News and Features
"Five years, four sentences," is how television anchor Tavis Smiley summed up the terse dismissal note he received from Black Entertainment Television (BET) on March 23. The response from viewers and fans was heartfelt and immediate. BET and its new parent company, Viacom, were deluged with calls, and the Rev. Al Sharpton and others helped organize protests in Los Angeles and at BET's Washington offices. The outcry, which continues, is a testament to the power and reach of Tavis Smiley, and the widespread sense among African-Americans that BET has betrayed us.
If this were a Movie of the Week it would boil down to two characters: the heroic Smiley, Los Angeles preacher's kid (his mother is the minister, thank you), who moved through the black political machine of former LA Mayor Tom Bradley to become one of America's most influential commentators; and the villainous BET CEO Robert Johnson, a kind of Vernon Jordan of media, who leveraged his extensive business connections (including a stint as a top lobbyist for the cable industry) into a billion-dollar business. The foundation of his success has been more than 60 million viewers, reaching the vast majority of African-American cable households.
Whereas Smiley used his perch at BET to advance black political and economic concerns, Johnson's political activity, save his high-profile support of the Million Man March and financial backing of a few black political candidates, has focused on advancing his business interests. In fact, Johnson has taken positions widely thought of as anti-black--such as, most recently, supporting the Bush estate-tax repeal. Now that Johnson has "sold out" to media giant Viacom, the fight has moved beyond an internecine squabble where everyone's trying to "keep it in the family." The dirty laundry's on the line.
Nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner (where Smiley comes on air twice a week) fired the first volley when he urged his 7 million-plus audience to demand Smiley's return. "We've got to let media giants like Viacom know that we will not accept just anything they toss out at us," he said.
Johnson shot back with an appearance on BET Tonight, this time with BET Lead Story host Cheryl Martin, to counter allegations by Joyner and others that white-owned Viacom was pulling the strings. Johnson's assertion that he was bought but unbossed might have been convincing if it hadn't been for his explanation of the dismissal. Johnson said the final break came after Smiley sold ABC an interview with a former Symbionese Liberation Army member involved in the Patty Hearst kidnapping.
But Smiley has always operated as something of a free spirit. His penchant for activism, entrepreneurism and inveterate networking has resulted in a sort of dynasty, where he provides programming for other networks as well as commentary for Joyner's radio program and other cable shows. For example, a recent eight-hour program called State of the Black Union, featuring leading African-Americans and drawn from a book that Smiley compiled and edited, aired on C-SPAN without any public fuss from the network. That BET would draw the line at an interview with a former SLA member seemed odd, especially given its own downsizing of news programming.
Whether Smiley was fired because Viacom-owned CBS wanted first dibs on the interview, or because of long-simmering tensions between the star and the network, or because of BET's growing debt, is unknown. What's clear is that despite Smiley's overbearing "me first" black capitalist politics and gee-whiz approach to anything to the left of Sharpton, his departure leaves a huge hole in BET's programming.
Smiley's unabashed targeting of those he's found guilty of racial wrongdoing has compelled more than a few companies and politicians to come on air with promises to do better. "In this era of multinational corporations, media conglomerates and mergers, what Tavis has been able to accomplish is nothing short of heroic," says scholar and cultural critic Michael Dyson, who has appeared on Smiley's program. "He represents something unprecedented in contemporary black culture." Adds hip-hop journalist Davey D., "The only time we get to see many of Tavis's guests is in defensive positions on white talk shows where they are there for three seconds trying to make sense out of some crazy controversy. He wasn't perfect, but at least I could see everyone from Snoop to Manning Marable speak in a safe, conducive environment."
Well before the sale to Viacom, BET had been canceling and dumbing down its public affairs content. The company was roundly slammed for dumping Emerge, an award-winning newsmagazine, to launch the fluffy Savoy instead (the debut issue featured an article on black genius with fashion credits). Previously the company discontinued the sophisticated YSB (targeted to youth) and, more recently, its edgy 360hiphop.com.
These changes, BET announced, were part of an effort to "lifestyle" its properties. That's PR-speak for stripping publications and programs of political content and concentrating on stuff that sells--beauty, fashion, food, etc. In a media market where whites enjoy some diversity, BET's narrowing was a significant reduction in black voice and black choice.
It's a far cry from the vision Johnson articulated more than twenty years ago, when he launched BET. Those of us who heeded his call to demand that cable companies carry the network were fighting for a space of our own where we could find programming that respected African-Americans, valued our intellects and offered a real venue for discussion. The network's initial offerings were so promising. Great black films, innovative news and public affairs programs, and youth-oriented productions were a welcome respite from standard TV fare. Now, the network that promised to reflect the breadth of black images has become one of the worst purveyors of black stereotypes. Well over half the program day is a steady diet of exploitative music videos and comedy. And even though these changes predated the Viacom deal, in a world where even PBS only reflects us in February, seeing BET come under white ownership is a hard pill to swallow.
Of course, BET is only one part of the larger problem of media access for all communities of color. The 1996 Telecommunications Act restricted huge amounts of digital "airwaves" from public access, and meant higher cable rates, more mergers and less accountability.
