News and Features
If a critic's clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist's name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its "Sensation" show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary--the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found "anti-Catholic," blasphemous and disgusting--and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili's prices so high he couldn't afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.
You'd think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an "anti-Catholic" work--Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper--in the new show of contemporary black photographers, "Committed to the Image." He's even suggested that what New York needs is a "decency commission," which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers' expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples--ten black, one white--at the Last Supper. As an artwork it's negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff--apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo's Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?
If you want to see visually haunting work at "Committed to the Image," there's Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson's black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon's self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox's costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms ("my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics"), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn't actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O'Reilly Factor.
Even the New York Observer's famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there's nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic--as are most perpetrators of "anti-Catholic" works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick's Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we're on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it's worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.
But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can't an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it's a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology--and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women's bodies--documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin--and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can't really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism--no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better--can't expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama's Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes--le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. "It shows Life as a woman," she said. "It's beautiful." Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.
If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!
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Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.'s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.
The network honchos called by
Louisiana Representative Billy Tauzin and the House Energy and
Commerce Committee to testify on the election night debacle were a
decidedly ungrateful bunch. True, they were forced to sit through a
video of their billion-dollar babies making idiots of themselves.
(Watching Dan Rather offering "a big tip and a hip, hip, hurrah and a
great big Texas howdy to the new President of the United States," and
instructing viewers to "Sip it. Savor it. Cup it. Photostat it.
Underline it in red. Press it in a book. Put it in an album. Hang it
on the wall," more than once ought to be considered cruel and unusual
by anyone's standards.) And how rare it must be that anyone, much
less mere members of Congress, would dare keep these boys cooling
their heels for a full five hours before finally bringing them
forward to demand that they swear to tell the truth, the whole truth
and nothing but the truth--in public, no less. But really, all the
"concern" and "uneasiness" voiced by the execs about government
meddling in the news was a bit much. There was never any danger to
the networks' independence in Tauzin's hearings; at least none that
originated from Congress, rather than their own parent
Tauzin, a Democrat turned Republican, originally
professed to possess an "analysis" that indicated "in almost every
case, [the networks] favored early calls for Al Gore over George
Bush." Absent any evidence, however, he withdrew the charge of
intentional bias and retreated behind a mysterious theory of "flawed
data models" and "biased statistical results" that happened to favor
Democrats. He offered no evidence this time either, but almost all
reporters felt duty-bound to repeat his nonsensical accusations.
Hence precious little attention was focused on more concrete
election-coverage questions, most notably Fox's decision to rely on
the analysis of John "I can't be honest about [my cousin George W.
Bush's] campaign.... He's family, and I'm for him" Ellis. And
needless to say, there was no time left for an examination of the
corrupting effect of the networks' interlocking structure of
Had Tauzin and company really tried
to censor or intimidate the networks, that would have been
interesting, but it is damn near impossible to imagine. As a
comprehensive report on media lobbying by the Center for Public
Integrity demonstrates, when it comes to mutual backscratching, the
primates in the National Zoo have nothing over the networks and
Take Tauzin, for instance. According to the CPI
report--which might as well have been classified "top secret" for all
the attention lavished on it by the media it exposes--the cagey Cajun
received more PAC money from media companies than anyone else in the
House, including more than $150,000 from entertainment and
telecommunications companies for his 2000 campaign, in which he had
no credible opponent. Moreover, no member of Congress has traveled
more frequently on the media industry's dime. Between 1997 and 2000,
Tauzin and his staff took a total of forty-two trips--one out of
eight industry-sponsored junkets taken by members of Congress during
that period. In December 1999 Tauzin and his wife enjoyed a six-day,
$18,910 trip to industry "meetings" in Paris. Representative John
Sweeney managed to make the same trip for a mere $7,445. How can
Tauzin act as an honest broker for the networks filling his pockets?
Easy: He simply does not believe in the concept of conflict of
interest. "I have no choice but to do effective oversight," he says
by way of explanation. Tauzin's view is hardly unique. His successor
as chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Fred Upton,
has a portfolio worth millions in those very same
Again, we are seeing nothing unusual here,
except perhaps gumption. In 1999 alone, according to the CPI, the
fifty largest media companies and four of their trade associations
coughed up more than $30 million to lobby Congress, an increase of
26.4 percent in three years. Since 1993, they have given more than
$75 million in direct campaign contributions, according to the Center
for Responsive Politics. And the numbers tell just a small part of
the story. These fellas are not just selling toasters, after all. As
former FCC chairman Reed Hundt has explained, more important than the
industry's money is the perception of its "near-ubiquitous, pervasive
power to completely alter the beliefs of every American." Politicians
fear that if they displease these companies, they will simply
"disappear" from view.
