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You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest
budget--do I repeat myself?--about the inner life of a morally
compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but
respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to
the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.

Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards
of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of
his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to
rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al
Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your
attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American
movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film
of ideas--in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.

I care about The Believer, first of all, because its
writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most
American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of
course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a
discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it's a jumble on which we
may stake our lives. That's why the disorderliness can be dramatic in
itself--provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a
compelling enough character.

So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The
Believer
by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De
Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and
infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and
slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head
buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his
brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes
with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas--but
it's his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so
horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood,
as a Nazi activist.

Now, I've hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because
I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when
the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand
Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a
theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine,
the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon
Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.)
The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with
Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September
2001--not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an
intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since
Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March
of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that
audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.

Those who choose to do so will discover that The Believer starts
in two locations at once, on the subway and inside Danny's skull. In the
exterior setting, Danny is a twentyish skinhead, who when first seen is
methodically harassing a bespectacled, yarmulke-wearing youth on the
elevated train. Danny crowds the prey, crunching his Doc Marten boots
all over the guy's wing-tips. Then, when the victim behaves like a
victim--avoiding eye contact, fleeing the subway at the first
opportunity--Danny pursues him onto the street. "Hit me! Please!" Danny
howls. The less resistance he gets, the more enraged he becomes, till he
stomps the timid, book-toting Jew.

Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, we also get access to Danny's memory,
in which he's forever the pale student with big eyeglasses. We
see Danny in the yeshiva at about age 12--just another of the boys,
except for his rage against the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to
slaughter his own son as an offering to God. None of the standard,
moralized readings of this tale will assuage Danny. He insists that
Abraham's sacrifice made the Jews into a race of willing victims,
perpetually crushed by a God who holds them to be worthless.

You see why this stuff can make people nervous. It's not just that Danny
takes Jewish self-hatred to its ultimate conclusion--he takes it there
theologically, argumentatively, with a foul-mouthed, spray-the-room
exuberance that will offend every moviegoer. Zionists, for example, will
object when Danny says the Israelis aren't real Jews--they have soil,
and the kind of manliness a fascist like him can respect. Supporters of
the Palestinians, on the other hand, will cringe to hear Danny denounce
the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. (With friends like this...)

But I'm making The Believer sound like a string of provocations,
and it's not. It's a modernist tragedy, meaning one that's realized with
equal measures of sympathy and irony. When Danny tries to enlist in an
"above-ground, intellectually serious fascist movement," its leaders
(Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) welcome his anti-Semitic tirades but
dismiss his offer to kill Jews. Instead, to his horror, they make him
into a fundraiser, with a suit and a cell phone. When Danny hooks up
with a dreamily masochistic young Aryan (Summer Phoenix), it isn't long
before she decides to study Hebrew, hangs a mezuzah on the door and
starts wearing ankle-length dresses. Yes, hit me! Please! The harder
Danny tries to be a Nazi, the more ineluctably he's a Jew.

I begin to think of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's
Wise Blood, who is a Christian preacher in spite of himself.
According to O'Connor, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to
rid himself of Jesus: "Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not
able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean
one will, but many wills conflicting in one man." In the same way, many
wills conflict in Danny, with that of the faithful Jew refusing to die
away. At one point, in fact, Danny secretly wraps a prayer shawl around
his torso, much as Hazel wound himself in penitential barbed wire. Then,
like any good yeshiva boy, Danny lets the fringes dangle beneath the
T-shirt, which in his case is emblazoned with a swastika.

It's good to see someone take such care with his appearance. Most
American movies these days are little more than fashion statements--and
yet the characters are shockingly thoughtless about their clothes.

So we come to Al Pacino's leather jacket.

It plays quite a prominent role in Insomnia, a movie whose
premise goes like this: Someone in the remote town of Nightmute, Alaska,
has murdered a high school girl. The victim clearly knew her killer, and
the local population is neither large nor highly mobile. Nevertheless,
the Nightmute police feel too humble to work the case on their own. They
send for help--though not from Nome or Anchorage, nor even from Seattle,
Portland or San Francisco. They go all the way to Los Angeles, whose
police department immediately agrees to dispatch two of its top
detectives, despite their being under investigation by Internal Affairs.

I tried explaining all this to my friend Ben Sonnenberg, who seemed
puzzled. "But what about Eddie Murphy?" he asked. "Was he too busy to
come from Detroit?"

Reassure yourself, Ben. Eddie has answered the call, in effect if not in
person. That's the point of the leather jacket.

It's hard to imagine Pacino's character, Detective Will Dormer, going
out and buying this item for himself. It's a little too heavy for the
climate in LA, a little too pimp-chic for a cop who's supposed to be an
agonized moralist. With its supple new leather, the jacket looks more
like something that was recently issued to the guy--which, of course, it
was. The filmmakers decided this was just the thing to signal "cool, hip
and streetwise" for Pacino. In much the same way, they imposed a
symbolic costume on the murderer, Robin Williams. Although the script
says he's vain and attracted to luxury, Williams is draped in something
that says "phony, out-of-touch intellectual": a corduroy jacket.

Don't worry, by the way, that I've revealed the killer's identity. You'd
be able to figure it out for yourself, by process of elimination, no
more than ten minutes into the movie, which is about twenty minutes
before Williams comes into the open. The mystery of Insomnia has
nothing to do with discovering he's the murderer and everything to do
with his somehow being able to deliver a restrained, nuanced,
convincingly chilling performance. There's Robin Williams, taking care
of business, while everybody else is goofing off.

Pacino behaves ridiculously, as he typically does when the script's a
laugh. Hilary Swank has no such history of egregious mugging; but now,
in the role of a local cop, she bounces onto the screen like a young
squirrel on its first day of acorn school. Who allowed these
performances, or maybe even encouraged them? Christopher Nolan, that's
who. He was so intent on dolloping pizazz onto this story that he didn't
notice the visual syrup was drowning a six-inch stack of toaster
waffles.

I'm sure Insomnia will have its champions, even so. They'll claim
the picture is About Something, namely the importance of never, ever
breaking the rules. That's the one, big idea of Insomnia. As we
may learn from life and better movies, it's wrong.

Screening Schedule: Speaking of people who broke rules, Lynne
Sachs has made a fine, artful documentary about the Catonsville Nine,
the war protesters who walked into a Selective Service office in 1968,
grabbed as many files as they could carry and burned them with homemade
napalm. She's got the surviving protesters down on film, Philip and
Daniel Berrigan among them; and she's got other interested parties too,
including the district attorney who prosecuted the Nine and one of the
jurors who convicted them. The juror weeps now, out of respect for their
courage. The film is titled Investigation of a Flame, and it's
showing in New York at Anthology Film Archives, May 29-31. The
distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, (800) 876-1710.

There is a difference it used to make,

seeing three swans in this versus four in that

quadrant of sky. I am not imagining. It was very large, as its

effects were. Declarations of war, the timing fixed upon for a
sea-departure; or,

about love, a sudden decision not to, to pretend instead to a kind

of choice. It was dramatic, as it should be. Without drama,

what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere

to be found. They come to me like strays, like the damaged,

something that could know better, and should, therefore--but does not:

a form of faith, you've said. I call it sacrifice--an instinct for it,
or a habit at first, that

becomes required, the way art can become, eventually, all we have

of what was true. You shouldn't look at me like that. Like one of those
saints

on whom the birds once settled freely.

