John Nichols explains why the White House is hunting Paul Wellstone, Amitav Ghosh considers Imperial Temptation and Stuart Klawans looks at Spider-Man the movie.
LE PEN IN FRANCE...
Far-right populist Jean-Marie Le Pen's upset in the first round of French presidential voting was variously ascribed to rising xenophobia in Western Europe, a crisis of the French left, rising crime rates in France and other possibilities. Doug Ireland, in "Le Pen: The Center Folds" [May 13], subscribes to all three. Yet the evidence doesn't necessarily corroborate these explanations. Instead, what we saw was a major breakdown of France's two-round runoff method of electing the president.
A full 64 percent of voters supported candidates other than the two who advanced to the runoff. Many left voters, looking to send a message of dissatisfaction to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round, split their support among seven candidates. Together, left-leaning candidates, led by Jospin, garnered more than 40 percent of the vote--and divided, none polled enough votes to make the runoff. Le Pen, with 17 percent of the vote--a mere 250,000-vote increase, virtually the same popular vote he won in his other failed presidential runs--benefited from this vote-splitting.
Jospin learned what Al Gore knows all too well: In a plurality electoral system, spoiler candidates and split votes can plague the results. France's use of instant runoff voting rather than a two-round runoff would have prevented its electoral meltdown. With IRV, left voters could have sent a message to Jospin by awarding their highest rankings to other candidates but would have had the option of ranking Jospin as one of their runoff choices. During the ballot counting their votes would have coalesced around Jospin as their front-runner, who would have made it to the instant runoff over the marginalized Le Pen, who has very little runoff support from any other parties or candidates.
Yes, electoral systems do matter--sometimes dramatically. Just ask Al Gore.
Center for Voting and Democracy
New York City
I've long favored instant runoff voting, but Hill's suggestion that there has been no marked increase in French racism and its political expression is shockingly ostrichlike. Hill's facts are wrong: The parties of Jospin's governing coalition--Parti socialiste, Parti communiste, les Verts and Mouvement de radicaux de gauche--together polled only a little more than 26 percent. Hill's claim that the 10.5 percent won by three anti-Jospin Trotskyists and the 5.5 percent won by the Pôle republicain (which asserted that there was no real difference between Jospin and Chirac) should be included in the score of the left "led" by Jospin could only be made by someone ignorant about French politics. Le Pen got nearly 1 million votes more than he did in '95 (while the governing parties of left and right together lost some 5.5 million votes, as I pointed out).
Hill may not think that's a significant increase, but the French obviously did--daily demos poured more than 500,000 of them into the streets after Le Pen's victory to oppose his racist program, which includes setting up special "camps" for immigrants and special trains to deport them; and nearly all major parties, unions, media, sports stars, the patronat (MEDEF) and even the Catholic Episcopate called for an anti-Le Pen vote in the runoff.
Those who, in their obsession with process, exclude the content of politics from their considerations do so at our peril. The increasing demand in France for replacing the Gaullist constitution of the Fifth Republic does nothing to address the root causes of mounting racism while allowing politicians to pretend to have responded to the electoral evidence of France's racial fracture. And the most visible expression of this demand--the Committee for a Sixth Republic (C6R) led by Socialist deputy Arnaud de Montebourg--sadly does not include IRV in its proposals.
...AND CHÁVEZ IN VENEZUELA
In "The Coup That Wasn't" [May 6] Marc Cooper contrasts Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez with former Chilean President Salvador Allende, saying, "Chávez has failed to produce much of the radical change he promised." Cooper needs a wake-up call. This is 2002, a time when the constraints on economic policy in Latin America are greater than ever. Never has capital been more mobile and more capable of disciplining governments that attempt to embark upon radical change. If Allende were governing Chile today, he'd recognize the constraints and think twice about nationalizing one industry after another, as he did in the early 1970s.
Considering the constraints the Chávez government has had to operate under, it has achieved some notable reforms. In a recent interview with Le Monde Diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet, Chávez lays out some of his government's achievements: "We have lowered unemployment...created more than 450,000 new jobs.... Venezuela has moved up four places on the Human Development Index. The number of children in school has risen 25 percent. More than 1.5 million children who didn't go to school are now in school, and they receive clothing, breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks. We have carried out massive immunization campaigns in the marginalized sectors of the population. Infant mortality has declined. We are building more than 135,000 housing units for poor families. We are distributing land to landless campesinos. We have created a Women's Bank that provides micro-credit loans. In the year 2001, Venezuela was one of the countries with the highest growth rates on the continent, nearly 3 percent.... We are delivering the country from prostration and backwardness."
Cooper makes no mention of this, nor does he say anything about the hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans who descended upon Caracas in defense of their temporarily ousted president. Most scandalous is Cooper's repetition of the coup plotters' version of events, as he claims that Chávez "turned police and armed supporters against peaceful protesters...provoking a shootout that injured scores and killed more than a dozen." Cooper never points out that this version of events is highly contested. Several witnesses to the bloodshed, including former Fulbright scholar Greg Wilpert and Kim Bartley, an Irish filmmaker, contend that unidentified snipers initiated the carnage, shooting into crowds of pro-Chávez demonstrators that had surrounded the Presidential Palace.
Repeating the coup plotters' version of events and invoking Salvador Allende's good name are shameful.
It has been claimed that Latin American governments opposed the coup in Venezuela. This is not accurate. Some governments denounced the coup (Argentina, Brazil), but other countries welcomed it (Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, among others). The OAS did not call for a return of the Chávez government; instead it called for the holding of elections as soon as possible, a de facto recognition of the coup.
In fact, it was part of the coup plan to use the OAS as a way of legitimizing itself. In fact, the coup government invited the OAS head, Cesar Gaviria (from Colombia), to go to Venezuela to help with the "transition to institutionality." The OAS, however, was overtaken by events. The coup lost power, and by the time Gaviria arrived in Caracas, Chávez was back in power.
So we should not be fooled. The OAS was going to be used by Washington and the coup plotters. The "defense" of constitutionality by the OAS took place after Chávez was returned to the presidency.
Woodland Hills, Calif.
The global economic constraints described by Justin Delacour are indeed real. And if, as he suggests, Allende would today have to think twice about nationalizing foreign firms, then how can he defend Chávez's record? Instead of enacting authentic reform, Chávez chose the posture of a loud-mouth demagogue, only narrowing his parameters by rattling the cages of his very powerful adversaries. His playing pattycake with Saddam and Qaddafi and hide-and-seek with the ignoble Colombia guerrillas pissed off Uncle Sam and elicited laudatory editorials from Havana's Granma--and it put food on the table for exactly nobody and created jobs and housing for just as few.
Chávez might as well have nationalized the entire Venezuelan economy, for nothing could have further alienated his domestic financial and investment elites than his hypercharged revolutionary, but hollow, bluster. Yet Chávez imposed the same budget-slashing austerity of any neoliberal IMF adjustment program. Indeed, the only statistics I need to rebut Chávez's self-congratulatory list of accomplishments quoted by Delacour are the myriad pre-coup polls showing the Venezuelan president's popularity plummeting to around 30 percent. It seems the Venezuelan poor don't read Ignacio Ramonet and are ignorant of their impressively improving status.
As to who shot whom on the day of the botched coup: Wilpert, Delacour's star witness, has written in online accounts that armed Chávez supporters were involved in the bloodshed that took more than a dozen lives. Chávez has as much as admitted the same. That other forces may have been involved in the firefights--unnamed rooftop (or were they grassy knoll?) snipers, uniformed police acting on behalf of the opposition, sectarian squads, etc.--is still unclear. What is certain is that armed bands of Chávez supporters were present at an otherwise peaceful rally and were directly involved in the lethal mayhem. In an authentic civilian democracy, the president of the republic does not tolerate armed gangs, even of his own supporters. And they certainly don't show up, ready for action, at opposition rallies. In short, your enemy's enemy should not always be considered your friend. It's possible for both the US government and the Chávez administration to have similar if not equal disdain for democratic rule.
Professor Nelson Valdes is an always astute observer of Latin American affairs, but on this issue he's a tad off the mark. I fully share his suspicion as to the depth of democratic commitment to be found among OAS members. That said, during the thirty-hour period that President Chávez was displaced by Pedro Carmona, virtually no Latin American government recognized the latter's administration. This continental balk was hardly a dramatic rupture with Washington. But the gesture certainly contributed to the vacuum that eventually sucked the usurpers from power.
BRAVE'S NEW WORLD
Ralph Brave scores points off Francis Fukuyama by ridiculing the concept of human nature Fukuyama attempts to defend in his brief against genetic engineering and the "posthuman future" ["The Body Shop," April 22]. It's true that as part of an effort by some social conservatives to derail the uses of cloning and related biotechnologies to fabricate designer human embryos, Fukuyama falls into genetic determinism and other varieties of essentialism to characterize what he would like to preserve. But does the fact that human nature is changeable mean, therefore, that the production of humans should be handed over to commercial interests? Draw the line wherever you want and the technological-medical imperative will eventually roll over it. If you don't mind someone making stem cells from twelve-day clonal embryos, how about better stem cells from two-month clonal fetuses, transplantable livers from six-month clones, or bone marrow from clonal newborns engineered never to develop brains? If you don't mind parents genetically engineering their offspring so as to not develop hemophilia, how about to not be less than average height, to have perfect pitch, greater upper body strength?
