"We need to make it very clear," said one veteran activist at a recent meeting of a nascent New York City antiwar coalition, "that we want to punish the criminals." She meant, of course, any living accomplices in the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. That night, activists were unable to come to any kind of agreement on the need to bring the murderers to justice, and their confusion and division mirrored that of antiwar demonstrators around the nation. During the last weekend in September, antiwar protests in the nation's capital underscored the movement's difficulty in articulating a message that might make sense to a broader public. That difficulty was amplified by the happy fact that, as one demonstrator put it, "it's hard to protest a war that's not happening." While things may yet get brutal, George Bush is not presently proposing to take any military action against innocent Afghan civilians, and the Administration is now seriously considering schemes that, when suggested by peace activists a week ago, sounded absurdly whimsical--like "bombing" Afghanistan with food.
Originally, more than 10,000 foot soldiers of the global economic justice movement, from the controversial hooded Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or "Black Bloc") to the AFL-CIO, had planned to show up to protest September 30's IMF/World Bank meeting. That meeting was canceled. Most protest groups canceled their actions too, and not only because there were no meetings to oppose. At a moment of sorrow and panic, demonstrators risked being ignored--or worse, reviled as unpatriotic or insensitive to the memories of the dead. In a statement explaining their withdrawal from the protests, United Students Against Sweatshops declared September in the capital "neither the time nor the place to gather in opposition."
Not everyone felt that way. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence decided to hold an antiwar demonstration Saturday morning, using, according to David Graeber of New York City's Direct Action Network, who works closely with the ACC, "less controversial tactics. None of these," he laughed, pointing to a brick in the middle of the sidewalk. The Black Bloc anarchists, known for illegal actions, refrained from any destruction of property, and the weekend ended with only eleven arrests. The ACC march drew about 1,000 (organizers claimed 2,000-3,000). Some--being anarchists--rejected any action that the state might take, even against terrorism, and rejected any international tribunal as a tool of the state.
The second, and best-publicized, march was organized by an antiwar front group assembled by the International Action Center (IAC), in turn a front for (if you're still following) the Workers World Party, which is justly reviled for supporting Slobodan Milosevic, among other gruesome dictators. Still, a few thousand people, from high school students to graying peaceniks, eventually joined by the ACC, showed up. IAC organizers subjected these demonstrators to three hours of speeches, none of which mentioned bringing the killers to justice, before the all-too-brief march from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol began. Bland sloganeering and predictable references to eclectic causes (Free Mumia!) had the effect of reducing the peril of World War III to the trivial status of another pet left crusade. There was no doubt about the sincerity of the demonstrators, who carried signs like Another Alaskan for Peace, but the IAC's involvement gave the event--which drew maybe 7,000 at its peak, though organizers claimed 20,000--the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest.
The third march, held on Sunday and organized by the Washington Peace Center and other groups, was smaller than the IAC event but achieved an appropriately serious tone. Some of Saturday's demonstrators (from the well-behaved Black Bloc to the Bread and Puppet Theater) turned up, along with many locals--a crowd of some 3,000. Speakers, many of them clergy, quoted venerable sources: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Signs often bore scriptural messages, and one playfully queried George Bush, WWJD? Speakers read letters from family members of September 11 victims who did not want war in the name of their loved ones. Others stressed the need for reflection and the challenges of turning our grief into a cry for global peace. The event also suggested some practical alternatives to war, emphasizing justice and law over military force. Alan Mattlage, an organizer of the Washington Peace Center event and a member of the Maryland Green Party, echoed many of his fellow protesters in saying that the World Trade Center attacks should be treated not "as an act of war but as a criminal matter. [Those accused] should be tried before an international tribunal."
All three antiwar marches attracted activists who had planned to protest the IMF. Students showed up in large numbers (a nationwide network of more than 150 student antiwar groups, some calling themselves Students for a Peaceful Justice, has been holding campus vigils, protests and teach-ins). Labor organizations, by contrast, from the AFL-CIO to Jobs with Justice, were conspicuously absent. That makes some sense, given that many of their constituents may support military responses to the September 11 attacks. One of countless reasons to hope for peace is that a prolonged war--and antiwar activism--could test the warm solidarity developed in recent years between labor and other progressives, especially students. On the other hand, it's encouraging to see how quickly the global economic justice movement has embraced peace and security issues--and that peace organizations seem ready to tackle the economic roots of violence and to connect US militarism to global economic inequality.
Activists were united on a few points: There will be no peace without economic justice, and US civilians will not be safe until our government stops waging--and funding--war on other innocents. Some offered hope that our nation's suffering could open our eyes to the rest of the world's pain. At an interfaith service on peace and justice at St. Aloysius Church Saturday night, Njoki Njoroge Njehu of the 50 Years Is Enough Network advised Americans to "hold that vulnerability, to understand how people around the world live with US violence. And let us finally understand the obscenity of the phrase 'collateral damage.' Will it ever have the same casual reference again?"
In our August 20 issue we endorsed Mark Green, a lifelong liberal who has been running as a liberal centrist, for mayor of New York City. Two weeks before a runoff election against Fernando Ferrer, a lifelong centrist who has been running on behalf of what he calls "the other New York," Green accepted Mayor Giuliani's proposition that he be allowed to stay in office an additional three months. If Green's ill-advised cave-in were all we knew about him, we'd drop him like a cold potato, the mayor's idea being unwieldy, unwise and possibly--even if the state legislature went along--illegal. But given Green's long and valuable service as a public interest activist, his anti-Giuliani credentials, his anti-police brutality, pro-public safety stances, we regard this as one bad decision in a career replete with the right ones, and our endorsement stands. --The Editors
As political insiders in New York City got back to talking politics after September 11, people asked one another: How did the World Trade Center attack change the mayoral election? No one had any idea, but everyone agreed that, somehow or another, things just had to be different.
It turned out that they were and they weren't. On the no-change front, it appears that the greatest calamity in the city's history proved no match for old-fashioned ethnic politics. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer finished first in the Democratic primary, riding the wave of an unprecedented Latino turnout (Latinos represented 23 percent of the Democratic electorate and voted for him against four white opponents by a three-to-one margin). The vast majority of white observers, I among them, assumed that after the attack Ferrer's campaign mantra about "two New Yorks" would wind up buried under the lower Manhattan rubble. The problem was, as we were dismissing Ferrer, we forgot to ask his voters. That those voters sent the message they did, especially at a time when rhetoric about unity and coming together as one had become the only permissible lingua franca of municipal political life, should remind us--and, one hopes, the next mayor, whoever he may be--that as urgent as the need to rebuild may be, the legions of homeless families and children without adequate healthcare are still out there.
One thing that did change, and disturbingly so, was the ground occupied by Mark Green, the city's Public Advocate. Green finished second, with 31 percent to Ferrer's 35, largely because Ferrer's leftish campaign--ironic for someone who, in a previous mayoral run four years ago, ran as a veritable Democratic Leadership Councillor--struck a chord with the solid third of the city that has consistently opposed incumbent Rudy Giuliani, while Green's more moderated race--ironic for someone who has been a lifelong liberal crusader and Giuliani's most consistent high-profile critic--tried so hard to please so many different constituencies that it ignited none.
Now, as the two head for an October 11 runoff, the distinction between them is even more stark. When Giuliani proposed an extortionate "deal" to Green, Ferrer and Republican primary winner Mike Bloomberg under which the mayor would be permitted to stay on for three extra months (extortionate because his implicit threat was that if they didn't accept, he'd seek ways to run for a third term), Green capitulated, and Ferrer had the gumption to say no. In truth, both decisions were political calculations. Green needs the backing in the runoff of white voters who are looking very sympathetically at Giuliani these days, and he needs to keep Giuliani, who detests him and who could depress white turnout with a few well-chosen words, off his back; Ferrer needs to stoke his Latino and black (and anti-Giuliani) base. But the fundamental fact is that one candidate defended an uninterrupted democratic process and one did not. Green is still, by history and inclination, the more progressive of the two, but many of his voters are sure to note that when he had a chance to show some courage against the bullying incumbent, he took a pass.
Green's runoff dilemma, and his middling performance in the primary, reflect a larger historical trend that has percolated in New York City politics for nearly a decade now--namely, that many white New York City liberals have become, in the past two mayoral elections, Giuliani voters. While Ferrer's natural base of politicized, anti-Giuliani blacks and Latinos has grown in the past eight years, Green's natural base of progressive whites has shrunk. White voters who would never think of voting for a Republican at the national or state level voted for Giuliani by the thousands in 1993 and 1997 (Giuliani beat Ruth Messinger on her own Upper West Side in 1997). Ferrer was able to ignore these Giuliani liberals, more as a matter of strategy than principle, although he was clever enough that, to the naïve, it often came out sounding like the latter. Green could not and cannot, and so he regularly tempered his rhetoric with assurances to this bloc that he "got it" on crime. Thus the major distinction between these two basically liberal candidates reduces to skin color, and the fact that one feels free to embody the grievances of the underclass while the other--whose record on police abuse issues is, if anything, more substantive than Ferrer's--must bear in mind the anxieties of the overclass.
The challenge to both is to harvest the votes of their respective blocs without resorting to the sort of winks, nudges and euphemisms that can inflame the racial tensions here that always lie about an inch and a half below the surface. And the challenge to the winner will be to bring the blocs together to fight Bloomberg, who has unlimited millions and will, in all likelihood, have Giuliani's endorsement. Bloomberg is a bad candidate and still a long shot, but given what New York has been through these past few weeks, this election is now taking place inside a funhouse mirror room, or a Magritte painting (images are indeed treason)--Mark Green, the white-backlash candidate?! Ed Koch endorsing Ferrer, whom he pilloried as racially devisive two week before?!--and anything can happen.
Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, whose essay deploring India's decision to test atomic weapons appeared in The Nation ("The End of Imagination," September 28, 1998), is, as she told a reporter, "deeper in the soup." Active in an anti-dam campaign in India, this past spring she led a demo protesting the Indian Supreme Court's decision to allow construction of a dam on the Narmada River that will displace 200,000 people and harm the region's fragile ecosystem. Some lawyers at the scene trumped up complaints about Roy threatening them, and the Supreme Court charged her and two other leaders of the protest movement with criminal contempt. That charge was dismissed, but at the hearing Roy submitted a blistering affidavit calling the court's action an attempt "to silence criticism and muzzle dissent." The judges ordered her to withdraw the affidavit. She refused and will go on trial for contempt at the end of October, acting as her own lawyer and facing imprisonment. In our view, her affidavit has it exactly right, and the Supreme Court is even deeper in the, um, soup. Let the Indian Embassy in Washington know your view.
While the Bush Administration continues to build an international coalition it hopes will allow it to strike back effectively at those responsible for the September 11 attacks, three issues that helped set the stage for those atrocious crimes must be dealt with.
The first is the troublesome question of Israel and Palestine. Last year the two came within a hair's breadth of a land-for-peace deal. It failed, and Ariel Sharon's first instinct after the September 11 attacks was to cancel further meetings with the Palestinians--exactly the wrong instinct, and one now haltingly reversed by pressure from Shimon Peres and the White House. But until that deal is signed--and the two peoples accept the resulting settlement, however imperfect--there can be no peace or security for any of us. Such a deal may finally require a long-term multinational peacekeeping force placed between the two, but its cost, however great, is less than we will all bear if we do not find resolution to this central issue.
