Despite an agreement (steadily unraveling) to call off issue groups supporting him in the New York Senate race, Rick Lazio's loyal band of Hillary-haters is on the march. Witness the urgent e-mail just dispatched by the Conservative Leadership PAC to the faithful. Sounding a note of alarm, if not panic, the PAC warns that Hillary is leading by 9 points in the polls. That's because "the establishment media have protected Bill and Hillary Clinton from the worst of their CRIMES, CORRUPTION and COVER-UPS" (their caps). Also, candidate Lazio has been soft on Hillary. He can't fulminate about the aforesaid "crimes" lest that same "establishment media" denounce him for running a negative campaign. The conservative PAC will do it for him. Its long list of Hillary's crimes includes Whitewater, threatening grand jury witnesses, calling on the IRS to harass her critics, "the use of Air Force planes to wage her Senate Campaign" and serving on the board of the Children's Defense Fund. The PAC promises to raise $6 million in stop-Hillary money.READERSHIP SURVEY
Making the rounds on e-mail these days is an "analysis" of the typical readers of newspapers: "The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country. The New York Times is read by people who think they run the country. The Washington Post is read by people who think they ought to run the country. USA Today is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don't understand the Washington Post. The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn't mind running the country if they could spare the time. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country. The New York Daily News is read by people who aren't too sure who's running the country. The New York Post is read by people who don't care who's running the country as long as they do something scandalous." Here's Fred Siegel's emendation: "The New York Post is read by people who are sure that a liberal conspiracy is running the country." And our addition: "The National Enquirer is read by people who believe space aliens are running the country." Any others?BULLISH ON BUSH
An investors' newsletter, Oil & Energy Investment Report, predicts a Bush victory in the presidential race and says now's a great time to stock up on oil service stocks. Here's why: "The secret to profiting from the Bush-Cheney ticket is simple: follow the trail of money from the big, politically well-connected oil companies that the new administration will owe favors to." The O&E Investment Report goes on to say, "Like his famous father before him, [George W.'s] political career has been molded, crafted, and sponsored every step of the way...by Big Oil." (This sounds like a Ralph Nader speech.) The newsletter provides a list of contributions to Bush from the oil and gas companies, which he owes big time. And the payback? On the pretext of reducing US dependence on foreign oil, W. will decimate environmental regulations, dole out big tax breaks for oil and gas exploration and open up protected areas. So buy into Bush and make your fortune!NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Asked by Howard Kurtz whether CBS's news coverage of Survivor crossed the line between news and entertainment, Steve Friedman, producer of The Early Show, replied, "That line is long gone.... to compete you've got to compete. And we are in this to win. And we will use this show to help us win."
Little ventured, little gained--the first Gore-Bush debate featured both candidates at their usual. No breakouts, no bold thrusts. The face-off reflected the narrow parameters of the campaign, with Al Gore and George W. Bush jabbing at each other on a small number of poll-tested fronts--a drug prescription plan for the elderly, Social Security and education. (There was, for example, no discussion of trade-related matters or how to provide healthcare to uninsured adults and children.) Prior to the much-hyped event, blacked out by Fox and NBC (the latter eventually said local affiliates could show it), the bearers of conventional wisdom had decided Gore's task was to show he was more likable than his caricature and Bush's challenge was to persuade undecided voters he was more presidential (read: not dumb) than his late-night-talk-show image. Ninety minutes of back-and-forth demonstrated that neither could easily recast himself, which is, ultimately, somewhat reassuring. A smuggish Gore was trying too hard to show he's smart as a whip; an edgy Bush was trying too hard to prove he's not a lightweight. It wasn't pretty to watch.
When the debate ended, it was hard to tell if it had mattered. Each contestant had, with limited eloquence, played familiar refrains. Gore offered a Clinton-like New/Old Democrat mix: Balance the budget, pay down the debt, protect Medicare and Social Security, cut taxes for some middle-class families, protect children against "cultural pollution," invest in the environment. Bush, who had earlier branded himself "a different kind of Republican," dished out his own New/Old Republican stew. He led with a GOP classic, his tax cut for all ("I'm not going to be a pick-and-chooser"). He pushed his plan to privatize part of Social Security and blasted Gore for being an inside-the-Beltway, big-government liberal eager to unleash 20,000 new bureaucrats on the citizenry. Then Bush championed his own education and drug prescription proposals and soft-pedaled his antiabortion stand.
Gore boasted that his economic plan devotes more of the coming surpluses to the military than Bush's budget. Bush spent more time discussing Medicare than any previous GOP presidential candidate. In the Clinton era, both parties engage in political copyright infringement. On points--as they say--Gore probably won. The semi-sanctimonious know-it-all effectively attacked Bush's various proposals, noting repeatedly that Bush's tax cut benefits the well-to-do. Bush hardly soared when discussing foreign policy, national security and how to handle a financial crisis. (Get me Greenspan!) Yet a less-smirkful Bush spoke in complete sentences and avoided the worst Bushisms. (He did say of Social Security, "I want you to have your own assets that you can call your own.") Those predisposed to either could find reasons to stick with their man; those caught in between or disgusted with both were still out of luck.
