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It's easy to blame cartoons for gun-toting kids. But the truth isn't so tidy.
The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.
--Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge
Michel Foucault would have been fascinated by late-twentieth-century presidential campaigns.
--Lynne Cheney, Telling the Truth
Since the late 1980s, when they discovered with horror certain French-derived theories of social science and literary analysis that long before then had taken root among left-leaning academics in the United States--essentially replacing Marxist dialectics as weapons of intellectual struggle, in reaction against the failure of radical politics in the 1960s--American conservative intellectuals have held these particular theories under siege. In such books as Tenured Radicals (1990) by New Criterion managing editor Roger Kimball, Illiberal Education (1991) by ex-Reagan White House domestic policy adviser (and former Dartmouth Review editor) Dinesh D'Souza and Telling the Truth (1995) by ex-National Endowment for the Humanities chairwoman and future Vice Presidential spouse Lynne Cheney, and in innumerable interviews, stump speeches and talk-radio tirades, representatives of the American conservative movement have denounced the exponents of these theories for attempting to lure students away from traditional cherished academic ideals like objectivity and truth toward a cynical, despairing view of history, politics, literature and law.
So we can assume that participants in this decade-long conservative jeremiad did not foresee that at the end of that decade their colleagues in the Republican Party would wage a campaign to win a close presidential election in ways that would seem to confirm, in virtually every respect, the validity of the theories they had been railing against--and moreover, that as part of that campaign, their allies would espouse and promote to the public the very essence of these same reviled theories. However, if we look closely at the theories in question and at the facts of Republican behavior in Florida, we will see that this is exactly what happened.
The theories in question are those derived from the works of French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Their conservative critics tend to conflate the ideas of the two men, and then to muddle things further by presenting both as synonymous with postmodernism; in fact, though they worked in distinct fields and did not even like each other (Foucault once called Derrida "the kind of philosopher who gives bullshit a bad name"), their theories do have analogous aspects that make it not difficult to confuse them.
Foucault was a philosopher of history who posited, basically, the impossibility of achieving an objective and neutral interpretation of a historical event or phenomenon. Derrida is a philosopher of literature, founder of the notorious school of deconstruction, who suggested the impossibility of achieving a stable and coherent interpretation of a literary text, or any text. In both cases, the (putative) fact of the indeterminacy of the interpretive act leads to the conclusion (or has the assumption) that whatever interpretation comes to be accepted--the official interpretation--must have been imposed by the exercise of political power (though in deconstructionism this latter point has been elaborated and emphasized much more by Derrida's American disciple Stanley Fish than by Derrida himself). It is this shared assumption that any official interpretation, whether of human behavior or the written word, has been arrived at through a process of power competition and not through the application of objective, neutral and independent analysis (because there is no such thing) that has so agitated conservative intellectuals.
In her book Telling the Truth, the wife of the man who was to become Vice President of the United States following Republican Party political and legal maneuvers in Florida uses a book that Foucault edited called I, Pierre Rivière as the starting point for a critical examination of the philosopher's ideas. Pierre Rivière was a Norman peasant boy who in 1835 brutally murdered his mother, a sister and one of his brothers with a pruning hook. Foucault and a group of his students at the Collège de France compiled a collection of documents relating to the case. What the documents revealed to Foucault was not an overarching thesis that illuminated the cause and meaning of Rivière's shocking act--not, in other words, the unifying concept or constellation of concepts that academic analysts typically grope for in their research and thinking--but, on the contrary, a welter of conflicting and irreconcilable interpretations put forth by competing, equally self-interested parties, including doctors, lawyers, judges, Rivière's remaining family members and fellow villagers, and Rivière (who wrote a memoir) himself.
In other words, as Cheney puts it, the documents were important to Foucault "not for what they tell of the murders, but for what they show about the struggle to control the interpretation of the event." Or, as she quotes Foucault as saying, the documents form "a strange contest, a confrontation, a power relation, a battle among discourses and through discourses." The reason he decided to publish the documents, Foucault said, was "to rediscover the interaction of those discourses as weapons of attack and defense in the relations of power and knowledge."
"Thus," Cheney concludes, "I, Pierre Rivière is a case study showing how different groups construct different realities, different 'regimes of truth,' in order to legitimize and protect their interests."
The Foucauldian mode of analysis does not meet with any approbation or sympathy from the Vice President's wife. In fact, she goes on to say that Foucault's ideas "were nothing less than an assault on Western Civilization. In rejecting an independent reality, an externally verifiable truth, and even reason itself, he was rejecting the foundational principles of the West." Therefore it seems a pretty good joke on her that it turns out to be the perfect mode for analyzing how Republican Party strategy in Florida was developed and implemented.
In fact, I might suggest that if Michel Foucault had not confected them already, his concepts of "discourses" and "a battle among discourses" ultimately to be decided by power would have to be invented before this signal event of American political history could be properly understood.
When former Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Florida on November 10, 2000, three days after the election, dispatched there by Lynne Cheney's husband to take charge of the Bush campaign's effort to secure the state's Electoral College slate and thereby the Oval Office, George W. Bush's initial lead of 1,784 had already been reduced by an automatic machine recount to 327, and the Gore campaign had requested manual recounts in four Democratic-leaning counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia. It appeared self-evident, from the tales both of the Palm Beach butterfly ballot and of the difficulties encountered by minority voters in getting to the polls and attempting to cast their ballots, that by the intention of Florida voters who had gone to the polls, if not by the actual counted results, Gore had won the state (which, of course, is why the media had awarded it to him early on election night in the first place), and it seemed a lot more likely than not that manual recounts in counties favoring Gore, or even a full statewide manual recount, would alter the actual results in Gore's favor, despite the fact that the absentee ballots, which usually favor Republican candidates, were yet to be counted. On top of all that, Gore was leading in the national popular vote, and it came as news to many Americans that a presidential candidate could win the popular vote and lose the election. (Prior to Election Day, Bush campaign strategists, believing it likely that George Bush would win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College, had developed a strategy to try to discredit the Electoral College, and thus perhaps gain support from Democratic electors.)
Clearly, what Secretary Baker had to do in order to insure Bush's election to the presidency was to stop the requested manual recounts, or any manual recounts, from taking place. Since Florida election law explicitly permits manual recounts, and there is a long history of them being conducted in the state for elections to offices at various levels (though not previously the presidency), including one race of Republican Senator Connie Mack, and given the situation just described above, what Baker encountered first of all in Florida was a severe public relations problem. In advance of Republican lawyers making a legal case in various courts against the manual recount process, Baker had to make a case to the American public as to why a perfectly legitimate process that had been employed many times before in Florida and elsewhere across the United States to decide close electoral contests, should not be used to resolve the closest Electoral College contest in 114 years. He needed to participate in what in Foucault's word is a discourse, by presenting an alternative to and challenging the Gore campaign and Democratic Party stance that the Florida vote was so close and so rife with proven and potential irregularities that only careful manual recounting could decide it fairly, as well as what we might call the underlying and perhaps more threatening Democratic contention that Gore had actually won the election and required only the additional step of targeted manual recounting to prove it.
The discourse (in the looser sense of a narrative) widely presented by Secretary Baker at his first press conference, on November 10, had several parts. He immediately tried to convey the sense that George W. Bush had already effectively won the election. "The American people voted on November 7. Governor George W. Bush won thirty-one states with a total of 271 electoral votes. The vote here in Florida was very close, but when it was counted, Governor Bush was the winner. Now, three days later, the vote in Florida has been recounted. Governor Bush is still the winner," he began. Wielding that assumption as his predicate, he attacked the Gore campaign for attempting to "unduly prolong the country's national presidential election," introducing the phrases "endless challenges" and "unending legal wrangling" when the election dispute was all of three days old. Then he attacked the process of recounting itself, particularly manual recounting, saying that "the more often ballots are recounted, especially by hand, the more likely it is that human errors, like lost ballots and other risks, will be introduced. This frustrates the very reason why we have moved from hand counting to machine counting." He stressed the importance of getting "some finality" to the election and accused the Gore campaign of "efforts to keep recounting, over and over, until it happens to like the result." Finally, he argued that a continued struggle over the presidential election would jeopardize America's standing in the world. By November 14, he was tying it as well to the stability of American financial markets.
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Baker's equivalent in the Gore camp and someone no doubt unfamiliar with the writings of Foucault (and therefore not having the term discourse at his disposal), referred to Baker's argument about America's standing in the world as a "self-serving myth," and Baker did not raise this canard again. Neither did he again raise the matter of endangering US financial markets.
The next day, November 11, at a press conference announcing that the Bush campaign had filed suit in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida to block the manual recounts requested by the Gore campaign, thus becoming the first of the two campaigns to initiate "legal wrangling" (a number of private lawsuits related to the election had already been filed but none yet by the Gore campaign itself, something Baker took pains to submerge), Baker dramatically escalated his attack on manual recounting. For a number of reasons, it is worth quoting the central paragraph of his formal statement in full:
The manual vote count sought by the Gore campaign would not be more accurate than an automated count. Indeed, it would be less fair and less accurate. Human error, individual subjectivity and decisions to "determine the voter's intent" would replace precision machinery in tabulating millions of small marks and fragile hole punches. There would be countless opportunities for the ballots to be subject to a whole host of risks. The potential for mischief would exist to a far greater degree than in the automated count and recount that these very ballots have already been subjected to. It is precisely...for these reasons that our democracy over the years has moved increasingly from hand counting of votes to machine counting. Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats--and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased. [Emphasis added.]
Clearly, Baker and the Bush camp had decided to place a demonization of hand counting at the core of their electoral discourse. That this was a purely calculated discourse, and one in no way sincerely embraced, is child's play to demonstrate.
Manual recounting is the method used by the United Nations for settling disputed elections around the globe, and it is also countenanced by the United States when our representatives get involved in observing the resolution of electoral conflicts in other nations. A majority of American states either mandate or permit manual recounting when the differential between the machine vote totals for opposing candidates is within a certain margin. Candidate Bush, while governor, had signed just such a bill in Texas that established the same "intent of the voter" standard set by Florida. Until this particular situation in Florida arose, requiring this particular discourse, no Republican politician I am aware of had ever risen to denounce manual recounting (on the contrary, any number of Republican politicians had taken successful advantage of manual recount provisions), nor have I found any literature on the subject that appeared in the conservative journals. Moreover, the Bush camp gladly accepted the results of manual recounts in Florida when those went in their favor, as the results did in Seminole County, and they had considered plans to contest machine results in Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Oregon if things did not go their way in Florida. Manufacturers of the punch-card voting machinery used in Florida were also on record as saying that hand counting was a more accurate method of gauging votes than using their machines.
Conservative writers like Cheney, D'Souza and Kimball, who have attacked Foucault, Derrida and their allies, have done so in the first place because of these thinkers' extreme skepticism about the possibility of objectivity in human affairs. Cheney complains in Telling the Truth about "how discredited ideas like truth and objectivity have become," and accuses her ideological adversaries of aiming at "discrediting the objectivity and rationality at the heart of the scientific enterprise." (Ironically, she goes on soon after that to take Al Gore to task for criticizing, in Earth in the Balance, the cold-blooded scientism of British philosopher Francis Bacon.) D'Souza, referring to the predominantly deconstructionist English department that had been assembled by Stanley Fish at Duke University, wrote that "the radical skepticism cultivated at Duke and elsewhere is based on the rejection of the possibility of human beings rising above their circumstances" (he recounts that Fish, in an interview D'Souza conducted with him, denounced Cheney for "the error of objectivism").
The Republican campaign to demonize the hand counting of votes in Florida was nothing less than an all-out assault on this cherished ideal of the conservative movement, however, an assault as withering and uncompromising as any ever waged by Foucault or the deconstructionist movement. For what was Baker saying, in essence? That it is impossible for human beings to hand count votes accurately and honestly, citing as reasons the inevitability of "human error" (machine error is obviously to be preferred), the danger posed by "individual subjectivity," the "potential for mischief" (read, deliberate cheating by Democratic canvassing boards) and even the possibility of people being not only consciously but "unconsciously biased"; at the same time he exalted the superiority of "precise" machines over humans--even machines as grievously and laughably flawed as those that produced the "dimpled," "pregnant" and "hanging" chads.
