New York City
The Nation acknowledges that military and civilian trials in Peru violate due process of law in terrorism cases, that thousands of innocent people have been convicted and that thousands remain in prison in Peru today after political trials. Presumably it agrees that DINCOTE, the Peruvian antiterrorism police responsible for those convictions, are about as restrained and trustworthy as the elite national police that served Pinochet in Chile, the military governments in Argentina and Guatemala in the seventies and eighties and similar other police states.
Why then did The Nation choose to use its resources and invest its credibility to challenge Lori Berenson's innocence by relying on what are allegedly DINCOTE documents [Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo, "The Lori Berenson Papers," Sept. 4/11]? The Nation was told that Peru planned to nullify Lori's military tribunal conviction and sentence to life imprisonment on the basis of a petition she filed in December 1999, and that The Nation was being used by DINCOTE to support charges against Lori for a new show trial.
Jonathan Levi misleads his readers by implying that the Berensons and I questioned only the authenticity of the records. If he will listen to the tape he made of our interview, he will hear it was the reliability of the papers, not merely their authenticity, that we challenged. We told The Nation that DINCOTE leaked the papers, "never before seen by the public but obtained by The Nation," precisely to spread false information about Lori in its pages, which reach so many of Lori's supporters, at the very time Peru would nullify Lori's military trial and begin yet another propaganda campaign against her in a new show trial in civilian courts, a trial that is itself illegal and not capable of fairness. The military tribunal, after a nine-month delay, nullified Lori's conviction and began the new proceedings just as the Nation cover story with its picture of Lori was being distributed.
The article accepts as gospel the false DINCOTE allegations of fact even where Lori has had the rare opportunity to state the opposite. The article refers repeatedly to Lori's "testimony," "deposition," "transcripts," suggesting there exist exact verifiable statements by Lori. But there are no transcripts, depositions or verbatim testimony, there is only what Levi claims a DINCOTE file they will not disclose contains. Who believes DINCOTE? Nor is it accurate to say that the papers "shed new light." All the false claims about Lori have been leaked to the press and printed repeatedly.
Levi has refused to permit the Berensons, or me, to see the papers he has. This places him in the same position as DINCOTE, which he concedes refused to provide copies of the documents "even to her lawyers," and in the same position as the Fujimori government, which has refused to provide any documents to the Berensons, Lori's counsel or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Levi said he is "especially afraid with the trial coming up" to provide Lori a copy of the documents, because that would "have us working for the defense." Incredible. He is working for DINCOTE. He claims to have "sources intimately familiar with [its] workings." We ask only for a copy of the false papers with which Levi challenges Lori's innocence, not the source for the papers.
Aside from the moral outrage of promoting DINCOTE propaganda, the Nation article is patently cheap and demeaning to Lori Berenson. In a single sentence, asserting how "most ordinary Peruvians" feel about Lori, Levi writes that she "is a Beauty who slouches...toward Latin America, only to turn into a terrorist Beast, eyes wide open." Why the triple play on a fairy tale, a Didion book title and a prurient movie? Why the repeated references and allusions to sex? Above all, why is Levi, who has never met Lori, compelled to deny the possibility that she acted from inner qualities of goodness, even greatness, as he observes heroines in "classical tragedy" to do? Instead, he argues that she is doing the reverse: "She seems to be translating her fall into a theatrical grandeur." Lori has spent nearly five years in life-threatening prison conditions without a trial by any civilized standard on false charges in complete isolation, where any effort at "theatrical grandeur" can be seen by no one. All while the controlled press in Peru demonize her daily and The Nation serves DINCOTE's cause here in the United States.
Levi seems to know little about Peru, or Lori's case, except what DINCOTE and people within its sphere of influence told him. Lori's Peruvian lawyer in the military trial, who has not represented her for years, despite Levi's assertion that he still does, "although he is not as active as he once was," was never present during her nearly nine days of intense interrogation and sleep deprivation when Lori was alone in the tender hands of DINCOTE. On the day the statement DINCOTE prepared was given to her to sign, he saw Lori for the first time but was never able to talk with her in private before, during or thereafter. From time to time he has made statements harmful to Lori for whatever reason, which Levi joins the Peruvian press in repeating with glee.
The utter emptiness of the effort to support some level of guilt is found in Levi's repeated references to the one exposure to the Peruvian press just before her sentencing that was forced on Lori, in which she courageously and angrily spoke with passion about her concerns for the poor and about the absence of social justice in Peru. She also expressed the opinion that the MRTA is a revolutionary movement, not a terrorist group. Can the expression of a single opinion in less than twenty words be a crime? Levi thinks so. He refers to the "contempt in that face" from the film clips, although he has never seen her face. Lori was very angry for good reasons. Peru claims her words are the crime translated as "apology." It carries a lengthy prison term. Levi distinguishes the fate of an Italian woman who was convicted like Lori--but according to them on "more hard evidence"--and who was released after seventeen months, based on her claim of innocence, but Lori has always insisted she was innocent. Apparently he never saw the film clips of the Italian woman, who appeared far more agitated than Lori.
Levi called the Berensons to congratulate them when they heard Lori would get a new trial. But surely even he knows such a trial will not be fair. We can ignore the outrageous and repetitious claims of DINCOTE against Lori carried in The Nation. They are false. Lori will tell the truth if she is forced into a public show trial, and the truth will keep her free in spirit and someday make her free in body.
It is more difficult to ignore the role of The Nation in using its pages to support false DINCOTE propaganda planted to poison US opinion about Lori. A majority of Congress has demanded Lori's release from prison because Lori's parents, despite all the propaganda from Peru and the "Washington Peru policy," have persuaded them Lori is innocent. The Nation has not helped truth find its way out.
Perhaps the Nation Institute will now investigate how this happened.
LEVI & MINEO REPLY
New York City; Cambridge, Mass.
It's sad to watch such a historic defender of human rights as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark so willfully misread our report on his client, Lori Berenson. This misreading starts even before our story begins. Throughout his letter Clark attributes the article solely to Jonathan Levi. In fact, the byline was shared by Levi and Liz Mineo. Clark writes: "Levi seems to know little about Peru or Lori's case." Mineo, a full partner in the research and writing of the piece, was not only born in Lima but lived there for more than thirty-five years and worked (as her bio indicated) as an investigative reporter for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including El Comercio, a newspaper that the Berensons have lauded for its fair coverage of their daughter's case.
Clark makes some strong claims about our journalistic integrity and the motivations behind our story, but he fails to provide any evidence to support them. We reported in the article that Berenson's own lawyer in Peru, Grimaldo Achahui, signed the DINCOTE record of her interrogation and later confirmed its authenticity. Clark attempts to disparage Achahui by declaring that he "has not represented [Lori] for years" and that "he has made statements harmful to Lori." In fact, his last action on her behalf was filing Berenson's appeal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1999, and as recently as August the Berensons themselves referred to Achahui as Lori's Peruvian lawyer. The only statements of his that we repeat pertain to his verification of Lori's testimony to DINCOTE and his opinion that her sentence was unfair.
Clark writes, "The article accepts as gospel the false DINCOTE allegations of fact...." Perhaps Clark missed the following sentence: "The story that emerges from the documents is one of unusually hasty police surveillance, negligent interrogation and reckless reliance on one witness whose testimony was neither challenged nor corroborated. The documents give a crude demonstration of how hyperinflation can be applied to a police charge, raising Berenson, in its final pages, from the obscurity of a minor suspect to the limelight of a major leader of the MRTA." Our aim was to examine all received truths about the case. To that end, we conducted interviews with dozens of people in Peru, including former and current members of DINCOTE as well as former and current members of the MRTA and educated observers within the diplomatic and business community. Nowhere did we represent the DINCOTE documents as the record of a fair and balanced judicial process. Although we described discrepancies between Berenson's story as it appears in the documents and other available evidence, we also clearly showed grave inconsistencies in the government's case against her.
It is Clark who displays a striking ignorance of Fujimori's Peru. Although anti-regime journalists (including Mineo and many of her former colleagues) have been harassed and threatened by the government, they continue to operate with vigor. Like journalists everywhere, they routinely use anonymous government sources in their work. We came upon the documents in question through sources within DINCOTE who, in our judgment and that of other independent journalists in Peru, were reliable.
Moreover, contrary to Clark's implication, our article, which was published five days before the announcement that the military charges against Berenson had been dismissed, fairly represented the Berensons' fear that their daughter would be retried in civilian court on the charge of collaboration with terrorism, which carries a sentence of twenty years. (She had previously received a life sentence for "treason against the fatherland and conspiracy to overthrow Congress.")
Clark seems most angry that, after our article appeared, we would not show him the documents. An associate of Clark's asked for the documents on a Monday because Lori was due to be examined by the civilian judge on Wednesday. Once the new legal process had begun, we would have risked compromising our credibility as journalists by showing Clark or his associates the documents. We believe that the Peruvian court was wrong to withhold these documents from Berenson and her attorneys. But one does not have to be a lawyer to understand the difference between a judge and a journalist.
In Clark's view, since we were not willing to work for him and the Berensons, we must be working for DINCOTE. It is a charge that is beneath Clark, a veteran of the struggle during the dark cold war days of this country, when loyalty was painted red or white, and if you weren't on our side you were on theirs. Although we feel great sympathy for Mark and Rhoda Berenson and can only hope that our parents might fight so tirelessly and energetically if we found ourselves in Lori's position, we react with an appalled sadness to Clark's slander.
THE EDITORS REPLY
We stand by Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo's careful reporting for this magazine on the Lori Berenson case. We also share Ramsey Clark's belief that justice is not possible for Berenson in Peru and that she should be released, a view we expressed in an editorial accompanying Levi and Mineo's article and another just after her new civilian trial was announced. The only "truth" we presumed to reveal was that the investigation of her case, her trial and conviction were deeply unfair and the government's evidence against her hopelessly tainted. Therefore, our recommendation was not for her case to be reopened but for human rights advocates to step up pressure on the regime to free her and all those unjustly convicted of terrorism in Peru.
I read with interest the timely report on Lori Berenson, which coincided with the Peruvian government's decision to grant her a retrial. This decision, welcome as it may be by human rights activists and the Berenson family and friends, is, however, seen by large sectors of the Peruvian public as a cynical attempt by a beleaguered government nationally and internationally perceived as illegitimate to improve its relations with the United States. While it makes sense for Berenson's family and well-wishers to portray her at best as totally innocent and at worst as a useful idiot, the documentation provided by The Nation points to a much more conscious collaboration with a guerrilla group intent on forcibly deposing a foreign government. In the United States too, long sentences have been imposed on foreigners convicted of aiding in the planning and/or perpetration of acts of terrorism. The World Trade Center case comes to mind.
As a Peruvian, I find the methods used by my government against the guerrillas excessive and often more criminal than the groups it was fighting. The time has come to re-evaluate many of those actions, in both the military and the legal realms. As scandalous as the lack of due process that led to Berenson's incarceration was, it would be equally scandalous for her to be set free simply because she is a well-represented American at a time when freeing her becomes expedient to the Peruvian and US governments, while hundreds or thousands of others remain indefinitely in jail, sentenced under similar conditions and including the truly innocent.
New York City
That Lori Berenson was denied fair jurisprudence and that our government has not secured her release are both clear. But Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo's attempts to paint a personal portrait of Lori Berenson (through evidence that may have been completely fabricated or through her "militant" attitude during her press statement, where she was instructed to yell to be heard) miss the point. In an instance of gross human and civil rights violations, it is entirely inappropriate to look for kernels of rationale based on the victim's behavior. That Lori is innocent isn't even the issue here--would you deem it appropriate to examine the behavior of a Jewish storekeeper in Nazi-era Germany in order to find a shred of justification in his subsequent gassing at Auschwitz? Lori's imprisonment, her health problems and the outrageous treatment she has suffered by the Peruvian courts are the issues. I don't care if she's a country club Republican or an Uzi-toting terrorist's moll. She's a human being and an American, and she must come home.
In their hunger to take back the White House, the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons have swallowed the mellow prose of Texas scripted for them by George W.'s handlers--but at the state level, the antigay hate campaigns of the Christian right are picking up steam. "In 2000 there have been and are more gay-bashing initiatives on the ballot than ever before," points out David Fleischer, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force organizer for state and local politics.
