Help

Nation Topics - Books and Ideas

Topic Page

Articles

News and Features

One of the most persistent myths in the culture wars today is that
social science has proven "media violence" to cause adverse effects. The
debate is over; the evidence is overwhelming, researchers, pundits and
politicians frequently proclaim. Anyone who denies it might as well be
arguing that the earth is flat.

Jonathan Freedman, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto,
has been saying for almost twenty years that it just isn't so. He is not
alone in his opinion, but as a psychologist trained in experimental
research, he is probably the most knowledgeable and qualified to express
it. His new book, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression,
surveys all of the empirical studies and experiments in this field, and
finds that the majority do not support the hypothesis that violent
content in TV and movies has a causal relationship to real violence in
society. The book is required reading for anyone who wishes to
understand this issue.

I should say at the outset that unlike Freedman, I doubt whether
quantitative sociological or psychological experiments--useful as they
are in many areas--can tell us much about the effects of something as
broad and vague in concept as "media violence." As a group of scholars
put it recently in a case involving censorship of violent video games:

In a field as inherently complex and multi-faceted as human aggression,
it is questionable whether quantitative studies of media effects can
really provide a holistic or adequately nuanced description of the
process by which some individuals become more aggressive than others.

Indeed, since "media violence" encompasses everything from cartoons,
sports and news to horror movies, westerns, war documentaries and some
of the greatest works of film art, it baffles me how researchers think
that generalizations about "effects" can be made based on experiments
using just one or a few examples of violent action.

Freedman, by contrast, believes that the experimental method is capable
of measuring media effects. This may explain why he is so indignant
about the widespread misrepresentations and distortions of the research
data.

He explains in his preface that he became interested in this area by
happenstance, and was surprised when he began reading the research to
find that its results were quite the opposite of what is usually
asserted. He began speaking and writing on the subject. In 1999 he was
approached by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and asked
to do a comprehensive review of all the research. He had not previously
received organizational support and, as he says, "was a little nervous
because I knew there was a danger that my work would be tainted by a
connection with the MPAA." He agreed only after making it clear that the
MPAA "would have no input into the review, would see it only after it
was complete, and except for editorial suggestions, would be forbidden
to alter what I wrote. Of course," he says,

they asked me to do the review, rather than someone else, because they
knew my position and assumed or at least hoped that I would come to the
same conclusion after a more comprehensive review. But there was no quid
pro quo. Although I was nervous about being tainted, I am confident that
I was not. In any case, the conclusions of this review are not different
from those of my earlier review or those I expressed in papers and talks
between 1984 and 1999.

The book proceeds meticulously to examine the approximately 200 studies
and experiments that Freedman was able to find after an exhaustive
search. (He suggests that the exaggerated numbers one often
hears--1,000, 3,500 or simply "thousands" of studies--probably derive
from a statement made by psychologist John Murray in the early 1980s
when the National Institute of Mental Health sponsored a review of the
media violence research. Murray said that there were about 2,500
publications of all kinds that were relevant to the review. This is far
different, of course, from the number of empirical experiments and
studies.)

Freedman begins with laboratory experiments, of which he found
eighty-seven. Many commentators have noted the artificiality of these
experiments, in which snippets of a violent film or TV show are shown to
one group of viewers (sometimes children, sometimes adolescents or
adults), while a control group is shown a nonviolent clip. Then their
level of "aggression" is observed--or rather, something that the
experimenters consider a proxy for aggression, such as children hitting
a Bobo doll (an inflatable plastic clown), delivering a "white noise"
blast or--amazingly--answering yes when asked whether they would pop a
balloon if given the opportunity.

As Freedman and others have pointed out, these laboratory proxies for
aggression are not the real thing, and aggressive play is very different
from real-world violent or destructive behavior. He comments:

Quite a few studies with children defined aggression as hitting or
kicking a Bobo doll or some other equivalent toy.... As anyone who has
owned one knows, Bobo dolls are designed to be hit. When you hit a Bobo
doll, it falls down and then bounces back up. You are supposed to hit it
and it is supposed to fall down and then bounce back up. There is little
reason to have a Bobo doll if you do not hit it. Calling punching a Bobo
doll aggressive is like calling kicking a football aggressive. Bobos are
meant to be punched; footballs are meant to be kicked. No harm is
intended and none is done.... It is difficult to understand why anyone
would think this is a measure of aggression.

Freedman notes other serious problems with the design of lab experiments
to test media effects. When positive results are found, they may be due
simply to the arousal effect of high-action entertainment, or to a
desire to do what the subjects think the experimenter wants. He points
out that experimenters generally haven't made efforts to assure that the
violent and nonviolent clips that they show are equivalent in other
respects. That is, if the nonviolent clip is less arousing, then any
difference in "aggression" afterward is probably due to arousal, not
imitation. Freedman's favorite example is an experiment in which one
group of subjects saw a bloody prizefight, while the control group was
shown a soporific film about canal boats.

But the most striking point is that even given the questionable validity
of lab experiments in measuring real-world media effects, the majority
of experiments have not had positive results. After detailed analysis of
the numbers that the researchers reported, Freedman summarizes:
Thirty-seven percent of the experiments supported the hypothesis that
media violence causes real-world violence or aggression, 22 percent had
mixed results and 41 percent did not support the hypothesis. After he
factored out experiments using "the most doubtful measures of
aggression" (popping balloons and so forth), only 28 percent of the
results were supportive, 16 percent were mixed and 55 percent were
nonsupportive of the "causal hypothesis."

For field experiments--designed to more closely approximate real-world
conditions--the percentage of negative results was higher: "Only three
of the ten studies obtained even slightly supportive results, and two of
those used inappropriate statistics while the third did not have a
measure of behavior." Freedman comments that even this weak showing
"gives a more favorable picture than is justified," for "several of the
studies that failed to find effects actually consisted of many separate
studies." Counting the results of these separate studies, "three field
experiments found some support, and twenty did not."

Now, the whole point of the scientific method is that experiments can be
replicated, and if the hypothesis is correct, they will produce the same
result. A minority of positive results are meaningless if they don't
show up consistently. As Freedman exhaustively shows, believers in the
causal hypothesis have badly misrepresented the overall results of both
lab and field experiments.

They have also ignored clearly nonsupportive results, or twisted them to
suit their purposes. Freedman describes one field experiment with
numerous measures of aggression, all of which failed to support the
causal hypothesis. Not satisfied with these results, the researchers
"conducted a complex internal analysis" by dividing the children into
"initially high in aggression" and "initially low in aggression"
categories. The initially low-aggression group became somewhat more
aggressive, no matter which programs they watched, while the initially
high-aggression group became somewhat less aggressive, no matter which
programs they watched. But the children who were categorized as
initially high in aggression and were shown violent programs "decreased
less in aggressiveness" than initially high-aggression children who
watched neutral programs. The researchers seized upon this one highly
massaged and obscure finding to claim that their results supported the
causal hypothesis.

Freedman examines other types of studies: surveys that compare cities or
countries before and after introduction of television; experiments
attempting to assess whether media violence causes "desensitization";
longitudinal studies that measure correlations between aggressiveness
and preference for violent television over time. No matter what the type
of study or experiment, the results overall are negative. Contrary to
popular belief, there is no scientific support for the notion that media
violence causes adverse effects.

Why, then, have not only researchers and politicians but major
professional associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and
the American Medical Association repeatedly announced that thousands of
studies have established adverse effects of media violence? One reason
was suggested to me recently by a pediatrician active in the AAP. The
organization's guidelines argue for scientific support for policy
statements. This puts the AAP in a serious bind when, as is the case
with media violence, its leaders have a strong opinion on the subject.
It's tempting then to accept and repeat assertions about the data from
leading researchers in the field--even when it is distorted or
erroneous--and that's what the professional associations have done.

Another factor was candidly suggested by Dr. Edward Hill, chair of the
AMA board, at a panel discussion held by the Freedom Forum in New York
City last year. The AMA had "political reasons," Dr. Hill said, for
signing on to a recent statement by professional organizations asserting
that science shows media violence to be harmful. The AMA is "sometimes
used by the politicians," he explained. "We try to balance that because
we try to use them also."

Because Jonathan Freedman believes the scientific method is capable of
measuring the impact of media violence, the fact that it hasn't done so
is to him strong evidence that adverse effects don't exist. I'm not so
sure. I don't think we need science to know from observation that media
messages over time can have a powerful impact--in combination with many
other factors in a person's life. Some violent entertainment probably
does increase aggression for some viewers, though for as many or perhaps
more, the effect may be relaxing or cathartic.

If the media do have strong effects, why does it matter whether the
scientific research has been misrepresented? In part, it's precisely
because those effects vary. Even psychologists who believe that the
scientific method is relevant to this issue acknowledge that style and
context count. Some feel cartoons that make violence amusing have the
worst effects; others focus on stories in which the hero is rewarded for
using violence, even if defensively.

But equally important, the continuing claims that media violence has
proven adverse effects enables politicians to obscure known causes of
violence, such as poverty and poor education, which they seem largely
unwilling to address. Meanwhile, they distract the public with periodic
displays of sanctimonious indignation at the entertainment industry, and
predictable, largely symbolic demands for industry "self-regulation."
The result is political paralysis, and an educational structure that
actually does little to help youngsters cope with the onslaught of mass
media that surround them.

The country is riven and ailing, with a guns-plus-butter nuttiness in
some of its governing echelons and the sort of lapsed logic implicit in
the collapse of trust in money-center capitalism, which has been an
undergirding theory of a good deal of the work that many people do. The
tallest buildings, real profit centers, fall, as "wogs" and "ragheads"
defy us, perhaps comparably to how the "gooks" in Vietnam did (from
whose example Osama bin Laden may have learned that we could be
defeated). But that was on foreign soil, and we believed that we had
pulled our punches and beaten ourselves, and so remained triumphalist
for the remainder of the twentieth century, as we had been practically
since Reconstruction.

Now we're not so sure. For the first time since the War of 1812 we have
been damaged in continental America by foreigners, having made other
people hate us, though we had never needed to pay attention to such
matters before. Proxies could fight the malcontents for us in places
like Central America, and the Japanese and Germans, would-be conquerors,
had not felt much real animus, becoming close, amicable allies after the
war. Our first World War II hero, Colin Kelly, three days after Pearl
Harbor, flew his B-17 bomber (as media myth had it) in kamikaze fashion
to hit a Japanese cruiser, before the Japanese made a practice of it. To
give your life for your country, like Nathan Hale, is an ideal that's
since evaporated.

Obese individually and as a nation, and trying to stall the aging
process, we talk instead of cars and taxes, sports and movies, cancer
and entitlements, but with a half-unmentioned inkling too of what more
ominously may be in store--a premonition that our righteous confidence
might have served us just a bit too well. We never agonized a lot about
killing off the Indians, or our slaving history either, once that was
over, or being the only nuclear power ever to incinerate multitudes of
people. We've hardly seemed to notice when free enterprise segues into
simple greed, because our religious beginnings countenanced rapacity, as
long as you tithed. Settling the seaboard in official belts of piety,
whether Puritan, Anglican, Quaker or Dutch Reformed (only the frontier
tended to be atheistic), we seized land and water with abandon, joined
by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and what have you, westward ho. Each
group encouraged its rich men to creep like a camel through the eye of
the needle, and political freedoms were gradually canted away from the
pure ballot box toward influence-buying.

