Micah Sifry's August 1, 2001 Nation Online article, "Greens at the Crossroads," sparked a number of letters from many of those active in the Green movement. We've published six of them below along with a reply from Sifry.
New York City
Micah Sifry gets some things right. The Minnesota Greens' decision to run a candidate against Paul Wellstone is wrong; at this moment retaining a Democratic Senate is an important part of progressive strategy. And while Ralph Nader has helped the Green Party grow, the Greens must stop hanging on his celebrity and build on their own candidates and issues. But in contending that the Greens are too far left and should stick to economic populism, Sifry misconstrues the party's nature and purpose.
Unlike most electoral parties, the Greens are a hybrid--a social movement as well as an electoral vehicle. Instead of reflecting the "left wing of the possible," whose boundaries have become so narrow that yesterday's centrists are today's liberals, we have a vision of change that seeks to expand people's idea of what's possible and persuade them to act on hope rather than despair. This vision includes proposals for economic democracy that entail a strong anti-corporate position; the Greens are on the cutting edge of campaign and electoral reform. But our concerns are far broader. Our signature issue, ecological sanity, marks us off from virtually every other formation in American politics. We take the global context seriously: We are the only party to argue that the crisis of global warming requires radical changes in our way of life, especially democratic transnational institutions that confront rampant oligarchic capitalism. And unlike the economic populists who disdain social radicalism because they believe it is "divisive," the party is feminist and opposes the death penalty and the war on drugs. In short, the Green Party aims to become an alternative to the two major parties, not a single-issue organization.
Sifry seems to think the Green Party should exercise centralized political discipline over local organizations. But decentralization is the hallmark of a democratic social movement. The results are inevitably messy and contentious. (Indeed, from my perspective, some Greens are too cautious about distinguishing themselves from politics as usual.) But this does not mean the Greens are fated to remain marginal. Opponents of Green politics may use decisions like Minnesota's as an excuse to discredit the party as such, but most of our potential constituents are capable of understanding that we are not a monolith.
This is a moment of turbulence, when many elements of conventional wisdom are in doubt. It is the Greens' role to deepen those doubts and convert them into action.
(The writer is Green Party candidate for Governor of New York State.)
New Haven, CT
For the record, however Micah Sifry chooses to describe or analyze the relationship between Ralph Nader and the Green Party, he should have included some crucial facts. For example, since the November 2000 elections, Ralph Nader has headlined about thirty-eight fundraisers for the Green Party and its candidates, including seven joint fundraisers for the national and one of the state Green parties. This has helped Greens to raise over $200,000. When the fundraisers have been with the national party, Nader has also allowed the use of his donor list for that state, to assure that the fundraisers have had the best
turnout possible. As part of those thirty-eight fundraisers, Nader has headlined fundraisers for the Green Party in conjunction with each
of the Democracy Rising super-rallies. Democracy Rising also shares the list of the DR attendees with the state Green Party where the Democracy Rising event is held.
Finance Director, Green Party of the United States (title for identification purposes only)
For the record, the relationship between Ralph Nader and the Green Party is as good as it's ever been. While Micah Sifry would not be incorrect to point to strains in that relationship, it is surely an overstatement to proclaim, as he did in "Greens at the Crossroads," that the relationship is "dysfunctional."
While it's true that Nader has not agreed to many things the party
has asked of him, it is also a fact that he has continued to actively
support our growth and development. For example, since the November
2000 elections, Ralph Nader has headlined, at last count, thirty-eight
fundraisers for the Green Party and its candidates, including seven joint
state/national fundraisers, helping Greens to raise over $200,000. Nader also talks up the Green Party in the media and in his many public appearances.
It would be unrealistic to expect a historic and powerful figure such as Ralph Nader and a 250,000-member political party such as the Greens to have a smooth relationship. We are grateful to Nader for everything he has done for our party.
Co-Chair, Green Party of the United States
Micah Sifry quotes me and I feel takes my comments very much out of context. I agree in many respects with his analysis of the challenges facing the Green
Party. But in regard to the issue of the Minnesota Greens running Ed McGaa, he seems to have done little more than justify his own fear and outrage, and paint anyone who does not share his apprehensions as hopelessly naive and out of touch with political reality. Of course I know who Senators Orrin Hach and Patrick Leahy are and the importance of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was not prepared to compare and contrast them for Sifry. What Sifry did not say in his analysis of the Green Party speaks volumes. He did not say that Badili Jones, an
African-American, and I, a Latina, are part of a grassroots of "Citizen Leaders" who are driving the Green Party to become the mechanism for making real the myth of democracy. In addition to being co-chairs of the national Green Party both Badili, in Atlanta, Georgia, and I, in Toledo, Ohio, undertake the bulk of our activism on the ground and in our communities. We are both involved in numerous
projects including efforts to address issues of racism and how it has manifested since September 11, 2001. Sifry didn't say these things because he probably didn't know these things, and he didn't know because he didn't ask, and he didn't ask because he was too busy running around acting like "the sky is falling," and blaming it on the Greens. What I expressed to Sifry when he interviewed me in Philadelphia was that both the Democrats and the Republicans have failed the ordinary people of this country and that the Greens should
not be expected to insulate the democrats from their mistakes.
How presumptuous of Sifry to assume that my indifference to his concerns about the Senate race in Minnesota stems from ignorance. As the daughter of migrant farmworkers, as someone who has stood in welfare lines, as someone who has stood in unemployment lines, as someone who has known what it feels like to be hungry in America, I know very well the consequences of continuing with our
farce of a democratic political system. And I am far more concerned about
the reelection of Cynthia McKinney than I am about Paul Wellstone, and it isn't Greens who are running against her.
Co-Chair of the Green Party of the United States
East Windsor, NJ
Micah Sifry laments that the Greens "risk being hobbled by their own impatience." Just two years after our first major presidential campaign, nine months after being recognized by the Federal Elections Commission as a national party, one week after our first-ever midterm convention, the article holds us to awfully high standards of political maturity. I guess we could take that as a compliment of sorts, but I can't help feeling that Sifry is the one who's showing impatience.
He mentions "promising Green candidates in places like Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Texas," but cites a single problematic situation in Minnesota as evidence that "the Green Party is at risk of being fixed in the public's mind by the choices of its most flamboyant branch"--and he devotes more than half the text of his article to oy-vaying about that particular situation!
The movement for Green politics in the United States is clearly in its infancy. Based on reasonable standards of comparison (for instance, relative to initiatives like the Reform Party, New Party, Labor Party, and Citizens Party) the Greens are showing exceptional potential and impressive growth in all measurable areas: number of activists, registrants, votes, candidacies and electoral victories.
Constructive, empathetic criticism is most welcome, but we hope Sifry and all who wish to see a progressive challenge to the only-two-choices system will maintain some perspective. Even better--join up and help us achieve the standards we all agree to be desirable and ultimately attainable. We're on the road toward becoming America's third significant political party.
Green Party of New Jersey
Working with Anita Rios closely, as I do here in Ohio, I am not
surprised that she did not profess to an intimate familiarity with
Patrick Leahy or Orrin Hatch nor their possibly different approaches
to running the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate.
What would surprise me is if Anita had not talked passionately about
the need to empower the disenfranchised in this society. Nor provided
details of the challenges Greens face in organizing grassroots
opposition to corporate power. Opposition such as the rally Anita
helped organize near Toledo the weekend after the national convention
to urge the final and complete shutdown of the damaged Davis-Besse
nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Erie.
I also am not surprised that Sifry chose a comment by Anita
that supported his thesis regarding Greens' supposed lack of
As for surprises, know now that you should not be surprised if we
who fight in the trenches on a regular basis ignore the tut-tutting
of armchair politicos who profess to offer guidance on the "proper"
path. If the Greens eventually gain national power it will not be
because we artfully finessed conflict and setbacks. We will have
gained national power because we fought the tough conflicts and
overcame setbacks and defeated, in an upset of millennial
proportions, the entrenched powers that are sucking the lifeblood
from this nation.
Convener, Green Party of Ohio
New York City
Since readers can easily find my original article online, I'm not going to reiterate all my arguments here, but just respond to what I see as the key points made by these letters.
1. Steve Welzer says I'm being impatient with the Greens, who are still in their infancy. Maybe yes, maybe no. As I see it, the Greens were in their infancy all through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when organizers in a few states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine and New Mexico in particular) began building the electorally oriented state parties that became the core of the Association of State Green Parties (formed in 1997) that eventually absorbed its rival Greens/Green Party USA and became the Green Party of the United States in 2001. Some state parties are obviously much younger than others, having been spawned by the Nader campaigns of 1996 and 2000.
2. Besides, if the goal is to grow out of one's infancy, the question has to be: By what strategy? Steve is right to point to the Greens' growth and potential--all of which I noted at the beginning of my article. But new/minor political parties are incredibly fragile flowers. Stanley Aronowitz's wise letter suggests that he knows this. However, he misreads me when he says that I favor "centralized political discipline over local organizations." I don't (and in my book I criticize Ross Perot for trying to do exactly that to his Reform Party). The Greens of Minnesota are welcome to make whatever political choices they want: That is, as Anita Rios put it, what democracy looks like. But the rest of us, including Green activists and leaders throughout the country, can also either welcome those choices or criticize and attempt to revise them. That is not "centralized political discipline," but vibrant democratic discussion--another hallmark of a democratic social movement. And even though it is ultimately for Minnesotans to decide the US Senate race, since that race may well tip that body back into Republican hands, it is inevitably a question that Greens everywhere must face: Do you want your party to have that impact this year? Here's how the Miami-Dade Green Party answers that question (for the full text of their letter to the Minnesota Greens, click here): "We are a political party. So 'political fallout' is a perfectly valid factor in making decisions. Political fallout affects both our present and our future. The loss of a progressive voice. The loss of other potential allies to the Greens. And given the close split of the Senate, this could give Bush the full ultra-conservative control he seeks. We say, let Greens run for every state and local office we reasonably can. Let's get our best candidates and run for federal office as well. But let's pick and chose where that would most help us, and not hinder either Green Party image nor growth (they are intimately tied together)--and where it will not permit this nation to slide further down the slippery slope of repression."