This and other setbacks are finally inspiring some groups to fight back. One national effort, backed by hundreds of organizations, is pressing the FCC to establish a fund for airtime for "noncommercial" television (see www.bettertv.org). Other groups are monitoring negative imagery and using their findings to hold outlets more accountable. For example, We Interrupt This Message (www.interrupt.org) worked with youth to complete two studies on media portrayals of youth of color. Says participant Shaquesha Alequin, 19, "The media affect us. If we're walking down the street, an elderly person crosses the street. It's almost as if people think crime is in our genes. We wanted to do more than be angry about it. The study was something positive we could do to make a change." The Center on Blacks and the Media also monitors racial imagery, offering an extensive critique of BET's content at www.afrikan.net/hype. Still others leverage opportunities afforded by the Internet, while a courageous few risk prison by running illegal, low-power radio stations in order to create and control some media of their own.
If we are to learn anything from the BET debacle, it's that regardless of ownership, media is more than a commodity to be bought and sold. It is both a mirror and a maker of public discourse, and that's too important to be left to the vagaries of the bottom line.
While Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien promised to "dialogue with indigenous peoples and listen carefully to their concerns" and Mrs.
Perhaps I underestimate the joy of being given a silly nickname by the Leader of the Free World, but I'm having a hard time understanding why media big feet are so taken by the nation's new Charmer in Chief. Leave aside the extreme right-wing agenda he's pursuing when by any fair measure of voting he lost the election. Forget that he began his term by breaking his key campaign promises. And ignore his frequent and unapologetic lies about his commitment to bipartisan governance. What about the fact that, perhaps more than any President since Nixon, Bush holds the media and its denizens in utter contempt?
Take for example Bush's decision to appoint Otto Reich to head the Latin American office in the State Department. As Peter Kornbluh discusses elsewhere in this issue [see "Bush's Contra Buddies," page 6], Reich's job in the Reagan Administration was simply to lie to (and about) the media. He did it very well. According to Walter Raymond--the CIA propaganda specialist whom William Casey transferred to the National Security Council in order to circumvent the 1947 National Security Act, which restricted CIA involvement in domestic propaganda operations--the purpose of Reich's Office of Public Diplomacy was to "concentrate on gluing black hats on the sandinistas and white hats on the UNO [contras]." Staffed by senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, military intelligence and psychological warfare, the OPD offered privileges to favored journalists, placed ghostwritten articles over the signatures of contra leaders in leading opinion magazines and on Op-Ed pages, and publicized nasty stories about the Sandinistas, true or not. In its first year, it sent attacks on the Sandinistas to 1,600 college libraries, 520 political science faculties, 122 editorial writers, 107 religious organizations and countless reporters, right-wing lobbyists and members of Congress. It booked advocates for 1,570 lecture and talk-show engagements. In just one week of March 1985, the OPD officers bragged in a memo of having fooled the editors of the Wall Street Journal into publishing an Op-Ed about Nicaragua penned by an unknown professor, having guided an NBC news story on the contras and having written and edited Op-Ed articles to be signed by contra spokesmen, as well as having planted false stories in the media about a visiting Congressman's experiences in Nicaragua.
Among the OPD's lies were stories that portrayed the Sandinistas as virulent anti-Semites, that reported a Soviet shipment of MIG jets to Managua and that purported to reveal that US reporters in Nicaragua were receiving sexual favors--hetero- and homosexual--from Sandinista agents in exchange for pro-Communist reporting. That last lie, published in the July 29, 1985, New York magazine, came directly from Reich.
Perhaps OPD's most important effort was to convince Congress and the media of the contras' democratic bona fides. They did this by pretending that the men handpicked by North as front men were operationally in charge of contra political and military operations. In addition to signing the names of these men to fake Op-Ed articles, Reich and company coached them on how to lie whenever they were asked about being on the US government payroll, as well as about their aims for their US-funded armies. Together with top officials of the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council, the OPD spent millions to paint civilians as the true leaders of the contras. The United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), founded in San José, Costa Rica, in June 1985, thanks in large part to the efforts of Oliver North, was designed to manufacture an acceptably "democratic" face for the contra leadership. According to a private 1985 memo by Robert Owen, North's liaison with the contras, the UNO was entirely "a creation of the USG[overnment] to garner support from Congress." Its leaders were "liars" and "greed and power motivated."
Reporting on Reich's appointment has been decidedly unsensational. The LA Times has ignored it. The New York Times and the Washington Post assigned to the story knowledgeable reporters who covered Central America, but the results reflected the strictures of journalistic objectivity as much as the outrageousness of Reich's activities. Raymond Bonner and Christopher Marquis wrote in the Times that "a government investigation concluded that Mr. Reich's office engaged in prohibited acts of domestic propaganda." (In a backhanded tribute to Bonner's brilliant Central American reporting of the 1980s, Reich called the Times editors with a vicious personal attack on the journalist hoping to get him taken off the story.) Karen DeYoung noted in the Post that the OPD "used what critics called legally questionable means to promote favorable publicity and political support for the U.S.-backed contras in Nicaragua in their war against the Cuba-backed Sandinista government." The Economist was even more generous, insisting that Reich "got marginally caught up in the Iran/contra scandal when his office was accused of engaging in covert propaganda activities to get Americans' support for the Nicaraguan contras." No major paper has yet addressed the issue in an editorial.
Most reports on the appointment have focused on it as payback to extremist Miami Cubans and brother Jeb for their instrumental role in helping Bush hijack Florida and hence the election. (Reich regularly likens Cuba to Auschwitz and to an antebellum slave plantation.) Perhaps it is. But Reich's appointment ought to be recognized as an intentional kick in the teeth to the media, as well as a testament to its lack of institutional memory.
When Kornbluh and Robert Parry first revealed the activities of the OPD in Foreign Policy magazine in 1988, Reich, according to a Boston Globe report, compared the fully accurate article to Hitler's "big lie" technique regarding the Final Solution. It's hard to imagine a more offensive manipulation of the murder of millions than using it to slander journalists and lie to the country about an illegal war--but hell, the Bush people are just getting started.