In Nevada, an amendment to the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage, backed by the Southern Baptists (who have pledged $1 million to pass it) and the Mormon Church, won 60 percent approval in the latest polls. In Nebraska, an even worse measure bans civil unions and even legal status for domestic partnerships, which threatens benefits afforded to same-sex couples by private companies doing business there (like Qwest and Wells Fargo). In Maine, the Christian Civic League (a Gary Bauer spinoff) and the Christian Coalition are spending heavily to defeat ratification of a gay civil rights law already passed by the legislature. The progay forces are woefully underfunded in all three states.
But the most critical battle is in Oregon, which has seen forty antigay initiatives (four statewide, the rest local) in the past twelve years. This year's Measure 9 is a viciously broad version of the "no promo homo" amendments Jesse Helms has been trying to pass in Washington for years: It bans public school "instruction of behaviors relating to homosexuality and bisexuality...that encourages, promotes or sanctions such behavior." Sponsored by professional antigay crusader Lon Mabon and his Oregon Citizens Alliance--who were behind the previous referendums--this thought-police measure would have a devastating effect on the ability of the state's schools and colleges to teach about HIV or antigay discrimination and menaces the livelihood of openly gay teachers. Mabon makes it quite clear: He has said that the measure is designed to defund "any place that there is a cultural diversity program or multiculturalism or AIDS education [in which] homosexuality is presented as being normal and acceptable.... Any AIDS education like what occurred at Portland State University or at the local level could not be done. Any speakers that come in, if they are homosexuals, they could not stand up in front of a class or an assembly and talk about a pro-homosexual lifestyle."
Mabon-sponsored referendums aimed at banning civil rights laws protecting gays were defeated in 1992 and 1994, but it will not be so easy this time. In previous years the gay-bashing measures were the only controversial ones on the ballot, and a broad-based progressive coalition fought back effectively; this year, there are twenty-six different ballot questions, and the official guide mailed to every voter is 400 pages, the size of a telephone book. Moreover, there are seven other initiatives of major concern to progressives: two antilabor "paycheck protection" measures; three on tax and budget cutting; and two anti-environmental proposals.
"It's very shrewd of the right wing," says Paddy McGuire, who ran the Clinton campaign in Oregon in 1992 and 1996 and is now chief of staff to the secretary of state. "For $100,000 you can put damn well anything on the ballot--9 is the only one of these measures where signatures were mostly gotten by volunteers, while the others were gathered by paid workers at $1.50 a signature. It's going to take around a million bucks to defeat each one of them--that's $5 to $6 million we won't spend to elect progressives to office." The strategy to sap progressive energies through referendums was the brainchild of Bill Sizemore, the 1998 Republican candidate for governor. Sizemore has turned his strategy into a lucrative business: He runs Oregon Taxpayers United--which is funded by wealthy GOP conservatives and the oldtime timber barons and fronts for the ballot measures--and on the side he runs a signature-collection firm that rakes it in for petition drives.
"We're stretched thin," worries Josh Kardon, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden's chief of staff. "The governor [liberal Democrat John Kitzhaber] is tied up fighting off the two measures aimed at his budget. Wyden's tied up trying to raise money for state legislative races--we're in spitting distance of taking back one or both houses. Because we're so diluted, trying to explain in a short time why Measure 9 is bad for kids is going to be tough."
All the more so because "we have less than half the staff the campaign that defeated the 1994 antigay referendum had, when they spent $1.7 million," says No on 9 campaign manager Kathleen Sullivan; by mid-September the group had raised only $300,000. Both the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council are putting major resources into 9's passage. The No campaign does have strong support from the PTA as well as the state AFL-CIO, whose president, Tim Nesbitt, points to "an alliance between Lon Mabon and paycheck protection, which the OCA has endorsed." As the state's leading Democratic pollster, Lisa Grove, points out, "Passage of 9 would have implications beyond Oregon--if they can win here, they'll try it elsewhere." Money for TV ads is desperately needed. To contribute, make out checks to: No on 9, PO Box 40625, Portland, OR 97240; or log on at www.noon9.org.
Although most Israelis, even those who consider themselves members of the left, are blaming Yasir Arafat for escalating the current violence, some are trying to voice a different position. They have organized a number of small protests calling for Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and against the shooting of demonstrators.
In addition, about fifty Israeli scholars and community leaders--Jews and Arabs--have published a petition in Israel's daily Haaretz stating that war must and can be avoided. The petition was initiated by sociologist Baruch Kimmerling. Signers include Ruchama Marton, the founder of the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights; Dalia Kirstein, director of the Center for the Rights of the Individual; and Gila Svirsky, former director of the Israeli and Palestinian feminist group Bat Shalom. Also signing were literary figures David Grossman, Yitschak Laor, Yigal Shwartz and Orly Lubin; economist Arieh Arnon; and three Palestinian citizens of Israel who teach at Ben-Gurion University, Ismael Abu-Saad, Thabet Abu Rass and Ahmad Saadi. The petition demands:
§ An immediate and unilateral Israeli commitment to evacuating the provocative settlements and zones that are to be included in the Palestinian state--including those in the Gaza Strip, Hebron and the Jordan Valley.
§ That Israel accept Palestinian sovereignty over all Arab neighborhoods and mosques inside Jerusalem, while Israel will maintain sovereignty over the Western Wall. The city, within this framework, will be completely open to all residents.
§ That Israel declare a strong commitment to insuring equal rights in every area to all Palestinian and other citizens of the state of Israel, and that it stop shooting at demonstrators.
§ A release and exchange of all prisoners on all sides.
We believe that only the acceptance of this package and the immediate cessation of all violence by all populations on all sides can serve as the basis for rebuilding trust among Jews, Palestinians and the Arab world.
A new era has begun in Serbia, not only because Slobodan Milosevic has at last been expelled from office but because the deed was accomplished by the Serbian people acting in solidarity and without recourse to violence to seize their political destiny. The world will not soon forget the spectacle of Serbian riot police embracing demonstrators or the ballots spilling from the windows of the Serbian Parliament building.
Six months ago, such developments were unthinkable: Serbia's opposition had grown battle-weary and despondent, outmaneuvered by a repressive regime and fractured by internal divisions. Much of the credit for the energy, creativity and wherewithal of the protests belongs to Serbia's youth movement, Otpor, which aggressively advocated coalition-building, nonviolent civil disobedience and the importance of winning police and military support. The popular rebellion in Serbia bore the hallmarks of Otpor's strategy, as well as the youth movement's exuberance and optimism.
Still, the politics of coalition-building are complicated and perilous. Can groups, individuals and institutions that once supported Milosevic's ruling party or that launched and sustained the rhetoric of war really be trusted to help lead Serbia into the new era? For how long will the eighteen opposition parties that united behind Vojislav Kostunica continue to cooperate in the absence of a common enemy? Given Serbia's deeply divided political scene, Kostunica, a nationalist democrat from the center right, was a canny choice for presidential nominee: Uncorrupted by regime ties or mafia connections, Kostunica has a reputation for personal honesty and integrity. An anti-Communist, he also has a history of fierce opposition to Western interference in Serbian affairs. He has denounced the Hague war crimes tribunal as a political tool, he had strong wartime ties to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and he decried the Dayton agreement of 1995, favoring more substantial Serbian territorial claims in Bosnia. As for the Serbian offensive against Albanians in Kosovo, Kostunica once told the Chicago Tribune, "Their leaders asked for Kosovo to be bombed. How should we behave? How would Americans behave?"
These views appealed to Milosevic's former constituency as well as to the substantial nationalist opposition that has long felt that Milosevic betrayed Serbian territorial aims and soiled the country's international image. Many ordinary Serbs share an abiding distrust of the international community, especially the United States, which they feel punished the people for the actions of a leader many of them despised. At the same time, although he wears his nationalism proudly, Kostunica says that it entails neither chauvinistic intent nor "Greater Serbian" aspirations. Kostunica has always opposed the deployment of paramilitaries, and he is a democrat who favors a free press, a truth commission and the rule of law. His impressively level-headed command of the peaceful rebellion speaks for his commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution within Yugoslavia.
And yet there is an antinationalist segment of the Serbian opposition, however small, that embraces the country's new leader very cautiously. These civil society leaders, many of whom weathered the Milosevic years in Serbia's sizable NGO community, worry that Kostunica will bring with him certain elites who fell from Milosevic's favor in the mid-nineties. After all, among Kostunica's close allies are the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Serbian Orthodox Church, both of which helped produce the nationalist rhetoric that Milosevic seized to bolster popular support and to fuel the war machine. Serbian nationalism in all its varieties will not soon disappear, and the student movement in particular has a crucial role to play in keeping Kostunica, as well as his future challengers, honest and in helping a meaningful political life to take root at last in Serbia.
Meanwhile, the practical challenges are monumental. Yugoslavia's economy is a shambles. Not only did NATO bomb key factories last year; not only did sanctions create a vacuum since filled by an all-pervasive black market; not only does Serbia lack a banking system and access to foreign banks; but Milosevic and his cronies established an elite class of gangsters and paramilitaries whose ill-gotten wealth will be difficult to simply wish away. To neutralize the power of organized crime, the holdings of war profiteers and mafia lords may have to be legalized, or at the very least, these characters, who have played such a nefarious role in Serbia's financial and cultural life for the past decade, must be persuaded to invest their wealth constructively. In a society whose institutions, from banks and hospitals to schools and courts, have been neglected or co-opted, and where the flight of the professional classes became a virtual hemorrhage, the road to recovery will be long indeed. Although the easing of sanctions and the promise of aid will help, the people of Serbia must survive a very difficult period of adjustment.
At the end of this period, however, Serbia, the largest and most populous nation in the ex-Yugoslav region, could once again become a forceful neighbor. This is just one reason that it is so important for Serbia to reckon with its recent history and rebuild its relationships with the other ex-Yugoslav republics on a foundation of humility and cooperation. The status of Montenegro remains an open and vexed question, with some of Milo Djukanovic's followers still straining for independence and Milosevic's party officially governing Montenegro on the federal level. And against the will of the Albanian majority, Kosovo remains nominally a part of Yugoslavia; with a reputable government in Belgrade, the international community will eventually withdraw.
The question of reconciliation with the past, specifically Serbia's role in the Yugoslav wars, is also a critical one, and it will most likely be resolved on local terms or not at all. Many Serbs believe they have been demonized by the world media and unfairly singled out for punishment for the Bosnian war. Thus, stern rebukes from abroad often meet with hostility. Although Kostunica has unfortunately vowed not to cooperate with The Hague, he may offer war crimes trials on Serbian soil. One hopes the new freedom of expression Kostunica promises will allow journalists and academics to explore recent history publicly and candidly. This internal process will be delicate, painful and contentious, but it offers the possibility of deep and lasting change.
In Serbia people power has swept out another tyrant. In the aftermath the Yugoslav federation's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, the constitutional scholar of strong nationalist leanings who led the surprisingly velvet revolution, faced the tough job of renewing a government that stank of rot from the top down. Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic summed up the fast-changing post-Slobo status quo: "We've done two-thirds of the job, but we used the power of the streets more than the power of the institutions and more the power of the people than of political organizations. Now it's up to us to turn what people chose with their energy into reality."
The task of institutionalizing the revolution presented the new federal president with daunting problems. His moves to oust the pro-Milosevic officials in the Serbian government--the still-loyal secret police, the military, corrupt factory managers, bureaucrats and legislators--and install honest civil servants were complicated by resistance from leaders of the old regime and some generals. But he still had the powerful force of unleashed democratic energy behind him. Given Kostunica's nationalistic sentiments, however, which permeate the Serbian Orthodox Church hierarchy and other institutions to which he claims some fealty, there is a danger of the recrudescence of chauvinistic patriotism, which Milosevic stirred up during his reign and to which elements of the populace remain vulnerable. We can hope at this point that Kostunica will work to keep these emotions within bounds.
Kostunica must also deal with restive Montenegro, which harbors secessionist dreams and, unhappy over the current Constitution, boycotted the elections. And he must confront the issue of the future of Kosovo, whose people suffered greatly at Serbian hands. Hundreds of Albanian political prisoners are in Serbian jails, and Kostunica has the power to pardon them. His attitude toward municipal elections in Kosovo, set for October 24, is crucial. These elections were seen as an important step in UN efforts to establish workable institutions in the province--and by many as part of an irreversible process of readying Kosovo for independence.
The West must give Kostunica and his new-fledged democracy strong support, both diplomatic and economic, including lifting sanctions. Billions of dollars are needed to rebuild the economy that the Milosevic regime ransacked and that sanctions crippled, and to repair the infrastructure damage inflicted by NATO bombs.
