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As if the back streets of our local city

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

offer a reprise of love itself, a careless love

rendered grand and persuasive

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

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

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

holler from the passageway. It's always conclusive

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

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

having forgotten everything--your money, the list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After years of collecting evidence against Slobodan Milosevic, the
prosecutors at The Hague expected a decisive victory. But as the former
Yugoslav president, who insisted on defending himself, began his opening
statement at his war crimes trial last February, his accusers realized
they'd got more than they
had bargained for. Ever the wily politician, Milosevic railed that the
trial was a political farce staged by an illegal court determined to
rewrite history and condemn not only him but the entire Serbian nation.

But if Milosevic's assault was an irritant, it should have come as no
surprise. After all, his arguments hark back to those of one of our most
renowned modern philosophers. Indeed, behind every contemporary war
crimes tribunal, it seems, looms the shadow of Hannah Arendt. Reflecting
on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, Arendt raised some of the same
sorts of objections. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt took to
task the prosecution, which she claimed transformed the trial of one
Nazi functionary into a stage for manipulating history and
indoctrinating future generations. For prosecutors to use the trial of
an individual to expose and judge the atrocities of an entire war,
Arendt wrote, "can only detract from the law's main business: to weigh
the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment and to mete
out due punishment." To Arendt, a criminal trial could never truly
respond to the scale of Nazi atrocities: "It is quite conceivable that
certain political responsibilities among nations might some day be
adjudicated in an international court; what is inconceivable is that
such a court would be a criminal tribunal which pronounced on the guilt
or innocence of individuals."

Yet modern war crimes tribunals are attempting to do just that, and
Arendt's arguments stand as a persistent challenge--one that is sure to
take on more urgency as the first permanent international criminal court
begins its work, over vehement US opposition (the Bush Administration
has just announced it is renouncing President Clinton's signature of the
treaty creating the court). In The Key to My Neighbor's House,
Elizabeth Neuffer, a reporter for the Boston Globe, implicitly
takes it on. Although Neuffer doesn't discuss Arendt's views directly,
her portrayal of the international criminal tribunals for the former
Yugoslavia and Rwanda ultimately serve as a persuasive reply.

Neuffer devotes the first half of her book to the 1990s conflicts in the
Balkans and Rwanda, interspersing stories of survivors with historical
and political analysis and intermittent on-the-scenes reporting. She
recounts how in each region, power-hungry nationalists exploited old
ethnic tensions to spark a genocide with political aims. Although not
always artfully told, the narrative effectively conveys the tragedy of
each war, highlighting horrors such as the shelling and siege of
Sarajevo, the fall of Srebrenica and the subsequent mass execution of
Muslim men and boys. Concerning Rwanda, she describes how escalating
tensions between Hutus and Tutsis grew increasingly violent until they
culminated in the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in less
than 100 days. Although detailed and heartfelt, such stories have been
told before (Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow
We Will Be Killed With Our Families
has become a classic on the
genocide in Rwanda). What Neuffer adds is a revealing portrait of the
two international tribunals where survivors eventually sought justice.
Her portrayal serves as convincing evidence that, contrary to Arendt's
contention, these courts can and should play more than a traditional
legalistic role.

Consider the story of Hamdo Kahrimanovic. A Muslim elementary school
principal from the Bosnian town of Kozarac, Hamdo was imprisoned in the
Omarska concentration camp in June 1992 after Serb nationalists took
over his hometown. At Omarska, Hamdo encountered his former student,
Dusan Tadic, now a gangster brutalizing camp inmates. When, four years
later, the Yugoslavia tribunal declared its first trial in session,
Tadic was in the dock. Hamdo, who had known Tadic all his life, was
called to testify.