This debate could have been boiled down to ten minutes apiece of yada yada yada talking points. Still, a thousand journalists had assembled in the hockey rink adjacent to the Nader- and Buchanan-free debate hall at University of Massachusetts, Boston. And they had to be fed. Anheuser-Busch, one of the corporate sponsors of the Commission on Presidential Debates, did so liberally, serving up free food, free beer and Foosball to the scribes in a hospitality tent that contained multiple Budweiser signs and a display trumpeting the company's community programs--not its lobbying campaign against lowering the DWI threshold. And dozens of pols and spinners were present to feed the journalists quotes. Before the debate, Bush and Gore campaign surrogates (George Pataki for the Republicans and Robert Reich for the Democrats, among others) promenaded through the media center dropping predictable lines. At the same time, several dozen Ralph Nader supporters, who were protesting his exclusion from the debates at the entrance to the school, were engaged in a near-tussle with some of the hundreds of union workers who had been bused in to wave Gore signs. The Naderites shouted, "A vote for Gore is a vote for Bush! Gore is antiunion, and you're blind! We're fighting for higher wages and for you!" The union members replied, "Freaks, freaks! Get a job! I'm making twenty-six dollars an hour, and that's pretty damn good!"
Ten minutes before the debate concluded with Gore's vow to fight the "powerful forces"--did he mean the sponsors of the debate, like Ford, which sells SUVs with exploding tires?--the true spin parade began. The big-shot campaign aides and surrogates, accompanied by escorts holding banners bearing their names, filed into the media hall to declare (in soundbites) their candidate the winner. This was what reporters refer to as "spin alley," but it was more of a sluice pit. Gore campaign chairman William Daley maintained that the Vice President's performance had been "solid." Republican Representative Jennifer Dunn asserted that Bush "got to the peak of his performance when talking about tax policy." Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling handed out copies of Bush's Medicare plan to prove that, yes, Gore was correct when he stated that Bush's proposal does not cover all seniors immediately. Bush überstrategist Karl Rove hissed at Gore for being "condescending" and used "in command" repeatedly to describe Bush's performance. And in the swarm, J.C. Watts Jr., Alexis Herman, Donna Brazile, John Engler, Karen Hughes, Condoleezza Rice, Judd Gregg, Harold Ford Jr., Kate Michelman and others twisted the night away, spinning for about as long as the debate had run. In this mob, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that the next debate's format--candidates seated at a table rather than standing behind podiums--would present a more favorable setting for Bush. And, Fleischer added, he sure was looking forward to that. The question is, after this debate, How many other Americans are? David Corn
It took twelve years for the FDA to approve mifepristone--also known as RU-486--and most of that time had less to do with medicine than with the politics of abortion. Still, the late-September decision was a tremendous victory for American women. In approving RU-486, the FDA showed that science and good sense can still carry the day, even in an election year.
The long delay may even backfire against the drug's opponents. In 1988, when mifepristone was legalized in France, it was a medical novelty as well as a political flashpoint. Today, it's been accepted in thirteen countries, including most of Western Europe; it's been taken by more than a half-million women and studied, it sometimes seems, by almost as many researchers. By the end of the approval process, the important medical professional organizations--the AMA, the American Medical Women's Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists--had given mifepristone their blessing; impressive percentages of Ob-Gyns and family practitioners said they would consider prescribing it; thousands of US women had taken it in clinical trials and given it high marks, with 97 percent in one study saying they would recommend it to a friend. Against this background of information and experience, the antichoicers' attempt to raise fears about the drug's safety sounds desperate and insincere.
In a normal country, RU-486 would simply be another abortion method, its use a matter of personal preference (in France it's the choice of 20 percent of women who have abortions, while in Britain only 6 percent opt for it). But in the United States, where abortion clinics are besieged by fanatics and providers wear bulletproof vests, mifepristone's main significance lies in its potential to widen access to abortion, especially in those 86 percent of US counties that possess no abortion clinic, by making it private--doctors unable or unwilling to perform surgical abortions could prescribe it, and women could take it at home.
It is unlikely, however, that Mifeprex, as the drug will be known when it comes on the market, will prove to be the magic bullet that ends the war on abortion by depriving antichoice activists of identifiable targets. The nation has been retreating from Roe v. Wade for a quarter-century, and a good portion of the patchwork of state and local regulations intended to discourage surgical abortion will apply to Mifeprex as well: parental notification and consent laws (thirty-two states), waiting periods (nineteen states), biased counseling and cumbersome reporting and zoning requirements. States in which antichoicers control the legislatures will surely rush to encumber Mifeprex with hassles, and small-town and rural physicians in particular may find it hard to prescribe Mifeprex without alerting antichoice activists. Doctors are a cautious bunch, and the anticipated flood of new providers may turn out to be a trickle, at least at first. Abortion rights activists should also brace themselves for a backlash from their hard-core foes: Just after the FDA's decision was announced, a Catholic priest crashed his car into an Illinois abortion clinic and hacked at the building with an ax.
