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September 16, 2002 | The Nation

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September 16, 2002

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Karen Olsson highlights appalling working conditions in the meatpacking industry, Eric Schlosser examines problems of tainted beef and Naomi Klein explains why the Johannesburg summit is failing.

Letters


MORE FUN THAN A BARREL OF...

Princeton, NJ

In an accurate review of Jonathan Marks's loosely argued What It
Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee
, Micaela di Leonardo passes on to readers
the misleading impression that the Great Ape Project uses the genetic
similarities between humans and apes to argue for "human rights" for
apes, "frequently to the detriment of the impoverished African and
Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands" ["Too Much Monkey Business,"
July 8].

This is false from start to finish. First, the Great Ape Project is not
based on the genetic similarities of humans and great apes but on the
rich emotional and mental lives of the great apes, so well documented by
supporters of the Great Ape Project like Jane Goodall and many others.

Second, the Great Ape Project does not seek the full range of human
rights for great apes, but only the basic rights to life, liberty and
protection from torture, and even the rights to life and liberty that we
seek are not absolute, for they allow euthanasia in the interests of the
apes, and captivity where that is in the best interests of the apes or
is required for the safety of others. Finally, the protection of the
remaining, and rapidly dwindling, forests of Africa and Southeast Asia
where the great apes live in their natural habitat is, surely, also in
the best long-term interests of the human residents of those regions.

Readers interested in finding out more about the project for themselves
may go to www.greatapeproject.org.

PETER SINGER


DI LEONARDO REPLIES

Evanston, Ill.

You've got to hand it to notorious headline-grabbing philosopher Peter
Singer, who has endorsed infanticide for disabled human babies, claimed
we can solve global poverty by just consuming a little less and donating
as individuals to aid agencies (no need, apparently, to complicate
matters by considering capitalist functioning and state and NGO actions)
and called for a revision of taboos against bestiality since "sex with
animals does not always involve cruelty." Now how exactly can he hold
his mouth to call Jon Marks's 98% Chimpanzee loosely argued?

What is so refreshing about Marks's work is that he is a hard scientist
who really understands that we live and act within a shifting political
economy. Animal and ecosystem conservation and human rights for the
impoverished who live in surviving great ape territories in Africa and
Southeast Asia need not be antithetical projects, but Marks quotes
numerous Great Ape Project activists who believe they are, including the
zoologist who chillingly said to him, "Think percentages, not numbers"
in weighing Southeast Asian human vs. ape rights. Others frequently
liken apes to human children or mentally retarded adults. And Singer is
most disingenuous in claiming that the GAP does not argue on the basis
of genetic similarity. The group's official website clearly argues for
apes' inclusion with humans in a "community of equals" because they (and
Singer co-wrote this statement) "are the closest relatives of our
species."

The issue, as Marks makes crystal clear, is not whether apes are
adorable, interesting, endangered and in need of aid--of course they
are--but how we use science to make political arguments. "Why should the
mentality of apes have any bearing on their humanness (or lack thereof)
or their rights (or lack thereof)? If you lose the ability to reason and
communicate, do you...forfeit your humanity and rights? This is a scary
moral place for apes and people to be.... Human rights should neither be
forfeitable nor accessible by nonhumans.... Singling out particular
classes of people in order to show how similar they are to apes is a
troubling scientific strategy, not least of all when the humans
rhetorically invoked are the very ones whose rights are most
conspicuously in jeopardy."

Disability groups and others quite rightly have weighed in en masse
against Singer, but nonhuman primates, too, deserve a better, more
rational advocate.

MICAELA DI LEONARDO



THIS IS A TEST. THIS IS ONLY A TEST...

Santa Barbara, Calif.

Eighty years ago, journalist Walter Lippmann took on the standardized
testing enterprise in The New Republic, addressing such broad
issues as the effects of education, opportunity and heredity on test
scores. For example, Lippmann dismissed the claim that IQ tests measure
hereditary intelligence as having "no more scientific foundation than a
hundred other fads, vitamins and glands and amateur psychoanalysis and
correspondence courses in will power." His articles on testing continue
to be valued today not merely because he could turn a phrase but because
he had a firm grasp of the complex technical and political issues
surrounding the use of test scores.

Alas, Peter Sacks is no Walter Lippmann. To Sacks, who reviewed my book
Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher
Education
["Testing Times in Higher Ed," June 24], the issues are
simple: Tests are evil; eliminating them is good. Sacks has undoubtedly
been aware of my work because I have pointed out errors and omissions in
his writings on testing; in fact, I do so in my book. He ignores large
portions of the book in order to characterize it as "a defense of the
hegemony of gatekeeping exams." A reader of the review might be
surprised to find that my book proposes a new consumer agency to monitor
admissions testing, discusses the perils of relying too heavily on test
scores in admissions decisions and describes research, including some of
my own, in which test scores did not do a good job of predicting
subsequent grades.

Rather than attempt to address every inaccuracy, I will focus on a
central feature of Sacks's review--his belief that the existence of
score disparities among ethnic and economic groups proves that
admissions tests are biased. In Fair Game? I point out that
determining whether tests are biased is complex and requires a
willingness to look beyond patterns of average test scores. In
Change (March/April 2001), I commented on Sacks's earlier
Change article, "Standardized Testing: Meritocracy's Crooked
Yardstick": "[Sacks] cited several studies to prove that SAT scores and
socioeconomic status are related, and alluded to [a study conducted by
the National Center for Education Statistics]. What he neglected to
mention is that this study showed that socioeconomic status was also
related to high school grades... [and to course background, teacher
evaluations and extracurricular activities]. In particular, 24 percent
of the high-SES group, compared to only 10 percent of the low-SES group,
had high school [grade-point averages] of at least 3.5..."

What the GPA and the SAT have in common is that they are indexes of
previous achievement and therefore reflect past inequalities in
educational opportunity. In The Nation (June 5, 2000), Pedro
Noguera and Antwi Akom noted that "explaining why poor children of color
perform comparatively less well in school is relatively easy:
Consistently, such children are educated in schools that are woefully
inadequate on most measures of quality and funding."

Sacks omitted the findings on grades and other achievement measures from
his book and from his Change article. Presenting the complete
results would have undercut his position that some inherent property of
tests causes the scores to be related to economic factors. (Including
all the findings might have also required him to abandon his pet phrase,
"the Volvo effect," which he uses to refer to the association between
family income and standardized test scores.)

In addition, Sacks is incorrect in implying that class-rank admission
plans like the Texas 10 percent plan, which involve consideration of
high school grades but not test scores, have uniformly led to greater
campus diversity. The Dallas Morning News, for example, reported
on June 19, 2002, that at Texas A&M, the percentages of black and
Latino students have decreased since the initiation of the Texas plan.
As I point out in my book, the plan is structured so that diversity
benefits are likely to accrue to the state's flagship institution, UT
Austin.

Finally, in response to Sacks's criticism that my writing is
textbookish, I readily concede that I lack his ability to generate
catchy phrases like "Volvo effect" and "crooked yardstick." But clever
labels are a poor substitute for thoughtful consideration of the
controversies that surround the use of standardized tests.

REBECCA ZWICK


SACKS REPLIES

Boise, Idaho

In response to my criticisms of her new book, Rebecca Zwick takes aim
at the reviewer. She says I believe that "tests are evil; eliminating
them is good." It's not surprising she'd make up this straw man, since
attacking it also sums up the entire marketing strategy behind her book.

Zwick--a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the firm
that produces such standardized tests as the SAT--and her publisher have
touted Fair Game? as a source of objective information about
testing, positioned to clear up all this testing fuss with common sense
and straight facts. If one chooses to look at a different or broader set
of facts than she does, or to interpret them with a non-ETS spin, Zwick
seems to imply that one must then be a simpleton and an ideologue.

Zwick tries to make hay of the finding that high school or college
grades, just like test scores, also correlate strongly to socioeconomic
status. Not recognizing this, as Zwick takes pains to do in her book, is
to unfairly single out standardized tests as punitive to poor and
minority kids, Zwick claims.

Like so much of her book, Zwick seems to miss the big picture. The
thrust of my entire critique of the testing culture--and her book--is
that gatekeeping tests give questionable weight to one-time performance
on highly abstracted testing exercises, which by definition are mere
approximations of genuine work. And mostly poor approximations, at that.
Given this, it's no wonder that test scores are such feeble predictors
of later success, whether in school or work.

Just as Bates College and other institutions have done, with great
success, in their efforts to reduce the importance of admissions tests,
I'll take classroom performance--as measured by grades, portfolios of
student work and other documentation of student accomplishments both in
and out of school--any day over test performance as an indicator of how
a student will perform in real life, not the tested life.

Regarding the Texas 10-percent plan, Zwick says I'm incorrect in
implying that de-emphasizing the SAT has led to greater diversity for
all state institutions. In fact, I'm not implying any such claim in the
context she quotes. I draw on data only from the University of Texas at
Austin. Zwick speculates that the plan has merely reshuffled the deck in
terms of statewide enrollments of minorities. If Zwick wants me
or another reviewer to take her seriously on this point, she'd better
offer up something of substance or do some real analysis. In her book,
Zwick could only muster up this: "Data on the statewide effect of
the Texas 10 percent plan are hard to come by."

What can she possibly mean with such a vague statement? That university
officials are trying to hide some dirty little secret? Does it mean that
there are no campus-specific enrollment data broken out by race and
ethnicity? Seems improbable. Or could it mean that Zwick could find no
readily available studies by credible researchers that support her claim
that enrollments have merely been redistributed from other state
campuses to Austin? But even a boatload of data needs a theory, an
explanation of what the data mean. Alas, Zwick offers readers no
theoretically plausible explanation whatsoever as to why minority
enrollments might be expected to decline across the state as a result of
reducing the emphasis on SAT scores. In fact, there's every reason to
expect just the opposite.

As for textbookishness, that is certainly no major offense. Sign me up
any day for a dry but forthright book about testing in America.
Regarding Zwick's curious reference to me and Walter Lippmann, I won't
touch that one with a ten-foot number-2 pencil.

PETER SACKS

Editorials

The August 26 speech by Vice President Dick Cheney at the Veterans of
Foreign Wars convention in Nashville has made at least two things clear:
first, that the Bush Administration is fully committed to launching a
war against Iraq with the aim of removing Saddam Hussein, regardless of
UN efforts to insert weapons inspectors; and second, that the
Administration will brook no dissent on this matter from Congress or
senior figures in the Republican Party. "At bottom," Cheney declared,
those who favor caution and delay in removing Saddam are advocating a
dangerous path "that could have devastating consequences for many
countries, including our own."