Second is the matter of governance. One hardly needs intimate familiarity with the human rights records of governments from Morocco in the West to Pakistan in the East to realize that many of America's allies and enemies alike fail the most minimal tests of democracy and human decency--and that they must change. This is not to advocate invasion, CIA subversion or Iraq-style embargoes but rather to support concerted multilateral action that expands pressures for political and social reform and that works with forces within those countries toward that end. Nothing will come quickly or without risk, but to leave intact the power arrangements of the Middle East--as we did in the wake of the Gulf War--invites the worst possible outcome. Terrorists are bred most easily among terrorized and humiliated peoples.
Finally there is the issue of economic development and aid. There are a billion Muslims, most of them desperately poor, and most living in a swath of the globe stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar east to the Indonesian archipelago. In the days following September 11, Congress authorized $40 billion in emergency funds without debate, then $15 billion for US airlines, and George W. Bush has now proposed spending up to $75 billion more. Given such numbers, and with the economies of America, Europe and Japan producing more than $20 trillion a year, why pretend that we can do no more than promote failed "structural adjustment" programs?
As it readies for war, America would do well to remember that 3 billion human beings live on less than $2 a day, and at least 10 million die of easily preventable disease and malnutrition each year. Then there is the global impact of the terrorist attacks and US-led preparations for retaliation. James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, predicts a "largely unseen" human toll, estimating that "between 20,000 and 40,000 more children will die worldwide and some 10 million people will be condemned to live below the poverty line of $1 a day." Wolfensohn attributes these effects to severe drops in commodity prices and a burgeoning global recession; a World Bank study predicts 2001 growth of less than 1 percent in the industrialized countries.
Even if Osama bin Laden is dead next year, given such realities, no new airport security measures or Special Forces deployments or missile defense shields will protect us from those who arise to take his place. Instead, we must re-engage with the world, attacking not the enemies we cannot see but the enemies we can. We need what has been called a "new era of global Keynesianism"--a commitment to relieving the globe's most fundamental problems of food and health and joblessness. That, plus a stiff dose of political fairness and human rights, offers the best antidote to terrorism.
Of all the programs I've seen on Afghanistan, not one was more chilling than Beneath the Veil, an hourlong documentary that has appeared frequently on CNN. Its narrator, Saira Shah, a British woman of Afghan descent, spent five days in the country to see what life there was really like. Shah managed to penetrate places few Westerners get to see, including a secret classroom for girls and a village that suffered Taliban atrocities. She also visited a Kabul soccer stadium that, she said, had served as a public execution ground. To back up her point, the documentary featured a clip of a man putting a rifle to the head of a woman clad in a burqa and blowing her brains out. In an interview with the Taliban foreign minister, Shah asked what he thought the international donors who gave money for the stadium would say if they knew it was being used for executions rather than for sports. Well, the minister said, if they didn't like it, they should give money to build a separate arena for executions.
Shah's report captures just how horrendous life in Afghanistan has become. The Taliban's police-state tactics, together with its harboring of terrorists, has fed a groundswell of support for its ouster. That, in turn, has focused new attention on the Taliban's main opponents, the United Front, or, as it's more familiarly known, the Northern Alliance. Eager to report on it, US journalists have swarmed into the sliver of territory the alliance controls in northeastern Afghanistan, where they're cordially taken on tours by rebel commanders.
"We're with the troops of the Northern Alliance," MSNBC's TomAspell reported on September 27. The alliance, he said, was eager to act as a guide for American forces entering Afghanistan. CNN's Chris Burns, gesturing toward a mountain ridge, said, "Thirty miles beyond that, is where Kabul is. And they say if they had help from the Americans, they could take that city." Meanwhile, a procession of alliance spokesmen have appeared on TV to plead for US assistance.
The print media have been no less accommodating. "Front-line Taliban Foes Eager to Help U.S.," the New York Times declared on its front page. Reporter David Rohde described how a Northern Alliance general "swaggered across the top floor" of a demolished airfield control tower and pointed southward. "'On the other side of those mountains,' he said, his voice filled with yearning, 'is Kabul.'" While the alliance did not pose an immediate military threat to the city, Rohde noted, it did have "encyclopedic knowledge of the Taliban and its bombing targets, units and tactics." The Washington Post has run a series of glowing reports about the alliance and its grit, savvy and "discipline." That discipline, correspondent Peter Baker noted in one dispatch, has survived the September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the guerrilla leader who "by sheer force of personality had managed to hold together this eclectic group of warriors."
In death, Massoud has been lionized by the US press--literally. "The legendary 'Lion of the Panjshir,'" the Los Angeles Times called him. "A Lion's Death," the New Yorker declared in a headline atop a one-page eulogy by Jon Lee Anderson. In 1992, Anderson reported, Massoud's "moderately conservative group" defeated the brutish regime backed by the Soviets, and he served as defense minister and vice president until 1996, when the Taliban gained control of most of the country.
What neither Anderson nor the rest of the press has reported is that during their time in power, Massoud and his fellow warlords ruthlessly fought one another, reducing much of Kabul to rubble and killing tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians. According to a meticulously documented report by Human Rights Watch (Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, available at www.hrw.org), the front "amassed a deplorable record of attacks on civilians" between 1992 and 1996. It was the lawlessness and brutality that prevailed under these warlords that paved the way for the Taliban. Since then, Human Rights Watch reports, both the Taliban and the United Front "have repeatedly committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including killings of detainees, aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, rape, torture, persecution on the basis of religion, and the use of antipersonnel landmines."
In one of the few departures from the pack, Patricia Gossman noted in a Washington Post Op-Ed that Afghans have been fleeing Kabul "not only out of fear of US airstrikes but out of panic that the [Northern Alliance] might take power there again." Gossman, a writer whose research has been funded by the US Institute of Peace, wrote that when she was in Kabul last year, "I was told time and again that the only thing people there feared more than the Taliban was that the warlords of the Northern Alliance might return to power."
Michael Sullivan, in a fine piece for NPR, pointed out that the Northern Alliance is made up of Afghanistan's ethnic Tajik and Uzbek minorities, "with only token representation from the country's ethnic Pashtun majority, who've dominated Afghanistan's political landscape for most of the country's history." Without involving the Pashtuns, a Pakistani security analyst told him, having a stable government in Afghanistan "would be simply impossible." (The Taliban is made up mostly of Pashtuns.)
What accounts for the media blackout on the United Front's true colors? As Ken Silverstein observed in an astute piece for Salon, the front's many abuses "can't be a surprise" to reporters. Since September 11, he notes, several thousand people, "presumably many of them journalists," have requested the Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan, but "most reporters and pundits seem to be patriotically turning a blind eye to our new partner's shortcomings."
The press may at last be opening its eyes. Time, in its October 8 edition, offered a balanced piece on the United Front, referring to its "fractious makeup" and "disappointingly thin" intelligence. And David Rohde, in another front-page piece in the Times on the Northern Alliance, used the w-word--warlords--and described their recruitment of fighters as young as 12.
According to the Times, the Bush Administration has decided to provide covert aid to several groups opposed to the Taliban, the United Front included. In light of the urgent need to root out war criminals like Osama bin Laden, it can be argued that Washington needs every bit of help it can get. But at the very least, the American public needs to know whom we are embracing. After all, it was just a few years ago that the CIA--eager to confront the Soviets--backed the mujahedeen, including many of the same Taliban fighters we are now seeking to overthrow.
Battling the war profiteers of World War I, Robert La Follette reminded America that "wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism." The progressive senator from Wisconsin was complaining about arms merchants reaping excessive profits from the sale of weaponry in 1917. But La Follette's words echo with particular clarity in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because of the rise of another form of war profiteering. In an attempt to gain the upper hand in a fight they had been losing, Bush Administration and Congressional supporters of fast track--or, as supporters have renamed it, "Trade Promotion Authority"--were telling Congress Daily within hours of the September 11 attacks that terrorist threats increased the need to grant Bush authority to negotiate a NAFTA-style free-trade area from Tierra del Fuego to the Tundra.
With each passing day, these policy profiteers have pumped up the volume. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, announced, "Passing trade promotion authority for the President would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that the United States is ready, willing and able to lead." The Wall Street Journal editorial page chirped about how "not everything has changed for the worse since September 11. One garden at the skunk party has been the emergence of new bipartisan momentum to expand free trade, specifically something called 'Trade Promotion Authority.'" US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick was everywhere preaching his "Countering Terror With Trade" mantra, a campaign so aggressive it left even Republicans scratching their heads. "I am not sure a trade bill has anything to do with terrorism," said Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney.
But Zoellick wasn't listening to Republicans who warned that an aggressive push for fast track could be the straw that breaks the back of the post-September 11 bipartisanship. Less than two weeks after the attacks, Zoellick delivered a speech at the Institute for International Economics that seemed to question the patriotism of fast-track foes. Members of Congress "who know trade is the right thing to do are refusing to act for rather narrow-interest reasons," the Bush aide declared, adding, "Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle."
That was too much for New York Congressman Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel issued a scathing rebuke to Zoellick's policy profiteering. "As a combat war veteran and as a person whose city has been attacked and suffered devastating losses as a result, I am offended by the strategy of the current United States Trade Representative to use the tragedy in New York and at the Pentagon to fuel political momentum behind a partisan fast-track proposal," Rangel said, adding, "To have the USTR attack the patriotism of Americans for their failure to support an unwritten, undisclosed bill demands a public apology."
When Zoellick's point man in the House, Bill Thomas, the California Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, claimed he had consulted key Democrats about a move to push a bipartisan fast-track compromise through the House, Rangel shot back that the Democrats in question "have expressed to me in no uncertain terms that they do not subscribe to this attempt to wrap the flag around any fast-track bill in the wake of the September 11 attacks." Undaunted, Thomas said he'd try to bring a bill to a floor vote by the second week of October.
Long before September 11, the debate over fast track was destined to be intense. Bush, aided by major corporations, had promised to pull out all the stops. But labor, environment and human rights groups thwarted them by reminding Congress that since the enactment of NAFTA in 1994, more than 355,000 US jobs (even by the government's conservative estimate) have been lost. Small farms have failed at a significantly increased rate, and environmental and worker safety protections have been undermined at home and abroad. "If the Administration had the votes for fast track, before September 11 or after, we would have had a vote. They still don't have the votes, but they're trying everything to come up with them," says Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
Zoellick and Thomas are hardly the only policy profiteers. The threat of war and recession has inspired plenty of moves to wrap unappealing agendas in the bunting of patriotism. School-prayer and flag-protection amendments are being elbowed onto the antiterrorist agenda, while Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed hard to win approval of dusted-off proposals to curtail immigrants' rights, expand electronic surveillance and allow use of intelligence gathered by foreign governments in US courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "All in the Name of Security," page 20]. Playing the patriotism card in support of Ashcroft, GOP Senate leader Trent Lott warned the Democrats that in the event of another attack, "people are going to wonder where have you been in giving the additional tools that are needed to, you know, find these terrorists and avoid plots that may be in place."