Brave seems to think technology is, uncomplicatedly, something "we" produce to satisfy "our" needs. Thus the automobile industry has always just given us the vehicles we demanded, the fuel industry just wants to keep us mobile and comfortable indoors and the processed food companies just want to feed us. As we sit in traffic jams contemplating the climatological and health costs of such technological advances, we might also think about the consequences of adopting Brave's laissez-faire prescription for biotechnology, which looks as strange in the pages of The Nation as Fukuyama's technological skepticism does coming from the author of The End of History.
STUART A. NEWMAN
I used to feel heartened when Stuart Newman stepped forward as a scientist expressing concerns about genetic technologies. But his blatant misreading of my review now worries me. Nowhere do I advocate a "laissez-faire prescription for biotechnology," or that "production of humans should be handed over to commercial interests" or "clonal newborns engineered never to develop brains." Although Newman says it is impossible to "draw the line" to prevent unethical biomedical practices, it is done every day. Otherwise even Newman's own research into the cellular and molecular mechanisms of vertebrate limb development would be suspect.
On the serious issue of clonal embryos for stem cell research, the potential ability to create genetically matched tissues or organs to treat disease and injury is no small matter. The current need of transplant patients to use antirejection drugs for their entire lives, drugs that suppress the immune system, making them unable to defend against infection or cancer, is a treatment compromise that needs remedy. Criminalizing both the research to address this and the resulting therapies themselves, as Newman, Fukuyama and George W. Bush advocate, is what I would label "strange."
ALLAH GOD'S CHILDREN
Christopher Hitchens reminds us that of the three religions of Abraham--Islam, Christianity and Judaism--Islam is the only one that admits the legitimacy of the other two ["Minority Report," April 15]. A further reminder: The reason Jews have been able to pray at the Wailing Wall for nearly 500 years is that Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Successor to the Prophet, Commander of the Faithful, Shadow of God upon Earth, ordered his chief architect to construct a porch for them to pay their duty to God at the most visible surviving portion of their ancient temple.
Christopher Hitchens, admired for his analysis of modern-day events, should be a bit more careful in his examination of earlier ones. The enlightened paradise of Muslim Spain may have indeed been dealt its death blow by Ferdinand and Isabella, but its much-vaunted tolerance ended many years before, in the twelfth century, when power was seized by the Almohads, a fanatical Islamic sect from Morocco, which does bear comparison to the Taliban. They waged a campaign of terror on all Christians and Jews, especially those with political power. Many Jews fled to the more tolerant Christian Spanish kingdoms to the north, while others fled to more tolerant Islamic kingdoms. Among those who fled southward was the powerful family of Maimonides, which hailed from Córdoba but could suffer the brutal regime no longer. So it is a bit disingenuous of Hitchens to hold Maimonides up as a symbol of Muslim tolerance. Even in its best periods, Islamic history is no less checkered than our own.
Since September 11, George W. Bush's political team and their Republican allies have used every trick to exploit the tragedy for political advantage.
An odd thing has happened in the obscure but spirited fight activists
are waging against NAFTA's notorious Chapter 11 and the exclusive legal
privileges it gives to multinational investors. The Chapter 11
opposition is going mainstream and respectable. Not so long ago, the
only folks raising the alarm were globalization critics like Public
Citizen's Global Trade Watch or the Sierra Club--people the Wall
Street Journal likes to describe as "Luddite wackos." But what will
the Journal's editorial writers say about the National
Association of Attorneys General? Or the National League of Cities, the
US Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of State
Legislatures? These organizations and some others have studied what the
critics say about Chapter 11's true meaning and concluded, Good grief,
they're right! This so-called "investor protection" poses a fundamental
threat to state and local governments' ability to enact laws that
protect the public's health and general welfare.
The issue is currently in play again because the Bush Administration
(and all right-thinking free-trade cheerleaders) is pushing to expand
the same doctrine in the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and
asking Congress for blank-check authority to negotiate (better known as
"fast track"). But this time Congressional skepticism is alive and
growing, stoked partly by the prestigious, bipartisan expressions of
concern. Chapter 11 was a sleeper provision in NAFTA that essentially
established a private court for capital--secretive arbitration tribunals
where corporations can bring suits for huge damage claims against the
United States, Canada or Mexico over new regulatory laws or other
actions that may crimp their profit-making. Chapter 11 borrows
property-rights language from the US right wing's domestic "takings"
movement and goes far beyond settled US legal doctrine [see Greider,
"How the Right Is Using Trade Law to Overturn American Democracy,"
October 15, 2001]. That is what alarms the state and local officials.
The Conference of Chief Justices from state Supreme Courts is also
expected to weigh in on the sovereignty issue.
Senator John Kerry is leading the fight for a corrective fast-track
amendment that would instruct the Administration not to negotiate any
new agreement that gives foreign investors greater rights than US
citizens. As a possible presidential candidate, Kerry has a big
problem--he has been an unblinking supporter of trade agreements, so he
has to show environmentalists and labor that he's not totally owned by
the multinationals. If his measure prevails, fast track must go back to
the House, where it was passed by only one vote in December. The
legislative action in any case educates and builds momentum for the
longer fight against these investor-dictated rules stealthily imposed by
so-called free-trade agreements.
The trouble with Kerry's amendment--and with fast-track authority in
general--is that these legislative instructions are really no more than
limp-wristed guidance. The negotiators can ignore Congress, as they have
in the past, and probably get away with it. A pending amendment with
much more bite, first proposed by Charles Rangel and Sander Levin in the
House, would create a mechanism for genuine Congressional leverage over
trade negotiations: the right of either chamber to force a vote on
withdrawing fast-track approval if the negotiators are straying from
their instructions. That would begin to bring daylight and
accountability to the murky politics of globalization. It would also
restore responsibility to where the Constitution says it belongs--in
Congress, not the White House.
The idea of empire, once so effectively used by Ronald Reagan to
discredit the Soviet Union, has recently undergone a strange
rehabilitation in the United States. This process, which started some
years ago, has accelerated markedly since September 11. References to
empire are no longer deployed ironically or in a tone of warning; the
idea has become respectable enough that the New York Times ran an
article describing the enthusiasm it now evokes in certain circles. It
is of some significance that these circles are not easily identified as
being located either on the right or the left. If there are some on the
right who celebrate the projection of US power, there are others on the
left who believe that the world can only benefit from an ever-increasing
US engagement and intervention abroad; for example, in ethnic and
religious conflicts (such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia), or in states
run by despotic regimes or "rogue" leaders (e.g., Iraq). It is on
grounds like these that the idea of a new imperialism has recently been
embraced by Britain's Labour Party.
That elements of the left and the right should discover common ground on
the matter of empire should come as no surprise. Contrary to popular
belief, empire is by no means a strictly conservative project:
Historically it has always held just as much appeal for liberals.
Conversely, the single greatest critic of the British Empire, Edmund
Burke, was an archconservative who saw imperialism as an essentially
radical project, not unlike that of the French Revolution.
The idea of empire may seem too antiquated to be worth combating. But it
is always the ideas that appeal to both ends of the spectrum that stand
the best chance of precipitating an unspoken consensus, especially when
they bear the imprimatur of such figures as the British prime minister.
That is why this may be a good time to remind ourselves of some of the
reasons imperialism fell into discredit in the first place.
To begin with, empire cannot be the object of universal human
aspirations. In a world run by empires, some people are rulers and some
are the ruled: It is impossible to think of a situation where all
peoples possess an empire. On the other hand, the idea of the
nation-state, for all its failings, holds the great advantage that it
can indeed be generalized to all peoples everywhere. The proposition
that every human being should belong to a nation and that all nations
should be equal is not a contradiction in terms, although it may well be
utterly unfounded as a description of the real world.
It is precisely the exclusivism of empire that makes it a program for
ever-increasing conflict. If the mark of success for a nation consists
of the possession of an empire, then it follows that every nation that
wants to achieve success must aspire to an empire. That is why the
twentieth century was a period of such cataclysmic conflict: emergent
powers like Germany and Japan wanted empires as proof of their success.
Those who embrace the idea of empire frequently cite the advantages of
an imperial peace over the disorder of the current world situation. This
disregards the fact that the peace of the British, French and
Austro-Hungarian empires was purchased at the cost of a destabiliza-tion
so radical as to generate the two greatest conflicts in human history:
the world wars. Because of the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, there can be no doubt that a twenty-first-century empire
would have consequences graver still.
An imperium also generates an unstoppable push toward overreach, which
is one of the reasons it is a charter for destabilization. This is not
only because of an empire's inherent tendency to expand; there is
another reason, so simple as often to go unnoticed. The knowledge that
an imperial center can be induced to intervene in local disputes, at a
certain price, is itself an incentive for lesser players to provoke
intervention. I remember an occasion a few years ago when one of the
leaders of a minor and utterly hopeless insurgency asked me: What kind
of death toll do you think we need to get the United States to intervene
There can be no doubt that political catastrophes can often be prevented
by multilateral intervention, and clearly such actions are sometimes
necessary. But it is also true that in certain circumstances the very
prospect of intervention can, as it were, become an incentive for the
escalation of violence. The reason the idea of empire appeals to many
liberals is that it appears to offer a means of bettering the world's
predicament. History shows us, unfortunately, that the road to empire is
all too often paved with good intentions.