We swallowed all of that because the New World dream envisioned
everybody working hard and getting fairly rich, except when undertows of
doubt pervaded our prosperity, as in the 1930s and 1960s; or now when,
feeling gridlocked, we wonder if we haven't gone too far and used the
whole place up. We seem to need some kind of condom invented just for
greed--a latex sac where spasms of that particular vice can be
ejaculated, captured and contained. Like lust, it's not going to go
away. Nor will Monopoly games do the trick, any more than pornographic
videos erase impulses that might result in harm. The old phrase patrons
of prostitutes used to use--"getting your ashes hauled"--said it pretty
well, and if we could persuade people to think of greed, as well, that
way and expel its destructiveness perhaps into a computer screen,
trapping the piggishness in cyberspace might save a bit of Earth. The
greediest guys would not be satisfied, but greed might be looked on as
slightly outré.

Some vertigo or "near death" experience of global warming may be
required to trip the necessary degree of alarm. The droughts and water
wars, a polar meltdown and pelagic crisis--too much saltwater and
insufficient fresh. In the meantime, dried-up high plains agriculture
and Sunbelt golf greens in the Republicans' heartlands will help because
African famines are never enough. We need a surge of altruism, artesian
decency. The oddity of greed nowadays is that it is so often solo--in
the service of one ego--not ducal or kingly, as the apparatus of an
unjust state. Overweening possession, such as McMansions and so on, will
be loony in the century we are entering upon--ecologically,
economically, morally, commonsensically. But how will we realize this,
short of disastrous procrastination? Hurricanes and centrifugal violence
on the home front, not to mention angry Arabs flying into the World
Trade Center? That astounded us: both the anger and the technological
savvy. These camel-herding primitives whom we had manipulated, fleeced,
romanticized and patronized for generations, while pumping out their oil
and bottling them up in monarchies and emirates that we cultivated and
maintained, while jeering at them with casual racism in the meantime,
when we thought of it, for not having democracies like ours. To discover
that satellite TV, the Internet and some subversive preaching should
suddenly provide them access to divergent opinions disconcerts if it
doesn't frighten us, as does their willingness to counterpose
rudimentary suicide missions to the helicopter gunships and F-16s we
provide the Israelis. "Don't they value life?"

They won't be the last. The Vietcong were as culturally different from
the Palestinians as we are and yet succeeded in winning a country for
themselves, at a tremendous but bearable cost, which the Palestinians
will also undoubtedly do. Self-sacrifice can be a match for weaponry,
not because the Americans or Israelis value Asian or Arab life--at key
junctures and for essentially racist reasons they have not--but because
of the value they place on their own citizenry. As many as fifty
Vietnamese lives were lost for every American's, but that was not a high
enough ratio for us, even though, unlike some Israelis, we don't ascribe
to ourselves a biblical imprimatur. So we let them have their land, and
the domino calamities that had been famously predicted did not result.

To equate our own revolution with anybody else's is quite offensive to
us. Mostly, in fact, we prefer to forget that we had a revolutionary
past and kicked thousands of wealthy Tories into Canada, seizing their
property. We were slow to condemn apartheid in South Africa, having
scarcely finished abolishing our own at the time, and have been slow in
general to support self-governance in the warmer climates or to
acknowledge suffering among people whose skins are beiger than ours. And
if our income per capita is sixty or eighty times theirs, that doesn't
strike us as strange. We are a bootstrap country, after all. They should
pay us heed. And the whole United Nations is "a cesspool," according to
a recent New York City mayor.

But primitive notions like those of Ed Koch invite a primitive response.
And box-cutters in the hands of Taliban fundamentalists are not our main
problem. We have gratuitously destroyed so much of nature that the
Taliban's smashing up of Buddhist statues, as comparative vandalism,
will someday seem quite minuscule. We have also denatured our own
nominal religions: that is, taken the bite of authenticity out of
Christianity, for instance. Our real problem, I think, is a centrifugal
disorientation and disbelief. There is a cost to cynicism (as in our
previous activities in Afghanistan), and the systematic demonizing of
communitarianism during the cold war made it harder afterward for us to
reject as perverse the double-talking profiteering implicit in phenomena
like Enron, when we had thought that anything was better than collective
regulation and planning.

But ceasing to believe in revolutionary democracy--whether of the
secular or Christian (or Emersonian) variety--has proven costly. A
decent regard for the welfare of other people, in international as well
as local life, is going to be more than just a matter of private virtue.
In a shrinking world it may be a survival tool. Fanaticism doesn't carry
as far unless catastrophic economic conditions lurk in the background,
as we learned in the case of Germany between the two world wars but
then, when non-Caucasians were involved, forgot. Our foreign aid budget,
once the cold war ended, collapsed into spectacular stinginess, and our
sole response to September 11 has been police work. This can probably
erase Al Qaeda--which became after its instant victory that one morning
quite superfluous anyway--but not the knowledge of our vulnerability to
any handful of smart and angry plotters in this technological age. We
might see an explosion of those.

Our national self-absorption (in which the focus seems more on trying to
stay young than helping the young) may give capitalism a bad name.
Simple hedonism and materialism was not the point of crossing the ocean.
Our revolution was better than that. It was to paint the world anew.

Much as I hate to, I'm going to start by talking about the damn money.
I'm only doing it because almost everyone else is.

It's not just the author profiles and publishing-trade columns, but
seemingly every other review of The Emperor of Ocean Park that
mentions, way before stuff like plot or characters, the $4.2 million
Knopf paid Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter for this first novel and
another to come. Most, if not all, of these pieces seem incredulous that
an academic-of-color could reap the kind of dough-re-mi for thriller
writing that the John Grishams and Tom Clancys could command. Pundits of
both colors--or of what Carter's novel continually refers to as "the
darker nation" and "the paler nation"--sound pleasantly surprised that
an African-American male could earn some pop-cultural buzz by being paid
millions of dollars for doing something that doesn't require a ball or a
microphone.

I'm guessing Carter has the grace to be appreciative about all this. But
I'm also guessing that the author of Reflections of an Affirmative
Action Baby
is equipped with inner radar delicate enough to pick up
faint signals of condescension (or worse) beneath all this hype. Sifting
through the reviews so far, especially those taking Carter to the
woodshed, one detects glimmers of doubt as to whether the book or the
author deserves all that money and attention. No matter that Carter,
Yale Law's first tenured African-American professor, has established his
credentials as a legal scholar and public intellectual, having published
seven nonfiction books whose subjects include values (Integrity,
Civility), faith in public life (The Culture of Disbelief, God's Name in Vain) and, of course, race
(Reflections...). Black people have been through enough job
interviews to recognize the skeptically arched eyebrows in key precincts
of Book-Chat Nation over Carter's big score. The eyebrows ask: Is the
book worth all this fuss--and all that damn money?

The short answer is yes, though we'll get to the longer, more
complicated answer in a few clicks. First I want to address the other
recurring motif in the reviews so far: a belief that the novel's primary
value--if not the only legitimate reason for all that money--comes in
the way it foregrounds privileged reaches of African-American society.
As if Dorothy West, John A. Williams, Nella Larsen, George S. Schuyler,
John Oliver Killens, Charles W. Chesnutt, Lawrence Otis Graham and E.
Franklin Frazier, the Veblen-esque sociologist-satirist who wrote
Black Bourgeoisie
, had never been born, much less ever bothered
writing books. To these weary eyes, such incredulity over class issues
reflects nothing more than the same-as-it-ever-was manner in which
novels by African-Americans are waved toward the sociocultural
checkpoint before they can compete for artistic consideration. And since
it's being marketed as a legal thriller/whodunit, The Emperor of
Ocean Park
has the added burden of being stigmatized as a genre
piece. Hence the carping in some reviews over Emperor, whose
closing kickers spring merrily like tripwires.

Hello. It's melodrama. There are a lot of smart people who agree
with Raymond Chandler, who confessed to a friend in 1945 that he chose
to write melodrama "because when I looked around me it was the only kind
of writing that was relatively honest." Also as Chandler and other smart
people drawn to genre have repeatedly proved, it's possible to hang
lyricism, social observation, even political ideas on melodrama's broad
shoulders so long as you don't forget to play by the rules of the genre.
One more thing: Melodrama, when played at top speed, often can be
transformed into something very close to satire or, at least,
sophisticated farce.

The Emperor of Ocean Park doesn't move quite fast enough for
that, which may be its biggest problem. Still, it is sophisticated
entertainment; witty, elegantly written (way better than Grisham or
Clancy, OK?), conceptually outrageous in a genteel way and flush with
conflicting ideas unleashed in the stick-and-move fashion of a
freewheeling sparring match. The surprise isn't that Carter can write
fiction. It's his showmanship in mixing up the car chases, chess
strategies, red herrings and gun battles with such dark, rueful
observations as this:

I suddenly understand the passion of the many black nationalists of the
sixties who opposed affirmative action, warning that it would strip the
community of the best among its potential leaders, sending them off to
the most prestigious colleges, and turning them into... well, into young
corporate apparatchiks in Brooks Brothers suits, desperate for the favor
of powerful white capitalists.... And the nationalists were right. I am
the few. My wife is the few. My sister is the few. My students are the
few. These kids pressing business cards on my brother-in-law are the
few. And the world is such a bright, angry red.... I stand very still,
letting the redness wash over me, wallowing in it the way a man who has
nearly died of thirst might wallow in the shower, absorbing it through
every pore, feeling the very cells of my body swell with it, and sensing
a near-electric charge in the air, a portent, a symbol of a coming
storm, and reliving and reviling in this frozen, furious instant every
apple I have ever polished for everybody white who could help me get
ahead.

This passionately skeptical, somewhat self-loathing voice belongs to
Talcott Garland, who also answers to the names "Tal" and "Misha." (This
multiplicity of names is one of the little jokes that Carter threatens
to run into the ground.) A law professor at an unnamed Ivy League
university, Talcott is one of four children of Oliver Garland, a
conservative judge appointed by Nixon to the US Court of Appeals, who
might have served on the Supreme Court if his nomination hadn't been
derailed because he was seen hanging around the federal courthouse with
a college roommate named Jack Ziegler, a former CIA agent and a sinister
presence skulking in the dark alleys of American power.

As the novel begins, Tal's father, whom Time once dubbed the
"emperor of Ocean Park" because of his family's impressive digs in the
Oak Bluffs section of Martha's Vineyard, has been found dead in his
study. Tal is, at best, indulgent to older sister Mariah's suspicions
that their father met with foul play. Still, Tal suspects something's
afoot when, at the judge's funeral, Ziegler pulls him aside to ask the
whereabouts of some "arrangements" that the judge stashed away
somewhere. Knowing "Uncle Jack" all too well, Tal suspects that these
"arrangements" don't exactly fall into customary categories of
post-mortem details. By the time bogus FBI agents try to scare him into
telling what little he knows and the Episcopal priest who conducts the
funeral is tortured and murdered, Tal's paranoia has kicked into third
gear.