At the trial, Neuffer recounts, the earnest American judge struggled to
understand how Bosnia could have so quickly degenerated from a
harmonious multi-ethnic state into a scene of genocide. "Perhaps you can
help me to understand since I am not from that area," she said. "How did
that happen?" Hamdo was at a loss. "I had the key to my next-door
neighbor's [house] who was a Serb and he had my key," he said, giving
Neuffer the title for her book. "That is how we looked after each
other." After the war broke out, "one did not know who to trust anymore
and I do not have a word of explanation for that."

As a legal matter, Hamdo's testimony was probably irrelevant to Tadic's
case. Yet it captured an important element of the tragedy of the Bosnian
war and haunted the judge long afterward. In contrast to Arendt's
formalistic view of a trial, Neuffer suggests here that the court's
attempt to record and understand the crimes that occurred is as
important as its judgment of any individual who caused the events.

In the end, Tadic was convicted of crimes against humanity but acquitted
of murder. Unfortunately, the press had lost interest by the time the
verdict was announced; few Bosnians even heard about it. Still, Neuffer
believes the trial was important, for "there is an innate human need for
some kind of reckoning, an accounting," she writes. Over time, such
accountings begin to have a palpable effect on survivors' lives. By
1999, the tribunal had indicted and arrested most of Kozarac's local
warlords, and Hamdo, his wife and about 240 other Muslim families were
able to return home, beginning the process of reconciliation.

The Rwanda tribunal's consequences similarly reach beyond isolated
convictions. We see this through the harrowing story of Witness JJ, as
she's called by the tribunal to protect her identity. A young Tutsi
woman, JJ managed to escape when Hutu extremists attacked her small
farming village of Taba. She sought refuge at the offices of the popular
local mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, whom she'd known since she was a girl.
But Akayesu soon turned on JJ and the other Tutsi women, joining in the
genocide and, as the tribunal's investigators eventually learned,
plotting a mass rape. JJ became one of those gang-rape victims, barely
escaping death. When Akayesu went on trial in 1997, JJ was called to
testify.

JJ provided critical testimony at Akayesu's trial--the first in which
rape was deemed an act of genocide and a crime against humanity. But the
experience contributed more than a legal precedent. Neuffer describes
how JJ, initially intimidated by the imposing courtroom, lawyers and
judges, began her testimony hesitantly. But she gained confidence as she
told her story, even under harsh cross-examination. "When I saw Akayesu
with my eyes in court, I was afraid," JJ said later. "But at the same
time, I had something heavy on my heart. After I testified, it went
away."

Unfortunately, the tribunal offered JJ little beyond that therapeutic
effect: It neither provided restitution nor helped survivors discover
what happened to lost family members. And to many Rwandans, tribunal
justice seems patently unfair: While more than 100,000 lower-level
accused genocidaires pack local prisons awaiting trials where
they face the death penalty, their ringleaders sat in a UN-run jail--with
its "state-of-the-art exercise room and wide-screen TV," as Neuffer
describes it. At most, they will receive life in prison.

The tribunals' problems, moreover, have been compounded by the West's
reluctance to provide necessary support. Created by the UN Security
Council, largely out of shame at the UN failure to intervene effectively
in either conflict, both courts have been stymied by lack of funds,
poorly trained staff, mismanagement and the inherent challenge of
creating a court that functions outside any established legal system.
The Yugoslavia tribunal, based in The Hague, faced in addition a
political snare: Peace negotiations were ongoing, so NATO members were
loath to have their troops arrest indicted war criminals still in
positions of power. The Rwanda tribunal, meanwhile, located in Arusha,
Tanzania, was marred by allegations of corruption.

Over time, both tribunals have improved. Neuffer's final assessment,
although qualified, is positive: "Tribunals, truth commissions, local
trials, government inquiries--are all part of the answer," she writes.