The intolerance of dissent expressed by Cheney is symptomatic of the
assumption of imperial warmaking powers by George W. Bush and his
coterie of close advisers. Bush himself acknowledged this trend in his
response to a number of senior Republican leaders--including noted
conservatives like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and
former Secretary of State James Baker as well as US special Mideast
envoy, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni--who have expressed qualms
about his plans. "I am aware that some very intelligent people are
expressing their opinions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq," he told
reporters at his Texas ranch on August 16. "I listen very carefully to
what they have to say. But America needs to know, I'll be making up my
mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own
country plus our friends and allies."

There have, of course, been occasions when a sitting President has
assumed warmaking powers with little regard for the views of Congress or
the general public. US forces were already involved in Vietnam when
Lyndon Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, and
George Bush Senior acquiesced in a two-day Senate debate on US
intervention in the Persian Gulf only after 550,000 US troops had been
deployed on the perimeter of Kuwait. Even so, George W. Bush has
surpassed his predecessors in the assumption of imperial powers--most
conspicuously, perhaps, in his tendency to conflate America's war
against terrorism with his own existential destiny. "I will not forget
this wound to our country," he told the nation shortly after September
11. "I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this
struggle for freedom and security for the American people." In assuming
this pivotal role, moreover, Bush has made it clear that he will allow
no bounds on his exercise of national power.

From this, it's a short step to other manifestations of imperial
decision-making, such as the August 26 opinion by White House lawyers
that Bush does not require Congressional approval for an attack on Iraq.
Supposedly, the 1991 resolution secured by the elder Bush for Operation
Desert Storm is sufficient. "We don't want to be in the legal position
of asking Congress to authorize the use of force when the President
already has that full authority," a senior White House official told the
Washington Post.

The assumption of imperial powers is also reflected in the President's
tendency to mislead the public: He has repeatedly declared that he has
not yet decided whether to use force in removing Saddam and that he is
prepared to entertain nonmilitary options, but this flies in the face of
growing evidence of a substantial buildup of US forces in the areas
surrounding Iraq and the reports of frantic efforts by the Defense
Department to produce a winning strategy for the assault on Baghdad
(doubters are encouraged to compare the January and June 2002 satellite
photos of the new US military air base in Qatar posted at
www.globalsecurity.org).

And then there's the President's obvious disdain for the views of our
long-term allies, who argue for putting UN inspectors into Iraq before
anything else. This by no means exhaustive catalogue should trouble all
Americans who believe in the democratic process and the preservation of
constitutional limitations on the power of the executive. American
freedom and democracy cannot coexist with an imperial presidency.

"In the Roman empire, only Romans voted. In modern global capitalism,
only Americans vote," declared George Soros in June. "Brazilians do not
vote."

He spoke too soon. With only weeks remaining till the presidential
election on October 6, Workers Party (PT) candidate Luis Inacio Da
Silva--"Lula," as he is popularly known--is still leading in the polls.
His closest competitor, Ciro Gomes, is an ordinary politician whose rise
to second place was fueled by harsh populist rhetoric against the IMF,
neoliberalism and the economic failures of the current administration.
The ruling party's candidate, José Serra, is a distant
third--despite Soros's claim that Brazilians had no choice but to elect
him.

The Wall Street-Treasury Complex, as Columbia economist Jagdish Bhagwati
has named the IMF and its private sector allies, won't be able to pick
the president this time. So they are going for second best: choosing the
policies. On August 19 President Fernando Henrique Cardoso met with the
contenders and tried to rope them into pledging support for continuing
IMF policies over the next three years. "The candidates," he told the
press, "whether they want to or not, will have to commit to these [IMF]
agreements."

We'll see about that, too. The IMF recently approved a $30 billion loan,
with most of it to be disbursed in installments next year. The idea is
that the IMF can cut off the flow of money if the new government
deviates from its program of fiscal and monetary austerity. That's the
way it usually works, but this time Imperial Rome may not get to choose
the policy any more than the proconsul.

Why not? First, Brazil has an explosive debt burden. The IMF's latest
loan was intended to stabilize Brazil's bond and currency markets, so as
to prevent a default before the election. It will also help US banks,
which have outstanding loans of more than $25 billion in Brazil, to get
some of their money out, on more favorable terms, before the collapse.
(The IMF may as well have written the check to Citigroup, FleetBoston
and J.P. Morgan Chase.) But it will not prevent a default.

The default--or "restructuring," if it takes place in an orderly,
negotiated manner--will make plain to everyone the failure of the
Cardoso/IMF model in Brazil. Since 1994 growth has been rather
slow--about 1.3 percent in per capita income annually. At the same time,
the public debt has soared relative to the economy--from 29 to 60
percent of GDP. And this was on top of $100 billion worth of
privatization, a massive raiding of public assets that should have
helped government finances significantly. The country's foreign debt has
also swelled. This is truly an enormous mortgaging of the country's
future, with very little to show for it. For Cardoso to lecture the
current candidates about fiscal austerity is like Ronald Reagan and
George Bush Senior--who presided over a similar record-breaking debt
run-up in the United States--telling their successors to please keep the
deficits down.

The business press seems to have missed the irony of all this, and
instead has blamed Lula's rise in the polls for the current financial
crisis. That, they say, has spooked investors, causing the currency to
fall (26 percent so far this year), foreign credit to dry up and the
country's risk premium to soar to the level of Nigeria's. But this
picture confuses the event that triggered the crisis with the actual
cause. Just as the accounting and corporate scandals did not cause the
stock market collapse in the United States--stocks were overvalued
relative to any conceivable economic future and had to crash sooner or
later--Brazilian bond prices aren't falling because Lula is ahead in the
polls. The real reason for the financial crisis is that the smarter (or
more risk-averse) bondholders have done the necessary calculations and
concluded that Brazil cannot pay its debt. Although some gamblers will
hang on to collect high returns in hope of jumping ship at the last
minute, default is inevitable.

But that's no reason for Brazil to surrender its democracy to Washington
and Wall Street. The PT has a reasonable reform program: lower domestic
interest rates (now set by the central bank at 18 percent, among the
world's highest), some support for domestic industry and small and
medium-sized agriculture, and a "zero hunger" program, including food
stamps, for the poor.

Brazil used to have one of the fastest-growing economies in the world:
From 1960 to 1980, income per person grew by 141 percent. From 1980 to
2000 it grew by 5 percent, or hardly at all. This is the story of
Brazil's neoliberal experiment. It is similar throughout most of the
region: hence the spreading political unrest. A Workers Party victory
could change the history of Latin America.

Lula might just be the right person for the job. Born into an
impoverished peasant family in one of the poorer areas of Brazil's
Northeast, he confronted hardship and hunger, and by the age of 12 had
to go to work. He rose through the ranks of the metalworkers' union and
was jailed for labor activism during the military dictatorship. He was
elected to Congress in 1986, where he helped win some important
provisions for workers' rights, healthcare and education in the new
(postmilitary) Constitution. Tens of millions of poor and working people
in Brazil identify with both his personal and political struggle against
the injustice of one of the world's most unequal societies. He has been
compared to Nelson Mandela, fighting to bring the poor of Brazil out of
economic apartheid. And the PT also has considerable support among those
in the educated classes, many of whom recognize that the party's program
makes more economic sense than the slow-growth, high-interest-rate,
explosive-debt scenario of the past and present.

But winning the election is only half the battle. One reason the IMF is
so eager to postpone the inevitable until after the election is so it
can threaten the new president with default if he doesn't knuckle under.
If he wins, Lula and the PT will have to explain to the country that
they didn't create this mess and stick to their program as the way
forward. It won't be easy, but it can be done.

The Scandal of Our Food Safety System

When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much
goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the
Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up
conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit
on Sustainable Development can save the world--the question is whether
the summit can even save itself.

The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call "implementation" and the
rest of us call "doing something." Much of the blame for the
"implementation gap" is being placed at the doorstep of the United
States. It was George W. Bush who abandoned the only significant
environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference, the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to
Johannesburg (even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the
issues being discussed here--from basic sanitation to clean energy--are
low priorities for his Administration. And it is the US delegation that
is most belligerently blocking all proposals that involve either
directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant
new funds to sustainable development.

But the Bush-bashing is too easy: The summit isn't failing because of
anything happening now in Johannesburg. It's failing because the entire
process was booby-trapped from the start.

When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to
chair the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive
gathering that brought all the "stakeholders" to the table--not just
governments but also nongovernmental organizations (environmentalists,
indigenous and lobby groups) as well as multinational corporations.
Strong's vision allowed for more participation from civil society than
any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented
amounts of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola
donated its marketing team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth
Summit watch). But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio
with clear conditions: They'd embrace ecologically sustainable practices
but only voluntarily--through nonbinding codes and "best practices"
partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the
business sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business
was pushed off.

In Johannesburg, these "partnerships" have passed into self-parody, with
the conference center chock-a-block with displays for BMW "clean cars"
and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing Water Is Forever. The
summit's main sponsor is Eskom, South Africa's soon-to-be-privatized
national energy company. According to a recent study, under Eskom's
restructuring 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each
month.

And this cuts to the heart of the real debate about the summit. The
World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate lobby
group founded in Rio, is insisting that the route to sustainability is
the same trickle-down formula already being imposed by the World Trade
Organization and the International Monetary Fund: Poor countries must
make themselves hospitable to foreign investment, usually by privatizing
basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare. As in Rio,
these corporations are pushing for voluntary "partnerships" rather than
"command and control" regulations.

But these arguments sound different from a decade ago. Post-Enron, it's
difficult to believe that companies can be trusted even to keep their
own books, let alone save the world. And unlike a decade ago, the
economic model of laissez-faire development is being militantly rejected
by popular movements around the world, particularly in Latin America but
also here in South Africa.

This time around, many of the "stakeholders" aren't at the official
table but out in the streets or organizing countersummit conferences to
plot very different routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to
the privatization of water and electricity, reparations for apartheid
abuses, affordable housing, land reform. The most ambitious is the Week
of the Landless, a parallel event arguing that unfulfilled promises to
introduce substantive land reform--in South Africa and across the
postcolonial developing world--have been the single greatest barrier to
sustainable development globally.

Key to these movements is that they are no longer willing simply to talk
about their demands--they're acting on them. In the past two years,
South Africa has experienced a surge in direct action, with groups like
the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People's Movement,
Durban's Concerned Citizens' Forum and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction
Campaign organizing to resist evictions, to claim unproductive land and
to reconnect cut-off water and electricity in the townships.

