News and Features
With negotiations between the Writers Guild and some of Hollywood's major film studios and TV networks at an impasse as the May 1 deadline nears, putting the panic of a strike in the usually gilded air, we're reminded of the often uneasy relationships between writers and the film industry--which Raymond Chandler amply described in writings outside his famous novels. The following are portions excerpted from The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction, 1909-1959, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane and published in April by Atlantic Monthly Press.
Letter to Erle Stanley Gardner, January 29, 1946. Chandler was working steadily on a fifth Marlowe novel. The cheap editions of all four earlier Marlowes were now selling in the hundreds of thousands, and Newsweek had reported in 1945 that "Chandlerism, a select cult a year ago, is about to engulf the nation."
Most of what you write is a complete surprise to me--including the idea that you are a lousy writer.... As I speak I have two solid rows of Gardners in front of me, and am still trying to shop around to complete the collection. I probably know as much about the essential qualities of good writing as anybody now discussing it. I do not discuss these things professionally for the simple reason that I do not consider it worthwhile. I am not interested in pleasing the intellectuals by writing literary criticism, because literary criticism as an art has in these days too narrow a scope and too limited a public, just as has poetry. I do not believe it is a writer's function to talk to a dead generation of leisured people who once had time to relish the niceties of critical thought. The critics of today are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like Fadiman or honest men confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson. The reading public is intellectually adolescent at best, and it is obvious that what is called "significant literature" will only be sold to this public by exactly the same methods as are used to sell it toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles. It is equally obvious that since this public has been taught to read by brute force it will, in between its bouts with the latest "significant" bestseller, want to read books that are fun and excitement. So like all half-educated publics in all ages it turns with relief to the man who tells a story and nothing else. To say that what this man writes is not literature is just like saying that a book can't be any good if it makes you want to read it. When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball. That is to me what you have more than anything else and more than anyone else. Dumas Père had it. Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it; begging your pardon I don't think Edgar Wallace approached it. His stories died all along the line and had to be revived. Yours don't. Every page throws the hook for the next. I call this a kind of genius. I regard myself as a pretty exacting reader; detective stories as such don't mean a thing to me. But it must be obvious that if I have half a dozen unread books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have a quality.
As to me, I am not busy and I am not successful in any important way. I don't get written what I want to write and I get balled up in what I write. I made a lot of money last year, but the government took half of it and expenses took half of the rest. I'm not poor, but neither am I in anything like your condition, or ever will be. My wife has been under the weather with the flu for ten days, but she wants to come down to your place as much as I do. I'm working at home because I refused to report to Paramount and took a suspension. They refused to tear up my contract. A writer has no real chance in pictures unless he is willing to become a producer, and that is too tough for me. The last picture I worked on was just one long row.
* * *
Letter to Alfred Knopf, January 12, 1946. Though Knopf was no longer Chandler's publisher, he and Chandler had buried the hatchet and were to remain in touch for the rest of Chandler's life. Knopf had written in response to reading Chandler's article in The Atlantic Monthly about screenwriting.
One of the troubles is that it seems quite impossible in Hollywood to convince anyone that a man would turn his back on a whopping salary--whopping by the standards of normal living--for any reason but a tactical manoeuvre through which he hopes to acquire a still more whopping salary. What I want is something quite different: a freedom from datelines and unnatural pressures, and a right to find and work with those few people in Hollywood whose purpose is to make the best pictures possible within the limitations of a popular art, not merely to repeat the old and vulgar formulae. And only a little of that.
The ethics of this industry may be judged by the fact that late last night a very important independent producer called me up and asked me to do a screenplay of one of the most advertised projects of the year, do it on the quiet, secretly, with full knowledge that it would be a violation of my contract. That meant nothing to him; it never occurred to him that he was insulting me. Perhaps, in spite of my faults, I still have a sense of honor. I may quarrel, but at least I put the point at issue down on the table in front of me. I am perfectly willing to let them examine my sleeves for hidden cards. But I don't think they really want to. They would be horrified to find them empty. They do not like to deal with honest men.