Neuffer's book is similarly a qualified success. While well researched
and comprehensive, it tries to do too much. Neuffer is so eager to
humanize the survivors, for example, that she frequently tries to
re-create their sentiments in a manner that seems forced and
unnecessary. And Neuffer's personal commentary is sometimes strained. In
an apparent nod to Arendt's famous observation about the banality of
evil, Neuffer ponders her meeting with a man who participated in the
Srebrenica massacre: "The evil I glimpsed in him was the potential for
evil we all share.... What's most chilling when you meet a murderer is
that you meet yourself." Such extrapolations are neither convincing nor
necessary. As Arendt herself recognized, we don't all have the potential
to become thoughtless murderers. Moreover, Neuffer would surely agree
that those who commit the crime ought to be held responsible. Indeed,
she takes the point further: Even if Tadic, like Adolf Eichmann, was
only a cog in a murderous machine, the goal of such a prosecution is
greater than the conviction of the individual.

Lawrence Douglas makes that argument forcefully in The Memory of
Judgment
. An associate professor of law, jurisprudence and social
thought at Amherst College, Douglas writes about the trials of the
Holocaust. Though he takes a more analytic approach than Neuffer's,
examining in often painstaking detail the legal charges and evidence
introduced to support them, Douglas arrives at a similar judgment:
Despite their problems, these legal proceedings provide a form of
justice that's more comprehensive than any individual verdict.

Beginning with the 1945-46 Nuremberg trial of Nazi leaders, Douglas goes
on to discuss Israel's prosecution of Eichmann, followed by several more
recent trials: the 1987 Israeli trial of John (Ivan) Demjanjuk; the
French trial of Klaus Barbie that same year; and Canada's two trials of
a Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel, in 1985 and 1988. Although a critic of
the trial strategies, Douglas comes down a champion of law's potential.

Unlike Neuffer, Douglas takes on Arendt directly, challenging her view
that the law should judge only the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Although he recognizes the tension between strictly applying law to the
facts of one case and creating a broader historical record, he believes
a war crimes tribunal can do both. Unlike Arendt, he's not bothered by
the idea of a show trial--indeed, the spectacle is precisely one of the
aims. Although he concludes that the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials were
more successful in their didactic aims than were the trials of
Demjanjuk, Barbie and Zundel, all were, in a sense, show trials,
"designed to show the world the facts of astonishing crimes and to
demonstrate the power of law to reintroduce order into a space evacuated
of legal and moral sense."

Nuremberg, of course, was the touchstone. But Douglas believes that
trial was hampered by the prosecutor's insistence on fitting the Nazis'
unprecedented crimes into conventional legal standards--precisely the
legalistic approach Arendt might have advocated. Eager to use the most
reliable proof, they based their case on documents, flooding the court
with paper and numbing the audience to its contents. The result was an
eleven-month trial that produced, as Rebecca West wrote in The New
Yorker
, "boredom on a huge historic scale."

The more dramatic moments of the trial, meanwhile, were the most legally
problematic. Take, for example, the screening of the innocuously titled
film Nazi Concentration Camps, which Douglas analyzes in detail.
Made by Allied army officers at the time of liberation, the hourlong
black-and-white documentary reveals camp prisoners with "the twisted
facial geometries and afflicted eyes of the demented," writes Douglas.
The horrors increase as the camera moves from one camp to the next,
lingering on emaciated, naked bodies piled upon one another, unclear if
they are dead or alive. German citizens, meanwhile, are presented as
complicit: "smiling Weimar women, dressed in their Sunday best,
strolling along a tree-lined road, on their way to view the camps by
'invitation' of the Americans."

The response in the courtroom, Douglas recounts, was a stunned silence.
The images, it seemed, spoke for themselves. But what exactly did they
say? The film, whose introduction violated basic rules of evidence,
never indicated who was responsible for the horrors portrayed. Nor did
it name or even accurately convey the crimes committed. Instead of
defining them as crimes against humanity, it presented them as crimes of
war. For political and procedural reasons, crimes against humanity were
defined in such a cramped manner that the term barely surfaced during
the trial. Likewise, genocide, although mentioned in the indictment and
in closing arguments, was otherwise never raised. So eager were the
prosecutors to fit the square peg of the Holocaust atrocities into the
round hole of conventional legal forms that they ultimately distorted
the truth. Although the defendants were appropriately convicted, Douglas
maintains that the historic and didactic impact of the trial was
severely limited by the prosecution's adherence to the most conventional
construction of the law.