As if the back streets of our local city

might dispense with their pyrrhic accumulation of dust and wineful
tonality,

offer a reprise of love itself, a careless love

rendered grand and persuasive

by its own shy handful of hope, some ballast such as this

on a summer afternoon when the air smells of slaughtered chickens,

and other problems, like the estranged spouse of a good friend,

holler from the passageway. It's always conclusive

in the bungled moment after you try to accomplish something irreducible.

So you say as you return empty-handed from the store,

having forgotten everything--your money, the list.

Almost everything that is wrong with Washington Post foreign
editor David Hoffman's new book about Russia's transformation into a
capitalist system, The Oligarchs, can be discerned in one small
and apparently meaningless passage on page 91. In it, the erstwhile
Moscow bureau chief of the Post (1995-2001) describes former
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais's reaction when, as a
young man, the future and now infamous "father of Russian privatization"
first read the works of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek:

Many years later, Chubais recalled the thrill of reading Hayek and
instantly gave his own example of how Hayek's theory worked in practice
in the United States. "One person is selling hamburgers somewhere in New
York," he told me, "while another person is grazing cows somewhere in
Arkansas to produce meat that will be used to make those hamburgers. But
in order for that person in Arkansas to graze cows, there needs to be a
price for meat, which tells him that he should graze cows."

Now, the reaction a sane person is likely to have when reading a passage
like this is, What kind of maniac experiences a "thrill" when reading
about hamburger distribution? A corollary question that occurred to me,
as I imagined this 20-year-old Soviet dreaming guiltily of Arkansas
cattle, was, Were there no girls at all in the Leningrad of Anatoly
Chubais's youth?

It's a given that the answers to questions like these are not to be
found in the seminal analytical work of one of the Moscow journalism
community's most notoriously humorless foreign correspondents, but this
problem is less inconsequential than you might think. For it is
precisely Hoffman's inability to write honestly and perceptively about
ordinary human experience that makes The Oligarchs miss as badly
as it does in its attempt to describe the changes in Russian society
over the past decade or so.

By the time Hoffman took over as the Post's Moscow bureau chief,
I had been living in Russia for about five years. First as a student and
then as a freelance reporter, I'd watched during that time as Russians
became increasingly disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. Kids
I'd studied with who had brains and talent found themselves working twenty-four-hour
shifts in dingy street kiosks or lugging feminine hygiene products door
to door, while the only people from my class who ended up with money
were morons and thugs who took jobs with local "biznesmen" (read:
mobsters) doing God knows what.

That was the reality for the Russians young and old who had the
misfortune to live through the early 1990s, when the inefficient old
planned economy was dismantled and something--I hesitate to call it
capitalism--was installed in its place. Honest, hard-working people were
impoverished overnight, while swindlers and killers quickly rose to the
top. The insult was exacerbated for Russians when they began to hear
that the rest of the world, America and the American press in
particular, was calling this process progress.

What America called a "painful but necessary transition," most Russians
saw as a simple scam in which Communist functionaries and factory
directors reinvented themselves by swearing oaths to the new democratic
religion and cloaking themselves in fancy new words like "financier" and
"entrepreneur." The only difference from the old system appeared to be
that the villas were now in the south of France instead of on the Black
Sea. The ordinary Russian also noticed that his salary had become
largely fictional and that all his benefits had been taken away--corners
had to be cut somewhere in order to pay for all those new Mercedes in
town.

At the national level, this process was symbolized by the rise of the
oligarchs, a small group of rapacious and mostly bald men who were
handed huge fortunes by their friends in government. Eventually, they
were to take the place of the Politburo as the ruling coterie of the new
elite.

Men like bankers Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Alexander Smolensky and Vladimir
Potanin, industrialist Boris Berezovsky and media magnate Vladimir
Gusinsky became Croesus-rich seemingly overnight in those early years of
the 1990s. By the middle of the decade, they owned or controlled much of
the media and held increasing influence over Boris Yeltsin, a weak
autocrat who had grown dependent on their wealth and power to fend off
his political enemies.

The Oligarchs purports to tell the story of the rise of these
men. It is an exhaustive book, impressive in scope, that contains
extensive interviews with all of the key figures. But it misses because
Hoffman does not know what it is like to sleep in a street kiosk during
a Leningrad winter, nor does he particularly care to know; he writes
like a man trying to describe the dark side of King George from a
trundle bed in a guest room of Windsor palace.

Not that this is surprising. In his tenure as a reporter in Moscow,
Hoffman was notorious for being an unapologetic ideologue, the hardest
of hard-core cold warriors. The basic structure of a David Hoffman
article was generally to lead with a gloomy flashback to some grim
Soviet-era scene and then go on to describe how, with the help of
American aid, the courageous leadership of the democrat Boris Yeltsin
and the heroic efforts of Western-minded reform economists like Chubais,
things had since changed spectacularly for the better.

In other words, lead off with a picture of a groaning, overweight
housewife at the end of a long line to buy shoes that don't fit, and
close with a shot of an apple-cheeked cashier at Pizza Hut using her
salary to buy Nikes. That was Russia Reporting 101 during the 1990s, and
no one was better at it or more devoted to its practice than David
Hoffman.

That said, it is surprising, even shocking, that Hoffman would employ
that technique in this book, given the subject matter. Hoffman begins
his book by focusing on the Soviet-era experiences of a characteristic
"ordinary Russian," a schoolteacher named Irina, and describing her
humiliating search for toilet paper on a summer day in 1985.

Use of these images made a kind of sense in the wake of the collapse of
Communism, but in Hoffman's book, published ten years after the fact,
the decision to spend the entire first chapter (titled "Shadows and
Shortages") describing the hardship of product-deprived Soviets in the
1980s can only mean one thing. Hoffman is setting up his reader to
understand the phenomenon of the oligarchs in terms of their eventual
benefit to society.

That benefit, in Hoffman's view, is clearly a Russia full of available
products and the triumphant building of a "rapacious, unruly
capitalism...on the ashes of Soviet communism."

That the vast majority of Russians could not and cannot afford those
products, or even earn enough to feed and clothe themselves, does not
concern Hoffman. The opening of the book, set in the old USSR, is full
of portraits of ordinary folks grasping for Beatles records and VCRs and
other Western delights (Hoffman even sinks so low as to use the
heavyweight champion of Russia-reporting clichés: the Soviet
citizen sitting despondent at the sight of a full refrigerator in a
Western movie). But those same ordinary people are conspicuously absent
from the middle and later pages, when the cracks in the new system--the
stalled salaries, the collapsed local industries, the crime-- begin to
show.

In one particularly telling section, Hoffman describes Yeltsin's
surprise when he learned in early 1998 that his popularity figures in
poll ratings had dropped below 5 percent. According to the book, media
mogul Gusinsky and some of the other oligarchs discovered that Yeltsin,
kept insulated from the truth by his KGB aides, had no conception of the
depth of his unpopularity:

"Before the meeting, they agreed that someone would try to deliver the
raw truth to Yeltsin that he was no longer popular, a painful
realization that, according to [Yeltsin's chief of staff, Viktor]
Ilyushin, the president had not absorbed."