Attorney General John Ashcroft says he does not want Timothy McVeigh to "inject more poison into our culture"--a striking statement, given the method of McVeigh's execution. Accordingly, he intends to deny permission for television interviews during the Oklahoma City bomber's final weeks on federal death row. (The Oklahoma legislature had a similar purpose in mind when it passed a resolution condemning a new book about McVeigh--thus bringing it more publicity, as a dissenting legislator pointed out.) At the same time, Ashcroft has made a dramatic cultural intervention of his own, authorizing the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution to perhaps 200 family members of his victims.
Both of Ashcroft's announcements show clearly how capital punishment is coarsening American institutions. Although most of the press coverage did not mention it, the Attorney General's diktat banning broadcast interviews applies not only to McVeigh but to all federal death-row inmates. However repellent the thought of a McVeigh TV interview, the ban is one more step in a repressive, systematic national clampdown on press coverage of prisons, which in some states, like Virginia, has led to a virtual blackout of inmate interviews. In the future, Ashcroft's interview ban could deny broadcast access to a federal inmate far different from McVeigh, someone with a legitimate claim of innocence or discrimination--a real likelihood given the nearly 100 death-row inmates in state prisons exonerated by new evidence and the large percentage of capital convictions overturned for grave constitutional error in the original trial.
The question of a public telecast of McVeigh's lethal injection is now moot with Ashcroft's closed-circuit plan, though the drumbeat for public executions continues--with some support among notable death-penalty abolitionists and civil libertarians like Sister Helen Prejean and Nat Hentoff. Televising executions, their argument goes, would either sicken the public or at least make Americans more accountable for what goes on in their name. We disagree. We see telecasts of executions as a fundamentally different matter from death-row interviews. Today's executions by lethal injection are exercises in the engineering of death, the institutionalizing of death, the bureaucratizing of death. Far from shocking America, viewing lethal injections through the distancing glow of a TV screen will further normalize state killing--as television ultimately normalizes the forms of violence it depicts.
Ashcroft did not invent closed-circuit telecasts of an execution--it has been tried at the state level--but it raises disturbing questions. For one thing, as several technological experts have pointed out, the phone-line transmission may not be immune to hacking or decryption--raising the prospect of a McVeigh snuff film in the near or distant future. More important, it makes this first federal execution, one moving forward even as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins the call for a death-penalty moratorium, a spectacle of individual vengeance for McVeigh's victims--a dangerous turn toward privatizing justice.
Far from shifting the spotlight to the survivors of Oklahoma City, Ashcroft's decision heightens the perverse amplification of McVeigh's voice initiated by his death sentence. The press spent the early weeks of spring speculating about how large a crowd would watch McVeigh take the needle. Instead of fading into anonymity, McVeigh has kept himself on the front page until his final moments and turned the chronicle of his last months into a testament for the militia fringe, who will make him a martyr. This is justice neither for McVeigh's victims nor for the country--and that is the real poison seeping into our culture from the federal death chamber in Terre Haute.
Congress is poised to reauthorize fearmongering "abstinence-only" sex ed.
The current President George Bush, whose very name evokes a dark era many would prefer to forget, seems determined to resurrect the ghosts of America's scandal-ridden past. A number of his foreign policy appointments are former Iran/contra operatives who are being rehabilitated and rewarded with powerful foreign policy posts.
John Negroponte's nomination to be US ambassador to the United Nations is a case in point. Bush has named him to represent the United States at an institution built on principles that include nonintervention, international law and human rights. Qualifications for the job: Negroponte was a central player in a bloody paramilitary war that flagrantly violated those principles and was repeatedly denounced by the institution in which he would now serve. As ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the acknowledged "boss" of the early covert contra operations; he also acted as a proconsul, working closely with the Honduran military commander, whose forces aided the covert war while his embassy consistently denied or misrepresented politically inconvenient evidence of atrocities and abuse.
The nomination of Otto Reich to be Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere is even more offensive to international and domestic principles. A longtime anti-Castro Cuban-American, Reich is backed by Senator Jesse Helms and the hard-line exile groups that want political payback for giving Bush his real or imagined margin of victory in Florida.
Like Negroponte, Reich was a key player in the illicit contra war. In 1983 a CIA propaganda specialist named Walter Raymond handpicked Reich to head the new and innocuous-sounding Office of Public Diplomacy. Housed in the State Department, Reich's office actually answered directly to Raymond and to Oliver North in the White House. A General Accounting Office review showed that Reich's office repeatedly provided sole source contracts to other members of North's network, including those involved in illegal fundraising for arms. More important, a Comptroller General's review concluded that Reich's office had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public."
Among those activities, as revealed in declassified records, were "white propaganda" operations--having contractors plant articles in the press or influence print and TV coverage while hiding their government connection--and using US military psychological warfare personnel to engage in, as Reich put it, "persuasive communications" intended to influence public opinion.
Reich himself engaged in a crude form of "persuasive communications," personally berating media executives and harassing reporters if news coverage was not favorable to the Reagan Administration's position. When NPR's All Things Considered ran the first major investigative report on contra human rights atrocities, Reich demanded a meeting with its editors, producers and reporters, at which he informed them that his office was "monitoring" all their programs and that he considered NPR to be biased against the contras and US policy. A Washington Post stringer remembers that after a contentious briefing from Reich in Managua in which the stringer and a reporter from Newsweek questioned the truthfulness of the Administration's assertions, an article appeared in a right-wing newsletter put out by Accuracy in Media calling him a "johnny sandinista" and falsely asserting that the Nicaraguan government was providing the two reporters with prostitutes. Reich's office, the then-US Ambassador to Managua told the Post reporter, was responsible for the rumors.