In the Eichmann trial, the Israeli prosecutors were determined to do
better. Here, survivor testimony, rather than documents, was central to
the case, providing "the dramatic focus of the trial" and building "a
bridge from the accused to the world of ashes," writes Douglas. But the
Eichmann prosecution made miscalculations of its own. In the Israeli
attorney general's effort to reach beyond proving Eichmann's guilt to
portraying the vast crimes of the entire Holocaust, he opened himself up
to Arendt's criticism that the trial had lost its legitimacy. More than
100 survivors testified about their experiences--a form of "national
group therapy." But while their stories reminded the world of the Nazi
atrocities, they were mostly not about Eichmann.

Eichmann, meanwhile, eerily encased in a glass booth, was presented as a
vicious animal. As the Gestapo's expert on Jewish affairs, though,
Eichmann was not a Nazi leader; he was a bureaucrat, the epitome of what
Arendt describes as "the terrifyingly normal" person who commits
horrendous crimes. Yet the portrayal of him as a monster served the
prosecution's aim of reminding the public of the Third Reich's evil, as
well as the laws demanding that Eichmann's crimes be intentional ones.

To Arendt, the trial also failed as a legal matter because rather than
charging Eichmann with crimes against humanity, the prosecutors, eager
to bolster the political identity of the state of Israel and its new
citizens, framed the charges more narrowly, as crimes against the Jews.
By rejecting the broader legal category, argues Arendt, the prosecutors
failed to create what should have been an important precedent for future
cases.

Douglas acknowledges these problems but insists that Arendt's criteria
for success are too narrow. Such trials should do more than apply the
law and reach a judgment; they should create an accurate historical
record and shape collective memory, he maintains. The Eichmann trial was
a legal success, then, "insofar as it transformed understanding of what
the law can and should do in the wake of traumatic history."

Douglas is far less sanguine about the later Holocaust trials, which he
claims obfuscated the very history they were intended to enlighten. The
Zundel trial, in particular, applied legal procedural rules so strictly
that much of the evidence of Nazi crimes was excluded, allowing
Holocaust deniers to turn the trial into a forum for revisionist
history.

Although for the most part he is thorough and convincing, Douglas
occasionally stumbles. For example, he doesn't adequately respond to
Arendt's charge that a domestic trial of an individual accused of
committing an international atrocity can fall prey to political agendas
that distort the historical record. His point about truth commissions
also misses the mark. Douglas maintains that truth commissions are
inadequate because "a trial without judgment is like a race without a
finish--it lacks the sine qua non of dramatic closure that frames and
adds meaning to the shared narratives." But the real shortcoming of
truth commissions is that they don't fulfill two important aims of
criminal law: retribution and deterrence. Douglas is dismissive of the
notion that war crimes trials can have a deterrent effect, but he
shouldn't be. Domestic courts or ad hoc tribunals may be less likely to
deter would-be international law violators, but a permanent
international criminal court that systematically and effectively
prosecutes perpetrators could certainly, over time, do just that.

In coining the phrase "the banality of evil," Arendt observed that an
unthinking person might discard his own moral compass when a new one is
imposed. Ironically, that notion cries out for a far broader role for
criminal tribunals than Arendt would have countenanced. An established
international court that both judges individuals accused of widespread
atrocities and records the experiences of survivors could act as a moral
counterweight to domestic totalitarian leaders. Such a court holds out
the promise not only of deterring the potential architects of organized
brutality but of humanizing their victims in a way that even the most
thoughtless functionary might find difficult to ignore.

Nearly fifty years ago, in Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse
suggested that homosexuals (then the current term) might
someday--because of their "rebellion against the subjugation of
sexuality under the order of procreation"--provide a cutting-edge social
critique of vast importance. Marcuse's prophecy may have come to pass.
Or so some are claiming.