But in the long run, Mifeprex will make abortion more acceptable. In poll after poll Americans have said that when it comes to terminating a pregnancy, the earlier the better. Mifeprex, which has been approved for the first forty-nine days after a woman's last menstrual period--when the embryo's size varies from a pencil point to a grain of rice--may well prove not to arouse the same kinds of anxieties and moral qualms as surgical abortion. Then, too, Americans are used to taking pills. That, of course, is what the antichoicers are afraid of.
The old politics of oil has resurfaced to add a nervous flutter to Election 2000 and also to revive an enduring question of modern industrial life--what is the right price for oil? The media's New Economy cheerleaders scolded Clinton/Gore for tampering with the answer, but those pundits are under an illusion that the market, not governments and international politics, determines the price of crude oil. Their rage at Clinton for unleashing a little extra crude from the government's strategic reserve is an amusing non sequitur. For the past thirty years, the world price of oil has been "managed" by governments, albeit with haphazard results. The price was maintained by the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations, with discreet consultations from the United States and other industrial powers. Before OPEC, the world price of oil had been managed since the thirties by the fabled Seven Sisters, global oil corporations that still have an influential voice in the conversations. Oil-price diplomacy, for obvious reasons, is mostly done in deep privacy.
Indeed, Riyadh and Washington are at this moment attempting once again to get the price right, that is, to steer crude oil back down to a mutually acceptable zone, centered on $25 a barrel. That's what Saudi Arabia, the largest producer, says it wants--a target range between $22 and $28 a barrel--and what Bill Clinton has called "a reasonable range" acceptable to Washington. Oil at $25 a barrel would be a lot cheaper than the recent peak of $38, but also a lot higher than the $10 bottom that oil hit in 1998, when prices were severely depressed by collapsing demand triggered by the Asian financial crisis the year before. Splitting the difference is a better solution than continued crisis, especially for Europe, because stability helps sustain everyone's economic growth.
So is $25 the right price? Maybe not. Because $25 is still cheap oil--too cheap to allow the producer nations to recapture their massive revenue losses and possibly too cheap to force US consumers and companies to undertake serious, self-interested industrial conversions away from petroleum. Since oil is traded worldwide in dollars, its real price declines automatically from US inflation. Thus, measured in constant dollars, $25 oil is really only about $13 in historical terms--right where it was in the mid-seventies. This level would be modestly above the average real price of the past fifteen years but still far below what OPEC initially gained after its two dramatic spikes in the seventies. Because of the interaction of currency values, Europe is taking a much more severe hit this time. The euro is down and the dollar is strong, so the real price of imported oil is much higher for European economies.
Texas oil guy George W. Bush is making the same retrograde noises Republicans always make--Drill for more oil! Open up the Alaskan wilderness! Drill offshore! Whatever! Bush's nostalgic notion that the United States can drill its way out of its petroleum problem is out of touch by about twenty-five years. The world isn't running out of oil--the undiscovered reserves are probably good for another century--but the United States is running out of its own oil. The proposition that we should pump and burn our remaining reserves first is completely backward, both as energy policy and for long-term national security. Al Gore, in his best moments, understands all this and has long championed a fundamental shift to alternative fuels, but he has lacked the courage to force the issue. The Clinton Administration provided gorgeous subsidies to the Big Three auto companies to develop electric cars and then allowed the industry to backslide by not increasing the government's fuel-efficiency requirements. Maybe the price crisis will prompt Gore to reread Earth in the Balance.
Oil politics is many-layered and so paradoxical that public opinion is not only confused but frequently led in the wrong direction. "Bad news" may actually be good news; the "villains" are sometimes actually victims. In real terms, OPEC's oil revenues peaked two decades ago--$493 billion in 1980 (in 1990 dollars)--and have declined unevenly since then. OPEC's oil income hit bottom in 1998, at $80 billion in real terms. So they regard the recent price run-up as a justifiable attempt to get well, to recover some of their losses. It's hard to muster much sympathy for oil potentates, but their national budgets have been severely squeezed--especially Saudi Arabia's, which absorbs more than its share of the production cutbacks because that country is the biggest and least aggressive player.
OPEC, on the other hand, has been a clumsy, hapless manager of world oil prices. Twice, it wrong-footed emerging economic conditions by increasing production just as global demand was about to swoon--inadvertently feeding the severe price collapses in 1986 and 1997. This time, they overshot again but on the upside --cutting oil supply just as the world's economies were gaining momentum. With the rising demand, prices were driven higher than the Saudis, at least, intended. Among the present dangers, the tight supply still threatens to stall out economic growth, especially for Europe, and it also gives temporary leverage to Iraq. If Iraq were to halt its exports, prices might soar again, just as Saudi Arabia and the United States are pulling in the opposite direction.