Bush aides have proposed cutting corporate income taxes, while House Republicans are flying the capital-gains tax-cut flag. Although the attacks proved that there are far more pressing security needs than developing a National Missile Defense system, Star Wars backers are still attempting to get funding for their boondoggle. And backers of the Administration's energy proposal now want an "expedited energy bill" designed to clear the way for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
If Washington is witnessing shameless policy profiteering, state legislatures have seen surreal grabs for political advantage. A Republican state representative in Wisconsin announced that after so many deaths, it was time to renew America's commitment to life--by passing his antiabortion bill. In states that bar capital punishment, proposals were made to allow executions as antiterrorist measures--failing to recognize the absurdity of threatening suicide attackers with death.
Every war has its profiteers. But it looks like this one is going to require an army of La Follettes to prevent this war's policy profiteers from warping the discourse--not to mention plundering the Treasury--in the name of a "patriotism" defined solely by self-interest.
Just once more, and then we'll really have to get on with more pressing business. I could subscribe myself at any time to any of the following statements:
§ An Arab child born in Nablus should have no fewer rights in his or her homeland than a Jewish child born in Flatbush.
§ The United States of America has been the patron of predatory regimes on five continents.
§ The United States of America exports violence by means of arms sales and evil clients.
You can probably fill in a few extras for yourself. However, none of the above statements means the same thing if prefaced with the words: "As Osama bin Laden and his devout followers have recently reminded us..." They wouldn't mean the same thing politically, that is to say, and they wouldn't mean the same thing morally. It's disgraceful that so many people on the periphery of this magazine should need what Noam Chomsky would otherwise term instruction in the elementary.
Here are two brief thought experiments that I hope and trust will put this degrading argument to rest. Both of them, as it happens, involve the date September 11.
I have long kept September 11 as a day of mourning, because it was on that date in 1973 that Salvador Allende was murdered and Chilean democracy assassinated along with him. We know all the details now, from the way the giant corporations subsidized subversion to the way that US politicians commissioned "hit jobs" and sabotage. It took the Chilean opposition many years of patient struggle to regain their country and their democracy, and the small help I was able to offer them is one of the few things in my life of which I can be proud. There was one spirited attempt to kill Augusto Pinochet himself during this period, with which I had some sneaking sympathy, but on the whole the weaponry of terror (death squads, car bombs, the training of special killers) was in the department of horror employed by Chilean and US officials working for, or with, the dictatorship. And now Chilean dignity has been restored, and Pinochet himself is a discredited and indicted figure, spared the rigor of law only for humanitarian reasons. We may even live to see justice done to some of his backers in Washington, though the holding of breath would be inadvisable.
I don't know any Chilean participant in this great historic struggle who would not rather have died--you'll have to excuse the expression--than commit an outrage against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. And I think I'll leave it at that, since those who don't see my point by now are never going to do so.
There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it's not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current "human rights issue."
Why not pay attention to what the cassettes and incantations of Al Qaeda actually demand: a holy war in which there are no civilians on the other side, only infidels, and a society of total aridity in which any concept of culture or the future has been eradicated?
One ought to be clear about this: The Ottomans who besieged Vienna were not of that primeval mentality. But the Wahabbi fanatics of the present century are. Glance again at the trite statements I made at the beginning of this column. Could Osama bin Laden actually utter any of them? Certainly not. He doesn't only oppose the entire Jewish presence in Palestine; he opposes the Jewish presence in America. He is the spoiled-brat son of one of our preferred despotisms and the proud beneficiary of the export of violence. Why, then, do so many fools consider him as the interpreter of their "concerns," let alone seek to appoint their ignorant selves as the medium for his?
Thanks to all those who demand that I tell them what is to be done. As the situation develops, they may even ask themselves this question as if it really demanded a serious answer. We certainly owe a duty to Afghanistan's people, whose lives were rendered impossible by the Taliban long before we felt any pain. We might even remember that the only part of Iraq where people are neither starving nor repressed is in the Kurdish area, now under international protection as a result of public pressure on Bush Senior's vaunted "coalition." (See especially David Hirst's two engrossing reports from northern Iraq in the London Guardian of August 1 and 2: Hirst himself is probably the most consistently anti-imperialist journalist in the region.) But wait! That might mean that one could actually do something. Surely we are too guilt-stained for that.
Thanks also to all those who thought it was original to attack me for writing from an "armchair." (Why is it always an armchair?) As it happens, I work in a swivel chair, in an apartment on the top floor of one of Washington's tallest buildings. In the fall of 1993 the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism urgently advised me to change this address because of "credible" threats received after my wife and daughter and I had sheltered Salman Rushdie as a guest, and had arranged for him to be received at the cowering Clinton White House. I thought, then as now, that the government was doing no more than covering its own behind by giving half-alarmist and half-reassuring advice. In other words, I have a quarrel with theocratic fascism even when the Administration does not, and I hope at least some of my friendly correspondents are prepared to say the same.
Are there any people on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty, hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels (that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of sunlight.)
Until September 11, this situation received only modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of "moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the political spectrum.
Now, finally, the world is paying attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied Western women as symbols of the enemy.
But if fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate, futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education, healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism, democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk to but his other wives?
Women's rights are crucial for everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy, personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan, the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war, compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all documented on the Human Rights Watch website (www.hrw.org).
Now more than ever, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless, misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support. "What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections. "We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta. Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.
* * *
I got more negative comment on my last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical, public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red, white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the mail on the flag question.)
Fortunately, for those who want to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net) displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.
(An old Nat "King" Cole song, as sung by Rudy "King" Giuliani)
Indispensable, that's what I am.
I'm an icon now, like Uncle Sam.
I'm the rock this town is built upon.
Après moi, no one could carry on.
No one but me
Could possibly be
(bah, bah, bah)
Indispensable, the mayor for life.
No one worries now about my wife.
So, you see, I've simply got to stay.
I'll be mayor forever and a day.
And I'll still be indispensable then.
As early as the 1960s, influential critics argued that American Jewish writing no longer counted as a distinct or viable literary project, for younger Jews had grown so assimilated, so remote from traditional Jewish life, that only nostalgia kept it going. Ted Solotaroff wrote some exasperated pieces about young writers whose work already seemed to him derivative--thin, tiresome, voguish, strained or sentimental. Irving Howe and Robert Alter launched similar complaints. I once heard the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld tell a New York audience that Jewish writing was grounded in the Yiddish culture and way of life that had flourished in Eastern Europe, something that died with I.B. Singer in New York and S.Y. Agnon in Israel. Gazing down benignly at an audience that included his good friend Philip Roth and the novelist E.L. Doctorow, he said that while there were certainly writers who happened to be Jews, there really were no more Jewish writers.
Other observers have been equally firm in anchoring American Jewish writing to the immigrant experience, a point brought home by Irving Howe in a famous attack on Philip Roth in Commentary in 1972. Howe saw Roth, whose first book he had warmly acclaimed, as a writer with "a thin personal culture," the kind of writer who "comes at the end of a tradition which can no longer nourish his imagination" or one who simply has "chosen to tear himself away from that tradition." Certainly there was very little sense of history, Jewish or otherwise, in Roth's finely crafted early fiction. Yet in the light of his humor, his characters, his subjects and above all his later development, Roth hardly stood outside the Jewish tradition; instead, he had a family quarrel with the Jewish world that profoundly affected everything he wrote. Yet Howe's charge struck home. A good deal of Roth's subsequent writing can be seen as a rejoinder to Howe's wrongheaded attack, which so rankled him that a decade later he wrote a furious novel, The Anatomy Lesson, lampooning Howe as a hypocrite, a pompous moralist and even, in a remarkable twist, a fast-talking pornographer.
What was the core of the Jewish literary tradition that Howe and Roth, two of its most gifted figures, could come to such angry blows over it? I'll try to show how Jewish writing has changed--even grown--and survived even the best-informed predictions of its demise. The conflict between Roth and Howe was partly temperamental, but some of it was generational. Howe was the product of the Yiddish-speaking ghetto, of socialism and the Depression; Roth came of age in postwar America, a world he would alternately satirize and recall with nostalgia. There is a streak of the moralist, the puritan, in Howe's criticism, while Roth took pride, especially when he wrote Portnoy's Complaint, in playing the immoralist, or at least in treating Jewish moral inhibitions as an ordeal, a source of conflict. For Howe, as for writers of his generation like Bernard Malamud, this moral burden was the essence of our humanity; for Roth it led to neurosis, anger and dark, painful comedy.
It comes as a surprise to realize that the major current of Jewish writing in America dates only from the Second World War. Howe once compared the Jewish and the Southern literary schools with a provocative comment: "In both instances," he said, "a subculture finds its voice and its passion at exactly the moment it approaches disintegration." But in what sense was Jewish life in America approaching disintegration in the first two decades after the war, when the best Jewish writers emerged? What was dying, quite simply, was the vibrant immigrant culture evoked by Howe in World of Our Fathers. After the war Jews became freer, richer, more influential. As they moved up the economic ladder, professions like academic life opened up to them that had always been off-limits. Thanks largely to the sense of shame induced by the Holocaust, social anti-Semitism in America became virtually a thing of the past. Surely the great literary flowering owed much to the way Jews in America had finally arrived, although the writers were often critical of what their middle-class brethren did with their freedom.
In any ethnic subculture, it's almost never the immigrant generation that writes the books. The immigrants don't have the language; their lives are focused on survival, on gaining a foothold in the new world and insuring an education for their children. That education not only makes literature possible; it ignites a conflict of values that makes it urgent and inevitable. The scattering of excellent novels by individual writers before the war belongs less to a major literary movement than to the process by which the children of immigrants claimed their own identity. In powerful works of the 1920s and '30s like Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, Mike Gold's Jews Without Money and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, the writers pay tribute to the struggles of their parents yet declare their independence from what they see as their narrow and constricting world. These works could be classed with Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street as part of what Carl Van Doren called the "revolt from the village," the rebellion against local mores and patriarchal authority in the name of a freer, more universal humanity.
Ironically, the parochial world these writers rejected was the only authentic material they had. Their painful memories of small-mindedness and poverty, parental intolerance and religious coercion fueled their imagination as nothing else could. In these works the driving impulse of the sensitive, autobiographical protagonist--Sara Smolinsky in Bread Givers, little Mike Gold in Jews Without Money, the impetuous Ralph Berger, hungry for life, in Clifford Odets's play Awake and Sing!, even young David Schearl in Call It Sleep--is to get away from the ghetto, with its physical deprivation, its materialism and lack of privacy, its desperately limited horizons, but also to get away from the suffocating embrace of the Jewish family--the loving but overly emotional mother, the domineering but ineffectual father and the inescapable crowd of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors, all completely entwined in one another's lives. These works were a blow for freedom, a highly ambivalent chronicle of emancipation and often, sadly, the only books these writers could write. Their autonomy was hard-won but incomplete; this new identity liberated them personally but did little to fire their imagination.