3. Stanley makes a second criticism of me, that I believe the Greens have moved too far left and should stick to economic populism. Let me clarify on both points. I think the pressures of post-2000 Democratic whining, 9/11 and the war are impelling the Greens to push certain issues with a left style that may feel good and right to many core party activists, but will hinder the party's potential growth--especially at a moment when the party's anticorporate message couldn't be more in tune with popular sentiment. During the Green Party's convention in Philadelphia, I participated in a workshop on outreach to nonprogressives where Dean Myerson, the party's national coordinator, made a telling point. Greens, he said, need to recognize the difference between being activists, engaged in pushing their own issues, and organizers who seek to draw more people into the party by finding out what issues will move them. It's the difference between choosing to emphasize the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, or stopping plutonium-laden rockets from being shot into space versus stopping CEOs from gorging themselves with stock options. I don't think party organizers should drop their social vision (feminism, opposition to the death penalty, war on drugs, antimilitarism, etc) at all, but I question whether they should lead with it. Stanley is doing this with his own campaign for governor of New York: focusing on a "tax and spend" agenda that seeks to rebuild the state's public infrastructure with the help of those most able to pay for it, and telling Greens that he's a meat-eater who thinks war can sometimes be justified. If Greens want to participate in their own marginalization, they can keep using language and picking issues that set them apart from less politically active Americans. My study of the rise and growth of third parties in contemporary politics suggests to me that what matters to most voters is not how a challenger positions him- or herself on some right-to-left checklist, but how well he or she connects to people's desire for a better life and shows how to carry them forward.
4. Jack Uhrich and Ben Manski both say that Ralph Nader has done lots of good things for the Green Party since 2000. I don't dispute that at all. But their letters confirm my basic point: The relationship is dysfunctional. It's all on Nader's terms. The party is the subject of his decisions at every turn, never the other way around. Part of this is a reflection of the Greens' problems with formally empowering their own leaders (as a result they have lots of behind-the-scenes jockeying and tension). But most of it is a result of Nader's reluctance to be bound to anything he doesn't control. He says that he isn't a Green because he doesn't want to be drawn into internal party disputes. But, to take a current example, that hasn't stopped his latest comments on the Wellstone race, where he dismissed the Green Party's candidate as unlikely to get even a few thousand votes, from being interpreted as an intervention in the party's affairs. Hidden, unresolved conflicts between the Nader staff and the Green base continue to fester. If you doubt that, take a look at democracywrithing.org, a critique posted by Maine Green Party activists unhappy with the top-down nature of Nader's "Democracy Rising" rallies. One could argue that none of this is any better that the actual relations between any top Democrat and their party, of course. But I don't think Greens want to brag about being as bad as the major parties on this score.
5. Anita Rios is right that I didn't ask her about her local activism; I didn't have time, nor is it clear to me what that has to do with her role as one of the party's five national co-chairs. (I did do a longer interview with Badili Jones, one of her co-chairs, earlier in the weekend). I didn't ask her to "compare and contrast" Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy, but to tell me if she thought it would make a difference if the Senate was controlled by Ds or Rs, and then followed up by asking if it made a difference if the Senate Judiciary Committee was controlled by Hatch or Leahy. Her letter makes clear that she doesn't see a meaningful difference. As for Paul Dumouchelle's letter, I read only rhetoric of a peculiarly messianic kind. Parties grow or stagnate because of many things, including the decisions made by their leaders. They have to finesse conflict and articulate a strategy, not just a vision. At this time in our nation's history, we desperately need smart third-party strategies. My intention in writing this article (as well as my book) was to try to ask some hard questions about that problem. Hopefully, the discussion will continue.
MICAH L. SIFRY
In responding to comments on his article "Greens at the Crossroads", Micah Sifry made a major misstatement of fact: "As I see it, the Greens were in their infancy all through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when organizers in a few states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine and New Mexico in particular) began building the electoral oriented state parties that became the core of the Association of State Green Parties (formed in 1997) that eventually absorbed its rival Greens/Green Party USA and became the Green Party of the United States in 2001." Sifry's statement here is generally weak as a piece of historical analysis but that is not my concern. What is my concern, is that his statement that the Green Party USA has been absorbed by the Association of State Green Parties/Green Party of the US is simply untrue, although it is perhaps a wish fantasy in the minds of some of Green Party USA's rivals.
The facts are that the Green Party USA--which was organized in 1991 as a formal reorganization of the original US Green Party (Green Committees of Correspondence formed in 1984) still exists, with annual FEC filings, a national membership, a clearinghouse in Chicago, national officers, a website, two national publications, a Program and Platform and an ongoing political campiagn of radical grassroots organizing (which does not exclude electoral organizing as a strategy/tactic). This is a simple fact which no amount of denial or evasion can change. The Green Party USA is probably one of the very few Green parties in the world that has not succumbed to the reformist deformation of the original Green vision that has overtaken so much of the Green movement. Perhaps this is why statements of its "non-existence" appear in the press. I would appreciate a comment from Sifry.
The one thing that activists on every side of the abortion debate agree
on is that we should reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
I was born into the House of Labor. My father was a Teamster who drove a truck for thirty-five years. He died with his first retirement check in his pocket, uncashed.
This past week confirmed that the American political establishment is
not united in support of the Bush Administration's policy of forcible
"regime change" in Iraq. Odd as it may seem, the strongest expression of
doubt came from a key member of the GOP's right wing, House majority
leader Dick Armey. Expressing concern that an unprovoked attack on Iraq
would violate international law, Armey was quoted as saying that such an
attack "would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or
what we should be as a nation." Meanwhile, Armey's colleague across the
aisle, Carl Levin, voiced the thinking of many of his fellow Democrats
when he argued that "containment of Saddam is so far working."
Armey and Levin are just two of a number of important political
actors--including several prominent senators, forces within the military
and worried figures on Wall Street--who have recently expressed qualms
about the proposed military invasion. These voices need to be amplified
and reinforced by others if the United States is to avoid a potentially
disastrous intervention in the Middle East.
Arguably the most important doubters, because only Congress is
empowered by the Constitution to declare war, are the members of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At their July 31-August 1 hearings on Iraq, chairman Joseph Biden Jr. and other committee
members--while taking pains to make clear that they, too, think Saddam
Hussein must go--emphasized that the aim of the hearings was not to
rally support for or against an invasion but rather to raise questions
and concerns. "Here we have a situation [about] which, clearly, we need
to know much more," Republican Senator Richard Lugar explained in his
opening remarks. Intense questioning of possible US moves is essential,
he added, because "the life of the country is at stake."
Another significant indication of elite concern was articles in the
New York Times and the Washington Post reporting serious
divisions within the US military and business class over the merits of
the proposed invasion. If these articles are accurate--and there is no
reason to assume otherwise--many senior military officers fear that US
intervention will produce chaos in the Middle East and lead to a costly,
dangerous and long-term American occupation of Iraq. Likewise, senior
corporate officials are said to fear a drop in consumer spending
resulting from rising oil prices, as well as a heightened risk of
None of these groups can be described as flat-out opponents of an
American invasion. Most would probably support the President--even cheer
him wildly--if US intervention was thought certain to result in a
speedy, casualty-free occupation of Baghdad and the replacement of
Saddam with a democratic, pro-Western, peace-seeking regime. The
problem, in their eyes, is that Bush can guarantee none of this. And
while readers of The Nation might wish to raise more fundamental
issues--such as whether the United States has a legal or moral right to
initiate a unilateral assault--the concerns among the country's elite
deserve widespread public attention. They can be compressed into nine
1. Why engage in a risky and potentially calamitous invasion of Iraq
when the existing strategy of "containment"--entailing no-fly zones,
sanctions, technology restraints and the deployment of US forces in
surrounding areas--not only has clearly succeeded in deterring Iraqi
adventurism for the past ten years but also in weakening Iraq's military
2. Why has the Administration found so little international support for
its proposed policy, even among our closest friends and allies (with the
possible exception of Britain's Tony Blair), and what would be the
consequences if Washington tried to act without their support and
without any international legal authority? Isn't it dangerous and unwise
for the United States to engage in an essentially unilateral attack on
3. Is the United States prepared to accept significant losses of
American lives--a strong possibility in the projected intense ground
fighting around Baghdad and other urban areas?
4. Is the United States prepared to inflict heavy losses on Iraq's
civilian population if, as expected, Saddam concentrates his military
assets in urban areas? Would this not make the United States a moral
pariah in the eyes of much of the world?
5. Wouldn't an invasion of Iraq aimed at the removal of Saddam Hussein
remove any inhibitions he might have regarding the use of chemical and
biological (and possibly nuclear) weapons, making their use more rather
than less likely?
6. Are we prepared to cope with the outbreaks of anti-American protest
and violence that, in the event of a US attack on Iraq, are sure to
erupt throughout the Muslim world, jeopardizing the survival of pro-US
governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and further inflaming the
7. Can the fragile American economy withstand a sharp rise in oil
prices, another decline in air travel, a bulging federal deficit, a drop
in consumer confidence and other negative economic effects that can be
expected from a major war in the Middle East? And what would an invasion
mean for an even more fragile world economy and for those emerging
markets that depend on selling their exports to the United States and
that are vulnerable to rising oil prices?
8. Even if we are successful in toppling Saddam, who will govern Iraq
afterward? Will we leave the country in chaos (as we have done in
Afghanistan)? Or will we try to impose a government in the face of the
inevitable Iraqi hostility if US forces destroy what remains of Iraq's
infrastructure and kill many of its civilians?
9. Are we willing to deploy 100,000 or more American soldiers in Iraq
for ten or twenty years (at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a
year) to defend a US-imposed government and prevent the breakup of the
country into unstable Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite mini-states?
So far, the Bush Administration has not provided honest or convincing
answers to any of these questions. It is essential, then, that
concerned Americans ask their Congressional representatives to demand
answers to these (and related) questions from the White House and hold
further hearings to weigh the credibility of the Administration's
answers. It is vital that our representatives play their rightful
constitutional role in this fateful decision. The American public
clearly would welcome such moves: A recent Washington Post-ABC
News poll found that while a majority support the President at this
point, they want him to seek authorization from Congress and approval of
America's allies before going ahead. And when asked whether they would
favor a ground war if it were to produce "significant" US casualties,
support plummeted to 40 percent and opposition rose to 51 percent. If
you worry about the future of America, clip or copy these nine questions
and include them in letters to your senators and representative. In
addition, get involved locally: Help organize a teach-in, write a letter
to your newspaper, raise the subject at civic meetings.
