we must gently nurture.