That does not, however, mean putting on indefinite hold the reckoning with Milosevic and his henchmen before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The meting out of justice to indicted war criminals must continue, but the West should give Kostunica running room while persuading him to cooperate with the tribunal.
The Contact Group, led by the United States, France, Britain and Germany, must begin thinking seriously about a broader international diplomatic process to resolve many of the outstanding questions and conflicts of the entire region and to give the Balkans a secure place in the European "house." The Serbs' yearning to be integrated into Europe was a strong motive behind their overthrow of Milosevic.
The crimes of Serbia's leaders, its army and its paramilitaries cannot be forgotten, but the NATO air war left a residue of bitterness among the people. Now, Yugoslav democracy needs to be nourished. The hope of better lives can sustain the Serbs in the arduous task of reconstruction they face in the years ahead.
Misreported and flawed from the start, the Oslo peace process has entered its terminal phase of violent confrontation, disproportionately massive Israeli repression, widespread Palestinian rebellion and great loss of life, mainly Palestinian. Ariel Sharon's September 28 visit to Haram al Sharif could not have occurred without Ehud Barak's concurrence; how else could Sharon have appeared there with at least a thousand soldiers guarding him? Barak's approval rating rose from 20 to 50 percent after the visit, and the stage seems set for a national unity government ready to be still more violent and repressive.
The portents of this disarray, however, were there from the 1993 start, as I duly noted in The Nation (September 20, 1993). Labor and Likud leaders alike made no secret of the fact that Oslo was designed to segregate the Palestinians in noncontiguous, economically unviable enclaves, surrounded by Israeli-controlled borders, with settlements and settlement roads punctuating and essentially violating the territories' integrity. Expropriations and house demolitions proceeded inexorably through the Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak administrations, along with the expansion and multiplication of settlements (200,000 Israeli Jews added to Jerusalem, 200,000 more in Gaza and the West Bank), military occupation continuing and every tiny step taken toward Palestinian sovereignty--including agreements to withdraw in minuscule, agreed-upon phases--stymied, delayed, canceled at Israel's will.
This method was politically and strategically absurd. Occupied East Jerusalem was placed out of bounds by a bellicose Israeli campaign to decree the intractably divided city off-limits to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and to claim it as Israel's "eternal, undivided capital." The 4 million Palestinian refugees--now the largest and longest existing such population anywhere--were told that they could forget about return or compensation. With his own corrupt and repressive regime supported by both Israel's Mossad and the CIA, Yasir Arafat continued to rely on US mediation, even though the US negotiating team was dominated by former Israeli lobby officials and a President whose ideas about the Middle East showed no understanding of the Arab-Islamic world. Compliant but isolated and unpopular Arab chiefs (especially Egypt's Hosni Mubarak) were humiliatingly compelled to toe the American line, thereby further diminishing their eroded credibility at home. Israel's priorities were always put first. No attempt was made to address the injustice done when the Palestinians were dispossessed in 1948.
Back of the peace process were two unchanging Israeli/American presuppositions, both of them derived from a startling incomprehension of reality. The first was that after enough punishment and beating, Palestinians would give up, accept the compromises Arafat did in fact accept and call the whole Palestinian cause off, thereafter excusing Israel for everything it has done. Thus, the "peace process" gave no considered attention to immense Palestinian losses of land and goods, or to the links between past dislocation and present statelessness, while as a nuclear power with a formidable military, Israel continued to claim the status of victim and demand restitution for genocidal anti-Semitism in Europe. There has still been no official acknowledgment of Israel's (by now amply documented) responsibility for the tragedy of 1948. But one can't force people to forget, especially when the daily reality is seen by all Arabs as reproducing the original injustice.
Second, after seven years of steadily worsening economic and social conditions for Palestinians everywhere, Israeli and US policy-makers persisted in trumpeting their successes, excluding the United Nations and other interested parties, bending the partisan media to their wills, distorting the actuality into ephemeral victories for "peace." With the entire Arab world up in arms over Israeli helicopter gunships and tanks demolishing Palestinian civilian buildings, with almost 100 fatalities and almost 2,000 wounded, including many children, and with Palestinian Israelis rising up against their treatment as third-class citizens, the misaligned and skewed status quo is falling apart. Isolated in the UN and unloved everywhere in the Arab world as Israel's unconditional champion, the United States and its lame-duck President have little to contribute.
Neither does the Arab and Israeli leadership, even though they are likely to cobble up another interim agreement. Extraordinary has been the virtual silence of the Zionist peace camp in the United States, Europe and Israel. The slaughter of Palestinian youths goes on while they back Israeli brutality or express disappointment at Palestinian ingratitude. Worst of all are the US media, cowed by the fearsome Israeli lobby, with commentators and anchors spinning distorted reports about "crossfire" and "Palestinian violence" that eliminate the fact that Israel is in military occupation and that Palestinians are fighting it, not "laying siege to Israel," as Madeleine Albright put it. While the United States celebrates the Serbian people's victory over Milosevic, Clinton and his aides refuse to see the Palestinian insurgency as the same kind of struggle against injustice.
My guess is that some of the new Palestinian intifada is directed at Arafat, who has led his people astray with phony promises and maintains a battery of corrupt officials holding down commercial monopolies even as they negotiate incompetently and weakly on his behalf. Sixty percent of the public budget is disbursed by Arafat to bureaucracy and security, only 2 percent to the infrastructure. Three years ago his own accountants admitted to an annual $400 million in disappeared funds. His international patrons accept this in the name of the "peace process," certainly the most hated phrase in the Palestinian lexicon today.
An alternative peace plan and leadership is slowly emerging among leading Israeli, West Bank, Gaza and diaspora Palestinians, a thousand of whom have signed a set of declarations that have great popular support: no return to the Oslo framework; no compromise on the original UN Resolutions (242, 338 and 194) on the basis of which the Madrid Conference was convened in 1991; removal of all settlements and military roads; evacuation of all the territories annexed or occupied in 1967; boycott of Israeli goods and services. A new sense may actually be dawning that only a mass movement against Israeli apartheid (similar to South Africa's) will work. Certainly it is wrong for Barak and Albright to hold Arafat responsible for what he no longer fully controls. Rather than dismiss the new framework being proposed, Israel's supporters would be wise to remember that the question of Palestine concerns an entire people, not an aging and discredited leader. Besides, peace in Palestine/Israel can be made only between equals once the military occupation has ended. No Palestinian, not even Arafat, can really accept anything less.
I want to vote for Bill Clinton for President again, but that not
being possible I had resigned myself to Al Gore. Surely, I thought, he
would defend the Clinton Administration's record of the past eight years,
and voters would recognize it as obviously preferable to the debt and
divisiveness the Republicans had wrought.
Indeed, the only reason to favor Gore over Bill Bradley in the
primaries, which I regrettably did, was that Gore had on-the-job training
in the most productive administration in decades. That's what the vice
President brought to the table, certainly not his deer-in-the headlights
stage presence, and yet he sits dumbfounded for lack of a ready reply
when George W. Bush rails on about the failed opportunities of the
"Hey, buddy," I keep waiting for Gore to say, "I wasn't going to bring
up your daddy's wreckage of the economy but you leave me no choice. Are
Americans better off now than they were eight years ago? You bet they
are. Crime, unemployment and poverty are all down, and the economy is
still on an unprecedented roll. Under Bush senior, the Japanese were
thought to be entrepreneurally invincible, and now it is US know-how
the world seeks to emulate."
Instead of a celebration of what he and the President accomplished
despite reactionary Republican control of the Congress, Gore offers only
the most mealy-mouthed rejoinders when Bush slanders the record of the
Unfortunately, Al Gore has spent most of the election trying to prove
that he is not Bill Clinton. He needn't have bothered. No one could ever
confuse the two. Gore is by temperament, and apparently conviction, the
un-Clinton--it's like comparing a fresh out-of-the-bottle swig of Coke
with a 7-Up gone flat.
The President is a compelling advocate for his vision of progressive
government, so much so that even his lousy ideas, like welfare reform,
have a sizzle of optimism. But in the main, Clinton deserves a great deal
of credit for demonstrating that a concerned activist government also can
balance the books while lifting the US economy from the doldrums.
Whether it is a matter of personal chemistry or absence of genuine
commitment, Gore lacks Clinton's ability to convince us that deep down
he's on our side--whoever we are. Gore has made doing even the obviously
right thing, like saving Social Security and Medicare, seem partisan and
His best moment was that acceptance speech at the Democratic
convention when he sounded the alarm that George W. Bush could actually
do serious harm to this country. But since then his campaign has become
nothing more than an awkward attempt to keep up with Bush at Texas
line-dancing as a form of governance. They move together in a dreary
drumbeat of support for the death penalty and huge military expenditures,
and Gore has even muffled his criticism of Bush on guns and abortion.
Gore has come out of that contest so disoriented that he has even managed
to make Ralph Nader seem like a sexy dancer.
Which is why what could prove to be a critical 4 percent of the electorate,
composed of largely thoughtful and well-intentioned people, are willing
to risk Republican control of the White House. No small risk, given that
right-wing Republicans likely will continue to run Congress, and with
Bush as President, the third branch of government--the federal judiciary
from the Supreme Court on down--will be shaped in the image of Jesse
Helms. There is no reason to expect otherwise from a Bush presidency,
since he has warned us that Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia, two of
the most reactionary judges in the history of the Court, are his judicial
Nader has been less than honest in tarring the major parties with the
same brush. He surely must know that the Democrats are better, far
better, at protecting consumers and the environment, supporting labor,
including raising the minimum wage, and advancing the rights of women,
minorities and gays.
However, there is an argument for having Nader in the race and even
for telling pollsters that you intend to vote for the man. It's to force
Gore to distinguish himself from the Bush campaign in order to win back
those Nader votes.
Yet, on Election Day, Gore, for all his faults, still deserves the
votes of those who care about the frightening damage that a Republican
sweep of the White House and Congress portends for this country.
Behind that smug Bush smile lies the calculations of Trent Lott and
the heart of Jesse Helms. There even might be room for the ghost of Newt
Gingrich in a Bush Cabinet. It's Halloween time.
Take this as a national parable. Once upon a time--in the early eighties, actually--there was a progressive coalition in Vermont designed to become a third force in politics. One of its prime spokesmen was Bernie Sanders, who became mayor of Vermont's largest city, Burlington. Sanders duly became a leading proponent of the idea that America needed a third party of the left.
In 1988 the coalition backed Sanders for Vermont's single seat in Congress. Then as now, orthodox Democratic liberals accused the radical progressives of being wreckers. The radicals said that yes, some creative destruction was necessary. A Sanders candidacy might put Republican Peter Smith into Congress over liberal-populist Democrat Paul Poirier, but that wasn't the concern of an independent force. Just as he's now bashing Ralph Nader, Barney Frank bashed Sanders' candidacy as bad for gays (whose legislated well-being Frank regularly conflates with the fortunes of the Democratic Party) and liberals. And so it came to pass. Sanders swept up Poirier's liberal base and denied Democrats the victory they would otherwise have obtained. Smith won with less than 50 percent.
The progressive coalition had a long-term strategy. It knew Sanders would not win on that first outing. The essential victory was to persuade progressives to vote, finally, for their beliefs, to stop deluding themselves that the Democratic Party would fulfill even a sliver of their expectations. Two years later, Sanders again made a bid, this time against the incumbent Republican. The Democrats effectively quit the field. Sanders swept to victory.
Creative destruction worked. The progressive coalition matured and expanded. It replaced Sanders with Peter Clavelle as mayor of Burlington and took numerous seats throughout the state. Last year it formally constituted itself as the Progressive Party of Vermont and put up Anthony Pollina, a leftist with years of grassroots activism in the state, as its gubernatorial candidate for November 2000.
Once again, the state echoes with the anguished bellows of liberals that Pollina's candidacy will install Republican Ruth Dwyer and take Vermont back to medieval darkness. The Progressive Party has refused to stand down. Incumbent Governor Howard Dean is a DLC-type Democrat who never met a corporation he didn't like or a mountaintop he wasn't willing to sell to a ski-resort developer. Pollina, who had led Vermont's successful fight for public financing of statewide elections, became the first to benefit from it. As required by law, he raised $35,000 (from donations averaging $22), then qualified for $265,000 in public money, the only funds he can spend. Pollina was on an equal money footing with Dean. But not for long. A court threw out the law's spending limit, and immediately Dean inoperated years of pious blather about campaign finance reform. Five days after lauding such reform at the Democratic convention, he rejected public financing and put himself back on the block for corporate contributions and soft money from the Democratic Party.