This passage is ironic because Yeltsin's surprise at this juncture of
the story is nearly identical to that of the uninitiated reader
traveling through Hoffman's book for the first time. Until he informs us
a few sentences later of Yeltsin's meager poll ratings, the pain felt by
the overwhelming majority of Russians during the early reform years is
completely concealed.

When Hoffman first showed us the schoolteacher Irina, she was a Soviet
citizen deprived of toilet paper, and this was apparently worthy of
note. But if she remained a teacher through this Yeltsin poll moment in
the middle of the book, in 1996, Irina also saw her health benefits
taken away, her salary slashed to the equivalent of about $50 a month
(and possibly delayed for months in any case) and funding for her school
cut so severely that she would have to buy chalk out of her own pocket.
This is not considered noteworthy, in Hoffman's estimation.

The determination to keep the telling of the oligarchs' story within the
context of their eventual salutary effect on the country leads Hoffman
into some grievous oversights and contradictions. None of these are more
important than his insistence upon painting his oligarch subjects--in
particular, Khodorkovsky, Potanin and Berezovsky--as self-made
entrepreneurs who bucked the state system to make their fortunes. The
fact that he connects the rise of these men to the encouraging fact of a
Russia full of products on its shelves is even more misleading.

The reality is that none of these men produced anything that Russians
could consume, and all benefited directly from tribute handed down from
the state. Bankers like Smolensky, for instance, made fortunes through a
collusive arrangement with state insiders who gave them exclusive
licenses to trade in hard currency during a time when prices were set to
be abruptly freed. When hyperinflation set in (naturally) and the
population frantically scampered to convert their increasingly worthless
rubles into dollars, the currency-trading licenses became virtual
spigots of cash.

Furthermore, the oligarchs really became a ruling class only after the
"loans for shares" auctions in late 1995, a series of privatizations
that underscored the incestuous relationship between the state and the
new tycoons. The state "lent" huge stakes in giant companies (in
particular oil companies) in return for cash. Implemented and organized
by Minister Chubais, the auctions ended up being one of the great shams
of all time, as in many cases the bidders themselves were allowed to
organize the tenders and even to exclude competitors. In some cases, the
state actually managed to lend the bidders the money to make the bids
through a series of backdoor maneuvers.

Hailed at the time as the death knell of the state-controlled economy
and a great advance of the privatization effort, the auctions were
actually a huge quid pro quo in which bankers were handed billion-dollar
companies for a fraction of their market price (a 78 percent stake in
Yukos, the second-largest oil company in Russia, valued at least at $2
billion, was sold for just $309.1 million to Khodorkovsky's Menatep
Bank) in exchange for support of Yeltsin in the upcoming 1996 election.
Many Russians today consider loans for shares one of the biggest thefts
in the history of mankind. Hoffman, incidentally, didn't bother to cover
loans for shares as a reporter, either.

One final note about Hoffman. Many reviewers have lauded The
Oligarchs
for its "readability." They must have been reading a
different book. If there is a worse descriptive writer in the journalism
world than Hoffman, I have yet to come across him or her. In those
passages in which he goes after the "breezy" conversational style of
David Remnick's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lenin's Tomb (Hoffman's
Remnick inferiority complex is grossly obvious in this book), he
repeatedly breaks down into crass stupidities that reveal his lack of
knowledge about the country he covered for half a decade.

At one point, for instance, he describes the young Chubais as having had
a penchant for driving his Zaporozhets automobile at "terrifying
speeds." As the owner of two such cars, which feature 38-horsepower
engines and can be lifted off the ground by two grown men (or maybe four
Washington Post correspondents), I can testify that terror is not
and has never been in this machine's design profile.

Hoffman's atrocious Russian, a subject of much snickering in the Moscow
press community, also shines through in this book. He consistently
mistranslates Russian expressions and fails to grasp lingual/cultural references. For instance, when he talks about Chubais's habit
of spending long hours in the Publichka, which he says is what
"young scholars fondly called the [public] library," he appears not to
grasp that the "fond" nickname is a play on the term publichniy
dom
, or whorehouse.

This might be because Hoffman is the only American male to have visited
Moscow in the 1990s and escaped without personal knowledge of the term.
Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that Hoffman is not the kind of
person one would normally consider an authority on the nontycoon Russian
experience.

That's particularly true given the ironic fact that prostitution was one
of the few real growth industries during the reign of the oligarchs, the
one feasible financial option for the modern-day Irinas of Russia.
That's modern Russia in a nutshell: plenty of toilet paper for the
asking, but no way to afford it except...the hard way.

If The Oligarchs is simply a wrongheaded book, then Building
Capitalism
, by Carnegie fellow Anders Aslund, is legitimately
insidious. Aslund throughout the 1990s was a key adviser to reform
politicians like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, and as such his
assessment of the success of the privatization era is obviously
self-interested. He claims in the book that "populations have gained
from fast and comprehensive reforms," and that "economic decline and
social hazards have been greatly exaggerated, since people have
forgotten how awful communism was."

This is typical of Western analysis of Russia over the past ten
years--an academic who grew up in Sweden and lives in Washington,
telling Russians that their complaints about reform are groundless
because, unlike Western experts, they do not accurately remember what
life was like under Communism.

Aslund, who helped to design the privatization programs in the middle of
the past decade, goes on in the book to defend those blitzkrieg
liquidations of state industries on the grounds that such formal
privatizations were more equitable than what he calls "spontaneous
privatization."

A major aim of formal privatization was to stop spontaneous
privatization, which was inequitable, slow, and inefficient. Reformers
feared it would arouse a popular political backlash against
privatization and reform, as indeed happened all over. Especially in the
[former Soviet Union], the saying "what is not privatized will be
stolen" suggested the urge for great speed.

It's not clear from this passage to whom this "great speed" idea was
suggested. Those "equitable" formal privatizations Aslund helped design
left billion-dollar companies like Yukos and Norilsk Nickel in the hands
of single individuals (Khodorkovsky and Potanin, respectively) for
pennies on the dollar. They were so corrupt and unfair that for most
Russians--the majority of whom were left impoverished by the
changes--the word "privatization" became synonymous with theft. Indeed,
Russians even coined a new term, prikhvatizatsiya (or
"grabitization"), that perfectly expressed their outrage over the
private commandeering of property they considered public and their own.

It should be admitted that the extent to which one finds success in
Russia's capitalist experiment--and the worth of the oligarchs who
administered it--is largely a matter of opinion.

If you believe that capitalism is about destroying a country's industry,
handing over its wealth to a dozen or so people who will be inclined to
move it instantly to places like Switzerland and Nauru Island, and about
humiliating the general population so completely that they are powerless
to do anything but consume foreign products and long for the "good old
days" of totalitarianism (polls still consistently show that 70 percent
of the population preferred life under Brezhnev to that of today's
Russia), then you have to judge the Russian experiment a success.

But if you believe that people are more than just numerical variables in
some dreary equation found in an Adam Smith reader (or perhaps numbers
lumped together with cows in Anatoly Chubais's dogeared Hayek text) then
you'll have a hard time finding any true capitalism at all in today's
Russia. Or in either of these coldhearted books, for that matter.