A mass demonstration is planned for August 31, but the fate of the march
is by no means certain. The South African government appears to have
decided that if nothing else comes of it, the summit is at least an
opportunity "to change misconceptions about safety and security in South
Africa...[and] attract the attention of foreign tourists and investors,"
in the words of Provincial Police Commissioner Perumal Naidoo.

What this means in practice is that while street signs welcome delegates
to "feel the pulse" of "the Sensational City," Sandton, the ultrarich
suburb where the conference is being held, has been transformed into a
military zone, complete with "mega search park" and remote spy planes
patrolling the skies. All protests are confined to a 1.8-kilometer
"struggle pen," as many are calling it, and even there, only
police-permitted marches are allowed.

Vendors and beggars have been swept from the streets, residents of
squatter camps have been evicted (many have been relocated to less
visible sites, far from busy roads). Moss Moya, a township resident
facing eviction from his home of eighteen years, holds out little hope
that the summit will help South Africa's poor. "If they are going to
help us," he said, "they need to see us."

But when Moya and his neighbors held a rally to resist the attempts to
relocate them behind a grove of trees, the police cracked down, and
Moya, a former ANC supporter, was shot in the mouth with a rubber
bullet, knocking out six of his teeth. When he went to file a complaint
with the police, he was thrown in jail.

Moya and some 1,000 other township residents decided to take their
struggle to downtown Johannesburg, holding a peaceful rally outside the
offices of the Premier of Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is
located. Right underneath a sign that announces, The People of Gauteng
Welcome WSSD Delegates to the Smart Province, seventy-seven
demonstrators were arrested, including the entire leadership of the
Landless People's Movement. (All but one--a US citizen, still facing
deportation--have since been released.)

On August 24, police even attacked a candlelight "freedom of expression
march," held to protest these and other mass arrests. The spontaneously
organized march was headed to a downtown prison, but before the crowd of
1,000 local and international activists had walked a block, riot police
surrounded them and barricaded the road. Without warning, stun grenades
were fired at the marchers, injuring three.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development isn't going to save the
world; it merely offers an exaggerated mirror of it. In the gourmet
restaurants of Sandton, delegates are literally dining out on their
concern for the poor. Meanwhile, outside the gates, poor people are
being hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what has become the
iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to
disappear.

Columns

scheer

In the dreams of Dick Cheney, to which I am not privy, I imagine there are boldly contrasting scenes of victory and despair.

Minority Report

I have met three hijackers in my life, and I hope I do not sound crabby and disillusioned if I add that the standard of hijacking is not what it used to be.

Consider kids who bullied Richard Perle--
Those kids who said Perle threw just like a girl,
Those kids who poked poor Perle to show how soft
A mamma's boy could be, those kids who oft-
Times pushed poor Richard down and could be heard
Addressing him as Sissy, Wimp or Nerd.
Those kids have got a lot to answer for,
'Cause Richard Perle now wants to start a war.
The message his demeanor gets across:
He'll show those playground bullies who's the boss.
He still looks soft, but when he writes or talks
There is no tougher dude among the hawks.
And he's got planes and ships and tanks and guns--
All manned, of course, by other people's sons.

Music

America's rate of unwanted pregnancy is a huge public health scandal,
but five years after being approved by the FDA, emergency
contraception--the use of normal birth control pills to block pregnancy
within seventy-two hours of unprotected sex--has yet to fulfill its
potential. Part of the problem has to do with the difficulty of getting
EC in time; many doctors don't want the hassle of dealing with walk-in
patients, many clinics are closed on weekends and holidays (times of
peak demand) and some pharmacies, like Wal-Mart's, refuse to stock it.
That anti-choicers falsely liken EC to abortion and tar it as a
dangerous drug doesn't help.

The main barrier to EC use, though, is that most women don't know what
it is. To spread the word, Jennifer Baumgardner and I have written an
open letter explaining how EC works, how to get it and why women should
even consider acquiring it in advance. If every Nation
reader with access to the Internet forwards it to ten people and one
list, and those people do the same and on and on, it could reach
thousands, even millions of women. Like ads for Viagra, only not spam.
Activism doesn't get much easier than this!

An Open Letter About EC

The one thing that activists on every side of the abortion debate agree
on is that we should reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. There
are 3 million unintended pregnancies each year in the United States;
around 1.4 million of them end in abortion. Yet the best tool for
reducing unwanted pregnancies has only been used by 2 percent of all
adult women in the United States, and only 11 percent of us know enough
about it to be able to use it. No, we aren't talking about
abstinence--we mean something that works!

The tool is EC, which stands for Emergency Contraception (and is also
known as the Morning After Pill). For more than twenty-five years,
doctors have dispensed EC "off label" in the form of a handful of daily
birth control pills. Meanwhile, many women have taken matters into their
own hands by popping a handful themselves after one of those nights--you
know, when the condom broke or the diaphragm slipped or for whatever
reason you had unprotected sex.

Preven (on the market since 1998) and Plan B (approved in 1999), the
dedicated forms of EC, operate essentially as a higher-dose version of
the Pill. The first dose is taken within seventy-two hours after
unprotected sex, and a second pill is taken twelve hours later. EC is at
least 75 percent effective in preventing an unwanted pregnancy after sex
by interrupting ovulation, fertilization and implantation of the egg.

If you are sexually active, or even if you're not right now, you should
keep a dose of EC on hand. It's less anxiety-producing than waiting
around to see if you miss your period; much easier, cheaper and more
pleasant than having to arrange for a surgical abortion. To find an EC
provider in your area, see www.backupyourbirthcontrol.org,
www.not-2-late.com or ec.princeton.edu/providers/index.html.

Pass this on to anyone you think may not know about backing up their
birth control (or do your own thing and let us know about it). Let's
make sure we have access to our own hard-won sexual and reproductive
freedom!

The Things You Need to Know About EC

EC is easy. A woman takes a dose of EC within seventy-two hours of
unprotected sex, followed by a second dose twelve hours later.

EC is legal.

EC is safe. It is FDA-approved and supported by the American College
of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

EC is not an abortion. Anti-choicers who call EC "the abortion
pill" or "chemical abortion" also believe contraceptive pills,
injections and IUDs are abortions. According to the FDA, EC pills "are
not effective if the woman is pregnant; they act primarily by delaying
or inhibiting ovulation, and/or by altering tubal transport of sperm
and/or ova (thereby inhibiting fertilization), and/or altering the
endometrium (thereby inhibiting implantation)."

EC has a long shelf life. You can keep your EC on hand for at least two
years.

EC is for women who use birth control. You should back up your
birth control by keeping a dose of EC in your medicine cabinet or purse.

What You Can Do to Help

Forward this e-mail to everyone you know. Post it on lists, especially
those with lots of women and girls. Print out this information,
photocopy it to make instant leaflets and pass them around in your
community. Call your healthcare provider, clinic, or university health
service and ask if they provide EC. Spread the word if they do. Lobby
them (via petitions, meetings with the administrators, etc.) to offer EC
if they don't.

Make sure that your ER has EC on hand for rape victims and offers it to
them as a matter of policy. Many hospitals, including most Catholic
hospitals, do not dispense EC even to rape victims.

Get in touch with local organizations--Planned Parenthood, NOW, NARAL,
campus groups--and work with them to pressure hospitals to amend their
policies.

If you can't find a group, start your own. Submit an Op-Ed to your local
paper or send letters to the editor about EC.

Make sure your pharmacy fills EC prescriptions. Some states have
"conscience clauses" that exempt pharmacists from dispensing drugs that
have to do with women's reproductive freedom.

Articles

Kurds want Saddam Hussein gone but are wary about joining a US-led attack.

An antigay ballot initiative spurs some surprising political
coalitions.

Workers in the country's most dangerous industry are struggling for
safety.

US values rest historically on a spiritual foundation grounded in
nature.

Books & the Arts

Book

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW.
By Anthony Trollope.
Oxford. 1,024 pp. $11.95.

Film

The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted--also spotlessly clean and
glowing in the light of the golden hour--when the studio head takes the
movie director outside to tell him he's washed up. Those were great
dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they're
over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot
simulacrum of New York--and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him
to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the
last American auteur, who is being fired because he won't compromise,
we've seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like
Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for "Dysfunction" by Calvin Klein.

But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who's so pretentious
that he spells his first name "Viktor." The director receives a genie in
a bottle--or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard
drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian,
who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his
not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation
One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it
will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public's unconditional
love--after which it's only a matter of time before he's struggling to
shove the genie back into its bottle.

"Our ability to manufacture fraud," muses the director, "now exceeds our
ability to detect it." These words will do to sum up a theme that has
emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed
Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of
The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV
soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed
Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be
physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the
public's adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn't.
"Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia
Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel," raves one
critic about the new star. "Almost right," the director mutters.

You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony
political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the
impostors who populate Preston Sturges's movies, and so define the great
tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity,
projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to
be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into
his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the
director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine
Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge
how well his fantasies match reality.

It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas
consistently and well. But it does even more--because Viktor is
portrayed by Al Pacino. If you've seen him as the suffering detective in
Insomnia, you've had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can
be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much
the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come
out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director,
railing against those self-regarding actors who think they're more
important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a
porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone "acts" by mirroring her director's
gestures and speech--which means she's a Victoria's Secret version of
Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling
taffy.

I confess there were moments when I merely chuckled at Simone, or
smiled, or checked my wristwatch (during the meandering third act).
There were also moments--two of them--when I laughed till I wept. I
think that's reason enough to recommend Simone for a holiday
weekend's viewing--that, and the delight of discovering there's still a
moviemaker in America who can toss up three ideas and keep them all in
the air.

American moviemakers (including those who, like Niccol, come from New
Zealand) get a hard time from Jean-Luc Godard in his most recent
feature, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour). By
now, one particular sequence in that film has become notorious. A
certain Steven Spielberg wants to buy the life stories of an elderly
couple who were active in the French Resistance in World War II. The
couple's granddaughter bitterly denounces the project; but she is
silenced by Spielberg's negotiator, who comes not from DreamWorks but
the US State Department.

Although I don't want to overprotect Spielberg--he's probably capable of
defending himself--I admit I squirmed at this burlesque. But that was
just on first viewing. The second time through, having got my bearings
(which is no easy matter), I still disliked the too-facile choice of
target but could see it as something more than the product of old
Jean-Luc's crankiness. I now think it's part of a dense, thrumming
network of ideas, which concern resistance both with and without the
capital R.