Pollina and the Progressives have taken the Democrats' scare strategy straight on. They say, Vote Your Hopes, Not Your Fears. The campaign is rich with proposals on healthcare, environmental protection, a living wage, stability for small farmers and small businesses. Pollina has plenty of ammunition against Dean, who has been running Vermont longer than Clinton/Gore have been in the White House. It's the pathetic national story. In Vermont, 95 percent of men under 22 in prison do not have high school equivalency. In the past ten years prison spending has increased by 135 percent, while spending on state colleges has increased by 7 percent. One of every seven Vermont men between 18 and 21 is under the supervision of the Corrections Department.
And Pollina doesn't shrink from reminding voters that at the very moment in the early nineties when Vermont was poised to become the first state to have universal healthcare, Governor Dean, a physician by trade, killed off all such hopes, as he did a bill this year that would have established prescription-drug price controls.
Democrats of the stripe of Dean and Gore know how to talk the talk. They don't move a finger to expand human freedoms or opportunities, then boast that they alone are the bulwark against right-wing attacks on such freedoms and opportunities. After undermining choice and gay rights for much of his Congressional career, Gore now tells women and gays that he is the prime defender of choice and gay rights. At a gay event in Los Angeles, Dean claimed the hero's mantle for signing Vermont's civil union law giving gay couples the same state benefits as married couples. But he was never out front on this issue, moved only under direct order of the courts and then, in an act of consummate cowardice, nervously scribbled his signature to the law secluded from press or camera. So what does our Vermont parable add up to? Independent in name only, Sanders sold out to the Democratic machine long ago. He's no longer part of a movement. He's not a member of the Progressive Party and has not endorsed Pollina. In his re-election race for November, he's outflanked on both politics and gender, facing a Democrat to his left (Peter Diamondstone) and a transsexual moderate Republican (Karen Kerin). But the big story is not Sanders' dismal trajectory; it is that third-party politics in Vermont has moved out of his sad shadow and is changing the face of the state. The Progressives have also endorsed Nader.
"This race, a lot like Nader's nationally, has posed the question: If we want good people to run, and they get on the ballot, what do we want to do with that? Do we wish to use their campaigns to build up a progressive movement, or do we once again want to squander our power on business as usual?" Thus Ellen David Friedman, a long-term Progressive organizer in Vermont. "People under 30 don't give a damn about the spoiler stuff. Most of Pollina's campaign workers are under 25. They want to be able to work for what they believe in. Demographically, these are the people who will be making the difference, organizing progressive campaigns in the years to come."
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, diagnoses an anti-Israel tilt in the US media, in which "the Israelis have come through a miraculous alchemical formula to become the giants and everyone else is the David.'' What planet is this man living on?
Just look at the numbers. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, compared with just five Israeli Jews. The Palestinians attack with stones, Molotov cocktails and the extremely rare automatic weapon. Unlike nations that quell riots by their own people with tear gas and rubber bullets, the Israelis respond with live ammunition: antitank rockets, helicopter gunships and armor-piercing missiles. Armed Jewish vigilantes have undertaken murderous rampages against unarmed Arab citizens, shooting them in cold blood. The UN Security Council condemns Israel's "excessive use of force."
Yet aside from the Palestinians invited to speak explicitly for their own cause, the mainstream US media condemn the Palestinians and exonerate Israel with Soviet-like consensus. Editorial pages are unanimous in apportioning the blame exclusively to Yasir Arafat rather than the war criminal Ariel Sharon, who provoked the riots to advance his political career. Sharon was puffed up in extremely sympathetic interviews by Lally Weymouth published in the Washington Post and Newsweek, and held forth as well on the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page. Meanwhile, the members of the punditocracy who appeared during the weekend of Barak's ultimatum spoke as if channeling American Jewish Committee talking points.
While Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio battled one another to shower the Palestinians with higher and higher degrees of contempt in their second debate, the only American voices heard to speak to the larger context of the conflict were the twin electoral outliers, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Given his history of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, the former Crossfire host has forfeited any credibility he once had on the issue. Nader's criticism of Sharon, which he expressed on CBS's Face the Nation, was therefore far more valuable, especially in light of the relative scarcity of such voices on network television.
More typical, however, are the views of Charles Krauthammer, who has apparently contracted the same mental and emotional affliction that drove poor Abe Rosenthal insane. The pundit actually compared the phenomenon of Palestinian riots and rock-throwing to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Complaining of overly sympathetic coverage of Palestinian "frustration"--"frustration with what?" Krauthammer demanded in mock horror, as if the average Palestinian refugee lived next door in Chevy Chase--Krauthammer termed Israel's dovish leaders "feckless" for seeking an accommodation to create a nation where Jewish soldiers are no longer in a position to gun down unarmed 12-year-old boys.
Sure Arafat is a corrupt, untrustworthy leader, and I wish he had somehow found the courage to risk his own neck and embrace Barak's surprising concessions at Camp David, if only as a foundation stone in a much longer peace process. The concessions were, unfortunately, the best offer the Palestinians are likely to get for some time. But it's not Arafat's indecision or Palestinian rock-throwing that lies at the root of the current conflict. Rather, as the Israeli lawyer Allegra Pacheco wrote on the Times Op-Ed page, it is the fact that "the proponents of the agreement, including the Clinton Administration, never fully informed the Palestinian people that the [Oslo] accord did not offer any guarantee of Palestinian self-determination, full equality and an end to the military occupation." Since Oslo, Pacheco notes, the quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has declined from terrible to nearly unbearable. Owing to the lack of good will on both sides, what is being constructed from Oslo is less peace than apartheid.
I have walked across open sewage in Palestinian refugee camps surrounded by children begging for candy. I have been served tea at the home of a Palestinian family whose 13-year-old son was killed days earlier by the Israeli Defense Force as a suspect in a murder that turned out to be the work of a crazed Jewish fanatic. I have stood in the rubble of Palestinian houses that the Israelis bulldozed as a warning to those who would continue to protest. Seven years ago, I stood on the White House lawn and listened, tearfully, to Yitzhak Rabin say "enough" to the killing on both sides. Alas, it was not enough. And given the realities on the ground, for every Israeli who loses a son or daughter, so too will scores of Palestinians.
It would behoove those in the media who hold forth on this issue to address themselves for once to its larger context. It is Israel that is oppressing the Palestinians, and it is the Palestinians who are doing virtually all the dying. True, Ehud Barak has taken massive political risks by offering concessions that go well beyond the Israeli consensus. He is a brave leader and an authentic soldier for peace. But given the magnitude of the physical, psychological and sociological costs of the Palestinian "catastrophe," Barak's best is simply not good enough. The only chance for lasting peace will come when Israel agrees to share Jerusalem with a full Palestinian partner, granting equal rights to citizens of both nations; with Israeli rule in the West and Palestinian rule in the East.
Perhaps it's too much to ask a victorious people to offer genuine justice and material sacrifice to the nation it has vanquished on the battlefield--particularly when the hatred of the defeated nation continues unabated. But the Palestinians will accept nothing less.
I'm a Jew with deep emotional ties to Israel and strong sympathies with the Labor/Zionist project. My own words fill me with foreboding. But if it must come to war, then let us at least be honest about it. Like Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it will be a war that Israel has chosen because it could not countenance the alternatives. And it will be the Palestinians who, once again, will endure the lion's share of the suffering.
I'm surprised at how many otherwise thoughtful people seem convinced that this election "makes no difference." In my very first Nation column, I quoted Justice Antonin Scalia, who, during a 1997 visit to Columbia Law School, stated publicly that if Brown v. Board of Education came to him as a case of first impression, he would vote against the majority. Most of the federal judiciary are Reagan/Bush appointees. There are an unprecedented number of judicial openings right now because of the unprecedented blocking of Clinton appointees maneuvered by the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee. A sense of urgency thus prompted me to cull an unscientific sampling of lawyers, writers and human rights activists--all of whom feel that this is an important election in which to make one's voice heard.
Charles Ogletree Jr., professor, Harvard Law School: "The most important election in recent memory will occur on November 7, 2000. George W. Bush, who favors Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and Al Gore, who favors someone in the mold of Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, have radically different views of the next Supreme Court appointments. With Roe v. Wade, affirmative action and majority-minority districts at stake, there is no graver choice facing the nation than a progressive Gore Court or a reactionary Bush Court."
Reva Siegel, professor, Yale Law School: "Last term, the Court invalidated provisions of two different civil rights laws, holding that Congress lacked power to enact the antidiscrimination statutes--something the Court has not done since the nineteenth century. After these rulings, it is no longer clear how statutes like the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act can be enforced against state employers, or what kind of hate crimes legislation the Congress can enact. But more is at stake than the particular provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or the Violence Against Women Act, which the Court struck down last term, or the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which the Court is considering this term. The question is whether the Court continues to recognize and respect the federal government's power to prohibit discrimination as that power has been exercised by Congress in the decades since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Richard Matasar, dean, New York Law School: "Judicial appointment is the stealth issue of every national election. While abortion and crime occupy the attention of the press, the judiciary can also carry on a quiet revolution in its allocation of authority between state and federal government. The Republican judiciary has already significantly shifted the distribution of power between governments; this election can break or solidify that shift."
Maivan Clech Lam, professor, City University of New York Law School at Queens College: "The Supreme Court's rulings on state and federal power are very likely in the next years to determine issues of sovereignty important to indigenous Hawaiians and possibly all tribes in general."
Bob Wing, editor, ColorLines: "The prospect of an entrenched reactionary Supreme Court majority is awful.... However, I wish that I was more confident that Al Gore, who is associated with the Democratic Leadership Council's center-right wing of the Democratic Party, would reverse that trend."
Peter Gabel, president, New College School of Law: "I'm not sharply critical of those who want to vote for Gore to protect the Court, but I do think they overestimate the Court's role as an active progressive power and fail to see its essential commitment to maintaining a center (whether center-right or center-left). It is movements in society that motivate the Court to move. A real left needs to do the opposite of defending the empty center, which is perpetually self-erasing and actually blocks the development of a progressive movement. Instead, we must try to emerge into public visibility--visibility to one another!--by voting for Ralph Nader."
Jill Nelson, writer: "I've been thinking that it's the height of the ever-growing class-based disconnect in this society for people who consider themselves left or progressive or liberal to run the 'I'm going to vote for Nader because there's no difference between Gore and Bush.' Rest assured, I'm not happy with any of 'em, but I'm very clear about the importance of Supreme Court appointments and for that reason will vote for the lesser evil, which is the real, disappointing, difficult nature, it seems, of democracy as we know it. The alternative is for me to delude myself that an abstract notion of principle trumps class privilege, which it doesn't. Sure, no matter who's on the Court, me and mine can have abortions and hire top attorneys and otherwise have the possibility of buying ourselves out of whatever mess we're in, but that's not enough. For me, democracy is fundamentally about community, and to paraphrase Reagan in that movie, what about the rest of us?"
Sydelle Pittas, attorney: "In the course of work on a television series I produced for the Women's Bar Association on 'Your Legal Rights,' I interviewed almost all of Massachusetts' sitting federal judges. From them I learned a few things that showed me how important it is to have Justices who understand the experiences of real women. Justices are human beings, and while they are impressive in how mightily they strive to find the law rather than make it, how they make those findings necessarily comes from their own understanding, based at least in some part on their experience."
Bill Ong Hing, professor of Law and Asian-American Studies, University of California, Davis: "People of color and other traditionally subordinated groups have few institutions upon which they can rely. Their skepticism of the judicial system's desire to respond to their plight has reached a new high point, as the Court molded by Nixon-Ford-Reagan-Bush (Carter made no appointments) has come to dominate the nation's jurisprudence.... Whether and to what extent, if any, the Supreme Court serves as an agent or ally of social change is debatable. But a progressive voice of a Supreme Court majority--open to the views and experiences of those who have been marginalized--would foster a culture (and hope) for change in other mainstream institutions."
It took them thirteen years to ditch
Old Slobodan Milosevic.
Now people see a new day dawn,
But notice that he's still not gone.