Our most cherished national symbols--from the Pledge of Allegiance to "America the Beautiful" to Lady Liberty's poetry--are rooted in liberal ideals.

One of the things we do not do well in this country is learn from our mistakes. This is particularly true in the strengthening and rejuvenating of cities.

For more than a century, a recognizable pattern existed among those
migrating to New York City: They came first either through Ellis Island
or up from the American South, and more recently via JFK. As the
newcomers quickly helped build larger communities, they began to occupy
distinct places in the mental and physical geography of the city.

Yet the fastest-growing migration of the past few decades into the city
severely complicates the demographic pattern to which most New Yorkers
are accustomed. Mexican migrants, whose (counted) ranks nearly tripled
to 275,000 between 1990 and 2000, are indeed coming in significant
numbers, but they are staying for quite varying amounts of time and
inhabiting quite varying parts of the city. Spatially, there is no
Mexican equivalent of the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Bronx, or
the Dominican enclave in Washington Heights. That the vast majority of
those who come across the Rio Grande are undocumented also suggests that
it may be a while before the Mexican community will have a direct voice,
either politically or via organized labor, in city affairs.

Enter Jimmy Breslin. Yes, the same pugnacious figure familiar to New
Yorkers for his four decades as a muckraking columnist, and to national
audiences most recently for his intro to Spike Lee's Summer of
Sam
. Could there be a better guide to the new pattern of immigration
than Breslin? From a scholarly standpoint, the answer would obviously be
yes--the recent work of Arlene Dávila and Agustín
Laó-Montes, Nancy Foner and others is a good place to start. Such
scholarship shows that the current wave of immigration fits no one mold,
with some groups, particularly Mexicans, establishing a transnational
pattern of going back and forth to their home countries, thus making it
impossible even to identify a single unified process of Latino
immigration. But from the perspective of gritty, everyday, street-level
New York, or at least that fast-disappearing world of tough talk and
no-nonsense reporting, Breslin has no match as a firsthand observer of
the newcomers' place in the city's social hierarchy. Ultimately, the way
Breslin, an older, working-class Irish-American, grapples with the new
migration tells us more than a little bit about the changing meaning of
the American dream.

Breslin's new book, his eighth nonfiction work, tells of The Short
Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez
. Gutiérrez, an undocumented Mexican
laborer, died in a 1999 construction accident in the Hasidic
neighborhood of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. For Breslin,
Gutiérrez's story not only typifies the hardships that Mexican
migrants face in coming north but shows how harsh the working conditions
are when they arrive. Gutiérrez, in other words, hardly lived the
life of a latter-day Horatio Alger. Instead of fortune, the city
provided only loneliness and a gruesome but entirely preventable death
in a cement foundation.

Gutiérrez's tragic demise sets Breslin on course to discover the
origins of what would otherwise have been yet another mostly forgotten
existence. Breslin goes to central Mexico, to the small town of San
Matias (near Puebla), to recapture Eduardo's life and surroundings
there, and then follows his tortuous journey north across the border,
before arriving in Brooklyn. In the process, Breslin accomplishes twin
goals: to show how Mexican migrants are increasingly making their way
well beyond the Southwest, steadily transforming the demographics of
Midwestern and Northeastern cities; and, more dramatically, he
illustrates how that migration probably has more in common with the
Middle Passage than with any of the heroism now accorded to the
immigrant journey through Ellis Island.

Breslin opens with a series of outsider's observations of life in
impoverished San Matias. Ninety percent of Mexican children will never
go to school beyond the sixth grade, and instead go to work, which in
places like San Matias is sporadic and pays almost nothing. Thus, as a
result of stories told by relatives and others within their community,
the young of San Matias live their lives with pictures of American money
in their heads. And "such poor, dark-skinned children," Breslin
observes, soon become the young adults who are migrating along with
counterparts from India, China and elsewhere to become New York City's
new majority, by which he essentially means people of color.

Getting here from San Matias is no mean feat. After hearing from his
girlfriend Silvia's brother-in-law of construction work in Brooklyn that
paid $6 or $7 an hour (to undocumented Mexicans), less than one-third of
what unionized American workers receive, Eduardo was tempted to go
north. After Silvia, only 15, told him that she was headed for Texas,
Eduardo, four years older, had even less reason to stay home. Breslin
then vividly re-creates both journeys, supplementing the two stories
with documentation of parallel dangers that Mexican migrants experience
every day: dangerous coyotes (smugglers), rattlesnakes, heat exhaustion,
drowning in the Rio Grande, suffocation in a tunnel leading to Tijuana,
getting hit by a train in Texas or a car in San Diego, local police,
airport security and, above all, the Border Patrol. Thus harrowed, both
Silvia and Eduardo nevertheless do land safely: the former in Bryan-College Station, Texas, where she works at both the Olive Garden and a
barbecue joint; and the latter initially at JFK, only after being
delivered COD by a coyote on a flight from Los Angeles.

Sympathetic as the author is to the courage and struggles of those who
endure such hardship in coming north, there are still some troubling
dimensions to Breslin's account, particularly in his somewhat simplistic
choice of terms to describe the process. He so often uses "the Mexicans"
as the subject of his sentences that one begins to fear Buchananesque
calls for big walls along the border (fortunately, they are not there).
Breslin also far too simplistically refers on many occasions to how
Mexican migrants are lured by The Job, and at one point riffs: "They
come across the riverbanks and the dry border, those people who want to
work, who want to scrub floors and clean pots, or mow lawns." Yet as his
own telling of Silvia's double shifts in El Paso and of Eduardo's later
job-hopping in New York suggests, the specific work matters much less
than the simple fact of a paycheck. Migrants seeking wages who will
accept the least-desirable work is surely more accurate than talk of
Mexicans who want "The Job," but then again, drama is Breslin's primary
concern.

Once away from the airport, Eduardo enters a frighteningly impersonal
city, and here Breslin emphasizes the changing meaning of the
contemporary immigrant experience: "Once, they came in dreadful old
ships, from Magilligan in Northern Ireland, from Cobh in southern
Ireland, from Liverpool and Naples and Palermo and Odessa.... Those able
to stand always scoured the horizon for the first look at a city where
the streets were decorated, if not paved, with gold." The numbers of
subsequent nonwhite migrations, particularly those of Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans, are missing from Breslin's litany, which illustrates the
degree to which the traditional mythology of immigration into New York
City needs to be rewritten continually. But here as elsewhere, Breslin
should be indulged, for the experience of Mexican immigrants in New York
is skewing more than a few familiar demographic patterns.

Eduardo's experiences in Brooklyn illustrate some of the unique features
of contemporary Mexican migration. He settles with a handful of others
from San Matias in Brighton Beach, an area whose Eastern European Jewish
identity grew rapidly with the influx of Russian and Ukrainian
immigrants in the early 1990s. On a few occasions, he and a friend would
go to Sunset Park, an increasingly Latino neighborhood and one of the
few areas of the city with a visible Mexican presence. Indeed, as the
ongoing research of John Mollenkopf and others demonstrates, even though
their ranks are growing rapidly, Mexican migrants are tending to favor
heterogeneous ethnic neighborhoods rather than grouping together.
Breslin's re-creation of Eduardo's life in the city may help explain one
of the reasons this is so. As Eduardo and his roommates drink a few
beers after a long day's work, they reminisce of home and discuss plans
to go back. That so many do go back and forth, perhaps, diminishes the
necessity for those who stay to form distinct neighborhoods of their
own.