The second round of France's presidential elections was billed as
"l'escroc" (the crook) versus "le facho" (the fascist). In
the event, incumbent President Jacques Chirac got the kind of majority
usually associated with the heads of one-party states. "As always in
times of difficulty, France rallied around what is essential," said the
man even many of his supporters dubbed "the Superliar" as he claimed his
It was precisely the history of France's response in "times of
difficulty" that led Europe to hold its collective breath on May 5. Like
his reference to the Holocaust as "une détaille" and his
proposal that illegal immigrants be held in "transit camps," Jean-Marie
Le Pen's claim to be "socially left, economically right, and nationally
French" was a deliberate echo of the fascist past--in this case the
pre-war fascist slogan "Neither left nor right--French!" The evident
relief in the faces of the African and North African immigrants on the
streets of Paris as the scale of Le Pen's defeat became apparent was a
reminder of just how high the stakes had been. But Le Pen polled nearly
6 million votes--300,000 more than the total for both far-right parties
in the first round--despite being condemned by a pantheon of national
heroes, from Charles Aznavour to Zinedine Zidane.
Not exactly cause for celebration. Instead, some sobering reflections.
First, that history matters. A great deal of attention has been paid to
Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-European Union rhetoric. Other far-right
parties, singing from the same hymnal, have made recent gains all across
Europe. But Le Pen also can claim the mantle of a tradition with very
deep roots in French soil, embracing the clerical absolutism of
Action française, the anti-Semitism of Vichy collaborators
like Robert Brasillach and the provincial bitterness of Pierre Poujade.
(Perhaps the oddest moment in the whole campaign was when Le Pen, who
got his start in politics in Poujade's 1956 shopkeepers' revolt, found
himself disowned by his former mentor.) France is not the only country
where nostalgia for fascism has crawled out from under its stone. The
right wing of Silvio Berlusconi's government in Italy carries a torch
for Mussolini; the leader of the British National Party, which won three
seats in local elections recently, decorates his office with German
flags. Pim Fortuyn's assassination on May 6 has left the Dutch far right
leaderless--but may also have furnished the movement's first martyr.
Second, that it isn't just "the economy, stupid." Prosperity didn't save
Lionel Jospin any more than it did Al Gore. To a labor force
increasingly threatened by globalization, Jospin's approach may have
seemed less dirigiste than laissez-faire, but his positions on
workers' rights were still rooted in social democracy. Yet working-class
voters preferred Le Pen to Jospin. The true balance of forces won't be
known until the parliamentary elections in June. Mainstream
conservatives have already agreed to run as a coalition, the Union for a
Presidential Majority. A chastened left has also promised to unite, but
the Socialists have been decapitated, the Communists polled just over 3
percent in April and the Trotskyists are, as usual, split. If the
National Front vote holds at May 5 levels, the far right could become
the main opposition party in the next French Parliament.
For the left outside France, the lasting aftershock of these elections
is the re-emergence of identity as a political problem. For more
than two decades periodicals on the left (including this one) have been
deriding "identity politics" as a suicidal strategy blamed both for the
left's demise after the1960s and for its failure to capture blue-collar
workers supposedly alienated by excessive attention to the concerns of
women and minorities. Instead, we have been urged to limit ourselves to
the language of economic self- (or class) interest. As the pundits who
dismissed Le Pen never tired of pointing out, he barely had an economic
program worthy of the name. Challenged on television to explain his plan
to abolish income tax, he answered that he had other people to do the
figures for him. What he did offer voters was a sense of
identity--crude, nationalistic and defensive, but for many the only
apparent alternative to a mainstream politics offering little more than
the local management of global capitalism. The left may have progressed
beyond such appeals, but if Le Pen is any indication, a right-wing
politics of identity is still very much alive and dangerous.
The recently announced plans for an international conference on the
Middle East confront the Bush Administration with a major test of its
capacity for international leadership. The question is whether it will
establish an agenda for the conference that will bring peace and justice
to the region or whether it will allow American and world policy again
to be dictated by Ariel Sharon's government. The atrocious suicide
bombing near Tel Aviv, which coincided with the Bush-Sharon meeting,
must not be allowed to derail international efforts to achieve a
political settlement--one that guarantees a viable Palestinian state,
which will give Palestinians a stake in peace and in the renunciation of
Given this Administration's track record, the prospects of its standing
up to Sharon are not encouraging. Recall the shameful way it allowed him
to ignore UN resolutions calling for withdrawal from the West Bank and
to stop a fact-finding mission to investigate the destruction of Jenin,
despite a Human Rights Watch report adducing evidence that the Israeli
forces had committed war crimes--using Palestinians as human shields and
wreaking disproportionate destruction on civilian habitations.
Adding to the congenital White House tilt were the one-sided House and
Senate resolutions of support for Israel adopted on the eve of Sharon's
arrival in Washington. The one in the House, steered through by whip Tom
DeLay, echoed the Sharon line that Yasir Arafat isn't a "viable partner
for peace." An idea of where DeLay is coming from was provided by his
soulmate, GOP majority leader Dick Armey, who told Hardball host
Chris Matthews that the Palestinians should be expelled from the West
Bank and Gaza. The endorsement of ethnic cleansing by leading
conservatives went almost unnoticed by the mainstream media. As Peter
DeFazio, one of fifty House members who opposed the resolution, said,
DeLay put Congress on record "somewhere to the right of the Likud."
In fact, all of Washington is caught in the iron grip of pro-Likud
sentiment, which prevents the United States from acting in the world's
interest, let alone its own. As Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment
recently put it, "To call this a case of the tail wagging the dog would
be inadequate--it is more a case of the tail dragging the dog around the
room and banging its head on the wall."
That is why an international conference is so crucial. The concept
recognizes the importance of inserting other critical players in the
international community into Middle East diplomacy. The purpose of the
conference should not be to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It
should be to win adherence to a US-European-Russian-UN plan for the
implementation of a settlement as provided for in UN Security Council
resolutions and by the recent Arab League resolution calling for the
recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the occupied
This plan is one that nearly all sane people have come to recognize as
the basis for peace in the Middle East: two states living side by side;
dismantlement of the Israeli settlements; Palestinian sovereignty over
East Jerusalem; and recognition of the right of return of Palestinian
refugees while limiting their numbers. But it is one the parties
themselves have not been able to agree to, and in the current
circumstances cannot be expected to negotiate seriously.
A reasonable interim stage could involve placing the occupied
territories, including Israeli settlements, under international control
pending the establishment of a Palestinian state and stationing
international forces drawn largely from NATO countries to maintain order
and security during the transition. The purpose of this agenda would be
to take the peace process out of the hands of an Israeli government that
may not want peace and to internationalize responsibility for security
in the West Bank and Gaza. It is not Israel's prerogative to determine
whether a Palestinian state should exist; that is a matter for the
international community to decide. Only the international community--in
particular, the US in cooperation with the EU, Russia and the UN--can
forge a settlement that will bring peace at last to both Palestinians
On April 11, 2002, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was ousted in an ill-fated coup attempt. On April 14 he returned in triumph to the presidential palace. What to call the interregnum?
Army Secretary Thomas White appears to be inching closer to becoming the
first Bush Administration casualty of the Enron scandal. Senators Dianne
Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California have asked Attorney General
John Ashcroft to launch a criminal probe into Enron's role in
manipulating California's electricity market, after Enron memos released
by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission showed how Enron boosted
electricity prices in California and created shortages.
People close to Feinstein and California Congressman Henry Waxman said
the lawmakers will ask Ashcroft to direct that the criminal
investigation include White and whether the unit he helped lead, Enron
Energy Services, played a part in California's two-year energy crisis.
"We believe we have evidence, based on our conversations with former
Enron employees, that Mr. White and other executives from Enron Energy
Services may have worked side by side with Enron's traders and supplied
inside information about the amount of electricity California needed,"
an aide to Feinstein said. "We believe, based on this information, that
the traders were then able to create shortages and manipulate the price
of power in the state."
Neither a spokesman for White nor for Enron returned calls for comment.
Enron is already under investigation by California Attorney General Bill
Lockyer for allegedly manipulating the price of electricity and natural
gas. White is being investigated by the FBI on the timing of his sale of
Enron stock last year and by the Inspector General's office on his use
in March of a government airplane to fly to Aspen to sign papers on the
sale of a $6.5 million house he owned, prompted by Enron-related
financial problems. Separately, he engaged in a dispute with Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the Crusader weapons system; Rumsfeld
continued to express support for him.
Former employees of EES have come forward saying that the retail unit,
under White's leadership, played a role in California's power crisis and
that White told his staff that EES would earn millions in profits
because of the crisis. In addition, former employees are coming forward
with information about White that indicates that his involvement with
Enron's suspect accounting was far deeper that he has let on. White has
said that EES was a legitimate operation and not a house of illusory
John Olson, an analyst now with Sanders Morris Harris, recalls asking
White in 1999 how EES, a relatively small operation, could show millions
of dollars in profit with barely a shred of business. "I did not believe
Mr. White, nor any of the other Enron executives I spoke with, were
being honest or forthcoming about EES's profits," Olson said. "When I
pressed Mr. White for an answer he said, 'One word: California.'"
White told EES's sales team in 1998 that they could earn hefty bonuses
by signing energy contracts with large businesses in California to
manage their electricity needs for a substantially cheaper price than
these companies had been paying through their local utilities. But
promising customers a discount at the beginning of the contracts meant
EES wasn't earning enough money to cover what the local utilities were
charging for gas and electricity. Moreover, EES was spending much more
than anticipated setting up the infrastructure for the contracts, said
Lee Jestings, a former EES executive who worked directly with White.
Jestings said he told White that EES would actually lose money this way,
but White said Enron would make up the difference by selling electricity
on the spot market in California, which Enron had bet would skyrocket in
2000. Jestings said he continued to complain to White that the profits
declared by the retail unit were not real. "Tom told me those are the
orders," Jestings said. "He said he never questions a direct order. This
man spent thirty years in the Army and was a four-star general. His life
was based on taking orders." Jestings said he resigned from EES in 2000
because he did not agree with the way EES reported profits. He is now
working as an energy consultant.