THE NOVEMBER 7 ELECTION is not merely about ending six years of GOP dominance but also about assuring that the next Congress is pulled in a more enlightened direction. Starting early this year, The Nation began tracking races around the country, keeping an eye on contests where progressive incumbents are battling to keep their seats and identifying the next generation of leaders on economic and social justice issues. The Nation adopted author and activist Michael Harrington's "left wing of the possible" standard--looking for candidates who combine a chance of winning with a commitment to use the victory to fight for real change. None of the contenders profiled in this year's "Nation Dozen" list--which represents only a fraction of the progressive candidates running as Democrats, Greens or independents--are assured victory; indeed, several had to overcome daunting odds just to earn a place on the November ballot. But they have put themselves in contention with strong support from groups like the AFL-CIO, NARAL, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Peace Action PAC, the Human Rights Campaign Fund and the National Committee for an Effective Congress. A decade ago, Minnesota professor Paul Wellstone beat an entrenched Republican US senator and went on to serve as a mentor to other progressives, including several of this year's Nation Dozen. Says Wellstone: "Progressives have got to get serious about these Congressional races around the country. We need to recognize that it matters a great deal when we elect members who understand human rights and economic justice issues; that those members will have the power to raise issues, to shift the direction of the Democratic Party and to build coalitions that can actually prevail." With that thought in mind, here is the "Nation Dozen." With support from Nation readers and other progressives, they have the potential not only to win but to change the way Washington does business.
ED FLANAGAN, Vermont, US Senate
When Ed Flanagan won the Democratic nomination for the seat held by Republican Jim Jeffords, the incumbent warned that Flanagan's progressive populist style would not go over well in the tradition-bound Senate. "He makes a lot of noise, shakes things up, and that's the last thing we need down in Washington," said Jeffords, who is best known for singing in a barbershop quartet with Trent Lott. Jeffords is right about Flanagan; he would shake things up. A former intern to liberal Republican Senator George Aiken and a four-term state auditor, Flanagan condemns "the military-industrial complex that does not have America's defense interests in mind, but is simply out to make the big bucks," and he asks how the Senate can justify a failure to implement living-wage legislation "in the context of an economy that is so rich but has concentrated so much wealth with so few people and so few huge multinational corporations." The odds against Flanagan are long, in part because he is an openly gay man running in a state where conservatives are stirring a backlash against Vermont's just-implemented civil union law. But he is betting that the state that sends Bernie Sanders to the House is, indeed, prepared to shake up the Senate (www.flanagan2000.org).
NANCY KEENAN, Montana, House, At-Large
To understand where Nancy Keenan is coming from, you need to know the story of the Smelterman's Day Picnic that used to be held every August 8 in Anaconda, Montana. Keenan, the daughter of a boilermaker, would line up with the other kids at the picnic to receive a silver dollar from the copper-smelting company that gave the town its name. "As you stepped forward, the management representative would look you straight in the eye and press that shiny silver dollar firmly in your hand. The message couldn't have been clearer: You knew who owned you," Keenan recalled in a speech to the state AFL-CIO. "But the company was wrong. They might have owned our sweat, they might have owned our labor, but because we were members of a union family, they could not own our souls." Keenan, who is seeking to be a voice for hard-pressed factory and farm families in a state where annual incomes are among the lowest in the nation, got into politics to battle for corporate responsibility: After Atlantic Richfield shuttered the Anaconda smelter in 1980, she was elected to the legislature and helped pass a plant-closing notification law. Now, the three-term state superintendent of public instruction is running for Congress against a right-wing opponent on a platform that includes pledges to fight for labor-law reform, vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws against agribusiness monopolies and guarantees that farmers and workers "are not sacrificed at the altar of international trade relations." She says politics beats her old job--shoveling ore and wrangling buckets of boiling copper. "You wore an asbestos suit and counted on your workmate to beat out the flames when you occasionally caught on fire," recalls Keenan, who promises to fight to toughen workplace safety regulations (www.nancykeenan.com).
BRIAN SCHWEITZER, Montana, US Senate
Long before Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee read polls that told them prescription drug prices were a potent political issue, Brian Schweitzer, a peppermint farmer with no political experience, began loading senior citizens onto buses and driving them over the border to buy cheap drugs in Canada. The first-time candidate's political instincts proved so good, and so threatening to troglodyte conservative incumbent Conrad Burns, that a faked-up "citizens' group" funded by drug manufacturers began blanketing the state with anti-Schweitzer commercials. Schweitzer took the attacks as a badge of honor, while the Billings Gazette joked that anti-Schweitzer forces would have a hard time convincing Montana voters to fear him as a candidate "coming to strip us of our God-given right to be shafted by the pharmaceutical industry." After Burns voted against a proposal to place a moratorium on agribusiness mergers that harm Montana farmers, Schweitzer detailed Burns's $198,608 in contributions from agribusiness lobbyists. When he is not banging away at corporations, Schweitzer works to heal rifts between unions and environmentalists that Burns and other Western conservatives have fanned in order to divide progressive voters in states with depressed economies and threatened natural areas. "The debate over the past ten years has been jobs versus the environment," says Schweitzer. "The results are in, and it's clear that we're losing both" (www.brianschweitzer.com).
LANE EVANS, Illinois, District 17
Congress has no truer heir to the prairie populist tradition of the Midwest Progressive, Farmer-Labor and Non-Partisan League movements than Illinois's Lane Evans. In nine terms as the representative from a farm-and-factory district that hugs the Mississippi River, Evans has been one of the few members who consistently earn top ratings from the AFL-CIO and progressive groups. In a district where Republicans remain a powerful political force and where business groups pump thousands of dollars into the campaigns of his Republican challengers, Evans talks tough about corporate crime, wages lonely battles on behalf of family farmers and helps lead the fight against Wall Street's free-trade agenda. This year the GOP has made Evans a top target. The Congressman is suffering from Parkinson's disease, and while he is fully capable of performing his Congressional duties--which would include chairing the powerful Veterans' Affairs Committee if Democrats retake the House--his weakened condition has been the target of whispering campaigns and none-too-subtle jabs from Republican backers of his opponent, a former TV anchorman (www.laneevans.com, www.house.gov.evans).
ELEANOR JORDAN, Kentucky, District 3
With Eleanor Jordan in Congress, the House of Representatives would be a lot more representative. An African-American woman old enough to remember segregation days in the border state of Kentucky, a onetime teenage single parent who understands the challenge of meeting childcare and health bills, a neighborhood activist who got mad enough about legislative neglect to run for and win a seat in the General Assembly, she has lived the issues that most members of Congress only debate. Jordan, who directed a childcare center before her election, has emerged as one of the Kentucky House's most effective advocates for programs that aid children and working moms--winning a high-profile battle to prevent the gutting of the Kentucky childcare policy council. Now, Jordan is challenging incumbent Anne Northup, a conservative Republican who came to the House as a Newt Gingrich protégée and who has established one of the most reliably reactionary records in Congress. Jordan proudly identifies herself as an "outspoken advocate for women, working families, minorities, the poor and children." She says she's not proud of all the earlier choices she made in her life. "But they were choices I had to live with, and people get the benefit of your experience only if you tell them" (www.jordanforcongress.com).
BETTY McCOLLUM, Minnesota, District 4
Even before she won the Democratic Farmer Labor Party nod in a hard-fought, four-way primary to fill an open St. Paul-area seat, Betty McCollum had lined up support from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and other green groups that usually withhold endorsements until after nominations are settled. It wasn't that her foes were so bad but rather that McCollum was so good. She was a leader in the fight to secure funding for one of the first urban wetlands restoration projects in the country. And as a member of the Environmental Policy and Environmental Finance committees of the Minnesota House, she earned a national reputation for developing and advancing innovative legislation to combat air and water pollution, destruction of natural habitats, urban sprawl and environmental racism. McCollum, who continued to work as a clerk at a St. Paul department store during her years as a legislator, is outspoken in her support of living-wage initiatives, organizing rights for unions and protections for working women. Normally, her labor, feminist and environmentalist backing would be enough to secure victory in this liberal district. But McCollum faces a tough race against a former Democratic prosecutor running as the candidate of Governor Jesse Ventura's Independence Party and a well-funded conservative Republican state senator (www.mccollumforcongress.org).
MARYANNE CONNELLY, New Jersey, District 7
Abortion is supposed to be too "dangerous" an issue for candidates in close Congressional races to touch--especially Democratic candidates seeking to grab suburban seats previously held by conservative Republicans. But Maryanne Connelly is breaking the political rules, putting her support for abortion rights front and center in her campaign to win the New Jersey seat being vacated by Republican Senate candidate Bob Franks. "I believe every woman should have the right to choose.... It's no place for the government to be involved," says Connelly. Her tough talk did not endear her to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which endorsed her primary opponent, a more pliant pol backed by powerful political machines in the region. But Connelly's emphasis on women's rights, gun control and campaign finance reform gave her the edge in the primary. In her general-election campaign against a conservative Republican, Connelly continues to eschew compromise. A former police commissioner in her hometown of Fanwood, she is fiercely critical of the NRA, promising to fight to require that all handgun owners--"just like all automobile owners"--must register their guns, have a photo license and pass a safety test (www.connellyforcongress.com).
GERRIE SCHIPSKE, California, District 38
Gerrie Schipske wasn't supposed to be the Democratic nominee against moderate Republican incumbent Steve Horn for a Long Beach-area House seat. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insiders had groomed a young, not particularly political teacher--whose chief qualification appeared to be the fact that she had been featured on national television programs as an innovative educator--for the race to reclaim the historically Democratic seat. But Schipske, a nurse practioner, lawyer and healthcare policy consultant to the Service Employees International Union, won a primary upset with backing from labor and the district's large gay and lesbian community. Allies including Congressman Barney Frank have worked with labor and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to keep Schipske, who is openly lesbian, even with Horn in fundraising. She is in an uphill fight, but, says Frank, "She's serious, she's progressive, she's got a chance to be elected, and if she wins she will immediately be a leader in Congress on healthcare issues" (www.schipske4congress.org).
SUSAN BASS LEVIN, New Jersey, District 3
Susan Bass Levin, a first-time Congressional candidate who has served four terms as mayor of Cherry Hill, doesn't try to be all things to all voters. When the House voted to cut $32 million from the Clinton Administration's civil rights enforcement budget, she angrily condemned the move as an affront not just to minorities but to women, noting that "working families already lose more than $4,000 a year on average because women do not receive equal pay." The founder of a statewide fundraising network to elect pro-choice Democratic women, Levin has thrown a scare into GOP incumbent Jim Saxton. A relative moderate, Saxton for years cultivated links with labor--so much so that after he voted with labor against granting China permanent normal trade status, the state AFL-CIO executive board recommended that unions remain neutral in the Saxton-Levin race. Not a fan of neutrality, Levin sought a roll-call of unions. She won the endorsement by a 4-to-1 ratio, capitalizing on her years of work with local unions to promote pay equity, minimum-wage increases and expansion of worker health and safety programs. "I'm an activist," says Levin. "That's why I signed on to being an elected official" (www.levinforcongress.org).
MIKE KELLEHER, Illinois, District 15
If first-time candidate Mike Kelleher wins an upset victory in his race for an open Congressional seat, it will be on the strength of a paper clip. His better-known and better-funded opponent, Tim Johnson, is a veteran GOP legislator who should be coasting to victory in a rural district with a long history of sending conservative Republicans to Congress. But Johnson got caught using a paper clip to hold in place the button that recorded his legislative votes, making it possible to appear to be present when he was absent. Kelleher, an Illinois State University professor originally regarded as a sacrificial lamb, has juxtaposed Johnson's slacker service against the work ethic of the farmers, factory hands and smalltown shopkeepers who form the core of the district's electorate. Kelleher is airing commercials that feature a construction worker trying to paper-clip shut his lunchbox, and he's launched a www/timspaperclip.com website. He backs up his populist appeal with attacks on HMOs, drug companies and paper-clip pushing Republicans (www.kelleher2000.com).
DAVID WU, Oregon, District 1
Few members of Congress were better positioned to stamp their return ticket to the House with a single vote than David Wu. The first-term Democrat from Oregon represents an international-trade-reliant West Coast district where the politically powerful business community was chomping at the bit to capitalize on "free trade" with China. But Wu, the first person of full Chinese ancestry ever elected to Congress, chose his commitment to international human rights over the easy route to re-election; he voted against the permanent normal trade relations bill, which brought to an end annual Congressional review of China's human rights record. Wu was one of only a handful of West Coast Democrats to do so. Retribution was swift. High-tech corporations in his Portland-area district--a region known as the Silicon Forest--began pouring money into the campaign of Wu's challenger, right-wing Republican State Senator Charles Starr. Wu is standing firm, telling reporters, "If the voters of Oregon decide to send me home for [the PNTR vote], I'll have to live with that. But I'd rather turn my back on the office than turn my back on my principles" (www.wuforcongress.com, http://www.house.gov/wu).