Those working here as undocumented laborers also face conditions hardly
conducive to sticking around. Despite repeated building-code violations
elsewhere in the neighborhood, a slumlord named Eugene Ostreicher was
able to continue building in South Williamsburg, using undocumented
Mexican laborers like Eduardo. While working for Ostreicher in November
of 1999, Eduardo poured cement on the third and top floor, which was
supported by only three flimsy, improperly fastened beams; the structure
soon collapsed, and Eduardo drowned in cement three floors below.
Breslin thus takes aim at a variety of targets: Ostreicher, who was slow
to face punishment, and whose cozy relationship to City Hall (via Bruce
Teitelbaum, ex-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's liaison to the Hasidic
community) had allowed him to keep building despite past violations; the
city's Department of Buildings, a bastion of frightening corruption and
inefficiency; and, to a lesser extent, the construction unions, which
allow the use of nonunion labor. Some of Breslin's examples do seem
tangential, like his discussion of a phony Pell Grant scheme run by
Ostreicher's Hasidic neighbors, or of Mayor Giuliani's war on sex shops.
But there is no doubting Breslin's crusading spirit, and he's always
good for a memorable barb or two--as when he reminds us that pre-9/11,
Giuliani did "virtually nothing each day except get into the papers or
to meet girlfriends."

As the book closes, with Eduardo dead and Ostreicher facing minimal
punishment at best, the meaning of the former's sweet dream is
uncertain. He came to New York with a desire only to make enough money
to go home, perhaps with Silvia. But now he is sent home in a casket
paid for by the Red Cross and the Central Labor Trades Council, the
latter doing so to "get into the newspapers." Though by no means the
first group to come to America with the primary goal of making money in
order to take it back home, Mexican migrants find a labor market that is
increasingly transient, unregulated and brutal. Still, despite the
hardships, they are helping to create a new, transnational version of
the American dream. It is a story that we all need to consider, and
Jimmy Breslin has successfully helped open the door.

As if to move a flexible sphere from here
to there with unassisted head and foot
were natural and obvious. As if
a dance could always bow to resolute
constraint and never be danced the same way twice.
As if whistles and cheers, the hullabaloo
of fervent gazers were all the music needed
to keep its players' goals in tune. So that
as they weave, dodge, collide, collapse in breathless
haystacks--and rise and fall and rise again--
we're made, if not one, then at least whole.

When I first saw The Last Waltz in 1978, I almost walked out,
although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I
admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at
San Francisco's Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in
light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a Thanksgiving sit-down dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.

Twenty-four years and a new DVD version have changed, or at least made
subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese's
typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America's underbellies, and
monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz
teeters between grit and awe--perhaps unintentionally but tellingly,
like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.

When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed The Last Waltz
"the most beautiful rock movie ever." As a formalist she had a point.
With seven cameramen, including Vilmos Zsigmond (later famous as a cinematographer) and Miklos Rozsa (who came to be known as a composer), Scorsese professionalized the deliberately
nonprofessional documentary sensibility of D.A. Pennebaker and the
Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times: Mainstream rock had
been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the
new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the
industry's search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in
answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Breakdancers hit urban streets
and Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that
exploded somewhere between Elvis, an r&b revue and West Side
Story
. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic
underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.

So now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double vision: It's an
elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era.
The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping
across its lenses is intercut with open-eyed realism during the best of
the connecting interview segments--though those too are frequently
tinged with Scorsese's romanticism.

When Music From Big Pink (Capitol) came out in 1968, its album
cover was a painting by Bob Dylan. Dylan had hired the quintet, then The
Hawks, renamed The Band, for his revolutionary 1965-66 tour, which they
spent making garage grunge of his songs while being booed by folk
purists who wanted acoustic Dylan rather than the post-"Like a Rolling
Stone" model. (Bob Dylan Live 1966 [Sony] is the official version
of long-available bootlegs.)

After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had pretty much disappeared
from view, and there were regular rumors of his death or disfigurement.
But the smartest word was he'd been hanging out at Big Pink, a
nondescript house at the foot of Woodstock's Overlook Mountain, jamming
and writing songs with The Band. (These would soon surface as bootlegs;
selections have been remixed and officially reissued on The Basement
Tapes
[Sony] intercut with material by The Band alone.) Dylan
encouraged them to find their artistic vision. No surprise, then, that
Music From Big Pink opened with one Dylan track, "Tears of Rage,"
and closed with another, "I Shall Be Released."

Dylan's near-invisibility only augmented his cultural aura, a marketing
lesson his widely disliked, thuggish, Svengali-esque manager, Albert
Grossman, absorbed and soon applied to his latest clients, The Band.
Inside their double-sleeved first album were pictures of the members:
Five guys dressed like extras in an early Hollywood western, visual kin
to the road-warrior hoboes and evicted tenant farmers who peopled The
Grapes of Wrath
and Guthrie tunes. Their mothers and fathers and
kids. Their house, Big Pink, every band's dream--a clubhouse to jam and
practice and record in, surrounded by a hundred acres of mountain
meadows and woods. The Band, though, like millions of post-Beatles and
post-Dylan American kids picking and singing in their cellars and
backyards, still had to keep the volume down for fear of riling the
neighbors.

Nestled in Big Pink, playing cards and getting stoned and writing and
working out new stuff, as well as tweaking old bar-band tunes and hymns
and pieces of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music,
Dylan and The Band forged a remarkable creative symbiosis. Thanks to
their Dylan-paid salaries and a rent that, depending on whom you
believe, was somewhere between $125 and $275 a month, The Band played
musical chairs with instruments as they groped for fresh ideas. As
Robbie Robertson, The Band's chief songwriter and guitarist, has
shrewdly observed, "Sometimes the limitation of the instrument can
provide originality."

Improvising was key to their artistic process, as their shortcomings or
imaginations prodded them from instrument to instrument, lineup to
lineup, to find what worked with the tune at hand. The result was
contemporary folk music, new-minted yet old-sounding, with strains of
Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, rockabilly and soul. It wobbled
foggily somewhere between jug bands and Stax-Volt, surreal wet dreams
and revival meetings.

Robertson's guitar stayed mostly low profile, rearing for occasional
stabbing outbursts; he rarely sang. The three vocalists were startlingly
different, but found offbeat ways to blend. As Robertson has observed,
"A lot of the time with The Band they were somewhere between real
harmonies and, because of our lack of education in music, they would be
things that just sounded interesting--or they would be the only thing
the person could hit."

Levon Helm's singing was gritty and soulful and at times sardonic; he
doubled on drums and mandolin. Rick Danko had a clear, yearning tenor,
played bass that burbled like a McCartney-esque tuba, sawed a backwoods
fiddle and strummed guitar. Richard Manuel doubled on engagingly
ramshackle drums and pounded what has been described as "rhythm piano";
as for his voice, Robertson has said, "There's a certain element of pain
in there that you didn't know whether it was because he was trying to
reach for a note or because he was a guy with a heart that'd been hurt."
Garth Hudson was classically trained, said he learned to improvise from
playing at his uncle's funeral parlor and invented one after another
"blackbox," the kinds of soundshapers so integral to the era's musical
sensibility. Hudson didn't sing, but the sounds he made became The
Band's sonic glue, as they fitted parts together that breathed, leaving
spaces float, stepping into others, with the sort of interlocking
discipline found in, say, the jammed-out music of Count Basie, Muddy
Waters or Booker T. & the MGs. Not surprisingly, they cut their
first two albums mostly live in the studio. (See The Band [Rhino]
for an informative, if talking-head-heavy, video history of the making
of the group's first two records.)

