Dennis Hoover is mistaken when he recommends that we say "Yes to Charitable Choice" [Aug. 7/14]. The issue is exactly the same as with religious schools. If some people believe that God wants them to establish schools for their children, the Constitution says they have the right to do that but not to receive public tax money for it. If they believe God wants them to accept other children into their schools and keep religious indoctrination to a minimum, they still cannot use public tax money. Likewise, if some people believe God wants them to do charitable works and not to restrict the beneficiaries to their own denomination, the Constitution says they have the right to do that but not to receive public tax money for it. There is no question that both activities benefit society. The problem is that how the activities are carried out depends entirely on what those people happen to believe. Government restrictions on how the tax money is spent still do not solve this problem, since the money releases other money to be spent however the religious organization believes it should be. The only consistent position on both questions is the one indicated by the Constitution: no government financial aid to religious organizations, even when their activities benefit society as a whole.
RICHARD J. BURKE
New York City
Dennis Hoover writes that support for charitable choice is linked philosophically to a "new religious center" and not to the religious right. It's true that moderate groups are now being aggressively recruited to act as service providers under charitable choice contracts. But the core impetus and ideology behind the current spate of legislation and promotion do not come from the center, and they deserve careful scrutiny. The charitable choice concept draws heavily on the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, who developed and implemented the notion of social "pillarization" in the Netherlands a hundred years ago. In Kuyper's scheme, each ethnic and religious group in a pluralistic society runs its own institutions and services; these separate "pillars" support the social whole, but public services as we have known them in this country--services open to all and fostering interaction and mutual understanding--are made to disappear. Hardcore charitable choice ideologues in the United States make no secret of the fact that they want to see Horace Mann's conception of "common" schools replaced with a similar patchwork of faith-based or group-based schools. Should this really be on the progressive agenda?
Hoover correctly reports that as the legislation is written, faith-based service providers won't be able to discriminate against clients on religious grounds. But it is by no means clear that they won't be able to discriminate on other grounds, notably sexual orientation; moreover, faith-based groups have historically had fairly wide latitude to engage in employment discrimination when claiming a religious rationale, and there is no reason to think this will change when these groups are spending public funds.
Charitable choice is a provision of the failed welfare reform legislation of 1996, founded on the principle that people are impoverished because of bad choices and irresponsible behavior. The systemic causes of poverty and the unprecedented wealth gap of the past twenty-five years are not considered. Part of the neoliberal project clearly involves tempering the harshness and salving some wounds with a dose of good old Christian charity. But should the churches be accepting the basic situation of systemic injustice? What happens to their prophetic voice if they are willing to play the role of junior partner to Pharaoh? This is not just a matter of the churches' own integrity; nonreligious progressives also have a stake in preserving an independent religious sector that has not been bought out by the totalizing neoliberal agenda.
REV. PETER LAARMAN
Judson Memorial Church
REV. PAUL CHAPMAN
The Employment Project
If progressives support charitable choice, they will unnecessarily sacrifice civil liberties in their war against poverty. Charitable choice was designed to allow houses of worship (and other groups that integrate religion into their social service) to receive government grants and contracts for their social service ministries. But how can the government fund faith-drenched services without unconstitutionally advancing religion? Hoover insists that the government will simply require churches and other religious providers to "demonstrate that public funds do not pay for religious speech (specifically 'sectarian worship, instruction or proselytization')." But no one has begun to explain how the government will perform this task and otherwise regulate a church or other pervasively religious group without becoming excessively and unconstitutionally entangled with religion.
Although Hoover and others assure us that politicians will pass out a limited number of social service grants and contracts to selected religions without favoritism for "secularism over religion, religion over secularism or for one religion over another," the truth is that politicians find it almost impossible to resist playing politics with religion, including favoring majority over minority faiths. Furthermore, progressives should ask how the government will insure that social service beneficiaries will truly have the ability to opt out of religious activities in these settings. Finally, progressives should consider the fact that charitable choice attempts to allow a religious provider to reject a particular taxpayer for a tax-funded employee position because he or she isn't the "right" religion or does not hold the "right" religious beliefs.
What Hoover characterizes as potential minor defects are actually grave structural errors. These problems can be avoided with appropriate safeguards, but such safeguards have been repeatedly rejected by charitable choice supporters. Progressives should not join charitable choice proponents who, for many different reasons, are dismissing profound constitutional and civil liberties concerns. Instead, progressives should raise questions about charitable choice and demand appropriate safeguards to protect individual liberties.
Joint Baptist Committee
As a clergyman who cherishes the First Amendment, I was shocked to see a defense of charitable choice in The Nation. Charitable choice goes further in destroying the time-tested separation of church and state, and replaces it with a doctrine of religious accommodation by government, than any initiative on the political agenda. It transforms churches into administrative arms of the state and is a very dangerous idea. Dennis Hoover's claim that charitable choice is predominantly supported by mainline religious groups is debatable. What is certain is that the judicial doctrine invoked to legitimize charitable choice is a darling of the far right. The dubious constitutional doctrine of non-preferentialism, which asserts that government may support religious groups as long as it doesn't discriminate among religions, is powerfully championed by the Christian Coalition and receives endorsement from Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. Lamentably, Bush, Gore and Lieberman have appropriated this new turn in constitutional interpretation.
Hoover states that faith-based organizations "must demonstrate that public funds do not pay for religious speech," including proselytization. Whom are we kidding? Does he really believe that when confronted with a commandment from God Almighty to win souls, committed evangelicals will be deterred by what will seem like a bureaucratic nicety? Why should they, when the guiding premise of charitable choice is that services rendered through faith commitments are superior to those delivered by secular agencies? Moreover, charitable choice permits faith-based organizations to serve the needy in religious sanctuaries rather than in secular settings, as has pertained. The stage is set for rampant missioning. No one should ever be placed in the demeaning position of having to compromise his or her religious conscience in the face of neediness and dependence on others. Charitable choice will make this violation commonplace.
Charitable choice augurs other dangers. It will set church against church in a battle for public funds. It will force the courts to pass judgment on competing theological positions in order to determine which churches are pervasively sectarian and which not. Government oversight of public funds will be either rigorous or lax. If lax, churches will be tempted to use funding for their ongoing religious purposes. If strict, government agents will show up at church doors demanding to audit their books. Is that what we want in a nation that professes religious freedom?
Hoover states that charitable choice provides protection for the religious identities of service workers. Yes, for those within the faith of the organization but not for those outside it. Faith-based organizations will be able to discriminate, for example, against those who dance, drink, smoke, are divorced or have had an abortion, if those practices offend the strictures of the faith.
Finally, charitable choice will muffle religion's prophetic voice. Religion plays its most important social role when it stands outside the precincts of secular power and critiques the abuses of government from the plateau of higher moral values. It's dubious that churches, as recipients of the state's largesse, will bite the hand that feeds them. In this age of moral anxiety, of which religious triumphalism is a consequence, it's become widely assumed that religion can be nothing but good. It's an ominous blindness. The Founding Fathers knew better. Experience had taught them that the entanglement of religion with state inevitably oppresses religious freedom and elevates the state's power to dangerous proportions.
Western society has taken 300 years to put the tiger in the cage. It's disturbing that Dennis Hoover joins those who want to let it loose.
DR. JOSEPH CHUMAN
Ethical Culture Society
The most striking error in these letters is Joseph Chuman's assertion that charitable choice forces government to determine which religious organizations are "pervasively sectarian." This problematic task is precisely what the government used to have to undertake under the old "no aid" regime, which denied eligibility for grants to "pervasively sectarian" organizations, and thus unjustly discriminated in favor of providers whose vision of social service could abide secularization. Charitable choice embodies a more robust understanding of government neutrality toward all in a religiously pluralistic and multicultural society. It levels the playing field, requiring not that grantees strip themselves of "sectarianism," whatever that means, but rather that they be able to account for their use of public funds.
Melissa Rogers frets over the intrusiveness of this accounting requirement, but how can measuring degrees of religious sectarianism be considered less difficult and meddlesome than reviewing accounting records? Rogers will also have to explain why she thinks politicians are more likely to try to play favorites under charitable choice than they were under the old rules.
Rogers is joined by Chuman, Peter Laarman and Paul Chapman in complaining about the fact that charitable choice allows a faith-based organization to hire only those who agree with its religious worldview. But this complaint is simply another way for critics to say they don't like the way charitable choice levels the playing field. Nothing could be more basic to maintaining the distinctive religious character of an organization than making sure the relevant staff share foundational assumptions. What could be more "totalizing" than forcing all nonprofit grantees into the same secular mold? Consider also that religious organizations have long had an exemption from the bar on religious discrimination in employment found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and this exemption is not sacrificed when religious organizations receive public funds not earmarked for specific positions.
Furthermore, the word "choice" is in the label "charitable choice" for good reason. Rogers, Laarman and Chapman are concerned about religious liberty for individual welfare beneficiaries, but the law is clear: Charitable choice mandates that secular programs be available for clients who so choose. Also, if a beneficiary agrees to receive services from a religious provider, he or she is empowered to opt out of explicitly religious activities. Analogous principles of choice have long been reflected in federal subsidy programs for college education (such as the GI Bill).
It is nonsense to charge, as does Chuman, that charitable choice is the "darling of the far right." Is there really a vast right-wing conspiracy interested in spending public money on welfare services? In achieving genuine neutrality in the relationship between church and state? For rhetorical purposes, it is obvious enough why leftist critics of charitable choice would characterize their own position as "mainstream" and relegate others to the lunatic fringe. But, like it or not, "centrist" is easily the best shorthand way of characterizing charitable choice. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush endorse charitable choice, and Joe Lieberman is a co-chair of Congress's bipartisan Empowerment Caucus, which supports charitable choice. There are also Democratic governors who have made implementing charitable choice a priority (e.g., Governor Frank O'Bannon of Indiana). The coalition of religious groups that back charitable choice likewise spans the usual left-right divide.