Machines--even the worst, most malfunctioning of them--are capable of being objective, but people are not, in other words. People are incapable of "rising above their circumstances." Did Foucault ever put the case better himself? Has Stanley Fish? Has anyone?
It is safe to say that James Baker probably did not realize that he was challenging, and perhaps fatally undermining, core conservative doctrine when he advanced these arguments in his no-holds-barred effort to secure Florida's electoral votes for George W. Bush. And, for the conservative intellectual cause, there was worse to come. Soon Baker and his allies would take a further broad step down this road. They would begin impugning the fundamental American ideal of objective, neutral and fair-minded jurisprudence.
The Republican Florida discourse can be summarized even more simply and more baldly than it has been above. It was, or became: Manual recounting is untrustworthy and subject to manipulation; therefore, in attempting to force hand counting, the Democrats are trying to steal the election. (The Democratic Florida discourse was the obverse of this: Careful manual recounting is more reliable than machine counting; therefore, in attempting to stop manual recounting, the Republicans are trying to steal the election.) Such was Jim Baker and the Bush camp's basic pitch to the American public, and it became more and more explicit and fervid (or perfervid) as time went on.
Let us recall that in Foucauldian theory it is power, the possession and wielding thereof, that determines what discourse prevails in any given contest, or confrontation, or battle of discourses--and not the relative merit or cleverness of the argument. Conservative thinkers detest this part of the theory with equal or greater vehemence, because it is customarily deployed against institutions and systems they revere and are closely allied with--for instance, corporations and corporate capitalism. Cheney, struggling to explicate Foucault, complains about "the idea that reality is nothing more than a social construct, a tool that allows dominant groups to exercise power."
So, following Foucault, it would not be enough for James Baker simply to promulgate the argument that the Gore camp was trying to steal an election that neutral, precise voting machines had already indicated they had lost. To prevail, under Foucauldian theory, the GOP discourse--competing as it was with one that on the evidence and on experience was more plausible--would have to be imposed by an exertion of institutional power. And in fact an examination of the tactics used in the Republican War for Florida reveals that Republicans used, or were prepared to use, every conceivable lever of power--administrative, legislative, judicial (and not excluding extra-institutional mob rule)--in order to prevail; and that they prevailed because every single one of the controlling levers of power, from the Florida Governor's and Secretary of State's offices to the US Congress, from the Florida legislature to the US Supreme Court, was controlled by them, and was used ruthlessly.
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida, was the point person in the Republican effort to delay and forestall completely, they hoped, any manual recounting. There are, remember, conflicting statutes regarding the deadline for manual recounting, one of which stipulates that any manual recounts not finished and submitted to the Secretary of State's office by the statutory deadline for certification, November 14, "shall be ignored," and another (chronologically more recent) indicating that they "may be ignored." And there is also an obvious conflict between this statutory deadline and the provision allowing requests for manual recounts to be made up to seventy-two hours after Election Day, since the amount of time then remaining before the deadline (three to four days, including a weekend) would not be sufficient for many Florida counties to complete such recounts. In interpreting an ambiguous and contradictory corpus of election law, Harris chose in each instance to follow a course redounding to the benefit of George W. Bush and the disadvantage of Al Gore. She refused to extend the deadline to allow time for the manual recounts requested by the Gore campaign, refused requests by Broward and Palm Beach counties to have their manual recount results included in the statewide certification after the deadline, issued a ruling questioning the legality of such recounts that temporarily delayed them from proceeding, and refused to grant an extra two hours to Palm Beach County to meet the extended deadline of November 26 mandated by the Florida Supreme Court, or to include any of the recount results the Palm Beach canvassing board had achieved so far.
After the Florida Supreme Court ruled on November 21 that hand counts must be included in the Secretary of State's certification, and extended the deadline, the Republican War for Florida shifted "to the ground," that is, to the places where actual hand counting was being done, or contemplated, by the canvassing boards. Republican tactics were summarized thus by the Los Angeles Times:
The Republicans were on the defensive, so their style was more confrontational: Challenge every disputed ballot and, if necessary, challenge the boards themselves. Build a record of inconsistent standards for court. If that leads to delays, so much the better. [Emphasis added.]
The New Republic described a Republican "ground operation" that involved, besides "now-infamous faux grassroots protests," visits to recount centers by "GOP luminaries," and that emphasized the blatant hypocrisy of the operation: It recounted Michigan Governor John Engler falling asleep during his service as an observer, and then going outside to "blast" the process, and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman getting along "swimmingly" with the canvassing board, even complimenting them on how well they were running things, then leveling "the obligatory attacks into the microphones."
The New Republic noted a crucial difference between the Gore and Bush camps: The Gore campaign chose anonymous lawyers specializing in arcane voting law to act as their observers, whereas the Bush campaign let loose a "rotating cast of big name pols." This was because the Bush campaign was less interested in trying to insure the fairness of the recounting process than in undermining it by propagandizing their discourse about its alleged inherent unfairness.
It could be said that the Gore effort in Florida foundered in a number of ways and places, two of which were certainly Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County. In Palm Beach County, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, "Republicans crushed the Democrats." There was more than one reason that the Palm Beach canvassing board missed the new November 26 certification deadline (when Katherine Harris certified Bush as having won by 537 votes), but here is how the Los Angeles Times summarized what happened: "Endless delays, false starts and court challenges by Republicans meant the full recount didn't begin until Friday, November 17."
In Miami-Dade, the county with the largest voting population in the state of Florida (and the largest black vote), Republicans succeeded in preventing manual recounting from taking place at all. (The Miami Herald recently reported that by its own assessment of the undercounted votes in the county, Gore would have netted another forty-nine.) Members of the Miami-Dade canvassing board, and particularly its chairman, David Leahy, had been ambivalent about doing a recount from the start. The board first decided against doing one, then reversed course. The recount started on November 20; but the very next day, the Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling setting the new certification deadline at November 26. Believing that the board did not now have the time to conduct a full recount, Leahy persuaded the other board members that they should count only the 10,750 "undervotes" (ballots cast on which the punch-card tally machines had not detected any vote for President). The board then moved upstairs to a smaller room, where there were machines that could separate out the undervotes from the rest.
There, members of the board confronted what Time called a "mob scene" and "GOP melee." A group of several dozen or more Republican protesters, most of them apparently from out of state, many of them paid Capitol Hill staffers recruited by House majority whip Tom DeLay for the Florida effort (this being one of the Republicans' faux grassroots protests), directed from a Republican electronic command center in a Winnebago outside the building and by leaders on the scene with bullhorns, engaged in "screaming...pounding on doors and...alleged physical assault on Democrats," according to Time. When Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Geller emerged from the room carrying a sample ballot, he was pushed and shoved by many protesters screaming, "I'm gonna take you down!" Simultaneously, longtime GOP operative Roger Stone was overseeing phone banks urging Republicans to storm downtown Miami, and Radio Mambi, a right-wing Cuban-American radio station, was inciting the Miami community into the streets. Outside the room where the canvassing board was meeting, members of the rampaging crowd were threatening that as many as 1,000 reinforcements, including a large contingent of angry Cubans, were on the way to join them. As Time put it, "just two hours after a near riot outside the counting room, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted to shut down the count."
Leahy later denied that the board had been intimidated into inaction by the rioters, but his claim that their bullying and threats of violence had no effect at all on the board's reversal of its previous decision hardly seems credible. In any case, saturation propaganda and near-mob rule were only two of the weapons that Republican strategists had rolled out onto the field of battle in their War for Florida. (I won't even get into the report of a mysterious state police roadblock that intimidated some on their way to the polls on Election Day.) They also had under way a lawsuit seeking to have a federal court invalidate the manual recounts on the grounds that they violated Article II, Section I of the US Constitution, which gives to the state legislatures the power to regulate presidential elections; this lawsuit and others, including arguments which would end up being decided by a 5-4 majority of the US Supreme Court, were being handled by Theodore Olson, a party lawyer who had been active in efforts to discredit President Clinton while he was in office; Olson is a past president of the Federalist Society, a conservative Republican legal organization that normally seeks to severely limit the intrusion of federal power into state matters. And just in case the Republican cause lost in both the Florida and the federal courts, the Republican-controlled legislature in Florida was prepared to intervene and certify its own competing slate of electors. In fact, on December 12, just before the US Supreme Court issued its decision and made the action moot, the Florida House of Representatives did just that. A few days before, Baker, in an interview, had refused to stipulate that the Bush camp would heed a US Supreme Court ruling that went against them rather than turn to the legislature; and on other occasions Baker had appeared to invite its intervention. Beyond that, if the matter went to Congress for final arbitration, the Republicans were more than prepared to flex their majority muscle there. Tom DeLay had circulated a memo on Capitol Hill that a Republican Congressional aide characterized as saying: "Congress can prevent Al Gore from becoming President no matter what."
A final Foucauldian note. Foucauldian theory holds that the way of the rich and powerful will prevail, the less powerful or powerless will lose out (which is partly why the theory has been embraced by the left as a successor or adjunct to Marxism, and is so abhorred by the right). Punch-card voting machines are far less effective in recording votes correctly than optical scan machines. A dimpled or pregnant chad is created when insufficient force is used on the punch tool or when plastic T-strips used in balloting are too worn or rigid to allow chads to pass through; if the ballot is improperly aligned, and only one side of the chad is punched loose, that results in a hanging chad. These problems don't exist with optically scanned ballots, and as an obvious result, only about three out of every 1,000 optically scanned ballots in the Florida election recorded no presidential vote, compared to some fifteen out of 1,000 punch-card ballots, The New York Times reported.
Optical-scan voting machines tend to be more prevalent in the wealthier, and Republican-leaning, precincts and counties of Florida, the Los Angeles Times observed, and punch-card machines more prevalent in the less wealthy and more Democratic areas, simply because the wealthier counties can better afford the more expensive optical machines (the punch-card machines are not only less effective to begin with, but many of them are also old and worn out). Looked at one way, the manual recounting efforts were an attempt to correct a discriminatory imbalance in access to electoral power between rich and poor (and black and white) in Florida; and Republican forces were determined, in every possible way, to thwart this attempt.
American conservative thinkers, as discussed, have also directed considerable intellectual ire at the deconstructionist movement. In dissecting Paul de Man, the Belgian émigré who founded American deconstructionism at Yale in the 1970s, Roger Kimball pejoratively ascribes to him "the thought that language is always so compromised by metaphor and ulterior motives that a text never means what it appears to mean." D'Souza, confronting Derrida and de Man, says that they labored "to discover ingenious, and sometimes bizarre, contradictions which render the work 'radically incoherent.'" Lumping deconstructionists together with "postmodernists, structuralists, poststructuralists, reader-response theorists," D'Souza says that "they are embarked on a shared enterprise: exposing what they say is the facade of objectivity and critical detachment in such fields as law, history, and literature."
Lynne Cheney finds the apparent migration of deconstructionist methods of textual analysis and thinking to the field of law extraordinarily disturbing. In Telling the Truth, she traces the origins (to her own satisfaction, anyway) of critical legal studies, feminist legal theory and critical race theory--academic movements that hold that the law is not in any way neutral but is crafted to favor the interests of a dominant (white, male) elite--to deconstructionism. She claims, for instance, that "one of the primary purposes of CLS [critical legal studies] is to destroy any illusions that might exist about stability and objectivity in the law by deconstructing its arguments," and goes on to assert: "The heirs of CLS, such as those in the critical race theory movement, take a giant step further. As feminists have done, critical race theorists not only attack the notion that the law is disinterested, they advocate using the law to promote their own interests." [Emphasis added.] In other words, Cheney sees the notion that legal texts have no stable, permanent, inherent meaning (a deconstructionist notion) and will therefore be interpreted according to the practical interests of those doing the interpreting, and not other criteria (a leftist political notion), as dangerously subversive of our legal system.
If the objectivity and disinterestedness of the law, however, are bedrock conservative doctrine, then James Baker, and his associates and conservative columnist sympathizers like William Safire, once again challenged and compromised that doctrine in the Florida presidential election imbroglio. The idea that law is (on the whole) neutral, objective and disinterested necessarily implies that the judges who interpret it are (on the whole) neutral, objective and disinterested; there is no conceivable syllogism whose conclusion is that our legal system is (more or less) objective and fair that can have as a premise that our judges are not and are not capable of being so. Yet this was the blatant premise of Republican commentary as an assortment of legal cases relating to the election wound their way through the Florida court system. Just as Republican operatives and commentators trashed the integrity of the county canvassing boards simply because they were under Democratic control, they also used the fact of their being Democratic appointees to attempt to discredit--often in advance--the decisions of various Florida judges, from the circuit level up to the state's Supreme Court. The clear implication was that Democratic judges would necessarily, either reflexively or by calculation, rule in favor of the Democratic candidate. They could not be trusted to be disinterested and objective.