But here's some good news. Extreme price gyrations in oil promote fundamental change in US industrial structure. The seventies stimulated major shifts toward energy conservation and persuaded some sectors, like electrical generation, to decouple entirely from the vulnerability of unpredictable price shocks. Electric companies converted to natural gas and other fuels so that a major US user of petroleum was permanently lost as a market for OPEC exporters. Some authorities think this new mini-crisis is likely to encourage similar movements, especially in transportation. The auto industry, for instance, has toyed for years with available technologies like fuel cells, which liberate cars from oil, but they never moved seriously. Now Japanese manufacturers are making electric hybrids with far greater fuel efficiency. In other words, if high oil prices linger awhile, the permanent market for oil might shrink. Detroit could once again lose market share to Japan, but Americans and the environment would benefit enormously.
Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia's former oil minister and a founding architect of OPEC, already fears this--another round of innovations that drastically reduce gasoline and oil consumption. "Technology is a real enemy for OPEC," Yamani warned in a Reuters interview. "Technology will reduce consumption and increase production from areas outside OPEC. The real victims will be countries like Saudi Arabia with huge reserves which they can do nothing with--the oil will stay in the ground forever."
OPEC, the sheik predicted, "will pay a very heavy price for not acting in 1999 to control oil prices. Now it is too late. The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil." His forecast may be a bit premature, but it's a lot more cheerful than the oil chatter in American politics.
Call it the Prague Fall: a season not only to test the democratic progress of Central Europe's most favored post-Communist nation but to find out whether a nonhierarchical, nonviolent movement of fair traders, environmentalists, debt-relief activists, socialist workers and revolutionaries can--by applying public pressure to the world's most powerful economic institutions--force real change. Prague proved, if nothing else, that the issues of corporate reform and increased social services have worldwide appeal. Red-sashed Catalonian Marxists marched alongside white-clad Italian Zapatista sympathizers. Nervous Czech environmentalists rubbed shoulders with black-hooded German anarchists. Activists from Greece and Turkey--yes, Greece and Turkey, together--commanded the front line of a march blockaded by police and kept it calm. This was not the globalization of multinationals, but in the words of Scott Codey, a US activist, "globalization of human rights, workers' rights and economic justice."
As Day One of the Initiative Against Economic Globalization in Prague began, all was quiet and orderly. Leaders of nonprofit organizations held thinly attended public discussions. Fourteen thousand dark-suited bankers and politicians yawned through World Bank and the International Monetary Fund meetings with titles like "Building the Bottom Line Through Corporate Citizenship" in a Stalin-era convention hall. Meanwhile, the police looked on benevolently--I saw one Czech lieutenant blithely pop a ball into the air with the inscription Liquidate the IMF.
By late morning, however, activists had begun a three-pronged assault on the heavily guarded Congress Center. One group of mostly anarchists and communists managed to snake its way through police barricades and get within yards of the bankers' meeting hall. It remains unclear how the violence escalated so quickly, but fifty Czech police were injured in a bombardment of sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails. By nightfall, after activists had smashed the windows of a McDonald's on Wenceslas Square, cops were again beaten back, this time by protesters wielding the policemen's own batons. The day ended in a cloud of tear gas, with thousands of World Bank delegates being shuttled in buses, searching for the four-star hotels not besieged by young radicals.
By Day Two, to no one's surprise, the Czech police had abandoned their restraint. I saw officers round up protesters for no apparent reason and cart them off to jail, where things got decidedly worse. Many of the 859 arrested were denied food, water and phone calls. And in numerous cases, they were severely beaten. "The jails here are a place of no control, a place of complete darkness," said Marek Vesely, an observer with Citizens Legal Watch, a Czech nonprofit. "A lot of people who didn't have anything to do with the violence got arrested." In addition to investigating a range of human rights violations, Citizens Legal Watch is trying to determine whether police provocateurs urged on the crowds and whether--as was widely rumored--some activists were turned away at the Czech border based on information provided by the FBI.
But amid the apparent chaos, there were signs of accomplishments. For one, pressure from the streets, building ever since Seattle, finally forced two traditionally secretive institutions to let some critics in the door. Representatives of Transparency International, which is calling for public access to World Bank and IMF documents, along with 350 representatives of nongovernmental organizations, were admitted to meetings in Prague (five years ago, only two NGOs were allowed in). World Bank president James Wolfensohn and IMF managing director Horst Köhler even met with NGO leaders in a public meeting presided over by Czech President Vaclav Havel.