Henry Roth once told me that only when he began to depart from the facts of his life did his novel begin to take on a life of its own; it went on almost to write itself. In Beyond Despair, Aharon Appelfeld made the same point to explain his preference for fiction over autobiography. It gave him the freedom he needed to reshape his own recollections, especially the wartime experiences that bordered on the incredible. "To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process." The early Jewish-American novelists were not so lucky. They were stuck not only with what they remembered but with a naturalistic technique that could not do full justice to their experience. Their escape from their origins, never fully achieved, became a mixed blessing; they found themselves caught between memory and imagination, ghetto sociology and personal need. Mere rebellion and recollection, it seemed, could not nurture a full career. Their literary development was stymied. Only the postwar writers managed to break through this sterile pattern.
Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Delmore Schwartz, Paul Goodman and their Yiddish cousin I.B. Singer were the first Jewish writers in America to sustain major careers, not as immigrant writers but in the mainstream of American letters. When modernism replaced naturalism as the dominant literary mode, as fresh influences like psychoanalysis and existentialism exploded the sociological approach of many prewar writers, a new generation found powerful new vehicles for dealing with its experience. Straightforward realism was never an option for Jewish writers in America; it belonged to those who knew their society from within, who had a bird's-eye view, an easy grasp of its manners and values. As newcomers dealing with complex questions of identity, Jews instead became specialists in alienation who gravitated toward outrageous or poetic forms of humor, metaphor and parable--styles they helped establish in American writing after the war.
The key to the new writers was not only their exposure to the great modernists--Kafka, Mann, Henry James--but their purchase on Jews not simply as autobiographical figures in a social drama of rebellion and acculturation but as parables of the human condition. Though Saul Bellow admired the power of an authentic naturalist like Theodore Dreiser, though Flaubert helped forge his aesthetic conscience, his first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, were more influenced by Dostoyevsky and Kafka than by any writers in the realist tradition. Bellow and his friends were the children of the Holocaust rather than the ghetto. They did not write about the recent events in Europe--they hadn't directly experienced them--but those horrors cast their shadow on every page of their work, including the many pages of desperate comedy.
The atrocities of the Holocaust, the psychology of Freud and the dark vision of certain modern masters encouraged Jewish writers to find some universal significance in their own experience. Kafka was the prophet, not of totalitarianism--that was too facile--but of a world cut loose from will and meaning, the world as they experienced it in the 1940s. Saul Bellow's engagement with the themes of modernist culture can be traced from novel to novel, but even a writer as private as Malamud was able to combine the stylized speech rhythms of the ghetto with a form adapted from Hawthorne and Kafka to turn parochial Jewish tales into chilling fables of modern life. This was the brief period when the Jew became the modern Everyman, everyone's favorite victim, shlemiel and secular saint. Yet there was also an innovation in language, a nervous mixture of the literary and the colloquial, of art talk and street talk, that was almost poetic in its effects. Bellow himself brought the buoyant, syncopated rhythms of the vernacular into his prose. As he put it in his eulogy of Malamud after his death in 1986:
Well, we were here, first-generation Americans, our language was English and a language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth maker, a fabulist, a writer of exquisite parables.
We can find these effects almost anywhere we turn in Malamud's stories, from animal fables like "The Jewbird" and "Talking Horse" to wrenching tales like "Take Pity," which he put at the head of his last collection of stories. It includes the following bit of dialogue, supposedly between a census taker, Davidov, and a recalcitrant citizen named Rosen:
"How did he die?"
"On this I am not an expert," Rosen replied. "You know better than me."
"How did he die?" Davidov spoke impatiently. "Say in one word."
"From what he died?--he died, that's all."
"Answer, please, this question."
"Broke in him something. That's how."
"Broke what breaks."
Eventually we discover that the man answering the questions in this Kafkaesque exchange is himself dead, and his reckoning with the "census taker" takes place in some bare, shabby room of heaven or hell, though it feels like a forlorn pocket of the ghetto. (Malamud himself later described it as "an institutional place in limbo.") Rosen, an ex-coffee salesman, has killed himself in a last-ditch effort to impose his charity, pity or love on the fiercely independent widow of the man who died. Rosen takes pity on her, but she will not take his pity. Even after he turns on the gas and leaves her everything, she appears at the window, adrift in space, alive or dead, imploring or berating him in a final gesture of defiance.
Like all of Malamud's best work, this is a story of few words but resonant meanings. Anticipating Samuel Beckett, Malamud strips down the sociology of the ghetto into a spare, postapocalyptic landscape of essential, even primitive emotions, finding eerie comedy on the far side of horror. After her husband's death, as the business disintegrated, the woman and her children came close to starving, but the story is less about poverty than about the perverseness of the human will. Again and again Rosen tries to help the widow, but she adamantly refuses to be helped. Both are stubborn unto death, and the story explores the fine line between goodness and aggression, generosity and control, independence and self-sacrifice. Rosen will get the proud woman to take his help, whether she wants to or not, but neither can truly pity the other; their unshakable self-will isolates and destroys them. And the interrogator, standing in for both author and reader, makes no effort to judge between them. The story leaves us with a sense of the sheer human mystery.
The raw power of Malamud's stories is based on a simple principle--that every moral impulse has its Nietzschean dark side, its streak of lust or the will to power, just as every self has its anti-self, a double or shadow that exposes its vulnerabilities and limitations. This dialectic of self and other is at the heart of Malamud's stories and novels. The "self" in his stories is often a stand-in for the writer, a worldly, cultivated man--someone fairly young but never youthful, well educated but not especially successful, Jewish but nervously assimilated, full of choked-up feeling. Repeatedly, this figure is brought up short by his encounter with some ghetto trickster, a wonder-working rabbi, an ethnic con man who represents the suppressed, tribal part of his own tightly controlled personality.
Malamud's work is full of such symbolic figures, half real, half legendary, including the ghetto rat, Susskind, a stateless refugee in Rome in "The Last Mohican," who steals the hero's manuscript on Giotto; and Salzman, the marriage broker in "The Magic Barrel," whose ultimate gift to a young rabbinical student is his own fallen daughter. These Old World characters point to the ambiguous, even disreputable qualities that the young hero has bleached out of his own identity. They are slightly magical figures who come and go with almost supernatural ease. At different times they stand for ethnic Jewishness, carnality, wild emotion, even a sense of magic and the irrational. Or else they are figures from another culture--the Italian helper in The Assistant, the black writer in The Tenants--who test the limits of the protagonist's humanity and sometimes put him on a tentative path toward redemption and self-knowledge.
Malamud's piety toward the past, the Jewish elders, is not much in evidence in the next generation. Coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, writers like Philip Roth belonged to a new group of discontented sons and daughters. This was the black humor generation, rebelling not against the constraints of the ghetto--they were too young to have known any real ghetto--but against the mental ghetto of Jewish morality and the Jewish family. If Anzia Yezierska or Clifford Odets inveighed against the actual power of the Jewish father or mother, Roth and his contemporaries, who grew up with every apparent freedom, were doing battle with the internal censor, the mother or father in the head. (Much later Roth would build The Human Stain around a character who jettisons his whole family, including his doting mother, to shape a new identity for himself.)
The work of these writers proved deliberately provocative, hugely entertaining, always flirting with bad taste and often very funny, but with an edge of pain and giddiness that borders on hysteria. As Portnoy gradually discovers that he's living inside a Jewish joke, the novel's comic spirits turn self-lacerating. Like Roth, writers such as Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay Friedman, Joseph Heller, Jerome Charyn and Mark Mirsky have practiced an art of incongruity, deploying a wild mockery in place of the old moral gravity. Howe's charge against Roth--that he writes out of a "thin personal culture"--could be leveled against them as well, but it would be more accurate to say that they looked to a different culture: satirical, performative, intensely oral. They identified less with modernists like Kafka and Dostoyevsky than with provocateurs like Céline, Nathanael West and Lenny Bruce. They looked less to literature than to stand-up comedy, the oral tradition of the Jewish jokes that Freud collected, the tirade of insults that ventilated aggression, the vaudeville shtick that brought Jews to the forefront of American entertainment.
The usual targets of their derision, besides Jewish mothers and Jewish husbands, were the new suburban Jews who had made it after the war, the vulgar, wealthy Patimkins in Goodbye, Columbus, who live in a posh Newark suburb, play tennis and send their daughter to Radcliffe, and--this got me when I first read it--have a separate refrigerator for fruit in their finished basement. (Actually, it was their old fridge they were thrifty enough to save, the way they've held on to remnants of their old Newark personality.) As a foil to the Patimkins of Short Hills, Roth gives us the inner-city blacks of Newark, where the Jews used to live. We get glimpses of black workmen ordered around by the Patimkins' callow son, and especially of a young boy who runs into trouble simply because he wants to read a book on Gauguin in the local public library. At the heart of the book, then, for all its irreverence, is a sentimental idea of the virtue of poverty and the simple life, something the upwardly mobile Jews have left behind but the black boy still seeks in Gauguin's noble vision of Tahiti.
Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959, a prelude to a decade in which outrage and irreverence would become the accepted cultural norms. Even Bellow would take a spin with black humor in Herzog (1964), as Malamud would do, unconvincingly, in Pictures of Fidelman in 1969. Here these stern moralists dipped into sexual comedy as never before, the comedy of adultery in Bellow, of sexual hunger and humiliation in Malamud. But they were soon outflanked by their literary son Roth, who would make epic comedy out of Jewish dietary laws, rabbinical pomposity, furtive masturbation, plaintive longing for shiksas and, above all, the family romance in Portnoy's Complaint. With its deliberately coarse comic stereotypes, especially of the histrionic Jewish mother, the long-suffering father and their son, the young Jewish prince, this was the work that elicited Irving Howe's attack, the book that turned the vulgar spritz of stand-up comedy into literature.
The Oedipal pattern in Portnoy belongs to a larger history: Roth and other black humorists were rebelling not only against their own parents but against their literary parents, the moralists of the previous generation, who were still around and did not take kindly to it. Bellow responded to the carnival aspect of the 1960s by taking on the voice of the censorious Jewish sage in Mr. Sammler's Planet, arraigning middle-aged adulterers along with women, blacks and young people in one sweeping image of moral decay--of "sexual niggerhood," as he put it in one indelible phrase. The date was 1970, the bitter end of that tumultuous decade; Bellow's and Howe's responses were extreme but typical of the overheated rhetoric of the generation gap and the culture wars. Bellow's outrage, perhaps, was tinged with the envy that so many middle-aged Americans, not simply Jews, felt toward the new sexual freedoms of the young.
Malamud responded just as pointedly in a 1968 story called "An Exorcism," but it is scarcely known because he never reprinted it in his lifetime. More than any other text, this story brings to a head the Oedipal tensions among Jewish writers, shedding light on their key differences. It is closely related to another story of generational conflict Malamud wrote the same year, "My Son the Murderer," about a bitter standoff between an anxious, intrusive father and his 22-year-old son, who is angry at everyone, unhinged by images from Vietnam and grimly awaiting his own draft notice. (Malamud had a son just the same age.) The central figure in "An Exorcism" is an austere older writer--like Malamud himself, but far less successful--a lonely man rigorously devoted to his craft, a kind of saint and hero of art. An aspiring writer, a young 1960s type, attaches himself to the older man at writers' conferences--virtually the only places he ventures out. The older man, Fogel, is grudging and taciturn, but gradually his defenses drop, for he feels "grateful to the youth for lifting him, almost against his will, out of his solitude." Having won his confidence, the boy betrays him; he publishes a story based on an embarrassing sexual episode in the older man's past. Fogel first confronts, then forgives him. But when the student, as a provocative stunt, seduces three women in a single night, the writer feels a wave of nausea and violently exorcises him from his life.