Several critics say charitable choice is somehow uniquely corrupting of religion--in particular that it "will muffle religion's prophetic voice," as Chuman puts it. Chuman presumes to tell us that the right social role for religion is to "stand outside" secular power and hand down critiques "from the plateau of higher moral values." But the actual prophetic tradition includes some who were court insiders. And even if we acknowledge the potentially subversive effects of government subsidies, this is hardly a new problem unique to charitable choice. Religiously affiliated agencies have long received subsidies to deliver services. If religious groups think that it is important to speak out against the systemic sources of injustice (and I wish more did) but fear suffering a complete moral collapse when faced with a grant application, they need not participate. Charitable choice is just an option, not a draft notice.
In fact, legally, charitable choice is consistent with the free speech principle, long touted by liberals in the nonprofit community, that government cannot censor the privately funded speech of grant recipients. For years, right-wing forces have attempted to deny grants to nonprofits that use private money to engage in advocacy activities on behalf of disadvantaged constituencies. Liberals have rightly challenged this, defending the ability of nonprofits to properly account for their use of public funds. Charitable choice says religious nonprofits should not have their privately funded religious speech censored when they take public money to deliver welfare services. We cannot play favorites with the First Amendment rights of nonprofits.
Richard Burke's letter sniffs at my suggestion that we factor lowly "public opinion" into our thinking. But I wonder if he realizes whose opinions he so pointedly refuses to dignify with a response? More Democrats (61 percent) than Republicans (46 percent) favor the charitable choice concept, and support among African-Americans rises to 74 percent. Recent studies by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona show that liberal congregations and African-American congregations are the most likely to be interested in participating.
In recent years some voices on the left (see for example Michael Kazin, "The Politics of Devotion," in the April 6, 1998, Nation) have warned that if the left wants to avoid permanently alienating itself from a mass constituency, it must reacquaint itself with religious progressives and make peace with new antipoverty movements among Christians, such as the Call to Renewal (which supports charitable choice). But, rhetorical gestures notwithstanding, the idea that social policy might actually include religious institutions is still hard for some progressives to get their minds around.
The fundamentals in the Middle East have changed so drastically--unalterably--that the recent agreement at Sharm el Sheik was just a strip of gauze on a gaping wound. The complacent assumption of many in Israel and the United States that the "peace process" was moving irreversibly forward has been drastically shaken.
An enormous gulf opened between the two peoples sharing the same land. A troubled Israeli columnist wrote in Yediot Ahronot, "It was only two weeks ago that we were buying furniture in Ramallah, gambling in Jericho, importing vegetables from the West Bank villages and reading about the Palestinians' intention to build six new duty-free malls for Israelis along the border with the autonomous areas." (Note the one-sided view of Palestine as a consumers' haven.) "Where was this [anger] concealed so that we didn't see it?" The answer came from a Palestinian social worker: "For fifty years, we have lived together, yet I do not believe the Jews really know anything about us.... Young men cannot find work. Nearly half of all Arabs in Nazareth live below the poverty line.... Why is anyone amazed that everything has exploded?"
How could any reasonable person not have believed that the visit of Ariel Sharon, escorted by 1,000 policemen, to the Temple Mount--also known as the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site--would provoke the Palestinians? As Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz, Sharon did not care if he offended the Palestinians--"he went up ignoring their existence completely. He went up for internal political reasons, without giving a thought to how his behavior might affect them." Sharon is loathed by Palestinians for the brutal war in Lebanon and for loudly championing the policy of pushing ever more settlements into their space.
It is true that Sharon's visit was not the "real" cause of the riots. They were ignited by long-smoldering outrage over the failure of the Oslo process to deliver any tangible benefits to Palestinians. One of the greatest of the longstanding provocations, along with the humiliating Israeli military presence, is the ongoing encroachment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian space, which has continued unabated under the Barak government.
In the short term the violence must be stopped; in the longer term, all sides--but particularly the United States and Israel--must absorb the lessons of this round of violence before they go about trying to restart peace talks. The Israelis must face the fact that it is wildly unrealistic to maintain sovereignty over East Jerusalem, overwhelmingly inhabited by Palestinians determined to contest that sovereignty. The United States must face the fact that it has failed to convince the Palestinians that it can be a fair and honest broker (about $5 billion annually in military and economic aid to Israel, an occupying power, has always made that claim rather hollow). Arafat concluded that trilateral negotiations (Israel, the United States, the Palestinians) left him isolated, called on to make compromises that would be politically fatal to him. The Arabs' insistence on Secretary General Kofi Annan's participation in the Sharm el Sheik talks signaled the need for an expanded UN role in the region. The European Union, Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states must play a greater part as well.
To regain its credibility as broker, the United States should involve the UN, the EU and the Palestinians in the preparation of its report on the causes of the violence. Israel must cease its reliance on military force, which exacerbates tensions and keeps youthful Palestinians raging in the streets. Arafat has a role in cooling the violence, but he cannot do it until religious fanatics on both sides are reined in. Beyond that, two estranged peoples must somehow be reconciled. With time, the wound can be healed. It must be.
While the differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore may still be coming into focus for many Americans in the final weeks before the election, one is already stark. On tobacco, the leading cause of preventable death in America, Bush would return the nation to the failed laissez-faire attitudes of the past. A Gore administration could be expected to continue the course charted by President Clinton, the first truly anti-tobacco President.
Indeed, a Bush administration would solve so many of tobacco's problems that the Texan is virtually one-stop shopping for an industry that has drenched his campaign with cash. For one thing, he'd change the civil justice system. Clinton vetoed tort reform bills, but Bush has made such "reform" a keystone of his proposed social policy and points with pride to his record in Texas--in 1995 he placed draconian restrictions on the right to sue. Bush would help mitigate the fallout from the recent $145 billion verdict in the Engle lawsuit--the Miami class action on behalf of thousands of Floridians sickened by cigarettes--by signing a bill pending in Congress that would send all class actions to federal court. There, Engle would be decertified, downgraded into a handful of individual lawsuits, long before trial by a federal system hostile to tobacco class actions.
As to regulating cigarettes, Bush would likely work with a Republican Congress to enact a "compromise" regulation law, limiting some forms of tobacco marketing and granting toothless federal oversight in return for liability limits and giving tobacco a seat at the table of any regulatory process. Bill Clinton was the first President to make the regulation of tobacco one of his signature policy initiatives. Although the Supreme Court ultimately shot down Food and Drug Administration oversight of cigarettes, Clinton used the bully pulpit of the presidency to put tobacco on the national agenda in a way it had never been before, fulminating against the industry for peddling nicotine to children.
Bush's record indicates he would pay lip service to keeping kids off cigarettes but would put much more energy into vilifying plaintiffs' lawyers for getting rich from lawsuits that attack the industry for targeting children. Bush has pledged to kill off a multibillion-dollar RICO action by the Justice Department that charges that the cigarette companies concealed their product's deadliness, and he would likely rescind or stymie numerous Clinton executive orders, nascent regulations and programs dealing with everything from secondhand smoke to funding research on Big Tobacco's internal documents.
Finally, Bush would be likely to back incursions by domestic cigarette makers into foreign markets. He would be much less disposed to sign on to a proposed World Health Organization treaty on tobacco and health and very prone to weaken it, to the benefit of a global tobacco industry now menacing Asia, and to the detriment of millions of potential new smokers who will become victims of cigarette-related disease.
If Ralph Nader can make it here in old New York--as he did at his October 13 Madison Square Garden rally, which pulled a full house of 15,000 paying supporters--he can make it anywhere, right? Young people were in evidence, among them Nation interns and staff; also a significant number of gays, women and minorities, to whom Nader reached out, criticizing the drug war, capital punishment and environmental racism. The singer Ani DiFranco confessed to intern Kristi Abrams that she had agonized about attending: "If you are poor, the difference between Gore and Bush could be life and death." But after Nader called her the fourth time to urge her to come, she followed her instincts: "[Saying no] didn't feel right to me. I need to be the voice. I need to follow my heart."
The major media have paid very little attention to a story by Robert Rogers about George W. Bush's apparent grounding by Air National Guard. Rogers, a former commercial and National Guard pilot and airline industry consultant, acquired Bush's service records under a FOIA request. These show that, contrary to reports that he simply "gave up" flying in 1972, two years before the end of his six-year commitment, he was grounded because of "failure to accomplish annual medical examination." Given Bush's history of alcohol and drug use, Roberts theorizes that Bush may have either failed the drug test recently instituted by the Pentagon or chosen to avoid the physical. The truth lurks in service records not released under Rogers's FOIA request. Rogers calls on Bush to open up all his file and end speculation about this curious event. The story was published on the web at www.democrats.com.
Karyn Rotker writes: Thanks in large part to Wisconsin's Republican governor, the self-styled welfare reformer Tommy Thompson, the state has been lavished with national attention for its conservative social policy experiments. But nobody has taken much notice of an independent audit released this past summer showing that the private companies managing Wisconsin's welfare program have misused public funds--jacking up administrative costs while slashing benefits for the poor. In particular, Maximus--a for-profit company also embroiled in welfare-contract scandals in New York--charged Wisconsin millions of dollars to pay for its national corporate operations. It billed the state for company social events. It poured welfare money into advertising, from public relations campaigns to fanny packs sporting the Maximus name. Meanwhile, another welfare contractor, Employment Solutions--a nonprofit created by Goodwill Industries, whose executive director is a former Thompson aide--reportedly billed the state for expenses incurred while attempting to get a welfare contract in Arizona. Perhaps most egregious, the private firms have shoddy records in providing services to clients. Maximus stands has violated federal law with its sex discrimination in job placement practices. The state refuses to impose educational requirements on caseworkers, and it gives private contractors a financial incentive to reduce welfare rolls. In Wisconsin, "corporate welfare" has taken on a whole new meaning.