All of which Tal needs like root canal. Things are rough at the law
school with various and sundry colleagues intruding their personal
dramas onto his own. One of them, it turns out, is in competition with
Tal's stunning wife, Kimmer, short for "Kimberly," for potential
appointment to a federal judgeship. Kimmer frets and fusses about the
appointment, oblivious to her husband's concerns for their safety from
whatever or whoever is stalking them. She barely notices the shadow
stalkers, traveling long distances from home to make rain for her
high-toned law firm. Tal suspects Kimmer is having an affair, but can
barely keep her close by long enough to probe for concrete evidence. He
concedes being flummoxed in general by the nature of women, seeking
respite from such mysteries in "the simple rejuvenating pleasure of
chess." Indeed, the conundrums of chess, a game where, as in life, white
always gets the first move over black, play a metaphoric role in the
mystery, complete with missing pawns from the judge's own set and a
strategic gambit labeled "Excelsior."

A few words about Tal: He's the hero of the story, but he's not an easy
man to admire. Readers so far think he's at best an unjustly beleaguered
nerd or at worst an embittered brat, as self-absorbed as the mercenary
students, career women and secular humanists he slaps with his words. He
behaves badly at times, never more so than in a memorably chilling set
piece in which he bullies and humiliates one of his students, "an
unfortunate young man whose sin is to inform us all that the cases I
expect my students to master are irrelevant, because the rich guys
always win.... His elbow is on the chair, his other fist is tucked under
his chin, and I read in his posture insolence, challenge, perhaps even
the unsubtle racism of the supposedly liberal white student who cannot
quite bring himself to believe that his black professor could know more
than he.... I catch myself thinking, I could break him." And he
does, adding to the rapidly expanding ledger tabulating his
self-disgust.

On the other hand, he loves his young son Bentley in a way that
frightens him, especially when he visualizes a future in which Kimmer
drifts out of his life with son in tow. He volunteers in a soup kitchen,
partly as penance for his transgressions, partly to turn down the noises
his own inner radar makes and submit to Christian values. He also yearns
for a grounded sense of family, though relations with his aforementioned
sister are strained and his brother Addison--the one Tal believes Dad
liked best--is a commitment-phobic radio personality who keeps slipping
from sight to avoid close scrutiny. (He has his reasons.) And there was
a younger sister, Abby, something of a family renegade, who died in a
car accident. "When Abby died," Tal recalls, "my father went a little
nuts, and then he got better." It's the book's most pithy line. Don't,
for a minute, forget it.

Carter is very good at evoking the wonderlands of American life, whether
the Vineyard, Aspen or Washington's "Gold Coast" enclave of wealthy,
powerful African-Americans. He's even better at describing the
machinations and intrigue in law school faculty offices--which shouldn't
be a surprise, though Carter's extended disclaimer (pages 655-57) begs
readers not to confuse Tal's spiky, tempestuous professional life with
his own. Still, from what readers know of Carter's ideas about religion,
ethics, politics and manners, it's not too much of a stretch to see Tal
asserting his creator's right to probe, confound and, whenever possible,
shatter conventional ideological boundaries.

At one point, Tal has a reverie about one of his father's standard
speeches to white conservatives, pointing to the overlap of their
opinions on such issues as school vouchers, abortion and gay rights with
those of the African-American mainstream. "Conservatives are the last
people who can afford to be racist. Because the future of conservatism
is black America!
" Quickly, Tal's mind makes a countermove. "Because
there were a few little details the Judge always left out. Like the fact
that it was conservatives who fought against just about every civil
rights law ever proposed. Like the fact that many of the wealthy men who
paid for his expensive speeches would not have him in their clubs....
The Judge was surely right to insist that the time has come for black
Americans to stop trusting white liberals, who are far more comfortable
telling us what we need than asking us what we want, but he never did
come up with a particularly persuasive reason for us to start trusting
white conservatives instead."

For fans of the well-made thriller, these and other digressions may seem
like patches of glue. But for those who think the plot is, as with the
rest of the book, somewhat overstuffed with data, false leads, sudden
frowns and black-and-blue contrivances, Tal's asides come across like
flares of random, cheeky insight. As the quote above suggests, neither
left nor right is spared Tal's withering assessment, though if I were
keeping score, the liberal humanists get it in the teeth far more than
those with more spirit-based devotions explaining their identities.

Readers have become accustomed to books written by African-Americans to
come down hard on a sociopolitical point. Mystery lovers want airtight
solutions. The Emperor of Ocean Park fulfills neither
expectation. And that, as much as anything, earns both its money and its
respect. Novels of ideas, in whose company Emperor surely belongs
if I read my Mary McCarthy right, are supposed to be exactly that: About
many ideas and not just one. Someone, maybe the author of Anna
Karenina
, once suggested that fiction should rouse questions, not
answer them. Once again, the defense calls Raymond Chandler to the
stand: "It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story
operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public
and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones,
which the public does not seek or demand or in effect recognize, but
which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes."

The Emperor of Ocean Park is no Farewell, My Lovely. But
Carter is on to something. And he may someday deliver what Chandler
does, along with a hearty serving of something non-Chandler-esque. What
that something may be is hinted in a few lines close to the novel's very
end:

"That truth, even moral truth, exists I have no doubt, for I am no
relativist; but we weak, fallen humans will never perceive it except
imperfectly, a faintly glowing presence toward which we creep through
the mists of reason, tradition, and faith."

Your move, Tom Clancy.

Even as campaign finance reformers celebrated the long-awaited passage
of the McCain-Feingold bill this spring, they cautioned the public not
to assume the fight for reform was over. "This bill will only thwart the
special interests for so long," Senator McCain himself predicted.
"Twenty years from now, they will have figured out other ways to get around it, and another
couple of senators will be fighting to break the endless cycle of
corruption and reform." While McCain-Feingold is a significant
legislative accomplishment that will help to plug the gaping soft-money
hole in the existing system, these reformers explained, there are still
gaps through which private money can exert undue political
influence--and the fight to close them is just beginning.

This is the way campaign finance reform has worked since the first piece
of remedial legislation was passed in 1907--a cycle of public outrage,
stopgap legislation and new forms of abuse, prompting further outrage.
Lasting solutions have so far proven elusive--in large part because of
the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling that campaign
spending limits are unconstitutional. So reformers are stuck fighting
with more or less the same tools they've always used: contribution
limits, voluntary spending limits, public financing and full disclosure
of funding sources.

The limited effectiveness of these tools has prompted two Yale Law
professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, to offer a radical rethinking
of the problem. Ackerman--who last attracted public notice with his book
The Stakeholder Society, in which he proposed to eliminate
chronic economic injustice by giving every young American adult a stake
of $80,000, financed by an annual wealth tax--and Ayers clearly have no
qualms about tackling big problems. Their new book, Voting With
Dollars
, starts with a simple and seductive question: If the old
reform tools aren't working, why not try new ones? Rather than imposing
increasingly complicated contribution and spending limits, they suggest
removing them. Rather than relying on bureaucracies to distribute public
funds to candidates, they say, let the voters do it directly. And rather
than mandating complete disclosure of politicians' funding sources, they
propose keeping such information completely secret--especially from the
politicians themselves.

At the core of Ackerman and Ayres's proposal is what they call the
"secret donation booth." Like votes, the authors argue, campaign
contributions should be made anonymously. That way, private interests
could not influence elected officials with their money, because there
would be no way for a contributor to prove that he had given money to a
candidate. (So as not to discourage citizens of average means from
donating modest amounts by denying them the ability to take credit for
their gifts, Ackerman and Ayres permit the government to confirm that a
donor has given up to $200.)

Just as the introduction of the secret ballot in the late nineteenth
century put an end to the then-common practice of vote-buying, the
authors assert that the implementation of a secret donation booth (in
actuality, a blind trust administered by the FEC) would eliminate
influence-buying. Sure, John Richman might claim he's given a million to
Jane Candidate, but such unverifiable talk is cheap, and politicians
will attach to such assurances the same minimal weight they attach to
promised votes. Once that avenue of political influence is closed off,
Ackerman and Ayres reason, donors interested solely in the corrupting
power of their contributions will have no reason to pour their money
into politics, and private giving will be left to those few donors
motivated by pure political ideology.

To make up for the funds that would be lost once this private money
leaves the system, Ackerman and Ayres propose that the government give
every registered voter fifty "Patriot dollars"--money they'd be able to
put toward whichever federal candidate, national political party or
interest group they wanted, simply by going to their local ATM. Based on
voter participation numbers from the 2000 election, Ackerman and Ayres
calculate that the Patriot system would infuse $5 billion into a federal
election cycle, dwarfing the $3 billion that was spent in 2000. Thus,
they reason, Patriot dollars would not only insure that viable
candidates had enough money to fund their campaigns but would also make
them dependent on funds from, and thus more responsive to, the
electorate as a whole.

So far, so good. And there's more: In addition to the secret donation
booth and the Patriot system, "voting with dollars" would produce two
compelling side effects.

First, by giving each registered voter fifty Patriot dollars to spend on
the election, citizens would be encouraged to inform themselves earlier
and more thoroughly about issues and candidates, so as to make the best
use of their allocation. This heightened civic engagement would likely
translate into higher voter turnout and a consistently better-informed
electorate--what Ackerman and Ayres call "the citizenship effect."
Second, by avoiding all spending limits, a common plank of more
traditional reform platforms, "voting with dollars" would not run afoul
of the Supreme Court, which famously ruled in Buckley that "the
concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our
society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly
foreign to the First Amendment."

In theory, then, "voting with dollars" has lots of appeal. It's a fresh
approach to an old problem; it promises to reinvigorate a tired
electorate; and it's Supreme Court-proof. Not satisfied with a theoretical discussion of their proposal,
however, Ackerman and Ayres devote the bulk of their book to describing
what their reform would look like in practice. And this is where they
run into trouble.

To be sure, many of their implementation mechanisms are impressively
well-researched and carefully crafted, and at first they make it seem as
if "voting with dollars" just might work. To prevent a donor from
getting around the anonymity of the donation booth with an unusually
large contribution, for example, the authors propose to enter large
contributions into a candidate's account in random amounts at random
intervals, according to a special "secrecy algorithm." That way, the
donor couldn't simply tell the candidate to expect his account to
increase by a certain amount on a certain date, and then claim the
credit. (Ackerman and Ayres would bar what they call "stratospheric"
contributions to eliminate amounts too large to be hidden even by their
secrecy algorithm.) A donor would also be unable to prove he'd
contributed by flashing around a canceled check made out to the blind
trust, since all contributions would be revocable for a five-day period,
giving the donor no way to prove he didn't simply ask for his money back
the next day.