Still, the substance of the new dialogue left much to be desired. "Understand that we are not a world government," Wolfensohn told NGO leaders. "Very often people blame us for the politics in a country when they should really blame themselves." Such defensiveness makes it hard to take seriously the World Bank and IMF claim that they want "to make globalization work for the benefit of all." As Liane Schalatek of the Heinrich Böll Foundation said, "NGOs have pointed out for more than three decades that growth is not just economic growth. We have heard the rhetoric." (Wolfensohn did manage to win over rock star Bono of U2, who left Prague calling him "the Elvis of economics.")
The Italian Zapatistas and Catalonian Marxists have now returned home. Czechs have reoccupied their city. And the jails are mostly empty (as of this writing, only twenty protesters remain in custody). But the Prague Fall is not over. The movement is globalized; critics have been admitted into the tent. And perhaps most important, politicians, central bankers and multinational chiefs are beginning to understand that corporate globalization faces truly global antipathy.
Why are white men so screwed up? If you can believe the polls, they identify by a huge margin with George W. Bush as one of them. What gives with these delusions of grandeur in which Joe Six-Pack puts himself in the same boat with a pampered son of the super-rich? Did average white males grow up in the lap of luxury and get to squander funds invested by family friends in failing oil ventures? Can they fashion a well-greased political career based solely on their fathers' names?
Obviously not, but what has traditionally bound white males to men like Bush is that they, too, like to think of themselves as being winners simply as a perk of birth. That way, if they also got poor grades in college, they could still think of themselves as smart enough to be president, when even the brightest women couldn't. Not that all white males are actually winners, but they don't have to feel like losers, since they can still feel superior to women and minorities.
But now, with equality growing between the sexes and even the races, white males feel their privilege threatened by the prospect of an even playing field. They blame this on the Democrats for pushing affirmative action, which started to break up the old-boy network. So they tend to vote for Republicans in large numbers, thinking that progress can be held back and traditional values restored, meaning that women will be put back in their place.
Such a reversal of white female fortunes would be a disaster for white males, if they would only stop to think about it, but being white males, they don't. The brute truth of the statistics on the boom in American family prosperity is that it is based on females entering the work force and obtaining better pay. Particularly white females, who have been the main beneficiaries of efforts to make the job market a bit less biased.
White men are inclined to think that a rise in women's pay means a decline in males' standard of living. That's because white males have not grasped the fact that women tend to intermarry--with men--meaning that their incomes are shared with husbands and male offspring and even fathers, whom they occasionally help support.
But beyond the economics of equal pay for equal work, there are those other "women's issues," which the Democrats support and to which men are indifferent, most significantly the issue of "choice." If males would just ponder for a second how women get pregnant, they might not be so quick to define abortion as a "women's issue."
Let's say that George W. gets to make good on his expressed desire to pick U.S. Supreme Court justices in the mold of Anthony Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who then overturn Roe vs. Wade. Where does that leave men who have gotten women pregnant and decide they are not ready for fatherhood? Well, in the bad old days, it left them accompanying fearful women on a trip to Tijuana or some back-alley abortion mill in this country, in the process not only betraying the health needs of a woman they claimed to love but incurring legal risks as well.
It's perplexing how a host of other issues that would seem to affect men equally with women got to be gender-defined in polls. Why are women more pro-environment, pro-children and pro-health care, or more concerned about saving Social Security? Is it that Darwinian nesting thing? Women want the civilizing effect of government to protect the vulnerable. Men see themselves as cowboys at war on the frontier in need of personal arms and a strong cavalry at the fort to back them up.
Do men not know that if Social Security gets wrecked with this privatization gamble Bush is hustling, they will be hurt? Even younger men who might have to cut into their discretionary income to take care of their aging parents. As for the environment, one has to assume men's lungs are not gender-protected from the poisonous fumes that now make Houston the pollution capital of the nation. Surely males can appreciate the wonders of hunting and fishing in the pristine environment of Alaska that is threatened by the Bush-Cheney team's promise to rape its energy resources and turn it into another Texas.
If being pro-choice, pro-environment and in favor of the security of older people makes Al Gore a wimp, shouldn't we men reexamine our macho standards? Remember that limp cigarette in the mouth of the cowboy in those anti-tobacco ads that link smoking with impotency? Macho men are a dying breed.
During the Kosovo crisis of last year, it was commonplace if not routine to hear two mantras being intoned by those who had decided that "never" would be about the right time to resist ethnic cleansing with a show of force. We were incessantly told (were we not?) that NATO's action would drive the Serbs into the arms of Slobodan Milosevic. And we were incessantly told (were we not?) that the same NATO action would intensify, not alleviate, the plight of the Kosovar refugees. Now there has been an election that was boycotted by almost all Kosovars and by the government of Montenegro. And even with the subtraction of these two important blocs of opposition voters, it is obvious that Milosevic has been humiliated, exposed, unmasked, disgraced.