There is mounting evidence that a distinctive set of values has
emerged among gay people (despite enormous variations in their
lifestyles) in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary
relationships, friendships and family. One even increasingly hears the
claim that gay "differentness" isn't just a defensible variation but a
decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives
could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range
of human possibilities for everyone. That is, if the mainstream
were listening, which it isn't.

The mainstream's antenna remains tuned to a limited number of
frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move
right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest
guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either
male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics)
is rooted in biology. Those queers who look and sound like "normal"
people (or are at least able to fake it in public)--meaning, mostly,
well-mannered, clean-cut white men and lipstick lesbians--are
being welcomed into the mainstream in mounting numbers.

But the armed guards at the gates continue to bar admission to (as they
might put it) overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers or
dickless "men" and surgically created "women" delusionally convinced
that they're part of some nonexistent group called the "transgendered."
The mainstream somehow senses that the more different the outsider, the
greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon
superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously
seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves
that they prefer to keep under lock and key.

But what happens when "normal-looking" queers start asserting how
different from you they actually are--and start lecturing you about how
abnormal your own proclaimed normalcy is? Take, for example, the
arguments that David Nimmons puts forth in his new book, The Soul
Beneath the Skin
. His focus is on precisely those privileged urban
gay white men who, judged by outward demeanor, closely resemble
stereotypical heterosexual males; they don't look or act at all like
those phantasmagoric renegades, the transgendered. Yet according to
Nimmons, standard-issue gay males have birthed a strikingly different
(and, he claims, superior) set of personal ethics and community
institutions. These are guys, for God's sake, who hang out in gyms and
look like football players! Yet far from being your average macho Joes,
their subculture is, Nimmons claims, marked by "a striking range of
cultural innovations."

What are its chief identifying features? In the past, the question has
typically been answered by referencing a set of negative stereotypes
that emphasize an obsession with buffed bodies, drug-driven dancing
marathons, "circuit" parties of profligate sexual excess, a devotion to
consumerism that excludes politics and the life of the mind, and a
ruthless narcissism that denies entry to its playgrounds to all but
stunning young white male bodies reeking of Ecstasy and attitude.

In The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons builds a strong
countercase, favorably contrasting gay male values with those associated
with heterosexual men. Urban gay life, for instance, is notable for the
absence of community violence. The gay male bar scene rarely spawns
shouting matches, brawls or an exchange of blows. Our dances, parades,
political rallies and marches are suffused with drama but nearly devoid
of ferocity.

We also have a high rate of volunteerism. According to one large-scale
study, the gay cohort volunteered 61 percent more time to nonprofit
organizations than did the heterosexual one--and divided its charitable
contributions nearly equally between gay and nongay causes. Gay men,
moreover, consistently score higher than straight men on studies that
attempt to measure empathy and altruism. We perceive
discrimination against others more readily than other men do, and we're
more likely to have friends across lines of color, gender, religion and
politics. It's telling that during the trial of Matthew Shepard's
murderers, nearly every leading national gay and lesbian organization
publicly opposed the death penalty. Cruelly treated for generations, we
practice tenderness and tolerance more than other oppressed minority
groups--who tend to treat us with contempt and disdain.

Nimmons also applauds the premium that many (though certainly not all)
gay men put on being emotionally expressive and sexually innovative--for
the compelling way we've reworked the rules governing erotic
exploration, friendship and coupledom. In regard to couples, he argues
that the community ideal (even if only approximated in practice) is one
of mutuality and egalitarianism--which again sets us apart from
stereotypical straight men, some of whom spout egalitarian rhetoric but
few of whom carry their fair share of domestic responsibilities.