In spite of these intricate measures, however, there are a few reasons
Ackerman and Ayres's implementation scheme is fatally flawed. First, no
matter how refined your secret donation booth is, candidates will always
be able to figure out where their money's coming from. For proof of
this, one need look no further than our current voting system. Even with
the secret voting booth, candidates use polling, voter registration
rolls, demographic data and a host of other increasingly sophisticated
tools to figure out with eerie precision who's going to support them,
and they target their campaigns accordingly. Similarly, while a secret
donation booth would prevent politicians from knowing precisely how much
money each individual or privately funded PAC is giving, candidates
would still have a pretty good idea of who their big donors were likely
to be, and they'd still grant those likely donors uncommon access--a
politician's most valuable resource. Even if the secret donation booth
had been in place during the 2000 election, for instance, George Bush
would still have asked Ken Lay for fundraising help (by, say, organizing
a fundraising dinner--a permissible activity under Ackerman and Ayres's
paradigm, as long as there's not a per-plate charge). And Ken Lay would
still have been invited to meet with Dick Cheney's energy task force
once the pair was in the White House.

Then there's the problem of independent expenditures. Ackerman and Ayres
are sharply critical of McCain-Feingold's attempts to rein in such
electioneering, calling the act's restrictions on such spending in the
months leading up to an election an "important weakness" that "restrains
free speech." (Because of arguments like this, these restrictions are
widely held to be the most vulnerable part of McCain-Feingold. In June
the FEC barely rejected a proposal that would have significantly
weakened the act's independent expenditure restrictions, and upcoming
court challenges target these restrictions as well.)

And yet, independent expenditures are a significant obstacle to any
attempt to reduce private money's role in politics, as they allow any
individual or interest group with money the chance to make an end run
around the regulated campaign finance system. Conventional attempts to
curtail these expenditures may not solve the whole problem, limited as
they are by the First Amendment, but they're better than the unregulated
alternative that Ackerman and Ayres propose. In their reform scenario,
independent "issue" campaigns that do not explicitly endorse a
candidate--according to the Court's limited definition of express
advocacy, which focuses on certain "magic words" such as "elect" and
"vote for"--would be unregulated. In other words, organizations would be
free to fund "issue" ads whose timing and content are obviously intended
to help a particular candidate, as well as to publish the identities of
their contributors and the magnitude of their support, as long as those
ads didn't explicitly tell you how to vote. One can only imagine that in
the anonymous "voting with dollars" world, this opportunity to claim
credit for expenditures clearly designed to help a particular candidate
would be all the more alluring. And yet the only remedy Ackerman and
Ayres offer is their statute's "swamping control," which would increase
Patriot allotments in the next election cycle whenever private spending
skewed the national Patriot/private ratio below 2 to 1. Other than this
after-the-fact correction, Ackerman and Ayres offer no barriers to
prevent private money from flowing to such unregulated channels.

In the end, Ackerman and Ayres's paradigm is handicapped by its
Court-centered approach. The authors chide traditional reformers for
painting Buckley v. Valeo as the primary roadblock to reform,
saying that such a view is both counterproductive, because the Court is
unlikely to reverse Buckley anytime soon, and wrong, because
Buckley upholds such fundamental constitutional principles as
free speech. By embracing Buckley, they argue, their approach is
more pragmatic and more principled. And yet, its legal pragmatism
notwithstanding, "voting with dollars" does not confront the central
injustice of the current system: the exorbitant influence of big money.
In focusing solely on ending the potential for quid pro quo
corruption--the one aspect of campaign finance that the Court has
consistently shown itself eager to regulate--Ackerman and Ayres downplay
the degree to which private money controls politics even without such
blatant dealmaking. The truth is, as long as politicians are dependent
on private money to finance their campaigns, monied interests will play
a disproportionately large role in setting the political agenda. This is
why traditional reformers have chafed at Buckley's narrow
definition of corruption, and it's why they continue to advocate
solutions that use a combination of disclosure laws, limits and public
financing. At its core, the campaign finance reform movement is about
more than simply putting an end to under-the-table deals between wealthy
individuals and unscrupulous politicians. It's about opening up the
electoral system, so that people without networks of wealthy friends
will be able to wage viable campaigns for public office, and won't be
beholden to private interests once they get there. While Patriot dollars
are a good step in this direction, they don't go far enough. Without
contribution and spending limits, the public financing offered by
Patriot dollars would quickly be drowned out by the torrents of private
money flowing into the system.

For all its shortcomings, Voting With Dollars deserves credit for
pushing reformers to rethink some of their cherished assumptions about
what works, and what's desirable. However, by refusing to consider more
standard approaches to reform like disclosure, contribution limits and,
in particular, voluntary public financing systems like those currently
in place in Maine and Arizona, Ackerman and Ayres have boxed themselves
into an unworkable system. Ultimately, Voting With Dollars'
radical approach to campaign finance reform would expand big money's
role in politics, rather than insulate democracy from it.

Historians have made much of the ways that the social protest movements of the 1960s unsettled the morals of the dominant culture, but it is often forgotten that activists themselves were sometimes jarred by the new sensibilities as well.

It's easy to rephrase Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina so it
describes junkies, who all share an essential plot line: Who and how to
hustle in order to score. But in the world of postwar jazz, Charlie
Parker gave junk an unprecedented clout and artistic aura. Bebop, the
convoluted, frenetic modern jazz he and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, formulated, demanded intense powers of
concentration. Bird played so far out of nearly everyone else's league
that his heroin habit seemed to explain his godlike prowess. So heroin
became an existentialist response to racism, to artistic rejection, a
self-destructive way of saying Fuck You to mainstream America's 1950s
mythologies. Parker warned everyone from young Miles Davis to young Chet
Baker away from smack, but few heeded him. In 1954 Davis weaned himself
from a four-year addiction; in 1988 Baker died after decades of living
in Europe as a junkie, found in the street below his Amsterdam hotel
window. (Did he jump? Was he pushed?)

Oklahoma-born and California-bred, Baker had one amazing artistic gift:
He could apparently hear nearly any piece of music once and then play
it. He intuitively spun melodies on his trumpet with a tone critics
compared to Bix Beiderbecke's, and spent his long and unbelievably
uneven career relying on that gift and coasting on his remarkable early
breaks. In 1952 Charlie Parker played with him in LA, giving him instant
cachet. When Gerry Mulligan hired him for the famed pianoless quartet
that is the quintessential white West Coast Cool band, it made him a
jazz star. After a drug bust broke the group up, Baker began singing;
his wispy balladeering and Middle American good looks gave him entree to
a broader public. During his early 1950s stint with Mulligan, he
unbelievably beat Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to win critics'
and fans' polls; his first album as a vocalist, which featured "My Funny
Valentine," got him lionized on the Today and Tonight
shows and in Time. From there on, his life took on a downward
bias within a junkie's relentless cycles.

Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker aims to synthesize
all the information about the trumpeter and try to interpret him within
the broader contexts of popular culture. Author James Gavin had access
to unpublished autobiographical notes and interviews with Baker's
erstwhile memoir collaborator Lisa Galt Bond, and also draws extensively
on books like Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music and
Chet Baker in Italy; he apparently scoured archives for
interviews, profiles, pictures and video and audio materials as well,
stirring in dollops from Bruce Weber's overripe 1989 movie about Baker,
Let's Get Lost. Gavin has tracked Baker across Europe and
America, distilled the wildly divergent attitudes toward him and his
work, and attempts to make a case for what endures while not flinching
from calling clunkers. He confronts black jazzers' resentment of Baker's
playing: Most heard him, with excellent reason, as a paler, milder Miles
Davis, yet he won polls and looked like he was making big money. As
Gavin points out, Baker's lilting lyricism and even his demeanor owed
almost everything to Davis's, but Baker wasn't raking in sales like Dave
Brubeck, though he was churning out streams of highly variable product.
In fact, Gavin explains the popularity of the sappy Chet Baker With
Strings
album, the trumpeter's bestselling 1954 disc (which sold an
uncharacteristic 35,000-40,000 copies the first year), by comparing it to popular contemporary mood music--an apt and telling linkage.

Gavin's discussion of that record strikes one of his leitmotifs, Baker's
charismatic visual appeal:

William Claxton's cover photo was so dreamy that record shops all over
the country put the LP on display. Claxton showed Baker at his peak of
beauty, staring out wistfully at the session, cheek resting against his
horn's mouthpiece.... Many of the buyers were young women with little
interest in jazz, who bought the LP for its cover. They were surprised
to hear music as pretty as Baker was.... It was his looks, more than his
music, that the Hollywood crowd cared about.

He's shrewd about Baker's singing:

[Record producer Dick] Bock listened in alarm as [Baker] struggled to
sing on key, pushing the session into overtime.... Baker's dogged
persistence didn't impress the musicians, who were reduced to
near-invisible accompanists, tiptoeing behind his fragile efforts....
But as people stared at the cover and listened to Baker's blank slate of
a voice, they projected all kinds of fantasies onto him.... Baker became
the first jazz musician to attract a strong homosexual following.

Gavin is quite good at debunking longstanding myths about Baker, many of
which Baker started himself. He didn't beat out loads of trumpeters to
play with Bird in LA; a studio pianist, not Parker, hired him. It's
highly unlikely Bird told East Coasters like Davis and Dizzy Gillespie
that "there's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up."
For Gavin, this self-mythologizing is a key to Baker's recessive, almost
invisible character: "Just as he discovered how to seduce the camera
lens into depicting him in make-believe terms, he learned to glamorize
the truth into a fairy tale of romantic intrigue."

Naturally, the biographer seeks the man behind the layered tales. Here
Gavin circles a black hole, because Baker was, as one witness after
another testifies, nearly completely unrevealing. He didn't read, or
speak, or otherwise express: He was "cool." Longtime junkiedom only
hardened this character trait into manipulative blankness. So Gavin
looks at Baker's doting, pushy mother and his violent failure of a
father, checks out Baker's high school beatings for being a pretty boy,
intimates that Baker's brief and harsh version of heterosexual sex may
have covered for repressed homosexuality, and links him to the waves of
rejection, from the Beats as well as Hollywood types like Marlon Brando
and James Dean, rippling the 1950s. It's suggestive, though not
necessarily convincing, since unlike other jazzers--Davis and Charles
Mingus, for instance--Baker had no real contact with or interest in
other artistic subcultures.

Baker's critical reputation kept crashing after the Mulligan quartet
disbanded in 1954, and his drug use continued to escalate after that
time, when his heroin addiction began. By 1966, he had hit bottom: He
was badly beaten, probably because he ripped off a San Francisco drug
dealer, and his upper teeth had to be pulled. His embouchure wrecked,
his career, already smoldering, looked like it was finally in ruins. He
worked in a Redondo Beach gas station and applied for welfare. Against
the odds, record-label head Bock bought him dentures, and for more than
a year he worked--probably harder than he ever did before or after--to
rebuild something of the limpid trumpet sound that once made girls
shudder.