The ex-employees, more than a dozen interviewed, said White often
clashed with Lou Pai, chairman of EES, over the company's use of
"aggressive" accounting methods to make the unit appear profitable when
it wasn't but that ultimately White agreed that EES would have to use
such methods because the unit was hemorrhaging cash right from the
start. Steve Barth, a former EES vice president of special projects who
attended meetings with White and Pai, said White's job was that of
cheerleader--he was supposed to motivate the EES sales force to show, by
any means necessary, that the retail unit made a profit. "That meant
lying to Wall Street," Barth said. "White did it, and so did I." Barth,
who transferred from EES to Enron's broadband unit in 1999 and left last
July to start a broadband firm, said his experience at the company had
Enron reported that EES, founded in 1997, became profitable during the
fourth quarter of 1999 and had steadily rising profits every quarter
thereafter. Those reports helped send Enron's stock price to $83 by the
end of 2000, from $43 at the beginning of the year. As part of his
employment contract with Enron, White was given a small financial stake
in EES, later converted into Enron stock, which he sold for more than
Eventually, with Enron becoming a target of California lawmakers, White
may have decided it was time to get out. In early 2001, according to
Barth, when then-Enron chairman Kenneth Lay was under consideration to
be Energy Secretary, Lay met with George W. Bush and urged him to
appoint White as Secretary of the Army. Barth said White told him that
the California energy crisis was hurting EES and that the unit's profits
would never materialize. White "just wasn't happy with his role at the
company anymore," Barth said.
Now that the Enron culprits have been caught red-handed, might not the media inquire of the President whether he takes any responsibility for nearly bankrupting California by refusing to come to
In Paris it began to look
Like Jacques Chirac was just a crook,
But voters voted for him when
He ran against Le Pen again.
Though graft is certainly a curse,
They figured there are things far worse.
As chairman of the fifty-nine-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and
potential candidate for the Democratic
presidential nomination, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich has been quite
visible lately. At a time when few Democrats are daring to question the
war aims of the Bush Administration--or even to ask what they
are--Kucinich has spoken eloquently against the Patriot Act, the ongoing
military buildup and the vague and apparently horizonless "war on
terrorism." From tax cuts for the rich and the death penalty (against)
to national health insurance and the environment (for), Kucinich has the
right liberal positions. Michael Moore, who likes to rib progressives
for favoring white wine and brie over hot dogs and beer, would surely
approve of Kucinich's man-of-the-people persona--he's actually a New
Age-ish vegan, but his website has a page devoted to "Polka, Bowling and
One thing you won't find on Kucinich's website, though, is any mention
of his opposition to abortion rights. In his two terms in Congress, he
has quietly amassed an anti-choice voting record of Henry Hyde-like
proportions. He supported Bush's reinstatement of the gag rule for
recipients of US family planning funds abroad. He supported the Child
Custody Protection Act, which prohibits anyone but a parent from taking
a teenage girl across state lines for an abortion. He voted for the
Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a crime, distinct from
assault on a pregnant woman, to cause the injury or death of a fetus. He
voted against funding research on RU-486. He voted for a ban on dilation
and extraction (so-called partial-birth) abortions without a maternal
health exception. He even voted against contraception coverage in health
insurance plans for federal workers--a huge work force of some 2.6
million people (and yes, for many of them, Viagra is covered).
Where reasonable constitutional objections could be raised--the lack of
a health exception in partial-birth bans clearly violates Roe v.
Wade, as the Supreme Court ruled in Stenberg v.
Carhart--Kucinich did not raise them; where competing principles
could be invoked--freedom of speech for foreign health organizations--he
did not bring them up. He was a co-sponsor of the House bill outlawing
all forms of human cloning, even for research purposes, and he opposes
embryonic stem cell research. His anti-choice dedication has earned him
a 95 percent position rating from the National Right to Life Committee,
versus 10 percent from Planned Parenthood and 0 percent from NARAL.
When I spoke with Kucinich by phone, he seemed to be looking for a way
to put some space between himself and his record. "I believe life begins
at conception"--Kucinich was raised as a Catholic--"and that it doesn't
end at birth." He said he favored neither a Human Life Amendment that
would constitutionally protect "life" from the moment of conception, nor
the overturning of Roe v. Wade (when asked by Planned Parenthood
in 1996 whether he supported the substance of Roe, however, he
told them he did not). He spoke of his wish to see abortion made rare by
providing women with more social supports and better healthcare, by
requiring more responsibility from men and so on. He presented his votes
as votes not against abortion per se but against federal funding of the
procedure. Unfortunately, his record does not easily lend itself to this
reading: He voted specifically against allowing Washington, DC, to fund
abortions for poor women with nonfederal dollars and against
permitting female soldiers and military dependents to have an abortion
in overseas military facilities even if they paid for it themselves.
Similarly, although Kucinich told me he was not in favor of
"criminalizing" abortion, he voted for a partial-birth-abortion ban that
included fines and up to two years in jail for doctors who performed
them, except to save the woman's life. What's that, if not
"I haven't been a leader on this," Kucinich said. "These are issues I
would not have chosen to bring up." But if he plans to run for
President, Kucinich will have to change his stance, and prove it, or
kiss the votes of pro-choice women and men goodbye. It won't be enough
to present himself as low profile or, worse, focused elsewhere (he voted
to take away abortion rights inadvertently? in a fog? thinking about
something more "important" than whether women should be forced to give
birth against their will?). "I can't tell you I don't have anything to
learn," Kucinich told me. OK, but shouldn't he have started his
education before he cast a vote barring funds for abortions for
women in prison? (When I told him the inhumanity of this particular vote
made me feel like throwing up--you're not only in jail, you have to have
a baby too?--he interjected, "but there's a rape exception!") Kucinich
says he wants to "create a dialogue" and "build bridges" between
pro-choicers and anti-choicers, but how can he "heal divisions" when
he's so far on one side? The funding issue must also be squarely faced:
As a progressive, Kucinich has to understand that denying abortion
funding to poor women is as much a class issue as denying them any other
kind of healthcare.
That a solidly anti-choice politician could become a standard- bearer
for progressivism, the subject of hagiographic profiles in The
Nation and elsewhere, speaks volumes about the low priority of
women's rights to the self-described economic left, forever chasing the
white male working-class vote. Supporting an anti-choice Congressman may
have seemed pragmatic; trying to make him President would be political
suicide. Pregnant prisoners may not vote, but millions of pro-choice
* * *
Once again, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights
group, is organizing summer camps on the Adriatic for displaced Bosnian
and Kosovar children of all ethnicities. For several years now,
Nation readers have contributed generously to the BIF and have
made it possible for many children from the former Yugoslavia to have a
holiday from war, poverty and ethnic hatred. $125 sponsors a child for
two weeks, but donations in any amount are welcome. Checks payable to
Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt can be sent to me c/o The Nation, 33 Irving
Place, New York, NY 10003; I will forward them, with many thanks.
When incurable liberals like Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman begin using the name Whittaker Chambers as a term of approbation, we are entitled to say that there has been what the Germans call a Tendenzwende, or shift in the zeitgeist. The odd thing is that they have both chosen to compare Chambers's Witness, a serious and dramatic memoir by any standards, to a flimsy and self-worshiping book titled Blinded by the Right, by David Brock.
"I stand before you all today with a heavy heart to tell the tales of the endless raging minority cleansing campaign," declared Dwijen Bhattacharjya at the International Conference on Minority Cle
President Dubya loves to crusade against the "axis of evil" in his war on terrorism--but he formed an unholy alliance with the countries that make up the "axis" to declare war on the condom as a
Although former Vice President Quayle's legacy may not be one for the
history books, he will certainly be remembered for the day he took on
television's Murphy Brown.
Resentment against immigrants, even those seeking asylum, is at the boil.
Immigrant workers fuel the ecomony, but still they're treated with suspicion.
Occasionally in the murky wasteland of Broadway, where nostalgia reigns
and revivals rule, the hopeful theatergoer is led to an oasis advertised
as fertile enough to water the desert. Suzan-Lori Parks's
Topdog/Underdog, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize, is one of
these. Even if its success were to be
measured solely by the numbers of young people and black people, both
young and old, in the audience on any given night, Topdog could
be considered a healthy sign. Parks has been writing praise-winning
plays since the 1980s, but Topdog, which premiered last year at
the Public Theater, is the first one to make it to Broadway. For a play
by Parks it is uncharacteristically conventional--a straightforward
story with familiar characters that comes close to observing the
classical unities. Her earlier plays, such as The Death of the Last
Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Fucking A and The
American Play, are bold, disconcerting experiments in theatrical
form. But Topdog is more remarkable in some ways because it
unleashes the radical potential inside the well-made play.
Booth and Lincoln, two African-American brothers in their 30s, share an
SRO where all the action takes place. The time is a few days in some
city probably in the 1960s. The period, like the location, is
deliberately vague enough to warn us off the issue beat. This is not
social realism, even if it looks a little bit like it. Lincoln, the
elder brother, was once a legendary three-card monte dealer. He left the
game after his partner was shot, and has been working as a whiteface
Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade. Customers can re-enact the
sixteenth President's last moments by stealing up behind the costumed
Linc and firing a cap gun into his skull. Legitimate work, maybe, but
humiliating from the point of view of little brother Booth, who hopes,
with Lincoln's help, to get himself into the street game as a three-card
dealer. He wants the women and the money and the props that come with a
dealer's success. He can move his mouth and he can move his body. He's
just no good moving his hands.