And what do the media want in
exchange for this largesse? They want to be left alone so they can
make themselves and their stockholders rich, regardless of their
impact on American democracy. To take just one example, according to
data collected by Competitive Media Reporting, politicians and
special interests spent an estimated $600 million for paid political
ads in the last election cycle, which makes the $11 million or so the
National Association of Broadcasters and five media outlets
cumulatively spent between 1996 and 1998 to defeat campaign finance
reform look like a prudent investment. Note, by the way, that John
McCain, the heroic white knight of campaign finance reform, who
raises more money from the media companies than even Tauzin, was
crucial to the media companies' successful effort to kill the FCC's
plan to force a lowering of the cost of political commercials, the
primary culprit driving the vicious election/money
With Michael Powell as George Bush's new appointee
to head the FCC, the networks might not even have to bother lobbying
Congress anymore. Powell signaled his own expansive definition of
conflict of interest when he refused to recuse himself from the vote
approving the merger of AOL and Time Warner, despite the fact that
his father, Colin Powell, stood to make millions from the stock he
received as a company director. (I don't suppose he opposes the
repeal of the estate tax, either.)
"We don't look to the
government to correct the press. We look to the people," explained
ABC News president David Westin to Tauzin's committee. "If we fail,
the audience will judge us and move somewhere else." I'm thinking
They distort. They decide.
On self-help books.
industry has been celebrating the supposed defeat of Napster. The
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the grant of a
preliminary injunction that may well have the effect of closing the
service down completely and ending the commercial existence of
Napster's parent (that is, unless the record companies agree to an
implausible deal Napster has proposed). But despite appearances, what
has happened, far from being a victory, is the beginning of the
industry's end. Even for those who have no particular stake in the
sharing of music on the web, there's value in understanding why the
"victory"over Napster is actually a profound and irreversible
calamity for the record companies. What is now happening to music
will soon be happening to many other forms of "content" in the
information society. The Napster case has much to teach us about the
collapse of publishers generally, and about the liberative
possibilities of the decay of the cultural oligopolies that dominated
the second half of the twentieth century.
The shuttering of
Napster will not achieve the music industry's goals because the
technology of music-sharing no longer requires the centralized
registry of music offered for sharing among the network's listeners
that Napster provided. Freely available software called OpenNap
allows any computer in the world to perform the task of facilitating
sharing; it is already widely used. Napster itself--as it kept
pointing out to increasingly unsympathetic courts--maintained no
inventory of music: It simply allowed listeners to find out what
other listeners were offering to share. Almost all the various
sharing programs in existence can switch from official Napster to
other sharing facilitators with a single click. And when they move,
the music moves with them. Now, in the publicity barrage surrounding
the decision, 60 million Napster users will find out about OpenNap,
which cannot be sued or prohibited because, as free software, no one
controls its distribution and any lawsuits would have to be brought
against all its users worldwide. Suddenly, instead of a problem posed
by one commercial entity that can be closed down or acquired, the
industry will be facing the same technical threat, with no one to sue
but its own customers. No business can survive by suing or harassing
its own market.
The music industry (by which we mean the
five companies that supply about 90 percent of the world's popular
music) is dying not because of Napster but because of an underlying
economic truth. In the world of digital products that can be copied
and moved at no cost, traditional distribution structures, which
depend on the ownership of the content or of the right to distribute,
are fatally inefficient. As John Guare's famous play has drummed into
all our minds, everyone in society is divided from everyone else by
six degrees of separation. The most efficient distribution system in
the world is to let everyone give music to whoever they know would
like it. When music has passed through six hands under the current
distribution system, it hasn't even reached the store. When it has
passed through six hands in a system that doesn't require the
distributor to buy the right to pass it along, it has already reached
several million listeners.
This increase in efficiency
means that composers, songwriters and performers have everything to
gain from making use of the system of unowned or anarchistic
distribution, provided that each listener at the end of the chain
still knows how to pay the artist and feels under some obligation to
do so, or will buy something else--a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a
poster--as a result of having received the music for free. Hundreds
of potential "business models" remain to be explored once the
proprietary distributor has disappeared, no one of which will be
perfect for all artistic producers but all of which will be the
subject of experiment in decades to come, once the dinosaurs are
No doubt there will be some immediate pain that will
be felt by artists rather than the shareholders of music
conglomerates. The greatest of celebrity musicians will do fine under
any system, while those who are currently waiting on tables or
driving a cab to support themselves have nothing to lose. For the
signed recording artists just barely making it, on the other hand,
the changes are of legitimate concern. But musicians as a whole stand
to gain far more than they lose. Their wholesale defection from the
existing distribution system is about to begin, leaving the music
industry--like manuscript illuminators, piano-roll manufacturers and
letterpress printers--a quaint and diminutive relic of a passé
The industry's giants won't disappear overnight,
or perhaps at all. But because their role as owner-distributors makes
no economic sense, they will have to become suppliers of services in
the production and promotion of music. Advertising agencies,
production services consultants, packagers--they will be anything but
owners of the music they market to the world.