In 1959 he had relocated to Europe, where he stayed for the rest of his
life (except for a couple of brief homecomings) to avoid prosecution for
drug busts. Inevitably, he got busted in Europe instead. Gavin rightly
notes that the Europeans, especially the Italians, adopted Baker as a
damaged genius, an artist in need of understanding and patronage. It
didn't help. His trajectory careened mostly down; upward bursts of
musical lucidity flashed against a churn of mediocrities and an
ever-more-snarled life. His talent languished: He never expanded his
musical knowledge, nor did he really learn to arrange or compose or even
lead a band. He relied on producers and agents to direct his musical
life; he didn't bother conceptualizing his own creative frameworks. He
always demanded cash payments--no contracts, no royalties--on his
endless scramble to score. And as women revolved through his life or
fought over him and were beaten by him, he tried a few bouts at detox
but compressed even further into a junkie's two-dimensionality. By the
time he died, most American jazz fans thought he was already dead.

For this last half of his book, Gavin, even buoyed by research, swims
upstream against the cascading flow of a junkie's essential plot line.
For decades Baker is mostly chasing drugs, screwing anyone within reach,
tumbling downward creatively and personally, and alternating
manipulatively between victim and abuser. Except as a voyeur it's hard
to care, especially since, with exceptions I think even rarer than Gavin
does, Baker's music was generally worthless. Junk didn't make him a
musical superman; it simply drove him to make fast, sloppy recordings
with under-rehearsed bands, playing horn that was so unpredictable in
quality it could sound like an abysmal self-parody. Sympathetically
balanced as he tries to be, even Gavin can only cite a handful of
ex-sidemen as Baker's musical legacy of influence. Instead, he depicts
Baker as a kind of cultural icon rather than a cultural force.

It is one of history's ironies that Baker was resurrected after his
death by a film made shortly before it. Bruce Weber, a fashion
photographer famed for his homoerotic Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ads,
has a sharp eye for the scandalous, and decided to make Let's Get
Lost
when he saw Baker at the trumpeter's brief fling at an American
comeback in 1986. He fell for what an associate described as "beauty
that looked kind of destroyed." Weber bought him a French beatnik
wardrobe from a Paris designer, and paid him $12,500 for a performance
that Gavin describes: "eyelids sagging, slurring his words, all but
drooling.... Unless he got what he needed, [Weber's assistant] said, 'he
wouldn't have sat still a minute for us.'" The documentary refired
interest in Baker among boomers and Gen Xers, who responded to the
bathetic junkie glamour of his apparent frailty, personal and artistic,
just as their 1950s avatars had. Reissues of Baker's albums on CD have
gathered mass and sales since.

Which leaves us with Baker's mysterious death, long haloed by a host of
theories. Gavin rejects accident, reporting that "the window [of the
hotel room] slid up only about fifteen inches, making it difficult, if
not impossible, for a grown man to fall through accidentally."
Dismissing speculation that Baker might have lost his room key and tried
to climb the hotel's facade, Gavin says it's unlikely he could have gone
unnoticed on such a busy thoroughfare. He dismisses homicide, as did
Baker's remaining friends and the Dutch police, and concludes that Baker
was shooting his favorite speedballs and committed a sort of
passive-aggressive suicide by "opening a window and letting death come
to him.... [He] had died willfully of a broken heart."

That's a pretty sentimental final fade for a hard-core character like
Baker, who for all Gavin's determined nuance ultimately seems less rebel
than junkie. Maybe Gavin should have pondered Naked Lunch. Then
he might have ended his book with, say, Steve Allen's take, since Allen
was one of the many Baker burned: "When Chet started out, he had
everything. He was handsome, had a likable personality, a tremendous
musical gift. He threw it all away for drugs. To me, the man started out
as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson."

Southern Exposure, which somehow looks--even in its third decade,
in the twenty-first century--as if very advanced high school students
had just stapled it together and put it on your doorstep (that's a
compliment...The Nation strives for that effect, too), is still
doing a fine job on its old beat: investigating the strange mix of
culture and corporatism that has made the South what it is today. By
extension, every issue poses the same basic question: What exactly is
America? In looking at the South in great detail over many decades,
Southern Exposure has begun to propose, although not explicitly,
some answers.

First, America is a place that advocates equality but thrives on
inequality. In the 2002 Spring and Summer issue, which is subtitled "The
South at War," James Maycock has published a piece on the black American
soldier's experience in Vietnam--especially for people who did not live
through the civil rights movement and that terrible Southeast Asian
conflict, this piece will be riveting. "I'm not a draft evader,"
declares one African-American draftee on reaching Canada. "I'm a runaway
slave."

America is also a place where the Marlboro Man has not abdicated, as
Stan Goff shows in his gonzo essay on Vietnam and American masculinity
(in fact, it has crossed my mind that all those ads may have been psy-ops prep for George W. Bush's ascendancy). And last, America is a
place that loves the Army. In its useful and unassailable roundup on the
Southern states and the war industry, Southern Exposure comes up
with important facts. The dollar amount of military contracts to Florida
companies alone last year amounted to $15.2 billion. The military, of
course, is a good place to have your money right now. For example,
Florida's education budget was slashed by 4.2 percent last year while
the stock of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, two of the largest companies
with investments in Florida, were up 25 percent and 40 percent,
respectively. Nutshell portraits of thirteen states provide a real sense
of the give and take between politicians, the military and the job
market, and population in places where the military chooses to spend.

Note also: Of the top twenty-one cities involved in military production
in 2001, excepting Hartford, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Seattle, every
city on the list is in the South or in California. According to
Southern Exposure, 66 percent of the weapons sold to Israel under
the Foreign Military Sales program were produced in the South. The South
has helped situate America in the world today; that puts it in a unique
moral position. But after reading this issue of Southern
Exposure
, one really wonders: Do most Southerners care?

Yoga's Antiterror Position

After reading about B-29s and F-16s and macho men and Hellfire
missiles made in Orlando--of all places--I was happy to read a few
magazines that go to other extremes. Of the two big yoga magazines
available on the newsstand, Yoga Journal is the yogis' Vanity
Fair, and Yoga International is their Real Simple. We
can dispense with the latter except for the pretzel-position pictures,
but Yoga Journal is a very good niche magazine--good niche
publications take their subject and use it expansively, as a jumping-off
point. The June issue has an excellent and anthropologically important
piece by Marina Budhos on how yoga practice in the West, especially
among Americans, is changing the age-old practice in India, the
Americans behaving like cargo cultists in reverse.

Budhos found that many of the Indians in an Indian ashram (where, by the
way, the hatha yoga teacher was "a really tough Israeli") were attending
because they "were interested in teaching yoga as a career." Many of the
foreigners were simply having yoga fun on vacation--although, as I have
discovered while doing the tortoise position, the word "yoga" and the
word "fun" should never be used in the same sentence. Daniel Ghosal, an
Indian-American, says the Americans who come to India for yoga are seen
by the Indians as "kind of 'cracked.'" Indians don't think of yoga as a
social trend. "The lighting of candles and all that," Ghosal says
dismissively. "To Indians, it's just yoga."

"The Path of the Peaceful Warrior," by Anne Cushman, is also an amusing
piece. In it--after lighting a fire with newspapers in which she sees
headlines about terror and anthrax burning away, and after "folding into
the silence and surrender of a deep forward bend" (that's classic yoga
writing; you just have to push past it)--Cushman proposes a "Yogic
Battle Plan for the War on Terror." I suppose it's better than beefing
up your naval program at Newport News...

The first step: "Stop." I like that. That should be the entirety of an
Op-Ed piece on the Middle East crisis.

There is also "Contemplate death." Under that weighty heading, Cushman
includes this nice aperçu: "The American government's
instruction to 'Be on high alert, yet go about your ordinary life' may
have struck many people as all but impossible, but that paradoxical
injunction is actually...a core yogic practice." (Don't tell Rumsfeld!)
Under "Look Deeply," Cushman cites Tricycle editor James
Shaheen's remark that bin Laden was "inadvertently speaking the Buddhist
truth of interdependence when he said, 'Until there is peace in the
Middle East, there will be no peace for Americans at home.'" "Practice
nonviolence" is another step in the yogic battle; "take action," the
last. By the end, Yoga Journal is beginning to sound like the
editors of Southern Exposure.

Sad News

Earthtimes, the monthly environmental and social paper
spiritedly edited for twelve years by the effervescent Pranay Gupte, is
folding up shop after July for lack of funding. As Gupte said in a
farewell note to colleagues: "Undercapitalization is always bad for
business; zero capitalization is worse. Since my basement press is
beyond repair, I can't even print rupee notes any longer to sustain
Earthtimes." That's Gupte and the tone of Earthtimes,
too--in moments of pain and crisis, a quiet, self-deflating, sustaining
humor.

There are perfectly respectable reasons to disagree with, dislike or
distrust Jesse Jackson. His flaws as a human being are pretty well-known
at this point. Some feel his politics are driven by ego. He certainly is
prone to poetic puffery, as much disposed to allegorical tales in which
he plays Good Shepherd as was Ronald Reagan. He's cheated on his wife.
Most notoriously, Jesse Jackson's credibility as leader of anything like
a rainbow coalition was profoundly shaken by his "Hymietown" remark. I
am among those who distrust him as a result of that one statement,
profuse apologies notwithstanding. But if I distrust him, I distrust him
no more or less than the legions of other politicians who have made
racist, sexist or anti-Semitic comments and then apologized as though
they were children playing "words can never hurt you." I distrust Jesse
Jackson no more than I distrust Jesse Helms or Robert Byrd or Pat
Robertson. I distrust him no more than George Bush or John Ashcroft for
being so cozy with the anti-miscegenist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones
University (even as I also distrust the Catholic Church for its own
history of anti-Semitism). I worry about him exactly to the same extent
that I worry about those members of Congress who have spent their long,
complacent lives as members of country clubs that discriminate against
Jews and blacks and women.

In other words, while Jesse Jackson may have his problems, they can
probably be summed up in a paragraph. Kenneth Timmerman's book
Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson takes that one
paragraph and reworks it for well over 400 pages. While it is important
to document and acknowledge the shortcomings of public figures, it is
also important to maintain a sense of proportion. In reality, Jackson is
imperfect. In Timmerman's rendition, he is a bloated monster of evil
impulses and global appetites, a "dangerous fool," "a David Duke in
black skin" who "drifts off into mumbo-jumbo" "like a Halloween ghoul"
while "mau-mauing" corporations that "think it is cheaper to buy
protection" from the "race industry" he has purportedly milked dry.

The distance between the real Jackson and Timmerman's gargoyle is
inhabited by myth, stereotype, unsubstantiated accusation, illogic and
careless innuendo. It is a world in which the least mundanity of Jackson's existence is milled into
malevolent disguise. Even Martin Luther King Jr.'s death is described as
an event that "set him free. With King dead, Jackson could become his
own boss." If Jackson is an opportunist, he is not this heinous a one,
and nothing in the substance rather than the innuendo of this book says
otherwise. Yet the innuendo playsagainst a backdrop of slapdash
thinking, angry talk-show hosts, thoughtless prejudice. It plays to what
many in the majority of this society think they already know--how else
could such a carelessly contentious book make it onto the New York
Times
bestseller list for more than a month?