Every five years the psychologist Judith Wallerstein updates her ongoing study of 131 children whose parents were going through divorce in Marin County, California, in 1971, and every five years her warnings about the dire effects of divorce on children make the headlines, the covers and the talk shows. Her new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, ups the ante: She now believes that parents should grit their teeth and stay together, so traumatized were her interviewees even into their 20s, contending with drugs and drink, bad boy-friends, unsatisfactory jobs, low self-esteem and lack of trust in relationships. Before you young cynics out there say welcome to the club, remember: This is not a moralistic sermon dreamed up by Dr. Laura, the Pope, your relatives or even Judith Wallerstein. This is science.
But what if it isn't? Scholars have long been critical of Wallerstein's methods: She had no control group--kids just like the ones in her study but whose unhappily married parents stayed together. (In her new book she has attempted to get around this flaw by interviewing a "comparison sample" of people from intact families who went to high school with her subjects, but the two groups are not carefully matched.) She generalizes too quickly: Can sixty Marin County families really stand in for all America? Are the seventies us? Doesn't it make a difference that fathers today are more involved with their kids both before and after divorce, that mothers are better educated and better able to support themselves, that divorce is no longer a badge of immorality and failure? It never occurs to Wallerstein, either, that the very process of being interviewed and reinterviewed about the effects of parental divorce for a quarter-century by a warm, empathetic and kindly professional would encourage her subjects to see their lives through that lens. "Karen" may really believe divorce explains why she spent her early 20s living with a layabout--blaming your parents is never a hard sell in America--but that doesn't mean it's true.
The media tend to treat such objections rather lightly. Wallerstein's critics "don't want to hear the bad news," wrote Walter Kirn in Time's recent cover story. The real bad news, though, is the way Wallerstein has come to omit from her writings crucial information she herself presented in her first book about her research, Surviving the Breakup, published in 1980.
How did Wallerstein find her divorcing couples, and what sort of people were they? In her new book, she writes that they were referred by their lawyers "on the basis of their willingness to participate." Surviving the Breakup gives quite a different picture: "The sixty families who participated in this study came initially for a six-week divorce counseling service. The service was conceptualized and advertised as a preventive program and was offered free of charge to all families in the midst of divorce. Parents learned of the service through attorneys, school teachers, counselors, social agencies, ministers, friends, and newspaper articles." In other words, Wallerstein was not just offering people a chance to advance the cause of knowledge, she was offering free therapy--something she today vehemently denies ("Naturally I wanted to be sure that any problem we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither they [the kids] nor their parents were ever my patients"). Obviously, people who sign up for therapy, not to mention volunteering their kids for continuing contact, have problems; by choosing only therapy-seekers, Wallerstein essentially excluded divorcing couples who were coping well.
Today, Wallerstein provides no information about the psychological well-being of the parents before divorce, but in her 1980 book, she is very clear about how troubled they were. Only one-third displayed "generally adequate psychological functioning." Fifty percent of the men and almost as many women were "moderately troubled"--"chronically depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals...with severe neurotic difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those with longstanding problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses." Fifteen percent of the men and 20 percent of the women "had histories of mental illness, including paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and family." Some underwent "hospitalization for severe mental illness, suicide attempts, severe psychosomatic illnesses, work histories ridden with unsatisfactory performance, or arrests for assault." It's not for me to say whether a sample in which two-thirds of the participants range from chronically depressed to outright insane represents the general public--but attributing all their children's struggles to divorce is patently absurd.
The way Wallerstein describes her sample has changed also. In a table in her 1980 book, she places 28 percent of the families in the two lowest of five social-class rankings, as defined by the Hollingshead index, and 23 percent in the highest. In the new book, these figures are mentioned in passing, but at the same time she calls all the families "middle class"--including a famous wife-beating TV executive and his former spouse, a wealthy travel agent who spent her life globe-trotting. All are now "educated," as well, including the substantial percentage of parents (24 percent of the mothers and 18 percent of the fathers at initial contact in 1971) who hadn't been to college. Gone too are such relevant facts from the earlier book as that one-third of the couples had "rushed into a precipitous marriage because of an unplanned pregnancy" and that half the wives, "because of their age and lack of job experience, were viewed realistically as unemployable."
In short, what we have here are not generic white suburbanites who threw away workable marriages in order to actualize their human potential in a Marin County hot tub. We have sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy parents, economic insecurity, trapped wives and, as Wallerstein does discuss, lots of violence (one-quarter of the fathers beat their wives; out of the 131 children, thirty-two had witnessed such attacks). How on earth can she claim that divorce is what made her young people's lives difficult? The wonder is that they are doing as well as they are.
Momentum for the euro wanes.
The krone is preferred by Danes.
And recent surveys all have found
That British voters love their pound.
But, seeing this through New World eyes,
Why is it such a big surprise?
Imagine how we Yanks would holler
If someone tried to take our dollar!