From the beginning, from the first pulp story, it was always with me a question (first of course of how to write a story at all) of putting into the stuff something they would not shy off from, perhaps even not know was there as a conscious realization, but which would somehow distill through their minds and leave an afterglow. A man with a realistic habit of thought can no longer write for intellectuals. There are too few of them and they are too specious. Neither can he deliberately write for people he despises, or for the slick magazines (Hollywood is less degrading than that), or for money alone. There must be idealism but there must also be contempt. This kind of talk may seem a little ridiculous coming from me. It is possibly that like Max Beerbohm I was born half a century too late, and that I too belong to an age of grace. I could so easily have become everything our world has no use for. So I wrote for the Black Mask. What a wry joke.
No doubt I have learned a lot from Hollywood. Please do not think I completely despise it, because I don't. The best proof of that may be that every producer I have worked for I would work for again, and every one of them, in spite of my tantrums, would be glad to have me. But the overall picture, as the boys say, is of a degraded community whose idealism even is largely fake. The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking and drabbing, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-pervasive agent, the strutting of the big shots (and their usually utter incompetence to achieve anything they start out to do), the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have really never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world. It is a great subject for a novel--probably the greatest still untouched. But how to do it with a level mind, that's the thing that baffles me. It is like one of these South American palace revolutions conducted by officers in comic opera uniforms--only when the thing is over the ragged dead men lie in rows against the wall, and you suddenly know that this is not funny, this is the Roman circus, and damn near the end of civilization.
Chandler having decided to stop studio work and move permanently to La Jolla, The Atlantic Monthly persuaded him to report on the 1946 Oscar ceremony for them.
If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting "The Laughing Cavalier" in Macy's basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colours for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn't they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the petty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women's clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.
The point is not whether there are bad motion pictures or even whether the average motion picture is bad, but whether the motion picture is an artistic medium of sufficient dignity and accomplishment to be treated with respect by the people who control its destinies. Those who deride the motion picture usually are satisfied that they have thrown the book at it by declaring it to be a form of mass entertainment. As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was the Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, although not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man. Today, if not always, the fugues and chorales of Bach, the symphonies of Mozart, Borodin, and Brahms, the violin concertos of Vivaldi, the piano sonatas of Scarlatti, and a great deal of what was once rather recondite music are mass entertainment by virtue of radio. Not all fools love it, but not all fools love anything more literate than a comic strip. It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.
The motion picture admittedly is faced with too large a mass; it must please too many people and offend too few, the second of these restrictions being infinitely more damaging to it artistically than the first. The people who sneer at the motion picture as an art form are furthermore seldom willing to consider it at its best. They insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity or production) than to judge literature by last week's ten bestsellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits. In a novel you can still say what you like, and the stage is free almost to the point of obscenity, but the motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom. If it were merely a transplanted literary or dramatic art, it certainly would not. The hucksters and the bluenoses would between them see to that.
But the motion picture is not a transplanted literary or dramatic art, any more than it is a plastic art. It has elements of all these, but in its essential structure it is much closer to music, the sense that its finest effects can be independent of precise meaning, that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can. Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.
In painting, music and architecture we are not even second-rate by comparison with the best work of the past. In sculpture we are just funny. In prose literature we not only lack style but we lack the educational and historical background to know what style is. Our fiction and drama are adept, empty, often intriguing, and so mechanical that in another fifty years at most they will be produced by machines with rows of push buttons. We have no popular poetry in the grand style, merely delicate or witty or bitter or obscure verses. Our novels are transient propaganda when they are what is called "significant," and bedtime reading when they are not.
But in the motion picture we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us. It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been achieved in Hollywood, I think that is all the more reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and the big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact. Of course it won't. I'm just daydreaming.
Show business has always been a little overnoisy, overdressed, overbrash. Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities prolonged beyond a strict necessity have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner, which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, and for once in a lifetime, I have to admit that Academy Awards night is a good show and quite funny in spots, although I'll admire you if you can laugh at all of it.
If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, "In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived"; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn't good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong.
Letter to Charles Morton, November 22, 1950.