I find much of what Nimmons has to say persuasive--indeed, a recent
British study, Same Sex Intimacies, by Jeffrey Weeks, Brian
Heaphy and Catherine Donovan, confirms gay male distinctiveness beyond
the borders of the United States. Still, I do have problems with some
aspects of Nimmons's argument. The most serious derive from his lack of
clarity about whether he's primarily defending the limited number of
urban, privileged, mostly white men who make up the gym/circuit/Fire
Island Pines crowd, or whether he's mounting a broader defense of gay
male culture as a whole.

He wobbles back and forth, though he finally does seem more interested
in sticking up for the small circuit set than in burnishing the image of
the general gay male community. In my view, though, the distinctive set
of values that he catalogues more justly apply to the latter than the
former. I've made dozens of trips over several decades to the Pines, for
example, and can say only that Nimmons's description of it as "a form of
queer kibbutz" where "an easy male affection suffuses the air" is
wildly at odds with my experience of it as a smug, fatuously snotty
watering hole for the very rich or very beautiful.

I also think that Nimmons overdraws the contrasts between gay and
straight men and overcredits our "stunning cultural accomplishment[s]."
After all, Hugh Hefner made some contribution to the "erotic
innovations" that so enthrall Nimmons. And experimental patterns in
sexuality and relating date back at least to the countercultural 1960s
(not to mention the nineteenth-century Oneida community, the Bloomsbury
crowd or the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1920s). Nimmons also
minimizes the notable shifts in attitude that characterize today's
younger generation of heterosexuals. In simplistically insisting that
"the icy winds of sexual repression...have swept across the
[heterosexual] American landscape," Nimmons fails to understand how
broadly attitudes about sex and gender have shifted, especially in urban
areas, as traditional notions of what constitutes a "family" or a
"viable" relationship come under increasing scrutiny.

Nimmons is better at delineating gay male distinctiveness than
accounting for it. He establishes the fact of gay male peaceableness,
for example--and does so with style and verve--but he's of little help
in explaining it, other than to remark in passing that "gay men might be
biologically a gentler species of male." But it seems to me far more
likely that our nonviolent behavior originates in our historical
experience. Having been subjected for generations to gay-bashing and
police brutality, we've learned, out of prudence and fear, not to let
our anger show in public. Tellingly, it does show in private: The
rate of domestic violence among both gay men and lesbians ranks right up
there with heterosexual violence. (The latest of many studies to confirm
that is No More Secrets, by Janice Ristock.) We're not devoid of
rage; we're unwittingly passive-aggressive, taking out the aggressive
side in the comparative safety of our homes--or on ourselves, through
the abuse of alcohol and drugs.

But Nimmons, prone to inspirational excess (as when he writes about "the
centrality of bliss and play in our lives"--sure, try telling that to
the legions of poor gay people), is impatient with introspection. He
sneeringly refers, at one point, to "the reigning queer academic
chatter--uh, sorry, discourse," showing no awareness of how much queer
(and feminist) theory has contributed to the "new culture" whose virtues
he trumpets.

Besides, he has ideological allegiances of his own, though he reveals
them off-handedly. Phrases like "hard-wired," "essential components" and
"innate tendency" are sprinkled throughout Soul, tipping
Nimmons's deterministic hand. They're sprinkled, not boldly embraced,
and Nimmons frequently inserts a tepid disclaimer to protect his flank:
"There is much to argue with in any strict sociobiological view," he
says at one point, but never tells us how much. He even drops in
a little spiritualist fairy dust now and then, as when suggesting that
those involved in the party circuit are, in their pursuit of "rapture"
and "bliss," direct descendants of "ancient shamans."

No, we have to look elsewhere for deeper insight into the origins and
significance of the gay male version of masculinity. I have two offbeat
candidates in mind: Talmudic studies and relational psychoanalysis. The
towering figure in Talmudic studies these days is Daniel Boyarin of the
University of California, Berkeley. His 1997 book Unheroic
Conduct
is a work of immense importance, all at once astonishingly
erudite, witty, playful and boldly speculative. As its reputation
spreads, it's beginning to roil the waters far beyond Talmudic studies.