Even shrunken from its high point, the Teamsters union is a major force
in the American labor movement--for both good and ill. On the plus side,
building on its celebrated UPS strike of 1997, the union just negotiated
respectable wage increases for full-time workers, though as
BusinessWeek concluded, the agreement "doesn't deliver for
part-timers." On the downside, Teamsters' failures to organize
effectively hold back organized labor's drive to grow. In any case, much
of the credit for the rise from its nadir under mob control goes to a
1989 consent decree with the Justice Department, which has removed
hundreds of mob-influenced or otherwise corrupt leaders and given
members the right to elect major officers directly. Now Teamsters
president James Hoffa Jr. has made ending the consent decree and its
institutions--like the Independent Review Board (IRB), which
investigates and punishes corruption--his top priority.
That would be a bad move. It would risk undoing the good that pressure
from federal oversight has wrought, including gains in formal democracy
that surpass those at many other unions, such as last year's revision of
the constitution to mandate direct elections by members. But neither the
IRB nor internal union efforts at reform have yet succeeded in
establishing "a culture of democracy within the union," which the judge
overseeing the Teamsters identified as one of the two main goals of the
consent decree. Hoffa's internal structure to investigate and punish
corruption, RISE (Respect, Integrity, Strength and Ethics), so far has
only codified rules and done historical research, and Hoffa plans to put
it in action only after government oversight ends. Union democracy
experts, like professors Clyde Summers of the University of Pennsylvania
Law School and Michael Goldberg of Widener Law School, as well as the
Association for Union Democracy, argue that RISE is not sufficiently
independent to do the job and that top Teamsters brass could easily
override it. The Teamsters are certainly not the only union lacking a
robust democratic culture, but the Teamsters' unique history makes it
crucial that reforms are solidly secured.
The risks of backsliding are not just theoretical. In May the IRB
permanently barred from the union two of Hoffa's closest associates,
William Hogan Jr., president of Chicago's Joint Council 25, and Dane
Passo, Hoffa's former Midwest campaign manager and special assistant.
They were disciplined for trying for two years to force the Las Vegas
local to permit a mob-linked labor broker (of which Hogan's brother was
vice president) to provide low-wage, nonunion workers for convention
setup work, thus threatening to undermine the Teamsters contract and
displace union members.
Although the IRB did not reprimand Hoffa, he was distressingly close to
the corrupt deal-making. He knew the character of Hogan, who was Hoffa's
initial pick as running mate until the IRB charged Hogan with nepotism
and corruption. Passo had a history of physically attacking dissidents.
Hoffa also admitted receiving a "general overview" of the proposed deal
in a Chicago lunch meeting with Hogan and the broker's president. He
agreed to Passo's requests to put the local into trusteeship and later
to fire the assistant trustee and then the trustee when they resisted
the deal. But in March 2001 Hoffa rebuffed Hogan's bid to negotiate the
Teamsters' convention-industry contract in Las Vegas "because of the
background of all the things that have happened with the IRB," he told
investigators. Attorney Matt Lydon, who is appealing Hogan's expulsion,
said, "I don't know of anything that was kept secret from Hoffa or
anyone else about what [Hogan] was doing."
Union spokesman Brian Rainville argues that the initial aim of the
consent decree has been accomplished, and that continuing it simply
costs too much. But much of the expense would have occurred under any
regime that conducted democratic elections and investigated internal
wrongdoing. The Teamsters must demonstrate that RISE can do the job and
establish a final review board independent of Teamsters officialdom
before the IRB can be eliminated. "Of course, the Teamsters should
become a union like other unions," said Teamsters for a Democratic Union
organizer Ken Paff. "Rather than just complain about the IRB, prove you
can do it. Clean up your own house."
IRB decisions have not been beyond criticism. Supporters of former
president Ron Carey, for example, say that Carey's acquittal last
October on federal charges that he committed perjury in denying that he
knew about the scheme to embezzle union funds for his election raises
questions about the IRB's decision to expel him from the union. But
without some independent outside force, there would have been less
progress in reforming the Teamsters.
Ultimately, democracy should make the Teamsters and the labor movement
stronger. The union's desperate focus on ending the consent decree is
doing the opposite. It has partly driven their courtship of Republicans,
from their full-throated but failed support for Bush's plan to drill in
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Hoffa's recent vote against
funding the AFL-CIO's successful political mobilization, because he
wants to give 30 percent of his support to the GOP. Also, unlike unions
such as the letter carriers and utility workers, Hoffa supports Bush's
controversial Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), which
would try to turn UPS workers into government informers. Although a new
dues increase will boost funds for organizing and strike pay, members
have more reason to worry about proliferating multiple salaries for
officers and about the decline in organizing victories and expenditures
than about the costs of federal oversight. Ending the consent decree
wouldn't have salvaged a failed organizing strike against the ruthlessly
antiunion Overnite, but it might have let a sweetheart deal undermine
Las Vegas Teamsters. Democracy, including ferreting out corruption, is
worth the price, and democracy in the Teamsters still needs outside
Several weeks on from the loya jirga national council, the
streets of Kabul have an extra bustle. Whereas in January the place was
deserted by 6 pm, now the curfew has been extended to midnight, and it
costs only $5 to buy the password that can allow your taxi to careen
through checkpoints into the early hours. The chaotic rhythms of Indian
music waft over jingling bicycles and tooting cars, while chai
khanas, ubiquitous teahouses, are full--as are the growing number of
restaurants, frequented by the thousands of foreign aid workers and
other internationals. Increasing numbers of women cross through the
center of town, adorned with a light head scarf rather than the stifling
blue nylon burqa. Fresh life is palpable.
But not far below the surface, the loya jirga has changed little
in the country. The suave President Hamid Karzai ostensibly presides
with new legitimacy over a more representative administration. But
except for juggling one of the ethnic Tajik-run power ministers, the
so-called Panjshiri mafia of the old Northern Alliance mujahedeen
fighters remains firmly in control, not only at the top but among the
practical levers of control such as police chiefs, secret service heads
and army commanders.
Without his own power base, Karzai is seen by some as less a real chief
executive than a liberal opposition figure against his own
Cabinet--offering no apparent strategy for securing and unifying the
fractious country. "The only question," according to Paul Bergne, a
former British special envoy to Afghanistan, "is whether this is because
he has no interest, or simply a reasonable interest, in staying alive."
Especially with the exclusion from power of former King Zahir Shah, the
majority Pashtuns, concentrated in the south, where the Taliban emerged,
feel disfranchised and demoralized. Rubbing salt in the wound, pictures
of the martyred Ahmed Shah Massoud, the rebel leader killed by the
Taliban on September 9, adorn every checkpoint, office and street
corner, and even prayer mats on sale in the city markets.
Soon after the loya jirga, Vice President Haji Qadeer, an ethnic
Pashtun, was gunned down in front of his office by two assailants, who
escaped easily. The United States quickly agreed to provide American
soldiers to serve as bodyguards for a somewhat panicked
Karzai--doubtless a prudent security measure, but one viewed as shameful
by Afghans worried that their leader is Washington's puppet. Meanwhile,
public anger over continuing deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of
US rocket fire--such as the 175 casualties at a wedding in the tense
southern province of Oruzgan--compelled even Karzai himself to complain.
Separate UN and US investigations into the incident have been launched,
amid speculation that the reports will never be released or that the
most damaging conclusions--including alleged American removal of
evidence--will be redacted. International troops are seen as essential
for keeping the local fighting at bay, but Pashtuns bitterly question
why the bulk of civilian casualties appear to be among Pashtun-majority
areas in the south.
The overwhelming majority of the country's 20 million-odd people are
still poor, ill and unemployed. Basic statistics confirm that the
country remains at the bottom ranking of many development indexes,
whether infant mortality, girls' enrollment in primary education (under
10 percent), annual deaths from diarrhea (85,000) or chronic
unemployment, which cannot even begin to be measured.
Afghan officials--facing growing pressure from their own
constituents--have been raising ever sharper alarms about the pace of
aid payments. According to the US special envoy, only around one-third
of the $1.8 billion in aid pledged for the year at an international
donors' conference in Tokyo has been released. Kabul earns tax revenues
of less than 15 percent of its $600 million annual budget. As a result,
most aid has been spent either on humanitarian needs or simply on the
daily costs of government. There have essentially been no major
reconstruction works that would pump funds into the economy and rebuild
the country's devastated infrastructure.
The first postwar administration in any society is inevitably
problematic. Without any conditions for democracy--too many guns and
recalcitrant warlords, no free press or civic institutions for
independent organizing, no functioning economy--establishing a
legitimate and representative administration is not easy. As the Bush
Administration insists, enormous changes have indeed taken place.
Whatever the problems, conditions are vastly improved from the
circumstances of only a few months ago--when the country was plagued by
severe persecution and increasing food shortages with seemingly no hope.
Indeed, some Afghans respond sharply to any probing questions about the
costs and benefits of the US intervention. "Those are questions for a
Western perspective," remarked a senior local editor. "For us, we are
glad the Taliban are gone."
Yet the risks of an unattended Afghanistan remain high. The transitional
administration faces an enormous challenge, aiming to pave the way for
truly democratic elections in 2004 while striving to balance conflicting
and often violent local interests, and struggling to sustain
international support. The core conflict, however, may be between
America's pursuit of Al Qaeda and Afghan democracy itself: The US
military directly supports many Afghan warlords as allies in its effort
to stamp out Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. Continuing that policy will
have a devastating effect on efforts to establish democratic central
government and a meaningful civil society. This is especially true
considering that, despite US training efforts, the establishment of an
effective Afghan national army is years away, and Washington and other
Western governments repeatedly reject Afghan calls--recently joined by
Senators Joseph Biden, Richard Lugar and Barbara Boxer--to extend the
international security assistance force to major cities other than
As a result, the government's authority effectively ends at the
capital's edge. As a result, too, peace could be short-lived. As BBC
regional specialist Behrouz Afagh-Tebrizi notes, "There is a consensus
to avoid a return to war, but there has not been any change in political
culture. Unless the unresolved conflict between the warlords of the
1990s is transformed into a purely political struggle, it is not hard to
see Afghanistan descending back into violence."