Reich's role as a revolving-door lobbyist is also likely to be a factor in his nomination hearings. As a partner in the Brock Group, a lobbying firm that according to Justice Department records represented the anti-Castro liquor giant Bacardi, Reich advised Jesse Helms's office on the drafting of the Helms-Burton legislation, which tightens the embargo against Cuba. Since passage of the law in 1996, Reich's own lobbying firm, RMA International, has received $600,000 in payments from Bacardi. Another Reich organization, the US-Cuba Business Council, has received more than $520,000 in US Agency for International Development money for anti-Castro work supporting the goals of the Helms-Burton law. If he's confirmed, Reich would become the key policy-maker interpreting and implementing legislation on Cuba, which he was handsomely paid to promote--a clear conflict of interest.
Reich's only diplomatic credential is his 1986 posting as Ambassador to Venezuela, to which officials in Caracas repeatedly objected. While there, Reich became responsible for the case of notorious terrorist Orlando Bosch, jailed in Caracas on charges of masterminding the bombing of an Air Cubana flight that killed seventy-three people in 1976. In September 1987 Bosch wrote a letter in which he thanked the ambassador as "compatriot Otto Reich" for support--a letter that, after it became public, Reich described in a cable to Washington as "a case of Cuban-Soviet disinformation." When a Venezuelan court ruled that Bosch should be released in late 1987, Reich sent a short "Clearance Response" cable to the State Department's visa office--apparently a request for Bosch to enter the United States. Bosch subsequently entered the United States illegally and was detained on parole violation charges related to terrorism and threatened with deportation because, according to the Justice Department, he had "repeatedly expressed and demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death." Reich's nomination hearings will provide the first public forum for him to explain the purpose of his "clearance" cable and what role, if any, he played in the first Bush Administration's clearly political decision to drop charges against Bosch and allow him to stay in Florida.
Negroponte has already survived confirmation hearings for two ambassadorships since the Iran/contra scandal and is unlikely to face significant opposition, but Democrats say they are drawing the line at Reich. Senators John Kerry and Christopher Dodd are leading the opposition to Reich on the grounds of his "questionable history." According to Senate aides, opponents plan to put a "hold" on the nomination--a tactic perfected by Helms against Clinton appointments--which will provide time for an investigation, access to classified records and organization of support from farm belt Republicans who understand that Reich's hard-line policy on the trade embargo against Cuba will hurt agricultural interests in their states. The political effort to line up votes against Reich and to seek full disclosure of documents on his public diplomacy operations, ambassadorship and corporate lobbying will begin in earnest after the Senate returns from Easter recess.
In a campaign reminiscent of the successful effort twenty years ago to block Reagan's anti-human rights appointee Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, the Center for International Policy, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Washington Office on Latin America, among others, are mobilizing to stop the nomination and are confident they can win. "With so much muck connected to his name and his past," suggests CIP director William Goodfellow, "Reich is an inviting target to show that the Democrats are not dead."
Indeed, failure to block Reich could open the door to ever more noxious foreign policy appointees. Senator Helms's top aide, Roger Noriega, is Bush's lead candidate to be ambassador to the Organization of American States. And at least one conservative religious group is touting pardoned Iran/contra criminal Elliott Abrams as a nominee for a human rights post--ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Within weeks of taking office, President Bush started to dispense compassionate conservatism with a vengeance. As the first order of business, he moved to give a massive tax windfall to the rich, who got richer in the now-precarious boom economy. By impact and perhaps by design, this would hobble the capacity of the federal government to respond to escalating human need in the harder times that lie ahead. To get a head start on that, Bush asked Congress to shrink funding for Head Start, childcare block grants for poor families and programs to combat child abuse. If this seems like--to use another "c" word--old-fashioned cruelty instead of compassion, it should come as no surprise. The President did his best during last year's campaign, with the complicity of a timid press and a triangulating Democratic Party, to blur his intentions. But the blueprint for the second Bush Administration has been available to anyone who has followed the work of The Manhattan Institute and read its quarterly publication, City Journal.
Two recent books, both published by the Chicago-based Ivan R. Dee, bring together articles originally published in City Journal. At the risk of providing unwitting copy for a rave blurb, they are must reading for anyone who wants a window into the thinking of the people running all three branches of government in these trying days. (Or, as Bill Moyers is quoted as saying on the back of What Makes Charity Work?, "Even when I disagree with City Journal, I dare not ignore it.")
The Manhattan Institute came to prominence around the time of Rudolph Giuliani's election as mayor of New York, and they form a mutual admiration society. Giuliani has praised City Journal for puncturing a "tyranny of political correctness" in New York, which he likens to the Spanish Inquisition. (I thought the Mayor, who just installed a decency panel to monitor arts in city-funded institutions because he was offended by a few paintings at the Brooklyn Museum, and who slashed funds for the 150-year-old Legal Aid Society because it sued him and went on strike, was an admirer of the Spanish Inquisition.) And the Manhattan Institute loves him back. As Heather Mac Donald, City Journal contributing editor and the author of The Burden of Bad Ideas, writes: "From the day he took office, Rudy Giuliani threatened the foundations of the liberal worldview--denouncing identity politics, demanding work from welfare recipients, and above all, successfully fighting crime by fighting criminals, rather than blathering about crime's supposed 'root causes,' racism and poverty."