Slipped into the spending authorization bill for intelligence agencies was a measure that makes it a felony to disclose classified information. Under the bill anyone who leaks such information, regardless of whether national security is harmed, could be prosecuted. The potential chilling effect on whistleblowers was clear to many Republicans and Democrats alike, who sounded alarms. Even flaky Representative Bob Barr called it an official secrets act.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Matthew Glavin, head of the Southeastern Legal Foundation--a right-wing group and self-appointed morals cop, which most recently brought suit to disbar President Clinton in Arkansas--pleaded guilty to a charge of public indecency. An undercover federal officer spotted him indulging in the sin of Onan al fresco, on a trail in the Chattahoochee National River Park near Atlanta. Glavin then made advances to the officer, who arrested him. No doubt pornography brought him to his low state--probably reading the steamier passages of the Starr report.
Who says this is a do-nothing Congress? Sure, it can't agree on expanding the childcare tax credit or approve an increase in the minimum wage. Yet, as Congress prepares to adjourn, legislators were rushing to protect and expand tax subsidies for some of the largest, most profitable corporations in the world. Under current law, US exporters can set up largely paper presences in foreign tax havens like Barbados. The exporters can then exempt between 15 and 30 percent of their export income from taxes by routing products through these entities, called Foreign Sales Corporations. In a recent case filed by the European Union, however, the World Trade Organization ruled that the FSC tax break was an illegal subsidy.
Precedent has shown the United States more than willing to bend to the will of the WTO. For example, when the WTO ruled against an Endangered Species Act protecting sea turtles, the United States quickly eased its regulations. Yet when a multibillion-dollar tax incentive is at stake, Washington falls all over itself to protect corporate welfare.
Immediately after the WTO ruling against FSCs, the Clinton Administration, a few members of Congress and the business community began meeting in secret to work out a bill that eliminates FSC in name only while actually expanding export subsidies for a total cost to taxpayers of about $4 billion a year. The beneficiaries? General Electric, Boeing, Raytheon, Cisco Systems, Archer Daniels Midland and others. The House approved this bill with only forty minutes of debate and no amendments allowed, by a vote of 315 to 109. The bill was held up in the Senate because some objected to the tax break for arms manufacturers and subsidies for tobacco exports. Despite the objections, the bill is expected to be tacked onto a must-pass budget bill and signed by the President.
The proponents of this giveaway claim it will promote US jobs. However, the Congressional Budget Office, whose director was appointed by Republicans, has written, "Export subsidies do not increase the overall level of domestic investment and domestic employment.... In the long run, export subsidies increase imports as much as exports." The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reached a similar conclusion.
It gets worse. The tax break may actually subsidize moving US jobs overseas. There is no requirement that a substantial portion of a product covered by the subsidies be made with US content or with US labor. An Administration official said that an eligible product could have "little or no US content" and still qualify.
Not only is the legislation not economically justifiable, it is not likely to comply with the WTO ruling. The EU has already stated that the changes aren't adequate, and it intends to seek authority to retaliate by imposing 100 percent tariffs on some $4 billion worth of US goods.
I am not a fan of the WTO. It is an unaccountable, secretive, undemocratic bureaucracy that looks out for the interests of multinational corporations and investors at the expense of human rights, labor standards, national sovereignty and the environment. But by pointing out that export subsidies like FSCs are corporate welfare, the WTO has done US taxpayers a favor. It has once again highlighted the fact that US trade policy is written by and for corporations, with no concern for workers, human rights or environmental protection.
We dare to be optimistic. Presidential elections are mile markers on a very long road. Our side does not expect to win according to conventional measures; it could hardly be otherwise, since our political objective is the radical reconstruction of US society. This election may shift governing power to new hands, though within a narrowing band of the possible. The returns may reveal something about the nation, though that information is unreliable when half the electorate has opted out of voting. Meanwhile, we seek to rehabilitate America's collapsing democracy, to mobilize systematic confrontation with the harsh economic inequalities, to construct a movement that is both powerful and attentive to human concerns and suffering, the suppression of liberties, the destruction of nature. These matters and others are not going to be resolved by one election or several of them. Yet Election 2000, despite its sorry qualities, turns out to be important--perhaps even pivotal for us.
We hold out the proposition that something promising and positive is under way in the dispirited political landscape, and we should determine to make the most of it. After the past two decades of loss and retreat, it takes nerve to sound so hopeful. Ralph Nader, much as many of us might wish for it, is not going to become the next President. If Al Gore does, the radical vision still remains far distant from the levers of power. On the morning after, if George W. Bush has won, we will be gearing up for familiar battles against the right-wing agenda. And yet people on many progressive fronts do recognize the changing circumstances before them, and they are in a still-fragile process of inventing smart new politics to engage the possibilities. Our endorsement goes first to this spirit of renewal.
The promise can be glimpsed in the precious few bright spots of the campaign--especially the resonance of Nader's voice--but also in the political system's continuing failures. A new movement of allied concerns surfaced in the protests in Seattle a year ago, and yet neither major-party candidate dared even mention globalization when the two men met in face-to-face debate. Their awkward silence suggests our growing presence. If Nader draws enough voters to carry the Green Party over the 5 percent hurdle for ballot recognition, that vehicle provides concrete opportunity. If Democrats manage to win back majority control of the House, or even the Senate, their victory multiplies opportunities for educating and agitating on new issues. A Bush victory would be a terrible setback to our optimism, no way around it, but if Gore manages to win the White House, despite his weaknesses, the center-right moves a little bit our way and, in any case, becomes the object of purposeful leveraging.
These new prospects did not originate from any clever slogans; they reflect the harsh contradictions visible in people's lives and shifting sensibilities across the nation--the general disgust with corporate money's overbearing influence on public decision-making, the fragile desire for a new and more humane internationalism, the growing but unfocused anger at government's failure to act on any of the largest problems. These and other discontents are the opportunities for our side, if people will assume optimistically that many fed-up Americans are at last ready to listen to heretical analysis and fundamental solutions. The fog is lifting, though not yet gone.
If we take the long view and our optimism is grounded in reality, this opening requires some changes in us as well, both in temperament and strategy. The test of a first-rate intelligence, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one's head at the same time. For this election and in the politics beyond, we think our readers must learn to juggle similar tensions, between the pragmatic and the idealistic--accepting that long-term allies will disagree and coalesce at different junctures, that politics can be both inside and outside in pursuit of the same goals.
In that spirit, we embrace Nader's ideas and creative idealism and hope that his strong showing will rattle the windowpanes throughout American politics. However, to realize the openings before us, we warn that there is greater urgency to preventing Bush and company from capturing all three branches of government for the right-wing agenda. In the long view, such tensions are symptoms of forward progress. We can learn to live with them.
Ralph Nader has already accomplished a greater victory than even some of his original supporters imagined possible--he has made our side visible again. Even a two-minute TV burst from Nader provides a stunning catalogue of the neglected grievances in American life and corrupted governance as well as the plausible remedies. He does not talk down to voters. Nader's idealism, starting from his earliest consumer crusades more than thirty years ago, is based upon the conviction that Americans at large are eager for serious discussion of public ideas and fully capable of grasping the complexities. One shudders deliciously at what a three-way debate would have been like if the corporate-owned debates commission had allowed it (the commission is already one of the big losers of Election 2000, and the agitation should start now, not in 2004, to blow up its monopoly on political discourse).
Despite minimal media coverage, Nader connected the spirit of Seattle with a much larger audience of Americans--filling halls of 10,000 and more with people, many of them young, who paid to hear him talk. When did that last occur in US politics? Pat Buchanan's right-wing version of insurgency was effectively eclipsed by Nader; even Gore paid backhanded tribute by discovering that this election is about "the people against the powerful." The point is, Nader started something new and potentially sustainable, both as an alternative soapbox and as electoral leverage on regular politics, especially that of the Democrats (whose Congressional candidates may benefit from the new, young voters Nader draws into the process). The future will depend entirely on what people decide to make of it. In the meantime, Nader has articulated the superstructure of progressive thinking--a work in progress, to be sure, but already brimming with big ideas.
In the spirit of positive thinking, we observe first that Al Gore wisely abandoned his New Democrat playbook on many issues in order to connect with the natural constituencies of his own party. His attacks on big oil, big insurance and other malefactors sounded a bit clunky, to be sure, and, although he attacked Bush's tax cut for the wealthy, Gore evaded a fuller discussion of economic inequality since, as everyone knows, it deepened dramatically while he was Vice President. But the Democratic candidate is a smart and capable man who, at different points in his career, has displayed a forward-looking vision on great public problems, like the ecological crisis. Still, no one who has watched the abrupt changes in his campaign persona can have any confidence that the progressive Al Gore would emerge in the White House. The promise, though limited, lies in the fact that Gore has uttered the requisite words on a wide range of subjects, from universalizing healthcare to establishing labor and environmental rights in global trade agreements. As President, Gore would have to choose between the people who elected him and the DLC moneybags who financed him. It's another opening for popular mobilization.