What is most
important about this phenomenon is that it applies to everything that
can be distributed as a stream of digital bits by the simple human
mechanism of passing it along. The result will be more music, poetry,
photography and journalism available to a far wider audience. Artists
will see a whole new world of readers, listeners and viewers; though
each audience member will be paying less, the artist won't have to
take the small end of a split determined by the distribution
oligarchs who have cheated and swindled them ever since Edison. For
those who worry about the cultural, economic and political power of
the global media companies, the dreamed-of revolution is at hand. The
industry may right now be making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it
is we, not they, who are about to enter the promised land.
Young women, who've never lacked abortion rights, are tough to mobilize.
This column may be reprinted and/or distributed by electronic means, but only for non-commercial use, and only with the inclusion of the following copyright information: Text © copyright 2001 by Mumia Abu-Jamal. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Don't look now, but the various recounts under way in Florida are determining that the wrong guy is in the White House. The media have demonstrated remarkably little interest in this story. Nobody is saying that Bush should be removed, but the fact that he lost both the popular vote and, without the intervention of the Supreme Court, would probably have lost Florida and the Electoral College vote should count for something.
Recall that before rendering its decision the Court acted so precipitately to stop the count, as Bush hero Justice Antonin Scalia helpfully explained, explicitly in order to insure public ignorance of the genuine result. "Count first, and rule upon legality afterwards, is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires."
One aspect of the Court's controversial majority opinion dealt with the validity of Florida's 110,000 "overvotes," where a machine count recorded more than one vote for President. When examined by hand, many of these votes turned out to be legal, since the punch card (or check mark) matched the name of the candidate written in by the voter. The Gore team stupidly ignored these votes, and the refusal of the Florida Supreme Court to consider them (in favor of an "undervote only" count) was one reason given by the Supreme Court for overturning that decision. So count the overvotes and what happens? The final answer is not in yet, but it sure looks bad for Bush.
In late December, the Orlando Sentinel took a look at about 3,000 overvotes in Lake County. They found more than 600 valid ballots that had been ignored by the machines, with Gore picking up 130 even in this heavily pro-Bush county. In late January the Chicago Tribune reported that in fifteen counties with a particularly high rate of overvotes, more than 1,700 votes that showed a clear choice had been discarded. Most of the counties in the Tribune's study were small, rural and predominantly Republican. Yet even so, Gore's net gain was 366 votes. And a Washington Post review of the computer records of 2.7 million votes in eight of Florida's largest counties reported that overvotes trended toward Gore at a rate of three to one.
Undervotes tell the same story. A study by the Palm Beach Post of 4,513 of that county's ballots set aside for possible court review indicates a Gore pickup of 682 votes, surpassing Bush's alleged 537 statewide margin. These patterns demonstrate that the Republicans' strong-arm tactics in Florida made sense. Without them, their guy would be cutting brush back in Crawford.
Today, with the conspicuous exception of the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr., most of the punditocracy appears to think it an act of bad sportsmanship to point out that the man appointing far-right extremists to oversee the nation's legal system and its natural resources is a pretender to the throne. Sam and Cokie mock the idea as a joke. George Will smirks, "I don't think when the country hears media declaring Gore the winner they're impressed."
Perhaps the most instructive document of the "Get Over It" school of political science was an angry TRB column in The New Republic penned by the magazine's former editor and famed "gaycatholictory" Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan attacks writers he terms "the usual suspects" for questioning the quality of Bush's mandate. Suspects include such distinguished scholars and writers as Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, Yale law professor Jack Balkin, New Yorker writer and successful former editor of The New Republic Hendrik Hertzberg and TNR senior editor Jonathan Cohn (whose argument did not even appear in the magazine until after Sullivan's attack on it). Each called upon the Democrats to resist Bush's extremist tendencies, most notably the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General.
Sullivan's ire is a bit puzzling. Leaving Florida aside, he is furious at folks opposing a potential chief law enforcement officer who, as senator, refused to approve the ambassadorial nomination of James Hormel because, like Sullivan, Hormel is gay--something Ashcroft believes is "a choice which can be made and unmade." Now, personally, I don't have a dog in this fight, but I can hardly imagine feeling such generosity should a President wish to turn over the legal system to a man who happily discriminates against those of us who have made the "choice" to be, say, Jewish.