Resistance against what, you might ask. Godard shows you some possible
answers and lets you sound out a few others. Here are homeless people
sleeping in the rain, in the world's most beautiful city. (The larger
portion of In Praise of Love, filmed in black and white, brings
Godard back to Paris as a location, for the first time in many years.)
Here are silent, shuffling workers, cleaning railroad coaches late at
night; here is a grim, spray-painted underpass, in one of the workers'
suburbs. And here, too, is a report about the recent massacres in
Kosovo, in case you forgot that mass murder still happens at your
doorstep. Let us agree there is something in the world worth resisting,
and something within ourselves, too--call it slackness, indecision,
indifference, a failure to create ourselves as adults. Resistance is
necessary; and resistance is impossible, the voices on the soundtrack
say, without memory and universalism.

I would suggest that "Spielberg" is the name Godard gives to a false
universalism: the omnipresent culture of Hollywood, which unites people
by offering them all the same fantasies about movie stars. What might
constitute a genuine universalism? Godard's protagonist, a would-be
artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), takes a stab at an answer when he
launches a project about love: its cycle of meeting, passion, rupture
and reunion; its different manifestations in youth, adulthood and old
age. An impossible project, for Edgar anyway. A perfect specimen of the
European mope--a descendant, you might say, of the screenwriter
character from Contempt--he's so weighted with historical memory
that he can't finish anything, let alone mount a resistance to
Spielbergism; so conscious of his cultural birthright that he can't love
the forceful Berthe (Cécile Camp) but can only pursue her and
then push her away.

This leaves Godard himself to love and remember and resist, in the best
way he knows how: by making something ravishing. In Praise of
Love
is an achingly beautiful picture, both in its initial filmed
section and in the later portion that was shot on video, with vibrating,
Fauvist colors. (The video section seems to take us into Edgar's memory,
where he has just met Berthe, where an orange sea crashes onto chocolate
rocks.) Every image is incisive; every cut to a fresh shot, musically
timed; every musical fragment, eloquent; every spoken line, evocative of
some new picture.

Still, I can understand why some people resist the autumnal beauty of
In Praise of Love. Its sense of melancholy can become oppressive.
(There are four suicides in the story, not counting the death of Simone
Weil.) The protagonist is insufferable (and is meant to be so, I think);
and the proliferation of allusions can make you feel like the slowest
student in Professor Godard's seminar room. As has usually been the case
in his later films, the characters speak almost entirely in quotations,
while hanging around settings that are themselves in need of footnotes.
Were Godard still interested in actors, you would at least have a strong
performance to help carry you through the quiz; but he hasn't cast
anyone with a personality since he put Depardieu into Hélas
pour moi
. To Godard, people are now just elements in the
sound-and-image mix. He's the sole actor.

And, of course, he is a brilliant actor. In Praise of Love may be
a kind of directorial soliloquy about loss and failure--including
cinema's failure to put up an adequate alternative to Hollywood--but
it's performed with such deftness and vigor that it can make the heart
soar.

Short Takes: In Satin Rouge, first-time feature director
Raja Amari gives us the tale of Lilia, a respectable widow in Tunis who
finds happiness through belly dancing. To get a hint of Amari's deadpan
methods, and of the magnificence of Hiam Abbass's performance as Lilia,
you need look no further than the opening shot. A 360-degree pan reveals
the details of a humble apartment, which is being briskly cleaned by a
handsome woman on the verge of middle age. Lilia dusts the mirror,
checks the surface to make sure it's clean and then belatedly notices
herself in the glass. As she does so, she begins to move to the music on
the radio. She unpins her hair, letting it flow over the shoulders of
her housedress; she dances; and then, just as simply as she'd begun, she
pins the hair up again and cleans her way out of the room. A woman
capable of such interludes might end up just about anywhere, to the
astonishment of both her daughter and the audience in the movie theater.
Lilia may well astonish you, too.

You may recall Liz Garbus as co-director of a fine documentary titled
The Farm: Angola, USA. She's back now with a new picture, The
Execution of Wanda Jean
, which was made for HBO but will have a
well-deserved theatrical run, starting September 6 in New York. The
picture follows convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen, her family, her
defense team and her victim's family over the final weeks of Wanda
Jean's life: from the preparations for her clemency hearing, to her
execution in January 2001, to her funeral. Garbus worked wonders in
winning the confidence of her subjects (as she also did in The
Farm
); and to her great credit, she chose to follow a genuinely
thorny case. On the one hand, prejudice seems to have played a role in
Wanda Jean's getting the death penalty: She was an African-American
woman accused of having killed her lover, Gloria Leathers. On the other
hand, Wanda Jean had previously done time for manslaughter, and she shot
Gloria outside an Oklahoma City police station. Those of us who oppose
the death penalty need to be able to look at cases like this, take a
deep breath and then say, "Even so." The Execution of Wanda Jean
is a tough movie, and a valuable one.

On April 14, my review of Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven
appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I finally
assessed the book thusly:

In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that
tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors
("sobbing embrace," "my heart fell in my chest") and clumsy similes
("like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time")
are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son's auto
accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come
without explication, and schmooze substitutes for action....There is too
much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song
Flung Up to Heaven
seems small and inauthentic, without ideas,
wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but
it isn't a song.

The review caused an immediate furor in the African-American community.
Subsequently, I was banned from participating in a reading and book
signing at Eso Won Books, the leading African-American bookstore in Los
Angeles, because of it. Two editors of the Book Review reported
that the publication had received a flood of letters, to date
unpublished. After months of taking phone calls and letters requesting a
response from me on the issues raised, I offer the following:

Critically reviewing the creative efforts of present-day
African-American writers, no matter their origin, is a minefield of a
task complicated by the social residuals of slavery and the shifting
currents in American publishing. Into this twenty-first century,
African-Americans are still denied full and open participation in the
larger culture absent the confusions and machinations of race. Thus, by
nature and necessity, our fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry
continue to be repositories for the complaints and resentments harbored
against the nation we love, as well as paeans to the courage, fortitude
and sacrifice of peers and forebears.

For those who need reminding, books by Negroes and other writers of
color were still largely found in the sociology and anthropology
sections of libraries and bookstores until the civil rights movement
(roughly 1953-69) was well under way. (The glory rush of pride, wonder
and dismay I felt whenever I stood before those sections has never been
forgotten. Too, in the children's section, boys' books were separated
from girls'.) In grade school, circa 1954, the year "under God" was
inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, works by Negroes were treated as
contraband if brought into class or onto the school ground, and were
confiscated by white teachers or administrators and the child
responsible given demerits or suspended.

Outside of home and church, creative writing by colored people did not
seem to exist except for those authors who occasionally appeared in
glossy coffee-table magazines or who were assigned classroom reading
during Negro History Week (becoming Black History Month in 1976). They
could be counted on two hands: Arna Bontemps, Paul Laurence Dunbar,
Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay,
Phillis Wheatley, Richard Wright and, later, James Baldwin and Lorraine
Hansberry. Of those then living, Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes and Wright
were invariably the designated cultural spokesmen for our race.

Buying their books was problematic, if not impossible. Books by "the
children of Ethiopia" were not widely distributed in Southern
California, no matter how famous the authors. To acquire them meant
leaving the ghetto to visit public libraries or (after weeks of hearing
the "hush-hush") borrowing from friends or relations, on one's solemn
oath to return the precious tome. Few Los Angeles bookstores featured
black literature, even in the sociology section, and by the end of the
1960s fewer than five such bookstores were said to be black-owned, the
longest-lived the Ligon's Aquarian Book Shop, casualty of the April 1992
rioting.

If there were more independent publishers in the mid-twentieth century,
few braved the economic uncertainty of carrying more than one or two
Afro-American authors, whose readership was circumscribed by the going
sociopolitical nasties. Black-owned presses, sans white patronage, by
and large had extremely short lives, never having exceeded a handful at
any given point (Black Classic Press, Broadside Press, Lotus Press,
Third World Press). Books by blacks had even less of a shelf life when
reviews--good or bad--failed to appear in the leading literary
publications of the day. Good reviews were the ideal, but bad reviews
(most, invariably written by whites) were welcomed if they generated
enough controversy to sell copies. The few black reviewers were usually
one of the ranking spokesmen (Baldwin, Wright, Ellison), occasionally
granted salvage or sponsorship of emerging kindred. Too, there was an
ideological divide between those considered to be writing for white
readers and those who wrote for blacks. The former received the greater
attention. Reviews appearing in the few black-owned publications
(Charlotta Spears Bass's California Eagle, W.E.B. Du Bois's
The Crisis or Robert S. Abbott's The Chicago Defender)
could not guarantee the author the crossover or white leisure-class
readership that generated lucrative book sales.

The truths of our daily lives defined the truths for our literature: We
were constantly discriminated against, monitored and censored. In
defense and support of Negro writers, book clubs, discussion groups and
writers' organizations emerged--in Los Angeles, Vassie May Wright's Our
Authors Study Clubs, the Black Writers' Guild (absorbed by the Writer's
Guild of America, west, to become the Committee of Black Writers) and
later, the International Black Writers' Association and the World Stage
in Leimert Park--but the majority of "folks" were reached via a
sophisticated version of America's mob-world network. Word of mouth via
the grapevine (a k a "the drum") was the primary news-and-reviews
resource, if gossip, rumor and speculation were its discounts. It was
and remains swifter than radio and television, as effective as the
Underground Railroad and--best of all--is uncensored by the white
establishment.

In 1963 Arna Bontemps published his American Negro Poetry
anthology, which reintroduced poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden,
Dudley Randall and those better known for their prose (H. Julian Bond,
Sterling Brown, Clarence Major, Jean Toomer, Margaret Walker, etc.). As
the political climate among America's Vietnam War-era youth became
increasingly radical, a new group seized the black literary podium, as
the more racially conscious scions of education, miseducation and
self-education converged in The Muntu Group (a k a The Black Arts
Movement). Many were included in Bontemps's ANP--Nikki Giovanni,
Ted Joans, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Larry Neal, Don L. Lee (Haki R.
Madhubuti) et al. Although he was originally from the LA community of
Watts, Bontemps's focus was on the Harlem Renaissance and the Midwest,
with exceptions from Texas and the old South, plus Bob Kaufman (the
black Rimbaud of San Francisco's Beats). Outside Bontemps's radar others
were rising--Ed Bullins, Lonne Elder III, Charles Gordone, Etheridge
Knight, Paule Marshall, Ishmael Reed, A.B. Spellman and Al Young. By the
end of the 1960s, popular fiction writers, too, were reaching audiences,
black and white--Donald Goines, Alex Haley, Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim,
John A. Williams, Frank Yerby--as a constellation of once-silenced
voices exploded into print, and onto screen and stage.