The recent news about the harmful effects of hormone replacement was
played in the media as a health story, but it is much more than that. In
fact, it may be the hot-flashiest corporate scandal to date: Let's call
If other corporate scandals have been about fudging figures, this one
is about fudging science--something that seems to have been surprisingly
easy to do. And such is the corporate culture that we have apparently
preferred to believe the drug companies rather than the women's health
advocates who have been lobbying for decades simply to get the
scientific evidence to back the companies' claims. The director of the
North American Menopause Society (NAMS), Dr. Wulf Utian, called the bad
news about hormones a bombshell, but it really isn't. Information has
been slowly accumulating about hormone replacement therapy's risks, even
as Wyeth and other manufacturers have been pushing their product as an
elixir for a widening group of symptoms. In recent years, this
potentially carcinogenic drug has been marketed with the nonchalance of
a vitamin pill: HRT advertising suggests that almost no woman over 50
couldn't benefit from it somehow.
Estron is the latest in a long line of scandals pitting women's health
against the interests of Big Pharma--scandals like the sale of faulty
Dalkon Shield contraceptives, which caused infertility, and medications
like DES, which caused severe illnesses in users and their children.
What all these cases have in common is that--like the manufacturers of
menopausal hormones--the drug companies, in their rush for profits,
insufficiently tested their wares before selling them to millions. What
these scandals suggest is that somewhere in the swampy landscape of
medical research funding, unhealthy relationships incubate between
medical practitioners and the drug-company reps who manage to dazzle
them with quasi science and quasi truths. The industry spends around $15
billion a year to promote its products--more than it spends to develop
them. Clearly, even those doctors who resisted the
luxury-cruise-lectures approach to sales found themselves suckered in.
The manipulation of HRT's scientific credentials began back in the
mid-1960s, when Wyeth paid gynecologist Dr. Robert Wilson to extol its
new wonder drug, estrogen replacement. In an evocatively named book,
Feminine Forever, Wilson declared that by replacing the estrogen
lost at menopause, women would remain attractive and easier to live
with. Over the decades since, Wyeth and other hormone manufacturers have
revised dosages and combinations to fit new medical revelations and
poured billions into sophisticated propaganda to get their message out.
The message is that menopause is not a natural life stage but a
disease--estrogen deficiency--and it will make you old. HRT is the cure,
and it will keep you young.
In recent years the manufacturers have claimed protective qualities for
HRT way beyond its original ambitions. First, it promised (and
delivered) relief from menopausal symptoms. Next came claims for
protection against heart disease in women already affected, and then in
healthy women. Then came its role as a treatment against osteoporosis,
which, manufacturers warned (falsely), becomes an instant risk at the
moment of menopause (it's a gradual risk over many years).
The truth is that the manufacturers didn't exactly know what HRT did or
didn't do, because they never ran a big, randomized national study
stringent enough to meet medical standards. For more than twenty years,
the companies used observational studies showing that women who took
hormones were healthier, but they didn't look at why: Was it that the
hormones themselves made women healthier, or that health-conscious women
were more likely to take hormones to begin with? There were many other
uncertainties. Yet calls to answer these questions, from women's health
groups and even from prominent politicians like Pat Schroeder and
Olympia Snowe, went unheeded.
For all the hype, there has been plenty of evidence, both scientific and
epidemiological, that estrogen, named a carcinogen by the FDA two years
ago, is not a wonder drug for everyone. Thirty percent of prescriptions
for estrogen remain unfilled, and the growing search for alternative
menopause products shows that increasing numbers of women are
uncomfortable with the prospect of a lifetime of swallowing synthesized
horse urine. And for all the spin, there has also been accumulating
evidence of serious side effects. As early as 1975 the FDA identified
links between estrogen and higher rates of uterine cancer. (Wyeth
responded by adding another product, progestin, to offset the risk.) In
1990 the Nurses Health Study reported that women on estrogen faced a 36
percent greater risk of breast cancer. That same year the FDA refused to
approve Premarin as a treatment to prevent heart disease, because the
company's evidence didn't convince them. The 2000 HERS study, actually
funded by Wyeth, found that hormone therapy increased risks in heart
disease patients in the first few years. (Wyeth countered that
long-term, it works.)
And people have been trying to warn us. As far back as the mid-1990s,
The Menopause Industry, by Australian reporter Sandra Coney,
presented heavily researched evidence of uterine bleeding, gallbladder
disease and increased cancer rates in hormone takers. In 1997 breast
cancer specialist Dr. Susan Love's Hormone Book returned to the
link between HRT and increased breast cancer risk and came under attack
for raising an alarm. Earlier this year Cindy Pearson, executive
director of the National Women's Health Network, published The Truth
About Hormone Replacement Therapy, outlining many other
discrepancies between hormone hype and science. The medical
establishment barely paid attention.
Finally, the scientific evidence that we have now, based on two large
randomized trials, is definitive, according to one of the study's
leaders, Dr. Deborah Grady. The trials have shown that not only does HRT
do more harm than good for women with existing heart disease, but it
doesn't protect healthy women either; in fact, during the trial it
increased incidence of heart attacks, breast cancer, strokes and blood
clots--enough to have caused the study to be abandoned three years
early. And yet belief in the hormone was so strong that researchers
feared it would be unethical to put women on placebos.
How is this possible? Dr. Utian of NAMS has admitted that many different
parties--from the drug companies to their paid researchers and
spokespeople to the prescribing gynecologists--have had a vested
interest in the success of hormone replacement, and for them, he told
the New York Times, the issue is about more than data. For them,
Utian said, truth is opinion. But that seems a risky precept for
physicians to work with. It sounds like something Arthur Andersen would
Everyone, from President Bush on down, seems to agree that major league baseball players are overpaid prima donnas who don't deserve the huge paychecks they get, let alone have a right to strike
Doomed by the incoherence of a foreign policy defined largely by biblical notions of the struggle between good and evil, the Bush Administration thrashes about in its hunt for the devil.
Let's start with Cynthia McKinney. Don't you think that if Arab-American
or African-American groups targeted an incumbent white, liberal, maybe
Jewish, congressperson, and shipped in money by the truckload to oust
the incumbent, the rafters would shake with bellows of outrage?
Yet when a torrent of money from out-of-state Jewish organizations
smashed Earl Hilliard, the first elected black Representative in Alabama
since Reconstruction, you could have heard a mouse cough. Hilliard had
made the fatal error of calling for some measure of evenhandedness in
the Middle East. So he was targeted by AIPAC and the others. Down he
went, defeated in the Democratic primary by Artur Davis, a black lawyer
who obediently sang for his supper on the topic of Israel.
At that particular moment the liberal watchdogs were barking furiously
in an entirely different direction. Ed McGaa, a Green candidate, has had
the effrontery to run in Minnesota for Paul Wellstone's Senate seat.
Such an uproar! Howls of fury from Marc Cooper and Harold Meyerson
lashing McGaa for his presumption. Even a pompous open letter from Steve
Cobble hassling the Minnesota Greens for endangering St. Paul. Any of
these guys think of writing to Artur Davis, telling him to back off, or
to denounce him as a cat's-paw of groups backing Sharon's terror against
Palestinians? You bet they did.
Then it was McKinney's turn. A terrific liberal black Congresswoman.
Like Hilliard, she wasn't cowed by the Israel-right-or-wrong lobby and
called for real debate on the Middle East. And she called for a real
examination of the lead-up to 9/11. So the sky has fallen in on her.
Torrents of American Jewish money shower her opponent, a black woman
judge called Denise Majette. Buckets of shit are poured over McKinney's
head in the Washington Post and the Atlanta
Here's how it's been working. McKinney sees what happened to Hilliard,
and that American Jewish money is pumping up Majette's challenge. So she
goes to Arab-American groups to try to raise money to fight back. This
allows Tom Edsall to attack her in the Post as being in receipt
of money from pro-terror Muslims. Lots of nasty-looking Arab/Muslim
names fill Edsall's stories.
Now just suppose someone looked at names in the pro-Israel groups
funding Majette, who by mid-August had raised twice as much money as
McKinney. Aren't they supporting the terror that has US-made F-16s
bombing kids in Gaza? What's the game here? It's a reiteration of the
message delivered to politicians down the years, as when Senator Charles
Percy and others went down: Put your head over the parapet on the topic
of Israel/Palestine, and we'll blow it off. And when blacks denounce the
role of outside Jewish money in the onslaughts on Hilliard and McKinney,
there'll be an avalanche of hysterical columns about the menace of black
anti-Semitism. Just you wait. It's a closed system.
Next sour thought: Yes, Katha, you did raise a little stink re McKinney,
in overly decorous but still commendable terms right here in The
Nation. Which reminds me, here's what I wrote to a fellow angered
over a piece by Ellen Johnson we'd run in CounterPunch,
criticizing you for saying Dennis Kucinich's position against abortion
rendered him ineligible as the progressives' future champion:
"Hi Matt, I'm forwarding yr note to Ellen, but allow me to say that I
think your reaction is too hasty. Ellen raised some very serious points
about the monoptic way NOW and leading feminists address the abortion
issue. I think it is right to emphasize that we should battle for social
conditions where abortion ceases to be regarded by many progressives as
a prime indicator of freedom and liberation for women.
"Surely you cannot regard the killing of fetuses as somehow an
intrinsically 'good thing.' The real friends of abortion are the
Malthusians who want to rid the world as much as possible of the
'over-breeding' and disruptive poor, particularly minorities....