"Tears of Rage," written by Dylan and Manuel, kicked Music at Big
Pink
off-kilter from the start. Manuel's eccentric r&b cry and
falsetto staggered dangerously, seductively around the confessional
lyrics; Robertson's treated guitar approximated organ tones; Hudson's
winding, churchy organ swelled and subsided; and a drunken Salvation
Army-ish horn section (courtesy Hudson and producer John Simon)
punctuated the flow over the spare, Booker T. & the MGs-style bass
and drums. Simon has observed of the distinctively moaning horn blend,
"That's the only sound we could make." The rest of the album was a bit
uneven but ear-opening, challenging, even wonderful. "To Kingdom Come"
bounced airily, blearily beneath Manuel's vocals; "The Weight" mixed
Curtis Mayfield guitar licks into a surreal gospel setting; "Long Black
Veil" tipped its classicist hat at Lefty Frizell; and "Chest Fever" was
an instant radio hit, with its swelling, skirling, gnashing organ and
nightmare-incoherent lyrics.

With Grossman behind them, The Band--or at least Robertson, who was
rapidly becoming primus inter pares--learned to use reticence and
image to enhance their music. Like Wynton Marsalis a decade later in
jazz, they self-consciously looked back to tradition. "We were rebelling
against the rebellion," Robertson has said. "It was an instinct to
separate ourselves from the pack." That instinct drew the attention of
the nascent rock press, which became their champions: Outlets like
Rolling Stone, co-founded by jazz historian Ralph J. Gleason,
fused the old fanzines and more critical and historical perspectives.
These new media helped make The Band counterculture heroes.

As did the lyrics, which were increasingly written by Robertson.
Enigmatic and vaguely religious and poetic, full of questions and
retorts that didn't necessarily mesh, painting realistic scenes and
Dadaist laments, they clearly owed a great deal to Dylan. Robertson had
also been reading Cocteau, thinking in terms of movies, wanting to
replicate what he's called Dylan's disruption of song forms.

The look and sound, the entire presentation of The Band, evoked a notion
of authenticity that has underscored writing about them ever since,
usually to contrast them with the countercultural rebellion. As
Grossman, who knew show business, surely understood, this was both an
iconic extension and an ironic inversion of the folk revival's would-be
purity. For the counterculture, and show business, were The Band's home.
They were outriders on Dylan's panoramic influence, mountainside avatars
of the Jeffersonian "back to the land" ideal that recurred in the
Woodstock generation's ideology. As Greil Marcus rather romantically
noted of their early music, "It felt like a passport back to America for
people who'd become so estranged from their country that they felt like
foreigners even when they were in it."

When The Band (Capitol) followed Music From Big Pink in
1969, it cemented the group's reputation and enhanced their Dylanesque
mystique of invisibility: Refusing to tour, partly because of Band
members' car crashes and flipouts, they watched promoters' offers climb
from $2,000 a show to $50,000.

The Band were in the midst of recording their second album far from the
Catskills, in Hollywood at Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house, which they'd
converted into a studio, when they decided to resist no longer. But
before they debuted onstage at Winterland in April 1969, Robertson got
such a bad case of nerves (he has always claimed he had the flu) he
stayed in bed for three days of rehearsal, and had to be hypnotized to
go onstage.

Since they'd been musically weaned in roadhouses and spent such care on
recording live, it's always been one of the odder ironies of The Band's
career that they were erratic, often uncomfortable performers.
Unconsciously extending the folk revival's ideology, reviewers tended to
explain their unevenness as an emblem of honest authenticity, which, in
the ways of do-it-yourself, folk-culture amateurism, it sometimes was,
though this was somehow also the culture The Band was posited to be
different from. "A lot of mysticism was built up around The Band,"
Robertson has said. "These guys up in the mountains...." At any rate,
the quality of their concerts was as fully unpredictable as that of
their putative opposite numbers, the Grateful Dead.

From Winterland they hit the Fillmore East, where I can testify they did
at least one good show; then they finished recording at the Hit Factory
in New York City. The Band still stands as their masterpiece.
Loosely built around a harvest-is-in, carnival-is-in-town feel, it's
incredibly consistent and divergent at the same time, the strength of
their studies and abilities ramifying its depth and breadth. Their brand
of self-consciousness of sources and sounds marked one key difference
between rock and earlier roll and rock.

From "Across the Great Divide," with its bouncy rhythms, yearning Manuel
vocal, bleary horns and slippery guitar fills, to "King Harvest (Has
Surely Come)," the surprisingly downbeat rural closer that cuts in
snapshots of union struggles, it has a rare scope and power. "Up on
Cripple Creek," with its bump-grind rhythms and allusion to an old folk
tune, was all over FM radio, as were the hoedowns-in-your-basement "Rag
Mamma Rag" and "Jemima Surrender." "The Unfaithful Servant" gave Danko's
aching tenor a Dylanesque vehicle, while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie
Down" told a moving tale of one Southern family's Civil War hardships.

After this album, the madness and musical unevenness accelerated. In
early 1970, The Band made the cover of Time--a rarity then. The
group's substance abuse, especially Manuel's and Danko's, deepened,
particularly when they were off the road, as they were for months at a
time. Robertson had become the dominant figure--embarking on
self-education, dealing with Grossman, writing first most, then all the
songs, disciplining the others into rehearsing and recording. The
relatively equal distribution of ability at the heart of The Band's
music was coming unbalanced.

Perhaps they'd just hit the natural limits of their talent. Or maybe
they were trapped by the ghosts of folkie authenticity they and Grossman
had conjured. Whatever the cause, most of their later albums sound more
airless, stale, fussy, strained. It was as if they were confined
conceptually to an inelastic, increasingly romanticized and nostalgic
space and mode. (To Kingdom Come [Capitol] offers two CDs that
cull much good and some indifferent material from all their recordings.)

But they didn't go straight downhill. The music they made when they
rejoined Dylan onstage in 1974 was fierce, as if he once again sparked
their creative fires. Their several tours with the Grateful Dead, though
the pairing confused many reviewers, was a study in similarity and
contrast that sometimes sparked great things. (In 1970, Danko told Jerry
Garcia, "We thought you were just California freaks, but you're just
like us.") And on the albums, individual songs--"The Shape I'm In,"
"Stage Fright," Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece"--displayed the old
dexterous touches. Overall, though, creatively everyone but Robertson,
whose muse was drying up anyway, seemed content to coast--after all,
women, booze and money were plentiful. The ambitious songwriter, who'd
begun producing other artists' records and thinking about movies,
finally decided to pull the plug in high style. Hence The Last
Waltz
.

