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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
MORE FUN THAN A BARREL OF...
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.
DI LEONARDO REPLIES
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.
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.