"More generally, I think liberal women's groups gave Clinton the pass on
savage assaults on the poor because the Clintons unrelentingly preached
commitment to abortion.... we ran the piece because we think it's high
time to get beyond bunker liberalism, where progressives huddle in the
foxhole, holding on to 'choice' as their bottom-line issue, with a
sideline in telling black teen moms that they are socially
irresponsible. Best, Alex Cockburn"
More sourness: The ILWU? That's the West Coast longshoremen. Their
contract expired on July 1. The contract is being extended on a daily
basis. The employers are playing tough, well aware that the Bush high
command has told ILWU leaders that Bush will not hesitate to invoke
Taft-Hartley, bring in troops if necessary and destroy the ILWU as a
bargaining agent for the whole West Coast. Tom Ridge, calling in his
capacity as chief of Homeland Security, has done some heavy breathing in
the ear of ILWU leaders about the inadvisability of a strike at this
The ILWU's coastwide contract was won in the 1934 strike, along with the
hiring hall, which replaced the old shape-up system, in which the boss
could keep out organizers and anyone else. These are bedrock issues, for
which strikers fought and died that year in San Francisco and Seattle.
The West Coast longshoremen stand as a beacon of what union organizing
can do. Of course, the Bush White House yearns to destroy it, maybe
using the War on Terror as pretext. If ever there was a time for
solidarity, this is it.
Final sour thought, on Paul Krugman. Krugman? He has just conceded that
maybe neoliberal policies haven't worked too well in Latin America. Look
it up. It's in his New York Times column for August 9, "The Lost
Continent." He spent 184 words on the matter. "Why hasn't reform worked
as promised? That's a difficult and disturbing question."
Gee Paul, since you constitute the entirety of the Democratic Party's
opposition to Bush, I know you're busy as hell. But since your crowd
supervised a good deal of the economic destruction of Latin America, and
your economic faction offered the basic rationales for that devastation,
I sure hope you return to the problem. Maybe you won't be so snooty
about opponents of "free trade." Maybe you'll even have a quiet word
with Tom Friedman.
Al Gore is a man of the people.
At least, that's the case as we speak.
The earth-toney Harvard elitist,
Though gone, could return by next week.
It's only August, but I'll go out on a limb and congratulate the
Village Voice's Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand
the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. "Because his
vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular
consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet
again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe
that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into
my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it
for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have
had to invent one."
Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris's
review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and
self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its
willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce
Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of
Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?
While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen
has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American
"other" that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam
veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the
death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by
forty-one shots from New York's finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad
"Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen became the first heterosexual
rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work
that--as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in,
uh, the Village Voice, observed--succeeded in crossing "the
barriers of class, race, and gender."
Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds,
artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled
times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally
stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, "We need you."
Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He
played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the
meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times's
"Portraits of Grief." He called a few widows, shared their stories and
made a record. It's what he does. "I have a sense of what my service to
my audience is going to be," he explains. "It's the true nature of work
in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its
blessings and its responsibilities." So sue him.
It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated
from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The
Rising, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the
very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain--or, as Springsteen
puts it, "music is medicine"--is cynicism itself. And to the degree that
this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an
impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage
the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the
Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The
Rising does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art,
politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984--to Springsteen's own
Born in the U.S.A.--to find a rock record that was marketed as
energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative
reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media:
taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two
nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live,
simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long
interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and
USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over
breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts
at No. 1 in eleven countries.
The problem arises--just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.--when
the work's cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what
Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed "the thing itself."
The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a
message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who's using
whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the
mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening
the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing
these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk
context of a Today show beach party?
Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of
exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to
the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his
willingness to embrace (and exploit) America's mighty mass-marketing
The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random
interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on
overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in
the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a
firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl
who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get 'NSync
tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in '85, enlisted her
entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or
Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained
about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed
inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for
them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms "a theater of
humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing," they
had created a community around something better. This was their
(Don't forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation,
The universe of online computer games is home to 200,000 players at any time. It's also where you can find the newest innovation in military recruiting.
In a 1996 Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies paper prepared for Binyamin Netanyahu, the authors---including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, now, respectively, chair of the De
In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would
refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in
the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its
public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to
consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company
for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price
of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more
than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union
activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and
others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the
Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water
In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown
with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage
brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and
several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the
company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated
privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company,
leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was
to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel,
meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the
World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment
In the 39 states that elect appellate judges, politicization of the
bench is growing.
They want not just a US invasion of Iraq but "total war" against Arab
In South Africa, the only country in the world where people's right to
water is actually written into the Constitution, the townships
surrounding cities like Johannesburg and Durban have become hotbeds of
resistance to water privatization. More than 10 million residents have
had their water cut off since the government implemented a World
Bank-inspired "cost recovery" program (which makes availability
dependent on a company's ability to recover its costs plus a
profit)--something that never happened in the worst days of apartheid.
More than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with
cholera recently after water and sanitation services to local
communities were cut off for nonpayment.
Water is at the heart of every fight in this country, where the
population is growing four times faster than the water supply and where
women collectively walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back
sixteen times a day to fetch water for their families. Access to water
is a deeply political issue. Six hundred thousand white farmers consume
60 percent of the country's water supplies for irrigation, while 15
million blacks have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the
South African Municipal Workers Union work with township activists to
organize neighborhood-by-neighborhood resistance, re-hooking up the
water supply and pulling out water meters. Such actions are a growing
sign that citizens are prepared to challenge by action, when they cannot
by law, injustices often originating with foreign-owned firms but
implemented by their own governments.
Privatization must be stopped, and water declared the common property of
THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK.
By Stephen L. Carter.
Knopf. 657 pp. $26.95.
I am writing this review in the midst of a Chicago heat wave, almost
exactly seven years after the heat disaster that killed nearly 800
people in the city. The Chicago Tribune's multicolored weather
page adorns the forecast with a special "excessive heat watch"
symbol--an exclamation point lodged in a red circle--newscasters
earnestly tell us to stay inside and take it easy, and veteran black
radio deejay Herb Kent, the Kool Gent, chats on-air about liquor and
caffeinated drinks being dehydrating and the need to drink lots of "good
I remember the 1995 disaster well, but for me personally it was a period
of intensive work on my last book, cooped up indoors 24/7, with roaring
air-conditioning, punctuated by horrified reading of the
Tribune's coverage of rolling city power outages and the growing
spectacle of hundreds of heat-related deaths, with the bodies piling up
and overwhelming the city morgue's capacity. Suspicious of the
Tribune because of its long history of rightist and racist
slants, I scrutinized the stories to see if the city was, as usual,
shortchanging its black South and West sides on services, but couldn't
figure anything out. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a young Chicago
native, was out of the country during the disaster, but has since then
more than made up for lost time. His Heat Wave is a trenchant,
multilayered and well-written social autopsy of the disaster.
Since finishing Heat Wave, I've been obsessively asking friends,
neighbors, students and colleagues if they were in town in July 1995,
and if so, what they remember. Most of my middle-class interlocutors
were as insulated as I was, in cooled rooms, and only vaguely remember
the period because of media coverage. But many younger people, who were
then living on student or first-job budgets, told tales of extreme
misery and multiple palliative strategies--double bills at
air-conditioned theaters, plunging into Lake Michigan every possible
nonworking hour, bunking with better-off friends and relatives, long
drives in cars with AC and, of course, all the old tricks with cold
water, towels and fans. One conservative young woman described her
sudden comprehension, lying sweaty and wretched in her sweltering apartment, listening to neighbors' AC compressors turning on, of the ressentiment and violence of some inner-city dwellers.
In fact, Klinenberg explains, aside from some vigilante actions against
city workers sent to reseal the 3,000 open fire hydrants liberated by
kids, poor Chicagoans were far too enervated by the hot, wet blanket
enveloping the city to commit mayhem. The real criminals of the heat
crisis, Klinenberg makes clear, were the federal, state and local
officials who, in the words of Robert Scates, the bitter black
thirty-year veteran emergency medical services director, committed
"murder by public policy."
But first we need to come to terms with the epidemiological realities of
heat crises. Extreme heat, Klinenberg explains, tends not to be taken as
seriously as other weather and human disasters--hurricanes, floods,
earthquakes, blizzards, plane crashes. But "more people die in heat
waves than in all other extreme events combined," and the '95
crisis has "no equal in the record of US heat disasters." Because the
body's defenses "can take only about forty-eight hours of uninterrupted
exposure to such heat before they break down," Klinenberg observes, area
ambulance services and emergency rooms were soon overwhelmed, and at the
height of the catastrophe, half of Chicago's hospitals went on bypass
status--turned all new patients away. Most Chicagoans saw the grisly
televised scenes of emergency workers falling prostrate with heatstroke,
of police cars backed up clear around the block, waiting to deliver
cadavers to nine forty-eight-foot refrigerated trucks donated by a local
meatpacking firm when the morgue ran entirely out of body-storage space,
and heard and read about the record-breaking murderousness of the
disaster. But Klinenberg notes that only months after the catastrophe,
Chicagoans reacted to his queries with "detachment and disavowal." Not
only did they, and the press whose interpretations they were reflecting,
wish to relegate the disaster to a nonhappening but many, following
Mayor Richard Daley's lead, asserted that the death figures weren't
"really real," that "the massive mortality figures...had somehow been
fabricated, or that the deaths were simply not related to the heat."
Klinenberg took on the task of explicating what's "really real" with
extraordinary energy. He burrowed into public health and press
documents, did street-level fieldwork and police ride-alongs in poor
neighborhoods, interviewed every possible city, state and private agency
official, and many low-level service workers, and thoroughly engaged
local journalists on their hour-by-hour decision-making on the framing
and coverage of the breaking story. In domain after domain, across
institutions, he smashes home his key finding: "The geography of
vulnerability during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the
everyday ecology of inequality." Heat disasters in general resonate less
with the general public because, unlike other sorts of disasters, they
leave property untouched and mostly affect the poor, the frail, the
nonwhite--whoever can't afford air-conditioning! The Chicago dead were
indeed largely the isolated, elderly and disproportionately black poor,
and the city rapidly turned its back on them.
But the everyday ecology of inequality is not a timeless phenomenon, and
Chicago is not Everycity. By the mid-1990s, the US economy had recovered
from the Reagan-Bush recession, the market was booming, urban street
crime was dropping and American media were hyping an urban renaissance.