You'd see a war like Vietnam,
But this time we would use the bomb.
Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it, until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace, while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death, massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history (though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands), and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there; that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that, in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern moment conveniently makes no sense.]]> ]]> ]]> ]]> ]]>
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of her lovers.
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
To watch the pair of house finches
that frequent the neighbor's feeder,
I leave the charcoal blinds pulled up.
The berry-splashed chest of the male--
each morning--makes me pause.
He flits away when full, or troubled
by the cat behind the window pane.
But he's back again within the hour.
Evenings, we owe our different debts
to the woman who fills the feeder tray,
who also chooses open blinds
and wanders room to room, past
the long blue light of the aquarium.
(She caught me watching yesterday.)
The fish, from here, are almost still,
a drifting string of colored lights.
Her boyfriend's echoes of her name
reverberate and scare the cat;
bird seed scatters with the flight
of startled finches. Sunflower seeds,
far from the flower they once composed,
lie like black collapsed stars.
'THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY'
New York City
Christopher Hitchens is correct to point out that Norman Finkelstein's book The Holocaust Industry has enjoyed a great deal of success in Europe, particularly in Germany, while it has been given short shrift in the United States ["Minority Report," Sept. 18/25]. What he fails to note, however, is that as a work of scholarship, Finkelstein's book is all but worthless. Finkelstein sees Holocaust reparations as part of an ideological apparatus by which avaricious Jews oppress American blacks, Palestinians and others. This lunatic thesis does indeed appear to have struck a chord in certain right-wing quarters in Germany and Switzerland and also in certain left-wing quarters in the United States and England. It is also why his book has been harshly dismissed by reviewers in this country and why, in my article in the September issue of Commentary, "Holocaust Reparations--A Growing Scandal," I was right to lump him with the Holocaust deniers and others on the far fringes of intellectual life.
New York City
Christopher Hitchens is mistaken in his criticism of recent litigation aimed at forcing Swiss banks and German corporations to return property stolen from victims of Nazi persecution. I fear that his view of the Holocaust litigation has been distorted by the unfortunate antics of a single lawyer, Edward Fagan, whose blatant self-promotion and single-minded pursuit of fees obscure a remarkable judicial achievement. Since I am serving as court-appointed lead counsel in the Swiss banks case, and as one of the principal lawyers in the cases against German industry, let me try to set the record straight.
First, the Holocaust cases cannot fairly be described, in Hitchens's words, as efforts to use "dubious methods" to "reap vast sums from an already penitent state." In each of the cases, corporate defendants knowingly exploited Holocaust victims in order to reap unjust profits. For example, drawn by a 1934 statute promising Swiss bank secrecy, thousands of frightened depositors poured money into Swiss banks from all over Europe to shield their property from the Nazis. When World War II ended with vast numbers of the depositors dead at the hands of the Nazis, most Swiss banks, in what must be the greatest double-cross in banking history, declined to provide information to surviving family members about the possible existence of Holocaust-era accounts, claiming that the 1934 secrecy law forbade discussing the accounts without the permission of the depositor. The Swiss banks simply kept the Holocaust deposits for sixty years, while they systematically destroyed the deposit records. After several years of fiercely contested litigation, Crédit Suisse and UBS, the two largest surviving Swiss banks, finally agreed to a settlement of $1.25 billion, an amount that, in my opinion, barely scratches the surface of the stolen funds. But, with the passage of time and the destruction of the records relating to more than 2 million wartime accounts, it was the best we could do. Given his usual sensitivity to corporate double-dealing, I hope Hitchens reconsiders the Swiss bank cases. Would he really prefer that the banks get away scot-free?
Similarly, the cases against German industrial giants like Ford, Volkswagen, Siemens and Degussa sought to require German corporations that earned huge profits by employing slave labor during the war to disgorge those unjust profits to the forced workers. The corporate defendants in the German industry cases freely admit that they employed huge numbers of slave laborers under horrific conditions. But until the filing of the litigation, the companies refused to compensate slave laborers, arguing that it was the German government's duty to pay compensation. The government, however, argued that since the companies had reaped vast profits from the use of slaves, it was German industry's duty to pay. While the two sides played "Alphonse, Gaston" for sixty years, nothing was done for the forced workers. As a direct result of the negotiations aimed at settling the litigation, German industry and government have finally agreed to establish a German Foundation, with assets of $5.2 billion, to compensate the slave laborers. Again, would Hitchens rather see the German companies get away with profiting from slave labor?