From the ashes of the August 1965 riots that scarred LA County, Budd
Schulberg's Watts Writers Workshop (Quincy Troupe, Kamau Daoud, Odie
Hawkins, et al.) reinforced the militant expressions of racial pride and
the spirited entitlement to unfettered speech defining those who
rejected self-censorship in hopes of attracting a white
readership--Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez and, later, Ntozake Shange. But
the price that most paid for this newfound freedom was scorching reviews
by white book critics, and having their work ignored for literary grants
and prizes. Knowing they were not exempt from the currents and trends
affecting all writers, many had long observed the games characteristic
of the literary life--cronyism, favoritism, patronage--and were becoming
equally adept at play. Impatient with the harsh and racist criticism
that truncated their literary careers, they answered via the grapevine,
making a demand for same-race interviewers and reviewers. Supported by
the leading black celebrities of the day and underwritten by a
riot-singed loosening of cultural constraints, African-American
reviewer-journalists began appearing in the print media.

What had begun with Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka,
Kansas
(1954) and the push for the desegregation of schools resulted
in the boom of black studies programs (Afro-American, African-American,
now Africana) in American colleges and universities throughout the
1970s--and other study programs tangential to the broadening of the
American cultural terrain. But by the 1980s, textbooks adopted for many
of these programs bore copyrights between 1968 and 1973, roughly
corresponding to the presidency of Richard Nixon (1969-74)--texts that
overlooked a third wave busily establishing themselves in and outside
the mainstream--Ai, Toni Cade Bambara, Xam Cartier, Cornelius Eady,
Charles Johnson, David Bradley, Toi Derricotte, C.S. Giscombe, Yusef
Komunyakaa, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Michelle Cliff, Michael S.
Harper, Audre Lorde, E. Ethelbert Miller, Alice Walker (who resuscitated
Zora Neale Hurston's works), John Edgar Wideman and August Wilson.

Since the 1970s America has produced the largest educated population in
its history, racism aside, Americans of color benefiting, despite the
givens. New writers have emerged from workshops and MFA and PhD programs
via whatever means necessary--affirmative action, grants, student loans
and scholarships--with "political correctness" and multiculturalism the
more obvious of mitigating factors. The publish-or-perish mandate of
academic life, in tandem with increases in the black middle class and
underclass, accelerated the outcry for cultural redress, as
African-American readers demanded literature that reflected their lives
and values. An explosion into print of new kinds of writing to satisfy
this boom market has followed, meaning an inevitable diversity of black
authors across genres. The pioneering Samuel R. "Chip" Delany and
Octavia Butler in science or speculative fiction, and Walter Mosley
(harking back to Himes) in the mystery/crime/suspense genre, have
created a tsunami of younger African-American writers eager to replicate
their successes (Nelson George, Gar Anthony Haywood, Nalo Hopkinson,
Barbara Neely, Gary Phillips, Sheree R. Thomas). J. California Cooper,
Terry McMillan and Gloria Naylor have inspired a new breed of women
novelists. Then there's the popular black romance or "trash" novel trade
(Pinnacle Arabesque, Holloway House and Signet).

Simultaneously, a fourth generation has emerged: Jeffery Renard Allen,
Paul Beatty, Eric Jerome Dickey, Trey Ellis, Ruth Forman, Lisa Jones,
Thylias Moss, Kevin Powell, Sapphire, Patricia Smith, Sister Souljah,
Lisa Teasley, Jervey Tervalon, Colson Whitehead. Not to be ignored are
the birth and entrenchment of a black academe--Houston A. Baker Jr.,
Percival Everett, Gloria Foster, Dr. Maulana Karenga, Nellie McKay,
Jewell Parker Rhodes, Richard Yarborough--and the emergence of black
social critics--Stanley Crouch, Henry Louis Gates, Earl Ofari
Hutchinson, Cornel West. A burgeoning black avant-garde claims
influences from the Absurdists to the Sublime and the Surrealists--Will
Alexander, Ricardo Cortez Cruz, Renee Gladman, Nathaniel Mackey,
Harryette Mullen and Giovanni Singleton.

A rap/hip-hop generation of writers influenced by Gil Scott-Heron and
The Last Poets includes young whites as well as the Nuyoricans (elders
Miguel Alguin, Papoleto Melendez and Nancy Mercado) and the slam
poets--including the acculturated who write and perform under a dominant
African-American influence, many yet to become substantial in
print--although that necessity may be dictated by the Internet, should
magazines continue to go online, or develop online versions, and should
e-zines continue to proliferate.

As this century begins, the vast depth and breadth of African-American
writing over the past fifty years make these categories seem arbitrary.
Another hundred authors could easily be added, plus an overlapping and
equally illustrious list of American writers of African heritage from
other parts of the Black Diaspora.

The number of writers identifying as African-Americans now outstrips the
available review media and bookstore shelves, placing emphasis and
stress on what does exist. Numerous small magazines now welcome work by
or on them (Another Chicago Magazine, Crab Orchard Review,
Massachusetts Review, Other Voices, Paterson Literary
Review
). The editors of African-American Review,
Callaloo and Obsidian, three long-lived culture-specific
journals, have done their best to document our progress faithfully, as
have the newer Black Issues, QBR: The Black Book Review
and Ishmael Reed's Konch. However, they have yet to approach the
career-making editorial power of The Atlantic Monthly, The New
York Review of Books
, The New York Times Book Review, The
New Yorker
and the like, which do not exclusively feature
African-Americans (those once dwarfed by the recently discontinued
Oprah's Book Club). Kalamu Ya Salaam's e-drum, an online
resource, encompasses and targets the entire African Diaspora, unlike
the nation's review media, which have failed to expand in response to
this explosion of talent. The staggering number of black writers across
disciplines suggests future potential for genre-specific magazines
(e-zines) and bookstores, online and off.

A search of the Internet yields more than 300 black book clubs and
discussion groups of fluctuating longevity nationwide (Book Divas,
Chat-n-Chew, Eye of Ra, Seven Sisters Sipping Tea, Twelve Black Women
& One Brother), some business-oriented, like Troy Johnson's AALBC
(African-American Literature Book Club), the Black Writer's Alliance and
Black Expressions--each with its own roster of frequently read authors.
The readers are hungry, and the potential market for mainstream reviews
of African-American literature is equally vast.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon any book reviewer to grasp these diverse
happenstances composing what was once simply summarized as "The Black
Experience." It is the duty of the reviewer to accurately portray,
critically summarize and convey them to potential readers regardless of
the varied heritages involved--in the assumed common language. The
ironic complexity of this task, no matter how savvy the reviewer, is
best illustrated when the quality of the work produced by black writers
is measured against that of whites using the criteria of excellence
governing standard English and its variants--Ebonics aside. Ideally, the
social context within which the work under review is created should be
factored in, but should that be done to the exclusion of the quality of
the writing? A number of reviewers, including many of the writers listed
above, are answering that question for themselves: Hilton Als, Jabari
Asim, Samiya Bashir, Daphne A. Brooks, Grace Edwards-Yearwood, Lynell
George, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Ron Kavanaugh, Julius Lester, Quraysh Ali
Lansana, Arnold Rampersad, Angeli Rasbury, Lorenzo Thomas and Greg
Tate--to name a very few.

On this shaky cultural terrain, arbitrarily divided into high and low,
or commercial and literary, the average critic-reviewer is bound to
stand on shifting ground. If that critic is also a literary or scholarly
writer, he or she is likely to be acutely sensitive to the dangers of
penning a negative review. A fledgling writer trounced or a veteran
prematurely interred might emerge as a MacArthur grant recipient,
Nobelist or Pulitzer Prize winner. Worse, that same writer might end up
on the literary grants peer panel, become director of a coveted reading
series or chair a funding committee or English department to which their
writer-critic has submitted an application, request, proposal or
résumé. Therefore, there may be, for some writers, a
certain amount of fear attached to the task. In the black world it is
more like having the author's cousins and uncles gang up on you. Too,
the sense of community and the desire to compensate for the damages of
racism, however perceived, may or may not affect how one
African-American reviews another. While failing to say anything about an
author's book that cannot be excerpted for the press kit or book jacket
may possibly have severe literary consequences for the critic-reviewer
in general, for black reviewers, the consequences may be dire. Their
creative efforts may be likewise reviewed for suspect reasons. They may
be denied appearances on certain TV book shows. They may be denied
invitations to significant events celebrating African-American pride and
progress. They may be banned from certain black-owned bookstores.

It is under these kinds of pressures, with an awareness of these
contexts, armed with all the information above, that I write, whenever I
place my own creative work on hold to assume the role of book reviewer.

I am acutely aware of the anger any reviewer may incite when criticizing
the work of a popular author, and that the density and history of the
African-American community may intensify that anger. Few readers enjoy
having their favorite author-hero or heroine excoriated. However, the
job of the reviewer is to bring the best analysis of the book, and
perhaps the author, to the readership--whoever makes up that readership,
black, white or otherwise.

All literary criticism, at root, is biased--the favorable and
unfavorable alike--because reviewers must bring to the act their
individual worldview and aesthetic sensibility. And it is up to each to
decide if the social values of a text as a political record is more
important than its literary values--which is often the choice when books
by African-Americans are under review. But fostering an illusion of
excellence where none exists, regardless of the race, gender or class of
the writer, or the subject matter of the text, is to do a democratic
readership the ultimate disservice. Saying amen to the going cultural
directives, minus a true analysis, is as morally suspect as any bigoted
criticism--whether done out of guilt, fear or the desire to compensate
the author for the social ills that shaped his or her existence.

In our post-9/11 America, where unwarranted suspicions and the fear of
terrorism threaten to overwhelm long-coveted individual freedoms, a book
review seems rather insignificant--until the twin specters of censorship
and oppression are raised. What has made our nation great, despite its
tortuous history steeped in slavery, are those who have persisted in
honoring those freedoms, starting with the Constitution and its
amendments. It is this striving toward making those freedoms available
to every citizen, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or origin,
that makes the rest of the insanity tolerable. It is what allows me to
voice my opinion, be it praise song or dissent, no matter who
disagrees.