Mayor Daley capitalized on these national trends with an ambitious
program of urban beautification and a massive public relations campaign,
suburbanites moved back downtown and tourism revived dramatically.
(Klinenberg doesn't mention the role of the 1990s spike in international
migration to Chicago, which brought much-needed quality and variety to
local restaurant fare, added exotic cuteness to tourist attractions and
provided a vast underpaid labor force for booming restaurants, hotels
and offices.) During the heat wave, the Daley administration was
particularly engaged in "gloss[ing] its image in preparation for the
Democratic National Convention of 1996"--felt as a crucial task, given
the debacle of the 1968 DNC event, when Daley's father was mayor, with
its globally reproduced images of Chicago's finest beating the shit out
of middle-class white kids and not a few journalists and Democratic
politicians. So it comes as little surprise that Daley viewed the heat
wave deaths primarily as "a potential public relations disaster," and
Chicago-watchers will not be too surprised to read that the city
administration both actively hindered appropriate relief efforts and put
most of its energy into an attempt to "spin its way out of the crisis."
God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for
us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the
disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995. Most crucial is the
rise of neoliberalism, which Klinenberg rather oddly denominates
"reinvented government" and "the entrepreneurial state," in a narrow
sociological tradition, rather than connecting to abundant available
radical analyses of the phenomenon worldwide. No matter, he names the
key shifts: the state's growing divestment of social service
responsibilities; the outsourcing and simultaneous downsizing of the
remaining functions; the overarching capitalist managerial model of
lean, mean efficiency; and the new model of citizens as "active
consumers" of public goods, and too damned bad if they lack the
knowledge, capacity or energy to do so.
In the case of the heat wave, the crucial noxious brew involved
neoliberal policies with regard to low-cost housing, consumer energy use
and social service personnel. Since Reagan, the federal government has
been cutting back support for low-cost housing, and the public housing
crisis in Chicago was so acute that local activists were unwilling to
draw attention to the many code violations in single room occupancy
(SRO) hotel units--more than 18,000 rooms had been lost already--for
fear that they would "only embolden the political officials and real
estate developers who would prefer to convert the units into market-rate
family housing." As a result, many frail elderly people literally cooked
to death in illegal multiply subdivided "cattle sheds for human beings."
As well, the traditional down-on-its-luck SRO population had been
swollen since the 1970s with the mentally ill dumped onto urban housing
markets with the closure of government-operated asylums. Fragile
community connections were severed as SRO residents, afraid of the
"crazy folk," retreated from common spaces into their tiny rooms, making
it ever more likely that those sinking with heatstroke would fail to be
discovered until it was too late. In public housing, the Chicago Housing
Authority provided no air-conditioning even in common rooms, and in a
perverse interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the CHA
dumped youthful drug addicts, without rehab services, into
well-established senior housing all over the city. Crime in the projects
predictably skyrocketed, the collective caretaking bonds the residents
had built atrophied as the elderly retreated in terror into their
individual units; many lives were lost as a result.
Air-conditioning may be part of the overarching environmental crisis,
but it is a godsend in extreme heat, and for better or worse,
working-class and better-off Americans have organized their lives around
it in all parts of the country affected by high summer temperatures.
Inability to afford winter heating, much less summer air-conditioning,
is part of what Klinenberg labels the "everyday energy crisis" of the
poor. A 50 percent cutback in the federal low-income energy-assistance
program, combined with soaring utility rates, pinched the city of
Chicago so badly that it still closes down aid each year at the
beginning of the cold season, and provides no AC subsidies at all. The
poor elderly with whom Klinenberg visited were so fearful of excessive
energy bills that they even avoided using electric lights during the
day. In an extraordinary illustration of neoliberal cruelty, as the heat
wave deaths were still being counted, the US Senate initiated a vote to
end the energy program but settled on skimming off a mere hundred
million dollars. In the same session, Congress vastly expanded federal
support to insurance companies and homeowners who suffer property damage
due to disasters. The final fillip is the new "market model" utility
policy that punishes delinquent customers, even the desperately ill, by
cutting off not only electricity but water. Klinenberg notes
sardonically that this policy is simply not parallel to the money-making
efficiency of the car boot: "Water, unlike a car, is a resource that
people need to survive."
Chicago's specific demographic and spatial history greatly magnified the
final domain--social services--of murder by public policy. Klinenberg
demonstrates that the city, much to my surprise, has significantly
higher percentages than the American average both of single residents in
general and of elderly living alone. Of course, as he notes, living
alone and being without resources are two distinct states. But Chicago
lost 1 million people between 1950 and 1990, and for the elderly poor,
"aging in place" in neighborhoods devastated first by capital and then
by massive population flight--and then colonized by kids working in the
only industry left, drugs--is a recipe for dangerous isolation. Add
state cutbacks and outsourcing, and you have private agencies on
insanely low budgets sending outrageously overworked service providers
out to elderly poor clients no more than once a year--and even then, in
fear of the druggies, confining their visits to the early mornings.
North Lawndale is one such "bombed out" neighborhood, and Klinenberg's
star turn is a rigorous ethnographic and historical comparison of that
Southwest Side area with the contiguous Little Village. Both
neighborhoods were founded by Southeastern European immigrants and then
tipped minority in the postwar years, and both have similar poverty
levels and percentages of poor elderly--but North Lawndale had ten times
more heat wave deaths, proportionately, than its southern neighbor.
Scholars, politicians, social service people and even residents
themselves offered up "racial" explanations, as North Lawndale is black
while Little Village is Mexican: Latinos are used to hot weather, they
have close intergenerational families, they form tight communities, etc.
Klinenberg demolishes all these folk theories with hard facts and
careful logic (and not a little sarcasm--black Chicagoans with roots in
the Delta don't have close families and aren't used to hot weather?) and
forces us to consider variations in urban spatial ecology and their
consequences for city-dwellers' daily lives. After all, three Chicago
neighborhoods with the lowest per capita heat-wave death rates were
majority-black--but not "bombed out."
The key difference is human density. Little Village is both an
entrepôt for the vast Latino migration to Chicago and a safe haven
for Latinos gentrified out of other neighborhoods. As one resident said
of the neighborhood, "there is no such thing as an empty lot." High
populations maintain abundant local business, which in turn guarantees
lively street life and thus a safe and interesting public environment in
which the elderly can shop, exercise--and cool down in air-conditioned
stores during a heat wave. Even the "aging in place" whites left over
from Little Village's earlier incarnation fared well in the crisis.
Certainly Little Villagers have strong community bonds, especially
through the Catholic Church, but North Lawndale residents are organized
to a fare-thee-well too. Their church groups and block clubs, though,
simply cannot make up for abandoned buildings, empty lots and few
Klinenberg deals diligently but less successfully with three other
domains key to his story. He nails the Daley administration's
culpability in an hour-by-hour account of the unfolding disaster and
discusses the highly publicized failed snow removal that doomed the
1970s Bilandic administration, but he neglects to mention
African-American Harold Washington's brief but significant interim
mayoralty of the 1980s. Washington, after all, gained both national fame
and notoriety for trying to equalize city resources across rich and poor
neighborhoods, and that profoundly race-inflected inequality is the
fulcrum of Heat Wave's criticism of current city government. Some
of Klinenberg's heroes of the crisis, public health activist Quentin
Young and Sid Bild of Metro Seniors in Action, are actually white
veterans of the old Washington coalition. And we never really hear about
the Daley/developer deals that have stripped the city of affordable
housing, which are well documented in radical scholarship and
journalism. Similarly, Klinenberg does wonders with the sordid story of
the firefighter/paramedic feud--one reason for the city's belated response to the crisis--but doesn't really clue us in that racism is at the root of that
one too. Finally, he gives us terrific reporter's-eye insight into the
bureaucratic realities that determined the false coverage of the
breaking crisis at the Chicago Tribune, but never informs us of
the Trib's history of rightist ownership, the structures above
the heads of the city editors.
Klinenberg documents the local media's chastened post-'95
hyperresponsibility to advise the public on individual tactics to
mitigate heat danger, and lists the specific ongoing political
structures that will inevitably lead to more murder by public policy.
But he never quite adds these elements up to their sum total--the heat
disaster as an altogether predictable product of neoliberal capitalist
shift. Heat Wave connects the dots to tell us an important new
muckraking story but doesn't fully recognize the radical urban and
national political economy narrative already on the page.
How did it all start? What triggered the 1990s political corruption, its
inequality in wealth and its stock market bubble? This is the decade
that Kevin Phillips rails against in his historical epic of how the rich
get richer and the poor get further in debt.
Arguably it all started in Silicon Valley, with a little help from the
Department of Defense (which pioneered the epochal
breakthroughs--transistor and Internet--that sparked the electronics
revolution). Given the government's basic research, such private
companies as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple, Intel and Cisco
generated creative, profitable products using new technologies. As the
intellectual property of these well-managed companies began to rise,
their stock prices began to rise, as did those of their suppliers,
buyers, competitors, financial consultants, management analysts, lawyers
and accountants. Even the stock prices of companies unrelated to high
tech began to soar.
The frenzy struck executive salaries. Top-notch high-tech managers made
a lot of money because their pay was tied to stock options. As their
company's stock price skyrocketed, so did their salaries. Soon other
corporate leaders--good, bad and indifferent--tied their own salaries to
the price of their company's stock. The financial markets regarded stock
options as a way to make managers more "efficient" using the litmus test
of stock-price performance. In practice, some managers cooked the books
and inflated stock prices by making risky short-term investments and
acquisitions. Long-term investments in new plant, equipment, research
and intellectual property, necessary for permanent jobs, became an
As Phillips shows, the greed of corporate America was such that in the
1960s, the pay of corporate CEOs was "only" about twenty-five times that
of hourly production workers. In the 1970s, the ratio was around thirty
to one. It rose from ninety-three times in 1988 to 419 times in 1999.
Between 1990 and 1998, the wages of ordinary workers barely kept pace
with inflation or grew at single-digit rates. Meanwhile, top executives
of America's biggest corporations enjoyed compensation increases of 481
percent! (Appalled by the eye-popping numbers on executive pay, Paul
Krugman referred to Wealth and Democracy in one of his columns in
the New York Times.)