Hitchens's second major error is to assume that the recent Holocaust litigation was exclusively, or even primarily, designed to benefit Jews. Recognizing that the Holocaust is not exclusively a Jewish tragedy, the lawyers (most of whom are Jewish) sought to assure that the litigation benefited all victims. The leading cases against Ford, Siemens, VW and Degussa that led to the formation of the German Foundation were brought on behalf of non-Jewish Polish and Russian forced laborers. In fact, Jews will receive only 23 percent of the payments from the foundation, with more than three-quarters of the funds going to non-Jewish Holocaust victims. Similarly, the Swiss bank litigation is designed to benefit not only Jews but other victims or targets of Nazi persecution, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti-Roma (Gypsies), gays and the disabled. The fact that Hitchens, ordinarily a careful writer, seems to believe that the litigation is designed to benefit Jews and only Jews speaks volumes about the need for clear discussion.
Finally, it's long past time to put the canard to rest that these cases seek to benefit from the agony of Holocaust victims without providing any real benefits to them. Every penny in the $1.25 billion Swiss bank case will go to Holocaust victims. The bulk of the money will go to the heirs of the original depositors, unless the destruction of records makes it impossible to locate them. The names of 26,000 account holders deemed probably linked to the Holocaust will be published this year. Significant distributions will also be made to surviving slave laborers and to the heirs of refugees barred from entering Switzerland because they were Jews. I only wish a similar sanction could be imposed on the United States for its identical refusal to accept desperate refugees from Nazi persecution. Substantial funds, in the form of food and medicine, will be distributed to the poorest survivors, especially the so-called double victims, who suffered under both Hitler and Stalin and who have been left out of reparations programs. In short, contrary to Hitchens's implication, there simply are no "Holocaust memorials" or payments to institutions. It all goes to people, with the exception of a modest grant to researchers to compile a complete, publicly available list of victims for posterity. Similarly, $4 billion will be distributed from the foundation to surviving slave and forced laborers. The remaining $1.2 billion will go to victims whose property was stolen or whose insurance policies were ignored. A Future Fund of $350 million will be set aside to support the principle of toleration.
It is neither fair nor accurate to characterize the lawyers as greedy. Lawyers worked extremely hard for years to develop novel legal theories and to uncover the facts sixty years after the events. Despite their enormous effort, more than half the lawyers in the Swiss bank cases have waived all fees. Those lawyers who are seeking fees, with the conspicuous and unfortunate exception of Edward Fagan, have filed modest requests. When the dust clears, I predict that the fees to all lawyers in the Swiss case will total less than 1 percent of the settlement figure and that Fagan will get just what he deserves--a small fraction of his absurd $4 million request. Similarly, the parties in the litigation leading to the formation of the German Foundation have agreed that the attorneys' fees in the more than fifty cases will total 1 to 1.25 percent of the settlement figure. That is, I believe, the lowest fee structure in history for comparable levels of success.
So, corporate malefactors have been forced to disgorge almost $6.5 billion to a wide range of Holocaust victims--Jew and non-Jew alike. Lawyers are charging about 1 percent, a mere fraction of their normal fee. Victims will get everything else under a scrupulously fair set of allocations and distributions. I'm happy to leave Hitchens to his concerns about the Holocaust. Reasonable people can differ passionately over how best to come to terms with Nazi barbarity. I ask only that he not allow his political beliefs to cloud his perception of efforts to provide a modicum of delayed justice to proven Holocaust victims who were the targets of corporate exploitation by real Holocaust profiteers.
Finally, the less said about Norman Finkelstein, the better. There has for years been an unfortunate strain of radical left-wing thought that has equated Israel with colonialism and has viewed the Israeli state as a pretext for the Western theft of Palestinian land. Since the memory of the Holocaust provides moral justification for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, even at the expense of the Palestinians, people like Finkelstein find the Holocaust an obstacle to their political views. Consequently, they seek to understate its horror, especially as applied to Jews. Unfortunately, their efforts to minimize the Holocaust are occasionally mirrored by an extremely small number of Jewish fanatics who view the Holocaust as an exclusively Jewish event and who seek to use the memory of the tragedy for short-term political and financial goals. When peace is achieved between a sovereign Palestinian state and a sovereign Israel, the political motives for minimizing the Holocaust will disappear. We can then get on with the necessity of seeking to understand a universal human tragedy of unimaginable dimensions that fell with particular severity on Jews.
GOD BLESS JOHN...
God bless John Leonard ["How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing," June 26]. God bless his tenacity in the service of talent and integrity and simple human intelligence. God bless his unsparing appreciation and defense of what is truthful and healing in art and science and that strange beast we humans call culture. God bless his outrage and his indignation and his unwavering horseshit-detector. Thank God for his painful awareness of just what's at stake in the midst of this swirl of pop and dot-com celebrity drool. Honor to his name for having the matchless courage to stand up for what anyone with an electrical charge on their brain knows is of immense importance to us all. Would that all men and women who aspire to the writing craft had such sand. Honor to the name of John Leonard. Honor and blessings on his name.
...AND GOD BLESS SEPARATION
Readers interested in learning more about church-state separation issues [Katha Pollitt, "Subject to Debate," Sept. 18/25] can contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation at PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701; (608) 256-8900; www.ffrf.org.