Not given to wielding fiction as cultural polemic, Malamud clearly felt uneasy with the naked anger of this story, which indicts not simply one unscrupulous young man but a whole generation for its freewheeling life and confessional style. In the eyes of an exacting craftsman who fears that his kind of art is no longer valued, these facile new writers simply don't invent enough. (Fogel accuses the young man of doing outrageous things simply to write about them, of being little more than "a walking tape recorder" of his "personal experiences.") When Fogel tells his surrogate son that "Imagination is not necessarily Id," Malamud could even be referring to Portnoy's recent line about "putting the Id back in Yid." Roth would give his own version of his spiritual apprenticeship to Malamud and Bellow ten years later in The Ghost Writer. In any case, "An Exorcism" remained unknown, while Portnoy's Complaint became the ultimate piece of second-generation black humor, a hilarious whine against the neurotic effects of prolonged exposure to Jewish morality and the Jewish family.
Portnoy's complaint was an Oedipal complaint, but even at the time, long before he published Patrimony, his powerful 1991 memoir of the death of his father, it was clear how deeply attached Roth was to the parents he mocked and mythologized--the eternally constipated father, the effusively overbearing mother who loved and forgave him as no other woman could, loved him even for his transgressions. All through the 1970s Roth kept rewriting that novel in increasingly strident works like The Breast, a misconceived fantasy; My Life as a Man, a vengeful account of his first marriage; and The Professor of Desire. Roth seemed unable to escape the facts of his life but also seemed desperate to offend. He attacked critics for taking his work as autobiographical yet repeatedly fell back on exaggerated versions of the known facts. In My Life as a Man he even played on the relationship between fact and invention by giving us what claimed to be the "real" story behind some fictional versions. But of course he felt free to make up this story as well.
None of these almost military maneuvers against critics and readers, which Roth also carried on in essays and interviews, quite prepared us for his next book, The Ghost Writer, which launched the next stage of Jewish-American writing, the one we are still in today. Let's call it the return, or the homecoming. If the second stage was debunking and satirical, even parricidal, the third stage began with Roth's filial homage to the two writers with whom his name had always been linked. Malamud appears in the book as E.I. Lonoff, very much the ascetic devotee of craft we meet in Malamud's own late work. Bellow (with a touch of Mailer) figures as the prolific, much-married, world-shaking Felix Abravanel, a man who, as it turns out, "was clearly not in the market for a twenty-three-year-old son." Roth himself appears as the young Nathan Zuckerman, a dead ringer for the author at that age. Zuckerman has just published his first, controversial stories, as Roth himself had done, and his own father is angry at him for washing the family linen in public. ("Well, Nathan, you certainly didn't leave anything out, did you?") His father has gotten the elders of the Jewish community on his case, in the person of one Judge Leopold Wapter, who sends him a questionnaire (!) that concludes: "Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?"
Judge Wapter stands for all the professional Jews and rabbinical critics who had been upset by Roth's early stories--stories which, after all, had surely been written to ruffle people's feathers, even to offend. With very broad, satirical strokes, the older Roth is now caricaturing his enemies, nursing old grievances, parading his victimization as wounded virtue. Roth demands from his readers what only his parents could give him: unconditional love. He wants to transgress and wants to be forgiven, wants to be outrageous yet also to be accepted, to be wickedly clever and be adored for it. When his women or his critics fail to give this to him, he lashes out at them. This rehearsal of old grievances is the tired and familiar part of The Ghost Writer, but the book included much that, in retrospect, was daringly fresh:
First, there is a surprising and resonant literariness that matches the book's evocative tone and warm filial theme. Roth's angry iconoclasm, his need to offend and outrage, has for now been set aside. The Ghost Writer deals with Nathan Zuckerman's literary beginnings, and Roth's virtuoso portraits of the older writers are perfectly in tune with the literary allusions that form the backdrop of the story--references to Isaac Babel, the great Soviet-Jewish writer murdered by Stalin; to Henry James's story "The Middle Years," which also deals with a young acolyte's relation to an older writer; and most important, to the diary of Anne Frank. She is the figure behind Amy Bellette, the young woman in Roth's story who may actually be Anne Frank, and who may be having an affair with Lonoff.
Second, for all the shtick and satire in Roth's previous fiction, this was his most Jewish book yet, not only for Roth's tribute to earlier Jewish writers but in his tender retelling of Anne Frank's story. Both the literariness and the Jewishness had always been latent in Roth's work, just barely masked by its satiric edge, its willed vulgarity. Roth's literary bent had been evident in his essays on contemporary fiction, his brilliant story about Kafka, the interviews he had given about each of his novels, and especially the invaluable series he was editing for Penguin, "Writers From the Other Europe," which launched the Western careers of such little-known Polish and Czech writers as Milan Kundera. No critic, to my knowledge, has yet tried to gauge the effect of this large editorial enterprise on Roth's later fiction. As his own work bogged down in Portnoy imitations and paranoia, this project took Roth frequently to Eastern Europe, where he made a wealth of literary contacts. Thus Roth found himself editing morally serious and formally innovative work that, despite its congenial absurdism, cut sharply against the grain of what he himself was writing. This material exposed Roth to both the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism, and ultimately gave his work a historical dimension, and especially a Jewish dimension, it had previously lacked. These books brought him back to his distant European roots. The angry young man, the prodigal son, was gradually coming home.
In The Ghost Writer Roth still nurses his old quarrel with the Jewish community, just as he would pursue his vendetta against Irving Howe in The Anatomy Lesson. He eulogizes Lonoff as "the Jew who got away," the Jew of the heart, or art--the noninstitutional Jew--and portrays Anne Frank as a secular, detached Jew like himself. In a bizarre moment, Zuckerman even imagines himself marrying Anne Frank, perhaps the ultimate rejoinder to his Jewish critics, to all the Judge Wapters of the world. But apart from this defensiveness, there's a strain of reverence toward art in the book, toward the Jewish historical experience, even toward the Jewish family, which creates something really new in Roth. Instead of rebelling against the father, he wants to be anointed by him: He's come "to submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than E.I. Lonoff's spiritual son." Adopted by Lonoff, married to Anne Frank, he will no longer be vulnerable to the Howes and Wapters who criticize his writing for not being Jewish or tasteful enough.
In retrospect we can see how so much of value in Roth's later work--the wider political horizons of The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, the unexpected play with metafiction and magic realism in both those books, with their ingenious variations on what is made up and what is "real," and finally, his loving tribute to his late father in Patrimony and to the figure of the Good Father in American Pastoral--can be shown to have originated in The Ghost Writer. Moreover, they are strikingly typical of what I call the third phase of American Jewish writing, when the Jewishness that once seemed to be disappearing returned with a vengeance. In this phase the inevitability of assimilation gives way to the work of memory.
There's nothing so surprising about this pattern. The great historian of immigration, Marcus Lee Hansen, long ago enunciated the influential three-generation thesis that came to be known as Hansen's Law: "What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember." Sociologists have shown that this return actually begins in the twilight years of the second generation. In Patrimony Roth presents his aged father as something of a pain in the neck but also as the keeper of the past, the storyteller, the Great Rememberer. Driving around Newark with his son, the former insurance agent, like a real census taker, recalls every occupant of every building. "You mustn't forget anything--that's the inscription on his coat of arms," his son writes. "To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory."
The father's motto is also part of the artistic credo of the son, who remembers his past with a hallucinatory intensity. Yet by the mid-1980s Roth also developed a wider historical purview, a sense of all that life that was lived before him, or far away from him--in Eastern Europe, where he sets "The Prague Orgy"; in England or Israel, where some of the best parts of The Counterlife, Deception and Operation Shylock take place. This is a more cosmopolitan Roth, reaching outside himself for almost the first time, in dialogue with Zionism, acutely sensitive to anti-Semitism, finding new meaning in the Jewish identity he had once mocked and scorned.
Much of The Counterlife still belongs to the old self-involved Roth of the Zuckerman saga--the fears of impotence, the scabrous comedy, the Wagnerian family uproar--but the sections set in England and Israel are something else. Until the early 1980s, there was as little trace of the Jewish state in American fiction as there was of the old European Diaspora in Israeli writing. American writers by and large were not Zionists, and Israeli writers were not nostalgic for the shtetl or the Pale. With its insistence on nationhood as the solution to the Jewish problem, Israel was perhaps too tribal, too insular to capture the attention of assimilated writers, however much it preoccupied ordinary American Jews. Israel was the place where Portnoy couldn't get an erection--surely the least memorable part of that larger-than-life novel.
But more than a decade later, when Zuckerman's brother Henry becomes a baal t'shuva, a penitent, and Zuckerman looks him up among the zealots of the West Bank, Roth's work crosses that of Amos Oz and David Grossman, novelists who had written so well about the tensions dividing Israeli society. Like them, Roth finds great talkers who can articulate sharp ideological differences, which also reflect his own inner conflicts. He begins to relish the sheer play of ideas, the emotional bite of Jewish argument. The Counterlife inaugurates a dialogic phase of Roth's writing that gets played out in Deception, an experimental novel that is all dialogue; The Facts, where Nathan Zuckerman appears at the end to offer a rebuttal to Roth's memoir; and Operation Shylock, which returns to the Israeli setting of The Counterlife. In this new fiction of ideas, Roth's work acquired a real historical dimension, which would also lead to an acclaimed but uneven trilogy about postwar America, beginning with American Pastoral.
Zuckerman in Israel, like Zuckerman recounting other people's stories in the American books, is also Roth escaping from the self-absorption of his earlier work. In England, cast among the not-so-genteel anti-Semites, Zuckerman develops an extraordinary pride, aggressiveness and sensitivity about being Jewish. With their layers within layers, both The Counterlife and Operation Shylock are Roth's most Jewish books, even as Zuckerman defends himself (and Jewish life in the Diaspora) against the imperious claims of orthodoxy and Zionism. They mark his return to the fold, as well as his most formally complex fiction, pointing not only to the confusions between art and life but to the multiple layers of Roth's identity.
By giving so much attention to Roth, I run the risk of making it seem like it's only his development that is at stake, not larger changes in American Jewish writing. But every facet of Roth's later work has its parallel in other writers who have emerged in the past twenty years: the more explicit and informed Jewishness, the wider historical framework, the play with metafiction or magic realism, and the more intense literariness. In line with the wave of identity politics in America, there has been a persistent search for roots among younger Jewish writers, as there has been for older writers from assimilated backgrounds such as Leslie Epstein, Anne Roiphe and Alan Isler. If we add to the themes listed above a concern with gender and sexual preference and a fascination with strict religious observance, we would have a complete inventory of issues that have attracted the younger generation, including Steve Stern, Allegra Goodman, Lev Raphael, Thane Rosenbaum, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Pearl Abraham, Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Chabon, Aryeh Lev Stollman, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Tova Mirvis and Ehud Havazelet. They have written about subjects as varied as the old and new Jews of Memphis, the lives of young Jews in Oxford and Hawaii, the Orthodox communities of New York and Israel, the attractions of Jewish mysticism, the problems of gay Jewish identity, the surreal experiences of the walking wounded--Holocaust survivors and their children--and the old world of the shtetl and of Europe after the war. Some of their writing, arduously researched, smells of the library. They work best in short novels like Stollman's hypnotic The Far Euphrates or in collections of overlapping stories like Goodman's The Family Markowitz, composed of scenes and vignettes that allude nostalgically to the old-style family chronicle. The larger synthesis so far eludes them.