In addition to being a monumental betrayal of the conservative movement's stated intellectual principles, this line of argument creates another problem for its Republican promoters: It tends to discredit in advance the decisions of Republican as well as Democratic judges. For if Democratic judges cannot be trusted to be evenhanded and judicious, what logic can be called forth to argue that Republican judges can be? They are also human. They are also partisan. They also owe something to the people who selected them. The theory unavoidably predicts that judges appointed by Republicans will rule, in a biased and partisan manner, against Democratic candidates and causes when occasions to do so arise.
It is doubly ironic, therefore--and doubly troublesome, one would think, for the integrity of the conservative cause--that this is exactly what happened when the case called Bush v. Gore reached the highest court in the land. On Friday, December 8, the Florida Supreme Court, in a split 4-3 decision overruling a decision by lower court judge N. Sanders Sauls, ordered an immediate manual recount of all presidential undervotes throughout the state. The next day, a 5-4 majority of the US Supreme Court (all the members of this majority conservative appointees of either Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or George Bush) ordered the manual recount halted. This action was widely perceived at the time, by people on both sides of the battle, as a body blow to Al Gore's remaining chances of garnering Florida's electoral votes. It would inevitably push the recounting process, were it to resume, up against the December 12 "safe harbor" date (the time by which electors needed to be chosen in order to remain immune to Congressional challenge) and possibly even make it impossible to finish by December 18, the date on which the Electoral College was to cast its vote. Regarding this majority decision, issued by five judges who have pontificated widely in their writings and speeches about the virtues of "judicial restraint," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent: "To stop the counting of legal votes, the majority today departs from...venerable rules of judicial restraint that have guided the Court throughout its history."
The Court did not, as we know, allow the recounting process to resume. The following Tuesday, December 12, the same 5-4 majority ruled that manual recounting under circumstances then prevailing in Florida would be unconstitutional. In an unsigned per curiam opinion (the judges said to be the primary authors of this opinion, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor, clearly did not want their names on it), the majority (whose members in the past have been indifferent to, if not outright scornful of, equal protection claims)--relied principally on an equal protection argument, that it would be unfair to count ballots in different counties according to different standards (e.g., to count only hanging chads in one, but also dimpled chads in another). The argument speciously ignored the fact that the Florida ballots, prior to any recount, were already counted differently, and that the very purpose of recounting was to correct for this discrepancy. It also skirted the fact that ballots are counted differently all across the United States, and that a logically consistent application of the Court's principle would invalidate the entire presidential election.
Justices David Souter and Stephen Breyer had tried, in oral argument and behind the scenes, to work out a compromise position whereby the Justices would send the case back to the Florida Supreme Court and ask it to set a uniform standard for the manual recounts. But according to the per curiam majority, it was too late for this, because there would then not be enough time to meet the "safe harbor" deadline of December 12. This argument ignored the fact that it is the very essence of a "safe harbor" clause that it allows but does not require a certain self-protective action; the Electoral Count Act of 1887 stipulates that states that send electors by then chosen according to rules in place Election Day cannot have those electors rejected by Congress, but it does not mandate that the states behave that way. The argument also glided past the fact that there is nothing in Florida election law explicitly requiring that the state abide by that date, either; the majority opinion in this regard relied entirely on a virtual aside in the first Florida Supreme Court decision, to the effect that it thought the legislature intended the state to meet the deadline; the majority could not cite any actual, germane Florida statutory law--because there isn't any.
Thus did a Republican Party strategy to delay the manual recounting of votes in Florida as long as possible finally achieve its goal by furnishing the rationale for a conservative Republican Supreme Court majority to stop the recount process there for good. Thus did a Supreme Court majority that had been pursuing an aggressive states' rights jurisprudence prior to this decision intervene in a matter of state law in a heavy-handed and unprecedented way; in a category of dispute, furthermore, whose ultimate resolution the US Constitution unambiguously gives to Congress; and in a situation, finally, that even a modicum of "judicial restraint" would have called for it to avoid. Thus did a group of conservative Republican judges--unelected judges, to use a well-worn Republican refrain--choose the Republican candidate for President over the Democratic one, rather than the voters of Florida or the American people. Thus was James Baker's discourse--his "regime of truth"--finally imposed.
A further irony here is that the behavior of the Democratic judges who were involved in the Florida presidential election struggle overwhelmingly refuted Republican predictions of reflexive ideological bias. County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, a Democrat, twice ruled in favor of Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the first time upholding her enforcement of the certification deadline of November 14, the second time upholding her decision to declare a winner without including any hand recounts. Circuit Judge Nikki Clark, who handled the lawsuit involving the question of whether to throw out some 15,000 absentee ballots in Seminole County because of technical violations of the law by Republican canvassing board officials and operatives, had been particularly impugned by Republican commentators. She was black, she was a former legal aid attorney, she was not only a registered Democrat but had been an aide to the state's former Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles, and she had recently been passed over for a promotion by Governor Jeb Bush. But in the event she ruled decisively against throwing the ballots out, as did her fellow Democratic judge who handled a similar case concerning absentee ballots in Martin County. The November 16 decision of the Florida Supreme Court, all Democrats except one independent, to allow manual recounts in Palm Beach County (and tacitly allow the effort already under way in Broward County to continue), was unanimous; but the December 8 decision ordering manual recounts of all the undervotes in the state was a 4-3 split, and the court unanimously upheld virtually all the lower court decisions that went against Democratic interests, with the single exception of the finding by Circuit Court Judge Sauls rejecting the Gore campaign's contest. (Sauls, advertised as a Democrat, is actually a Republican appointee who switched registration from Democratic to Republican, and has run as a "nonpartisan" candidate for re-election in Democratic Leon County.)
"What must underlie petitioners' entire federal assault on the Florida election procedures is an unstated lack of confidence in the impartiality and capacity of the state judges who would make the critical decisions if the vote count were to proceed," Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent in Bush v. Gore. "Otherwise, their position is wholly without merit. The endorsement of that position by the majority of this Court can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land." [Emphasis added.] According to a January 22 article in USA Today detailing the lingering bitterness between the two opposing factions within the Supreme Court over the Bush v. Gore decision, at an election night party on November 7, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor became "visibly upset" when network anchors first awarded the state of Florida to Al Gore. The story went that her husband was heard explaining the couple wanted to retire and that his wife preferred that a GOP President appoint her successor. The paper said that people close to the Justices had confirmed the essence of the story (which was also reported in the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek). Justice O'Connor, it would seem, experienced difficulty rising above her circumstances.
I am not an adherent or admirer of the theories of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Stanley Fish or their associated movements. On the contrary. I received my education before these theories came into vogue, at a time when it was still commonly if not universally assumed on campus that the purpose of academic study was to acquire useful and verifiable knowledge in a variety of fields, not excluding literature and politics (my two fields of study). I personally believe that literary texts, while they can (and will, if they are any good) have subtleties and profundities and even contradictions that will stubbornly resist one-dimensional analysis, do have meaning--and that the better the writer, the clearer that meaning is. I believe that while the world and human nature are infinitely complex, there is, within limits, such a thing as objective truth. Since first hearing of the ideas of deconstruction and Foucault, I have counted myself among their skeptics and detractors.
So I did not undertake to write this essay to demonstrate, as it might seem, that the Republican War for Florida in all its aspects--in its ideology, in its concrete actions and, perhaps above all, in its success--lends credibility to these theories, though it has been most interesting to discover the extent to which it does. No, I am far less interested in the remarkable symmetry between what happened in Florida and the theories of Foucault and Derrida about how history and the social construction of reality work, than I am in the stunning asymmetry between Republican Party statements and actions there and the professed ideological principles of American conservatism.
In Florida, to win the presidency, the Republican Party betrayed what its intellectual spokespeople allege are among conservatism's highest ideals. To discredit the manual recounting process that they feared would result in the election of Al Gore, Republican representatives like Jim Baker propagated, in effect, the doctrine that human beings are incapable of being fair and objective in their interpretations of reality. To discredit judicial decisions that went (or simply might go) against their interests, they propagated, in effect, the doctrine that law does not have even a dimension of neutrality or disinterestedness but is from beginning to end an exercise of raw political power in disguise. Both of these are doctrines that their intellectual spokespeople like Lynne Cheney claim to oppose and despise--doctrines that according to her, are nothing less than "an assault on Western Civilization." And, to compound the moral dilemma they were creating for themselves and their movement, these representatives proceeded to conduct themselves in ways that lent support to the validity of these same cynical, anticonservative doctrines. A party that for a long time has professed adherence to principles of states' rights and judicial restraint played federal judicial intervention as its trump card to insure the election of its candidate. Will it ever be possible, in our generation anyway, to take its intellectual pronouncements seriously again?
As a proximate result of its relentless War for Florida, America's conservative party has taken control of the presidency and all the powers attendant on that office. We shall see what comes of that. But as another, perhaps longer-lasting result of that implacable war, the intellectual and moral pretensions of contemporary American conservatism lie in tatters, like so many discarded chads on the floor of a county canvassing board meeting room.
Wrong issue, wrong enemy, wrong country.
About a year and a half ago I received a book from Bosnia. Its title was I Begged Them to Kill Me. It was a collection of some forty accounts by Muslim women who were raped, mostly by Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries in 1992. During the past ten years several collections of the same kind have been published, but this one was different because the raped women themselves, organized into the Association of Camp Inmates-Canton Sarajevo, collected and published it. They had decided to spread the information about what had happened to them without the help of journalists or experts, or even a professional editor.
This book, bearing all the signs of amateurism, is nonetheless an important and moving document of suffering we thought we had heard and known all about. The anonymous women speak of the unspeakable--of rape, torture, enslavement, forced pregnancy, the selling of women as slaves. This is a very special book to me. The women from the association sent it to me with a dedication because of my book S: A Novel About the Balkans, which also deals with mass rape. I admire their decision to publish their accounts in the belief that their truth deserved to be heard.
Women who were raped before them, in Germany, China and Korea during the two world wars, rarely spoke about it in public. It was not to be mentioned but to be forgotten. Indeed, it was forgotten. However, the raped women in Bosnia believed in the possibility of justice through the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague, established by the UN Security Council in 1993. And they understood that justice could not be done without their help. In the book, all of the violated women say they would volunteer as witnesses in that court, and many did. Not in a local court but the international one--because they know very well that the culprits will not be brought to court in their own country. Who would arrest them? Who would put them on trial? What kind of sentences would they get? They had only "had fun."
Agreeing to testify as witnesses in The Hague was a brave, even heroic step for the raped Bosnian women. To the world they had to say, "Yes, I was raped!" They had to live with that confession afterward--with their children and husbands, their brothers and fathers, their community. And this is not liberal Berlin or Stockholm, marked by decades of women's emancipation.
Without these brave women, what would have happened? What would have happened in the trial of Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic, three men from Foca who, on February 22, received sentences in The Hague of from twelve to twenty-eight years in prison? Most likely they would be living free in Foca, every day passing by the Partizan Sports Hall where they kept their Muslim prisoners, then by the houses where they kept enslaved women. They would sit in a cafe smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy, telling anecdotes from the war. If any of their victims happened to pass by, they would point at her with their finger and laugh. Indeed, if these women had kept their "shame" to themselves, the three men would not have entered history. Now they are the first men ever to be sentenced exclusively for sexual crimes defined as crimes against humanity--systematic mass rape, sexual enslavement and torture of women and girls during war. This was only possible thanks to the Bosnian women who did not shut up. Perhaps this time it was impossible not to speak--there were too many women violated (a UN report put the number at 20,000, but that is only an estimate). There were also too many journalists around, too many experts and humanitarian workers, people willing to listen and to help.