In the real world, Jackson is paid for his advocacy, for his attempts at
conflict resolution and for his speaking. He is a skilled fundraiser for
a variety of nonprofit organizations. His salary, fees and contributions
are paid, quite straightforwardly, by constituents and supporters. One
may honestly disagree with what he advocates or about whether he's an
effective negotiator or is wise in his beliefs. To resent that he is
paid at all is a tendentious and indirect way of expressing that
disagreement, but that's the essence of what Timmerman seems to mean
when he uses the word "shakedown." In Timmerman's world, Jackson's
entire relation to money is one of "profiting,"
"profiting-at-the-expense-of" and "profiteering."

Yes, Jackson has been investigated a number of times for mishandling
funds, particularly during the setup years of Operation PUSH and
Operation Breadbasket. But despite numerous FBI investigations, despite
frequent IRS audits and despite intense media scrutiny, none of his
enterprises have ever been implicated in anything beyond the usual
scope--promptly corrected--of what all businesses, including nonprofits,
face in the course of accounting for their poor investment decisions,
particularly when those decisions are made by inexperienced and
disorganized administrators like Jackson. Nevertheless, even after
Jackson hires good accountants and smart financial counselors, Timmerman
refers to him as "still just a street hustler" who benefited from the
"most friendly of audits" and whose "scandalous" accounting practices
would surely have resulted in some sort of criminal action had not the
FBI's investigation of him been "shut down during the early months of
the Carter administration." That Timmerman is referring to the notorious
COINTELPRO operation, which disparaged the reputations and disrupted the
lives of so many civil rights leaders, is never made explicit.

To Timmerman, Jackson's every last tic is a deceit. Jesse Jackson is
wrong when he wears shorts and sandals--too déclassé and
inappropriate. He's wrong when he wears suits--too expensive and
self-indulgent. He's a fraud because his "black buddies" give him a
nice, large house in which to raise his family--a "fifteen room Tudor,"
mentioned so many times that to say Timmerman is obsessed with it might
be too kind. The house is in a nice neighborhood--how inauthentic! His
children go to private schools, graduate from college and turn out
well--how hypocritical of him to complain about opportunity for blacks!
His son is elected to Congress--what "dynastic" pretension!

There is a deep streak of class resentment running through this book.
Jackson is disparaged in the classic language of resentment toward the
bourgeoisie or the nouveau riche: He is demeaned for his grammar, for
his manners, for his conspicuous consumption. I think this class bias
accounts for Timmerman's irrational anger whenever Jackson moves beyond
what Timmerman deems his place in the social order. Jackson is painted
as too ignorant and lower class to play with the big boys; yet too
flashy and profligate to make political claims on behalf of the poor.
When Newsweek praises his children as "poised, proud and living
antidotes to inner-city despair," Timmerman snorts that "Jesse Jackson
with his three houses, his flush bank accounts, his first-class travel,
his lucrative friendships with foreign dictators...was as close to inner
city despair as the Beverly Hillbillies were to poverty."

Similarly, any use of economic leverage, including boycotts, is seen as
nothing more than "bullying," the surest sign of someone who'd rather be
staging a riot. Jackson's attempts to convince businesses to "provide
jobs and award contracts" to minorities is redescribed as making them
"pony up." Peaceful boycotts become racial extortion--as though
African-Americans have an obligation to shop till they drop, as though
free enterprise did not include the choice of taking one's business
elsewhere. It is an oddly unbalanced insistence, particularly since
Timmerman seems to feel that free enterprise includes the right of
businesses not to hire or serve any of those supposedly extortionist
brown bodies.

When Jackson joins the board of General Motors, he's not working within
the system, heaven forbid, he's just "working" it. Indeed, General
Motors itself is indicted for putting him on its board, for being in
craven complicity with his "plundering." "For the scare-muffins who
still dominate many Fortune 500 companies, it has become cheaper to toss
bones to Jesse than to contest him in the court of public opinion,"
writes Timmerman, and quotes T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor,
who refused to "pony up" to Jackson's concerns about hiring patterns:
"My advice to other CEO's? Why don't you grow a pair of balls? Or if
you're a female, whatever is the female equivalent."

Shakedown is flawed even more by racialized animus than by class
bias, however. "Uncle Jessie," as Timmerman calls him on several
occasions, wants "not just equal opportunity, but equal results."
Shakedown purports to be filled with proof that Jackson and his
"cohorts" have "more than." They are described not merely as lying,
cheating and stealing but as possessing much more than they deserve,
however they came by it. Every last car any member of the Jackson family
ever owned--his son's wife's BMW, for heaven's sake--is listed and
ridiculed, every last exotic make, size of engine, price paid, with a
rundown of features including vanity plates and whether the tires were
radial or whitewall.

There is nowhere offered in this book a chance that Jackson has a
humanitarian bone in his body, no chance that he adheres to principles
or beliefs. Jackson is not even a real minister, according to
Shakedown, but a "seminary drop-out" whose "church" (always in
quotes) is nothing more than a front for his "poverty pimping."

Anything Jackson is associated with becomes just too stupid or too
dangerous to respond to or take seriously. And so Jackson is described
as drawing up a "hit list" of corporations. In a passage astonishing for
its old-style Confederate paranoia, Timmerman worries that Jackson's
"inflammatory words" protesting the outcome of the 2000 election "were
dangerously close to a call for insurrection." Even Al Gore is depicted
as plotting with Jackson in hopes of "unleashing a massive outpouring of
'rage' in black communities across America." (Rage, too, is always in
quotes.)

Whether one likes Jackson or not, reading Shakedown one gets the
sense that Timmerman dislikes him for much more than his bad traits--and
that's where the popularity of this book becomes truly troubling.
Timmerman can't stand anyone who's ever shaken Jackson's hand. He
despises the civil rights "establishment." He hates Bill Clinton, the
Chicago Theological Seminary, African and African-American leaders of
every political stripe, hippies, bleeding hearts and the NAACP. Just for
extra wallop, every chapter or so he lumps them all together with Lenin,
Castro, Hitler, Stalin, socialist "plants," radical "functionaries,"
card-carrying members of the Communist party as well as motley others
"who are, unquestionably, enemies of the United States."

Jackson's closest friends are, according to Timmerman, members of the
Arab League, Louis Farrakhan, Yasir Arafat and Chicago street-gang
members. No matter that some of those gang members bullied Jackson,
engaging in true extortionary tactics; or, more poignantly, were kids to
whom Jackson tried to extend his ministry of social action. The fact
that some gang members were neighbors and family members, or the fact
that numbers of them ended up in jail, including Jackson's own
half-brother, is never evidence of the stresses, the sad scripts, the
human loss of ghetto life; in this book, they're all just part of
"Jesse's World." Based on association alone, street toughs become his
accomplices, his cohorts, his henchmen. Timmerman writes that Jackson
"boasted of his ties to the gangs: 'I get a lot of them to go to
church.'" Boast it may be, but it is not the ordinary or fair
understanding of "ties" to gangs. To describe it so implies something
more sinister, suggests much more.

Indeed, Jackson's mere family relation to Noah Robinson, his
half-brother and a gang member doing hard time, is like a bone that
Timmerman can't stop gnawing. It gets told and retold every few pages.
His no-good, murderous, jailed gang member of a brother. Ten paragraphs
later, Robinson is resurrected, still murderous, still jailed and still
working overtime as Jackson's "link" to gang life.

Similarly troubling is Timmerman's description of Jackson's association
with Jeff Fort, the jailed head of the Blackstone Rangers--none other
than the same Jeff Fort who recently made news as leader of the gang
with which the FBI says José Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomb"
conspirator, once hung. Indeed, Shakedown's appendix contains a
1983 wanted poster of Fort, then on the run from a narcotics charge. The
sarcastic caption reads: "The 'Reverend' Jackson's Best Pupil." Beneath
Fort's picture is the following legend: "Jackson--a seminarian dropout
who never even had his own church or congregation--" (perhaps the
twentieth time Timmerman repeats that) "claims to have 'baptized' Jeff
Fort in their early days together. Perhaps Fort should have sought the
services of a real 'Reverend.'"

This kind of indictment by suggestion occurs in almost every sentence of
the book. In one particularly troubling chapter, Timmerman tries to
implicate Jackson in funding Al Qaeda by something resembling "six
degrees of separation": In early 1999 Jackson negotiated a settlement
between Deutsche Bank and Kevin Ingram, one of the bank's top five
executives, who claimed he'd been fired because of his race. Ingram, who
never saw Jackson again, was arrested two years later for brokering a
sale of weapons on behalf of an Egyptian neighbor of his. The would-be
buyer was a Pakistani national, who, Timmerman implies, represented the
Pakistani military. Since September 11, "federal investigators have been
interrogating Ingram...about possible ties between the ultimate buyers
of the weapons in Pakistan and renegade Saudi terrorist Osama bin
Laden." Why? Apparently Ingram was once spotted in Sierra Leone by a
Florida diamond dealer who said as much while he was being questioned by
federal investigators regarding unrelated fraud charges. What's that got
to do with anything? Well, Libyan, Hezbollah and bin Laden operatives
are known to have traded diamonds in Liberia. Liberia, you ask? Hey,
Sierra Leone and Liberia are right next door to each other... What has
this got to do with Jesse Jackson? Ah. That goes back to President
Clinton (who, as the spawn of Satan and first American President ever to
have traveled to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, is dismissed by
Timmerman as having gone "on safari"). Clinton sent Jackson along as
part of a State Department team that tried and ultimately failed to
negotiate a peace in the diamond wars between Liberia and Sierra Leone.

As Timmerman leads readers down this tortured trail, Jackson's
"race-baiting tactics" in Ingram's case against Deutsche Bank give the
illusion of him being directly tied to Al Qaeda's illicit trade in
diamonds, a trade that has "flourished under the Lomé Accord
Jackson negotiated on behalf of the State Department."

In an era when our vast, unspecified war against terror has been used to
justify detaining José Padilla, an American citizen arrested on
American soil, in a military brig with no charges and no lawyer, one
does begin to worry about what those vague Al Qaeda and Blackstone
Ranger "links" will bring down upon inner-city Chicago and other
communities already so beleaguered by careless suspect profiling. At a
time when due process is fast being shelved as quaint and improvident,
one only hopes that criminality and political heresy will be measured in
some other forum than Timmerman's overwrought court of public opinion.
In an era when politicians and talk-show hosts speak openly of
assassinating a broad range of America's enemies by way of "pre-emptive"
strategy, one worries about Timmerman's recurring theme of Jackson's
alignment with those enemies; of Jackson's affairs being a matter of
national security; of Jackson as threat to the stability of America's
political and corporate culture. Indeed, Timmerman notes ominously, "No
flags or patriotic banners are found at Jackson's PUSH meeting held
September 15, 2001, just four days after the terrorist attack on the
United States. But there was room for a gigantic portrait of himself."