The real argument for Gore is named Bush, and it's the most compelling case. The implications of a Bush victory are well understood across many vital issues (one of Nader's rare false notes was to assert that these are inconsequential differences). The Gore-Bush agendas are indeed overlapping on many central matters--monetary policy, the death penalty, the failed drug war, to name a few--but that doesn't tell the whole story. Gore promises, for instance, to listen to labor, environmentalists, human rights advocates and other protest voices on reforming the global system. Bush's leading foreign policy adviser, on the other hand, proclaims, "The Seattle agenda is a real threat." Bush embraces the continuing crusade against women's right to choose abortion, among other retrograde social positions, while no one doubts Gore would appoint Supreme Court Justices who would defend Roe v. Wade and other civil liberties.
While Bush appears an amiable lightweight, his blank, meek expression merely accentuates the question of who really owns this man. The answer is obvious from his Texas record and personal heritage. Tearing up Social Security delivers the money to Wall Street brokerages. His "compassionate conservatism" extends to shielding insurance companies and drug manufacturers from public wrath, plus old friends in oil and the military-industrial complex. His education experiments, if they proceed, are destined to gut the financing of public schools. It's a long and devastating list, which candidate Gore failed to illuminate fully. Bush's handlers, on the other hand, understood that the son could not run like the father or as a born-again Newt--that revolution is over. At the end of the day, however, the right-wing legacy rules. Bush's White House would obediently vet its legislative agenda and appointments not only with corporate America but with Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, the hard-right caucuses in the Senate and House, the TV Bible-thumpers whose piety is rooted in intolerance.
In another season, when our insurgent values have accumulated more momentum and self-confidence, we might see things differently. This time around, we believe the practical priority of keeping the Bush squad from winning power takes precedence, while we also urge that, if possible, progressives help Nader score a blow to the status quo. For the larger progressive community, the tension can be resolved by following the logic of Texas columnist Molly Ivins. Her rule: Vote with your heart where you can, and vote with your head where you must. In states where either Gore or Bush has a commanding lead, vote Nader. In the states too close to call, vote Gore. In either case, the imperative is to end Republican control in Congress by electing Democrats, also vital to the prospects for progressive change.
The question Election 2000 poses for the ranks of left-labor-liberal-progressive outsiders is: Despite occasional clashes over their different directions, can the radical-to-moderate critics of the decayed status quo learn how to pursue a politics in which radical idealism coexists with heads-up pragmatism? As Nader has said, "There are millions of progressives in this country--the problem is, they've never met each other." That captures the larger, long-term challenge, regardless of the election's outcome. If the fragmented progressive community can begin working together, developing inside-outside electoral strategies, doing the hard work of engaging alienated citizens in the conversation, things will look very much better four years from now. Despite its disappointments, Election 2000 might yet turn out to be the progressive moment--when we stopped backing up and started moving forward.
The number-one healthcare issue facing the country is not which prescription drug plan is best for seniors or whether a handful of patients will be able to sue their HMOs. It is the 44 million people, or nearly 20 percent of the population under age 65, who have no health insurance and, for many, no healthcare at all. The myth that emergency rooms provide all the care the uninsured require continues unchallenged. But the emergency room is not the place to get primary care, follow-up care or care for chronic conditions, which most people need. Federal law requires emergency rooms to stabilize patients. After that, they are sent on their way, especially if they have no money to pay for further treatment. When they are given prescriptions, 30 percent of the uninsured don't fill them because of the cost.
Rationing specialty care for the uninsured is common. In Washington, DC, the uninsured wait four months for an MRI and two months for a CT scan. In California, some counties have money to screen women for breast cancer but no money for treatment. During the four to seven years following an initial diagnosis of breast cancer, one national study shows, uninsured women are 49 percent more likely to die than women with insurance. Community clinics that treat the uninsured rarely have specialists on their staffs and resort to begging area physicians to help out--not always with success.
The Bush and Gore solutions do little to help the uninsured and a lot to keep the healthcare system safe for insurance companies, the AMA, employers and the pharmaceutical industry, all of which have shoveled money into their campaigns. Bush proposes an annual refundable tax credit (that is, one that's given even if a person owes no taxes) of up to $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for families. His campaign literature makes tax credits sound ideal: "If a family earning $30,000 purchases a health insurance plan costing $2,222, the government will contribute $2,000 (90 percent)." Trouble is, most families can't buy insurance for $2,222. The average premium for a family policy is $6,740 and for an individual, $2,542. Gore calls for a credit equal to 25 percent of the premium. Using the average premium as a benchmark, that's about $1,700 for family coverage; a family wanting a policy would still have to cough up more than $5,000.
Tax credits, moreover, leave intact the ability of insurance companies to select good risks and exclude sick people who will cost them money. That, of course, is what the industry wants to protect--and is part of the payoff for its campaign largesse.
Both Bush and Gore would also fiddle with the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to boost coverage. CHIP has brought health insurance to some 2.5 million kids, but 10 million still have none. Bush's solution: Give the states more flexibility in administering the program. But many states have not even spent federal dollars already earmarked for them, and could be tempted into using the money for something other than insurance. Gore's solution: Stretch the eligibility rules to include children whose families have incomes up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $41,000 for a family of four. But what if a family's income is above 250 percent, say $43,000? Gore's answer: tax credits.
Then there are medical savings accounts, which Bush likes and Gore doesn't. Congress now allows self-employed people and employees in small companies to buy MSAs, which are a combination high-deductible insurance policy and tax-deferred savings account. But at the end of 1999, only 45,000 policies of the 750,000 Congress authorized had been sold. Still, Bush wants to let more people buy them, a move that will spark interest mainly among the healthy, who won't need the savings account to pay for care, and the wealthy, who can assume the costs not covered by the large deductible and who will simply get another tax break.
The major battleground in healthcare, though, is over a prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries, with pharmaceutical companies replacing HMOs as this year's healthcare villains. Under Bush's scheme, the very poorest seniors would get help paying for the entire cost of a drug benefit. Individuals with incomes greater than $14,600 and couples with incomes up to $19,700 would get a partial subsidy. Bush would pump $48 million into the state pharmaceutical assistance programs to give free drugs to those with the lowest incomes. But more than half the states have no programs, and those that do lace them with restrictions.
Under Gore's plan, Medicare would cover 50 percent of the cost of prescriptions, first up to $2,000 and later up to $5,000, for seniors willing to pay a premium that would start at $25 a month. As with Bush's plan, seniors with very low incomes would get help. Both candidates offer help for those with catastrophic expenses: Gore's benefit would kick in after seniors have spent $4,000 on drugs, Bush's after they've spent $6,000 for all services. Neither, however, includes a way to control pharmaceutical prices. Controls of any sort are anathema to the drug companies.
The fight over whose plan provides the bigger benefit obscures the real fundamental Medicare issue, and that is the future structure of the program itself. Under the guise of "consumer choice," Bush wants to transform Medicare from a social insurance program with a defined benefit available to everyone into a voucher plan under which seniors would be given a fixed amount to buy whatever insurance they could afford. Even if a voucher were sufficient to pay for a policy today, there is no assurance that it would do so in the future. In effect, the Bush proposal could make seniors, rather than government, bear the cost of healthcare inflation. Gore speaks of putting Medicare in a lockbox, which presumably means he wants to maintain it as a social insurance program.
Unresolved in the candidates' discussions is the larger question: Is healthcare a right in America or a commodity available only to those who can pay? On this the public may be way ahead of its leaders. When the Kaiser Family Foundation asked people earlier this year if healthcare, like public education, should be provided equally to everyone, 84 percent said yes. The candidates, however, are listening to the special interests, whose money speaks louder than the people.
Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign for the presidency has evolved
into a dangerous game. On one hand, the candidate insists it doesn't
matter if George W. Bush beats Al Gore. Yet we also are assured that
Nader doesn't pull votes from Gore in closely contested states. Both
positions are patently false.
With very few exceptions, most states are up for grabs, including
California, where the once huge gap between Bush and Gore has narrowed.
Nader now is poised to cost Gore an electoral majority. There is no
comparable threat to siphon conservative voters from Bush by the
floundering Reform Party campaign of Pat Buchanan.
Nader's supporters are potential Gore, not Bush, voters. "The Nader
campaign talks about its appeal to disaffected [John] McCain, [Jesse]
Ventura and [Ross] Perot voters, but I have rarely met one at a Nader
rally," says reporter Matt Welsh, who has been covering the Nader
campaign for the online journal http://www.newsforchange.com. Welsh
added: "The biggest applause lines are those that appeal to the
progressive wing of the Democratic Party."
Those Nader supporters have an obligation to vote for Gore because a
Republican sweep of the White House and Congress would spell disaster for
environmental protection and for efforts to increase the minimum wage and
the earned income tax credit, not to mention the hard-won gains made by
women and minorities. Nader knows better than anyone that there has been
a huge difference between the Clinton Administration and the Republican
Congress on those issues.
Nor should Nader be downplaying the consequences for the Supreme Court
if Bush is elected. On the campaign trail, he muddies the issue by
observing that some Republican Presidents have appointed moderates to the
Court, ignoring Bush's pledge to Pat Robertson and the rest of the GOP's
right wing that he would name judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas. As it is, the Court in the past five years has struck
down twenty-five progressive laws that Clinton managed to get through Congress,
including parts of the Brady gun control bill and the Violence Against
That is why leading progressives like Sen. Paul D. Wellstone
(D-Minn.), Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem have taken to the hustings to
convince Naderites to vote for Gore. It is not their intention, or mine,
to deny Nader credit as the most consistent and effective crusader for
consumer interests in the history of this nation. It is also true that
Nader deserves thanks for raising basic issues arising from the corporate
dominance of our political process, which the major candidates have
And, yes, it does mock democracy to have denied Nader and Buchanan a
place in the debates, particularly given moderator Jim Lehrer's apparent
indifference to the role of big money in undermining representative
democracy. Let me also add that I feel betrayed by a Democratic candidate
who is so gutless as to not even utter the name of the President, whose
enormously successful administration is the source of Gore's credibility.