No matter what made them speak, the women from the book and the other violated Bosnian women are the real heroes of this historical trial, the women who were not supposed to speak. That was exactly what the three men from Foca were counting on--their silence. I wish I had been in the courtroom when the three men received their sentences. What was in their eyes? Disbelief? Despair? Never could they have imagined that any of those women would have the courage to stand up and face them in court. The men must have thought it was a joke when they heard that they were going to be on trial for rape. OK, perhaps they were rude sometimes if the imprisoned women were not obedient. So what? Never could they have imagined that they would get such heavy sentences. After all, they did not even kill anybody. And among those who did kill, there were some who got much lighter sentences. How is that possible? they must have wondered. I wish I had seen that discrepancy on their faces, a discrepancy between what they believed they did (and what perhaps they might have thought was wrong but certainly not a crime)--and what was deemed a crime against humanity by the international court.
When I asked the women from the Association of Camp Inmates-Canton Sarajevo how I could help them, they asked if I could give them a fax machine. They have nothing, not even their own office. A fax machine would mean a lot to them. Not only to spread information but to enable them to fight to be recognized as war victims in their own society, and to get at least some social aid. There is symbolism in their request: They are still not willing to shut up. Recently I received a thank-you letter from them, via fax. They are grateful for the machine, they wrote. But I and millions of other women are grateful to them because they spoke up and changed something for us, too.
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.
Ever since I was assigned to read A Room of One's Own in college eight years ago, I have kept it close for support. Besides the fact that, like Virginia Woolf, I had also read Leo Tolstoy's journals and was similarly enraged by the clarity he exhibited at such a young age, I felt she was on to something. "A room of one's own," however, wasn't quite it.
I grew up in the 1980s inside a charming, if small, Spanish-style California home with a mom, a sister, a piano, many dogs and two brothers who were relentless in their efforts to jimmy my locks with butter knives. Although I liked to think I had my own room, the space's original and (now that I'm an adult I can say it) idiotic plans called for its doubling as a shortcut to one of the house's more popular bathrooms. I went to great and occasionally violent lengths to discourage use of this particular feature. The results? Ha, as DrRogue would say.
Time and time again, my brothers broke triumphantly in, capturing me on my bed writing in my journal. I smile now, but back then, those intrusions enraged me. You see, unlike those jerks I was becoming a woman, and it was making me miserable. I liked being a girl. And it wasn't necessarily that I was surprised to discover that girls became women--in a rational way, I knew it happened all the time. It was just that I found the obvious sexuality of it offensive. It was clear to me that once breasts made their appearance against a shirt, a person could not be taken seriously.
I looked around at school and saw happy, pretty girls who went to the beach. They seemed content being female, and I liked boys too, so I did what they did. Then I went home depressed, slammed my doors, locked them and wrote to my journal about how much I loathed myself, until my brothers broke in after school. Here is a genuine entry from November 4, 1988: "I've gained five lbs. in a week if that's possible. I loathe myself. I'm sick of being regarded as 'muscular'--I want to be petite like Kate. Sports have ruined me."
Yes, you could say I was self-involved, melodramatic, petty. Worse, I was repetitive: November 4, 1988, was no date with an epiphany. Nonetheless, I was in pain. All I knew was that I'd gone from being an outspoken girl interested in everything to someone withdrawn and incapable of participating in class. I was depressed, but more than that I was hating myself for being a woman. I'd slipped onto a path that is as vicious and uncreative as it is a cliché of young womanhood. In a rare moment of teen lightness, I named it the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice. The Trail shouldn't be underestimated. Every day, another girl gets stuck in its mud.
Virginia Woolf would have liked DrRogue, a bright, confident writer with a lashing wit. As to whether DrRogue is a genius as defined by Woolf, only time will tell. In the meantime, she manages beyond the confines of a tiny school (there are just five girls in her class), her parents' limited financial means and, oh yes, childhood, to find experience and "a room of her own" for the cultivation of her talents. You see, DrRogue is known to those in her small New England town as 13-year-old Susan.
We met on July 14, 2000. I'm a part-time producer of commercial websites for teen girls and was spending some time perusing the vast number of homepages linked to one another on the Internet. There are thousands out there, colorful and animated, with names like Glitter Girl, Fairy Dawn, Overcooked, Pixie Kitten, Foily Tin, Quasi Grrrl, Peppermint and Intelligent Life. They can be constructed at established homepage-building areas of sites such as gURL, ChickClick, Lycos and Bolt. Or they can be created independently, then hooked into freer-floating webrings like "Shut Up You're Only 16!" and "Music Girl." Some are smart; some are sappy. Most are filled with poetry. If you visit, you may find writings, drawings, photos, interactive games and the creator's deepest, darkest secret. But you won't ever find her. Instead, your experience will be that of discovering an anonymous diary on a crowded city street. You can read it and learn everything about its owner, but look up and she's long gone.
DrRogue, however, is right here. I have no idea who she is.
She flashes onto my screen, an insistent clump of text in a small, square dialog box aboard America Online's ubiquitous Instant Messenger (IM).
DrRogue: Hey, Bronwyn!
Aha, exclamation points. Dead giveaway. DrRogue, I now know, is one of the dozen or so teen girls whom I have e-mailed about their homepages. By now, I've visited enough to identify the prints.
I flip through my list of teen e-mails. DrRogue is Susan, the one with the website called Intelligent Life. Evidently, she has made a note of my AOL e-mail address and posted it to her "buddy list" to see when I'm online. She's flashing again.
DrRogue: Hello, it's Susan.
(Slowness, you see, is terminal here.)
BGAR2: Yes, Susan, of Intelligent Life. Hello.
DrRogue: Yeah, yeah, just thought I'd reiterate.
In my web travels, I've discovered that most Internet-savvy, homepage-creating girls provide only first names on their sites and to people they meet online. Discussing this find via e-mail with many different young women, I learn that the "first name only" policy is pretty strictly followed in these parts. Not every teen, of course, approaches her online development in the same way. Websites like Goosehead, for example, the work of a 15-year-old student, her parents and a growing staff, serves up a huge number of provocative photos of the pretty tenth-grade founder. For self-run sites, however, those who forgo anonymity are just throwing bait to bad people. "Avoid the psychopaths," as DrRogue says.
Anonymity is one of the hallmarks of safety online. And both anonymity and online safety, I learn, are crucial to privacy. If you'd asked me in high school what privacy meant in my life, I might have said, locked physical space that cannot be invaded with a butter knife. I mention this to DrRogue. It becomes clear that things have changed.
DrRogue: Privacy is [about] having your personal space in a more intellectually abstract, metaphysical sense. It is making sure that no one can find out too much about your real life through your online follies, keeping relationships strictly anon and not putting yourself at risk of psychopaths.
Evidently, DrRogue's issues go beyond keeping her brother out of her room (although this is cited as an ancillary goal). No matter the "horror stories blown up by newscasters," Susan asserts that she doesn't "feel threatened that [her] anonymity is slipping away." On the contrary, she blames the media for exacerbating the situation with their stupidity:
DrRogue: Newscasters report the invasion of my privacy very sternly, as though they're the ones decoding the human genome. From the way they speak, as though every technical word is new and unknown, it's clear that they're still asking their kids how to log on to the Internet.
Notwithstanding adult ignorance, DrRogue's understanding of privacy, "metaphysical" as it may be, is still predominantly about hiding the cord that could lead "psychopaths" to the "real" her. But isn't this paranoia for good reason? I ask. Haven't we all heard stories of "psychopaths" locating teenagers from clues carelessly dropped in chatrooms? DrRogue blisters at this one.
DrRogue: And then we have, "Cyber stalkers! Are your kids safe on the net?" If they have an IQ higher than a rock. Never give your full, real name, specific location, or phone number to a stranger. EVERY kid should know that!
"Keeping relationships strictly anon," in fact, is just the beginning of what a user, child or adult, must learn about the web, according to DrRogue. Sensing my ignorance, she outlines society's paranoia, the real issues as she sees them and the solutions--albeit in a somewhat mocking tone:
DrRogue: "Companies are putting something called 'COOKIES' onto your hard drive to TRACK WHAT SITES YOU VISIT!" screams the television. Anyone with a brain and a mouse should know that you can clear all the cookies off your hard drive anytime, or even set your computer to not accept them at all. "CREDIT CARD FRAUD!" is another big one. If you have a grain of sense, you won't give your credit card number to sites with names like Bob's Discount Warehouse. If you're not sure it's credible, DON'T SHOP THERE. "A new virus is spreading like wildfire around the world and through major corporations!" Major corporations where the employees are so out of touch, apparently, that they'll download anything.
Although DrRogue and most of the teens I encounter online are very careful about their privacy, the Annenberg Public Policy Center's The Internet and the Family 2000 reports that 75 percent of teens consider it acceptable to reveal what the study has defined as "private family information" in exchange for gifts, online. These "older kids," aged 13 to 17, are even more likely than younger ones, according to the study, to divulge personal details, including the names of their own and their parents' favorite stores, the type of car their family drives, whether their parents talk about politics and what their parents do on the weekends.
In the adult world, a person's concern for her own physical safety goes without saying, while the current discourse surrounds public image more than it does personal safety. In a New York Times Magazine article on privacy and technology, Jeffrey Rosen states that through the interception of e-mails, the tracking of browsing habits and purchases online and statements made in chatrooms, one's "public identity may be distorted by fragments of information that have little to do with how you define yourself."
Indeed, we've all heard stories about e-mail fragments being taken out of context by employers and others. The Washington Post described the case of James Rutt, the CEO of Network Solutions Inc., who feared his years of candid postings about sex, politics and his weight problem might be taken out of context, thus damaging his reputation and his ability to run his company effectively. Consequently, the new CEO employed a program called Scribble to help erase his online past.
Rutt's story is not unusual. This fear of being taken for a "fragment" of information is enough for most of us to employ private e-mail accounts we switch to at work when we have something personal to communicate. Even though we take these precautions, everyone I know goes to great lengths to erase all of her business e-mails when leaving a company. Why? Because the medium is seductive: Web travel is about exploration, and e-mails begun as impersonal memos often become more intimate exchanges. Intimacy does not translate well to third parties.
Take the 1997 example Rosen cites of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig's e-mailed comment to a friend that he had "sold [his] soul" in downloading Microsoft Internet Explorer. Lessig, who had downloaded Explorer simply to enter a contest for a PowerBook, was not stating a biased opinion about the company, he was flippantly quoting a song. However, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who had chosen Lessig as an adviser in the Microsoft antitrust suit, was forced to take such a bias seriously, removing Lessig as his adviser.
Rosen makes the point that we all wear different social "masks" in different settings and with different people. This may be true, even as it is socially taboo. From our estimations of Joan of Arc down to President Clinton, we celebrate and trust those with consistent (and consistently good) characters and criticize those who "waffle," or behave as if they are "spineless." Because we do not know how to define someone who changes with each new setting, we call her things like "mercurial," a "chameleon" or "two-faced." Consequently, the web induces fear in an adult not just for the things online crooks might do with Social Security numbers and other personal information but what a user herself may do to complicate her own "character."
However, while the adult world may suffer from a preoccupation with consistency, teens have the peculiar advantage of being dismissed as inconsistent before they begin. Adolescence is the societally condoned window in which we may shuffle through identities with abandon. My older sister, for example, horrified my grade-school self by morphing from punk to hippie to Hare Krishna to surfer girl all in the next room. Yet by the time I graduated from high school, I'd been through a few of those identities myself.
Besides their assumed role as explorers, teens may actually face fewer risks of this kind than their adult counterparts. Statistics relate that around 45 percent of large companies monitor their employees e-mail accounts, while few junior highs and high schools in America offer all their students computers or e-mail accounts. Even if they did, chances are that monitoring kids' private mail in public schools would raise countless legal issues. DrRogue's school is just now hooking up six new computers for the whole school of fifty-six students and has no intention of providing them with e-mail accounts. Ironically, it is this deprivation that has made monitoring less of an issue for students than it is for employees at big companies.
For girls like DrRogue who create and maintain personal homepages and explore the web's massive serving of chatrooms and boards, safety is not the only motivation for anonymity. "Bodilessness," it seems, can be the means to a more intellectual objective: credibility. Says Peppermint, a 17-year-old writer,
I definitely feel "bodiless" when writing for my page. The Internet has provided me with an audience that will forever be my biggest fan and my worst enemy. Just as I can say what I want on my site without fear of rejection, others can e-mail me their honest thoughts without the face-to-face consequences of criticism. My audience, as well as my privacy, is crucial to my development as a writer.