MARYELLEN O'SHAUGHNESSY, Ohio, District 12
In a Columbus district where a quarter of the population is African-American, City Councilor Maryellen O'Shaughnessy is working to build a multiracial coalition by positioning herself as a contender who won't lose sight of the need to strengthen the federal commitment to education, healthcare and senior programs. "I know how hard it is to make ends meet," says O'Shaughnessy, who put herself through college working night jobs and in recent years struggled to care for her ill mother. Running in a GOP-leaning district against a state representative who has received maximum backing from retiring conservative icon John Kasich and national Republicans, O'Shaughnessy has driven her opponent to distraction by expressing a mother's horror at his legislative votes against programs designed to protect low-income children from lead poisoning. "This woman deserves to win," says Representative John Conyers, who campaigned in Columbus for O'Shaughnessy. And, he adds, "I'm convinced that if she wins, Democrats retake the House" (www.meos2000.org).
As Bush and Gore battle for the Northwest, Nader's power grows.
The sound of Wrecking Ball (Elektra), Emmylou Harris's 1995 album produced by former Brian Eno/Neville Brothers associate Daniel Lanois, drew me back toward her. But it was her fiercely energetic if unevenly recorded live disc, 1998's Spyboy (Eminent), and the tour that followed with her postpsychedelic power trio that made me want more for the first time since Harris started singing trios with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. I went back and listened to Elite Hotel and Pieces of the Sky (Reprise) and Luxury Liner (Warner Bros.), her early country rock-outs with the Hot Band, which she mostly inherited from the late Gram Parsons (who'd mostly stolen it from Elvis Presley). And even 1972's GP and 1973's Grievous Angel (both Reprise), the two albums on which she duetted with Parsons. Parsons, of course, is the man who turned the Byrds (and subsequently all of Los Angeles) toward what became country-rock, founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, partied (and co-wrote songs) with the Rolling Stones, elevated Harris to national attention and in 1973 was found dead (of coroner-ruled "natural causes") in a motel in Joshua Tree, California. Friends stole his body and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
How rock and roll can you get? Parsons, never widely famous, became a cult figure. Harris went on to conquer Nashville, continuing the vector Parsons had sketched in his crossover country lilts like "Hickory Wind," "Wheels" and "Sin City" ("On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain"), all of which became minor classics. She went deep into it, performing at the Ryman Auditorium and so on. Her pretty, soulful, folky voice with the surprisingly resilient country-meets-blues cri de coeur got under my skin less as it settled into Nashville's more predictable contours. I was waiting for the shakeup, for the rock in country-rock to re-emerge and maybe even, with luck, take over.
That's what happened on Wrecking Ball and Spyboy. Fired first by Lanois's Eno-inspired wall-of-sound approach, then by her interracial power trio (guitar whiz Buddy Miller, bass monster Daryl Johnson, agile drummer Brady Blade), Harris didn't so much tear up her country roots as reinfuse them with another set of musical ideas. It was the sound of a perceptual door opening.
And now there's Harris's first studio disc since Wrecking Ball, this time via arty Nonesuch Records, home of the sleeper hit Buena Vista Social Club. Yeah, there may be ironic hay to be made by somebody (not me) out of the fact that Nonesuch has made its bucks as the trendy yuppie label of the eighties and nineties, marketing leather-and-lace Eurotrash hits like the Gypsy Kings. The label's stock in trade is (justly) its critically ratified, near-automatic intellectual heft and its consequent ability to target boomers who scan the Sunday Times each week for what to absorb.
They could do a lot worse than Harris's Red Dirt Girl, most of which--rarely, for her--she wrote herself.
It's a cliché that most people in America want someone else's life. Ever since the Gold Rush was augmented by Hollywood and John Steinbeck's Depression, California has been the golden wet dream for Americans' imaginings of new identities, the place where you could retool yourself and ditch the nasty nagging past you might someday have to answer for--or to.
Yet Harris has been a kind of bellwether of pop music's directions partly because she's so rooted in her past; she's aware of where changes of direction are likely to blow in from. When she started singing with Parsons, country and rock hated each other; over the past decade, as her boomer generation has settled comfortably into middle age, country stars have sounded like the Eagles, who were glossing pages from Parsons's book. Before the current refashionability of bluegrass and that already gone moment of alt-country, Harris was there. On Red Dirt Girl, she connects the dots between the sixties, Springsteen and the post-Hendrix production style that Lanois has refined.
You could argue that Red Dirt Girl updates Hendrix by way of electronica, but with a (relatively) conservative ear cocked backward, for the boomer audience's sake. The entire album is a potpourri of styles, somehow overstuffed and lavish and rippling with suggestive overtones even when it's spare. On the title track, for instance, wisps of overdriven guitar leak almost discreetly into the corners of the soundstage, a sympathetic echo of successive dislocations in the lyrics. Multiple basses rumble and snort through "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," reflecting the disoriented but overwhelming focus shaping the singer's emotions. Every cut finds sounds spurting, drifting, poking or sizzling into the deeply textured stereo image, with unexpected and sometimes unsettling results: bits of shock, humor, recognition. Repeatedly, jigs and reels, the staples of Appalachian-descended country, get bushwacked and overlaid or saturated with fuzz and wah-wah washes and distant, jangly electric piano and guitars--of course, always guitars, of every aural hue and cry.
The guitar, rock and roll's conceptual anchor, is the symbol that links Harris and Springsteen. Consider her in-concert staple, "Born to Run": Not Springsteen's song, it takes an angle on male-female relationships that puts the woman in the rock-and-roll driver's seat. In fact, the title track of Red Dirt Girl is a very Boss-like tale of doppelgängers, one of whom gets stuck in the old hometown:
Nobody knows when she started her skid
She was only 27 and she had five kids
Coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills
Coulda been the dreams she was tryin' to kill
But there won't be a mention in the News of The World
About the life and the death of a Red Dirt Girl
Who never got any further across the line than Meridian.
Like Springsteen and Tom Waits, Harris often imagines the characters in her songs as people (or aspects of herself) she's left behind. But in contrast to America's standard-issue California dreamin', she doesn't want to erase her past or disappear beneath each new persona. Which is one of several reasons Gram Parsons hovers, never far, from her music.
"Michelangelo," the CD's second cut, is yet another in a long line of Harris tunes that invoke his ghost, the tragic figure of the flawed genius surrounded by his past choices, via a melody that could have come out of Leonard Cohen and a spare but textured aural background speckled with rumbling bass and acoustic guitar strums and jet-stream wisps of overdriven feedback. "Tragedy" sets its tensions between industrial drumming, a clutch of guitars (including a floating pedal steel) and Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa on backup Everly-Brothers-go-rhythm-and-blues-flavored vocals after the Boss-ish opening: "Some say it's destiny/Whether triumph or tragedy/But I believe we cast our nets out on the sea/And nothing we gather comes for free."
That sense of responsibility is why Harris doesn't erase history, no matter how she may recast it in literary or imaginative terms. ("Bang the Drum Slowly," a eulogy for her father co-written with Guy Clark, is unabashedly sentimental and biblical, for instance, with an e-bow winding through it like a church organ.) It's also why, along with the likes of Springsteen and Waits, she has struggled with the theme of redemption time after time, whether singing refurbished old hymns in her soaring vibrato or switching to more profane journeys taken from her own and others' searching. Understanding, guilt, salvation and love are bound together in lines like these from "The Pearl": "Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world/Until we behold the pain become the pearl."
It's a story older than that of Piers Plowman, but it may seem quaint in a day when the word "character" has been vastly reduced in meaning, when the world seems like a welter of wannabe victims lining up for a camera shot. The process of living leaves us scarred, as it did Michelangelo, but that's the price. Cameos come relatively cheap. On the other hand, there's always the twilight solace of Prozac Nation.
Startlingly produced by Malcolm Burn (who engineered and mixed Wrecking Ball), featuring a dozen or so musicians (also including Dave Matthews and Jill Cunniff), Red Dirt Girl is roughly two-thirds dynamite, one-third breathing space. Sonically, it never stops pushing into those post-Hendrix wah-wah soundscapes, including telephone rings and background conversations, tunes starting with the whirr of a tape machine being turned on--a deliberate carelessness of sonic references from outside the soundstage that paradoxically underscore that stage's fierce integrity. Conceptually, the album does what the best country music (which it only vaguely is) has always done: tells us stories about where we come from and warns us to look twice about where we're going.
For Harris never forgets for long our only inevitable destination--which is one big reason you might call this music for grown-ups. Sure, it's boomer music, so there's inevitably some nostalgia, but in Harris's capable, determined, ironic hands, the disc raises more questions than it settles neatly down to bed. And you can hum nearly all of it through the jabs at the job and downers from your parents and/or kids and adrenaline rushes of joy and outbreaks of road rage and those late, ominously clear and sparkling nights when everyone else is finally out cold and you're rhapsodically wishing you had a telescope.
Harris is on tour now. Don't miss her.
Now that Karyn Kusama's much-heralded Girlfight has opened, I figure it's time to catch up with the 1999 releases and review On the Ropes. And since I've been so slow to write about this documentary, which has long since vanished from theaters, the first thing to say is that you shouldn't hesitate to watch it on video. That's how On the Ropes was shot, by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: with a handheld Sony, which the filmmakers carried through the streets and courtrooms of Brooklyn and into the New Bed-Stuy Gym, where a deeply impressive man named Harry Keitt was devoting himself to training amateur boxers.
The second thing you should know about On the Ropes is that these boxers were not living the easy life. One of them in particular, a young woman named Tyrene Manson, was destroyed right in front of Burstein and Morgen's camera, not by a ring opponent but by the police and the court system. Since Manson is real--whereas the young Brooklyn boxer who is the heroine of Girlfight springs from Kusama's imagination--let me explain the case in some detail.
Manson, a tough and wiry piece of work, was training at the time for the Golden Gloves, and going at it with extraordinary good cheer, considering her less-than-ideal circumstances. When not sparring or doing roadwork, she was busy caring for two young nieces, since her crackhead uncle couldn't be bothered. Unfortunately, Manson had no place to live except in this same uncle's house. Credible evidence suggested that she'd been trying to relocate herself and the girls; but there she was when the cops broke in. As expected, they found illegal drugs lying about, along with any number of Uncle Randy's friends and colleagues. And so, on the grounds that she'd been breathing the same air as these people, Tyrene Manson was arrested for possession with intent to sell. A few shufflings of paper by a court-appointed lawyer, a grunt or two from the judge, and off she went to prison, on the very day she'd been scheduled to fight in the Golden Gloves. Watch On the Ropes and see it happen.
It's certainly possible for fiction to convey the horror of such a situation--the messiness, the outrage, even the element of self-undoing. (Much to Manson's detriment, the controlled aggression she used in the ring became flailing belligerence in court.) For an example, I turn to the opening chapters of Tolstoy's Resurrection. But I don't think of Girlfight, a well-acted and well-directed feature with a screenplay written on tissue paper. Dab your eyes with it, if you will; but blow your nose with caution.
The one substantial element of Girlfight is its lead actress, newcomer Michelle Rodriguez, who grabs your attention and holds it from the minute she comes onscreen. She's first seen in an effective dolly shot, as she leans against a locker in a busy high school corridor. As the other kids go by, crossing left and right, the camera pulls closer and closer to the immobile Rodriguez, whose head is lowered but whose attitude is plain to read in the combat fatigues she's wearing. At last, when she's in close-up, she lifts her face and glares straight into the camera, her eyes steady and dangerous beneath the parapet of her brow. The expression is reminiscent of the young Muhammad Ali; and the framing of the shot, from chin to forehead, brings out the resemblance between one pretty, round-faced, pouty-lipped fighter and another.
Rodriguez is here to play Diana Guzman, a young woman who's about to be kicked out of school for throwing too many punches at her classmates. Chronically enraged by her beer-guzzling father, chronically furious at the world's flouncy women, Diana doesn't need the Board of Regents curriculum. What she wants is a school for her anger--and she finds one at last when an errand takes her to a local gym, where Hector (Jaime Tirelli) trains young men to box. Will he train her? Ten dollars an hour, growls the stubbled, straw-hatted Hector, with a gruffness that will grow avuncular over the next 90 minutes, just as surely as Diana's talents will prove to be natural.