So far George W. Bush is shaping up as another star pupil. According to an April Washington Post article, Bush adviser Karl Rove considers The Dream and the Nightmare, an earlier book by City Journal editor Myron Magnet--editor of What Makes Charity Work?--a road map for Bush's approach to the role of government.
Neither road map nor blueprint seems quite the right metaphor for what is found in these books, since those imply a plan for getting somewhere or building something. The folks at the Manhattan Institute are more like demolition specialists, as their local hero, Mayor Giuliani, made clear in his call to blow up the New York City Board of Education. Their prescription for failing schools, poor inner-city neighborhoods, inadequate housing and every other shame of a rich industrialized nation is unfailingly the same: Get government out of the way, and let the market and private charity take care of it.
These are lazy books, compilations of recycled articles lightly edited, with slender introductions that do little more than annotate the table of contents. (Consequently, in several cases, the essays read like something from a time capsule: A 1996 Mac Donald essay asserts that California's Proposition 209, "if passed, would return California to color-blind status.") The works of Magnet and Mac Donald are not likely to be passed around in dogeared copies, like those of Ayn Rand, a generation from now. But these books are snapshots in which one can glimpse a way of looking at the world that infuses the thinking of the new President and the people around him. And for that reason, attention must be paid to them.
What is that way of looking at the world? It's deeply nostalgic for a time when the parish priest, the cop on the beat and the Scout troop master kept everyone in line. Criminals weren't coddled, teenage mothers were shipped out of town, and you could take your small son or your mother to the art museum without blushing. Poor people didn't look for government handouts. They climbed out of poverty thanks to temporary private charity that helped them see that their own moral failings were to blame for their problems, not an unfair system.
Magnet's book, with multiple contributors (including Mac Donald; two of the essays in her book also appear in his), devotes the first several pieces to a look backward. In his introductory essay, Magnet laments that the cultural revolution of the sixties changed traditional charities: No longer did these institutions see the personal behavior and worldview of the poor as the key to improvement of their condition. Turning its attention to an unjust economy and racist society, philanthropy turned into a wholesale--rather than a retail--enterprise. Magnet bemoans that "anyone who sought to help the poor as individuals, one by one, looked hopelessly naïve, as if trying to empty the sea with a spoon."
The first two essays, by William Stern, an official in the administration of New York Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1980s, celebrate the influence of New York's first Roman Catholic Archbishop, John Hughes, and the Catholic Protectory in the "moral transformation" that lifted Irish immigrants from the lowest rungs of society at the turn of the century. (A different and provocative approach to this subject can be found in Noel Ignatiev's 1995 book, How the Irish Became White.) Stern's conservative sympathies are obvious, but he stays mainly in the past until the end of the second essay ("Once We Knew How to Rescue Poor Kids"). There he reveals his politics, lambasting the modern Catholic Charities for pursuing the "expansion of the welfare state" and ignoring the "central insight that for charity to succeed, it must change the cultural attitudes of its recipients."
Stern has a thing about what he terms confession--the Catholic sacrament called penance when I was a student at Immaculate Conception School, these days repackaged as "reconciliation," in what he undoubtedly would view as a triumph of euphemism. In the confessional, Stern writes, "you must clearly state what you yourself have done wrong. It is the ultimate taking of responsibility for one's actions, and it taught the Irish to focus on their own role in creating their misfortune." Confession has near-magical powers, Stern believes; it turned "impulsive, often criminally inclined, children into personally responsible individuals." Our Saturday afternoon stints in the confessional never had that effect on my friends and me, but I retain an attachment to the core concept that no sin is too great to be forgiven. I don't see much of that spirit among today's "compassionate" conservatives.
The nostalgic reveries in What Makes Charity Work? leave something to be desired as history, because they are invariably cut to fit a contemporary argument. Writing about the "Jewish Victorian" women of the Juvenile Aid Society who helped his immigrant father, Howard Husock calls them "a far cry from today's Jewish philanthropy, which has embraced the Protestant social gospel that religion has a duty to set right the injustices of society." The agency that came to his father's rescue, according to Husock, a director of case studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, "did not engage in advocacy at all, whether to improve housing conditions, raise wages or even reduce anti-Semitism." He compares it favorably with today's Children's Defense Fund, "advocating social policy but not itself directly helping individual children" (other than the millions who benefit from its lobbying for expanded child health insurance programs or Head Start, that is).
The contemporary argument, right from today's headlines, is the Bush Administration's drive to steer government funds to churches providing social services, the subject of legislation being taken up by Congress in late April. Eyal Press and others have recently done much to debunk the myth that religious providers are more efficient and effective than government in helping the poor. A program that deals with drug addiction as sinful behavior curable through Bible classes--and much touted by the supporters of faith-based approaches to social problems--inflated its success rate and, despite claims, actually costs more to deliver than conventional drug treatment. A North Carolina welfare-to-work program run by a local minister would have no chance of success but for state childcare funds and support services from an array of secular agencies. But even if every church-run drug treatment program, soup kitchen and inner-city parochial school had a 100 percent success rate, and even if their efforts were multiplied ten times over, the gulf between the problem and the resources would still be huge. A 1999 survey of congregations' social efforts found most of them to be short-term and small-scale, and only 2 to 4 percent of church budgets goes to social services.