John Ashcroft recently asked us to trust that the days of J. Edgar
Hoover are gone forever; I would like to imagine that he means it. But
who needs Hoover if Timmerman's book reflects a national backlash
rushing to fill the breach? If Shakedown represents anything like
a popular or dominant view not just in the country but specifically in
the intelligence community (and Timmerman does thank "many" in academia,
law enforcement and intelligence "who have asked not to be named"), we
are in deep, deep trouble. This is a paranoid book, an ignorant book, a
book that posits aggressive disrespect for an immense spectrum of
African-American concerns as some sort of brave moral stance. It is a
book that takes us right back to the 1950s and argues, in effect, that
the South was right about that Negro problem. Indeed, I suppose there's
really no need to read this book at all--one could just go see Birth
of a Nation
and wallow in all that panic about insurrection and
uppity, overdressed black politicians who, as D.W. Griffith put it,
"know nothing of the incidents of power."

Call me a Nervous Nellie, but will FBI and CIA agents, with their
expansive new powers, be as subject to mocking and stereotyping black
people as the careless Mr. Kenneth R. Timmerman? To put it another way,
if the FBI and CIA see each other as enemies, do testy, overdressed,
big-spending people of African descent even stand a chance against a
popular culture so racially freighted?

If this book were not selling like hotcakes and if we were not at war, I
might just feel sorry for Timmerman. I'd tell him to get out and make a
few more black friends, maybe take a Democrat to lunch. Let him find out
for himself that we're not as scary as all that. I'd urge that course, I
guess, even for those white Americans whose sympathies are ostensibly
closer to my own--perhaps people like Ward Just, a novelist who in
reviewing Stephen Carter's new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park,
in The New York Times Book Review wrote about his discomfort in
attending a birthday party that Vernon Jordan gave for President Clinton
on Martha's Vineyard:

More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by
sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures. They were
lawyers and business supremos and academics, and many of them had houses
on the island.... Introductions were made, but the names flew by. I had
never been in an American living room where the paler nation was in the
minority, but that did not seem to matter on this occasion, everyone
jolly and conversational, very much at ease. But I was inhibited, in the
way a civilian is inhibited in a room full of professional soldiers,
listening instead of talking, trying to see beneath the skin of
things--the uniform.

This fear of black social life, the perceived unknowability of it, has,
I worry, become one more blind spot that endangers our national
security, to say nothing of our national unity. There are so many white
people who have still never been to a black home and have never had a
black person to theirs. Of course, there are lots of black people who
have never been much beyond the ghetto. But in general, I think black
people have an overwhelmingly better sense of white people as just plain
old human beings than the reverse. It's impossible not to: Black people
work in white homes, white stores, white offices. If we are
professionals, we can go days without even seeing another black person.
I'd never be able to say at a cocktail party, "Who's that wonderful
white entertainer? Oh, you know the one." And everyone there would have
such a narrow range of reference that they'd all answer in unison, "Oh
yeah, Steve Martin. He's great."

And so I keep wondering about who is reading Shakedown in such
energetic numbers. Who finds it necessary to buy into the frisson
of such hyperbole? Is it possible that the ability to maintain such a
fevered sense of besiegement about Jesse Jackson, of all people, is
related to the gibberishly panicked response of the police officers who
shot Amadou Diallo in that frenzy of bullets in 1999? Are Timmerman's
readers challenged to reflect upon the blind righteousness of the
officers who assaulted Abner Louima two years before that--do they
wonder where Louima would be if he were assaulted now? It should be
remembered that Louima, a noncitizen, was initially mistaken for someone
who had committed a minor crime. Would we ever have known of his plight
if he'd been whisked into a detention center with no trial, no charge
and no lawyer?

Do Timmerman's readers really write off all the disparities of black and
brown life in America--from housing to healthcare, from schooling to
employment--as simple market choices? Do they have a clue of the social
resentment so many blacks endure--yes, even well-educated and wealthy
black people? Sometimes it is in the little things: I do not fully
understand, for example, why Vanity Fair felt it necessary, in a
recent interview, to describe black philosopher Cornel West as not just
extremely knowledgeable but rather "besotted" with knowledge. Sometimes
it's in the large things. When Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered while
changing a flat tire on his Mercedes some years ago, Camille Cosby
wondered aloud where his killer, a vehemently racist young Ukranian
immigrant, had learned to so hate the sight of a black man driving an
expensive car.

Does Timmerman's book bring us any closer to acknowledging how many
times more dangerous those traditions of resentment have become when
political approval ratings soar with talk of ultimate control, of
official secrecy, of necessity, of accident and of disappearance?

How terrifying for black and brown people when a highly dangerous but
nevertheless very small network of terrorists are to be hunted down
based not only on specific information but by employing broadly
inaccurate assumptions about our race, our religion, our national
origin. Who betrays whom when sweepingly invasive surveillance
guidelines are embraced by commentators across the political
spectrum--from Alan Dershowitz to George Will, from Charles Krauthammer
to Nicholas Kristof. Who betrays whom when Timmerman's brand of vulgar
overgeneralization spreads like a poison across the globe, insuring that
whatever the final shape of our brave new world, some of us are doomed
to catch hell from all sides, consigned to a parallel universe, figured
as the enemy within--indeed, the enemy "wherever."

There is a fable about the lion that eats the lamb because the lamb has
offended him with some imagined trespass. "But I didn't do it," protests
the lamb. "Well," sighs the lion, "it must have been your brother"--and
digs into his dinner.

On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September
11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York
Times
ran an intriguing headline. "Forget the Past: It's a War
Unlike Any Other," it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting
that "Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a
shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land
already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is
virtually bereft of targets." It was a poor headline for an article that
began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over
control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree
of resonance.

History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming
war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without
anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike
could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about
the role of the United States in the world. And once the "war on
terrorism" actually started, those who tried to speak about a context
for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention
in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such
actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.

In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's
much-discussed "clash of civilizations" thesis, Pakistani writer and
filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such
organized historical amnesia--"the routine disinformation or
no-information that prevails today"--and of speaking forthrightly about
many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as
well as within what he calls the House of Islam. "The virtual outlawing
of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy
to farce," Ali puts it in one chapter, "A short course history of US
imperialism." In such a situation, "everything is either oversimplified
or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility."

Whereas Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis posits a cultural
conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as
"perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people,"
Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain
central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He
rejects Huntington's identification of the West with "human rights,
equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy," and he reminds us
of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the
Islamic world itself.

Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the
neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in
Afghanistan, the broader "war on terrorism" now being fought on numerous
fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts
in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a
heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left
Review
and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and
has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The
Clash of Fundamentalisms
he surveys a range of regional and
historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation
of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the
unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the
fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is
an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of
history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves
serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons,
geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.

Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking--defending
against religious orthodoxy in favor of "the freedom to think freely and
rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination"--Ali has a
sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas
that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate
Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time
dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of
Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of
Fundamentalisms
he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and
selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more
signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and
inconsistent references included in this volume.

Ali writes here of his "instinctive" atheism during his upbringing in
Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His
experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon,
born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a
merchant caravan and traveled widely, "coming into contact with
Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe." Ali writes
that "Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic
passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs
and the need to impose a set of common rules," thus creating an impulse
toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important
element of Islam's appeal.

Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect
that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding
of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter;
some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather
than a revealed document. "The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought
contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries," Ali argues.
But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is
particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the
Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. "What
do the Islamists offer?" Ali asks rhetorically: "A route to a past
which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed."

Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a
response to "the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on
a global scale." Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only
Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of
parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism
in the Third World. These failures--his examples include Egypt and
Syria--were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships
themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of
religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their
own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that "all the other exit routes
have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American
imperialism."

Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm
the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war
against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the
country "was still awash with factional violence," while "veterans of
the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan,
Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia." The factional
instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention,
created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.

To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular
nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for
decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan;
in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US "friends"
such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments
actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia
and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about
past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.

Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and
engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons
learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive
view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves,
setting out his differences with the advocates of "humanitarian
intervention." Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too
quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and
to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only
rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually
motivated by traditional "reasons of state." Where other people see
closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain
to be pursued.

Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate
paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history
recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a
significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in
Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been
so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, "Letter to
a young Muslim," Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his
correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader
to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism
than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be
achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he
notes, "no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even
pretends that it wishes to change anything significant"? What might a
radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount
a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style
capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the
horrors of the Soviet Union?

Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if
Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses
contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted
the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc
more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union
were "striving for a superior social and economic system" is to give
those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some
illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.

Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such
as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None
of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not
living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too
much continuity to the one before September 11.

No one has contributed more to the United States than James Madison. He
was the principal architect of the Constitution, the brilliant theorist
who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for
designing the American system of government. Moreover, along with
Washington and Franklin, Madison was one of the men who made the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia work. Whenever passionate disagreements
threatened the enterprise, it was Madison's calm logic to which the
others listened. As one delegate put it, it was Madison who had "the
most correct knowledge" about government affairs.

And no one did more than Madison to get the Constitution ratified in the
face of strong anti-Federalist opposition. The most hyperbolic
superlatives cannot do justice to the twenty-nine newspaper essays
Madison wrote that, together with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John
Jay (all written under the pseudonym Publius), comprise the
Federalist Papers. Suffice it to say that 200 years later a
distinguished political scientist wrote, "The Federalist is the
most important work in political science that has ever been written, or
is likely to be written, in the United States," and that Madison's
contributions shine the brightest.

And that is not all. At the convention in Richmond when anti-Federalists
George Mason and Patrick Henry used every argument and stratagem to
persuade Virginia to refuse to ratify the new Constitution--which, had
they been successful, would have caused the Union to be stillborn--it
was Madison's cool, clear reasoning that once again saved the day.

Madison's place in the pantheon of great Americans, therefore, is secure
regardless of how we evaluate his performance as the nation's fourth
President (1809-17). His reputation can withstand the central inquiry of
Garry Wills's short and provocative new book, namely: Why was James
Madison so great a constitutionalist but so dreadful a President?

Perhaps I overstate by calling Madison's presidency "dreadful." Wills
does not go that far. He presents an evaluation of Madison's successes
and failures, finding both. Nor do historians generally consider Madison
a dreadful President. When C-SPAN asked historians to rank the forty-two
American Presidents, Madison came in at number 18, putting him slightly
above average and, by way of modern comparisons, ahead of George H.W.
Bush (20) and Bill Clinton (21).

Wills's strongest pejorative is his description of Madison as a "hapless
commander in chief." Nevertheless, Wills's examination makes me wonder
whether, out of deference to Madison's other accomplishments, historians
are being unduly charitable to his presidency.

The defining issue of Madison's tenure was the War of 1812. Some
historians argue that he cannot be blamed for a war thrust upon him by a
"War Hawk Congress." Others, however, including most prominently Ralph
Ketcham of Syracuse University, argue that Madison wanted the war and
maneuvered Congress into declaring it. Wills sides with Ketcham and
builds a persuasive case that Madison deliberately propelled America
into a war for which it was ill prepared.