So Gore's not perfect--what else is new? Most often, the majority of
voters end up siding with the electable candidate who comes closest to
their political thinking. For progressives in this election, that is
clearly Gore. Certainly, Robertson and his allies on the Republican right
now justify their support of Bush as a vote for the lesser evil. They get
nervous when Bush talks about "compassionate conservatism" and plays to
the center, but they hold their noses and rally around his candidacy
because that is the best they've got.
It is time for progressive Democrats to be equally practical. Gore is
a centrist Democrat, and he will not likely do much to rein in corporate
power, pass much-needed universal health care or reverse the travesty of
welfare "reform," which will prove a disaster in the next recession.
But Gore is on record as supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign
reform measure, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose. He
would protect Social Security and Medicare from Bush's irresponsible
privatization schemes. He has an expansive view of civil rights
protection for minorities and gays. And he has as consistent a record in
support of the environment as any major politician.
Finally, from my experience interviewing Gore and observing him in
action, he is far better than his media notices. Like Clinton, but in
sharp contrast with Bush, Gore is very bright, has seriously worked the
issues and sincerely believes that an effective federal government is
necessary for the well-being of the populace.
That may not make for a green revolution, but it's a lot better deal
than a Bush White House with the doors thrown open for Trent Lott, Jesse
Helms, Pat Robertson and Charlton Heston to run amok.
What a deal! Elect George W. Bush President and you get government
lite--eat all you want without gaining a pound. Bush promises to cut
taxes for all, dramatically increase military spending, finance a
trillion-dollar private Social Security system and eliminate the national
debt. And Bush claims he will put you, not some Washington bureaucrat, in
charge of your life (unless, of course, it concerns your right to
Just to state the main themes of Bush's campaign is to demonstrate
their inherent absurdity. But there's method to the madness. Make no
mistake: A Bush presidency, abetted by a Republican sweep of Congress and
increasing right-wing control of the courts, portends frightening
consequences for our lives.
Anyone who's been awake these past eight years should know that it's
the Republicans, dominated by their right wing, who tried to block every
measure to make government more responsive to the health, environmental
and educational interests of ordinary Americans. At the same time, these
false prophets of smaller government were pawns of the Christian right's
crusade to intrude the federal government into our most personal
decisions, beginning with a woman's control of her body. At no point has
Bush disowned that Republican agenda.
So why are so many otherwise reasonable people planning to vote for a
candidate selling them this ludicrous bill of goods? It's because the guy
comes on as a moderate with a disarming smile that could make him the
impish star of a sitcom. Just when you realize he's conning you and the
bleary face of Newt Gingrich hyping his "contract with America" starts to
come into focus, reminding us that we've been through this destructive
drill, Bush turns on the all-inclusive charm.
The great deceit of the Bush campaign, beginning with the GOP
convention last summer, has been to get voters to forget that it's been
the Republican Congress that has threatened America with gridlock and
political chaos unless we bend federal government to its skewed
agenda--an agenda that Bush has assured the right wing he endorses. The
religious right has gone along with the charade, muting its criticisms
while Bush plays to the center. Let him fake the moderate for now, they
say, knowing that is what it takes to win. For example, Pat Robertson
told reporters that he refrained from criticizing the Federal Drug
Administration's approval of the abortion pill RU-486 for fear of costing
Bush the election. Bush also avoided the issue. The payoff for the
right's reserve in the campaign, as Bush has made amply clear, is that he
will deliver to them on the judiciary. If the Republicans maintain
control of the Senate, which now seems highly likely, a Bush victory
would guarantee judicial appointees from the Supreme Court on down who
are drawn from Jesse Helms's wish list.
For all of his talk of bipartisanship, Bush, in citing Antonin Scalia
and Clarence Thomas as his ideal models for future Supreme Court picks,
has promised to mold what should be the most independent branch of
government in the ideological image of the far right. Indeed, the
oft-repeated promise of the Bush campaign to the religious right is that
Bush would never repeat the "disaster" that his father made in appointing
moderate David Souter to the court.
With the court divided by one vote on most environmental and consumer
regulatory matters as well as affirmative action, with only two votes
needed to overturn Roe v. Wade and with at least three or four of its
members likely to leave the court, the next President will have enormous
power through his judicial appointments to shape the future of our
government as we know it.
The "strict constructionists" Bush prefers are people who believe the
federal government should be crippled as a regulator of big business, as
an advocate for racial and economic justice and as a protector of the
environment. On the other hand, they would weaken constitutional
protection of individual rights and blur the separation of church and
The Republican right wing is concerned about personal freedom only
when it comes to indulging the National Rifle Association or corporate greed by
savaging government regulation. But in matters of individual freedom, be
it reproductive rights, protection from job discrimination or hate crimes
because of sexual orientation or racism, the Republican leadership,
including George W. Bush, is eager to intrude a narrow religious and
ideological bias into the most important decisions of our lives.
That's why this election is of crucial importance. What we're facing
is the possibility of right-wing control of the presidency, Congress and
the courts. And with that will go the saving grace of our system of
checks and balances.
"When the ax came into the woods, the trees all said, 'Well, at least the handle is one of us.'" There is more intellectual content in this old Turkish folk warning than in the entire output of the "lesser evil" school. Here comes Albert Gore Jr., striding purposefully toward us with a big chopper resting easily on his shoulder.
The voters hear on Halloween
The country's doorbell ring.
There's Bush dressed up as real adult
And Gore as human being.
I keep reading that the election turns on women's votes. Yet apart from the issue of abortion, women seem curiously invisible this election season--except of course for the endlessly focus-grouped, interviewed and psychoanalyzed women of Ohio and other toss-up states, who can't decide whether to vote for Gore because he kissed his wife or for Bush because they like his mother. Are these ninnies really representative, or is their prominence more a symptom of the emptiness of political reporting, which has cast the race as a personality contest between a Fibber and a Dope? What, for example, do women tell pollsters is their most important issue? Hint: It's not whether Al Gore or George W. would be more fun on a date or make a better babysitter. It's pay equity.
Yes, women are apparently unpersuaded that they earn 71 cents on the male dollar because, as the Independent Women's Forum insists, they choose low-paid jobs in order to have lots of time and energy for childcare and housecleaning. Yet when Bernard Shaw asked Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman about pay equity in their Veep debate, the two men quickly turned to the marvels of their respective tax proposals. Shaw let them--what's pay equity to him? Even issues that are on the table are discussed as if they have no gendered aspects--affirmative action, for instance, or proposals to privatize all or part of Social Security, which will affect women much more than men: Not only do women on average live longer, they make up the large majority of retirees and dependents who survive on Social Security alone. Violence against women has gone unmentioned--as opposed to media violence and smut, a major theme and supposed woman-pleaser--ditto insurance coverage for contraception (Viagra's already covered, but you knew that), high-quality daycare, the near-impossibility of collecting court-ordered child support from an ex-husband who doesn't want to pay it (there's a middle-class issue for you) and dozens of other problems facing real-life women. There are a number of women running for national office, but you don't hear much about them. From the media point of view, the continuing scandal of women's underrepresentation in government is as musty as the ERA. Women had their year back in 1992.
There's only one woman on the political scene who seems to evoke any kind of passion--and that's Hillary Clinton, or "Hillary." But most of the passion is negative: She's like a Rorschach test of feminine evil. Through direct mail aimed at Hillary-haters across the land, the Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee has raised almost $2 million for her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio, a hyperaggressive nobody whose wife boasts that she cleans her own house--I suppose that's the contemporary equivalent of Pat Nixon's good Republican cloth coat. The First Lady, a supporter of the death penalty, welfare reform and interventionist foreign policy, is depicted as an "angry woman who is abusive to White House staff and obsessed with imposing her radical left vision on the rest of America." How hated is Hillary? Eighteen percent of Democratic primary voters pulled the lever for her totally obscure challenger, a doctor who subsequently revealed himself to be a Lazio supporter. Maureen Dowd has completely lost herself in an ecstasy of psychological projection--her Hillary is like Joan Crawford in an old weepie: While the Gores and Liebermans bill and coo, she rattles around in her empty new house, loveless and lonely, and excluded from society as "Manhattan's dread extra woman." On the Drudge Report, Juanita Broaddrick accused Hillary of threatening her at a political function two weeks after her alleged rape: The threat was conveyed by thanking Broaddrick effusively--too effusively--for her support.
Disapproval of Hillary for sticking with her marriage cuts across party lines--Jimmy Breslin and George Will together at last with all those suburban harpies happy to knife a woman who steps out of the box. But her devotion to Bill has brought her an odd defender, Linda Waite, author with right-wing columnist Maggie Gallagher of a book-length soundbite called The Case for Marriage. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Waite castigates conservatives like Will for taking opportunistic potshots at Hillary's decision to stay married: After all, Hillary is honoring the institution of marriage and making the choice conservatives--although presumably not Will, who is divorced--think people should make when faced with marital trouble. "Staying in an imperfect marriage is a perfectly reasonable choice for many women," writes Waite, not to mention good for society. Interestingly, Waite seems to have forgotten her own potshot at Hillary: In their book, Waite and Gallagher torment a remark of Mrs. Clinton's that seems clearly aimed at gossips and Nosy Parkers ("I learned a long time ago that the only two people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it") to portray her as a standard-bearer for the idea that marriage is a private contract with no social significance. In fact, as they should know, Mrs. Clinton is quite a conservative on marital matters; she supported the Republican-authored Personal Responsibility Act, which begins by stating that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society"; in It Takes a Village, she wrote favorably of making divorce harder to get.