Sullivan argued that the rejection of Ashcroft would be "without precedent." In support of this view and "as a testament to the level to which liberalism has now sunk," he quoted from a TRB that appeared in 1925, "It is universally conceded the Executive has the right to select his own official family, and their submission to the Senate is merely a form."
Leave aside the strange assertion that because somebody said something in TNR in 1925 it must therefore be true seventy-six years later. (A year earlier the magazine had pronounced Pablo Picasso "not a great painter or a great master of composition...and in no serious sense a thinker." Does that make it so?) In any case, Sullivan should have kept on reading. The last time the Senate decided to reject a nominee for Attorney General turns out to be--you guessed it--1925, and the Republic somehow survived. Ashcroft should have been sent packing if only to insure that gays who live and work in communities less tolerant than Sullivan's can practice their "choice" unmolested by people like Ashcroft.
Eight Democrats may have lost their nerve this time, but the great thing about mistakes, I keep telling my 2-year-old, is that you can learn from them. As the new Florida counts appear to demonstrate even more clearly than before, George W. Bush and the Republicans hijacked the 2000 election with the help of their discredited accomplices on the US Supreme Court. They have no right to traditional forms of democratic deference, particularly when pursuing an unpopular extremist agenda. An honest media ought do everything possible to insure that no one loses sight of the astonishing circumstances through which Bush acceded to the presidency. Get over that.
A writer in Slate, commenting on the New York Times's recent two-part recap of the Wen Ho Lee case, observed that "Robert Scheer, who seeks full exoneration for Lee, will probably be disappointed because the Times concludes that Lee's behavior, while not demonstrably criminal, remains suspicious." This must be a reference to my October 23 Nation article and my numerous Op-Ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times questioning the presumption of the New York Times that former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was guilty of the most nefarious of spy charges.
Since Lee was never charged with spying and the case ended with a plea bargain to a relatively minor charge of mishandling classified data, it would seem that Lee does not require exoneration. To my mind, it is the New York Times that should seek forgiveness for smearing Lee as a dangerous spy by continuing to presume him guilty until he is proven innocent beyond the shadow of the Times's doubt.
In its two-part series, reported in the main by the same reporters responsible for the original stories, the Times never once critically examines its reliance on government leaks and sources. Much of its reporting seems to rely on one former Energy Department official, Notra Trulock, who now does PR for the right-wing Free Congress Foundation, and who was the subject of much controversy within his department, including allegedly spitting on an African-American colleague who dared differ with him. While the Times recap finally admits that Trulock was just about alone in the entire defense establishment in believing that China stole plans for the W-88 warhead and/or has manufactured such a weapon, he is still treated gingerly by the Times. Is it possible that Trulock, who is writing a book about the case, could embarrass the newspaper by disclosing the details of his relationship with the Times as it puffed so much smoke suggesting a national security fire?
There is, of course, no fire. China still has a puny nuclear force of twenty liquid-fueled nuclear-armed rockets, and if it wanted to bankrupt its society by engaging in a nuclear arms race with the United States, there are plenty of former Soviet scientists now on the job market. The Russians mastered the secrets of weapons miniaturization, much ballyhooed by the Times, three decades ago.
Unfortunately, instead of seriously examining its own culpability in this case, the Times's recap is another smear based on what the paper defines as Lee's odd behavior. The two main instances the paper offers of suspicious actions are so ludicrous as to raise questions about the acuity of its top editors. The main one is that a Chinese nuclear scientist whom Lee had met during a lab-approved visit to China publicly embraced and thanked Lee when the Chinese scientist later visited the Los Alamos lab. If Lee were a spy for China, why would that Chinese scientist so dramatically blow Lee's cover by publicly embracing him?
The bigger problem for the Times is that its journalists have spent the better part of two years trying to convince readers that Lee was a spy for Communist China who turned over our top nuclear secrets--"the crown jewels''--and that as a result, the balance of power between the United States and China fundamentally changed. The purpose, often stated by those pushing the hard anti-China line, was to allow China to threaten Taiwan without fear of US retaliation because of China's nuclear weapons strength.
However, the latest twist in the Lee case, laid out in the Times epilogue, is that the FBI and other intelligence agencies no longer believe that Lee was a spy for the Chinese Communists. Instead they have come up with the theory that he was possibly working for his native Taiwan all along, as did the Washington Post, based on the fact that he has a bank account there (never mind that it contains only $200 and that Lee visits relatives there). That the Times can pass along this new theory with a straight face attests to the newspaper's institutional arrogance. In the government's case against the Taiwan-born Lee, it was always a matter of once a Han, always a Han. Even the Times in its recap concedes that the government went awry in focusing on Lee because of his ethnicity, but it refuses to admit that the newspaper, in a major way, was complicit in railroading Lee.
Michèle Montas, widow of journalist Jean Dominique, wants justice in Haiti.
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