In a world with, as DrRogue sees it, "a seemingly endless supply of people to talk to and sites to visit, from all around the world," immediate, physical privacy gives some young women confidence they don't have when they're attached to developing physiques, school cliques or societal and familial expectations.
Only bodiless, confess some girls, can they relate certain ideas and thoughts at all. Indeed, screen names have become so popular that AOL is currently offering the option of seven aliases to the users of Instant Messenger. DrRogue herself has five that she can remember. In addition, girls can, if only for the experience, switch genders online. (Studies suggest 40 percent have done it.) "The ONLY reason I go into a chatroom is to pretend to be someone else!" insists DrRogue. Other young women are altogether wary of chatrooms. "I don't believe in chatrooms," explains Peppermint. "They've become a forum for online popularity contests and cyber sex." Does the monitoring of chatrooms add to their problems?
DrRogue: I've never felt like I was being monitored, because a monitor would do a better job of kicking out the scum.
Bodiless, many girls use their homepages as a sounding board before taking ideas out into "the real world." Others put the space and the "audience" to work on facets of themselves or ideas they plan to confine permanently there.
Peppermint, whose "real life" friends know her as Caitlin, addresses the consequences that she believes her physicality can have upon the reception of her ideas. "I do not post pictures of myself," she states in an e-mail, "simply because I want to be perceived as 'more than just a pretty face.'" Peppermint is so adamant that her physical self be distinct from her online self that she does not give her website address to "real life" friends.
Peppermint: I don't allow friends that I have known in person to have my Website address. The Web is a sacred place for me to speak to a receptive and critical audience, while at the same time, I do not need to worry about making a first impression, [about] coming off how I'd like to, or [about] what will happen the next time I see them. Because I don't need to make impressions, I am who I am, and I am being honest.
Peppermint believes her femininity and "real life" identity can negatively affect the reception of her ideas. She observes: "As a woman, I think we will always be viewed as sexual objects. [I want a person] to be able to look past the outside and realize that there is an opinionated, intelligent, creative young woman behind the pretty face." DrRogue, who at 13 is really just entering adolescence, simply may not have experienced her femininity as a handicap yet. If all goes well, she never will.
To many, appearance is the essential problem of female development. With the world standing by to notice her changing body, a young woman begins to perceive her somewhat limited access to what psychologist Lyn Mikel Brown (and many others, of course) points to as the patriarchal framework of our culture. From here, a struggle to retain her childhood identity and value system ensues, followed typically by a loss of voice, the narrowing of desires and expectations and the capitulation to conventional notions of womanhood. Yes, the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice is so trodden it is cliché. We've all seen countless articles on the phenomenon, but that doesn't make it any less painful for the young women going through it.
Less publicized, though more interesting than the pervasiveness of the Sucking Trail, is what Lyn Brown and Carol Gilligan (author of groundbreaking studies of female adolescence) have identified as a period before adolescence when girls' "voices" are at their most powerful. Young women, most of whom I imagine to be variations on DrRogue, actively resist dominant cultural notions of femininity at the edge of puberty. Finding a means to connect, harness and preserve the loud, defiant voices may empower girls to defy cultural norms and, in the process, eclipse the resentment that Virginia Woolf so protested.
On the one hand, Peppermint's sensitivity to a societal bias we'd like to think has passed is tragic. On the other hand, unlike those of us who were teenagers even ten years ago, Peppermint and DrRogue can literally construct their own worlds, with their own standards, where the only thing that matters is their ideas. They can't live in it forever, but maybe a few hours a day is long enough to change their lives.
BGAR2: how many hours do you spend online each day?
DrRogue: 1, usually.
BGAR2: really? That's nothing.
DrRogue: 2, really.
DrRogue: 3, if I'm bored.
BGAR2: still, I imagined more.
DrRogue: well, I'm prolly scaling down a lot.
BGAR2: why's that?
DrRogue: let's just say I've had to LIMIT my online time in the past.
BGAR2: ahh. los padres?
BGAR2: how much time did you spend yesterday?
DrRogue: lemme check my log.
DrRogue: ok, I lied. I spent 4 hours online.
Intelligent Life, DrRogue's latest homepage, which makes vague note of a Susan somewhere in the meat of its smart, sometimes acerbic, steadfastly spelling-error-free content, is exactly what it sounds like: an SOS for brain activity in a spectrum overwrought with misspelled emotion. Intelligent Life, when just a month old, had already received nearly 400 visitors--and that was during the summer. Whether they're up to DrRogue's standards is another matter.
Intelligent Life: I'm not being snobbish or narrow-minded, the time has simply come to draw the line. I want to meet people (of any age) who are bright and exciting, funny, kind, and intelligent. I want to meet people who are clearly individuals, not stereotypical, bumbling, senseless teenagers with limited vocabularies who take extreme liberties with spelling.
In short, do not visit Intelligent Life if you are, and there's no easy way to say this, a "ditz." Ding.
DrRogue: Have you been to Narly Carly yet?
Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page, to be specific, is DrRogue's spoof site--she recommended I look at it for research. Pulling the purple page with the rotating star up onto the screen, I see another reactionary move by DrRogue: a parody of the many sunny, earnest, "overwrought" teen sites splattered across the web. In the usual autobiographical style of these things, the fictional Narly Carly describes herself and her life, albeit without any of the eloquence DrRogue saves for, well, DrRogue. "I am a junior at Willingford High!" screams Narly at her visitors, "Go Wolfs!!!"
Although to the naked eye Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page looks quite a lot like any other teen site, its status as a farce lies in its suspicious abuse of exclamation points, the word "like" and an overload of personal information, among other things. Narly gives away reels of intimate details--for the visitors who "get it," this is a reproach of lax security. There is, after all, no one currently policing the Internet to keep people from divulging too much about themselves. In this era, something like Narly Carly serves as a gentle warning--as gossip does in a small town--to keep people in line. The irony is, of course, that a real Narly Carly may not understand irony.
Narly Carly bears the treadmarks of an adolescent critical of hypocrisy in older girls, making Susan appear to be someone Gilligan might identify as a "resister." Before they give up any measure of voice and shift into idealized femininity, girls are louder than ever, embodying what Gilligan believes may be political potential of an active adolescent underground. Whatever Susan's reasons for building an older "teenybopper's" site, they are her own. However, the underground political potential, along with Susan's strength and clarity of character, are palpable on Narly Carly. Indeed, a handful of the guestbook's visitors, whether male or female, passed the first test--they "got it." Said one visitor: "This page is so evil! I know whoever made it did this intentionally. No 'real' person acts this pathetic. And 'like' was WAY back in the 1980s. I know this is a joke and the person who made it is laughing their head off reading the guestbook."
When I argue that web diarists like her must be a bit self-conscious, DrRogue seethes: "People really put themselves out on these things!" Unlike my diaries though, they also get visitors who comment and provide discourse and insight, making the creator feel less alienated, making the pages actually useful methods of growth. Not to knock the diary--I certainly got somewhere venting in my own. Anaïs Nin kept a journal to "free" herself of "personae." The web is, in some ways, a more evolved journal, even as it is so many other things. Studies have shown that students write better papers and learn foreign languages more fluently when they actually have something to communicate to another person.
BGAR2: so these sites are like journals.
BGAR2: couldn't you print them out and store them in a closet or something and then delete them?
DrRogue: AH no!
DrRogue: that would defeat the purpose of the web!
BGAR2: what's the purpose?
DrRogue: interactivity, for one.
DrRogue: longevity of information, two. i can visit the Susan of a year ago. she's there in the same place, just as alive.
BGAR2: but how do you know when you're done?
DrRogue: I stop visiting it. I'm sick of it.
D.W. Winnicott defined a process of imaginative "saturation" in children's play in which the child plays with a certain toy or enacts an imaginative experience until all of the emotional ambivalence, fear, anxiety, etc., are diffused from that action or thing. DrRogues may be "playing" out their emotions to make offline "reality" less emotional. Selfishly, while she contributes to the textual wasteland of so many sites created and then abandoned, DrRogue hates to stumble upon such a "haunted" site herself.
DrRogue: It makes me feel really bad, manipulated almost, when I'm browsing a site, and then there's a date, and that date is like, March 13, 1996.
BGAR2: why, because it's old?
DrRogue: "does this person still exist?"
DrRogue: because I spent time getting to know the person
BGAR2: is it a waste if it's old?
DrRogue: it depends.
DrRogue: I like retail sites because they're constantly busy.
BGAR2: yeah, the idea of an updated site is good.
DrRogue: like someone's alive.
A good character's job is to "manipulate" her audience. Perhaps then, a date is some sort of narrative flaw that pulls DrRogue out of the story. What should a date matter to her anyway, I wonder: She'll never meet the site's creators. Why does she care whether she or he is still "alive"? The presence of a date on a site is like an actor's mustache falling off--it brings reality back into focus.
DrRogue's sense that a retail site, for example, might have human qualities, or something resembling a heartbeat, implies her ability to suspend disbelief so that the mechanism--words on the web--dissolves away. Further, it suggests a narrative view of the Internet, a desire to read and live through other people's stories. Susan seeks to learn about the world, about people and about herself, insight she can glean from any good story, regardless of its medium. I express some weariness of the homepages, but DrRogue says reading about their creators' everyday doings is fascinating, "sort of like having someone's life for a minute."
Stories, like "playing," can be powerful agents of personal transformation. "The right stories can open our hearts and change who we are," says Janet Murray, a professor of a digital fiction course at MIT. Indeed, ultimately the best stories render their technologies transparent so that we experience only the power of the characters and the story itself.
DrRogue created Intelligent Life to find other people, to hear their stories, to "have someone's life for a minute." In exchange, she shares her own experiences and, in doing so, develops a bit more as a human being. Logging on has enabled DrRogue to get beyond her small town, her age and her financial situation and has allowed her through narrative to experience the world.
Somehow, maybe because she pummels me with Instant Messages whenever I log on, I have come to associate the web with DrRogue. It is her "room," you might say.
BGAR2: shouldn't you be at camp or something
DrRogue: I said ALL my friends were at camp. I'm not so fortunate.
BGAR2: oh. sucks. well, you have the web.
DrRogue: I have the web.
Writing has always allowed people to step outside their skin, to try on different identities, to see through other perspectives. Lyn Lifshin, who edited a collection of women's journals by professional writers and others, recalled that contributors' friends were often shocked at the people represented in the diaries. For Foucault, writing was about growth and escaping the confines of identity. No one understands this better than the growth-hungry DrRogue, who, thanks to technology, can go even further in her explorations. She can gain experience of the world from a tiny room in Vermont.
The term "cyberspace" was coined by William Gibson, the prolific science fiction novelist, to define the virtual landscape of a human being's consciousness. It is voyeurism, entertainment, education, communication, interaction and self-expression all at once. Above all, it is a human environment, an extension of, rather than an escape from, the "real world." As such, it poses "real world" risks as well as opportunities. For young women like DrRogue and Peppermint, it is the real stories, the sense of community and communication, that keep them coming back.
Peppermint: Receiving responsive email to something I've written is the most rewarding part of the experience. I've received in excess of fifty letters, especially from girls a few years younger than myself, saying that I've taught them that there is nothing wrong with being yourself. This is a lesson that I wish I had learned at their age, and to know that I have taught it to someone younger than me is an incredible feeling.
DrRogue: IGG. [I gotta go.] Time to do something productive today.
BGAR2: Go write your novel.
I forgot to mention that, since she's not going to camp, DrRogue is writing a novel. It's tentatively titled: Teen Girls: Not as Stupid as You Think.
Will Paris become the first large city in France (indeed, the first major city or national capital anywhere in the world) to elect an openly gay candidate as mayor--the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë? Beyond that question, highly symbolic for same-sexers everywhere, the two-stage Paris elections, which take place on March 11 and 18, will have far-reaching consequences. If the left succeeds in winning the City of Light for the first time ever, that could presage a national victory in France's presidential and legislative elections, to be held in May 2002.
The right has maintained hegemony in Paris since the first municipal elections in 1977, when Jacques Chirac--then president of the neo-Gaullist RPR--led the right to victory. He remained mayor of Paris until his election as President in 1995, when he dictated the selection of his successor--the current mayor, Jean Tiberi, Chirac's first deputy mayor for nearly two decades.