If you want to see a woman politician boldly standing up for the right to privacy--or anything else--you have to go to the movies. In The Contender, a swell political thriller, Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson, a Republican-turned-Democrat senator who is nominated to fill out a dead Vice President's term and finds herself under withering attack for supposedly participating in a fraternity sexfest as a college freshman. The movie, which is dedicated to "our daughters," is one long prayer for the abolition of the double standard--which it then, in typical Hollywood fashion, endorses. Laine is so pure and idealistic that she survives only because Jeff Bridges, as the wily Clintonesque President, stoops to tactics that would never even occur to her. In other words, in order to be in politics, a woman has to be too good for politics.
It won't be a revolution, but progressives see support for much of their agenda.
Multiracial and populist, New York's Working Families Party gains ground.
Since Spike Lee begins his new picture, Bamboozled, by giving a dictionary definition of satire, the least a reviewer can do is to open with a proper critical definition. Strictly speaking, Bamboozled is a Menippean satire; and because I'm unqualified to describe that form, I will defer to Northrop Frye. A few lines from his Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus...differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.
Frye's catalogue of Menippean personages will serve nicely as a roll call for the characters in Bamboozled. "Rapacious and incompetent professional men"--those would be Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a full-throatedly boorish program executive at the CNS television network, and his underling Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the network's only African-American staff writer. The story's "virtuosi" are a pair of starving, scuffling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who at first want nothing more than a chance to do their act and get paid. In them, Delacroix sees a vehicle for escaping his job, while at the same time exacting revenge on Dunwitty for endless slights and slurs.
"Enthusiasts" are the American people, God bless them, who fall in love with the variety show that Delacroix dreams up. Manray, now called Mantan, and Womack, renamed Sleep 'n' Eat, become the stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program set in an Alabama watermelon patch, featuring a full cast of coons, Toms, mammies, pickaninnies and chain-gang prisoners. To Delacroix's horror, viewers do not rise up in fury against this spectacle. Instead, they adopt blackface as the nation's latest fad.
"Cranks"--these are the members of a would-be-revolutionary hip-hop collective called the Mau Maus, led by a man who has named himself Big Blak African (Mos Def). The Mau Maus conform to the most noxious stereotypes--they're unlettered, inarticulate, unemployed, slovenly and very fond of malt liquor--so of course they declare war on the minstrel show for perpetuating such images.
"Parvenus"--a term that applies to most of the major characters. Once the minstrel show turns into a huge success, misbehavior becomes general. "Pedant"--that would be Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix's young assistant and his uneasy but ineffective conscience. She's the one who insists that if Manray and Womack are to wear blackface, they must use authentic burnt cork. She's also the one who protests against the show by collecting hundreds of antique coon figures, with which she fills Delacroix's office and home. To these, Spike Lee adds a collection of his own, appending to the movie an entire gallery's worth of film clips of Toms, mammies, pickaninnies, etc. In such a manner, writes Frye, does the Menippean satirist demonstrate exuberance, "piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme."
Finally, we have the category of "bigots." It's enough to say that this is a Spike Lee movie.
And now, having anatomized Bamboozled, I must pass on to the tougher question: How good a Menippean satire is it? Or, to phrase the question more precisely: How does the movie play? To answer, I'd better begin again, starting this time with the bizarre figure of Delacroix.
Who is this man with the shaved head and pencil mustache, who keeps his voice locked in his sinus cavities and speaks English as if he'd learned it from 78 rpm records? (I mean, who is he other than another brilliant characterization by Damon Wayans?) We know that Delacroix is the narrator of Bamboozled and the instigator of its plot. We also discover, fairly quickly, that he's a postmodern, post-civil rights, post-affirmative action type, who calls himself a Negro and takes pride in dressing like Duke Ellington on a Savile Row spree. But behind all his preening and posing--pinching the air while he talks, pretending to believe that his co-workers respect him--who the hell is Delacroix?
Two aspects of his life--his apartment decor and the script for his TV show--combine to answer for him. The lavish apartment is located in a Manhattan tower, right behind the face of a giant clock. It's the perfect home for a man who, as they say, doesn't know what time it is. As for the TV show: One of the minstrel routines it revives is a doubletalk bit, spoken by a man whose family ties are so complicated that he seems to be his own grandfather. Says the minstrel, who might as well be speaking for Delacroix, "I don't know who I is!"
He's not the only one. The Mau Maus, too, live in a riot of self-misapprehension. Lee shows them in constant, jostling, purposeless motion; you get the impression of a many-headed, many-limbed being stuffed into a single baggy sweatshirt. "Know what I mean? Know what I'm sayin'?" they sputter at one another, without anyone's actually having said anything. They, too, seem to be echoed by the minstrels in an old routine--the one where two buddies converse unintelligibly because they never bother to complete a sentence.
Of course, the characters not of African descent have their own deficit of self-knowledge. Michael Rapaport, who has developed a specialty in playing big but sweet-natured imbeciles, here brings out a more bullying side of himself, making Dunwitty into a loud, tall, sputtering fount of vulgarities. "Yo! I'm the only black in this room!" he shouts at the grimly self-controlled Delacroix, before launching into a supposedly genial chant of "Nigger nigger nigger nigger!" But because of the privilege that comes with his pale skin, Dunwitty gets to enjoy his ignorance. The film's African characters suffer for theirs--and, in the end, make each other suffer.
This is hardly the first time that Lee has looked coldly at the popular culture of denigration (another word to look up in the dictionary), seeing in it a source of confusion and misery. His treatment of the subject has ranged from the rhetorical (in Malcolm X) to the intimately dramatic (in Crooklyn). But he's never before made this problem the main focus of a film--and when you think about it, you may realize that for all his coruscating wit, he's never before made a full-blown satire, either.
So how does Bamboozled play as a movie? I will cite, in descending order of merit, the performances, which are vivid; the themes, which are coherently developed (despite what you might have heard); the settings, which are reasonably varied but not strong in themselves (except for that clock tower); the videography, which is undistinguished; and the pacing and editing, which might have been improved had Lee emulated those minstrel routines he's revived.
The movie's dirty secret, which Lee has the courage to reveal, is that those bits really can be funny. You might expect to enjoy Bamboozled when Savion Glover gets to dance--how could a movie go wrong with him?--but the big surprise is to see how Tommy Davidson, as Womack, works those corny old jokes. Never in my life did I expect to hear an actor call out that legendary punch line, "Ain't nobody here but us chickens!" Is the moment humiliating for Womack? You bet. Did I laugh? You would, too.
Spike Lee has applied his erudition to this American tradition and discovered not just how it wounds but also how it entertains. With the intellectual acuity of the Menippean satirist, he's shown that the entertainment is the wound--the louder the laughter, the worse the damage. It's understandable, then, that he would want to drive home the lesson by strategically killing the fun for his own audience. I can imagine the gesture's being made swiftly, so that your throat would be slit in midlaugh. But Lee seems to lack the resolve for such savagery. Past a certain point in Bamboozled, when he might have declared a grand refusal, he instead falls into a semi-puritanical sulk, leaving the movie to clunk and clatter along. This is the satire of the passive-aggressive personality: someone who withdraws into a show of indifference, as if we should apologize to him and beg for a livelier picture.
I think of the sign that Delacroix places on top of his television set, to spur himself on in his work. Feed the Idiot Box, it says. How little regard the man must have for himself, when he feels such contempt for his job and his audience! Do I detect a touch of self-portraiture in Lee's picture of this fellow satirist? Would Bamboozled have been a better movie had Lee believed that we--and he--were worthy of it?
Short Take: Moviegoers who are willing to risk having their hearts warmed might take a look at Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a script by Lee Hall, it's an amiable example of the working-class-uplift picture--the uplift, in this case, involving the ability of a coal miner's son to execute a grand jeté.
In Durham, England, in 1984, young Billy sneaks off from his boxing class to study ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Bad enough that he's the only lad, amid all those tutus. Worse still, his father's union is in the process of being crushed by Mrs. Thatcher, so the 50 pence he misappropriates each week can be ill afforded. His dad (Gary Lewis) wants him to spend that money on learning to fight his way through a hard world--not on leaping about like a poofter.
I might have enjoyed Billy Elliot a bit more if the film hadn't insisted so often that Billy is not, I mean not, repeat not a poofter, just because he loves to dance. All right, back off. It also might have been useful to address the mineworkers' strike substantially, rather than use it as mere background, and to have made Billy's ultimate triumph something less of a foregone conclusion. Then again, Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a marvel. The kid knows how to dance; what's more, he knows how to pretend to dance less well than he really can, which is amazing in such a young actor. Let him and the character he plays have their triumph. It's harmless enough--and I'm pleased to say it's accomplished through public financing.
Poor Anthony Summers--he writes a 600-page book on Nixon based on massive and exhaustive research, including interviews with a thousand people and 120 pages of documentation--and all the media care about are the couple of pages he devotes to pill-popping and wife-beating. The same thing happened with his J. Edgar Hoover bio, which is remembered mostly for that unforgettable cross-dressing story.
But The Arrogance of Power has historical significance. It shows definitively that during the last weeks of the 1968 election campaign--when Nixon was challenging Vice President Hubert Humphrey--Nixon secretly sabotaged peace talks that might have ended the war at that point. Nixon went on to win one of the closest elections in history, after which he kept the fighting going another five years, during which more than 20,000 Americans and perhaps a million Vietnamese were killed.