Boyarin's basic thesis--though this summary won't do justice to its
supple byways--is that traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture produced,
in opposition to the Roman model of the powerful, aggressive, violent
warrior, a cultural ideal of masculinity that valorized gentleness,
nurturance, emotional warmth, nonviolence, inwardness and studiousness.
These characteristics were associated with sexual desirability, not
sexlessness--in contrast to the somewhat comparably pacific early
Christian model of maleness associated with the desexualized St.
Francis. This doesn't mean, Boyarin emphasizes, that orthodox Ashkenazic
culture was sympathetic to women (who were excluded from power) or to
homoeroticism (though male sexual attraction to other males does not
seem to have been considered abnormal).

By the nineteenth century, the now stereotypical figure of the
"feminized" Jewish man had become, in the minds of many Jews, a
roadblock to assimilation; a successful effort (joined by Freud and
Theodor Herzl, among others) was made to discredit the once-privileged
model of a gentler, more nurturant masculinity as either the
pathological product of the Diaspora or a figment of the anti-Semitic
imagination.

Boyarin wants to reclaim the earlier tradition. He believes, and I'd
agree, that restoring the once-revered model would greatly help to
destabilize binary notions of gender, would emancipate men and women
from roles that currently constrict their human possibilities. The
critical recovery of the past would, in Boyarin's words, make for the
redemption of the future. The implications of Boyarin's work are
breathtaking. By reclaiming a radically different--and socially
constructed--model of masculinity, he wreaks havoc with simplistic
biological determinism and offers us a previously unsighted path toward
social change.

As a champion of the gentle, inward male, Boyarin has to confront the
macho muscularity of the circuit culture, and he does so in a typically
nuanced way. Himself an openly gay man, Boyarin has no trouble
appreciating, on one level, the beauty of the gym-built gay male body.
But unlike Nimmons, who uncomplicatedly exalts it, Boyarin warns that
the emphasis on powerful muscularity reinforces "the dimorphism of the
gendered body and thus participates... in the general cultural standard
of masculinity rather than resisting it." In contributing to the notion
that only one kind of male body is desirable, the gym stud-bunny is
helping to reinforce the valorization of "topness" over receptivity that
already dominates our culture, sexual and otherwise.

The macho-looking gay male is also serving another negative function.
The gym-built body, imitative of stereotypical maleness, all but
announces that "No Sissy Lives Here," thereby encouraging gay men
(including the stud-bunnies themselves) to bury and deny the
gender-discordant traits that made so many of us feel painfully
different in childhood--to repudiate, in other words, "woman-identified"
aspects of the self. ("Gender-discordant" is a necessary but troublesome
term, implying as it does that we know what a gender-concordant
model looks like and that it exists cross-culturally and is superior.
The fine essays in Matthew Rottnek's Sissies and Tomboys further
explore these issues.)

I suspect that if we really do care about breaking down the gender
binary, the place to look for inspiration is not Gold's Gym but the
increasingly visible transgender movement, offering as it does a radical
remodeling of traditional "masculinity" and "femininity." Transgendered
people and gender-discordant gay men are notably absent from Nimmons's
book. So, too, is any discussion of lesbian culture ("Lesbians and gay
men inhabit radically different worlds," is Nimmons's weak
justification). Not accidentally, those who are transgendered,
gender-discordant or lesbian are also rarely seen, if not actually
barred from, the circuit party network. Yet all three belong at the
heart of any comprehensive discussion of a "new" gay culture.

The extent of gender discordance among gay men hasn't been a
front-burner topic since the early 1970s, when radical gay
liberationists championed an androgynous ideal. It's time to stop
avoiding the topic. Boyarin has provided us with a historical context
for dealing with it, and the psychiatrist Richard Isay (among others)
has offered us some provocative contemporary data.