Mac Donald's book is a series of angry and sarcastic essays attacking not just traditional charities but intellectual "elites" for the myriad ways in which she believes they have ruined contemporary American society. In Mac Donald's world, large foundations, the public health establishment, law school faculties, teachers' unions, social service advocates and museum directors have conspired to undermine old-fashioned values of self-reliance and decency. Together, she argues, these powerful forces have imposed an orthodoxy that few dare challenge.
In her attack on foundations, "The Billions of Dollars That Made Things Worse," Mac Donald focuses on the "liberal leviathans"--Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, etc.--because so-called liberal foundations "outnumber conservative ones three to one, and liberal policy groups receive four times as much foundation money as their conservative counterparts." (Somehow, the foundation whose US programs I direct, George Soros's Open Society Institute, escapes Mac Donald's barbs, even though we make grants to many of the same groups as the foundations she condemns--are we doing something wrong?) Although these assumptions are based on highly questionable categorizations of what is right and what is left--foundations like Ford and Carnegie, and many of their grantees, have as many critics on the left as on the right--let's accept for the sake of discussion that the right-wing foundations are outgunned in dollar terms.
Why, then, are we living in a policy landscape determined by their ideas? Why are we debating the size of an inevitable tax cut rather than national health insurance? How much arsenic to allow in the water and not how to strengthen worker safety laws? Maybe it's because the conservative foundations have spent their somewhat more limited funds--the Manhattan Institute, for all its influence, gets by on a budget of $6.2 million, the equivalent of pocket change for any of the larger, more progressive foundations--quite strategically, eschewing demonstration projects for well-promoted shibboleths about the evils of government like--well, like Heather Mac Donald's. As Edwin Feulner, longtime president of the Heritage Foundation (a model for the Manhattan Institute), which provided the blueprint for the Reagan Administration in 1981, told the American Legislative Exchange Council late last year, "It is telling that much of the left's distress about our success is aggravated by the skills we've acquired in marketing ideas." Given the success of the right's agenda, the pervasive whine about its marginalization that Mac Donald typifies is particularly galling. She complains about the professional victimhood of welfare rights and minority advocates, but nobody plays the role better than Mac Donald.
I once heard the leftist-turned-right-winger David Horowitz denounce foundations such as Ford and Carnegie as Marxist to a gathering of conservative funders. I thought it was a joke, but the audience clapped and slapped their thighs in joyous recognition; and in her book, Mac Donald picks up the same theme. A few paragraphs after citing a "former Communist" once on the staff of the Ford Foundation on the "secret anticapitalist orientation" of his fellow program officers, she disdains the call of Peter Goldmark, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation, for a "national conversation to talk with candor about the implications of personal and institutional racism," as if this notion were just another scheme of diehard reds fomenting revolution with the dollars of dead capitalists. As far as Mac Donald is concerned, racism is a thing of the past. Anyone who invokes it today is just making excuses for social pathology or incompetence. She doesn't think much of antibias task forces, citing with approval Stephan Thernstrom's findings that minorities are "overrepresented in the nation's judiciary." In her piece assailing pro bono work on behalf of "left-wing" causes like "expanding entitlements" and "promoting homosexual rights," Mac Donald makes a brief nod to the time when "civil rights litigation had unimpeachable moral authority." (It's hard to know what civil rights litigation Mac Donald would approve of today, since she doesn't cite any.)
If there is one refrain that runs most consistently through Mac Donald's essays, it is that society took a wrong turn when it stopped distinguishing between the deserving and the undeserving poor. A nostalgia for stigmatization pervades her writing: the notion that all families, no matter how troubled, deserve respect "epitomizes contemporary social work's refusal to make moral judgments." Magnet is even more blunt, wanting to separate "the bums and crooks from those trying to live upright lives and improve their condition by effort, sacrifice and self-restraint."
The homeless? They're on the streets, according to Mac Donald, because "the advocates need them to be there. Should society finally decide to end street vagrancy, it could go far in that direction by facilitating commitment to mental hospitals and enforcing existing laws against street living." In other words, whether you lock them up in mental hospitals or prisons, just get them out of our sight.
A particularly nasty passage in Mac Donald's book is aimed at Jack Coleman, the former president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, who spent ten days as a street person in 1983 to get a better understanding of homelessness. When Coleman returned to his home after his days on the street, Mac Donald reports, he drew himself a hot bath, got into it and started to cry. Recounting the story at a conference, Coleman cried again. This moving reaction is dismissed as "four-handkerchief histrionics" by Mac Donald, and at first it's hard to see why she isn't more sympathetic to Coleman's effort to get out of what she would undoubtedly view as an ivory tower, since she has nothing but contempt for advocates who she thinks preach about the poor from the comfortable precincts of the Upper West Side or Berkeley. (I, for one, would like to see foundation presidents shed more tears of their own and cause fewer to be shed by others!) But Mac Donald's antipathy is easily figured out: Coleman's remarks took place at a conference of homeless advocates whose work with the most desperately poor led them to call for stepped-up government responsibility to provide stable housing and employment for those on the streets. Anyone espousing those views has to be discredited at all costs.
Some of the targets Mac Donald picks are easy ones. It's hard to defend education colleges that turn out graduates who have little knowledge of the subjects they are going to teach, massive public education bureaucracies that seem to survive every change of leadership or the corruptions and cruelties of the foster care system. Occasionally she writes about her subjects more in sorrow than in anger, as in her piece about the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn. Mac Donald homes in on a course in hip-hop culture to make an argument about the glamorization of graffiti, but she seems to have a grudging affection for the energy of the place.