With so much money sloshing around, contributions by business to
politicians increased. With more campaign funding, deregulation resumed
where Reagan left off, and upper-bracket tax rates mellowed. Phillips
shows that the effective federal tax rate (income and FICA, or Social
Security and Medicare) for the top 1 percent of families fell from 69
percent in 1970 to about 40 percent in 1993, with plenty of loopholes
remaining. Over the same period, the tax rate for the median family
increased from 16 percent to 25 percent. Between 1950 and 2000,
corporate taxes as a percentage of total tax receipts fell from 27
percent to 10 percent while FICA (mostly paid by the middle class)
jumped from 7 percent to 31 percent.
Regulation was critically lax in the accounting industry's scandals, as
we now know. Phillips's book predates news of this disgrace, but he
anticipates most of what happened. Deal by deal, the Big Five all began
to relax established auditing norms; otherwise they would have lost big
customers to one another. When chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. of the
Securities and Exchange Commission proposed to investigate, the Big Five
went to Washington. The SEC was called off the job; the Clinton
Administration caved in. As for the telecommunications sector, now
bleeding billions from overcapacity, its relations with the government
were similar to those of the railroads in the robber-baron age. In the
late nineteenth century, railroad tycoons were given free access to land
worth millions of dollars; in the 1990s, the telecommunications industry
was given publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum worth billions of
dollars. Phillips shows that, among the top thirty billionaires reported
by Forbes for 2001, eight were in high-tech electronics,
including software, and eight were in media.
So, starting with Silicon Valley, one can tell a story about the 1990s
that may be flat-footed but that at least moves from cause to effect in
a linear fashion. This, however, is not the story that Kevin Phillips
chooses to tell. Or maybe it is, but his writing style is so roving,
rambling and roundabout that it is difficult to find a coherent story
anywhere, although the parts are sure to be found somewhere, and are
often juicy. He aims a shotgun rather than a rifle at the fin de
siècle's cast of cruddy characters.
Phillips doesn't start in Silicon Valley because, at heart, he is an
antitechnologist. For Phillips, technology merely makes mischief. "From
early textile machinery to the Internet," he writes, the early stages of
major innovations have generated rising social and economic inequality
almost as a matter of course." (But how about the millions of jobs
created in textiles and the Internet at a slightly later stage?)
Elsewhere he states: "We can likewise doubt that technology has
outweighed representative government, effective markets, and
English-speaking freedoms in achieving the economic leadership of
Britain and then the United States." Really? Phillips's dismissal of
technology as a major factor in the economic hegemony of first England
and then the United States is strange because he shows contempt for the
alternative explanation--an obsessive love of market forces and
laissez-faire. Technology is bad in Phillips's view simply because it
breeds speculation. There are no heroes.
Notwithstanding Phillips's chaotic style and his neglect of the real
economic forces that govern wealth accumulation and distribution (such
as technology), he does a big service for his readers by providing them
with bytes of information on wealth inequality and democracy's warts.
Phillips, historically a card-carrying Republican, regards his
reformist, liberal politics as nothing strange. It follows in the
footsteps of great past Republican reformers like Lincoln and Theodore
Roosevelt. Phillips considers Franklin D. Roosevelt one of the team
because--his affiliation to the Democratic Party notwithstanding--he was
rich but a reformer of radical scope (responding, one might add, not
necessarily to his conscience but to social unrest). For most
Republicans, Phillips has nothing kind to say. "The Democrats," he
writes, "were the more important incubators of the Internet mania, but
the underpinning economic spirit was the market-deifying,
tax-cutting, and assets-aggrandizing conservatism given its head in the
eighties. This part of the framework was more Republican."
The Republican pedigree lets Phillips get away with murder. He rants and
raves in a way that someone on the left would be skewered for. The
result, however, is welcome. It is satisfying to read an analysis of the
US economy from the standpoint of greed and conservative morality.
The history lessons Phillips administers range from Aristotle to the
Gilded Age of the 1920s, which he contrasts with Gilded Age II of the
1990s. He examines Holland's tulip mania and its economic decline as a
world power, comparing its fall with that of Britain and possibly the
United States. In one table, culled from the Wall Street Journal,
he lists the wealthiest people of the past 1,000 years, starting with
Al-Mansur (938-1002), the Moorish regent of Cordoba, who got rich through plunder,
moving to Kublai Khan, ruler of China (1215-94), who got rich from
inheritance and confiscation, and ending with Bill Gates (1955-), the US
software executive, who got rich on stock ownership in Microsoft.
Other facts and figures are no less interesting, and some of Phillips's
charts are ingenious. To show the "giantizing" of wealth enjoyed by the
richest person in the realm, Phillips compares the largest fortune at
the time to that of the median family or household. In 1790, the ratio
of the richest man's wealth, Elias Derby, to the median was 4,000 to 1.
By 1868, the ratio of Cornelius Vanderbilt's wealth (in railroads) to
the median was 80,000 to 1. For John D. Rockefeller in 1912, the ratio
was 1,250,000 to 1 (in 1940, it fell to 850,000 to 1). In 1962, the
ratio for Jean Paul Getty was 138,000 to 1. For Sam Walton in 1992, it
was 185,000 to 1. For Bill Gates in 1999, it was the blockbuster,
1,416,000 to 1! Presumably, the ratio increased over time as the United
States moved from an agrarian economy to one based on modern
transportation (railroads), natural resource exploitation (copper, oil)
and then manufacturing, where new product innovations could flourish.
Compared with other wealthy countries, inequality in the United States
is extreme. In the 1990s, the income ratio in Japan of the top fifth of
households to the bottom fifth was only 4.3 to 1. (A similar ratio
exists in Korea and Taiwan, which, like Japan, had a land reform after
World War II.) European social democracies tended to have ratios of 6 or
7 to 1 (5.8 in Germany). The US ratio was 11 to 1 or higher, depending
on the source. Presumably this reflected the United States' cowboy
capitalism, its rich raw materials, its pioneering technologies and its
corporations' ability to mass-produce for a vast domestic market.
Wealth (which Phillips never defines) is essentially the difference
between inflows and outflows of income, which is savings in the case of
households and profits in the case of firms. Once wealth is attained,
its holder has to figure out what to do with it. Thus, the financial
services industry usually expands as wealth expands. In the 1990s the
finance, insurance and real estate sector (FIRE) overtook manufacturing
in US national income, "enabled by a dozen federal rescues and
preferences, begun in the eighties and consummated in the nineties." The
thirty richest individuals in 2001 also included eight in finance,
investments and real estate--including Warren Buffett, George Soros and
Ross Perot. As finance grows, Phillips argues, the likelihood of a
technobubble grows exponentially.
What does it all mean, the rising inequality and "financialization" of
Business as usual, insofar as Gilded Age II is merely a catch-up with
Gilded Age I. Between 1922 and 1997, the share of total wealth of the
top 1 percent of households spiked in 1929 at 44.2 percent, tumbled to
33.3 percent in 1933, reached a nadir of 19.9 percent in 1976 (as
profits plunged with the energy crisis) and hit 40.1 percent in 1997
(the estimates are from Edward Wolff). As the stock market boomed in
1997-2000, the wealth of the richest rose further, but atomized with the
crash of 2000, into the present. Wealth inequality appears to be wired
into the American system.
Relative increases in the wealth of the rich, moreover, are often
compatible with increases in real wages and productivity. The average
family's real income increased 30 percent between 1960 and 1968 as the
ranks of millionaires swelled. Then came the era of stagflation.
According to the Council of Economic Advisers, average hourly earnings,
adjusted for consumer prices, fell by 0.5 percent a year from 1978 to
1995. They then rose at a piddling 2 percent a year from 1995 to 2000,
in tandem with rising productivity and the "irrational exuberance" of
the stock market. Thus, wealth inequality does not preclude modest
increases in income for other social classes.
Yet, inequality matters, depending on the use to which wealth is put.
And that in turn depends on the economic and social profile of the
accumulating classes. Kevin Phillips, however, is not keen on "class
analysis." "'Class warfare'...is a false description," he writes, "a
perverse conservative borrowing from Karl Marx," because the United
States has had rich reformers and poor Republicans.
Still, one doesn't have to emulate Karl Marx in the Grundrisse to
emphasize that the new American class of rich is different from the
railroad barons or the oil money of old. For one, it is extremely well
educated. Between 1975 and 1998, the mean annual earnings of US workers
with less than four years of high school fell steadily. Those of high
school graduates stagnated. Those of college graduates rose slightly.
Those of people with advanced degrees soared, particularly after 1990,
when the demand for economists, lawyers, accountants and MBAs heated up
(as noted by Edward Wolff).
Investments of the new superrich, therefore, are likely to gravitate
toward new technologies in manufacturing and services, and fancy
finance. With high educational attainments, the new elite may be
expected to command a lot of money and social legitimacy, which the old
tycoons never quite managed. A mere college education is no longer a
guarantee of upward mobility, as Washington policy-makers still believe.
For most ordinary people without a college degree or fancy MBA, the new
rich have created a tougher world. Horatio Alger now goes to graduate
The second defining characteristic of the new rich is their
internationalism. They hire, produce and market globally, and have
mobilized bipartisan political support for operating overseas.
That all started with strong competition from Japan in the 1980s.
Technologically behind the United States, Japan had more government
interventions to help business grow (as did Korea, Taiwan, China, India,
etc.). The United States regarded this as unfair, and shoved a "level
playing field" down everyone's throat--backward and advanced countries
have to be equal with open markets, free of government's foul play.
The financial services sector, with large-scale economies, benefited
enormously from Washington's dismantling of developing countries'
barriers to foreign banking and regulations of inflows and outflows of
"hot," destabilizing money. Deregulation was soon followed by the Asian
financial crisis of 1997. The Treasury still publishes a book each year
documenting on a country-by-country basis the remaining obstacles abroad
to American financial institutions. The pharmaceuticals industry
benefited from the extension of patent enforcement to developing
countries notwithstanding their need for cheap medicines. The software
industry pressed for protection of intellectual property.