The liveliest moments that follow are those in which you see Diana training. Kusama has a sure instinct in these scenes for camera placement and editing--in that sense, she's a natural--and she knows she's got two great subjects in the craft of boxing and Rodriguez, whose every movement seems powered from the pit of her stomach. When Rodriguez is called upon to get gooey with a fellow boxer (Santiago Douglas), she's convincing; but she's fascinating when she bobs and weaves, works the speed bag, practices her combinations or walks into the room with an insolent roll to her left.
All this makes Girlfight a thoroughly watchable picture, right up till the closing shot, in which Diana, who is taking comfort in an embrace, is photographed so the calluses stand out on her knuckles. A nice touch; I just wish the screenplay had a few calluses of its own.
I didn't expect Kusama to make Hector as sorrowful, patient and determined as Harry Keitt, the trainer in On the Ropes; I didn't think she'd make Diana as compelling and doomed as Tyrene Manson. But does a boxing picture--especially one that's focused on a woman--really need to tie itself up in a pink bow? All of the viewer's presumed wishes are fulfilled: Diana gets to be a warrior, her brother Tiny gets to be an artist, the brutal father gets his comeuppance and the sensitive hunk gets to prove himself a better kind of man. Had Kusama done any more to flatter a liberal audience, Girlfight would have ended with a November victory rally for Nader.
I wish Kusama well; with a lot of toughening, she might be a contender. But on my scorecard, I give the decision to On the Ropes. Reality wins every round.
And now, for a different kind of girlfight:
Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman have so much fun with their roles in The Contender, a new inside-the-Beltway movie, that I sometimes imagined I was having a good time, too. Bridges, playing President Jackson Evans, uses his biggest, most blustering manner to give the character the sort of person-to-person skills for which Lyndon Johnson was famous. When dashing another politician's career hopes, President Evans signals his indifference by idly lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. When staging a sensitive meeting, held in the White House bowling alley, he tests his guests' mettle by giving his shoes a sniff. Such is the liberal Democratic hero of The Contender. The conservative Republican villain is Representative Shelly Runyon of Illinois--in Oldman's interpretation, a small, nervous, owl-eyed man with a sparse fringe of curly hair. Runyon looks like a desiccated Roberto Benigni, talks in hiccups and grins like Fred Leuchter, the engineer of execution machinery who was the focus of Errol Morris's Mr. Death.
But as it happens, neither of the big guys is meant to carry The Contender. That unhappy task falls to Joan Allen, in the role of Laine Hanson: a Democratic (formerly Republican) senator from Ohio who has been nominated to replace the recently deceased Vice President. Runyon, catching a whiff of affirmative action in this nomination, commandeers the confirmation hearings, vowing to do everything possible to stop Hanson. Everything, in this case, includes an Internet-launched smear campaign, accusing the nominee of having courted popularity in college by accepting the sexual advances of an entire fraternity. When shown the photos, Joan Allen compresses her lips and says she won't dignify these accusations with a response. And that's the end of the fun, for her. Allen spends the rest of the picture with her spine frozen and her mouth locked in frostbite.
A strange torture for the filmmaker to impose--to constrain the lead actress's every move, while letting the men run free--when the ostensible purpose of The Contender is to advocate greater career opportunities for women. But then, muddle-headedness seems to be the very method of this picture. The smallest exchange of dialogue yields confusion. (According to one of Runyon's aides, "We have to gut the bitch in the belly." Where else would you gut her? In the foot?) The longest speeches may cause headache, dizziness and fatigue, and should not be listened to while operating heavy machinery. There are two of these doozies--one apiece for Hanson and Evans--each accompanied by a swell of patriotic music; and if you can make sense of the political program they announce, in ringing Capra-corn fashion, then you might be the right therapist for Al Gore's multiple-personality disorder.
Of course, the grandest muddle of all is the premise. First The Contender tries to whip up some topical interest by evoking the richly pornographic impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Then the movie asserts that Laine Hanson's ordeal is unique, because sexual smears aren't used against men.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you can gut a woman in the foot.
The Contender was written and directed by Rod Lurie, who used to be a film critic. I don't know what this means to you; but for me, it's a lesson in humility.
Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers's America's Forgotten Majority has been credited with convincing Al Gore last summer to adopt a populist campaign strategy built around "working families" and the mantra, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people." Republicans immediately accused the Vice President of "class warfare," and Business Week worried that Gore's rhetoric was tapping into a broad "anti-business" public mood. Pundits thought (or hoped) there would be a backlash among "suburban independents," but thus far none is visible.
Though Gore is a highly ambiguous class warrior and has skillfully targeted only the most egregious (and unpopular) corporate powers, this is a bold and welcome turn toward class politics in the United States. And though Ralph Nader and the revitalized political operations of the AFL-CIO undoubtedly deserve some credit too, there's a chance that Teixeira and Rogers have helped do for the Democrats what Kevin Phillips's "Southern strategy" did for the Republicans in 1968 and beyond.
What have they done? Simply pointed out what Michael Zweig calls "America's Best Kept Secret"--that the majority of Americans are "working class," not "middle class," and that failing to realize that simple fact leads to a cascade of illusions, both political and otherwise. This is the larger point that will endure, regardless of how Gore's populist strategy works in November (if, indeed, he sustains it until then). We cannot get our politics right, or our economics and culture, for that matter, until we have a better, more consistent grasp of the vagaries of class in our society. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters and The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, each very different in its concepts and details, lay a strong social-scientific foundation for bringing social class out of the closet and making it a permanent part of our public discourse.
Teixeira and Rogers's contribution lies most completely in their political arithmetic, which emphasizes the importance of class and unionism as well as race and gender. When they extend from that, their sense of what they call core working-class values is thinner and less accurate, in my view, and their policy prescriptions are too narrowly focused on this year's election and contain what would be a crucial strategic error if put into practice. But their arithmetic is clear and compelling, and Zweig complements and strengthens their analysis in the other areas.
The arithmetic begins by dividing voters into a "middle class" and a "working class," based on one clear and simple characteristic--the possession or lack of a bachelor's degree. About 30 percent of voters have one, while the vast majority (the working class) do not. Teixeira and Rogers understand that both income and occupation are also relevant to understanding class dynamics, but information on them is not consistently available in the voting data, and, besides, there is such a strong correlation between college education, occupation and income that it doesn't matter much for their purposes. "Managerial and professional workers," for example, are much more likely to have bachelor's degrees and are paid from 34 percent to 140 percent better than other workers; they, like the "college-educated," with whom they overlap so strongly, are about 30 percent of the labor force.
Teixeira and Rogers next divide voters into the Democratic base (union households, blacks and Hispanics) and, by implication, the Republican base (nonunion whites). In 1996 the Democratic base constituted one-third of voters, while nonunion whites made up the other two-thirds of the electorate; the base voted 66 percent Democratic, while the much larger group of nonunion whites gave Democrats about 40 percent of their vote. This combination was enough for Clinton to win without a majority, but the basic arithmetic condemns Democrats to a hard struggle to get from marginality to deadlock, at best, until they can win at least half of the white, nonunion working-class vote. Thus, the subtitle "Why the White Working Class Still Matters," to which should have been added "Particularly the Nonunion Part."
This calculus gets trickier and trickier, but the payoff is worth it. When Zweig speaks of a "working-class majority" based on occupation, he includes white, black and Hispanic, both union and nonunion. Teixeira and Rogers emphasize this same overwhelming working-class majority, but what they most often refer to as "the Forgotten Majority" is not truly one: Once all blacks, Hispanics and union whites (groups that contain large working-class majorities) have been set aside as part of the Democratic base, this Forgotten Majority--white nonunion workers without a bachelor's degree--is actually only 45 percent. But this does make them the single largest group in the electorate, and, what's more, they are the real swing vote in US politics today. Using 1996 figures, Teixeira and Rogers's map of the electorate looks like this:
This breakdown of the electorate is the single most valuable aspect of America's Forgotten Majority. The nonunion white working class is such an enormous part of the voting populace that, though an important part of the Republican base, it produced more Democratic votes than any other group of voters. Gaining a percentage point among the Forgotten Majority, then, is worth more, numerically, than two or three points among any other voter group. (In a tactic that has helped win them mainstream attention, Teixeira and Rogers laboriously show how the Republican, Reform and Green parties might win the Forgotten Majority, but their main analytical effort is directed at Democrats.)
Teixeira and Rogers are primarily geared to argue against the New Democrat notion of suburban "soccer moms" and "wired workers" as the crucial swing vote in US politics. They show conclusively that this group (the college-educated) is simply too small and not volatile enough to constitute the key "suburban independent." White, nonunion, college-educated men are, in fact, the immovable base of the GOP, nearly as solidly and consistently Republican for the past half-century as black voters have been for the Democrats. White, nonunion, college-educated women represent more appealing ground--indeed, they've been an important part of what's kept the Democrats competitive for the past twenty years--but Teixeira and Rogers see little room for growth there. Conversely, the nonunion white working class is the true "suburban independent," constituting three-fifths of suburban voters. What's more, these voters "were far and away the most volatile segment of the electorate...the real 'swing voter'" of the nineties. They're the ones searching for a new politics because, until the past few years, their median family income was stagnating and their average real wage was declining.
Within this group, Teixeira and Rogers pay special attention to nonunion working-class white men, partly because the Democrats have more room to grow among them than with Forgotten Majority women, and partly because they have been particularly fickle at the polls over the past decade. Even more important, however, is that this particular working-class group--not protected by a union, a bachelor's degree or affirmative action--has lost much ground in wages and benefits over the past quarter-century, while often being culturally and politically lumped into the "white male" power structure with whom they share little but the color of their genitalia.
In fact, nonunion white working-class men constitute a large group that is politically open to having its existence remembered and appealed to. Teixeira and Rogers point out that this group of white men is nearly twice as numerous as the New Democrats' "soccer moms" and that "simply breaking even among these forgotten majority men would be equivalent to achieving landslides among...college-educated white women."
The Teixeira-Rogers analysis contains bad news for progressive Democrats as well--those who, like me, thought that registering and turning out more blacks, Hispanics and union households could lead to a majority. A great deal of effort has gone into this strategy, and it has by no means been in vain. Blacks, particularly in the South, and Hispanics, particularly in California, are a stronger presence in the electorate, and the difference between the union household vote at 19 percent of voters (as it was in 1994) or at 25 percent (the AFL-CIO goal this year) would have meant the difference between Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt. But for the Democrats to achieve a ruling majority (the White House plus large majorities in both the House and Senate), a mobilized class-based appeal to the nonunion white working class would be necessary.
Teixeira and Rogers are somewhat less convincing in arguing against a gender-gap strategy targeted on nonunion white working-class women, who by themselves make up more than a quarter of all voters. It's hard to rule out efforts that would bring nonunion working-class white women into a broad coalition with blacks, Hispanics and union households. But how could Democrats do that without a class-based appeal that would attract Forgotten Majority men as well as Forgotten Majority women?
Affirmative action and the right to choose, both of which are usually cast in terms most appealing to college-educated women, have probably gained Democrats just about all they can among working-class women. Thus, Teixeira and Rogers argue, "the best approach to mobilizing the forgotten majority lies in universalist, transracial issues that should have substantial appeal to the Democratic base as well." These include issues like universal healthcare, starting with children; saving the Social Security guarantee without cutting benefits or increasing payroll taxes while adding a government subsidy to encourage wage workers to save (and invest); increasing the earned-income and childcare tax credits and expanding family and medical leave; and reducing school class size while increasing construction and teacher salaries. Also important are tight labor markets and strengthened worker rights, things that could make organizing a union less formidable while tending to increase wages and job security in the meantime.
This, of course, is pretty much the Gore-Lieberman program, as prefigured in Clinton's last two State of the Union speeches, though Teixeira and Rogers would do it all at a much greater magnitude. Where they disagree with Clinton-Gore-Lieberman--on affirmative action--they are wrong. But here's where Michael Zweig's broader economic-class analysis can lend a hand.
Zweig argues for a class-based politics as well and is equally compelling in pointing out the limitations of racial and gender-identity politics. But he wants to complicate and supplement identity politics, not eliminate it. Zweig is very clear that any working-class agenda that implicitly denies the continuing importance of racial and sexual injustice is doomed to fail for the most traditional of reasons: It divides the working class precisely along lines where it is most easily divisible. Though Zweig is open to the possibility of a class-based affirmative action supplementing the existing, racially based kind, he's opposed to any further relaxation of the current affirmative action regime--which has already taken a beating nationally in both jurisprudence and legislation.