Lincoln, former master of this street hustle, is the topdog. As superbly
performed by Jeffrey Wright, he is sly, sometimes robotic and
calculating, all knowingness, drink and disappointment. Booth, played by
rap artist and actor Mos Def, the other half of the most thrilling duo
on Broadway, is the antic underdog--a self-deluded, sweetly homicidal
baby. We know, given their names, how they will end up. This is not the
The game is the point. Both brothers are trying to follow the moves in
their family history, looking for a clue to the winning card; they each
sense--but can't quite see--a pattern as formal and controlling as the
one in the game. Their father gave them these ridiculous names as a
joke. If their life is a game, it's one their parents quit when the boys
were still teenagers: First the mother moved on, and then, as if by some
mysterious prior agreement, the father vanished. (If this were a
strictly realistic piece, some of this retelling of family history might
sound slightly off. Nevertheless...) The brothers are still in the game.
Their moves may have been determined by some destiny or joke, but their
language flows. Parks writes dialogue so vigorous and beautiful and
hilarious you'd almost think these men were free. Lincoln has more lines
and better ones, but Mos Def's strutting, styling Booth is language made
The vivid exchanges between the brothers are punctuated by the dealer's
hypnotic, mechanical patter. Lincoln's is loose and hypnotic, Booth's
mechanical and jerky:
Lincoln: Lean in close and watch me now: who see thuh black card who see
the black card I see thuh black card black cards thuh winner pick thuh
black card that's thuh winner pick the red card that's thuh loser pick
thuh other red card that's thuh other loser pick thuh black card you
pick thuh winner.
Every time the patter appears, the relationship between the brothers is
slightly revised. Like the shabby set by Riccardo Hernandez, which
undergoes minor transformations that softly indicate rearrangements in
power and psychology, these improvisations are small, but they are all
the latitude these two men have been given. In addition to relying on
sleight of hand, three-card monte works by creating confusion about what
is real and what is part of the game. The dealer always has his shills
who work the crowd by seeming to be part of it; he usually pretends to
be reluctant to throw the cards. The question of what's real requires
some careful thinking, as Linc is wise enough to point out to his
heedless brother: "First thing you learn is what is. Next thing you
learn is what ain't. You don't know what is you don't know what ain't,
you don't know shit."
It's important to stress that as audience members, we often don't know
shit. We don't know when Linc is playing for real and when he is conning
his brother by letting him pick correctly. But Linc is being played too,
and soon enough the game slams shut on both brothers.
Theater pieces have been made from games like this since the
Renaissance. They appeal to audiences, and especially to critics,
because they invite us to indulge in the kind of metaphorical musings
that make us feel connected and smart. But Parks has always insisted
that her work must be immune to such readings. In interviews, where she
is either faux-na*f or simply exasperated with the press ritual that
accompanies every production ("I'm less interested in 'meaning,'
whatever that word means? I'm not quite sure, I keep meaning to look up
meaning"), she sensibly tries to redirect attention to what is going on
between the people in her play. And one of the pleasures of
Topdog is that it doesn't give us any time to work in our
"issues." George C. Wolfe has directed the play with a swift, inevitable
momentum that keeps us trying and failing to keep up with the winning
card. Like his work with other strong playwrights like Tony Kushner and
Anna Deavere Smith, Topdog's staging has none of the
tendentiousness he laid on Jelly's Last Jam or Bring in da
Noise. This is not August Wilson or Athol Fugard or Tom Stoppard. If
Parks has a black man in white face, she has a black man in white face.
If there is a game of chance, there is a game of chance. Lean in close.
Watch the moves and turn off the metaphors. These lives are the shit you
don't know about. That's why you have to look close.
The power of our response to the murder we have been expecting at the
end of Topdog is thus more visceral than either awe or pity; if
we have been watching closely, we experience just how it went down. We
begin as spectators, like the crowd around the dealer and his sidemen
(to indulge in metaphor). If we look away long enough to worry about
meaning, we'll miss the moves and the game will vanish, as it does on
the street with the first sign of authority (to extend the metaphor).
But if we pay attention, we will be in the game when the final card is
thrown. I think this special kind of immediacy is what distinguishes
Parks's work, especially the more experimental pieces, which draw us in
through their language but keep us off-guard with their form. And I
suspect that having taken the trouble to create it, she is determined to
safeguard it against too much talk and interpretation, especially of the
what-this-means-about-African-American-theater/life variety. This is the
stuff. This is it.
After years of collecting evidence against Slobodan Milosevic, the
prosecutors at The Hague expected a decisive victory. But as the former
Yugoslav president, who insisted on defending himself, began his opening
statement at his war crimes trial last February, his accusers realized
they'd got more than they
had bargained for. Ever the wily politician, Milosevic railed that the
trial was a political farce staged by an illegal court determined to
rewrite history and condemn not only him but the entire Serbian nation.
But if Milosevic's assault was an irritant, it should have come as no
surprise. After all, his arguments hark back to those of one of our most
renowned modern philosophers. Indeed, behind every contemporary war
crimes tribunal, it seems, looms the shadow of Hannah Arendt. Reflecting
on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, Arendt raised some of the same
sorts of objections. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt took to
task the prosecution, which she claimed transformed the trial of one
Nazi functionary into a stage for manipulating history and
indoctrinating future generations. For prosecutors to use the trial of
an individual to expose and judge the atrocities of an entire war,
Arendt wrote, "can only detract from the law's main business: to weigh
the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment and to mete
out due punishment." To Arendt, a criminal trial could never truly
respond to the scale of Nazi atrocities: "It is quite conceivable that
certain political responsibilities among nations might some day be
adjudicated in an international court; what is inconceivable is that
such a court would be a criminal tribunal which pronounced on the guilt
or innocence of individuals."
Yet modern war crimes tribunals are attempting to do just that, and
Arendt's arguments stand as a persistent challenge--one that is sure to
take on more urgency as the first permanent international criminal court
begins its work, over vehement US opposition (the Bush Administration
has just announced it is renouncing President Clinton's signature of the
treaty creating the court). In The Key to My Neighbor's House,
Elizabeth Neuffer, a reporter for the Boston Globe, implicitly
takes it on. Although Neuffer doesn't discuss Arendt's views directly,
her portrayal of the international criminal tribunals for the former
Yugoslavia and Rwanda ultimately serve as a persuasive reply.
Neuffer devotes the first half of her book to the 1990s conflicts in the
Balkans and Rwanda, interspersing stories of survivors with historical
and political analysis and intermittent on-the-scenes reporting. She
recounts how in each region, power-hungry nationalists exploited old
ethnic tensions to spark a genocide with political aims. Although not
always artfully told, the narrative effectively conveys the tragedy of
each war, highlighting horrors such as the shelling and siege of
Sarajevo, the fall of Srebrenica and the subsequent mass execution of
Muslim men and boys. Concerning Rwanda, she describes how escalating
tensions between Hutus and Tutsis grew increasingly violent until they
culminated in the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in less
than 100 days. Although detailed and heartfelt, such stories have been
told before (Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow
We Will Be Killed With Our Families has become a classic on the
genocide in Rwanda). What Neuffer adds is a revealing portrait of the
two international tribunals where survivors eventually sought justice.
Her portrayal serves as convincing evidence that, contrary to Arendt's
contention, these courts can and should play more than a traditional
Consider the story of Hamdo Kahrimanovic. A Muslim elementary school
principal from the Bosnian town of Kozarac, Hamdo was imprisoned in the
Omarska concentration camp in June 1992 after Serb nationalists took
over his hometown. At Omarska, Hamdo encountered his former student,
Dusan Tadic, now a gangster brutalizing camp inmates. When, four years
later, the Yugoslavia tribunal declared its first trial in session,
Tadic was in the dock. Hamdo, who had known Tadic all his life, was
called to testify.
At the trial, Neuffer recounts, the earnest American judge struggled to
understand how Bosnia could have so quickly degenerated from a
harmonious multi-ethnic state into a scene of genocide. "Perhaps you can
help me to understand since I am not from that area," she said. "How did
that happen?" Hamdo was at a loss. "I had the key to my next-door
neighbor's [house] who was a Serb and he had my key," he said, giving
Neuffer the title for her book. "That is how we looked after each
other." After the war broke out, "one did not know who to trust anymore
and I do not have a word of explanation for that."
As a legal matter, Hamdo's testimony was probably irrelevant to Tadic's
case. Yet it captured an important element of the tragedy of the Bosnian
war and haunted the judge long afterward. In contrast to Arendt's
formalistic view of a trial, Neuffer suggests here that the court's
attempt to record and understand the crimes that occurred is as
important as its judgment of any individual who caused the events.
In the end, Tadic was convicted of crimes against humanity but acquitted
of murder. Unfortunately, the press had lost interest by the time the
verdict was announced; few Bosnians even heard about it. Still, Neuffer
believes the trial was important, for "there is an innate human need for
some kind of reckoning, an accounting," she writes. Over time, such
accountings begin to have a palpable effect on survivors' lives. By
1999, the tribunal had indicted and arrested most of Kozarac's local
warlords, and Hamdo, his wife and about 240 other Muslim families were
able to return home, beginning the process of reconciliation.
The Rwanda tribunal's consequences similarly reach beyond isolated
convictions. We see this through the harrowing story of Witness JJ, as
she's called by the tribunal to protect her identity. A young Tutsi
woman, JJ managed to escape when Hutu extremists attacked her small
farming village of Taba. She sought refuge at the offices of the popular
local mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, whom she'd known since she was a girl.