The interests of these emerging writers were foreshadowed not only by the shifting stance of Roth but by the themes explored by another writer of his generation, Cynthia Ozick. Like Roth, she spent many years indentured to the 1950s gospel of art according to Henry James, and only later discovered her own vein of Jewish storytelling typical of what I've called the third stage. To put it bluntly, Ozick's work is far more Jewish than that of her main predecessors, richer with cultural information, proudly nationalistic, even sentimentally orthodox. Some of her stories and essays, such as her angry piece in The New Yorker on Anne Frank's diary (reprinted in Ozick's recent collection Quarrel & Quandary), launched stinging attacks on secular Jews. Yet she began as a feminist and became the most articulate woman in a largely patriarchal line that rarely produced strong writing by women apart from such isolated figures as Emma Lazarus, Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen. This is something else that has changed dramatically since 1970.
Bellow and Malamud had Jewishness in their bones, but what they actually knew about Judaism could have been written on a single page. They knew the ghetto neighborhoods, the character types, the speech patterns and what they took in at the kitchen table. They were born into Yiddish-speaking homes. Their Judaism was instinctive, domestic, introspective. But their determination to navigate the literary mainstream prevented them from getting too caught up with specifically Jewish subjects. They refused to be consigned to any literary ghetto. "I conceived of myself as a cosmopolitan man enjoying his freedom," said Malamud. Ozick, on the other hand, like I.B. Singer or Steve Stern, was fascinated by the whole magical side of Judaism--the popular lore and legend, the dybbuks and golems of Jewish mystical tradition. For Singer this was part of his experience of growing up in Poland, the curious son of a learned rabbi, entranced by hidden and forbidden byways of the Jewish tradition. For Ozick and Stern it sometimes becomes a bookish, vicarious Judaism based on reading and research. But this very bookishness--a certain remoteness from life--becomes a key theme in their work.
Until recently a fear haunted Jewish-American writing: that the subject was exhausted, that we live in inferior times, that giants once walked the earth and said everything that needed to be said; the rest is commentary. From her first important story, "Envy, or Yiddish in America," in 1969, to her keynote "Usurpation: Other People's Stories" in the mid 1970s, to The Messiah of Stockholm and The Puttermesser Papers, Ozick repeatedly writes stories about writers, or stories about other people's stories. This is a latecomer's literature, almost a textbook example of the postmodern profusion of texts upon texts, or of Harold Bloom's famous theory of the anxiety of influence, which emphasizes the Oedipal tensions between writers and their precursors. We risk becoming footnotes to our forebears.
Like The Ghost Writer, Ozick's "Envy"--the very title is revealing--is most memorable for its portraits of two older writers, one a lethal caricature of I.B. Singer--widely translated, fabulously successful, yet cruel, egotistical and rejected by most other Yiddish writers--the other loosely based on the great poet Jacob Glatstein, celebrated among fellow Yiddishists yet never properly translated into English. (Ozick herself later did some translations of his work.) But the key figure is a young woman, perhaps based on Ozick herself, whom the poet seizes upon as his lifeline into English, the potential savior of all of Yiddish culture.
This poet is envious of the Singer character but even more contemptuous of American Jewish writers for their ignorance: "Jewish novelists! Savages!" he says bitterly. "Their Yiddish! One word here, one word there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that's the whole vocabulary." Like Roth's novella, this is a kind of ghost story; the characters embody a dead culture trying to come alive. But it's also a vampire tale, since the young woman eventually rejects them as bloodsuckers trying to live at her expense. Fascinated by the high drama of an expiring Yiddish culture, she decides she cannot allow it to take over her own life. Cynthia Ozick is thought of as some kind of pious traditionalist, but this, her best story, written with ferocious energy and style, is a work that radiates hostility from first to last, reminding the reader of the sharp polemical turns she often takes in her essays.
In Ozick's story "Usurpation," the spirit of envy takes over the protagonist herself. It begins with a young author at the 92nd Street Y listening to a reading by a famous older writer. After two or three sentences, her ears begin to burn, for she feels he's telling a story that truly belongs to her, that she was born to write. As it happens, the writer and the story can easily be identified, since Ozick retells it. It's "The Silver Crown," Malamud's story about a wonder rabbi, which is precisely about the conflict of generations that is virtually the signature of this third, or latecomer's, generation. It's also a story of the kind of Jewish mystery and magic so dear to Ozick that she feels a sting of regret at not having written it herself. Malamud had been there first, but Ozick, like Steve Stern, makes her literary belatedness the theme of her story.
It's no accident that Ozick's stories overlap with her eloquent literary essays, or that metafiction and postmodernism here make a surprising entry into Jewish writing. Postmodernism, as I understand it, conveys the sense that all texts are provisional, that we live in a world already crowded with familiar texts and images, that originality is a Romantic illusion and techniques like collage, pastiche and pseudocommentary are better than realism for conveying our sense of belatedness and repletion. At the heart of Ozick's fine story "Puttermesser Paired" (in The Puttermesser Papers) are some brilliantly told episodes from the life of George Eliot, which the heroine partly re-enacts, just as Ozick weaves a lost novel by the murdered Polish writer Bruno Schulz into The Messiah of Stockholm. As in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, this is writing about writing, perched on the fine line between commentary and invention.
It's rare that literary history so closely mirrors social history, but the conflict of literary generations I've described here is part of a larger pattern. It's no news that America has experienced a revival of ethnicity, or that the world has been rocked by waves of resurgent nationalism. With their longstanding commitment to the universalism of the Enlightenment, to which they owed their emancipation, Jews have been ambivalent about participating in this process. Jewish life in America has become far more assimilated, but younger Jewish writers have both taken advantage of this and sharply criticized it. They have turned to Israel, to feminism, to the Holocaust, to earlier Jewish history and to their own varied spiritual itineraries, ranging from neo-Orthodoxy and mysticism to Eastern religion, as a way of redefining their relation to both Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. If they have lost the old connection to Europe, to Yiddish or to immigrant life, they have begun to substitute their own distinctive Jewish and American experiences. They are not simply living on the inherited capital of past literary generations. The new writing so far may lack the power of a Malamud, a Bellow or a Grace Paley, but it is certainly not enervated by the bland, assimilated aspects of Jewish life. Jewish writers have quarreled with one another and with themselves, but these have been family quarrels, not holy wars. Whatever tension this creates, it certainly gives no sign that they are about to give up the ghost, especially now that the ghost, the past, has taken on new flesh and blood.
Telluride, Toronto and After
For folks involved in film, seasonal clocks can be set by the annual confluence of international film festivals (Telluride, Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, Venice) that shape reputations and kick-start the movies that show up on screens throughout the fall and winter. Usually, festivals are measured by which premieres and stars they snag, which prizes are awarded. This year, however, only one factor comes into play: whether festivals and films ran before or after September 11.
Telluride took place in the bucolic setting of the Colorado mountains in the prelapsarian weeks prior to September 11. In addition to hot-off-the-press premieres, the Telluride festival is known for its tributes and archival revivals. Each year features a guest director who brings some special expertise to spice up the mix. (Full disclosure: I was the 1996 guest director.) This time it was Salman Rushdie, who unspooled Indian classics and chatted about science fiction films to the thrill of the crowd. (A few days later in Toronto, opening my copy of the Globe and Mail, I was surprised to find Rushdie's name on the front page. An item on September 11 reported that the FAA had alerted Air Canada that it could not board him as a passenger, bound for Toronto that week, due to "extreme security measures" that required air traffic to operate under a "heightened state of alert.")
Yes, Telluride was before all that. Still, it's a festival that often has a political spin buried in its offerings. (Its very first festival, after all, honored Leni Riefenstahl.) The roster of films this year included everything from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's French blockbuster Amelie to a documentary on Walt Disney. No Man's Land, by first-time Bosnian director Danis Tonovic, was a popular hit, offering an antiwar message that combined M*A*S*H-style humor with the despair of Waiting for Godot.
Telluride's succès de scandale was Dear Fidel, a quirky German documentary on the life and love of Marita Lorenz, a German-American woman whose love affair with Fidel Castro during the first year of the Cuban Revolution led to a subsequent assignment from the CIA to murder him. Conspiracy alert: She was also a member of a convoy that drove from DC to Dallas on--guess which day. And, yup, Lee Harvey Oswald (she calls him "Ozzie") was one of the gang. The documentary, by investigative journalist Wilfried Huismann and producers Detlef Ziegert and Yvonne Ruocco, is packed with these astonishing stories and more, plus all-important witness corroborations. The confused editing might boggle the mind, but Dear Fidel's central subject never fails to fascinate. Showing up in person for the premiere, Lorenz basked in the crowd's attention and told even more stories: For example, her daughter (by Venezuelan ex-dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez) is now married to the son of Orlando Letelier! Check out the website (www.dear-fidel.com) and prepare to be astonished.
The pure cinema part of the Telluride schedule featured an award and retrospective tribute to Catherine Breillat, the French director whose brilliant examinations of female sexuality freed from societal constraints have made her one of the most original filmmakers of our time. That her cinema is itself freed from societal constraints, and thus free to explore sex explicitly on screen and ignore taboos regarding both age and agency, is not incidental. Romance, the 1998 film in which she used actors alongside porn stars, pierced the facade of feminine wiles and instead constructed a character who was willing to go to any lengths for satisfaction.
Breillat's new film, Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur!), went on to both the Toronto and New York festivals after Telluride, and opens in New York City on October 10, with a national release thereafter. A deliberately troubling film about adolescent female sexuality, Fat Girl can easily be interpreted as a long-overdue riposte to the French coming-of-age movies centered on summertime first loves, such as Eric Rohmer's beloved Pauline at the Beach. Breillat explores the hypocrisy of a society that weighs down the sexual act with sentimental and moralistic baggage through one summer affair between a beautiful teenager, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), and Fernando, the Italian law student (Libero de Rienzo) who woos her after a chance meeting in a beachside cafe.
For a clear-eyed view, Breillat has written into the narrative a plump and grumpy younger sister, whose role is to accompany the Lolita-ish teenager throughout the flirtatious escapade. Protected by age and weight, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) dissects the terrible contract by which a teenage girl is allowed to possess beauty and "lose" virginity. In a hilarious cameo, Laura Betti, Pasolini's star and muse, appears as Fernando's social-climbing, bejeweled mother.