Television is really what we've been looking for all our lives. It took a certain amount of effort to go to the movies. Somebody had to stay with the kids. You had to get the car out of the garage. That was hard work. And you had to drive and park. Sometimes you had to walk as far as half a block to the theater. Then people with big fat heads would sit in front of you and make you nervous... Radio was a lot better, but there wasn't anything to look at. Your gaze wandered around the room and you might start thinking of other things--things you didn't want to think about. You had to use a little imagination to build yourself a picture of what was going on just by the sound. But television's perfect. You turn a few knobs and lean back and drain your mind of all thought. And there you are watching the bubbles in the primeval ooze. You don't have to concentrate. You don't have to react. You don't have to remember. You don't miss your brain because you don't need it. Your heart and liver and lungs continue to function normally. Apart from that, all is peace and quiet. You are in poor man's nirvana. And if some nasty-minded person comes along and says you look more like a fly on a can of garbage, pay him no mind...just who should one be mad at anyway? Did you think the advertising agencies created vulgarity and the moronic mind that accepts it? To me television is just one more facet of that considerable segment of our civilization that never had any standard but the soft buck.
* * *
Letter to Gene Levitt, who had been adapting Marlowe for the radio show, November 22, 1950.
I am only a very recent possessor of a television set. It is a very dangerous medium. And as for the commercials--well, I understand that the concoction of these is a business in itself, a business that makes prostitution or the drug traffic seem quite respectable. It was bad enough to have the sub-human hucksters controlling radio, but television does something to you which radio never did. It prevents you from forming any kind of a mental picture and forces you to look at a caricature instead.
* * *
Letter to Dale Warren, November 7, 1951.
You ask me how anybody can survive Hollywood? Well, I must say that I personally had a lot of fun there. But how long you can survive depends a great deal on what sort of people you have to work with. You meet a lot of bastards, but they usually have some saving grace. A writer who can get himself teamed up with a director or a producer who will give him a square deal, a really square deal, can get a lot of satisfaction out of his work. Unfortunately that doesn't happen often. If you go to Hollywood just to make money, you have to be pretty cynical about it and not care too much what you do. And if you really believe in the art of the film, it's a long job and you really should forget about any other kind of writing. A preoccupation with words for their own sake is fatal to good film making. It's not what films are for. It's not my cup of tea, but it could have been if I'd started it twenty years earlier. But twenty years earlier of course I could never have got there, and that is true of a great many people. They don't want you until you have made a name, and you have developed some kind of talent which they can't use. The best scenes I ever wrote were practically monosyllabic. And the best short scene I ever wrote, by my own judgement, was one in which a girl said "uh-huh" three times with three different intonations, and that's all there was to it. The hell of good film writing is that the most important part is what is left out. It's left out because the camera and the actors can do it better and quicker, above all quicker. But it had to be there in the beginning.
* * *
Letter to Carl Brandt, regarding television, November 15, 1951.
However toplofty and idealistic a man may be, he can always rationalize his right to earn money. After all the public is entitled to what it wants. The Romans knew that and even they lasted four hundred years after they started to putrefy.
In many instances, those who fetishize holy objects or sacred places are the very ones who exhibit the most depraved indifference to human life.
In the near future we plan to expand our faith-based initiative, Holy Terror Sandblasting and Demolition Corp. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani finds much merit in our proposal for a workfare program in which homeless people (men only, naturellement!) would be trained in medieval theology, art criticism and the use of explosives. Please send dollars and the floor plan of the Brooklyn Museum. Or else.
Dear Professor DiIulio,
With medical costs going through the roof, you'd think there'd be a better way. And now, with the Lord's help, there is! Our idea is to buy up struggling inner-city hospitals and turn them into profit centers--no doctors, no nurses, no fancy-shmancy machines and best of all, no messy malpractice suits. Just the blessed healing power of prayer, provided 24 hours a day at bedside by recovering drug addicts as part of their therapy. It's total win-win--the government saves, the patient is saved--if not in this world, the next. And that's the world that counts, right?
Rev. Tommy Johnson
Pentecostal Holiness Church, Memphis, TN
People say communism is just another religion, and they're right! We have everything the other faiths have--an all-encompassing worldview, sacred texts, meetings (and how!), schisms, excommunications and declining numbers and influence. We'd like to reverse that last item with funding for our workfare proposal: First, we provide welfare mothers a crash course in job readiness, parenting skills and the works of Karl Marx. Then, we get them jobs in daycare centers, where they pass their new "faith" on to the next generation, hopefully in time for the stock market crash. Don't count us out--a god that failed is still a god.