Music

When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, reunited to tour behind
The Rising, came to Madison Square Garden on August 12, they
juxtaposed "41 Shots," Springsteen's powerful song about Amadou Diallo's
shooting by NYPD officers, with "Into the Fire," the new album's
uplifting gospel tribute to the emergency workers who climbed into the burning Twin Towers never
to emerge. Stripped to incantatory simplicity, the newer song's
chorus--a litany, really--invokes the healing circle of community that
on 9/11 magically materialized--as hordes of volunteers and
photo-covered memorial walls that abruptly elevated the NYPD and NYFD
and EMS to hero status: "May your strength give us strength/May your
faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love." The crowd, mostly middle-aged in suburban
summer attire, stood in rather stony silence for the Diallo tune, which
drew boos and threats from the NYPD when Springsteen unveiled it at the
Garden in June 2000; for the second they eased into a reverential hush.
Everyone around here knows, after all, that Springsteen's music,
especially "Thunder Road" and "Born in the U.S.A.," resounded through
countless post-9/11 memorial services for the many blue-collar victims.

Springsteen's set lists are typically narratives; a sort of rock
cabaret, they build emotional tensions and releases to tell some larger
story. So at the Garden, he donned his plaid shirt as High Priest of the
secular religion rooted in his audience's belief that he is somehow one
of them writ magically large, as were the Local Heroes who flocked
toward danger that beautiful, deadly September day, transfigured by
necessity, rising to the call. Here he stood, with the E Street Band,
his own symbolic community, ready to transform this site not three miles
from the fallen towers into a temple of expiation, release, remembrance,
hope, loss, despair, acceptance, resolve, love--and, of course, a
rock-and-roll party.

Like the strain of American populists he springs from, Springsteen has
always seen this country as a dichotomy, the Promised Land that waits
within the dream of This Hard Land. Originally inspired by what he has
called "class-conscious pop records" like The Animals' 1960s hits "We
Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "It's My Life" ("I'd listen...and I'd
say to myself: 'That's my life, that's my life!' They said something to
me about my own experience of exclusion"), during the 1970s he delved
into Flannery O'Connor and John Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams and
John Ford, country music ("a very class-conscious music") and Guthrie,
Walker Percy and Robert Frank.

"I've made records," Springsteen told Percy's nephew Will several years
ago,

that I knew would find a smaller audience than others I've made. I
suppose the larger question is, 'How do you get that type of work to be
heard--despite the noise of modern society?'... There's a lot of
different ways to reach people, help them think about what's really
important in this one-and-only life we live. There's pop culture--that's
the shotgun approach, where you throw it out and it gets interpreted in
different ways and some people pick up on it. And then there's the more
intimate approach like I tried on Tom Joad.

For The Rising he grabbed the shotgun. For the first time ever,
the E Street Band blasted through endless TV talk shows and promo spots
and you-name-its to launch the record and tour. When the CD was released
on July 30 it was ubiquitous, and the marketing campaign looked like an
avalanche. The number of editorial pundits in places like the New
York Times
and The Economist who've felt they had to comment
on what is, after all, a pop record, struck me as remarkable. No wonder,
issues of artistic quality aside, the disc debuted at Number 1 and went
gold in the first week--an unprecedented hit for The Boss.

Boss or not, Springsteen hasn't exactly been burning up the charts since
the breakup of the E Street Band, except--predictably--for greatest-hits
packages. But he has been looking for new entrance ramps onto the
artistic freeway. In 1992 he made Human Touch and Lucky
Town
, essentially by himself, and got complaints that he'd lost the
old power, that the songs had gotten clichéd, or repetitive, or
superficial--all of which had some merit. He tried touring with a mostly
black, largely female band, but the new band was loud and oddly bland.
With The Ghost of Tom Joad he walked in the footsteps of
Steinbeck and Guthrie and Ford, but for whatever reasons--the prosperity
of the times? the alien heroes? the lack of Max Weinberg's bedrock
backbeats and Clemons's predictable sax?--despite a terrific acoustic
tour, most of his fans bought in only because the themes and approach
interested him. They really wanted the Friday-night adrenaline rush of
his earlier hits, their imaginary glory days represented to them in
rocked-out concert form; but still they came, in reduced but dedicated
numbers, to see Bruce because...hey, he's Bruce.

One PR edge about The Rising pushed Springsteen's calling victims
and families, piecing together reportage for the album. There's a
queasiness about this among longtime fans, including me, although
Springsteen's genius has always shone in his talent for telling other
people's stories. Which may be the main reason fans like me believe in
Springsteen: this pop mega-star who describes what he does as a job and
bikes around the country during his downtimes. Unlike Michael Jackson,
Springsteen doesn't live in Neverland. He believes in his ability--his
duty, the requisite for his gift of talent--to move us to more than
adoration and sales. His human touch is the ghost in the pop industry's
machinery.

"I'm more a product of pop culture: films and records, films and
records, films and records," Springsteen told Percy. "I had some lofty
ideas about using my own music to give people something to think
about--to think about the world, and what's right and wrong. I'd been
affected that way by records, and I wanted my own music and writing to
extend themselves in that way."

My first reactions to The Rising were mixed. I don't know what I
wanted to hear, but the marketing onslaught about 9/11 had shoved me
into an emotional corner. Listening however expectantly, I felt my
enthusiasm drain: A lot of these songs sounded like retreads whose
earlier incarnations told fuller-bodied stories. Some of them, despite
the hype, were barely if at all about 9/11. Shifting critical gears, I
postulated problems--the limits of realism, the boundaries of
Springsteen's talents and vision, the impossibly tangled American weave
of commerce and culture, Reagan's attempt to appropriate "Born in the
U.S.A." as a campaign tool, all kinds of intellectual reasons I wasn't
blown away. I groused about the sketchy thinness of the tales, their
flatness, their itchy transcendental yearnings, their failures. It
didn't, I kept repeating to friends I played it to, really work.

A month later, I still think that whole chunks of The Rising
don't work. I just don't care. Why, I keep asking myself, does the
album's title track choke me up every time I hear it, its
call-and-response gospel chorus with Bruce listing the sky's
contradictory attributes ("Sky of mercy, sky of fear/Sky of memory and
shadow") and the chorus answering, "A dream of life"? The story of a
rescue worker who "left the house this morning/Bells ringing filled the
air/Wearin' the cross of my calling/On wheels of fire I come rollin' down
here," he inches through the dark to his death: "There's spirits above
and behind me/Faces gone black, eyes burnin' bright/May their precious
blood bind me/Lord, as I stand before your fiery light," and the chorus
erupts into the wordless jigging chorus. This mini-epic opens with
drawling guitar and spare backing gradually thickened by swirling
keyboards and more guitars, grinds its gears into a blues-rock basher
for the race to the disaster site and the climb, dissolves into
kaleidoscopic textures as the hero dies dreaming of "holy pictures of
our children/Dancin' in a sky filled with light"--a dream, he says, of life. It
closes with gusts of contrapuntal voices that fade into the band's final
unresolved chord.

The opening of "Into the Fire" is the last time the narrator sees his
comrade, who climbs into the flames because "love and duty/called you
someplace higher." Its incantatory chorus rides backed by an organ
figure over a taps-derived beat. The instruments growl and skate with
that understated amazing grace the E Street Band at its best can dazzle
with. On "Empty Sky," Patti Scialfa's ghostly, quavering vocals frame
Springsteen's tight-lipped narration in a stark rock ballad with doomed
minor-major modulations and a foreground-shifting mix. "The Fuse" chuffs
electrotech industrial sounds while a couple gropes for comfort in sex
while funeral processions wind through town--carrying on, living, as
time's beats tick into forever.

These are the songs I can't stop playing.

The reunion of Springsteen and the E Streeters reaffirms The Boss's
basic mythic community; musically the album integrates the surprisingly
varied styles the World's Greatest Garage Band has tackled over
thirty-odd years. The album's title signals reassurance. The Boss has
gathered us tonight in the Church of Rock and Roll, as he used to holler
in those ferocious live gospel set pieces, to...gather us, to bear
witness, to go on--to live. Because that, as clichéd as it is, is
what we do, with a snatching of images, pangs of emotion and a gazing at
the skies.

One musician I know called The Rising "comfort food--classy,
well-done comfort food." He was right, but it didn't really matter. Over
the years Springsteen has become part of the soundtrack for our lives,
as The Animals were for his. The album's failures are part of its
package, its blandness a necessary function of the affirmation,
reconciliation, healing. Think of Springsteen as the plugged-in
troubadour who shapes his artistry into what his audience wants and
needs, not cynically but because he wants to bring them with him, and
its structure becomes clearer.

Structure and intention, however, can't save all the songs. They move
effortlessly, though not always successfully, from one tempo and
soundscape to another as they talk of heroism and transcendence, devils
in the mailbox and dreams of the garden of a thousand sighs. There are
no Big Statements; there are sketchy stories. The standard imagery of
romantic love and loss is tilted into the post-9/11 world. Sometimes, as
in "You're Missing," this leaves us with a catalogue of unsatisfying
clichés against generic synth backgrounds. On the
r&b-flavored "Countin' on a Miracle," which explodes after a gentle
acoustic-guitar intro, it plays off Springsteen's longstanding
hope-against-hope trope: "It's a fairytale so tragic/There's no prince
to break the spell/I don't believe in magic/But for you I will." The
familiar language tries to embrace the unimaginable; mostly, inevitably,
it fails.

But when it doesn't it cuts deep. Among the album's speakers are the
dead, the determined and fragile living, the suicidal and transfigured,
and the living dead: "Nothing Man" is a breathy ballad about a
working-class hero who makes his hometown paper, gets glad-handed and
bought rounds, and mutters, "You want courage/I'll show you courage you
can understand/The pearl and silver/Restin' on my night table/It's just
me Lord, pray I'm able." The linguistic conceit gets tangled, stretched.
The earnest "Worlds Apart," where star-crossed lovers meet to an
Arab-music inflection and a Pakistani chorus, is camp-hilarious. "Sounds
like Sting on a bad day," quipped one pal who hates Sting. Every three
or four tunes is a party piece like "Skin to Skin," a throwaway
emotional release.

Still, even the failures reflect Springsteen's vision of an
unpredictable, hostile world where individuals overcome, evade,
understand in defeat, or are simply crushed by the loaded dice of the
Powers That Be, whether They are the fates, the rich, the government or
the lonely crowd. He sees community as a necessary refuge: "Mary's
Place," bubbling r&b, is about a survivor throwing a post-9/11 party
while "from that black hole on the horizon/I hear your voice calling
me." These songs don't lay out a political agenda. Who needs more of
that in a world where endless voices politically spin What Happened
every day? Catch the Rashomon-style perspective shifts in
"Lonesome Day": "House is on fire, viper's in the grass/A little revenge
and this too shall pass.../It's alright...It's alright...It's
alright.../Better ask questions before you shoot/Deceit and betrayal's
bitter fruit/It's hard to swallow, come time to pay/That taste on your
tongue don't easily slip away."