But Akayesu soon turned on JJ and the other Tutsi women, joining in the
genocide and, as the tribunal's investigators eventually learned,
plotting a mass rape. JJ became one of those gang-rape victims, barely
escaping death. When Akayesu went on trial in 1997, JJ was called to
JJ provided critical testimony at Akayesu's trial--the first in which
rape was deemed an act of genocide and a crime against humanity. But the
experience contributed more than a legal precedent. Neuffer describes
how JJ, initially intimidated by the imposing courtroom, lawyers and
judges, began her testimony hesitantly. But she gained confidence as she
told her story, even under harsh cross-examination. "When I saw Akayesu
with my eyes in court, I was afraid," JJ said later. "But at the same
time, I had something heavy on my heart. After I testified, it went
Unfortunately, the tribunal offered JJ little beyond that therapeutic
effect: It neither provided restitution nor helped survivors discover
what happened to lost family members. And to many Rwandans, tribunal
justice seems patently unfair: While more than 100,000 lower-level
accused genocidaires pack local prisons awaiting trials where
they face the death penalty, their ringleaders sat in a UN-run jail--with
its "state-of-the-art exercise room and wide-screen TV," as Neuffer
describes it. At most, they will receive life in prison.
The tribunals' problems, moreover, have been compounded by the West's
reluctance to provide necessary support. Created by the UN Security
Council, largely out of shame at the UN failure to intervene effectively
in either conflict, both courts have been stymied by lack of funds,
poorly trained staff, mismanagement and the inherent challenge of
creating a court that functions outside any established legal system.
The Yugoslavia tribunal, based in The Hague, faced in addition a
political snare: Peace negotiations were ongoing, so NATO members were
loath to have their troops arrest indicted war criminals still in
positions of power. The Rwanda tribunal, meanwhile, located in Arusha,
Tanzania, was marred by allegations of corruption.
Over time, both tribunals have improved. Neuffer's final assessment,
although qualified, is positive: "Tribunals, truth commissions, local
trials, government inquiries--are all part of the answer," she writes.
Neuffer's book is similarly a qualified success. While well researched
and comprehensive, it tries to do too much. Neuffer is so eager to
humanize the survivors, for example, that she frequently tries to
re-create their sentiments in a manner that seems forced and
unnecessary. And Neuffer's personal commentary is sometimes strained. In
an apparent nod to Arendt's famous observation about the banality of
evil, Neuffer ponders her meeting with a man who participated in the
Srebrenica massacre: "The evil I glimpsed in him was the potential for
evil we all share.... What's most chilling when you meet a murderer is
that you meet yourself." Such extrapolations are neither convincing nor
necessary. As Arendt herself recognized, we don't all have the potential
to become thoughtless murderers. Moreover, Neuffer would surely agree
that those who commit the crime ought to be held responsible. Indeed,
she takes the point further: Even if Tadic, like Adolf Eichmann, was
only a cog in a murderous machine, the goal of such a prosecution is
greater than the conviction of the individual.
Lawrence Douglas makes that argument forcefully in The Memory of
Judgment. An associate professor of law, jurisprudence and social
thought at Amherst College, Douglas writes about the trials of the
Holocaust. Though he takes a more analytic approach than Neuffer's,
examining in often painstaking detail the legal charges and evidence
introduced to support them, Douglas arrives at a similar judgment:
Despite their problems, these legal proceedings provide a form of
justice that's more comprehensive than any individual verdict.
Beginning with the 1945-46 Nuremberg trial of Nazi leaders, Douglas goes
on to discuss Israel's prosecution of Eichmann, followed by several more
recent trials: the 1987 Israeli trial of John (Ivan) Demjanjuk; the
French trial of Klaus Barbie that same year; and Canada's two trials of
a Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel, in 1985 and 1988. Although a critic of
the trial strategies, Douglas comes down a champion of law's potential.
Unlike Neuffer, Douglas takes on Arendt directly, challenging her view
that the law should judge only the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Although he recognizes the tension between strictly applying law to the
facts of one case and creating a broader historical record, he believes
a war crimes tribunal can do both. Unlike Arendt, he's not bothered by
the idea of a show trial--indeed, the spectacle is precisely one of the
aims. Although he concludes that the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials were
more successful in their didactic aims than were the trials of
Demjanjuk, Barbie and Zundel, all were, in a sense, show trials,
"designed to show the world the facts of astonishing crimes and to
demonstrate the power of law to reintroduce order into a space evacuated
of legal and moral sense."
Nuremberg, of course, was the touchstone. But Douglas believes that
trial was hampered by the prosecutor's insistence on fitting the Nazis'
unprecedented crimes into conventional legal standards--precisely the
legalistic approach Arendt might have advocated. Eager to use the most
reliable proof, they based their case on documents, flooding the court
with paper and numbing the audience to its contents. The result was an
eleven-month trial that produced, as Rebecca West wrote in The New
Yorker, "boredom on a huge historic scale."
The more dramatic moments of the trial, meanwhile, were the most legally
problematic. Take, for example, the screening of the innocuously titled
film Nazi Concentration Camps, which Douglas analyzes in detail.
Made by Allied army officers at the time of liberation, the hourlong
black-and-white documentary reveals camp prisoners with "the twisted
facial geometries and afflicted eyes of the demented," writes Douglas.
The horrors increase as the camera moves from one camp to the next,
lingering on emaciated, naked bodies piled upon one another, unclear if
they are dead or alive. German citizens, meanwhile, are presented as
complicit: "smiling Weimar women, dressed in their Sunday best,
strolling along a tree-lined road, on their way to view the camps by
'invitation' of the Americans."
The response in the courtroom, Douglas recounts, was a stunned silence.
The images, it seemed, spoke for themselves. But what exactly did they
say? The film, whose introduction violated basic rules of evidence,
never indicated who was responsible for the horrors portrayed. Nor did
it name or even accurately convey the crimes committed. Instead of
defining them as crimes against humanity, it presented them as crimes of
war. For political and procedural reasons, crimes against humanity were
defined in such a cramped manner that the term barely surfaced during
the trial. Likewise, genocide, although mentioned in the indictment and
in closing arguments, was otherwise never raised. So eager were the
prosecutors to fit the square peg of the Holocaust atrocities into the
round hole of conventional legal forms that they ultimately distorted
the truth. Although the defendants were appropriately convicted, Douglas
maintains that the historic and didactic impact of the trial was
severely limited by the prosecution's adherence to the most conventional
construction of the law.
In the Eichmann trial, the Israeli prosecutors were determined to do
better. Here, survivor testimony, rather than documents, was central to
the case, providing "the dramatic focus of the trial" and building "a
bridge from the accused to the world of ashes," writes Douglas. But the
Eichmann prosecution made miscalculations of its own. In the Israeli
attorney general's effort to reach beyond proving Eichmann's guilt to
portraying the vast crimes of the entire Holocaust, he opened himself up
to Arendt's criticism that the trial had lost its legitimacy. More than
100 survivors testified about their experiences--a form of "national
group therapy." But while their stories reminded the world of the Nazi
atrocities, they were mostly not about Eichmann.
Eichmann, meanwhile, eerily encased in a glass booth, was presented as a
vicious animal. As the Gestapo's expert on Jewish affairs, though,
Eichmann was not a Nazi leader; he was a bureaucrat, the epitome of what
Arendt describes as "the terrifyingly normal" person who commits
horrendous crimes. Yet the portrayal of him as a monster served the
prosecution's aim of reminding the public of the Third Reich's evil, as
well as the laws demanding that Eichmann's crimes be intentional ones.
To Arendt, the trial also failed as a legal matter because rather than
charging Eichmann with crimes against humanity, the prosecutors, eager
to bolster the political identity of the state of Israel and its new
citizens, framed the charges more narrowly, as crimes against the Jews.
By rejecting the broader legal category, argues Arendt, the prosecutors
failed to create what should have been an important precedent for future
Douglas acknowledges these problems but insists that Arendt's criteria
for success are too narrow. Such trials should do more than apply the
law and reach a judgment; they should create an accurate historical
record and shape collective memory, he maintains. The Eichmann trial was
a legal success, then, "insofar as it transformed understanding of what
the law can and should do in the wake of traumatic history."
Douglas is far less sanguine about the later Holocaust trials, which he
claims obfuscated the very history they were intended to enlighten. The
Zundel trial, in particular, applied legal procedural rules so strictly
that much of the evidence of Nazi crimes was excluded, allowing
Holocaust deniers to turn the trial into a forum for revisionist
Although for the most part he is thorough and convincing, Douglas
occasionally stumbles. For example, he doesn't adequately respond to
Arendt's charge that a domestic trial of an individual accused of
committing an international atrocity can fall prey to political agendas
that distort the historical record. His point about truth commissions
also misses the mark. Douglas maintains that truth commissions are
inadequate because "a trial without judgment is like a race without a
finish--it lacks the sine qua non of dramatic closure that frames and
adds meaning to the shared narratives." But the real shortcoming of
truth commissions is that they don't fulfill two important aims of
criminal law: retribution and deterrence. Douglas is dismissive of the
notion that war crimes trials can have a deterrent effect, but he
shouldn't be. Domestic courts or ad hoc tribunals may be less likely to
deter would-be international law violators, but a permanent
international criminal court that systematically and effectively
prosecutes perpetrators could certainly, over time, do just that.
In coining the phrase "the banality of evil," Arendt observed that an
unthinking person might discard his own moral compass when a new one is
imposed. Ironically, that notion cries out for a far broader role for
criminal tribunals than Arendt would have countenanced. An established
international court that both judges individuals accused of widespread
atrocities and records the experiences of survivors could act as a moral
counterweight to domestic totalitarian leaders. Such a court holds out
the promise not only of deterring the potential architects of organized
brutality but of humanizing their victims in a way that even the most
thoughtless functionary might find difficult to ignore.