War was raging between England and France when Madison came to office.
Napoleon's armies were conducting their bloody marches across the
Continent while England was using her sea power to try to keep him
confined there. During his term, Jefferson had been confronted with the
problem of what to do about the combatants seizing ships that were
carrying American exports to their adversaries or, in England's case
especially, boarding American ships to seize sailors, many of whom were
deserters from the British Navy. At Madison's urging (Madison was
Jefferson's Secretary of State), Jefferson imposed an embargo on
American ships crossing the Atlantic. While some supported an embargo to
keep American ships out of harm's way, Madison believed an embargo would
exert enough commercial pressure on England to force it to agree to
leave American shipping alone.

But in fact the embargo meant little to England or France. It meant much
more to America, particularly New England, whose economy depended
heavily on trade with England. In the first year of the embargo
America's exports fell by almost 80 percent. New England preferred
having some of its ships and cargo seized by combatants to suspending
all trade. Under great pressure, Congress ended the embargo and replaced
it with the Nonintercourse Act, which permitted American ships to cross
the Atlantic as long as they did not trade with England or France. The
virtue of this approach was that it was unenforceable; once American
ships disappeared over the horizon, there was no telling where they
went.

The embargo ended on the last day of Jefferson's presidency, and the
indignity of combatants seizing American ships and sailors resumed in
full force as Madison took office. Then Madison heard good news: A
British diplomat reported that his government was ready to grant America
neutral trading rights. Thrilled, Madison immediately issued a
proclamation repealing America's prohibition against trade with
whichever nation, England or France, first granted neutral trading
rights to the United States. Believing troubles with England at sea to
be at an end, 600 ships sailed from American ports confident that all
would be well when they arrived at their trading destinations across the
Atlantic.

But England quickly announced there had been a mistake. Its
representative had failed to communicate that England would grant
neutral status only upon several conditions, one of which was that
England would continue to stop and board American ships and seize former
British sailors. Madison was fit to tied. By reneging on its word, said
Madison, England had committed an "outrage on all decency" more horrible
than the capture of black slaves from the shores of Africa.

Madison should have realized something was wrong with the original
repre-sentation, Wills argues. The US government's own survey revealed
that roughly 9,000 American crewmen were British deserters, and England
could not possibly afford so many of her sailors safe haven on American
ships.

Madison tried to wipe the egg off his face by announcing a new
policy--America would unilaterally resume trade with England and France
and continue to trade with both until either nation recognized America's
neutral trading rights, at which time America would automatically
reimpose an embargo upon the other. In view of the failure of the first
embargo, there was no reason to believe a potential new embargo would
force England or France to change its policy. But, says Wills, Madison
remained stubbornly committed to the failed policy of embargo.
Unfortunately, Wills believes, Napoleon shrewdly exploited it as a means
to maneuver America into war against England.

Napoleon announced he would repeal his ban on neutral trade on November
1, 1812, provided that the United States reimposed its embargo against
England by then. Acting once again without bothering to get
clarification, Madison reimposed the embargo upon England. But just as
he had previously acted without learning England's details and
conditions, this time Madison acted on Napoleon's offer only to discover
that Napoleon refused to rescind an order confiscating American ships at
port in recently captured Holland and other harbors of the empire.

Getting bamboozled by Napoleon appears, paradoxically, to have made
Madison even more furious at England. For its part, England found
Madison's willingness to side with France deplorable. "England felt that
it was defending the free world against the international tyranny of
Bonapartism," Wills writes. "Anyone who was not with them in that
struggle was against them." And so, increasingly, America and England
perceived each other as enemies.

Madison's anger with England was one factor that moved him toward war,
but there was another as well: He wanted to seize Canada. Jefferson
urged Madison to pluck this ripe plum while England was militarily
engaged with Napoleon. "The acquisition of Canada this year will be a
mere matter of marching," advised Jefferson.

It may be worth pausing to observe that many of Madison's worst
disasters involve following Jefferson. With the exception of the War of
1812, the most lamentable mistake of Madison's career was his plotting
with Jefferson to have states nullify federal laws, specifically the
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts violated fundamental
principles of free speech and press, and Jefferson and Madison cannot be
blamed for opposing them. But the medicine they prescribed--the claim
that the states could enact legislation nullifying federal law--was
potentially far worse than the disease.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison had argued that
Congress should be given the authority to nullify state law, and was
discouraged when he lost this battle. He later betrayed his own
convictions by arguing that the state legislatures could nullify laws
enacted by Congress, though for tactical reasons he called this
"interposition" rather than "nullification." Moreover, Madison allowed
himself to be Jefferson's cat's-paw in this matter. Jefferson, then Vice
President, wanted to keep his own involvement secret, and Madison
fronted for both of them. Madison was haunted by this throughout his
career: Southern states invoked Madison's support of nullification
during disputes over slavery, and Madison's political opponents
delighted in forcing him to try to explain the difference between
"interposition" and "nullification."

Why did Madison so readily follow Jefferson over cliffs? Madison was
nervous, bookish, provisional and physically unimposing (5'4" and 100
pounds). He was so insecure with the opposite sex that he did not
attempt courtship until he was 31. The object of his desire was 15, and
Madison was so crushed by her rejection that he did not venture into
romance again until he was 43, when he successfully won Dolley's hand.
It would be only natural for Madison to fall under the thrall of the
tall, dashing, passionate, cosmopolitan and supremely self-confident
Thomas Jefferson.

Any sensible strategy to seize Canada from one of the world's
superpowers would necessarily hinge upon a quick and powerful attack to
overwhelm British forces before they could be reinforced or before the
British Navy could be brought to bear in the conflict. Madison and his
military commanders planned a rapid, two-pronged strike: One American
force, commanded by William Hull, was to invade Canada from the west,
crossing over the border from Detroit. Meanwhile, Henry Dearborn was to
lead American forces from the east, crossing the Saint Lawrence River
from various points in New York.

Rather than take the time to raise and train a professional army,
Madison decided to invade Canada with militia forces. But this strategy
was the military equivalent of throwing pebbles at a hornet's nest--and
Madison should have known it.

Before the Revolutionary War, there had been much soapbox rhetoric about
the glories of the militia: Citizen soldiers were supposed to be more
virtuous and therefore more capable than professional soldiers. The
Revolutionary War proved this to be bunk. After the skirmishes at
Lexington and Concord, the militia performed terribly. So often did the
militia bolt in the face of even much smaller opposing forces that it
became Continental Army doctrine to position militia units in front of
and between regular army units, who were ordered to shoot the first
militiamen to run. Washington won the war only after raising and
training a professional army.

Notwithstanding the militia's dismal performance, some
politicians--particularly Southern slaveholders like Madison who relied
on the militia for slave control--continued to cling to the notion that
the virtuous citizen militia was superior to a professional army. One
Southerner who would have found these views laughable if they were not
so dangerous was George Washington. "America has almost been amused out
of her Liberties" by pro-militia rhetoric, he said: "I solemnly declare
I never was witness to a single instance, that can countenance an
opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of
fighting."

Madison, however, had not been listening. In the Federalist
Papers
, he and Hamilton expressed differing views about the militia.
Hamilton argued that an effective fighting force required professional
training and discipline, and he urged Congress to support only a select
militia. Madison, however, continued to envision a universal militia
consisting of all able-bodied white men.

This debate resonates even today in the gun-control debate. Because the
Second Amendment connects the right to bear arms to the militia,
gun-rights advocates suggest that the Founders considered the universal
militia to be sacrosanct. The militia was then composed of the whole
body of the people, and thus the Constitution permanently grants the
whole body of the people the right to keep and bear arms--or so the
argument runs. This makes little sense as a matter of constitutional
law, however, because, as both Hamilton and Madison recognized, the
Constitution expressly empowered Congress to organize the militia as it
saw fit.

Despite the Revolutionary War experience, Madison launched his attack on
Canada almost entirely with militia forces. The results were
predictable. In the east, most militiamen refused to cross the Saint
Lawrence, claiming that it was unlawful to take the militia outside the
United States. Dearborn did manage to coax a small contingent across the
river. But when shooting accidentally broke out among his own forces,
they all fled in confusion back across the Saint Lawrence.

Meanwhile, in the west, Hull's forces were paralyzed by militia refusing
to take orders from regular Army officers. There was an invasion, but
American forces were not the invaders. By the end of 1812, when America
was to be in possession of most of Canada, a few American units that had
failed to retreat successfully back into New York were being held
prisoner in eastern Canada, and English forces had taken Detroit and the
Michigan Territories.

Things continued downhill. Two years later, a British force of 1,200
marched nearly unchallenged into the District of Columbia while 8,000
American troops, mostly militia, "ran away too fast for our hard-fagged
people to make prisoners," as one British commander put it. The British,
of course, burned the White House and Capitol to the ground.

Wills gives Madison high marks for grace and courage during the British
invasion of Washington, and, all in all, the war did not turn out too
badly. The British had not wanted it and settled for the status quo ante
bellum. And rather than feeling disgraced, America took patriotic pride
in a series of Navy successes, remembered through battle slogans and
anthems ("Don't give up the ship," James Lawrence; "We have met the
enemy and they are ours," Oliver Hazard Perry; "the rockets' red glare,"
Francis Scott Key). America came out of war feeling good about itself.
For this, historians give Madison much credit.

Some credit is undoubtedly deserved. More than once, Madison acted with
courage and grace in the midst of panic. America was properly proud of
its naval feats, though it is not clear that a President who took a
nation with seven warships into battle against an adversary with 436
deserves laurels.

Is it unfair to call Madison a dreadful President? If Wills is correct
about Madison stumbling his way toward war through a series of
diplomatic blunders and then deciding to take on a world power with
militia forces, perhaps not.

And what is it that allowed Madison to be so great a constitutionalist
and so poor a President? Wills argues that it was provincialism and
naïveté: What Madison had learned from the great minds by
reading books allowed him to understand political theory better,
perhaps, than anyone else. But without greater worldly experience, even
Madison could not operate the levers of power that he himself designed.
Yet as Wills aptly concludes, "Madison did more than most, and did some
things better than any. That is quite enough."

Blogs

How the cowardice of Viking Penguin kept the author’s In The Spirit of Crazy Horse out of print for seven years

April 7, 2014

Thomas Piketty’s ambitious, lucid Capital in the Twenty-First Century explains the depth and scope of our inequality problem.

March 14, 2014

The four-term congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District is boldly following in the footsteps of Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale and Wellstone.

March 10, 2014

The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, The Nation’s reviewer wrote, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.

March 8, 2014

The underlying philosophy of the National Front remains almost exactly the same as it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen.

March 1, 2014

A controversy stirs up over John Judis's ‘Genesis’.

February 27, 2014

Penguin’s withdrawing and pulping The Hindus: An Alternative History is only the latest in a series of surrenders.

February 14, 2014

We published some of his earliest poems as well as his great 1964 essay on Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay.

January 11, 2014

Obama wants another decade of war in Afghanistan—but a new book says he’s already lost faith in the mission. 

January 7, 2014

An article in our pages in 1919 helped rescue the long-deceased scribe from obscurity and secured him a prominent place in the American canon.

January 4, 2014