This is the ineluctable lure of Springsteen's storytelling at its
best--its suggestions of life's complexity. His voice, soaked in blues
and gospel, sounds incredible, and its sheer allure, its phrasing and
catches, its demands and pleas, carry many of the weaker songs. The
singing's rich cracks and crannies evoke empathy and redemption,
separation and defeat, wrapped in religious imagery that suggests, among
other things, that the ways we were on 9/11 are more complicated than
anyone can capture yet--how long, after all, did it take for Vietnam to
yield Going After Cacciato and Dog Soldiers and "Born in
the U.S.A."?

Which brings us back to the Garden, where the band pranced through
nearly three hours, delivering note-perfect renditions--the blues-rock
throb of "Into the Fire," the chug-a-lug suspensions and
industrial-metal thrust of "The Fuse," the stark-yet-full acoustic
colors of "Empty Sky," the skirling keyboards and snarling guitars that
alternate sections of "The Rising"--that often flared but never quite
built into the emotional peak that is their hallmark. The crowd leapt
from their seats and sang the show's carefully salted oldies like "Prove
It All Night," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The Promised Land."
They danced to "Mary's Place" and cheered the second half of the line
from "Empty Sky" that runs, "I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye." For the rest they mostly milled and sat and
drank. The encores were all classics, from "Thunder Road" to "Born in
the U.S.A."

Careful, scared, wondering if the glory days are past, sifting for
omens. That's how the concert felt. Maybe that's who we are now. What
kind of oracle did we expect?

Press

As summer winds down, retreats and vacations come to an end (no more
toasted marshmallows) and regular life begins again, with everyday
chores like buying new shoes for children and paying long-ignored bills
and getting files back in order--the whole workaday schedule.

Usually the end of summer has its own bittersweet cyclical comforts, but
this year I've been feeling more than the ordinary stress of returning
to tall stacks of unread mail and to the zip and chaos of subways and
traffic lights and elevators and buses. I realized the other day that
much of my extra angst is about September 11, and starting up life again
in New York (otherwise known as Targettown).

I'd been up in the Adirondacks, where we try to spend a week every
summer, and attempting to figure out which was reality, this--the lake
spread out before me, distant pines, a couple of ducks diving, a canoe
gliding by, the gas station that sells sub sandwiches, the ice-cream
shop with the "Pies Today" sign, the campfires and the cold nights--or
New York City; in the same state, the two places seem to exist on such
separate planes.

As a New Yorker, I've joined in the general quest for stress relief (we
did this pre-9/11, too, but the answer was usually Prozac or yoga or a
Manhattan, not an inflatable lifeboat or a lifetime supply of instant
milk and potassium iodide), to little avail. Still haven't got the ten
gas masks, one set for home and one for school and work...

The latest step I've taken in the quest for inner peace--while "ongoing
police investigations" in my city cause traffic jams and mini-panics and
nightmares for overactive imaginations--is to sit back with a few issues
of Adirondack Life. Eight times a year it hides a happily
provincial interior behind a handsome, sophisticated cover, and provides
a perfect escape from real troubles but is not escapist in its
intentions: Life doesn't feel compelled to paper over the
troubles of the region it's covering, it just doesn't happen to be
covering Manhattan or Iraq, and its own ground zero is the Adirondack
Park, not Ground Zero. Like many regional magazines, it contains
puffery. The October cover story, "Hunting Wild Elk," is little more
than a paean to the resplendent Elk Lake--hence no final beauty shot of
an actual wild elk, but plenty of pictures of canoes and swimming
platforms and autumn foliage. (Indeed, an issue of Adirondack Life
without a single image of a canoe would be like an issue of
Rolling Stone--at least, the old Rolling Stone--with no
reference, even glancing, to the Beatles.) Even when puffing, though,
Adirondack Life is not as touristy as some regionals, and it
feels less provincial, less like the local section of a small newspaper.
(Yankee and Hudson Valley magazines come to mind.)

It's a more important magazine, closer to the heart of the country, or
what's good about it, than most others of its type. For me, and many
others, the Adirondacks are a throwback to what American life was or
could have been--at some idealized moment of pioneering and small camp
settlements, of fur trading and logging and fishing, all on a small
scale; a paradigm of man and nature together in the East among pines and
hills and lakes. Though there is nothing left of the wild in Manhattan
and only about a square block of it remaining on Long Island, in the
Adirondacks there are places where you can imagine the continent before
the advent of the white man, and how rich, promising, altogether
stupendous and just plain big it must have seemed to the settlers. You
can see how the sheer sweep of the land was predictive of the future of
the nation.

Over and over Adirondack Life captures that sweep, as well as the
idiosyncrasies of the citizens of what is self-consciously called the
"North Country" but might as well be called America. In another October
article, called "First Estate," Lynn Woods presents the utopia of
Brandreth Park, a huge piece of land bought in 1851 by Dr. Benjamin
Brandreth with proceeds from the fortune he made as the maker of
Life-Addition and Vegetable Universal pills and remedies. (Along with
quackery, Dr. Brandreth could boast of a gift for Bible-thumping
advertising.) After he lost the then 24,038-acre park in 1873 for
failing to pay taxes, his wife bought it back from the state for $5,091
at public auction. The 12,500 remaining acres of Dr. Brandreth's park
are still held by ninety of his descendants--offshoots of his thirteen
children--and their families. Paulina Brandreth, a granddaughter, was a
fabled Adirondack iconoclast who dressed as a man and who in photographs
barely differs from her wilderness guide, Reuben Cary, except for her
beardlessness. Boozers, cross-dressers, big-gamesmen, Presidents,
madwomen and steely-eyed, bear-shooting great aunts--all the material is
here.

Today, that flinty, eccentric spirit remains at Brandreth Park, which is
like a dream of Adirondack perfection. No motorboats allowed here, no
noise pollution except for the generator that powers Brandreth's water
pump, the main road rerouted so that headlights won't play across the
pristine face of the lake. The architecture is utilitarian, not
twig-bedecked and touristy.

It would be splendid to visit the Brandreths of old; to drive down a
dirt road to a wooden camp and live off the lake with the help of a
Reuben or Paulina. The best way to get a sense of what that visit would
provide is to read Adirondack Life. You won't learn only about
quacks and scenic lakes, though. You'll also read Bill McKibben on how
the changing global environment is affecting the Adirondacks, and Amy
Godine on the summer at Saratoga.

I tried to get other magazines up in the North Country, but the best
periodical I could find other than Adirondack Life was a consumer
shopper on trucks for purchase at public auction (call Mrs.
Brandreth...). There was, however, no shortage of Adirondack
Life
. No sense of timeliness or, worse yet, "news," mars the
unchanging, eternal stasis here. At Hoss's Country Corner in Long Lake
you can buy about two years' worth of back issues.

One more thing: I failed to mention the photographs, which alone can
soothe the terror-tried breast. Barns in the snow. Mist coming off a
pond in early morning. Purple ice cracking at sunset. Green grasses in
the blue Cedar River. Another world.

Now back to the 111th Street newsstand.

Art

In Empire Falls, Richard Russo's neo-Dickensian novel of a dying
mill-town in central Maine, the high school art teacher is portrayed as
something of a soul-killer. Indifferent if not hostile to signs of true
creativity in her students, she encourages them to admire, for bad
aesthetic reasons, what the author regards as bad art. Her favorite painter, for example, specializes in old
rowboats and the rocky Maine shoreline, and on his local-access show,
Painting for Relaxation, he executes a painting in exactly one
hour, start to finish. Entirely aware of her teacher's impaired taste,
the best student in the class still cannot but admire the TV painter's
way of attacking the canvas: It is as though his arm, wrist, hand,
fingers and brush are an extension of his eye, or perhaps his will. It
comes as something of a surprise that teacher and student have this
admiration in common with Joan Mitchell (1926-92), one of the great if
underappreciated Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School,
whose luminous achievement is honored with a celebratory exhibition at
New York's Whitney Museum of American Art through September 29. Every
morning, according to Kenneth Tyler, in whose graphics workshop in Mount
Kisco Mitchell frequently worked on prints when she was in this country,
she would watch a public television show whose host was a landscape
painter with a Southern drawl; in each episode a painting would be
created, from primed canvas to the emergence of a mountain scene or a
seascape. Tyler says that Mitchell adored that show, and she'd be in a
good mood when she came down to the studio from the apartment, just
after a shower.

Mitchell must have found especially appealing the swift, sure, dancelike
way the TV painter dashed his brush across the canvas, just as so-called
action painters were supposed to do, but left, at the same time, a
recognizable image behind. Despite her abstractionist credentials, she
saw herself as a landscape artist--what's so interesting about a square,
circle and triangle? And just as the TV painter was able to create an
outdoor scene within the windowless space of a television studio, she
evoked trees, bridges or beaches in a downtown Manhattan studio that
looked out on a brick wall. "I carry my landscapes around with me," she
told Irving Sandler when he interviewed her for "Mitchell Paints a
Picture," one of a famous series that appeared on and off in
ArtNews in the 1950s. She seems to have been remarkably tolerant
for someone as strongly opinionated as she typically was. "There is no
one way to paint," she said to Sandler. "There is no single answer." She
characterized herself as something of a conservative.

The picture that Mitchell painted for Sandler's 1957 article referred to
a remembered moment in East Hampton some years earlier, when a
legendarily undisciplined poodle she owned went swimming. She called the
picture George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold,
and it typifies her extraordinary work of the middle 1950s, when she
seemed to paint only masterpieces. The implied narrative of the title
refers to the course the painting took, rather than an actual change of
temperature on that memorable day. The yellows, which emblematized the
warm light of a summer afternoon, gave way, for reasons internal to the
painting, to areas of white and hence, wittily, to winter. It is hardly
the kind of landscape a TV painter would have ended his hour with. There
is a thick tangle of heavy, largely horizontal brush strokes about a
third of the way up the canvas--black-blues, ochres, paler greens and a
surprising passage of cadmium red. A patch of grays and pale blues in
the upper right corner feels like winter sky, while a spread of strongly
swept blues and purples at the bottom of the canvas must be a
reminiscence of water. The feeling of cold is mostly achieved through
white and whitish spaces, climbing like broken ice from bottom to top,
punctuated by slashes and lashes of fluid pigment that the clever
student in Empire Falls High School would recognize as the artist's
attack. The painting manages to meld ferocity and tranquillity into a
single stunning image that is Mitchell at the height of her powers.