The general outlines of the situation were well-known at the time: On October 31, just a week before Election Day, Johnson ordered the bombing halt that the North Vietnamese had said was a prerequisite to their entering into peace talks. Nixon had been eight points ahead in the Gallup poll, but two days after the bombing halt, his lead had fallen to two points. One poll even had Humphrey pulling ahead of Nixon then.
But the talks did not begin, because two days after the bombing halt South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu refused to participate. He had good reasons to prefer a Nixon victory--Thieu's regime was kept alive only by Washington, and Humphrey had told him that prolonged US aid was "not in the cards." Observers at the time, and historians subsequently, have speculated about whether Nixon conveyed private assurances to Thieu in those crucial two days. Of course Nixon denied it, and LBJ's memoirs, published three years later, declared that he had "no reason to think" that Nixon "was himself involved in this maneuvering, but a few individuals active in his campaign were." Among historians, Stephen Ambrose has been the most explicit in making the case, along with Clark Clifford, Defense Secretary for LBJ at the time, in his 1991 memoirs.
But no one had the smoking gun--not until Summers. His chapter on Nixon's maneuver provides a fine example of historical detective work. The key messenger, he argues, was Anna Chennault--the Chinese-born widow of an American World War II hero, 43 years old at the time, a prominent Washington hostess and vice chairwoman of the Republican National Finance Committee and co-chairwoman of Women for Nixon-Agnew. She also had connections to Southeast Asian leaders like Chiang Kai-shek and Ferdinand Marcos, as well as those in Saigon. In interviews with Summers, she said she met with Nixon and his campaign manager (and future Attorney General), John Mitchell, who told her to inform Saigon that if Nixon won the election, South Vietnam would get "a better deal."
Meanwhile, President Johnson deployed the full resources of US intelligence to see whether Nixon was telling Thieu not to go to the peace talks. The CIA had a bug in Thieu's Saigon office, the National Security Agency was intercepting South Vietnamese diplomatic cables and the FBI had wiretaps and physical surveillance at the South Vietnamese Embassy.
It's certainly possible that Anna Chennault was exaggerating her historical importance when she told Summers (and hinted to others earlier) about her role. But here's where the smoking gun appears: Summers reproduces an FBI memo he obtained in 1999 under the Freedom of Information Act. It's dated November 2, and it reports on the results of a wiretap on the phone of the South Vietnamese ambassador: Chennault had contacted the ambassador and "advised him that she had received a message from her boss"--who was described in the memo as "not further identified." The message was "hold on, we are gonna win." Then follows the most tantalizing line: "She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico." With a little more work, Summers sealed his case: Spiro Agnew made a campaign stop in Albuquerque that day, and the times match. Summers points out that Agnew could not have taken such a crucial step without explicit instructions from Nixon himself.
Summers found that he was not the first to piece this evidence together: Deep in the LBJ Library he found an "eyes only" memo to LBJ showing that national security assistant Walt Rostow had used the same sources to come to the same conclusions. Outraged, Johnson shared Rostow's insight with candidate Humphrey, but they decided not to go public with it in the last days before the election. (They may not have thought the documentation convincing enough and worried that it was too late to have an effect, regardless.) After Election Day, they apparently believed it would be too disruptive of the US political system to reveal what they knew about how the new President had helped himself win.
Wisely, Summers does not argue that his evidence proves Nixon prolonged the war--although he points out that more than a third of all US casualties during the war occurred during Nixon's presidency--a total of 20,763 Americans killed. That was also the period when the most intense bombing occurred, resulting in the deaths of perhaps a million or more Vietnamese. Summers acknowledges that Thieu "very probably" would have balked at peace talks even without prodding from Nixon. However, he argues forcefully and persuasively that it was wrong for a private citizen to interfere with a major diplomatic peace effort for his own political advantage.
Nixon's actions just before the election prolonged the war in a different way: Thieu took credit for Nixon's victory. Thus when Nixon reversed course and tried to push Thieu to the peace table on the eve of the 1972 election, Thieu stalled at the critical moment, arguing that Nixon was in his debt.
The rest of the book amounts to a series of investigations into other suspected crimes or offenses of Nixon's. Here Summers is equally energetic in his research, but with uneven results. For perspective on Nixon's Vietnam policy, the best new analysis is not Summers but rather Jeffrey Kimball's prizewinning book Nixon's Vietnam War, which presents compelling evidence that up to 1971, Nixon and Kissinger believed the war was winnable. Summers's Watergate chapter doesn't add anything of significance to Stanley Kutler's work, and his effort to show that Nixon had a Swiss account linked to a criminal bank in the Bahamas isn't convincing.
The Alger Hiss case was Nixon's first foray into national politics, as a member of HUAC in 1948; it gets a thorough examination by Summers. John Dean, who reviewed the Summers book in the Chicago Tribune, found this section especially noteworthy. Dean occupies a small but significant place in Hiss history for reporting that White House aide Charles Colson remarked that Nixon had told him, "The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case"--which, if true, meant Hiss was framed by the FBI, since the crucial physical evidence that he had been a spy came from documents typed on what the prosecution said was Hiss's typewriter. Summers devotes five pages to the forgery-by-typewriter theory; Dean concludes that Summers has "reopened the debate on whether Hiss was framed."
The book has also made news for its reports that Nixon was seen by a psychotherapist while he was President. However, the media excitement over this has missed the more significant story about a President's search for help. The men around Nixon, Summers shows, were alarmed by Nixon's mental condition, especially when he was deciding to invade Cambodia. After meeting with Nixon to discuss a possible invasion, Henry Kissinger told an aide, "Our peerless leader has flipped out." There were disturbing reports of Nixon drinking heavily during these days. And after a Pentagon briefing on the first day of the invasion, Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland commented obliquely that "the president's unbridled ebullience...required some adjustment to reality."
It was at this point that Nixon called Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, a psychotherapist who had treated him during the fifties. Nixon had read Hutschnecker's bestseller, The Will to Live, written for people "in the grips of acute conflict." Since Nixon had become President, Hutschnecker had seen him only once, and then to discuss Hutschnecker's views of crime and world peace. Hutschnecker's 1970 White House visit was kept secret, but when the two met, the doctor did not realize that Nixon was seeking treatment. So Hutschnecker started pitching his world peace plans, and Nixon abruptly dismissed him. The President knew he needed help--but didn't get it.
Two days later, with protests engulfing the country, Kissinger worried that the President was "on the edge of a nervous breakdown." This is the point at which the pill-popping story becomes significant. Jack Dreyfus, a Nixon friend and supporter (and founder of the Dreyfus mutual funds), had given Nixon a bottle of a thousand Dilantins--an anticonvulsant Dreyfus claimed helped overcome anxiety and depression. Dreyfus said he told Nixon they should be prescribed by a doctor, but Nixon replied, "To heck with the doctor."
Dilantin had been approved by the FDA, but for the treatment of epileptic seizures. Documented side effects include "slurred speech...mental confusion, dizziness, insomnia, transient nervousness." Instead of getting treatment from the one therapist he trusted, Nixon apparently took the Dilantin Dreyfus had given him. He later asked Dreyfus for--and received--another bottle of a thousand 100-milligram tablets.
Dilantin didn't help: Summers reports that concern about Nixon's mental state in 1974 led Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to order military units not to react to orders from the White House unless they were cleared with him or the Secretary of State.
Ever since Ronald Reagan showed how right-wing a Republican President could be, Nixon-haters have been reconsidering their position. Under Nixon the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA were created, Social Security payments went up and funding was increased for education, health and the arts. On the welfare issue, Nixon proposed a guaranteed annual family income--far to the left of all his successors, Democratic as well as Republican. And, of course, Nixon ended two decades of official hostility toward China and brought about détente with the Soviet Union. To understand why Nixon took these positions it would be necessary to look beyond Nixon himself to the larger social and political context of the late sixties and early seventies. Summers's narrow focus prevents this kind of broader understanding.
The high point of liberal faith that the color line might be permanently breached may have been the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From a participant's perspective it is difficult to forget the sea of 200,000 black and white demonstrators behind the figures of Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and other prominent civil rights leaders, arms confidently linked, marching toward an egalitarian future. In the wake of Southern freedom rides and lunch-counter sit-ins to break the racial barriers to public accommodations (while early Northern urban insurgencies began protesting economic oppression), in quick succession Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. By 1965 many were convinced that the long-deferred dream of equality and justice was at hand. But as it turned out, the movement was not equal to its dream. The decade that began with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision against school segregation, and ended with Congressional enactment of legislation that seemed to fulfill the betrayed promise of the Civil War and Reconstruction turned out to be the last great outpouring of racial unity in the twentieth century. The reassertion of the racial divide became the story of the next thirty-five years. Even as antipoverty programs, affirmative action and war-fueled prosperity helped expand the black middle class, housing and school segregation worsened, and, because of the deindustrialization of most major cities, black and Latino unemployment became intractable. In the wake of the misery of many black ghettos we have seen the return of racial thinking, especially eugenics, that hated doctrine developed at the apex of the British Empire by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, among others. Far from earlier belief--shared by scientists, human rights advocates and many political leaders--that there is only one human species, race has made a roaring comeback on the left as much as the right. Moreover, on both sides of the ideological divide science has been mobilized to reassert the legitimacy of race as a "natural" division within the species, not only in the United States but also in other advanced industrial societies.