But the unbroken succession in this city, dominated for the past twenty-four years by la droite chiraquienne (the Chirac conservative majority), has suddenly and dramatically deteriorated following an avalanche of financial and electoral scandals. Mayor Tiberi is at the center of accusations concerning, among other things, the secret financing of political parties through a highly organized system of corrupt rakeoffs and kickbacks on contracts, filling the electoral rolls with phantom voters, illegally allocating low-rent apartments in city-owned housing (reserved for the economically disadvantaged) to political cronies and the families of elected officials and giving hundreds of no-show municipal jobs to full-time workers for the RPR and its campaigns. These scandals now threaten to undo Chirac himself, a danger underscored by the recent arrest of Chirac's former municipal chief of staff.
Aside from the scandals, the right's management of the city has also been sharply criticized. Paris is in danger of becoming a city-museum: Rents have skyrocketed, and the lack of subsidized housing for low- and middle-income families has forced many of them to move to less costly suburban developments with onerous commutes. While tourism continues to increase, Paris has serious air pollution and has not modernized or improved its public transportation or its noncommercial recreation facilities (especially for the young, hardest hit by unemployment).
All this means the left has an excellent chance of winning the municipal elections. Its leading candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (number two in Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government and the man in charge of the French economy), was forced to withdraw and lost his ministry after being tainted by yet another money scandal. After much internecine maneuvering, Jospin's Socialist Party finally settled on Delanoë. A little-known senator at the time of his designation, with a reputation as an unimaginative apparatchik and Jospin loyalist, Delanoë chose to make his homosexuality public during a 1998 television appearance. His matter-of-fact manner in coming out made few waves at the time, but since then he has enjoyed the media's favor, and--thanks to the Ubuesque situation in which Paris's right finds itself--his popularity has steadily increased in the opinion polls. And he has secured the endorsement of all the smaller parties in Jospin's "plural left" coalition, including the Communists (except for the Greens, who are nonetheless expected to support Delanoë in the second round of municipal voting). Within the city's sizable gay population, Delanoë has broad support, all the more so because, in contrast to his right-wing opponents, he has been a supporter of the pact of civil solidarity (PACS) for unmarried couples. Passed by the left-controlled National Assembly in 1999, the PACS recognizes and gives a large number of social and fiscal rights to domestic partnerships, whether homo- or heterosexual.
The conservative RPR, recognizing that Tiberi was politically bankrupt, dropped him as its mayoral candidate in favor of Philippe Séguin, a former party president and minister under Chirac. But even though Séguin is an RPR heavyweight with a reputation for intellectual honesty, his rigidity and independence (in the past he's feuded with Chirac) render him unsuited for the kinds of concessions necessary to unify the fractious Paris right. Meanwhile Mayor Tiberi, despite being disavowed by the RPR, has maintained his candidacy for re-election as an independent and is running a slate of candidates for City Council. In addition, the two extreme-right parties are running their own slates.
Delanoë's ambitious campaign proposals include making Paris "a model of democracy" (through the creation of neighborhood and youth councils and an official forum for civic organizations, the institution of referendums by petition and, above all, a guarantee of "real financial transparency" in government); building 5,000 new low-income and student housing units a year; ending the policy of "autos first" by building a new tramway to encircle Paris, creating 300 kilometers of new bus lanes, more car-free zones for pedestrians, cyclists and roller skaters, and improved river transport on the Seine; providing more daycare centers and facilities for the aged and handicapped; and doubling the city's cultural budget. He also promises halfway houses for gay kids rejected by their parents, giving gay organizations equal access to the subsidies the city already provides to civic groups, creating a new gay archive/research center and waging aggressive city-sponsored campaigns against antigay discrimination and AIDS.
However, even if Delanoë wins, as now seems probable, giving Paris back its former demographic mixture and improving its quality of life--especially for those of modest means--won't be easy, given a city budget that has been fiscally unsound for many years. Moreover, Delanoë's personal shortcomings continue to raise doubts, including on the left: Can a party workhorse with no management experience, nominated almost by default for his mayoral post, innovatively lead the first city of France?
Still, changing the political control of Paris--and ending what Le Nouvel Observateur has dubbed "the corrupt Chirac-Tiberi system"--is a top priority, one that could lead to the right's (and Chirac's) defeat next year. And if this permits one of the world's greatest cities to elect a mayor who is openly gay, why not gamble on his success? Frédéric Martel
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!
* * *
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.
Does The Marshall Mathers LP--in which great white hip-hop hope Eminem fantasizes about killing his wife, raping his mother, forcing rival rappers to suck his dick and holding at knife-point faggots who keep "eggin' [him] on"--deserve Album-of-the-Year honors? This is the question before members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), who have, since nominating Eminem for four Grammy awards, received unsolicited advice from a bizarre constellation of celebrities, journalists and activists ranging from Charles Murray to British pop singer (and Eminem collaborator) Dido.
Bob Herbert of the New York Times took the opportunity to deplore not just Eminem's lyrics but the entire genre of rap music for "infantile rhymes" and "gibberish." In a more nuanced report, Teen magazine asked, Eminem: angel or devil? and discovered that 74 percent of teenage girls surveyed would date him if they could. The Ontario attorney general even attempted to bar Eminem from entering the country for violating the "hate propaganda" section of the Canadian Criminal Code.
But the most vociferous and persistent criticism of Eminem has come from an odd combination of activists: gay rights groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and family-values right-wingers like James Dobson's Focus on the Family. They all argue that Eminem's album threatens not only the objects of his violent lyrical outbursts but also, in GLAAD's words, the "artist's fan base of easily influenced adolescents who emulate Eminem's dress, mannerisms, words and beliefs."
In the face of all this attention to Eminem's "hate speech," even the usually taciturn NARAS is doing some public soul-searching. The academy's president, Michael Greene, recently said, "There's no question about the repugnancy of many of his songs. They're nauseating in terms of how we as a culture like to view human progress. But it's a remarkable recording, and the dialogue that it's already started is a good one."
As I have been forced to sit through all this Eminem-inspired hand-wringing over the physical and psychological well-being of faggots like myself, I've wondered just how good that dialogue really is. For one thing, so much of what has been said and written about Eminem has been political grandstanding. For example, Lynne Cheney, not usually known as a feminist, singled out Eminem as a "violent misogynist" at a Senate committee hearing on violence and entertainment. Eminem's lyrics, she argued, pose a danger to children, "the intelligent fish swimming in a deep ocean," where the media are "waves that penetrate through the water and through our children...again and again from this direction and that." Pretty sick stuff. Maybe it comes from listening to Marshall Mathers, but maybe it's the real Lynne Cheney, of lesbian pulp-fiction fame, finally standing up.
GLAAD, for its part, argues that Eminem encourages anti-gay violence, and it has used the controversy over Eminem's lyrics to fuel a campaign for hate-crimes legislation. While GLAAD and Cheney have different motives, both spout arguments that collapse the distance between speech and action--a strategy CatharineMacKinnon pioneered in her war against pornography. Right-wingers like Cheney and antiporn feminists like MacKinnon have long maintained such an unholy alliance, but you would think gay activists would be more cautious about making such facile claims. After all, if a hip-hop album can be held responsible for anti-gay violence, what criminal activities might the gay-friendly children's book Daddy's Roommate inspire? Because the lines between critique and censorship, dissent and criminality, are so porous and unpredictable, attacking Eminem for promoting "antisocial" activity is a tricky game.
Thankfully, GLAAD stops short of advocating censorship; instead it asks the entertainment industry to exercise "responsibility." GLAAD launched its anti-Eminem crusade by protesting MTV's heavy promotion of Marshall Mathers, which included six Video Music Award nominations and a whole weekend of programming called "Em-TV." After meeting with GLAAD representatives in June, MTV's head of programming, Brian Graden, piously confessed, "I would be lying to you if I didn't say it was something we struggled with." Liberal guilt aside, MTV nonetheless crowned Eminem with Video of the Year honors and then, in an attempt to atone for its sins, ran almost a full day of programming devoted to hate crimes, starting with a mawkish after-school special on the murder of Matthew Shepard, called Anatomy of a Hate Crime, and concluding with a seventeen-hour, commercial-free scrolling catalogue of the kind of horrific and yet somehow humdrum homophobic, misogynous and racist incidents that usually don't make it into the local news.
Perhaps understandably, Eminem's detractors still weren't satisfied, but given the fact that Eminem is one of the bestselling hip-hop artist of all time, what exactly did they expect from MTV and the Grammys but hypocrisy and faithless apology? And what do they really expect from Eminem--a recantation? Does anyone remember the homophobic statements that Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and Marky Mark made a decade ago? Point of fact: Marky Mark revamped his career by becoming that seminal gay icon, the Calvin Klein underwear model, and Bach, long blond locks still in place, recently starred in the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde. All of which just goes to show, if hunky (and profitable) enough, you can always bite the limp-wristed hand that feeds you.
Meanwhile, the dialogue among Eminem's fans has been equally confusing. Some, like gay diva Elton John (who's scheduled to perform a duet with Eminem at the Grammys) and hip-hop star Missy Elliot, praise Eminem's album as hard-hitting reportage from the white working-class front. They argue that his lyrics are not only excusable but laudable, because they reflect the artist's lived experiences. This is, as London Guardian columnist Joan Smith pointed out, a "specious defence." Should we excuse Eminem because he is, after all, sincere? Should we ignore his own genuinely violent acts--like pistol-whipping a man he allegedly caught kissing his wife? Others, like Spin magazine, have defended him as a brilliant provocateur. Far from being about realness, they argue, Marshall Mathers is parody, a horror show of self-loathing and other-loathing theater, a sick joke that Eminem's fans are in on. They point to how he peppers his rants with hyperbole, denials and reversals, calling into question not only the sincerity of his words but also their efficacy. For example, he raps about how he "hates fags" and then claims he's just kidding and that we should relax--he "likes gay men."
I don't know if Eminem really likes gay men, although I'd sure like to find out. What is clear from listening to Marshall Mathers is that he needs gay men. When asked by MTV's Kurt Loder about his use of the word "faggot," Eminem said, "The lowest degrading thing that you can say to a man when you're battling him is to call him a faggot and try to take away his manhood. Call him a sissy, call him a punk. 'Faggot' to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. 'Faggot' to me just means taking away your manhood." Of course, using the word "faggot" has this effect only through its association with homosexuality and effeminacy, but there, really, you have it. Homosexuality is so crucial to Eminem's series of self-constructions (he mentions it in thirteen of eighteen tracks) that it's hard to imagine what he would rap about if he didn't have us faggots.
Eminem is, in his own words, "poor white trash." He comes from a broken home; he used to "get beat up, peed on, be on free lunch and change school every 3 months." So who does he diss in order to establish his cred as a white, male rapper? The only people lower on the adolescent totem pole than he is--faggots. This strategy of securing masculinity by obsessively disavowing homosexuality is hardly Eminem's invention, nor is it unique to male working-class culture or hip-hop music. Indeed, Eminem's lyrics may be more banal than exceptional in the way they invoke homophobic violence.
Marshall Mathers reworks the classic Western literary trope of homosexuality, which manifests itself as at once hysterical homophobia and barely submerged homoeroticism. It reflects the kind of locker-room antics that his white, male, suburban audience is well acquainted with. So too were Matthew Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and the perpetrators of the hate crimes MTV listed (who were, not so incidentally, almost all white men), and, for that matter, the Supreme Court, which recently held in the Boy Scouts' case that homophobic speech is so essential to boyhood that it's constitutionally protected. Herein may lie the real brilliance of Eminem as an artist and as a businessman. In a political culture dominated by vacuous claims to a fictive social unity--tolerance, compassionate conservatism, reconciliation--he recognizes that pain and negativity, of the white male variety in particular, still sell.
So does Marshall Mathers deserve Album of the Year? Well, I probably wouldn't vote for it, but if it does win, that would be perfectly in keeping with Grammy's tradition of rewarding commercial success. And where might a really good dialogue on homophobia, violence and entertainment begin? It might look at why The Marshall Mathers LP proved to be so pleasurable for so many, not despite but rather because of its violent themes. It might start by seeing Eminem not as an exception but as the rule--one upheld not just by commercial entertainment values but by our courts, schools, family structures and arrangements of public space. As Eminem says, "Guess there's a Slim Shady in all of us. Fuck it, let's all stand up."