The Communist Party, USA
Dear Brother in Christ,
Did you know the Chicago Archdiocese has an exorcist on staff? Our faith-based initiative, The Exercist, would get this superbly trained but underutilized man out of the apse and into the community, where he'd help the so-called mentally ill get their sillies out with a carefully graduated low-impact aerobic workout that goes beyond head swiveling and projectile vomiting to get at the real nitty-gritty of diabolical possession! Then, everyone cools down with a sharing session, novena and group hug: because admitting you're possessed by the Devil is half the cure!
Hope to hear from you soon,
Msgr. George O'Reilly
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago
Dear Prof. DiIulio,
For ten years we've been trying to get our own public school district so our kids wouldn't have to go to school with goyim. The courts keep turning us down. Then we wanted buses with only male drivers and sex-segregated seating, and the self-hating Jewish liberals said no to that too. So we would like to become a Faith-Based Initiative with ourselves as clients. Our project is, we stay in our own town and only talk to each other. Because that's what G-d wants. Eventually we hope to get NEA funding as a conceptual art project ("The Choice: Chosen People Choose Themselves"), but a starter grant from your office would really put us on track.
Let us know,
Rabbi Shlomo Greenblatt, Kiryas Joel, NY
Ever wonder what's really behind that weird weather of recent years ? Hint: It's a long time between burnt offerings. How about paying some deadbeat dads to slaughter a herd of oxen and throw those fabulous thighbones on the barbie? Everybody benefits: They learn the meat business, you get fruitful harvests, favorable winds and calm winedark seas, and we get a decent meal. Reply soonest--the wife is pushing me to zap you with a thunderbolt.
Death Row Dad is a moving story of one father's embrace of capital punishment--despite his own imminent execution! While his ACLU lawyer tries frantically to turn up new evidence even as his own marriage unravels, and beautiful crusading nun Helen Prejean pleads with the governor for a stay, Leroy, who is in fact innocent, wants only that his son renounce his homosexual lifestyle and accept Christ as his personal savior. Soon the whole prison--even the crusty warden and a pair of racist guards--is praying for Leroy to get his wish. Jack, I promise you, when Leroy looks up from the gurney just before the lethal injection, sees his son standing there with his new girlfriend, and rejects the last-minute stay of execution ("I reckon the Lord is waitin' for my sorry self"), the audience won't know whether to cheer or go down on its knees. Morgan's people think yes for the lead, Julia's very interested in doing the nun. A major studio is ready to greenlight the minute your office comes through with co-financing.
Talk to you after the prayer meeting,
How about a grant where I become a lay minister and practice laying on of hands? There's a whole heck of a lot of lonely women out there with big spiritual needs. I mean, really big.
Educators have long known the rap sheet on the SAT, the college entrance exam that millions of young people have taken as a rite of passage for some seventy-five years. Since its inception, the SAT has become among the most scrutinized and controversial of standardized tests. And yet, the exam--and the mental testing culture that has sustained it in the United States--has been remarkably impervious to the attacks on it over the years.
Recently, however, the SAT suffered a body blow when the president of the University of California system proposed dumping the exam. Don't expect colleges and universities to defect from the SAT en masse--it's too deeply entrenched for that. But in announcing his far-reaching proposal in February, UC president Richard Atkinson legitimized open discussion of a heretofore taboo subject for large and selective universities: whether they (and society) would be better off without the test.