Strangely, Phillips hardly talks about globalization at all. But from
stray sentences we can assume he doesn't like it, especially its effect
on domestic jobs. Yet lobbying in Washington for protection of jobs that
can be provided more efficiently in lower-wage countries is little
different in principle from lobbying for tax breaks and deregulation for
the rich. They are both a form of political corruption.
Phillips ends his 470-page book with a tepid recommendation, given the
preceding fire and brimstone. It is to end the "democratic deficit,"
which puts power in the hands of unelected organizations--the judiciary,
the Federal Reserve and the WTO. But Washington has a large say in the
WTO, controls the World Bank and has a loud voice in the International
Monetary Fund. For American business, that deficit is small.
Is, therefore, American foreign economic policy likely to give the new
class of rich the global stability it desperately requires? No, if Kevin
Phillips is right and inequality does matter. Internationally, economic
inequality among countries has grown like Topsy. As industrialization
spread unevenly, the ratio in per capita income of the richest to the
poorest regions of the world rose from about 3 to 1 in 1820, to 5 to 1
in 1870, to 9 to 1 in 1913, to 15 to 1 in 1950. Then, as East Asia grew,
the ratio fell in 1972 to 13 to 1, but rose steeply to 19 to 1 in 1998,
the age of hardball globalism (data are from Angus Maddison, The
World Economy). Global distribution of income and wealth is becoming
as important to the American rich as domestic distribution, and both are
Phillips doesn't consider any of this, but that's fine. He makes a real
contribution by showing how American politics works, what really goes on
behind the fortunes.
Yech! What a scene!
Mary McCarthy would have turned 90 on June 21, a fact that is itself astonishing to those who remember her flagrant youth, when her sharp style made her the most feared and forthright writer in New York.
Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in
midparagraph. You think you're watching the story of an elderly man in
mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he's started
to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for
younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles,
have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.
As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in
Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven
Soderbergh. The elderly man's predicament is the subject of I'm Going
Home, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It's not just the
coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films
together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian
Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched
American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions
and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality.
Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us
something about the working conditions of today's more interesting
More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the
scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I'm Going Home:
doddering at death's threshold and having the time of his life at it.
I'm Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French
actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of
Ionesco's Exit the King--a role that calls for him to stumble
about in a cloak that looks like some kid's security blanket, thrown
over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient,
palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver
the play's final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his
words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence
of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his
face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.
Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays
out--Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen
minutes--three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. "I can't
hear you. Your words scare me," he protests from the stage, when the
dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they
don't retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce
their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine:
"I never had time." But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade
the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his
family has died in a car accident--wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at
once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert,
we don't see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the
information to reach him when he's out of the frame. Then Gilbert
clatters down a staircase and is gone.
The sight of his back disappearing through the stage door may remind us:
We haven't seen Gilbert until now, only his version of the king. It
takes another minute until we get our first look at the man himself, out
of costume and makeup; and the close-up reveals what we'd expect:
someone with the head of a glum Humpty-Dumpty. As the next sequence
starts, Gilbert is discovered staring at nothing, with a slight frown.
Yet almost at once, with only a small shift in camera setup, he is
utterly transformed: We now see he's posed behind the window of a cafe,
where he smiles and chats when the waiter comes by.
Under the weight of loss, it seems, Gilbert means to keep up his
urbanity. The next section of I'm Going Home shows how he does
it. He strolls the Paris streets, buys handsome new shoes, signs his
autograph for excited young women, plays Prospero in The Tempest
(where he ignores the smile of a fellow cast member, another young
woman). Doesn't he need companionship, his manager wants to know.
Gilbert rejects the question, perhaps more angrily than is needed. He
has his grandson, he says. He's content.
This is hubris, of course; and Gilbert will pay for it by accepting a
part in a film version of Joyce's Ulysses--a French-American
co-production that is impeccably high-minded and already foundering. In
a staggering refusal to act his age, he signs on for the role of Buck
Mulligan. In English. With three days till shooting starts. At first,
Oliveira spares us the sight of the result, just as he turned the camera
elsewhere when the terrible news was announced. Gilbert is owed that
much kindness. But the audience is owed the truth; so then we see
Gilbert struggle with ribald young Buck, only to have grief settle on
him finally like the cloak of a tattered king, ancient, palsied and
This is the second time in recent years that Oliveira has used theater
people as his characters for a story about age and loss. He did it
before in Journey to the Beginning of the World, with Marcello
Mastroianni as his surrogate; but that picture was sweeter, more rustic
and elegiac. Although I'm Going Home has some sugar of its own,
spun out of its deliberately touristic views of Paris, it comes much
closer to heartbreak. This is, at last, a movie about the impossibility
of imagining your way out of old age. It's a theme that Piccoli acts
with great beauty and sorrow; one that Oliveira directs with the
exquisite sureness a filmmaker may attain in the eighth decade of his
Distributed by Milestone Film and Video, I'm Going Home is
beginning a US theatrical run at Film Forum in New York.
The people in Full Frontal live in Los Angeles, and so their idea
of irredeemable old age is 40. The plot's conceit is that a producer who
is facing that awful birthday has invited all the other characters to
his party. Some are currently shooting a movie for him; others are
hangers-on, who nevertheless have contributed something of their lives
to his production. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a wretched employee of
Los Angeles magazine, banged out the movie's screenplay in his
spare time. Carl's energetically aggrieved wife, Lee (Catherine Keener),
is meanwhile banging the movie's male lead.
The story of Lee and Carl is told as if it were a documentary, shot on
digital video with voiceover narration. These scenes generally look a
bit crummier than they might have. When Soderbergh shoots a tryst in a
hotel room, first making the lovers' bodies into a pulsing kaleidoscope,
then snapping the image into focus with a brutally unadorned close-up of
Keener, you see how magical he can be with video. Most of the time,
though, he doesn't want magic. The "real people" in Full Frontal
tend to look decomposed, even ghostly, in the buzzing light; whereas the
"movie characters" (played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood) inhabit
a schlock-cinema world that's as persuasive as it is preposterous, since
it's shot in sparklingly clear 35-millimeter.
It's good fun to watch how reality warps as it crosses into movie--to
see, for example, how Blair Underwood first embodies everything that
threatens Carl, then turns into his heroic fantasy double. But this is
only the first layer of playacting in Full Frontal. Lee, who
works as a corporate personnel officer, uses her exit interviews as a
form of psychodrama (one in which somebody gets fired, but no one is
cured). Her sister Linda (Mary McCormack) goes around town under an
assumed name (she's a masseuse) and makes online dates using a chat-room
identity. The producer, it turns out, is about to stage a real-life
imposture; and everybody has a more than casual interest in porn.
Considering how many fabulations abound in Full Frontal, you will
perhaps forgive Soderbergh for not savaging the lies of the movie
business, as some critics have assumed he should have done. He seems to
feel that the urge to satirize Hollywood is itself in need of
satirizing; and so he has one of his characters liken a movie mogul to
Hitler, not just in passing but onstage, in a theater production, so you
can judge whether such comparisons might be, shall we say, overstated.
This subplot of Full Frontal yields the film's funniest moments
(Nicky Katt's improvisatory turn as the Bel-Air Führer
outproduces The Producers); but it also underscores a point. The
real producer in Full Frontal (David Duchovny) is almost a blank.
So, too, are the movie-star characters, who may be the least interesting
figures in the picture.
The thick, complicated people in Full Frontal are office workers
and a veterinarian and Lee and Carl, who perhaps read too much of
themselves into the pretty void of the movies. Lee might be the ultimate
Catherine Keener role; what other actress could turn an inflatable globe
into the tool of a dominatrix, and really enjoy it, and simultaneously
be alarmed by her own craziness? Pierce, meanwhile, takes the role of
Carl as a gift, savoring every one of the man's screwups and continually
finding the decency that underlies them. Pierce is playing someone who
is derided for drinking his beer out of a glass. When he later removes a
frosted mug from the refrigerator and considers whether to use it,
Pierce makes that decision into just enough of a victory to save his
For some of Soderbergh's moralizing critics, though, this is not enough.
They complain that the director of Ocean's Eleven is being
pretentious by working fast and cheap. Perhaps these same critics have
not yet forgiven Roberto Rossellini for defiling his art with Ingrid
Bergman--or is it Bergman they can't forgive, for having left Hollywood
for Rossellini? I'm perpetually amazed at the way some people really
want big-money movies to be trashy (perhaps so they can be safely
sneered at), while imagining that small-budget filmmakers have a duty to
remain pure, and inconsequential. In the actual film world, though,
Oliveira casts John Malkovich in I'm Going Home, and Soderbergh
adopts a few Dogme 95 rules (just the ones he likes) to make Full
Frontal. That doesn't mean that Oliveira is a sellout or Soderbergh
a poseur. It just means that film culture continues to exist on the
art-house level, where a certain internationalism flourishes. That's a
good thing for filmmakers who choose to keep their eyes and minds open,
and it's a good thing for us moviegoers.
Otherwise, we'd all have to go home.
Short Takes: Merchant of uplift M. Night Shyamalan gives us his
latest message from Beyond in Signs, the story of a
self-defrocked Pennsylvania minister and his strangely geometric crops.
It seems that God has killed the minister's wife, then dispatched to
Earth a plague of carnivorous extraterrestrials, who trample the fields
and make screen doors creak; but all is well in the end, since these
events move the minister to reaffirm his faith. Untold millions carried
off so that one can be saved? I'd say God's methods are
inefficient--which might be why Mel Gibson has to waste all his deadpan
humor on an ultimately lifeless starring role. In its story and methods
no less than its setting, Signs is nothing but corn.
Blood Work documents the latest stage in Clint Eastwood's aging,
in which he collapses while chasing the bad guy and undergoes
heart-transplant surgery, yet still remains Clint enough to smooch with
the raven-haired babe. The story in which he accomplishes these feats
follows classic whodunit rules, which means that the murderer must be in
plain view throughout. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Brian
Helgeland, supplies only one possible suspect. Even people who move
their lips while reading will figure out the solution before Clint gets
to it; which is strange, because he doesn't seem to have wasted much
time directing the picture. The actors knock around loose in the frame,
line readings fall into silence and the mind drifts back to In the
Line of Fire, when Clint was feeling his age but hadn't yet checked
into intensive care.