Teixeira and Rogers make a huge mistake, in my opinion, when they advocate the replacement of race-based affirmative action with a class-based version. (They say nothing about gender-based affirmative action, which affects a majority of voters, but presumably it would disappear as well.) Their intention is to unify people around class interests, but the predictable impact would be exactly the opposite. Few issues in US politics play so differently at the symbolic level versus the level of actual details. There are many legitimate issues to discuss about particular programs in higher education and for specific work categories like police, fire and construction, but the issue of fairness in the details is never as simple as the widespread but false assumption that there exists some kind of sweeping government-ordered quota system based on nationally legislated group rights. President Clinton's phrase "mend it, don't end it" defended affirmative action (and thereby the continuing problem of racism and sexism) at the symbolic level while legitimizing discussion of the details. Challenging that Clintonian consensus by reopening the symbolic debate is not a winning political strategy, precisely because it forces people to choose between their race or gender interests and those of their class. If your goal is to split the Democratic base from the Forgotten Majority, this is exactly how to do it.
The larger point is one that Zweig makes particularly well. Class in America deserves special attention right now because it has been so thoroughly neglected for so long; but a class-based politics needs to be built on and around the achievements of the civil rights and women's movements, not counterposed to and made competitive with them. The whole point of "universalistic, transracial" political programs is to convince white working-class men that they can advance their interests better by adding key government assistance to all workers, not by subtracting it from blacks and women. The progress of working-class blacks and women, on the other hand, is currently stymied by the absence of a class politics that can complement (and maybe even revitalize) the fight for racial and sexual equality.
Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics. He sees labor unions playing a central role in such a movement and is particularly enthusiastic about the AFL-CIO's "organizing for change, changing to organize" strategy.
A plain-spoken economist, rigorous thinker and clear writer, Zweig defines the American class structure basically by occupations and the amount and kind of power people have in the workplace. In this schema, there are three classes: a "capitalist class," defined by ownership and control of giant profit-making enterprises; a "working class," defined by a lack of power at work and in society at large; and a "middle class" of managers, professionals and small-business owners who have a degree of autonomy and influence at work that makes them different from the working class but nowhere near as powerful as the capitalists.
If this sounds like classic Marxism (capital, labor and the petty bourgeoisie), don't let that distract you. Zweig never mentions "relations of production" or any of the other key Marxian concepts that have been transformed into mind-numbing sectarian jargon over the past half-century. The Working-Class Majority is, in fact, a refreshing restatement of the classical Marxist view, but it is updated by its delicate analysis of occupations in the United States today and by its post-cold war refusal to call for the elimination of the capitalist class. Rather, Zweig charts a politics based on the understanding that over the past two or three decades the capitalist class has again achieved the kind of overweening power, both nationally and internationally, that was once at least partially checked by strong labor movements and progressive governments. Unchecked, the capitalist class, often despite its best intentions, will systematically make life worse for workers and eventually even undermine capitalism's splendid (but ultimately unsustainable) ability to create wealth.
No one has claimed that Al Gore's campaign theme "They're for the powerful, we're for the people" was influenced by Zweig's analysis, but Gore's rhetorical emphasis on the power of "the few" is consistent with the kind of politics Zweig is after. In the end, the current Democratic policy package, though a minimalist version, moves exactly in the direction Zweig and Teixeira and Rogers want. The difference is that their complementary class analyses offer a much more expansive sense of possibility for US politics and, taken together, a wider range of options, in both thought and action, for achieving that possibility. They are also part of a larger trend in academic thought (much of it organized around the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University) struggling toward a fresh framework for consistently remembering the working-class majority.
Both books suffer from their lack of attention to the professional middle class (which includes all three of them, as well as me and most of the readers of this review), the real cultural power we have as a class and the differences between us and the working class. Teixeira and Rogers's "core working-class values," with their emphasis on "individual achievement," sound suspiciously middle class to me, and this both oversimplifies and distorts their analysis. Likewise, Zweig's principled refusal to discuss incomes grossly underestimates the power of money in a capitalist society. "Rich" and "poor" are key terms in the vernacular sense of class because everybody realizes that the size of your income makes a huge difference in the kind of life and prospects you have.
Neither of these books adequately links its social-scientific terms and statistics with the common conception of class in America. It's also a bit embarrassing to praise two books for calling attention to a "working class" they define so differently. But each, in richly textured detail, systematically destroys the debilitating vernacular notion that almost everybody (all those who are neither "rich" nor "poor") is "middle class." This notion is so spectacularly false that precise definitions don't matter. What's important to understand is that there is a college-educated professional and managerial "middle class," and we have been doing quite well for the past two decades, whether we're white, black or other; and there is a much larger "working class" (of various races, genders, incomes and occupations, union and largely nonunion) that has been struggling and, for the most part, losing ground for most of that time. The problem with lumping all of us together into a ubiquitous "middle class" is that they tend to disappear, and we tend to think that their experience, interests and values are just like ours.
The connotations of "middle class" in the US vernacular almost always include "college educated" and "comfortable standard of living." Thus, the totemic "soccer mom" is regularly envisioned as a computer support specialist married to a systems analyst (two of our fastest-growing occupations), with a minivan and a family income approaching $100,000. She's actually much more likely to be a clerical worker married to a retail salesman (two occupations growing even faster), with a family income of $42,000 and a six-year-old Chevy Cavalier. A politics that does not recognize and speak to the real soccer moms is doomed to confusion and failure. One that consistently does, on the other hand, has many more possibilities for progressive change than is dreamt of in the dominant philosophies.
However varied their styles, poets writing in English today still rely on the early-twentieth-century Imagist principles of clarity, directness, presentative imagery and rhythm based on cadences. Although Imagism, revolutionary in its time, gathered force from several classical traditions, Chinese poetry was at the forefront.
Now, Crossing the Yellow River shows anew the vitality of classic Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill's collected translations contains beautiful versions by more than sixty poets, from the Shih Ching, or "Classic of Poetry" (10th century-600 BCE) through the eighth-century masters, Tu Fu, Li Po and Wang Wei, to the sixteenth-century poet Wang Yang-ming.
As W.S. Merwin writes in his elegant introduction, Hamill's translations stand in a long tradition of modern versions of classic Chinese poetry, notably Arthur Waley's 170 Chinese Poems of 1918. Merwin adds: "Sam Hamill's work, like Waley's, represents a lifetime's devotion to the classic originals, which survived in a long, subtle, intricate current."
Earlier than Waley's work, Ezra Pound's slim book Cathay (1915) was a landmark in poetry as well as in translation from the Chinese. Pound's contemporaries valued the tactile images and the musical freedom based on the concurrence of sounds rather than on rhyme and fixed stress counts. Still, his versions were marred by inaccuracies (such as referring to the "River Kiang" as though the river had a name, when actually the word kiang means river). "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," an essay written by Ernest Fenollossa and edited by Pound, introduced a new poetic method in which clusters of images and ideas (similar to what is conveyed in Chinese written characters) would take the place of the old logic and sequence of European poetics.
Following Pound's directness and musical freedom, Hamill returns to form, but in a far more natural way than did Pound's Georgian predecessors. For example, in translating the work of Tu Fu (712-770) Hamill observes the couplet that follows syntactical parallelism, as in "The palace walls will divide us/and clouds will bury the hills" ("Taking Leave of Two Officials"). Rightly the tone supersedes regularity of meter and rhyme, but in his
approximation of original forms he uses assonance, consonance and near-rhyme. (Caveat: I can compare English versions but since I do not read Chinese, I must rely on intuition, as well as the work of scholars elsewhere.)
The poems are radiant. "Taking Leave of a Friend," by Li Po (701-762), reads in its entirety:
Green mountains rise to the north;
white water rolls past the eastern city.
Once it has been uprooted,
the tumbleweed travels forever.
Drifting clouds like a wanderer's mind;
sunset, like the heart of your old friend.
We turn, pause, look back and wave.
Even our ponies look back and whine.
Li Po evokes the torment of emotional ambivalence with startling truth. The first two couplets contain natural images in motion, capturing the wanderer's intention: mountains that rise, water that rolls, tumbleweed that travels. The second set of couplets present images of fixity that also imply mortality. He is compelled to roam and he is attached--as are we all.
Here is the title poem of this collection, "Crossing the Yellow River," by Wang Wei (701-761):
A little boat on the great river
whose waves reach the end of the sky--
suddenly a great city, ten thousand
houses dividing sky from wave.
Between the towns there are
hemp and mulberry trees in the wilds.
Look back on the old country:
wide waters; clouds; and rising mist.
The metaphor, crossing the river, implies boundaries between present and past, change and habit, youth and the sense of aging (the latter prevalent in this anthology). By and large, the poets here attempt not the big emotion, which by itself can be intimidating, but the smaller fissures of that emotion. They deal with innuendoes, with truth relayed as it is in common speech, through bits of information, through sudden juxtapositions, through offhand observations of nature. From T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore down to the present, this kind of emotional accounting prevails: I think immediately of poems such as Moore's "The Paper Nautilus," Eliot's "Preludes," Philip Levine's "Milkweed" and Karl Kirchwey's "In Transit," among others.
Li Ch'ing-chao (1084-1151), is one of the book's few poets known to be a woman. Hamill notes that she was one of China's greatest and also "one of the most influential critics of her age." "To the Tune: Boat of Stars" brings back to me Ezra Pound's remarkable adaptation of Li Po's "The River Merchant's Wife." Her poem begins:
Spring after spring, I sat before my mirror.
Now I tire of braiding plum buds in my hair.
I've gone another year without you,
shuddering with each letter--
I'm intrigued, too, by the work of an earlier poet, Tzu Yeh (fourth century). Like the speakers of the early Anglo-Saxon poems, such as "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Lament," the personae often are of women, but the author is unknown. The poems are brief, even slight, but their wit leaves room for growth in the reader's mind. Here, for instance, is "A Smile":
In this house without walls on a hill,
the four winds touch our faces.
If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I'll try to hide my smile.
Hamill's revised translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a third-century ars poetica, reveals practices that are valuable for our time. More than a handbook, it counsels the mind and the spirit, which are all of a piece with style in Confucian Chinese thought. From Lu Chi's poetic treatise come these important maxims:
As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven
Although each form is different,
each opposes evil:
none grants a writer license.
Language must speak from its essence
to articulate reason:
verbosity indicates lack of virtue.
Some of Lu Chi's injunctions are familiar ground rules:
Only through writing and then revising
may one gain the necessary insight.
Others are subtle but immensely meaningful:
Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!
Emotion and reason are not two:
every shift in feeling must be read.
The wen of Wen Fu means literary arts. In Confucian China, Hamill tells us, writing was inseparable from morality in that truth meant naming things. The fu is the form, whose syntactic parallelism strikes this listener as having affinities with passages in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Song of Songs.
As in the poetry anthology, Hamill's ease conveys profound ideas and intricate images with simplicity, naturalness and directness. The Wen Fu has appeared in other translations. When I was a teenager trying to write poetry, a family friend gave me for my birthday a desk dictionary and the Bollingen edition of E.R. Hughes's Lu Chi's Wen Fu, AD 302, which includes the document's history as well as a translation. I read it, but not happily, for the writing is ponderous. On the other hand, Hamill's prose is a fresh breeze.
Hamill is founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and a prolific author--the latest and best of his own poetry collections is Gratitude (1998). In "Discovering the Artist Within," he tells a disconcerting but lifting story of how he came to poetry. Orphaned at the age of 2, adopted, later beaten and sexually molested, he grew up to commit unlawful acts. Throughout his difficult early adulthood, though, he held to his literary talent as to a life raft. Among the contemporary poets whose work saved him and his writing were the Beat poets, Gary Snyder and especially Kenneth Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems From the Chinese Hamill thanks in his new volume. It was from Rexroth he learned the discipline that poetry required. Three years in Japan--two in the Marines and one on a fellowship--added to his expertise as an Asian linguist as well as to his Zen practice.
Devotion aside, these books will endure. Their tone is a combination of zest, generosity and humility. "We are fortunate to live during the greatest time for poetry since the T'ang Dynasty," Hamill writes in his introduction to Crossing the Yellow River, aware that the classic Chinese poems capture the essence of today's practice. His humility is apparent from the last sentence of his introduction, an impassioned stance for our casual age: "I sit at the feet of the great old masters of my tradition not only to be in a position to pass on their many wonderful gifts, but to pay homage while in the very act of nourishing, sustaining and enhancing my own life."