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May 27, 2002 Issue

  • Editorials

    The New Politics of September 11

    Since September 11, George W. Bush's political team and their Republican allies have used every trick to exploit the tragedy for political advantage.

    John Nichols

  • Le Pen’s People

    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 victory.

    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.

    Maria Margaronis and D.D. Guttenplan

  • White Should Go–Now

    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 profits.

    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 been positive.

    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 $50 million.

    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.

    Jason Leopold

  • When Is a Coup a Coup?

    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?

    Scott Sherman

  • Time to Step In

    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 violence.

    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 territories.

    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 and Israelis.

    the Editors

  • Imperial Temptation

    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 here?

    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.

    Amitav Ghosh

  • Brakes on Fast Track

    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.

    William Greider


  • Columns

    Lights Out on Bush’s Excuses

    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

    Robert Scheer

  • The Real David Brock

    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.

    Christopher Hitchens

  • Regressive Progressive?

    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 Kielbasa."

    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 criminalization?

    "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 women do.

    * * *

    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.

    Katha Pollitt

  • A Short History of the French Presidential Election

    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.

    Calvin Trillin

  • Books and the Arts

    Milosevic, Still at War

    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 court itself.

    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 responsibility."

    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 indict Milosevic?

    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 emerge."

    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 job.

    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 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 disaster.

    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.

    Dusko Doder

  • Judging the Tribunals

    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 legalistic role.

    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 testify.

    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 away."

    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 cases.

    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 history.

    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.

    Daphne Eviatar

  • The First Webbie

    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 Atlas ad.

    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 movie's substance.

    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 streams.

    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 Spider-Man.

    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.

    Stuart Klawans

  • ‘I See Thuh Black Card…’

    A review of Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog.

    Elizabeth Pochoda

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  • Letters



    San Francisco

    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.




    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.



    Valhalla, NY

    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.



    Davis, Calif.

    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."



    Oakland, Calif.

    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.


    Wilmington, Dela.

    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.


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