It is probably safe to say that the war crimes trial in The Hague of the
former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic is not going well. At least
so far. No credible witnesses have come forward to testify against the
man who is credited with starting four Balkan wars. No documentary
evidence has been advanced to prove his "command responsibility" for
murderous ethnic conflicts. The prosecution's bungling has turned what
was once touted as a "water-tight case" into a battle of wits, allowing
Milosevic to mount a fifth war--legal and psychological--against the
It is, of course, an uneven battle. The court is supported by the might
of the United States and its vast eavesdropping and
intelligence-gathering facilities. Behind the scenes, Americans have
tried to induce some of Milosevic's former henchmen to testify against
him. (That includes the notorious paramilitary leader known as Arkan,
who was gunned down inside the Belgrade Intercontinental two weeks after
he lunched there with an American intermediary for the CIA.) Publicly,
the United States has linked all financial assistance to Serbia to the
extradition of suspected war criminals; the hope is that some of them
may provide the needed information about Milosevic's "command
The former dictator, on the other hand, has to rely mainly on himself,
his wife and a few supporters. The image of a solitary individual
standing up against the world not only appeals to his vanity but also
seems to energize him. His defense strategy is brilliantly cunning,
designed to play on Serbia's psychological vulnerabilities and continued
Serb resentment of the 1999 NATO bombing. From the outset he has said
that the court is illegal, that it is NATO's victors' justice and that
he would not accept its judgment. Yet, acting as his own defense
attorney, he has used the tribunal as a stage for his antics, playing
the role of a defiant David to NATO's Goliath, the victim of powerful
foreign enemies, and in the process doing all he can to make his a trial
of the whole Serbian nation.
Opinion polls suggest that his strategy is working in Serbia. Even
though four out of five Serbs want to see Milosevic tried
in a Serbian court for crimes committed against his people, a majority
applaud his stand at The Hague.
This is unfortunate. This public perception is likely to discourage
potential witnesses from coming forward. In the absence of compelling
evidence against him in court, Milosevic's political rehabilitation becomes a distinct
possibility. More significant will be the impact on the world's first
permanent court--which is to be established also in The Hague--to
replace ad hoc courts like the one sitting in judgment of Milosevic. But
it is up to the ad hoc tribunal to come up with the precedent-setting
legal standard of "command responsibility" (the conditions under which a
tyrant, even if not directly involved, can be held responsible for
crimes committed by his subordinates).
This raises several broader questions: What sort of justice, exactly, is
being served in The Hague? Why is it that the prosecution, having
claimed to have a water-tight case, appears to be flailing in the dark?
Was the court manipulated by the Clinton Administration? What exactly
was the secret intelligence that the United States and British
governments supplied during the 1999 Kosovo war to prompt the court to
Louis Sell is one of those rare anonymous State Department officials who
venture to write books in their retirement. He was highly regarded by
his superiors and held the rank of political counselor in two major
embassies: Belgrade and Moscow. His tour in Belgrade, from 1987 to 1991,
coincided with Milosevic's rise to power and the outbreak of war in
Yugoslavia. This has placed him in the middle of things. Scores of
secret cables, sensitive intelligence reports, raw National Security
Agency telephone intercepts and even satellite photos landed on his desk
each day. He not only had access to everything the analysts and spooks
produced on the Yugoslav crisis but was one of the few people capable of
placing such material
in the proper context. (He had served in
Yugoslavia in the 1970s and is fluent in Serbo-Croatian.) He returned to
the region in 1995 as political deputy to former Swedish Prime Minister
Carl Bildt, then the European Union's chief negotiator for the former
Yugoslavia. After the Kosovo war, Sell served as director of the
International Crisis Group in Kosovo.
By background and experience, Sell is a bureaucratic insider. Unlike the
more senior officials--Richard Holbrooke or Gen. Wesley Clark--he has no
need to defend his reputation. Nor is he a man prone to
self-glorification. His twenty-eight years in the State Department
conditioned him to shun the limelight. This may be why he could
apparently not bring himself to give the reader his own take on events.
Instead he has chosen a journalistic format, relying mainly on published
sources--news dispatches, opinion columns and books. This was a poor
choice. He knows far more than most authors he quotes in his Slobodan
Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia.
Indiscriminate reliance on Western press reports is risky. For example,
Sell reproduces a German tabloid story about Milosevic's alleged
involvement in drug trafficking. Far too often he resorts to "Western
journalists" as the only source of this or that information; far too
often the phrase "everybody knew that..." crops up in the narrative as
the sole source for a given Serbian crime. Although he tries to write
dispassionately, his anti-Serb bias gets in the way from time to time.
In one instance, he writes that the high command in Belgrade sanctioned
the July 1995 attack on Srebrenica; the source for the assertion is a
book published in 1994. Is this sloppy writing? Careless editing?
Sell does offer a shrewd assessment of the former dictator. He sees him
as someone "without any core beliefs or values other than his own
political survival." Milosevic, he writes, "was not very good at using
power for anything other than keeping it." He was an enormously
destructive figure. Obsessed with power, he deliberately impoverished
not only Serbia's economy but also its intellectual and social fabric
"in order to eliminate the very capacity for independent alternatives to
The book follows familiar lines; I doubt whether it contains anything
that has not been said before. One does come across interesting tidbits:
Washington took an almost instant dislike to Carl Bildt, because he "had
not developed the habit of deference to Washington" and was unwilling
"to take direction." Needless to say, Bildt did not last long in the
There is, of course, nothing surprising nowadays in high-level American
officials expecting deference from little nations or their
representatives. But this is only a part of America's post-cold war
attitude toward the rest of the world. It also permeates US policy in
the Balkans. Despite the rhetoric about justice and eagerness to help
the people of Serbia, the book suggests that the United States was
interested in the Hague court as a political tool rather than a
mechanism that would add another dimension to international law by
holding individual leaders responsible for war crimes and crimes against
humanity. Everything that would detract from Washington's
policy--whatever that policy is at any given moment--must be dismissed
out of hand or ignored. With a sleight of hand, Sell dismisses British
and French experts who found conclusive proof that Muslim snipers had
fired on their own people in order to stimulate sympathetic media
coverage for their plight. He ignored Canadian Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who
said he had personally seen a similar incident. Sell also ignores the
fact that Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger accused Milosevic of
war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia in December 1992; Eagleburger's speech
in Geneva no longer fits the official narrative.
Within a year, Milosevic had reinvented himself as a born-again
peacemaker. By 1995 he was the "guarantor" of peace in Bosnia. (He was,
indeed, most responsible for the successful outcome of the peace talks
at Dayton, Ohio.) He shared the stage with Bill Clinton during the
signing ceremonies in Paris. Clinton flattered him. "It's nice to hear
your voice," Clinton told the dictator. The American President, aboard
Air Force One to visit US troops in Bosnia, chitchatted with the Serbian
dictator about the Dayton agreement. "I know it cannot go ahead without
you," Clinton said, according to a recently published transcript of the
conversations monitored by Croatian intelligence.
So, even though "it had long been clear that Milosevic was responsible
for ethnic cleansing and other crimes...in Croatia and Bosnia," Sell
tells us, he was not indicted, because the Clinton Administration was
unable to find a "smoking gun" that would directly link him to the
misdeeds. We are led to conclude that the Administration did not assign
high priority to the task.
On the eve of the Kosovo war, however, the US government became active
in seeking to tie Milosevic to war crimes in Kosovo in early 1999. The
State Department's war crimes intelligence review unit was given a
boost: The number of its analysts and the urgency of its task were
increased. Having no diplomats or spies in Serbia, Sell reports,
analysts used satellite photos to study troop movements inside Kosovo.
The outcome was "precisely the kind of evidence needed to indict
Milosevic on the basis of 'imputed command responsibility'" for ordering
ethnic cleansing or failing to stop it. Canadian jurist Louise Arbour,
the chief prosecutor at the time, must have known that the intelligence
she was given did not meet the standards of proof required in a court of
law. She traveled to Washington, London and Bonn apparently seeking a
policy context for the tribunal's action against Milosevic; but she got
"totally ambiguous" responses. As NATO planes continued to bomb
Yugoslavia, the flow of intelligence material reaching the tribunal
increased, but most of it was part of NATO's massive propaganda campaign
against Milosevic. This must have preyed on the minds of the
prosecutors, leading them to believe that they had a substantial case
that would hold up in court. Indeed, the initial indictment was confined
to war crimes committed in Kosovo in 1999.
The tribunal may indeed have been manipulated by outside forces, as some
of its officers feared. As is frequently the case in the Balkans, a
story always seems clear at a distance, but the closer you get to the
scene of events the murkier it becomes. The drafters of the
indictment--somewhat to their surprise later--had not taken into account
the fact that Kosovo was a secessionist province that had declared
independence in 1991, as a result of which it was placed under Serbian
police rule. The province remained quiet as long as the Albanian
struggle was confined to peaceful means. However horrific the Serbian
repression, it did not include ethnic cleansing. But by 1997, the
Albanians had taken up arms. Milosevic had an armed insurrection on his
hands. Moreover, when the Kosovo war ended, the liberated Albanians had
lost their moral high ground; they embarked on a killing spree of the
defeated Serbs under the noses of NATO peacekeepers.