Atkinson, an eminent cognitive psychologist, knows well the list of particulars against the exam in question, the so-called SAT I "reasoning test." As the progeny of the first intelligence test commercialized in the United States, the SAT has proven to be a weak predictor of a student's actual performance in the first year of college; after that, its usefulness vanishes completely. Moreover, the SAT has proven to be a vicious sorter of young people by class and race, and even gender--and has served to sustain the very upper-middle-class privilege that many of the exam's supporters claim to oppose. The latest figures from the College Board, the SAT's sponsor, show that a test taker can expect an extra shot of fifteen to fifty points on his or her total SAT I score for every $10,000 that Mom and Dad bring home. Call it the Volvo Effect: a boost that peaks out at the highest levels of family income. Being white, on average, confers an extra 200-point advantage over a black test-taker. Atkinson hopes that replacing the SAT I with the SAT II subject tests will lessen such disparities and more accurately reflect what students study in high school. In fact, scores on both exams are powerfully correlated with each other, and UC's own data show that the SAT II also sorts harshly by class, race and gender. More helpful, Atkinson intends to revamp the entire UC admissions process by requiring campuses to evaluate applicants more comprehensively than under the old numerical formulas, judging a high school student's achievements in light of his or her social and economic circumstances.
The SAT's shortcomings have become especially vivid in recent years, as courts, voters and policy-makers in several states, including the UC Board of Regents in 1995, have ordered public universities to dismantle their affirmative action programs. Post-affirmative action, UC's most selective campuses have seen freshman acceptance rates wane for blacks and Hispanics. Meanwhile, the state's Hispanic population is forecast to skyrocket from about 11 million in 2000 to 18 million over the next two decades. Hispanic high school graduates will surge 74 percent over the next decade, while numbers of white graduates are expected to grow just 2 percent.
In light of these trends, the usual justifications for the SAT's continued dominance as a gatekeeper to UC would no longer wash. Yes, since 1968 the admissions test has been a bureaucratically convenient way to sort and weed large numbers of college aspirants. Yes, UC's relatively high SAT scores made it look good in the test-score fashion show put out by US News & World Report. Yes, the test was a common yardstick. But it was also a crooked one, inflicting enormous social costs.
Of course, there will be complaints that Atkinson's tossing the SAT will lead to the ruination of a great university: As UC opens the floodgates to hordes of the academically unfit, standards will plummet. We've heard it before, as when the University of Texas system enacted its "top 10 percent" law after the 1996 federal appeals court ruling in the Hopwood case, which ordered the state's universities to end their affirmative action programs. Beginning in 1997, any Texas high school senior graduating in the top 10 percent of her class earned automatic admission to Texas public universities--regardless of SAT scores. Did this produce the collapse of a great university? Hardly. At the flagship University of Texas, at Austin, SAT scores of students admitted under the top 10 percent law, as expected, fell markedly compared with their peers from pre-Hopwood days. And yet, their classroom performance actually bettered their pre-Hopwood counterparts (that is, those in the top 10 percent who did meet the SAT threshold), holding steady even in engineering, business and science. To top it off, by 2000, enrollments of Hispanics and African-Americans had been restored to their pre-Hopwood levels.
Ultimately, UC's faculty senate and the Regents could dash Atkinson's hopes for a new era in the university's approach to college admissions. Nevertheless, he has accomplished something of unquantifiable benefit by helping to pry open a badly needed debate about the meaning of merit in American higher education. Will we be a nation that judges young people based on what they have accomplished and what they've overcome to do so, or by how well they fill in bubbles on a standardized test that is itself of questionable merit?
Why The Sopranos is therapeutic TV.
Last month, the Boston Globe broke the amazing news that President George W. Bush is rapidly becoming the Pericles of modern politics.
I have eaten more than my share of Whoppers in my forty-one years. As a teenager I liked them so much I'd worry about whether I could afford another one while still eating the first. As I got older, my concerns centered less on the cost to my wallet than to my waistline. Today, thanks to two new books, I have a new fear: the prospect of everlasting damnation.
Eric Schlosser's Fast-Food Nation is a frightening and disturbing update of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Spend a few hours with Schlosser and you'll become more intimately acquainted with your ground beef than you ever wanted to be. Consider the people who get the meat into your waiting fingers. The injury rate among meatpackers is the highest of any US occupation. Every year about one-third of all slaughterhouse workers--roughly 43,000 men and women--suffer an injury or an illness that requires first aid on the job. Given the inevitable exchange of blood and other bodily fluids in which these injuries result, their oppression is your health hazard. The same goes for the burger-flippers behind the grill. Fast-food employees are the largest group of low-paid workers in the United States today, earning on average $5.74 an hour. One-quarter of the workers in the restaurant industry are estimated to earn the minimum wage--a higher proportion than in any other US industry. (No wonder the National Restaurant Association is perhaps this nation's most vociferous opponent of living-wage laws.) Again, worker oppression results in consumer health peril. Reading Schlosser, we hear stories of teenage workers serving meat after dropping it on the floor, picking their noses into the food, smoking on the job and watching cockroaches and rats feed and defecate on unprepared foods.