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
The first moments of a recent documentary about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Rebels With a Cause, recall one of the signal images of the 1960s civil rights struggle: police training torrents of water from fire hoses on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. According to its makers, the student New Left and the antiwar movement derived their principal inspiration from the struggle for black freedom.
In this phase of the movement blacks and their allies sought three rights: integrated public schools; desegregation of public accommodations such as trains and buses, restrooms and water fountains, restaurants and, in much of the South, the right to walk down a street unmolested; and perhaps most important, voting rights. Nearly forty years later the Birmingham confrontation reminds us not only of the violence of Southern resistance to these elementary components of black freedom but also how clear-cut the issues were. The simple justice embodied in these demands had lurked on the margins of political life since the 1870s betrayal of black Reconstruction by politicians and their masters, Northern industrialists. Not that proponents of black freedom were quiescent in the interim. But despite some victories and defeats, mainly in the fight against lynching and legal frame-ups, these demands remained controversial and were largely sidelined. In 1940 Jim Crow was alive and well in the South and many other regions of America.
World War II and its aftermath changed all that. Under threat of a March on Washington by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters union and other black leaders, in 1941 President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in military-industry hiring. But when millions of black veterans returned from the war and found that America had returned to business as usual--even as the United States was embroiled in a cold war, claiming to be at the forefront of freedom and democracy--pressure mounted for a massive assault on discrimination and segregation. Shrewdly looking forward to an uphill re-election battle, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, and the turbulent 1948 Democratic convention passed the strongest civil rights plank of any party since the Radical Reconstruction laws of 1866. Consequently, the party suffered the first of what became a long line of defecting Southern political leaders when Strom Thurmond bolted and ran as the Dixiecrat Party candidate for President. In the early 1950s the NAACP mounted a series of legal cases against school segregation that culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, sustaining the plaintiffs' claim that the historic Court doctrine of "separate but equal" was untenable. The Court agreed that school integration was the only way to guarantee equal education to black children. The next year an NAACP activist, Rosa Parks, refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus--a disobedience that sparked a monumental boycott that finally ended in victory for the black community. In 1962, flanked by federal troops, James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi, and, under similar circumstances, a black woman named Autherine Lucy broke the color bar at the University of Alabama.
As important as these breakthroughs were, they were regarded by some as only the first stage of what was considered to be the most important phase in the struggle-- achieving black voting rights as a prelude to overturning white-supremacist economic and political domination of the South. Many on both sides of the civil rights divide were convinced that the transformation of the South by ending black exclusion was the key to changing US politics. The struggle for voting rights proved as bloody as it was controversial, for it threatened to reduce the Democratic Party to a permanent minority. In summer 1964, in the midst of a major effort by civil rights organizations to enroll thousands of new black voters, three field-workers were murdered and many others were beaten, jailed and in some cases forced to run for their lives. Fearing further losses in the less-than-solid South, the Kennedy Administration had to be dragged kicking, if not screaming, to protect field-workers in various civil rights groups. Indeed, it can be argued that beginning with the 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and perfected to an art form by Richard Nixon, the right's infamous Southern Strategy was the key to Republican/conservative domination of national politics in subsequent decades. But driven by the exigencies of the Vietnam War as well as the wager that the Democrats could successfully cut their losses by winning the solid backing of millions of black and Latino voters, Lyndon Johnson's Administration rapidly pushed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through Congress. By 1965 a century of legally sanctioned black subordination apparently came to an end. The Democrats won black loyalty, which to this day remains the irreducible condition of their ability to contend for national political power.
Today the predominant commentary on the state of race relations in the United States no longer focuses on discrimination but on the consequences of the economic and cultural chasm that separates black and white: white flight from the cities; the formation of a black middle class, which in pursuit of a better life has tended to produce its own segregated suburban communities; and the persistence of black poverty. For after more than three decades of "rights," the economic and cultural reality is that the separation between black and white has resurged with a vengeance. Housing segregation is perhaps more profound than in the pre-civil rights era, and the tiering of the occupational structure still condemns a large percentage of blacks and Latinos to the bottom layer. What's more, the combination of the two has widened the educational gap that pro-integration advocates had hoped would by now be consigned to historical memory. In the wake of achieving voting rights and passing antidiscrimination laws, some now worry more about whether blacks will maintain access to the elite circles of American society, especially in education and the economy. Others have discovered that, despite their confidence that legal rights are secure, the stigma of race remains the unmeltable condition of the black social and economic situation.
But even voting rights are in jeopardy. What are we to make of the spectacle of mob intimidation of election officials and the brazen theft of thousands of black Florida votes during the 2000 presidential election--so egregious it led the NAACP to file suit? Or the ideological and political mobilization of a conservative Supreme Court majority to halt the ballot recount of George W. Bush's razor-thin lead? Or the refusal of a single member of the Senate, forty-eight of whom are white Democrats, to join mainly black House members in requesting an investigation of the Florida voting events? Vincent Bugliosi has persuasively shown that Gore's lawyer did not use the best arguments at the Court [see "None Dare Call It Treason," February 5]. And then there's the Congressional battle over George W. Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, during which Ted Kennedy concluded that he could not muster the votes to sustain a filibuster and had to be content with joining forty-one of his colleagues in a largely symbolic protest vote against confirmation. Ashcroft's nomination was perhaps the Bush presidency's blatant reminder that the selection of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell for leading foreign policy positions should not be understood as having any relevance to the Administration's stance on domestic racial politics. Contrary to progressives' expectation that the Democratic Party would constitute a genuine opposition to what has become a fairly strident right-wing government, as the events since November 7 have amply demonstrated, the Democrats seem to know their place.
These events--calumnies, really--cast suspicion on the easy assumption that the civil rights struggle, even in its legal aspect, largely ended in 1965. The deliberate denial of black suffrage in Florida was a statement by the Republican minority that it would not countenance the Gore campaign's bold maneuver, in tandem with the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, to register and turn out tens of thousands of new black and non-Cuban Latino voters. As if to acknowledge his indiscretion, after it became clear that he "wuz robbed," Gore ordered his supporters not to take to the streets; instead, he contented himself with a weak and ultimately unsuccessful series of legal moves to undo the theft. Thus even if their hopes for victory always depended on blacks showing up at the polls in the battleground states, including Florida, Gore and the Democratic Party proved unwilling to fight fire with fire. In the end the right believes it has a royal right to political power because it is grounded in the power of Big Capital and the legacy of racism; the Democrats believe, in their hearts, that they are somehow illegitimate because of their dependence on blacks and organized labor.
Yet inspired by the notion that the United States is a nation of laws, some writers have interpreted the 1960s judicial and legislative gains to mean that the basis has been laid for full equality of opportunity for blacks, Latinos and other oppressed groups. (I speak here of those like Ward Connerly, Glenn Loury and Shelby Steele.) They cite affirmative action as evidence that blacks may be able to attain places in the commanding heights of corporate office, if not power. But they forget that Nixon utilized affirmative action to derail efforts, inspired by the 1960s civil rights victories, to dramatically expand funding for education and other public goods. In the context of Nixon's abrogation of the Bretton Woods agreement, which destabilized world currencies, and the restructuring of the economy through the flight of manufacturing to Third World countries and capital flight from those same countries, affirmative action was the fig leaf covering the downsizing of the welfare state. As the political winds blew rightward, welfare "reform" became a mantra for Nixon's successors, from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan through Bill Clinton. Needless to say, providing spaces for black students in a handful of elite colleges and universities was not, in itself, a bad idea. That affirmative action accompanied the Reagan tax cuts, ballooning military spending, the gradual end of an income floor for the unemployed and severe spending cuts in housing, public health and education demonstrated its purpose: to expand the black professional and managerial class in the wake of deindustrialization--which left millions of industrial workers, many of them black and Latino, stranded--and the hollowing out of the welfare state, which in contrast to the 1960s gains widened the gap between rich and poor.
If only the most naïve believed that in time racism would disappear, many have misread William Julius Wilson's 1978 book The Declining Significance of Race to argue that black inequality is not a sign of the persistence of institutional or structural racism but is a remnant. On the contrary, Wilson claims that the persistence of black poverty may not be a sign of discrimination in the old sense but an indication of the vulnerability of blacks to structural changes in the economy. Race still frames the fate of many blacks, but there is also a crucial class dimension to their social situation: Despite having acquired comprehensive legal rights, both deindustrialization of many large cities and black as well as white middle-class flight have left working-class blacks in the lurch. Once, many had well-paid union jobs in steel mills, auto plants and other production industries. But since the mid-1970s, most urban and rural areas where they live have become bereft of good jobs and local services. There are not enough jobs to go around, and those that can be found are McJobs--service employment at or near the minimum wage. Cities also lack the tax base to provide citizens with decent education, recreation, housing and health facilities, and basic environmental standards like clean air and water. Lacking skills, many blacks are stuck in segregated ghettos without decent jobs, viable schools, hope or options.
To make things worse, the neoliberal policies of both Democratic and Republican governments have drastically slowed public-sector job growth and have eliminated one of the main sources of economic stability for blacks and Latinos. In fact, during his campaign Al Gore boasted that he was an architect of the Clinton Administration's program of streamlining the federal government through layoffs and attrition, which was undertaken to facilitate "paying down the debt." The private sector was expected to pick up the slack, and it did: In many cases laid-off public employees joined former industrial workers in the retail trades and in low-paid construction and nonunion factory jobs.
But the problems associated with race/class fail to detain some writers--e.g., John McWhorter and Stephen Carter. Having stipulated black economic progress without examining this claim in any depth, their main concern is how to assure that blacks obtain places in the elite intellectual and managerial professions. As if to stress the urgency of this problem, they adduce evidence to show that despite the broad application of affirmative action, blacks have fallen back in educational achievement. For example, while celebrating the civil rights movement's accomplishments, in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, his book about the question of why black students still lag behind whites in educational attainment, linguistics professor McWhorter discounts the salience of racism. McWhorter allows that although some police brutality and discriminatory practices such as racial profiling still exist, these regrettable throwbacks are being eradicated. Accepting the federal government's definition of poverty (now $17,650 a year or less for a household of four), McWhorter minimizes these problems by citing statistics showing that under 25 percent of America's black population lives in impoverished conditions, a decline from 55 percent in 1960. Of course, these federal standards have been severely criticized by many economists and social activists for substantially understating the amount that people actually need to live on in some of America's major cities.
While $17,650 may constitute a realistic minimum standard in some rural areas and small towns--and even then there is considerable dispute about this figure--anyone living in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland, Washington or Atlanta--cities with large black, Latino and Asian populations--knows that this income is far below what people need to live on. The United Way's regional survey of living standards found that households of three in New York City require at least $44,208 to meet minimum decent standards. While the amounts are less for most other cities, they do not run below $25,000, and most of the time they are higher. In many of these cities two-bedroom apartments without utilities cannot be rented for less than $800 a month (plus at least $100 for telephone, gas and electricity)--more than half the take-home pay of a household earning $25,000. In New York City the rent is closer to $1,200, even in the far reaches of the Bronx and Brooklyn. But perhaps half of black households earn less than the rock-bottom comfort level in most areas today.
None of this bothers McWhorter and other black centrists and conservatives. They know that when measured by grades and standardized tests, educational attainment among children of poor black families may fall short because of poverty, insecurity or broken homes. Why, they ask, do black students in the middle class perform consistently worse by every measure than comparable white students, even when, owing mainly to affirmative action, they gain admission to elite colleges and universities? Relying heavily on anecdotes drawn from his own teaching experience at the University of California, Berkeley, McWhorter advances the thesis that, across the class system, blacks are afflicted by three cultural barriers to higher educational achievement that are of their own making: victimology, according to which all blacks suffer from racism that stands between them and success; separatism, a congenital suspicion of whites and of white norms, including high educational achievement; and, perhaps most salient, endemic anti-intellectualism among blacks, which regards those who study hard and care about learning as "nerds" who tend to be held in contempt. To be "cool" is to slide by rather than do well. The point of higher education is to obtain a credential that qualifies one for a good job, not to take academic learning seriously.