Once Milosevic was deposed, the legal weaknesses of the Kosovo
indictment became painfully obvious, and the prosecutors moved to
include Croatia and Bosnia, the latter being the prime stage for the
charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Like Sell, I too have
no doubt that Milosevic is guilty as charged, at least with respect to
most counts dealing with Bosnia. I witnessed a good deal while covering
his wars from 1990 to 1996. But it is crucial that this be established
in a court of law. Although the pool of Milosevic's partners in crime
has been shrinking (most recently with the suicide of his former police
minister), a number of them are still at large. The tribunal needs these
former Serbian officials; some should be offered immunity from
prosecution in exchange for their testimony. The prosecutors should work
with local Serbian authorities and hire local private investigators
rather than depend on the might of the United States to force the
extradition of suspected criminals. Without such witnesses and in the
absence of spectacular documentary evidence, the tribunal is heading for
On late-night television the other day I watched Spencer Tracy and
Marlene Dietrich in the 1961 movie Judgment at Nuremberg, about
the trials of Nazi war criminals. It was a riveting courtroom drama. The
evidence against the accused was overwhelming. By comparison, the Hague
tribunal is more like the trial of Al Capone, the Chicago mobster who
was responsible for a series of gangland murders. Although everybody
knew Capone was guilty, police could not prove it. Eventually he was
sent to jail for tax evasion. One way or another, I suspect, Milosevic
will end up spending many years in jail. Let's hope this will be done
for the right reasons.
Say what you will against the Hollywood event film, and you can say it
twice about Spider-Man. Twice, because this movie has been so
successfully pre-sold, mall-booked, cross-marketed and revenue-streamed
that Columbia Pictures confidently scheduled Spider-Man 2 before
it ever let an audience see
the first. Violent? The fight scenes in this picture must have cost a
hundred Foley artists a hundred nights in the recording studio, banging
away at a hundred anvils. Crass? The product placements are literally as
big as Times Square. Crude? The camera is perpetually drawn, as if by
animal magnetism, to the cleavage of Kirsten Dunst, the better to
examine two of her character's few defining features. It is not enough
to say that Spider-Man is a big movie. It is a big, big movie.
And Spider-Man is also a small movie, which hangs from the thin,
very odd thread of its lead actor, Tobey Maguire. A little late in life,
though not implausibly so, Maguire plays high school senior Peter
Parker: the smart, shy, artistic, dateless victim of his graduating
class, the kid voted Most Likely Not to Be Voted Anything, who happens
to get bitten by a mutant spider and so turns into--what? A superhero?
More like a freak. As conceived for comic books by Stan Lee and Steve
Ditko, Spider-Man was the first really alienated guy to swoop around
fighting crime in a funny outfit. His strange powers made this teenage
outsider into even more of an outsider--and Spider-Man the movie
stays true to that idea, thanks mostly to Maguire.
Consider his voice, first of all: a nasal tenor instrument, with which
he's in no hurry to say anything. Maguire doesn't cultivate a stammer,
as did James Stewart (whom he occasionally calls to mind), but he does
give a consistent impression of letting his words trail a beat or so
behind his thoughts. You might recall his doing so in The Ice
Storm (in which, for my money, he was the film's one point of
contact with reality), or in The Cider House Rules (where he was
used for his air of moping fragility, yet somehow held his own against
Michael Caine), or yet again in Wonder Boys (where Michael
Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. kept competing to see which one could play
more broadly, and Maguire very quietly and subtly took control of the
movie). It's characteristic of him that in one of his better moments in
Spider-Man, he says nothing at all. "Just got contacts?" asks MJ
(Dunst), the girl of Peter Parker's dreams, when she sees he's no longer
wearing glasses. The question sounds casual, but the occasion is
charged; MJ has noticed for the first time the color of Peter's eyes
(spider-power has corrected his vision), and he's just been granted his
first chance to look into hers. Maguire considers her question, pauses
as if a dozen possibilities were crowding his head and then settles on a
reply: He grins. It must be the right choice. At the screening I
attended, the audience answered his smile with laughter.
Maguire can get that effect because he generates a time zone of his own
around his body, and also because that body is a mismatch not only for
its surroundings but for itself. The carriage is stiff. The smile, when
granted, loops goofily up and down the long face. The features of that
face don't quite come together. Although the assertive cleft chin might
well belong to a superhero--or a movie star--it cohabitates a bit
uncomfortably with rosebud lips, a delicate nose and eyes whose natural
tendency is to watch for trouble. The impression, as a whole, is one of
pleasant ungainliness--which may be why Maguire seems as surprised as
the audience to discover what's happened to his musculature. When he
awakens after the spider bite, this 98-pound weakling finds that his
torso can bulge and ripple, just like something from an old Charles
The allusion to Charles Atlas seems deliberate on the part of the
director, Sam Raimi. He knows those ads had their rightful place on the
back covers of comic books, where they held out a fantasy of power to
the medium's core audience, the Peter Parkers of this life. That's
something comic books share with event movies; they're both made to
appeal to boys in their adolescence, or barely out of it. The
difference, of course, is that event movies mount their appeal by
deploying resources of a vastly greater scale, comparable (let's say) to
that recently used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Part of what I like
about Spider-Man is that despite its staggering budget and
daunting market clout, it stays in touch with the unpretentiousness of
the source material. Raimi uses Maguire for that purpose, and he also
uses a second, uncredited star: New York City.
To an extent that's very rare with digitized, semi-cartoon pictures,
Spider-Man is a movie shot on location. You see the Columbia
University campus, Midtown, the Flatiron district, SoHo, the East River
and (maybe most gratifying of all) the row houses and little commercial
streets of Queens. Very often the action that takes place in these
settings is computer-generated, with Spider-Man swinging from building
to building by his web, or performing the kind of acrobatics that were a
prime attraction of The Matrix. Even so, the real city remains an
irreducible presence in Spider-Man, as when Peter discovers his
new abilities and goes leaping across the rooftops in exhilaration--the
roofs, in this case, belonging to the same squat apartment buildings you
see every day from the elevated train.
So there's something humble, plain and slightly old-fashioned working
within this mega-movie--or perhaps even working against it. As I turn
from Maguire and the settings to the story and its themes, as elaborated
by screenwriter David Koepp, I notice that the conflict between big and
small is more than an accidental effect in Spider-Man. It's the
The plot, in brief, concerns a surrogate father who happens to be an
all-powerful homicidal maniac. Norman Osborn (played by Willem Dafoe,
the movie's Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. rolled into one) is a
millionaire scientist who at first befriends the impecunious Peter,
offering him concern and sympathy. But Norman is also a military
contractor who hungers for that next big contract, as a result of which
he undergoes his own transformation, developing a monstrous alter ego
known as the Green Goblin. Whereas Norman is kind and gentle toward
Peter, the Green Goblin schemes to destroy Spider-Man, striking at him
through the people he loves.
As someone who has been a son and is presently a father, I wasn't
convinced. Spider-Man tosses out a notion of the paternal
relationship, but it conveys nothing of the feeling of bone of my bone,
flesh of my flesh. (Paradoxically, the relationship between MJ and her
father has emotional weight, even though it's a side issue in the movie.
Her father bullies and belittles her--which may be why she takes a
liking to Peter. He's the one male animal she encounters who is strong
but doesn't act it.) But if we agree not to take the movie's terms more
seriously than they deserve, then the father-son conceit can be made to
yield some sense. Let's say the father is a stand-in for Columbia
Pictures, a Sony Pictures Entertainment Company, and the son is Sam
Raimi, who at one moment gets sweet talks and huge sums of money from
his corporate parent and at another is reminded, no doubt forcefully,
that the parent is in fact his master, who will kill for those revenue
Does this interpretation seem far-fetched? Then think about Peter's
Uncle Ben, the other surrogate father in the film and the movie's moral
voice. Raimi has waggishly cast Cliff Robertson in the role--no doubt
because Robertson, too, went through a life-altering, science-fiction
change in the movies, in Charly, but also perhaps because he was
the one who uncovered malfeasance at Columbia Pictures in the late 1970s
and so brought down its management. Robertson's mere presence in a new
Columbia release is a kind of history lesson, and a rebuke. Who better
to tell Peter, practically with his dying breath, that power brings
responsibility? Who better to play a wise, elderly working stiff from
Queens, in contrast to Dafoe's military-industrial tycoon?
And who can doubt that such a contrast is needed, when Spider-Man
portrays modern economic life as an endless series of downsizings? The
older people in the movie are pushed out of their jobs; the younger
can't get any. Why, the very notion of hiring someone seems repugnant to
the editor of the Daily Bugle (JK Simmons) when Peter comes
looking for work. "Freelance!" he bellows. That's the best thing for
young people today. Then, as a substitute for decent freelance pay, the
editor goes on to promise "Meat--Christmas meat!"
As an object of commerce, Spider-Man belongs to the world of the
Daily Bugle, and to the Green Goblin. As a work of the
imagination--as a movie, rather than a blockbuster--it belongs to Cliff
Robertson and Tobey Maguire, to New York City and to New York's people
(who put in a surprising, crucial mass appearance late in the film). I
liked seeing this conflict played out openly, in the first summer-season
mega-production of 2002. But that's not why I gave my heart to
What really moved me was the exchange between Peter and MJ at the end of
the film. It's a scene that comes out of nowhere, if you've ignored the
small movie within Spider-Man and seen only the product
placements and special effects. But if you've registered the moments of
wit and feeling that surface throughout the picture, intermittently but
steadily, you will feel that it's right for the movie to end here, in a
graveyard, with MJ at last caressing Peter's face and doing it with a
black-gloved hand. Finally she can speak of what she wants, amid death.
Peter wants to reply, and could do so eloquently; but, being Tobey
Maguire, he chooses to hold back.
And so it ends, triumphantly, unhappily--that is, until Spider-Man 2.