A single hamburger often contains beef from dozens up to hundreds of cattle from as many as six countries. If just one morsel becomes infected with the E. coli microbe, the burger can kill you. For the luckier ones, it can result in kidney failure, anemia, internal bleeding, seizure, stroke and coma. As company lawyers pay victims in exchange for their silence, in the past eight years some half-million Americans, mostly kids, have become seriously ill from E. coli infections. Every week, a few of them die.
I've not even said a word about the economic and environmental destruction the industry routinely wreaks on the farmland it controls, the neighborhood mom and pop operations it destroys, and the evil mind-games it plays with our children. (The McDonald's corporation, the world's largest owner of retail property, is also its leading spender on advertising and marketing, much of it directed at small children.) And forget mad cow.
Still hungry? Peter Singer's new collection, Writings on an Ethical Life, asks you to think again. Singer, whose musings on "speciesism" single-handedly jump-started the animal rights movement a quarter-century ago, wants to know what right you have to be eating what was once a conscious being in the first place. "All consumers of animal products are responsible for the existence of cruel practices involved in producing them. Our moral responsibility should compel us to avoid hamburgers because every time we eat one we are contributing to a cycle of suffering not only of animals, but also of humans, for the grain used to feed the animals we consume is more than enough to end hunger in many less industrialized and affluent countries." (If you want stomach-turning evidence of rampant anti-animal sadism in the beef industry, check out Schlosser's account of a visit to a slaughterhouse "somewhere in the high plains.")
All right, let's say you do decide to transform your life, swearing off not only animals and fish but also dairy. You are now a vegan, and you decide to celebrate by taking your family out to a fancy new neighborhood health-food restaurant serving only the most high-minded meals of vegetables, fruit, nuts and berries. Not so fast, says Singer. The $200 or so you are about to spend on a meal you don't really need would help transform a sickly 2-year-old into a healthy 6-year-old somewhere in the Third World--offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. If instead of going out to dinner, you dial either (800) 367-5437 for UNICEF or (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam and give them your credit card number and 200 bucks, that child will live instead of die. If you go out to dinner instead--well, sorry, but the kid is dead.
OK, now let's say you donated the money--I hope you did--and decide to go out to dinner anyway. Is that enough? Not really, I'm afraid. There are millions more starving kids out there, and I'm guessing you've got more than $200 you don't really need. I know your friends and relatives don't seem to be giving away their extra money, but most people didn't resist the Nazis or Stalinists when they had the chance, either. Does that make it right?
Here's the problem. I can't answer any of these arguments, but I can ignore them. At least I intend to (except for the $200 one--I did stop in the middle of writing this article to fork over $200 to Oxfam). The trouble seems to be that I'm a massive hypocrite. I make sacrifices for my principles but not, apparently, ones involving hamburgers and steaks. I like them too much, torture or no torture, starving kids or no starving kids, E. coli risk or no E. coli risk.
Being an American, you are probably no better. We are the wealthiest people in all human history, and yet our government does not even come close to meeting the extremely modest United Nations-recommended target of a set-aside of 0.7 percent of GDP to overseas aid agencies. Our piddling 0.1 percent is less than one-third of Japan's contribution and a tenth of Denmark's. Don't tell me that these organizations are inefficient at feeding people. Everybody is inefficient at everything. They are good enough. Singer, a vegan who gives away 20 percent of his salary as a tenured faculty member at Princeton, insists that there is "something incoherent about living a life where the conclusions you came to in ethics did not make any difference to your life." He's right. We're living a morally incoherent life, you and I. And as Schlosser demonstrates ad nauseam, it's even pretty stupid from the standpoint of our own self-interest. So how do we justify it?
I wish I knew.