The first painting of Mitchell's that I recall seeing had an immense
impact on me. Since I followed the Abstract Expressionist scene, I may
have seen her work earlier without, so to speak, encountering it. What I
knew absolutely was that this was a great painting, that I would wish to
have painted it more than any other, and that it was entirely beyond me.
By contrast with this artist, everyone I knew of was comparatively
tentative and fearful, as the young student in Empire Falls felt
her work to be. It was somewhat chastening, in those sexist days, to
realize that it had been painted by a woman. Possibly it could only have
been painted by a woman; but in any case a stereotype had been
shattered. The painting was called Hemlock, and it hung by itself
in the first room of the Martha Jackson Gallery, on East 66th Street. It
seemed to me that Abstract Expression had found a new direction and that
its methods could now be used almost like poetry, to capture and
communicate real experience. In the interview with Sandler, Mitchell
said, "The painting has to work, but it has to say something more than
that the painting works." It had been enough, in those days, that a
painting should work. There was little beyond that one could say. But
with Hemlock, as with so many of the pieces Mitchell did around
the same time, it went beyond what Duchamp dismissed as that "retinal
shudder": She brought the world as she lived it into her art, and as
advanced as her work of the 1950s was, experiencing it was like
experiencing nature in an intense, revelatory moment. No one else I knew
of had managed that.

Hemlock is a tree composed as an ascending set of horizontal
sweeps of green and black against a white winter sky. The bands seem
hung like branches on a trunk, explicit in certain passages, whited out
but implied in others, and it feels constructed, like a complex Chinese
character that could have been an ideogram for hemlock, built stroke by
parallel stroke up the left side of the canvas. But it is not static.
Some of the branches seem to be whipped into movement, on the canvas's
right side, as if they were feeling their way into emptiness at the edge
of a cliff, like a heroic oak tree once painted by the Norwegian artist
Dahl, which his nation adopted as the symbol of its toughness in an
adverse world. Whipped loops of black paint animate the air, and
cascades of drips rain down. The whole image has the quality of a great
drawing, except, of course, that the white is not the background of
white paper but is itself painted in such a way as to interanimate the
thrashing branches and the vividness of the void. Only de Kooning could
have come close to Hemlock. Kline was never able to solve the
problem of adding color to his black-and-white canvases without diluting
them.

Mitchell was as much one with the art world of her time as the tree in
Hemlock is with the paint it is made of. Had that world perdured,
she would have been one of the most celebrated artists of our time. The
fact that she has instead been neglected lies, I think, not in the
circumstances of her gender--as Jane Livingston, the curator, to whom we
must all be grateful for this wonderful show, alleges in her catalogue
essay--but in the fact that she painted for the rest of her life as if
she were drawing sustenance from an art world that had in truth
vanished. She was like a fragment of a planet that had broken off and
followed an independent orbit, after the planet itself had crumbled to
bits.

The direction of art changed radically and irrevocably a very few years
after my encounter with Hemlock. In 1961, Allan Kaprow, chief
author if not the inventor of "Happenings," installed Yard in the
courtyard of Martha Jackson's new gallery on East 69th Street. It
consisted in a disordered heap of used automobile tires. Kaprow, who
wrote his master's thesis (studying with the art critic Meyer Schapiro
at Columbia) on Mondrian, worked with John Cage at the New School for
Social Research in the years Mitchell was establishing her name
(1956-58). He shortly gave up painting for assemblage and made chance
and indeterminacy the principles of his work. Kaprow's epochal
Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts took place at the Reuben Gallery
in 1959. Hemlock and Yard reflect different moments of the
pervasive influence of Zen on New York art in the 1950s. Hemlock
belongs to the impulse of haiku and Zen watercolors. The pile of tires
belongs to what I was later to call the transfiguration of the
commonplace. Its impact on me, though I hardly recognized its meaning in
1961, was largely philosophical. It consisted in the question that now
seems to me to have defined the 1960s, namely, Why was a pile of
worthless rubber tires a work of art and not simply a pile of worthless
rubber tires? Clement Greenberg was to call this novelty art. Mitchell,
open as she may have been about painting, dismissed what was happening
as "pop, slop, and plop." It was not a transient phenomenon but a
revolution in the production of art that remains with us forty years
later.

Mitchell began to work in Paris intermittently in the 1950s, but she
carried her inner landscapes with her as well, for a while at least, as
her unmistakable style. In a sense, she was a New York School painter
working in the fifteenth arrondissement; and though she gave her
pictures French titles in the 1960s, one does not feel that they had as
yet any French references. Grandes Carrières is a densely
crowded thicket of pigment in the middle of a horizontal canvas, which
could have an autumnal reference, with red and brown branches, and could
even be read as a wildly brushed still life poised before a window,
though the title means "large quarries." Abstract Expressionism was a
world movement, but it assumed different identities from nation to
nation: French Abstract Expressionism was unmistakably School of Paris
through its irrepressible tastefulness, and Japanese Abstract
Expressionism had a reckless scariness that New York was not ready for.
The beautiful Untitled (1963), with its airy lightness, its
lyrical scaffold of olive-green strokes and touches, continues to have a
New York feeling. But with Blue Tree, and particularly
Calvi, both done in 1964, Mitchell begins to respond to European,
one even feels to Mediterranean, motifs. Calvi is a green, thick
island of paint, almost scrubbed into or onto an otherwise nearly empty
expanse sparsely enlivened by running calligraphic strokes. And then,
perhaps in My Landscape II, 1967, and especially in Low
Water
, 1969, some deep change, inner or outer, has taken place, and
she becomes a different painter from what she'd been, one about whom I
have mixed feelings. She has become somehow more European.

In 1988--I had by then begun to write this column--I traveled down to
the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to see a retrospective show of
Joan Mitchell's work. I had been caught up in the way the art world had
gone in the early 1960s, and had more or less lost touch with Mitchell's
work. But since it was something like having been in love to have been
affected once by her paintings, I wanted to know what the artist had
been doing over the intervening years. She was 62 years old, and she'd
had a long, tempestuous relationship with the French-Canadian artist
Jean-Paul Riopelle, whose memorial show (he died this year) at the
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ends the same day as Mitchell's. She had
come into money and purchased a property in Vetheuil, on the banks of
the Seine north of Paris, where Monet had painted before he moved to
Giverny in 1881, after the death of his wife, Camille. In fact, Mitchell
lived at 12 rue Claude Monet, and I wondered to what degree she had
internalized the spirit of the site, or had, in her own way, taken on
something of Monet's aura. A Dutch museum director recently complained
to me that Mitchell had tried too hard to be like Monet. He compared her
unfavorably with Ellsworth Kelly, who had gone to Paris and encountered
Matisse, and then turned what he admired into something altogether
American. But the relationship between Monet and Abstract Expressionism
is more complex than that. Through Abstract Expressionism, Monet
belonged to the spirit of American art.

Many of the great pieces from the 1950s were on view at the Corcoran,
including Hemlock, which seems by general consensus to be her
chef-d'oeuvre. But in the main, I was disappointed in the show,
and I felt confirmed in my somewhat sour negativity by the fact that
Livingston, who installed it, felt much the same way. "I was disturbed,"
she writes, "by what I thought was an uneven show. It was far too big,
with too much emphasis on recent work. I learned that the artist herself
had a hand in its selection, and as is not unusual in such
circumstances, she simply could not edit out the works that had most
recently come out of the studio." I had a somewhat different
explanation. I thought the exhibition showed what happens when an
artist, whose greatness owed so much to the discoveries of the movement
she belonged with, outlives the movement. Individual achievement depends
upon the criticism and applause of those who share one's language and
values as an artist. It was an immense privilege to belong to a movement
like Abstract Expressionism. Everyone who was part of it was greater
through that fact than he or she would have been alone.

In any case, I did not write about the show. The happy ending to this is
that Livingston has now used her great curatorial intuitions to put
together the kind of show the artist herself would have been incapable
of. It is chronological, but somehow orchestrated, and marked by a kind
of phrasing, so that one is able to live Mitchell's life through her
paintings. The issue of reference is less important than the recognition
that the work is referential. No one can tell from the painting where
George went swimming nearly half a century ago on Long Island, or which
particular hemlock, now grown venerable and great, captured the artist's
memory until it was delivered magnificently into art. But there is, in
addition to reference, the mood and feeling that make the transformation
of it into art memorable and urgent. More is happening in Calvi
than fixing something visually compelling. One is not surprised to read
that when she painted it, Mitchell was going through a serious emotional
crisis. When the Japanese Abstract Expressionist Jiro Yoshihara did a
memorial painting for Martha Jackson, who died in 1969, he was asked why
it consisted of a simple white-on-black circle. He gave a Zen answer:
"Since I did not have time, this was the best way I could do at the
moment." That is how I feel about Calvi.

The show is so intense that when one turns a corner and comes upon
Clearing, 1973, it really feels like a clearing. It is restful
and calm, despite or perhaps because of the wavy black uneven oblongs in
two of its three panels, but mainly because of its beautiful lavender
rings, which to me felt like dreamy echoes of Yoshihara's image. There
is something Japanese about it, with its loose arabesques and drips
coming down like the rain in a print by Hiroshige. No one would know
that La Vie en Rose was painted in 1979 to mark the end of
Mitchell's long relationship with Jean-Paul Riopelle. Mitchell, in a
film I saw recently, put it this way: He ran off "with the dogsitter."
The work expresses sadness, even grief, but also relief and a kind of
resignation. Her polyptychs are extraordinarily personal, despite their
scale and ambition, and often they are salutes to her peers. Wet
Orange
feels like a belle époque interior, and pays
tribute to the oranges and blues Bonnard and Vuillard made their own.
No Birds makes a wry reference to Van Gogh's late painting of
crows in a golden two-panel cornfield, except--no birds. Instead the sky
is clouded with blackish sweeps of dark menace, and one does not have to
be told that the artist was going through terrible pain. I leave La
Grande Vallée
for you to put in your own words.

There has not been this much wonderful painting on view all at once for
a very long time, and fascinating as art has been since the time when
painting was the great bearer of its history, one cannot but be
nostalgic walking these galleries, tracing this life through woods,
clearings, fields, vales, masses of flowers, wet skies. What luck for
Birmingham, Alabama, that the show will travel to its art museum from
June 27 until August 31, 2003; for Fort Worth, Texas, where it will be
on view at the Modern Art Museum, September 21, 2003-January 7, 2004;
and Washington, DC, at The Phillips Collection, where it belongs by
aesthetic affinity, from February 14-May 16, 2004.