However, there is little respite in her book from the relentless assault on public institutions of all kinds. Mac Donald praises a Harlem Boy Scout troop, for example, as an antidote to the "chaos in New York's inner-city classrooms." I've been in many dozens of such classrooms in recent years (and not just as a Principal for a Day, which one of Magnet's essayists, City Journal contributing editor Sol Stern, attacks for turning business and other civic leaders into apologists for the public schools), and saw little chaos amid much hope. What chaos there is would be mightily affected by fewer pupils per class, better libraries and labs, and enough books to go around--all things that have nothing to do with the moral fiber of public school students.
There are, to be sure, many idiocies and failings of government policy, and hapless or misguided advocates for social justice. Some of those are chronicled in these two books. But in the parallel universe in which Mac Donald, Magnet and other City Journal writers dwell, government can't do a thing right. What's most striking about this, from authors who claim to celebrate old-fashioned virtues, is its fundamental dishonesty. It's hard to take seriously intellectuals who, in their ideological zeal to discredit government, ignore all contrary evidence: rural electrification programs that transformed the lives of Southern farm families from their medieval rhythms; the Social Security system, which put an end to the grinding poverty that darkened the final years of millions of elderly citizens; the GI Bill, which subsidized education for a generation of veterans, propelling them into the middle class.
Even the vaunted faith of the authors in the private sector disappears the minute those institutions call for greater public--that is, government--responsibility for the poor. That's why the most ferocious attacks in these books are aimed at corporate law firms that advocate federally funded legal services for the poor, religious organizations that call for increased social spending and foundations that support systemic change. And if the poor find the moral fortitude to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, that's fine, as long as their new sense of empowerment doesn't lead them to organize and agitate for rights and economic justice.
Any positive vision about what would make a more just and fair society--or even any recognition that contemporary American capitalism raises any issues of justice or fairness--is absent from the pages of these books. In the end, what they demonstrate is just how bereft of ideas--that is, beyond trashing public institutions and blaming the poor for their poverty--the right is at this moment.
That's the good news. The bad news is: They're running the country.
On the importance of being a "public nuisance."
In one of the most foolish and cruelly ironic urban public policy decisions in recent memory, New York Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are planning to shower a series of subsidies, expected to total more than $1 billion, on the high citadel of self-styled free-market global capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange.
In December the city entered into a letter of intent to assist the NYSE in constructing a new trading floor. The arrangement commits the city to acquire land for the new exchange building, and for the city and state to construct a new trading floor for the NYSE and to grant it tax and subsidized energy benefits. In exchange, the taxpayers receive $10 million in annual rent, which will never come close to reimbursing the city and state for their costs.
The sole purported rationale for this corporate welfare bonanza is to retain the NYSE in New York City. If one were to credit this claim, the gift of more than $1 billion for the purpose of retaining fewer than 6,000 jobs--while not even ostensibly creating new ones--would, even by the corrupt standards of job-retention- blackmail deals between corporations and politicians, set a high-water mark for casuistry. However, the deal is even worse than that description suggests. There is no chance that the stock exchange would leave New York City. When I went on the NYSE floor last year and asked veteran traders about the possibility of the exchange moving to New Jersey, they laughed as they dismissed it out of hand. In addition to the institutional identity and reputation of the stock exchange, its personal connections to Wall Street firms--committed to New York City by history, by the Manhattan residences of many of their principals and employees and by long-term office rental commitments, increasingly sealed by yet other city subsidies--preclude the possibility of a move across the Hudson to become the Hoboken Stock Exchange.
NYSE's New Jersey ploy is nothing more than a ruse for covering public officials using what Justice Louis Brandeis once called "other people's money." As is typical of such arrangements, the corporate-politician conspiracy to ramrod the deal is shrouded in secrecy and in contempt for democratic processes. The city refuses to make available to the public a copy of the letter of intent it signed with the NYSE to proceed with the deal. The architectural plans for the building complex--expected by preservation advocates to generate outrage--remain concealed. The governor forced legislation authorizing the deal to go forward on a super-expedited basis, leaving legislators virtually no time to review the bill. They proceeded to pass it unanimously. New York City Council members also have failed to object to the bill.
The Fourth Estate, perhaps inured to the issue by the steady drumbeat of announcements regarding New York City taxpayer subsidies for big business, has done a less than stellar job covering this boondoggle. The New York Times editorial page endorsed the scheme years ago, when it was first being floated. Recognizing "why some oppose on principle any concession to the blackmailing tactics of businesses that threaten to move unless they get public assistance," the Times concluded that New York had no choice but to succumb. "If New York City refuses to play this game, other, hungrier cities and states will take advantage of that passivity." Apparently, the corporate executives at The New York Times Co. found this argument persuasive. In February the Times and New York City completed their own corporate welfare deal--giving the Times $29 million in tax breaks and other incentives to maintain its offices in Times Square.
It would be hard to script a more brazen and shameless corporate giveaway than a billion-dollar donation to the emblem of global capitalism from a city where nearly one in three children lives in poverty, and public investment necessities go begging. But the final act of the NYSE drama has yet to play out: There is still time for the citizens of New York, and at least one of the candidates seeking to replace Giuliani when his term expires at the end of this year, to demand cancellation of this corrupt deal.