Unchastened by the widespread denunciation of their election decisions, the Supreme Court's conservative bloc seems determined to continue using its one-vote majority to ram through an assault on Congressional power. Two recent cases illustrate how indifferent the conservatives have become to traditional notions of the separation of powers, fidelity to constitutional and statutory text and their own rhetoric about judicial restraint. This time the victims were the disabled and the environment.
In 1995 Patricia Garrett, a director of nursing at the University of Alabama Hospital, was demoted after taking time off for lengthy breast cancer treatment. She sued the state for damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and won in the lower courts. In February, however, the Court's five conservatives ruled that the Eleventh Amendment barred her suit and dismissed it (University of Alabama v. Garrett).
In six decisions since 1993, the five conservatives have ruled--usually over angry dissents by the other Justices--that suits against a state are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to enforce rights guaranteed by that amendment by "appropriate legislation," has, however, been held to override the Eleventh Amendment. Garrett tried to use that precedent. The 5-4 majority refused. As they read the legislative record supporting the ADA, Congress had not shown a need for the law.
The Eleventh Amendment merely denies federal courts the authority to hear suits against a state by residents of another state. The conservative majority has, however, interpreted it to incorporate the ancient and now-discredited sovereign immunity doctrine, the notion that "the king can do no wrong." As a result, state governments do not have to compensate their victims for state misconduct, no matter how egregious. And the conservative majority has applied this even to suits by a state's own residents, as in the Garrett case, and to suits in state courts for state violations of federally created rights, despite the express language of the amendment limiting it to suits by out-of-staters in federal courts.
As for Section 5, Rehnquist recognized that it grants Congress leeway in deciding how to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, particularly when it comes to finding the facts and shaping a remedy. But then he cavalierly dismissed thirteen Congressional hearings, a report by a national task force that took testimony in all fifty states, census results and other studies as well as about 300 examples of state discrimination against the disabled, all cited in Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent. Even if all this did show a pattern of discrimination, Rehnquist wrote, Congress hadn't proved that the discrimination was "irrational," which he has defined elsewhere as "patently arbitrary." To comply with such a rule, however, Congress would have to evaluate the evidence for each of the instances of discrimination it relies on, an obvious impossibility and never before required of a legislative body. As a result, states can now violate Congressionally created rights for the elderly, pregnant women, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and others with impunity, for they know they won't have to pay anything if sued.
Some six weeks earlier, the conservative Justices used a different technique in their campaign to undermine federal authority. Under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers regulates the discharge of landfill into "waters of the United States." In 1986 the corps issued a regulation, the migratory bird rule, which read the statute to include all wetlands used as habitat by migratory birds. When some Chicago suburbs tried to convert an isolated gravel pit that had become a pond used by migratory birds into a waste disposal site, the corps refused to allow it.
In another opinion by Rehnquist, the five conservatives struck down the corps regulation (Solid Waste Agency v. US Army Corps of Engineers). The pond was not connected to navigable waters, and for the majority this raised "significant constitutional and federalism questions" about whether Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce gave it jurisdiction over such sites. To avoid deciding the question, the majority said the Clean Air Act was not intended to authorize the migratory bird rule.
Reading statutes narrowly to avoid deciding "significant" constitutional questions is not unusual. But here there are no "significant" constitutional questions. A 1920 Supreme Court decision held that Congress may regulate matters affecting migratory birds, especially since bird-watching and hunting involve millions of people who spend billions of dollars on their recreation. The only way the conservative majority could justify striking down the migratory bird rule was by misapplying the avoidance rule.
Traditional deference to Congress has been replaced with a hostility and distrust not seen since the 1930s. And just as in the thirties, the conservative Justices' repeated blows at Congressional power constitute a major threat to Congress's ability to "promote the general welfare." So far the victims have included battered women, Indians, the elderly, gun control, the environment, the disabled. There will almost certainly be more.
For now, little can be done. But we can do something about the future. George W. Bush was put into office by Justices who have persistently cut into federal power in order to promote right-wing interests. We must persuade senators--of both parties--to block any Justices nominated by Bush who will pursue the same judicial agenda. Otherwise any Congressional or executive efforts to make this a more decent, safer America will be undermined by these Justices for years to come.
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