Naturally, since this is a Breillat film, sex and death are never far apart. There's unpredictable violence lurking at the movie's end, just when the audience relaxes, thinking it knows what's up. From its tranquil beginning to its shocking finish, Fat Girl shows Breillat to be a world-class artist working at the top of her form--even when the lessons of gender, sexuality and social custom may be hard to swallow. Without her, they wouldn't be available to us at all.
Telluride is not known for favoring women directors, but this year was different. Alongside Breillat was a new talent from Argentina, Lucrecia Martel. Her first feature film, La Ciénaga, churned up attention at virtually every festival and, like Fat Girl, was programmed at Toronto and New York. (It will also have a wider theatrical release, at New York's Film Forum in October and elsewhere throughout the fall.) La Ciénaga is an astonishing debut that mixes a Gabriel García Márquez sort of setting with a thoroughly cinematic imagination. Summer is a time of disintegration in Martel's universe, constructed from her memories of growing up in Salta, a province in the northwest of Argentina near the Bolivian border that's haunted by its own fears and illusions. In La Ciénaga, a middle-class family comes unglued over the course of several days in which petty disasters add up to major calamities. What distinguishes the film is Martel's wholesale reinvention of Latin American film language, so long bound by the rules of realism and/or melodrama. With La Ciénaga, cinema gets a shakeup, and the result is intoxicating.
La Ciénaga does what cinema at its best can do: It reveals a universe we've never even imagined and then gets us to look differently at both the society and medium we'd underestimated. Here, that means seeing water balloons thrown by young men at young women in the glorious frenzy of a fiesta. Or the modern-day stigmata self-inflicted by a boozy mother who, drunk, drops her glass on the patio and falls right into its jagged remains. Or the aura surrounding a maid, adored by the children she cares for and depended upon by their parents, who is nevertheless accused of stealing whenever anything cannot be found. Martel lays open a system of contradictions--individual, familial, racial, class--that show up like fissures in the bedrock of Argentine society. It's the audacious vision of a true artist who has paid close attention to the society around her.
When I arrived in Toronto, I was half-afraid I'd already seen the two best films in the festival. I needn't have worried. The lineup was terrific. Fat Girl and La Ciénaga were still standouts, but they had good company in the 300-plus films from Albania to Zanzibar and most places in between, including Hollywood. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive proved to be a terrific return to form for him, all dark intrigues and homicidal corruption. Alfredo Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También? spiced a road movie with riffs on adolescent masculinity and the Mexican elite. From Hong Kong, Stanley Kwan sent Lan Yu, a gay melodrama looking at the tumultuous relationship between a businessman and a student hustler. Chilean Patricio Guzmán brought El Caso Pinochet, an examination of the legal and political work of trying the ex-dictator. Toronto is known as an exceedingly democratic festival, with something for everyone--its programmers even sign their catalogue entries so you know whom to blame--and the scope pays off for moviegoers who choose wisely.
Midway into the festival, it began to look possible to divine a new trend in American independent cinema. A series of accomplished films deployed a new narrative structure, tracing a large cast of characters across a series of ever-interlocking dramas. Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects (based on a collection of stories by A.M. Homes) both carry their audiences through multilayered journeys of loss, anxiety and redemption with commanding complexity. In Thirteen Conversations, tricks of fate direct a series of characters whose interconnections are slowly exposed through a complex structure that moves across time and locations. In The Safety of Objects, Troche's script stitches disparate stories together into a treatise on lives touched by tragedy and redeemed by connections that bind them through a similarly complex structure of events. A film by another American woman director, Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, offered a brighter and leaner version, with a family story of interconnecting events that culminate in cinema's funniest McDonald's scene. Unlike earlier films that played with narrative--Happiness, American Beauty--these women do not rely on irony. Instead, they're perfecting a new approach to storytelling for complicated times.
Not surprisingly, films at Toronto played differently before and after September 11, a date that fell directly mid-festival. It was astonishing how quickly the hippest buzz dissolved once the events of the world intruded and, conversely, how much excess meaning accrued to those films with the "luck" to consider life-and-death issues, now utterly amplified. Indeed, after the 11th, Toronto was not the same event. The first half wound down as the press corps, in high spirits, emerged from a screening of Mira Nair's deliriously joyous film, Monsoon Wedding (which had been named the Venice festival's grand prize winner the day before), to enter a lobby filled with weeping colleagues staring at a giant monitor above the concession stand carrying the now-familiar scenes of unimaginable destruction. In the aftermath, all parties were canceled, industry presence was diminished and lines of Torontonians wound around the block, eager for the diversion and transport that movies deliver so well.
Suddenly it seemed that the festival was spilling over with films about loss, sudden death, fatal accident and families rent by grief. There were so many I tired of counting (The Safety of Objects, by the way, is one). Three are such exceptional films that they would have been singled out at any time; now they resonate, trembling like a tuning fork with the nervous hum of recent weeks. From Italy, there's The Son's Room; from Taiwan, What Time Is It There?; from France, L'Emploi du Temps (Time Out).
Laurent Cantet's Time Out is an unemployment thriller, detailing the desperate denial and increasingly psychotic behavior of a middle-management family man who loses his job, and with it his identity, sense of safety and all bearings. He never tells anyone what has happened. He cuts off all contact with his old colleagues and concocts one strategy after another--from pyramid investment schemes to outright smuggling--in order to maintain his face-saving fiction. As the screws of his deception tighten, a Hitchcockian shadow of slowly and excruciatingly built tension begins to shadow the film's events. Surely this will end violently? But Cantet is a latter-day Marxist whose last film, Human Resources, looked at a father-son struggle based on a factory floor. Here, he seems to tell us, nothing can compare with the violence experienced by any human caught up in mindless white-collar management, whether working or laid off. In that sense, the lie told by Cantet's protagonist--claiming that he's got a new job with a Swiss NGO doing business in Africa--is merely one more irony in his doomed flight from capitalism.
Tsai Ming-liang appeared in these pages earlier this year when his film The River had a delayed US release. Now he's back, with a wonderfully mature film, What Time Is It There? A comedy of sorts, it considers, among other things, how a son and mother cope with Dad's sudden death. The mother weeps and tries valiantly to communicate with her husband on the other side, utilizing variously a cockroach, a carp and a Buddhist priest. The irreligious son, played as always by Lee Kang-sheng--star of all of Tsai's films since his 1992 hit Rebels of the Neon God-- is shaken, too. He works as a street vendor. When an attractive customer insists on buying the watch on his wrist instead of the one he's selling--arguing that the dual-time dial is essential for her trip to Paris the next day--she sets the film's structure in motion. As her geographic absence begins to stand in for his father's passing, the son performs his mourning by changing every clock in Taipei to Paris time, seven hours ahead.
It's a hilarious conceit, which Tsai carries through with smart cinematic wit. One scene explicitly evokes Harold Lloyd's silent-film antics. In another, our hero purchases a video--Truffaut's 400 Blows--and watches the scene of Jean-Pierre Léaud stealing a bottle of milk and gulping it down. Constant cross-cutting to the watch-bearer, now a lonely Parisian, reveals her chance encounter with the now-aged Léaud himself in a Paris graveyard. The themes of love and loss, nurturance and abandonment, couldn't be clearer; for added resonance, consider that actor Lee is often compared to James Dean, who so famously drank milk from the bottle in Rebel Without a Cause.
Nanni Moretti has made a career's worth of film grounded in humor, but here he has turned serious. The Son's Room, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this spring, is a portrait of a family, first in happiness and then in grief, its moods bifurcated by the accidental death of an adored son. Conveniently, Moretti's script supplies the father (played by the director's favorite star, himself) with a profession uniquely suited to its needs and ours: He's a psychoanalyst. Prior to his personal tragedy, the doctor is able to handle his patients with ease, even though each one seems to have a problem that echoes his own issue in some way. But after the terrible twist of fate--how cruel film scripts, and life, can be-- he is less and less able. The marriage, too, enters difficult territory. All seems to be lost. And then a letter arrives out of the blue from an unknown girl, and everyone gets a second chance.
The experience of watching The Son's Room two days after the WTC tragedy has forever marked my sense of it. In return, it makes me confident of this film's ability to crack open the heart and heal its wounds again. Totally different from one another, each of these three films takes up loss (of child, parent, job) and looks for a remedy. All three appeared in the New York Film Festival as well and will, one hopes, open across the country quickly. We need them. The movie theater needn't be the place, as the late Pauline Kael once wrote, to "send our minds away." It can be the place where we find them again. And with our minds, our hearts.
WE SHINE FOR ALL
Your magazine remains a beacon of hope for all of us, even those who revile you for your progressive values--because we all lose when mindless, precipitate actions are taken that end up costing more lives and wasting more resources. You are a refreshing alternative voice to the jingoism overtaking this nation. Thank you for remaining true to the cause of justice.
LEE--FULBRIGHT OF HER TIME
Thank you for the interview with Representative Lee ["Barbara Lee's Stand," Oct. 8]. I was reminded of Senator William Fulbright's comment (in an interview not long before his death in 1995) responding to the question of how he would vote on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution given the benefit of hindsight. Fulbright was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1965. The resolution, passed with about the same degree of consideration given the House Use of Force resolution, gave President Johnson a similar blank check to escalate the Vietnam War. Fulbright said if he had another chance he would do his best to stop the 1965 resolution. Barbara Lee is in good company.
GREG STARKEBAUM (Vietnam vet)
MAD PROF--'VOICE OF REASON'
Patricia Williams--finally a voice of reason rather than mere reaction ["Diary of a Mad Law Professor," Oct. 1]. No sane person would condone the terrible acts in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But what's missing from our reaction is self-reflection and self-criticism. America has drawn increasingly inward with George W. Bush and his isolationist policies. The walking out of US delegates at the Durban Conference on Racism is the most recent sad proof that America does not want to hear or deal with what it does not like. This nation's skewed foreign policy puts us all in peril. The American people and our leaders must become more knowledgeable about the rest of the world and how US actions and polices are perceived. Professor Williams is absolutely correct. This is no time for ignoring the causes of the deep hatred for the United States among many people and cultures around the world.
FLY YOUR FLAGS
It is rare for me to disagree with Katha Pollitt, but in "Put Out No Flags" she spoke too quickly ["Subject to Debate," Oct. 8]. She should listen to her daughter. The flag cannot be allowed to stand for "jingoism and vengeance and war." We must take it back. It must again stand for the best we can dream.
As a child during World War II, I knew that our flag represented freedom. Most homes, including ours, proudly flew the flag. Our nation fought a war, paid a high price and helped win a fight that saved future generations from a terrible fate. Now, to protect our grandchildren from a life of terror, we must again take up a just cause and fight for freedom--freedom that even allows for the expression of unrealistic and offensive thoughts.
JOHN C. BOOTH
Katha Pollitt says that what is needed is solidarity. Right now, that is what the Stars and Stripes does for this country. It shows that we citizens of this Republic are united against the perpetrators of these barbarous acts. The fact that right-wingers used the flag to support that monstrosity known as the Vietnam War doesn't mean those on the left must cede this psychic territory of the Stars and Stripes to the Ann Coulters and Jerry Falwells of the world. To use the flag when engaged in activities that it stands for--freedom of speech, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition the government for the redress of grievances--what a radical idea! What a nonviolent rebuff to those who have injured us!