There are beautiful sequences in The Last Waltz, and the best are
those of The Band itself. Scorsese's desire to work tight means fewer
establishing shots than some (including me) might want, but the
aesthetic does reflect The Band's subtle, intimate music. At its best,
the film can be stunning. "Stage Fright," for example, shoots Danko from
almost 360 degrees, lit only by an overhead spot, creating gorgeous
interplays of shadow and light, heightening the song's lyrics. "Mystery
Train," to which Paul Butterfield adds harp and vocals, has a similar
self-conscious beauty, which jars with the raggedy unison singing. The
Staples Singers joining on "The Weight," in a sequence filmed after the
show itself, aurally demonstrates The Band's vocal debts to them. For
Emmylou Harris's turn on "Evangeline," another postshow scene, Scorsese
fills the soundstage with blue-lit smoke, which feels hokey but redeems
it a bit visually with arresting camera angles that frame the stark,
lovely geometries of Hudson's accordion, Danko's fiddle and Helm's
mandolin.

A concert film is ultimately about the music, however. The Last
Waltz
translates The Band's broad tastes into a narrative punctuated
by interviews and special guests onstage. But the frame is only as
strong as its content. Eric Clapton? Ron Wood and Ringo Starr? Dr. John?
Neil Diamond? Joni Mitchell? Even Muddy Waters? Broad-based roots,
far-reaching sounds, all spokes in the wheel of the 1960s rock
resurgence that Scorsese's narrative contextualizes and justifies via
the interviews. But there's little about the performances of these
artists that is special. No particular chemistry emerges to make this a
moment--except that it's The Band's Last Waltz. I found myself wondering
if part of The Band's artistry consisted of its ability to disappear
musically. (The companion four-CD set, The Last Waltz [Rhino],
has state-of-the-art sound and a bunch of added music--most of it,
unless you're a completist, better left unheard.)

Certainly The Last Waltz makes clear why The Band ended. Though
Scorsese tries to balance his time with the five members, Robertson's
hooded eyes enthrall him. It's palpable that Robertson is surrounded by
good-timey, undisciplined mates who have trouble articulating or
finishing their stories, and often steps into the breach. (Helm is
incisive talking about music and cultural roots; the others work in a
haze of fractured sentences, bits of cynicism and mysticism, and defer
to Robertson.)

Robertson had become the group's de facto manager, its public face, more
and more the businessman, the guy who had the vast bulk of the
publishing income and royalties from all that collaborative imaginative
work that made the songs timeless. He was also the sole producer of
The Last Waltz. He wanted out; if the movie is unclear what the
others wanted, the fact is that the rest, minus Robertson, re-formed in
various configurations over the years.

Aside from The Band's own sequences, the best moments in The Last
Waltz
belong, fittingly, to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the two
front men who helped catalyze their chemistry. Hawkins is wonderfully
unselfconscious during his rave-up version of "Who Do You Love," cueing
and teasing The Band as if a dozen years hadn't passed between them.
Dylan, at the film's end, leads The Band through "Forever Young," making
it their gentle envoi. Watching him goose them through his abrupt
transition to the snarling reworking of the Rev. Gary Davis's "Baby, Let
Me Follow You Down," one of the electric tunes they'd rattled audiences
with in that now-legendary 1965-66 tour, offers us a glimpse into the
chemistry of their fruitful relationship, and the perfect closing
bookend to The Band's career.

It is probably safe to say that the war crimes trial in The Hague of the
former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic is not going well. At least
so far. No credible witnesses have come forward to testify against the
man who is credited with starting four Balkan wars. No documentary
evidence has been advanced to prove his "command responsibility" for
murderous ethnic conflicts. The prosecution's bungling has turned what
was once touted as a "water-tight case" into a battle of wits, allowing
Milosevic to mount a fifth war--legal and psychological--against the
court itself.

It is, of course, an uneven battle. The court is supported by the might
of the United States and its vast eavesdropping and
intelligence-gathering facilities. Behind the scenes, Americans have
tried to induce some of Milosevic's former henchmen to testify against
him. (That includes the notorious paramilitary leader known as Arkan,
who was gunned down inside the Belgrade Intercontinental two weeks after
he lunched there with an American intermediary for the CIA.) Publicly,
the United States has linked all financial assistance to Serbia to the
extradition of suspected war criminals; the hope is that some of them
may provide the needed information about Milosevic's "command
responsibility."

The former dictator, on the other hand, has to rely mainly on himself,
his wife and a few supporters. The image of a solitary individual
standing up against the world not only appeals to his vanity but also
seems to energize him. His defense strategy is brilliantly cunning,
designed to play on Serbia's psychological vulnerabilities and continued
Serb resentment of the 1999 NATO bombing. From the outset he has said
that the court is illegal, that it is NATO's victors' justice and that
he would not accept its judgment. Yet, acting as his own defense
attorney, he has used the tribunal as a stage for his antics, playing
the role of a defiant David to NATO's Goliath, the victim of powerful
foreign enemies, and in the process doing all he can to make his a trial
of the whole Serbian nation.

Opinion polls suggest that his strategy is working in Serbia. Even
though four out of five Serbs want to see Milosevic tried
in a Serbian court for crimes committed against his people, a majority
applaud his stand at The Hague.

This is unfortunate. This public perception is likely to discourage
potential witnesses from coming forward. In the absence of compelling
evidence against him in court, Milosevic's political rehabilitation becomes a distinct
possibility. More significant will be the impact on the world's first
permanent court--which is to be established also in The Hague--to
replace ad hoc courts like the one sitting in judgment of Milosevic. But
it is up to the ad hoc tribunal to come up with the precedent-setting
legal standard of "command responsibility" (the conditions under which a
tyrant, even if not directly involved, can be held responsible for
crimes committed by his subordinates).

This raises several broader questions: What sort of justice, exactly, is
being served in The Hague? Why is it that the prosecution, having
claimed to have a water-tight case, appears to be flailing in the dark?
Was the court manipulated by the Clinton Administration? What exactly
was the secret intelligence that the United States and British
governments supplied during the 1999 Kosovo war to prompt the court to
indict Milosevic?

Louis Sell is one of those rare anonymous State Department officials who
venture to write books in their retirement. He was highly regarded by
his superiors and held the rank of political counselor in two major
embassies: Belgrade and Moscow. His tour in Belgrade, from 1987 to 1991,
coincided with Milosevic's rise to power and the outbreak of war in
Yugoslavia. This has placed him in the middle of things. Scores of
secret cables, sensitive intelligence reports, raw National Security
Agency telephone intercepts and even satellite photos landed on his desk
each day. He not only had access to everything the analysts and spooks
produced on the Yugoslav crisis but was one of the few people capable of
placing such material
in the proper context. (He had served in
Yugoslavia in the 1970s and is fluent in Serbo-Croatian.) He returned to
the region in 1995 as political deputy to former Swedish Prime Minister
Carl Bildt, then the European Union's chief negotiator for the former
Yugoslavia. After the Kosovo war, Sell served as director of the
International Crisis Group in Kosovo.

By background and experience, Sell is a bureaucratic insider. Unlike the
more senior officials--Richard Holbrooke or Gen. Wesley Clark--he has no
need to defend his reputation. Nor is he a man prone to
self-glorification. His twenty-eight years in the State Department
conditioned him to shun the limelight. This may be why he could
apparently not bring himself to give the reader his own take on events.
Instead he has chosen a journalistic format, relying mainly on published
sources--news dispatches, opinion columns and books. This was a poor
choice. He knows far more than most authors he quotes in his Slobodan
Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia
.