McWhorter is deeply embarrassed by the studied indifference of many of his black students (almost none of whom are economically disadvantaged) for intellectual pursuits and is equally disturbed by their low grades and inferior test scores. In the end, he attributes much of the problem to affirmative action--a "necessary step" but one that he believes ultimately degrades blacks in the eyes of white society. McWhorter admits that he is troubled that he got tenure in four and a half years instead of the usual seven, and that he was privileged in part because he is black. Like another "affirmative action baby," Stephen Carter, he is grateful for the boost but believes the door should be closed behind him because the policy has morally objectionable consequences, especially cynicism, examples of which litter the pages of his book. Affirmative action "inherently divests blacks and Latinos of the unalloyed sense of personal, individual responsibility for their accomplishments.... The fact that they tend not to be aware of this follows naturally from the fact that affirmative action bars it from their lives: You don't miss what you never had." Instead, he wants blacks "to spread their wings and compete" with others on an equal basis. Condemning the thesis of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (in The Bell Curve) that affirmative action should be eliminated because blacks "are too dumb," at the same time he urges his readers to "combat anti-intellectualism" and victimology as cultural norms.
Before discussing what I regard as the serious flaws in McWhorter's thesis, it is important to note that it is by no means unique; a growing number of black as well as white pro-civil rights intellectuals embrace it. Having asserted that the legislative and court victories effectively buried the "external" barriers to black advancement, these critics seek answers to the persistence of racial educational disparity within the black community itself--particularly the "culture" of victimization, a culture that, however anachronistic from an objective standpoint, remains a powerful force. Unlike many black conservatives, McWhorter professes admiration for the icons of the civil rights struggle, especially Martin Luther King Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But he is not alone in his uncritical assessment of the past half-century as an era of black "progress." As a result, he discounts the claim that racism remains a structural barrier to blacks' further advances. Nor is there justification for the politics and culture of separatism; for McWhorter, blacks are shooting themselves in the foot because these values prevent them from overcoming the psychological and cultural legacy of slavery, the root cause of the anti-intellectualism that thwarts black students from performing well in an academic environment. This culture, he argues, is reproduced as well in the black family when parents refuse to take their children's low or failing grades as an occasion for scolding or punishment and, in the extreme, in peer pressure against the few kids who, as early as elementary school, are good scholars. Academically bright black kids are ridiculed and charged with not being loyal to "the race."
We have seen this pattern played out in a somewhat different mode among working-class white high school students. In his study of male working-class students in an English comprehensive high school--the term that corresponds to our public schools--Paul Willis describes in his study Learning to Labor how the "lads" rebel against the curriculum and other forms of school authority and thereby prepare themselves for "working-class jobs" in a nearby car factory. We can see in this and many other school experiences the same phenomena that McWhorter ascribes to racial culture. To study and achieve high enough grades to obtain a place in the university is to betray the class and its traditions. One risks isolation from his comrades for daring to be good. But it is not merely anti-intellectualism that produces such behavior; it is a specific form of solidarity that violates the prevailing norm that the key to economic success for the individual working-class kid is educational attainment.
But as a certified good student who, by his own account, suffered many of these indignities at the hands of classmates, this is beyond McWhorter's grasp. Since he sees no external barriers, anyone who refuses to succeed when he or she has been afforded the opportunity without really trying must be the prisoner of a retrograde culture. And since he defines anti-intellectualism in terms of comparative school performances in relation to whites--and there is no exploration of the concept of intellectual endeavor as such--he must avoid entering the territory of rampant American anti-intellectualism. It may come as a shock to some, but it can be plausibly claimed that we--whites, blacks and everyone else--live in an anti-intellectual culture. Those who entertain ideas that have no apparent practical utility, enjoy reading books without being required by course assignment and play or listen to classical music, attend art museums, etc., are sometimes labeled "Mr. or Miss deadbrains." Moreover, as many have observed, the public intellectual--a person of ideas whose task is to hold a mirror to society and criticize it--is an endangered species in this country.
McWhorter focuses absolutely no attention on the loss of intellectual life in this sense. His idea of intellectualism is entirely framed by conventional technical intelligence and by a sense of shame that blacks are coded as intellectually inferior. There is little justification of the life of the mind in Losing the Race except as a valuable career tool. So McWhorter cares about educational attainment as a matter of race pride and climbing the ladder. He cannot imagine that working-class and middle-class whites are routinely discouraged from spending their time in "useless" intellectual pursuits or that the disparity between black, Latino, Asian and white school performances can be attributed to anything other than internal cultural deficits.
Scott Malcomson and Thomas Holt have cast different lights on race disparity in the post-civil rights era. Departing, but only implicitly, from Tocqueville's delineation of the three races of American society--Indian, black and white--Malcomson, a freelance writer and journalist, offers a long, sometimes rambling history, fascinating autobiography and social analysis of the career of race in America. The main historical theme is that racial separatism is interwoven with virtually every aspect of American life, from the sixteenth-century European explorations and conquests that led to the brutal massacres of Native Americans, on through slavery and postemancipation race relations. Malcomson's story is nothing less than a chronicle of the defeat of the ideal of one race and one nation. Black, Native American and white remain, throughout the centuries, as races apart. Not civil war, social movements or legislative change have succeeded in overcoming the fundamental pattern of white domination and the racializing of others. Nor have territorial and economic expansion allayed separatism and differential, racially burdened access to economic and political power.
Malcomson, the son of a white Protestant minister and civil rights activist, caps One Drop of Blood with a hundred-page memoir of his childhood and youth in 1960s and '70s Oakland. In these pages, the most original part of the book, Malcomson offers an affecting account of his own experience with race but also renders the history of three major twentieth-century Oakland celebrities--Jack London, William Knowland and Bobby Seale. London was, of course, one of America's leading writers of the first two decades of the past century. He was famous not only for his adventure stories, which captured the imagination of millions of young adults and their parents as well, but also for his radical politics. He was a founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the student branch of a once-vibrant Socialist Party, which regularly won local offices in California until World War I and spawned the explosive political career of another writer, Upton Sinclair. (In 1934 Sinclair even became the Democratic candidate for governor.) Less well known was London's flaming racism, a sentiment shared by the archconservative Oakland Tribune publisher and US Senator William Knowland.
Deeply influenced by his parents' anti-racist politics, Malcomson was enthralled by the movement and especially by the Black Panthers, whose ubiquitous presence in Oakland as a political and social force was unusual--they lacked the same level of visibility elsewhere, even in their period of fame. But the pathos of his involvement is that his main reference group was neither black nor white: Their separation was simply too painful for a young idealist to bear. Instead, he hung out with a group of Asian students who nevertheless emulated black cultural mores. They did well in school but, by this account, nothing much except social life went on there. To satisfy his intellectual appetites, Malcomson sought refuge in extracurricular reading, an experience I shared in my own high school days in the largely Jewish and Italian East Bronx of the 1940s and 1950s.
The point of the memoir is to provide a contemporary illustration of the red thread that runs through his book: The promise of a century and a half of struggle for black freedom, and especially of the end of racial separation and of racism, remains unfulfilled. Malcomson takes Oakland as a paradigmatic instance of a majority black population gaining political office but little power because the city's white economic elites simply refused to play, until civic disruption forced them (especially Knowland) to acknowledge that their power was threatened by the militancy of new political forces within the black community. With the waning of black power, Oakland, like many other cities, reverted to its ghettos, punctuated in the 1980s and 1990s by a wave of gentrification that threatened the fragile black neighborhoods and, in the wake of high rents, forced many to leave for cheaper quarters. When Malcomson returns home in the late 1990s after a few decades in New York he finds that the experiment of his father and a local black preacher in interracial unity in behalf of community renewal has collapsed, leaving the clergyman with little hope but a firm conviction that since whites were unreliable allies, blacks had no alternative but to address the devastation of black neighborhoods on their own.
Thomas Holt is a black University of Chicago social and cultural historian whose major work, The Problem of Freedom, is a brilliant, multifaceted account of Jamaican race, labor and politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The question Holt asks in his latest book-length essay, The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century, is whether W.E.B. Du Bois's comment that the color line is the problem of the twentieth century remains the main question for our century. Holt addresses the issue from a global perspective on two axes: to place race in the context of both the national and global economies, and to adopt a "global" theoretical framework of analysis that situates race historically in terms of the transformation of production regimes from early to late capitalism. In bold but sharp strokes the book outlines three stages: pre-Fordist, Fordist and post-Fordist.
Fordism was more than a production system based on a continuously moving assembly line where workers performed repetitive tasks. The "ism" in the term signifies that mass production and mass consumption are locked in an ineluctable embrace: If the line makes possible mass production, ways must be found to provide for mass consumption. Fordism therefore entails the formation of a new consumer by means of raising wages, mainly by the vast expansion of the credit system. Now workers could buy cars, houses and appliances, even send their kids to college on the principle of "buy now, pay later." This practical consideration led to a new conception of modernity.
The advent of consumer society has changed the face of America and the rest of the capitalist world. Before Fordism, which Holt terms pre-Fordism, the US economy was crucially dependent on slavery. Whatever their egregious moral and ethical features, blacks were at the core of both the pre-Fordist and Fordist production regimes. In the slave and post-Reconstruction eras they planted and picked cotton and tobacco; during and after World War II they were recruited into the vast network of industrial plants as unskilled and semiskilled labor. Indeed, they shared in the cornucopia of consumer society, owning late-model cars and single-family homes; in some instances, they were able to send their kids to college. As Holt points out, exploitative as these relationships were, blacks occupied central places in American economic life.
The 1970s witnessed the restructuring of world capitalism: The victories of the labor movement prompted capital to seek cheaper labor abroad; cities like Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Oakland and Chicago, where black workers constituted a significant proportion of the manufacturing labor force, were rapidly deindustrialized. In their place arose not only retail establishments but "new economy" computer-mediated industries like hardware and software production, dot-coms and financial services.
But the reindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s occurred without the participation of blacks. In industries marked by the old technologies, hundreds of thousands of immigrants made garments, toys and other consumer goods. Lacking capital, African-Americans could not own the retail businesses in their own communities; these are largely owned by immigrants--Koreans, Indians, Caribbean and African merchants. Holt argues that American blacks are now largely excluded from the global economy; they occupy economic niches that are no longer at the center of production, positions that augur badly for the future of race in America. Even the growing black middle class is located in the public sector, which has been under severe attack since the 1980s. Moreover, Holt plainly rejects the judgment of "black progress" that leads to culturalist explanations for the growing economic and social disparity between blacks and whites. He finds:
overwhelming contemporary evidence that racism permeates every institution, every pore of everyday life. Justice in our courts, earnings on our jobs, whether we have a job at all, the quality of our life, the means and timing of our death--all form the stacked deck every child born black must take up to play the game of life.
Holt's essay ends with the faint hope that racial stigma and segregation will one day be overcome. For now, he insists, race remains, for all African-Americans--not only those suffering the deprivations of ghetto life--the problem of the twenty-first century. But neither Malcomson nor Holt can find sources of resistance. In fact, Holt explicitly gives up on the labor movement--a prime mover within the Fordist regime. It has been severely weakened by post-Fordist globalization. Nor does he identify forces within the African-American movements capable of leading a fight. As other sharp critics of racism such as Paul Gilroy point out, despair overwhelms hope.
The concept that judicial and legislative prohibitions against discrimination are sufficient to erase the legacy of four centuries of social and economic oppression is deeply embedded in the American imagination, always alert to the quick fix. From this view follows the inevitable conclusion that if income and social disparities stubbornly refuse to go away, something must be wrong with the victim. Thus the tricky and misleading term "culture" as explanation, which segues into proposals that blacks "pull up their socks" and reach for the main chance. But those who are passionate in their insistence that the elimination of the structurally induced racial divide will require a monumental struggle have hesitated before the gateway of class politics.
For those like Holt and Malcomson, who are less concerned with whether blacks enter corporate boardrooms than with raising the bottom, there is little alternative to calling on the power of the labor movement to join the fray. It might be argued that organized labor, still dominated by a relatively conservative white leadership, has shown little inclination to mount a fierce defense of black interests. But as unions lose their traditional white, blue-collar base, the labor movement is becoming more black and Latino, and certainly more female. And as its constituency is transformed, there are signs that the top leadership is learning a few lessons. The AFL-CIO's 2000 call for amnesty for undocumented immigrants was a move of historic precedent. And its attempt to organize low-wage workers is a reversal of past practice. If race remains a central problem of the new century, the way forward is probably to re-establish the race/class alliance that fell on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. Without it, black freedom is confined to a cry in the darkness.
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