White Salmon, Wash.
I agree with Katha Pollitt's opinion of what our flag stands for. I also agree with her daughter, who wants to fly it in a show of solidarity with the victims and survivors and rescue workers, families and loved ones who have been touched by this horrendous act against humanity. The country needs to become united with the rest of the world, Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, everyone.
I have agonized over how to show my solidarity without appearing to be pro-war. So I have hung Buddhist prayer flags against my house and my boyfriend's house next to his US flag. We feel that this represents what we feel--support for our country's losses and a wish for worldwide peace, US restraint and acceptance of everyone, regardless of race or religion. The prayer flags carry our prayers (for peace) with the wind, around the globe.
Virginia Beach, Va.
Thank you, Katha Pollitt. Now I know I'm not alone. I refuse to fly our flag as long as we kill people and don't negotiate. I received an e-mail saying that we should all wear a purple ribbon for those who have died in this terrible tragedy, as we did the yellow ribbon during Desert Storm. I feel that this is much more appropriate.
I'm against flag-waving for the same reason as Katha Pollitt, but I've been jonesin' for a flag I could believe in. I'd like to see a flag with a globe on it, as she mentions, so I could wave it proudly to say, I belong to the Earth and I take a stand for protecting it.
MICHELLE Y. R'MY
It's a painful time for those of us who have lived through the bad choices our government made in the twentieth century. As one who has survived all those choices (I was born in 1909), I fly the Earth flag--a blue banner with the beautiful photo of our planet taken from outer space, used for the first Earth Day. Our small organization has distributed these flags to schools and municipalities for many years to help people realize that, in the words of the Earth Charter (which all governments must subscribe to if our planet is to survive), we must "bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace."
Save Our World
I went to the AAA flag store here last week and passed the forty or so people standing in line to buy American flags and asked loudly, "Where are the flags with the picture of planet Earth on them?" I took one home, and it now flies proudly next to my American flag--which I fly with some ambivalence but also with a determination to redefine this symbol of jingoism for myself.
I have not joined the patriotic fervor by displaying a US flag even though I deeply mourn the loss of innocent lives, not just American lives but lives from at least eighty other countries ruthlessly sacrificed in a perverted interpretation of Islam. The first impulse I had was to fly the flag with a picture of the Earth to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters throughout the world. But since I don't own such a flag, I have tied a black ribbon to my car antenna in memory of those who died and as a symbol of the period of darkness that must now be overcome if we as a global people wish to survive. Patriotism serves only to further separate us from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters throughout the world in a time when we need more than ever a sense of unity and global community.
Katha Pollitt addresses the flag conundrum quite well. There is an alternative symbol--the peace symbol--which could show empathy with the victims and their families as well as expressing the desire for alternative responses.
There is a global flag. See www.oneworldflag.org.
Thanks to Katha Pollitt for her ideas for alternatives to the American battle flag. Here in Asheville, we've made posters of the peace dove. They're hanging in the windows of homes and businesses, a symbolic alternative to the Stars and Stripes and the march to war.
Santa Monica, Calif.
We need American peace flags and not blank checks! Check us out to see what we're about: www.peaceflags.org (click on info).
BILL RUSSELL, JOHN LANDRUM
Santa Cruz, Calif.
It is important to know our enemies. Listening to newscasters and politicians would lead one to believe that our enemies are Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Afghanistan or some fuzzily defined worldwide network of brown-skinned lunatics with names like Mohammed and Ahmed who take flying lessons in Florida.
Listening to the Rev. Jerry Falwell would lead one to believe that our enemies are gays, Jews, abortion providers, feminists, the ACLU and (though he neglected to mention them this time) Teletubbies. Watching the actions of large numbers of Americans would lead one to believe that our enemies are the 6 million Muslims living in the United States, the mosques they pray at, the businesses they run and the schools their children attend.
All are mistaken.
I hope Americans will look beyond these easy targets and scapegoats and recognize their true enemies as ignorance, intolerance and fanaticism. I fear we have already fallen prey to all three. We have seen a man in Seattle drive his truck through a mosque and begin shooting in the name of patriotism. And we may soon see our military kill innocent people in the pursuit of one man and his followers, also in the name of patriotism. As we indulge these acts, I can only hope that we will not be surprised when their eventual and inevitable responses follow, once again in the name of patriotism.
We need to make the choice between a patriotism we can buy at Wal-Mart for $3 and a greater cause than patriotism--humanity. We must identify and make war on our own tendencies toward fanaticism and intolerance. Otherwise, we ourselves become the enemy, and the terrorists win.
UNCLE SAM WANTS THEM?
Given all the pro-war and American Empire rhetoric, I guess people like William Kristol, David Brooks, Jonah Goldberg, Bill O'Reilly, Zell Miller, Ann Coulter and the entire staff of National Review, among others, will be stepping down from their jobs to go sign up at the nearest armed services recruiting office. It will be a shame not to hear their articulate opinions on everything from Monica Lewinsky to the Taliban, but I believe it is a sacrifice America will have to make. Such patriotic pundits, banging their war drums, surely will lead America to victory.
Why don't we trade Henry Kissinger for Osama bin Laden? Then we each can hold war crimes tribunals and let justice prevail. It's a curious contrast: The Taliban won't surrender bin Laden without presentation of evidence, whereas the United States won't surrender Kissinger even with mountains of evidence.
OUR GLASS HOUSE
On September 11 America experienced a true faith-based initiative. Then, hearing the remarks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who purport to be Christians, made it clear that we have fundamentalists in our own society no better than those we say we must fight. Our forefathers tried to protect us from intolerance by making our government secular, with the imperative to protect all beliefs. We have just experienced the result of deep intolerance and become the victims of religious fanatics. It is heartbreaking to begin this new century with "holy wars," and we must not let our leaders put us on those terms. We must stop those right here in our own country who preach intolerance. As much as we condemn Muslim extremists, it is difficult to cast stones when you live in a glass house.
DOROTHY I. MUNDY
A 'HYPENATED PERSPECTIVE'
New York City
Can I be at war with myself? Watching the World Trade Center collapse, then living through the aftermath, I ask that absurd question. I'm American with a Muslim name but nondescript appearance. No one takes me for Middle Eastern--I was born in West Virginia, and I'm only a quarter Arab. But thanks to the peculiarities of history, and naming, I have an Arab-American identity.
The attack on the World Trade Center puts me in an awful place. Like everyone else, I am horrified and angered. I could have been there, munching a bagel on the observation deck. I can't imagine how someone could have planned such an attack, and my shock is turning into anger and mourning. At the same time, I feel excluded from the national unity. Why? As an Arab-American, I'm subject to reprisals. I'm nervous, wondering if I will somehow share the blame. Slurs, threats and even violence have been leveled against anyone associated with Islam, and I wonder what will happen to me. I'm looking for work--will I be denied a job? What if a wider war breaks out? Will I lose my liberty?
Some friends have said I should go to Egypt. They meant well, but their comments betrayed a misunderstanding that verges on racism. Hard as it is for the safely white to comprehend, there is only one place for me and other hyphenated Americans: the United States. America produced me. My grandparents hail from four different countries. Where else could they have created a family? If I'm out of place here thanks to my name, I'm certainly out of place in the Middle East, where I stick out as an American. What is left for me? Do we have to pick sides in the end? And what can I do if neither side will have me, if both treat me as the enemy?
Some of my fellow citizens are striking out at American Muslims. Some are even calling for a firestorm to be rained upon Islamic nations. Don't they see that the terrorists had the same inspiration? The Afghans were caught between the Soviet Union and the United States for decades. Their country has been reduced to rubble. They have no hope. Violence occurs in cycles, and, if we respond senselessly, striking innocent people in our search for criminals, we'll create more radicals, more suicide bombers who embody the despair of poverty and war. The monopoly on violence is broken, and I shudder to think what comes next.
My situation brings a special clarity, one that opposes choosing sides. What do I see from my hyphenated perspective? The absurdity of labels, indeed, of the whole idea that race, religion or flags divide humanity. I have a Muslim name, but my grandfather was Serbian. How would that fly in the Balkans? Is the world becoming a vast Balkan state?
I've wondered if I will have to choose a side. If I do, here is my choice: pacifism and dialogue. I choose love, I choose humanity. I may symbolize Islam to some and America to others, but I transcend these distinctions. I am proof that love conquers hate. My grandparents conquered tradition to found my family, and I stand tall as an American born from a unique and tolerant soil. What race produced me? The human race. I plead for understanding and compassion. Chase the criminals, but let us then begin to fight. Let us fight not for oil, money or revenge but for a world where hatred and weapons belong to a distant, barbaric past.
'NEITHER IN THE EAST OR THE WEST'
New York City
I am an Arab-American. I am also a New Yorker born in America of a Moroccan Muslim father. On September 11 I stood terrified at my office window above Madison Square Garden, as I watched in horror and disbelief the devastating destruction of the World Trade Center--one of the quintessential landmarks of this city I love. In the distance, down the soundless stretch of Seventh Avenue hung the ghostly cloud of what moments before had been the mirror for the Statue of Liberty, the thriving workplace of thousands of people hailing from all over the planet, each living their portion of the American dream. Read the names on the Wall of Prayers outside St. Vincent's Hospital; they will tell you how the blow dealt to New York truly hit the world, for the names are not only Mark, Jennifer and Kevin, but Imran, Mohammed and Kumar. The terrorists who committed this heinous act, if they were Muslim, are no more "my people" than Timothy McVeigh was "the people" of Christians.
As a liberal Muslim, I must speak out with the clearest and loudest of voices and not let fanatics and extremists define me and my community. For we are in the vast majority--Muslims and Arabs who condemn the killing of another human being, who believe that Allah is compassionate and good and forgiving. Who know that the Koran forbids suicide, who see life as a gift that must not be squandered. My father taught me his favorite sura from the Koran, where God is described as a "Light within Light, emanating from a source found neither in the East nor in the West." The terrorists who carried with them death and destruction shared neither my vision of Allah, nor my vision of the world. They were men devoured by hate and stood only for themselves.
I don't know if we will ever have a real sense of how much was lost on September 11. I don't think I can ever stop hearing the bells from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine that tolled for the dead all day that Tuesday. I heard them as I walked out of Central Park coughing from the soot and ash, my feet blistered from the long trek to Harlem, away from the horror. I feared so much was dying, I feared not just for my college friends, graduate school buddies and neighbors who worked in those towers but for my visions of peace and of a better world. I feared for my dream of an end to the conflict in the Middle East--most likely that vision had gone up in a cloud of smoke. What of my hopes of cultural understanding, of erasing of stereotypes, of validating identity and difference? That, too, had come tumbling down. The terrorists had sounded the death knell for my vision of a better day to come.
But I will not let them do that. In memory of all those who died, I will speak up loudly and not let terrorists write the epitaph of our future. I will not let a handful of hatemongers, who twisted the minds of desperate souls, convince more people that there is no way out of despair but through destruction. The differences that divide the Arab-Muslim world and the West are not a chasm that nobody can bridge, and I will not let extremists on either side tell me otherwise. I refuse to let hate draw the blueprints for our tomorrow.
ANISSA MARIAM BOUZIANE