Indiscriminate reliance on Western press reports is risky. For example,
Sell reproduces a German tabloid story about Milosevic's alleged
involvement in drug trafficking. Far too often he resorts to "Western
journalists" as the only source of this or that information; far too
often the phrase "everybody knew that..." crops up in the narrative as
the sole source for a given Serbian crime. Although he tries to write
dispassionately, his anti-Serb bias gets in the way from time to time.
In one instance, he writes that the high command in Belgrade sanctioned
the July 1995 attack on Srebrenica; the source for the assertion is a
book published in 1994. Is this sloppy writing? Careless editing?

Sell does offer a shrewd assessment of the former dictator. He sees him
as someone "without any core beliefs or values other than his own
political survival." Milosevic, he writes, "was not very good at using
power for anything other than keeping it." He was an enormously
destructive figure. Obsessed with power, he deliberately impoverished
not only Serbia's economy but also its intellectual and social fabric
"in order to eliminate the very capacity for independent alternatives to
emerge."

The book follows familiar lines; I doubt whether it contains anything
that has not been said before. One does come across interesting tidbits:
Washington took an almost instant dislike to Carl Bildt, because he "had
not developed the habit of deference to Washington" and was unwilling
"to take direction." Needless to say, Bildt did not last long in the
job.

There is, of course, nothing surprising nowadays in high-level American
officials expecting deference from little nations or their
representatives. But this is only a part of America's post-cold war
attitude toward the rest of the world. It also permeates US policy in
the Balkans. Despite the rhetoric about justice and eagerness to help
the people of Serbia, the book suggests that the United States was
interested in the Hague court as a political tool rather than a
mechanism that would add another dimension to international law by
holding individual leaders responsible for war crimes and crimes against
humanity. Everything that would detract from Washington's
policy--whatever that policy is at any given moment--must be dismissed
out of hand or ignored. With a sleight of hand, Sell dismisses British
and French experts who found conclusive proof that Muslim snipers had
fired on their own people in order to stimulate sympathetic media
coverage for their plight. He ignored Canadian Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who
said he had personally seen a similar incident. Sell also ignores the
fact that Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger accused Milosevic of
war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia in December 1992; Eagleburger's speech
in Geneva no longer fits the official narrative.

Within a year, Milosevic had reinvented himself as a born-again
peacemaker. By 1995 he was the "guarantor" of peace in Bosnia. (He was,
indeed, most responsible for the successful outcome of the peace talks
at Dayton, Ohio.) He shared the stage with Bill Clinton during the
signing ceremonies in Paris. Clinton flattered him. "It's nice to hear
your voice," Clinton told the dictator. The American President, aboard
Air Force One to visit US troops in Bosnia, chitchatted with the Serbian
dictator about the Dayton agreement. "I know it cannot go ahead without
you," Clinton said, according to a recently published transcript of the
conversations monitored by Croatian intelligence.

So, even though "it had long been clear that Milosevic was responsible
for ethnic cleansing and other crimes...in Croatia and Bosnia," Sell
tells us, he was not indicted, because the Clinton Administration was
unable to find a "smoking gun" that would directly link him to the
misdeeds. We are led to conclude that the Administration did not assign
high priority to the task.

On the eve of the Kosovo war, however, the US government became active
in seeking to tie Milosevic to war crimes in Kosovo in early 1999. The
State Department's war crimes intelligence review unit was given a
boost: The number of its analysts and the urgency of its task were
increased. Having no diplomats or spies in Serbia, Sell reports,
analysts used satellite photos to study troop movements inside Kosovo.
The outcome was "precisely the kind of evidence needed to indict
Milosevic on the basis of 'imputed command responsibility'" for ordering
ethnic cleansing or failing to stop it. Canadian jurist Louise Arbour,
the chief prosecutor at the time, must have known that the intelligence
she was given did not meet the standards of proof required in a court of
law. She traveled to Washington, London and Bonn apparently seeking a
policy context for the tribunal's action against Milosevic; but she got
"totally ambiguous" responses. As NATO planes continued to bomb
Yugoslavia, the flow of intelligence material reaching the tribunal
increased, but most of it was part of NATO's massive propaganda campaign
against Milosevic. This must have preyed on the minds of the
prosecutors, leading them to believe that they had a substantial case
that would hold up in court. Indeed, the initial indictment was confined
to war crimes committed in Kosovo in 1999.

The tribunal may indeed have been manipulated by outside forces, as some
of its officers feared. As is frequently the case in the Balkans, a
story always seems clear at a distance, but the closer you get to the
scene of events the murkier it becomes. The drafters of the
indictment--somewhat to their surprise later--had not taken into account
the fact that Kosovo was a secessionist province that had declared
independence in 1991, as a result of which it was placed under Serbian
police rule. The province remained quiet as long as the Albanian
struggle was confined to peaceful means. However horrific the Serbian
repression, it did not include ethnic cleansing. But by 1997, the
Albanians had taken up arms. Milosevic had an armed insurrection on his
hands. Moreover, when the Kosovo war ended, the liberated Albanians had
lost their moral high ground; they embarked on a killing spree of the
defeated Serbs under the noses of NATO peacekeepers.

Once Milosevic was deposed, the legal weaknesses of the Kosovo
indictment became painfully obvious, and the prosecutors moved to
include Croatia and Bosnia, the latter being the prime stage for the
charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Like Sell, I too have
no doubt that Milosevic is guilty as charged, at least with respect to
most counts dealing with Bosnia. I witnessed a good deal while covering
his wars from 1990 to 1996. But it is crucial that this be established
in a court of law. Although the pool of Milosevic's partners in crime
has been shrinking (most recently with the suicide of his former police
minister), a number of them are still at large. The tribunal needs these
former Serbian officials; some should be offered immunity from
prosecution in exchange for their testimony. The prosecutors should work
with local Serbian authorities and hire local private investigators
rather than depend on the might of the United States to force the
extradition of suspected criminals. Without such witnesses and in the
absence of spectacular documentary evidence, the tribunal is heading for
disaster.

On late-night television the other day I watched Spencer Tracy and
Marlene Dietrich in the 1961 movie Judgment at Nuremberg, about
the trials of Nazi war criminals. It was a riveting courtroom drama. The
evidence against the accused was overwhelming. By comparison, the Hague
tribunal is more like the trial of Al Capone, the Chicago mobster who
was responsible for a series of gangland murders. Although everybody
knew Capone was guilty, police could not prove it. Eventually he was
sent to jail for tax evasion. One way or another, I suspect, Milosevic
will end up spending many years in jail. Let's hope this will be done
for the right reasons.

Blogs

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September 30, 2014

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September 24, 2014

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September 19, 2014

Ntozake Shange, author of the groundbreaking choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, explains what the Ray Rice scandal means for black feminism.

September 18, 2014

The Nation and the Center for Community Change partnered together for an essay contest in which young people were asked to submit a photo they found meaningful and an essay explaining the significance of the photo in 500 words.

September 17, 2014

Eric on "The Beatles in Mono" and Reed on how the emphasis on optics skews our democratic priorities.

September 11, 2014