Paul Gilroy, whose Black Atlantic broke through the nation-specific context of race politics, has written a powerful, albeit minoritarian defense of the position that racial thinking--not just racism--is a key obstacle to human freedom (an aspiration, he sadly notes, that has virtually disappeared from political discourse). In his analysis of the origins and uses of racial thinking Gilroy spares from his critique neither black pride nor black separatism, let alone racism's most virulent forms, fascism and colonialism. He argues, provocatively, for an alternative to antihumanist identity politics that would veer toward defining community as a geographical as much as a racial concept, what he calls "planetary humanism." He also propounds an unabashed cosmopolitanism to replace nationalism as a solution to racial oppression. The result is that he has offered one of the most impressive refutations of race as an anthropological concept since the publication of Ashley Montagu's Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race more than fifty years ago. But where the older work rode the crest of a wave of early postwar antiracial thinking propelled by the general recognition that the crimes of Hitlerism were a consequence of racial populism, Gilroy's attempted revival comes at a time when identity politics, with its ideology of separatism, seems to have displaced forms of universal humanism. Communitarianism, which holds that people have the right to circle the wagons around their territory and impose their group's values on strangers, has reached all corners of political discourse, including the White House. In these times the frequently invoked slogans of human rights enjoy only strategic currency.
Gilroy traces racial thinking to three major sources: First, "raciology," discredited in its blatant, authoritarian manifestation, lives on in the guise of pseudoscientific claims that the black body has biologically rooted attributes of superior strength, beauty and endurance; second, the various movements to counter oppression by affirming racial solidarity on the basis of a separate black identity; and third, colonialism and slavery's systematic deracination of the black self and its consequent denial that blacks should be considered part of universal humanity, which has occasionally but spectacularly given rise to genocidal activities in the name of racial purity.
According to Gilroy, the persistence of raciology is partly attributable to the growing cultural importance of visual thinking, which increasingly influences our conceptions of truth. The dominance of image over writing has had a profound influence over what we take as reliable knowledge. Photography, film and television have altered how we understand the world. Despite overwhelming scientific theory and practice maintaining that there are no fundamental biological differences, physically or intellectually, within the human species, Gilroy contends, the manipulated images of advertising and other artifacts of consumer society apparently belie these judgments. Citing Spike Lee's alliance with a leading advertising agency, DDB Needham, to promote a bland version of multicultural blackness as an example of how raciology has walked through the back door of commercialized black identity, Gilroy accuses some leading black cultural figures of complicity with a crass version of market capitalism to advance their own interests.
Gilroy begins by marshaling evidence, culled from the scientific and technological revolutions of molecular biology and computer science, to support his contention that the concept of essential racial difference has lost its scientific basis even as attempts are made, by means of pseudobiological arguments, to support the view that humanity is divided by inherent, natural differences. "There is no raw, untrained perception dwelling in the body," nor, he believes, is there an inherent black physical superiority. Citing advances in medical imaging that reveal the body on a "nanoscale," he argues that the human body is increasingly understood by science as code and information and, echoing Frantz Fanon, one of his major interlocutors, should not be "epidermalized." In other words, we are not defined by skin color or intrinsic biological traits but by the "patterned interaction" between human organisms and the ecosystem within which we live and develop.
Against Race reserves some of its harshest gibes for identity politics and its companion, "multicultural blackness." Gilroy's criticism ranges from the fairly well-traveled issue of how consumerism shapes identity to how identity may lead to genocide. One of his milder illustrations is that in a society in which the marketplace assumes pride of place, the "car you drive, the clothes you wear" and other items of consumption define who we are. We are identical with our visible signs. But this is only a preliminary consideration to the far more frightening geopolitical tendency to link identity to warring constituencies who sometimes try to exterminate one another, such as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. To underline the horror of the conflation of physical appearance and national identity, Gilroy gives an example of the large-scale killing of Tutsis because their identity card marked them, "or they did not have their card with them...and were therefore unable to prove they were not a Tutsi." Some were killed because soldiers believed "they were too tall" to be Hutu. In calling this an example of the history of "unspeakable barbarity," Gilroy remarks on "how the notion of fixed identity operates easily on both sides of the chasm that usually divides scholarly writing from the disorderly world of political conflicts." He notes that scholarship is often unable to go beyond what it perceives as primal difference, just as political actors seem incapable of seeing the Other as anything but evil.
Contrasting the music of Bob Marley, whom he takes, virtually without reservation, as an authentic black voice for universal human freedom, with hip-hop, especially in its recent incarnations, as a misogynous, cynical and exploitative product of Tin Pan Alley, Gilroy enters the vociferous debate about black popular culture. He chides critics who perpetuate the myth derived from hip-hop's earlier character as a local and rebellious musical expression and who insist that, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, hip-hop is "marginal" and oppositional to mainstream culture. For Gilroy the leading figures of the genre, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and others, rode to their popularity on some of the more regressive masculinist sentiments even as they retain rebellious images in the guise of glorifying the figure of the gangsta. These views are not likely to endear Gilroy to those who find hope in the fragments of social critique that remain in the music. I believe he overstates the case. For all of its commercial uses, "avant-garde" hip-hop remains quite subversive to the dominant theme of the American Celebration.
This leads to perhaps the most controversial sections of the book: Gilroy's attempt to demonstrate the link between the fascist politics of racial identity and black nationalism, especially the views of Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s and early 1930s organized and led a mass Back to Africa movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.
Reflecting recent scholarship, Gilroy denies that fascism was a singular, exceptional event limited to the time of Hitler and Mussolini. Instead, he connects its appearance in the interwar period--and persistence after the defeats of the German and Italian armies and the collapse of their governments--to the history of colonialism and to the contradictions between the universalistic, humanistic claims of Enlightenment culture and the militarism that marked its sordid record of conquest.
Invoking the bloody history of Western imperialism's subordination of colonial peoples in the name of civilizing the "barbarians," Gilroy makes the explicit connection to Hitler, whose rise to power was not merely a reflection of German resentment at its humiliation by the Allies and the legacy of colonialism. Germany's drive for European and African conquest was based on Hitler's doctrine of racial purity and superiority. More than a dictator, he was an impressive ideologue whose ideas attracted substantial support among Germans and have had enduring influence in the emergence of contemporary ultrarightist movements, some of which, like those in France and Italy, have won considerable popular following. The core of fascism is biological essentialism manifested in the marriage of racial identity with nationalism, ideas that won the admiration of Garvey and some other black nationalists. Moreover, like many nationalisms, Garvey's was anti-Semitic, and Gilroy shows that he admired Hitler.
Not that Gilroy equates black separatism with fascism. But he places considerable weight on the deracination of the Jews by fascism as the major modern form of racism and as a precursor to the calumnies that followed their extermination. His point is that the Holocaust and the Rwanda tragedy--indeed, all genocidal acts grounded in racial purity and racial separatism--contain the potential for unspeakable barbarity because they entail the denial of the Other's claim to humanity. Once the Other has been endowed with essential qualities that may be coded as subhuman--or evil--there may be no question of observing its fundamental rights. Thus, for Gilroy, black anti-Semitism is not only wrong, it is self-defeating.
In promulgating his viewpoint Gilroy relies on the authority of three thinkers who, as it turned out, vainly fought for the notion of human liberation: Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychoanalyst who decried all attempts to link humans to their skin color and never tired of reminding the metropolis of its obligation to live up to the promise of the Enlightenment; Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite the violence and humiliation suffered by American blacks, insisted that the task of the civil rights movement was to secure entrance into American society but who also recognized toward the end of his life that rights are not enough and integration into an unjust society is not desirable. King became the principal tribune of the indivisibility of freedom and, in its pursuit, lost his life while participating in one of the monumental struggles of the Southern labor movement. The last thinker, Richard Wright, is Gilroy's model of a cosmopolitan intellectual who removed himself to France rather than bear witness to the disintegration of the promise of freedom in his own country. Wright is the exemplar of the intellectual exile, yet he remained rooted to the problems and pain of blacks in his native land. Disdaining what he called "tribalism," Wright used his celebrity to make a spirited case that the newly independent African states should embark, despite all, on the road to modernity.
Gilroy's reach is dazzling, his analysis acute and insightful, but in the end he recognizes that, lacking a political constituency for his planetary humanism, his ideas remain not a program but a utopian hope. Significantly, in the last chapter he invokes Theodor Adorno, who, in his years in California, made shrewd but ungenerous commentary on various aspects of US popular culture. Gilroy's sharp criticisms of black elites--especially the middle class, who, even as they distance themselves from the black working class have embraced a mixture of black separatism and assimilation into the dominant market culture--do not lead him to consider global class politics as a practical way to achieve the cosmopolitan movement he would create, any more than Adorno could see beyond the "the totally administered society" he abhorred. At the end of the day, Against Race remains the brilliant jeremiad of an out-of-step intellectual whose main weapon is criticism. There are few who do it better.
You may find reading Akhil Sharma's debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.
In Sharma's An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, "Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia." The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: "As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri's sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon." What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter's thighs each night after he has raped her.
The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan's voice.
The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator's voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, the confessions of Sharma's antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov's H.H.: "I had possessed her--and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.")
The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.
It is to Sharma's great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan's abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.
This is the book's most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.
Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi's dictatorial "emergency," imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn't tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma's novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: "Money would make everything negotiable.... The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government's aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged."
If Kafka's K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan's confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: "I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."
Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma's novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.
The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he's 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi's GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book's pages. Even the evocation of Karan's childhood in a village before India's independence is exact and intriguing:
I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love.... Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death.
Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.
Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi's emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: "Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men."
We learn early about Karan's death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel's end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan's death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita's own desires. (Nabokov's H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: "I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.")
I tried to think again about one of Karan's earlier statements: "All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people." Did I not see the signs in my own life?
I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.
The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.
This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. "Do that, Jawaharlal," he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.
My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.
There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don't think I've thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.