Bill Clinton and George Will so rarely agree with each other that when they embrace the same position, we should be alarmed. This thought came to mind upon realizing that their stances on the Internet and China are interchangeable--despite Clinton's favoring a softer political line than Will on Beijing. When it comes to the web, both espouse what might best be dubbed a neo-McLuhanite approach, or a form of "McLuhanism with Capitalist Characteristics." The medium (the net) is the message (freedom), both insist, but ideally the market and the modem have to work their respective magics simultaneously. There is something appealing about this vision, but it is deeply flawed. And viewing the future through this particular rose-colored lens can lead observers to misunderstand crises in Chinese-American affairs (and in cross-cultural communications), such as those generated by the recent spy-plane fiasco and the 1999 destruction by NATO bombs of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
What exactly is the neo-McLuhanite camp, and why place Clinton and Will inside it? Consider, first, a speech the then-President gave in March 2000 calling for permanent normal trade relations with China. Clinton invoked Earl Warren's claim that "liberty is the most contagious force in the world," then insisted that the "cell phone and cable modem" would help freedom flourish in the new century. "We know how much the Internet has changed America," Clinton said, "and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China." The Chinese government had "been trying to crack down on the Internet," he acknowledged, but this was like trying "to nail Jell-O to the wall."
Flash forward to a column Will wrote during the latest crisis, while the man the Chinese call Xiao Bushi (Little Bush) was proving (as a headline in the Guardian put it) that sorry really is the hardest word. Despite being troubled by Beijing's demand for an apology, the pundit saw hope on the horizon. Henry Kissinger had reported in glowing terms about the "proliferation of 'Internet cafes'" in China, and Will considered these "small businesses" to be "huge portents" of changes to come, since without a "monopoly of information," authoritarian governments collapse.
"Totalitarianism is rendered impossible, and perhaps even tyranny is rendered difficult," Will wrote, "by technologies that make nations porous to information." He then reminded his readers that "China already was becoming porous in 1989," when students there learned about massacres via e-mails sent to them from "American campuses where they had studied and made friends," and it has grown even more porous since. The official media might still try to "nationalize the public's consciousness," he concluded, but the web would undermine this.
Typically, neo-McLuhanite commentaries of this sort take three things for granted: first, that access to the Internet will not just make Chinese citizens more like us but also like us more. Second, that virtual globalization is tantamount to virtual Americanization, so the Internet can do for information what the Big Mac has done for cuisine. And last, that nationalism, at least in virulent forms, is a remnant ideology clung to only by older, less-plugged-in people out of step with the cosmopolitan dot-com generation.
So, what's wrong with this picture? Plenty--at least where Chinese-American conflicts are concerned. This struck me in 1999 (when I happened to be in China and witnessed anti-American protest spurred by the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade) and again this year.
The first mistaken neo-McLuhanite assumption is that when Chinese go onto the web to connect with foreign cultures, they naturally turn to American URLs. Sometimes they do, often they don't. In 1999, when I visited an Internet cafe in Beijing before the anti-American protests began, most of the youths I saw were hooked up to Japanese-style video games. After the demonstrations began, more patrons logged on to news sites, but as likely as not this would be www.serbia.com. Cultural globalization is never about one-way flows, though Americans often forget this, conveniently ignoring the fact that the world's cities are now cluttered not just with KFC franchises but also karaoke bars. American destinations provide some attractive options to netizens in search of adventure, but they are never the only places these globetrotters go.
A second problematic assumption is that visiting American websites will make Chinese doubt their government's propaganda. In the most emotional stages of recent crises, many US magazines, newspapers and on-line zines have showcased China-bashing Op-Eds and editorial cartoons that might well serve to confirm, not undermine, Beijing's rhetoric of victimization. They contain postings supporting the notion that for all our talk of the universality of human rights, we are not above being more outraged by the endangerment of US lives than by the loss of Chinese ones, and supporting the idea that Americans are far too prone to demonize and infantilize China. I actually hope, at certain moments, that my Chinese friends will stay away from the web. What good will it do them to see resurrections of Yellow Peril-type images of bloodthirsty dragons? Or to read the headline at least one paper used for George Will's recent column: "America Shouldn't Appease Its Adolescent Foe"?
Yet another problem with the neo-McLuhanite approach is that there is in fact never a clear line separating nationalists from netizens. There are plenty of plugged-in populists with jingoistic impulses in China (as anyone who has visited its chatrooms can attest). And the same goes for the United States (just visit www.RushLimbaugh.com). Nor does generation make the difference. Some of the nastiest anti-American cyberpostings on Chinese bulletin boards in 1999 came from educated youths. And Wang Wei, the young pilot downed in the brush with the US spy plane, has been described recently in the Chinese media as having traits we associate both with the global netizen (a regular surfer of the web and user of e-mail) and the fervent nationalist (ready to die for his homeland).
Last but not least, neo-McLuhanite rhapsodists often overlook the extent to which old and new media forms overlap and affect each other. Old forms of communication never die, they just get digital makeovers, and new media can easily be integrated into traditional political games. Witness the key role of an exchange of snail-mail letters between Wang Wei's wife and Xiao Bushi in the most recent Chinese-American crisis, the importance of which was magnified by both Chinese TV and CNN coverage. Or consider the use in the 1999 Chinese protests of a new form of wall poster: printouts from websites.
The neo-McLuhanites are certainly right about two things: China is changing dramatically, in part because of new forms of international communication and commerce, and the transformations will continue. But these changes have not and will not take simple and predictable forms. Markets and modems, in the era of the New World Disorder, push and pull people and countries in different directions, and the choices individuals and groups make when faced with novel challenges matter.
It seems fitting to end with an ironic question. Wasn't it Marxist analysts who used to be criticized--albeit sometimes unfairly--for insisting that History flows in a predetermined direction? I, for one, doubt that the new forms of virtual determinism will prove any better at predicting the future in this century than the materialist one spelled out by the author of Das Kapital did in the last one.