In a 1999 paper in the journal Psychiatry, Isay insists that all
of the several hundred gay men he's treated over the past thirty years
exhibited gender-discordant traits in childhood. (Such traits, it should
be pointed out, are not confined to children who later develop a
same-gender erotic preference: Some fifteen years ago, Richard Green, in
his much-contested book The "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development
of Homosexuality
, found that roughly a third of the
gender-discordant male children he studied became, as adults,
heterosexual in orientation.)

If one accepts--as I do, but Isay does not--the queer theory argument
that "male" and "female" gender roles are not to any significant degree
intrinsic--that is, biologically determined--but are primarily, and
perhaps even exclusively, the products of learning and repetitive
performance, then "gender discordance" becomes something of a non
sequitur: Where all boys are capable of (perhaps even, in the earliest
years, inclined toward) a female-identified--which may be the same as
saying transgendered--self-image and presentation, then no particular
gender configuration can legitimately be seen as "deviant." Boyarin's
Ashkenazic Jews--men whose avoidance of what we call "rough and tumble"
play would, by contemporary standards, be branded as "sissy"--were in
their own culture esteemed as ideal representatives of maleness.

That model of manliness has nothing in common with the currently
fashionable incantation--itself harking back to Jungian twaddle about
"anima" and "animus"--that men "need to get in touch with their feminine
side." No, it's about the need to reinvent for everyone, male and
female, more fluid, expansive self-definitions; it's about moving beyond
gender conformity, beyond gender itself, to molding individually
satisfying selfhoods.

Isay's concern is with current suffering, not with a futuristic path
that might circumvent it. "Gender-discordant" boys, taunted at school
and berated at home (especially by their fathers), internalize the view
that something is "wrong with them," that they're "not OK." And most of
them, from an early age, struggle to divest themselves of the
disapproved behavior--of all traces of effeminacy. The psychic cost, as
Isay points out, is high. In repudiating aspects of the self that could
be read as feminine, the male (straight or gay) does deep injury to his
affective life, including the loss of emotional expressiveness and
resilience, possible separation trauma from the forcibly disavowed yet
still adored mother, and the need to avoid relationships that might
evoke any resurgence of "feminine" traits.

Such speculations should, at a minimum, make us ponder precisely what is
"transformative" (as Nimmons and others claim) about the gym/circuit
culture. Is it expanding our range of expressive options--or narrowing
them? I think we should be wary, too, of the paeans to "erotic
adventuring" that fill The Soul Beneath the Skin (and much of gay
male discourse). I used to write such paeans myself, so feel free to
chalk up my current uncertainty to the onset of old age and the loss of
vital fluids.

We need to keep in mind that there's enormous variation in how gay men
conduct their sexual lives. Even before AIDS, only about 20 percent of
the gay male population pursued erotic exploration in any sustained
way--about the same percentage as those who chose celibacy. Still, even
among long-term gay male couples, roughly three-quarters of them define
"fidelity" in terms of emotional commitment rather than sexual
faithfulness--a much higher percentage than is found among either
lesbian or heterosexual couples.

Nimmons considers this rescripting of monogamy in primary relationships
a "creative" phenomenon. Certainly there's plenty of evidence to support
the view that monogamy is comparatively rare among animal species. In
their recent book The Myth of Monogamy, the husband and wife team
of David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton offer a barrage of information to
the effect that monogamy is "not natural" and certainly "not easy." But
Barash and Lipton also argue that there is no better alternative, "that
open, unstructured, and nonrestrictive sexual relationships" do not make
people happier.

Nimmons is certain they do, and it's a view widely shared among his
crowd of urban gay men. They could be right, but the argument needs to
be mounted, not merely affirmed. When Nimmons claims that gay men have
built "the most complex, flourishing, nuanced sexual culture the planet
has known," it can only mean he's never heard of the Kama Sutra.

And although it may be true that gay people talk "a whole lot dirtier
with spouses and lovers" than straight people do, I wouldn't be too
quick to equate that with either "a stunning cultural accomplishment" or
a revolution--no, not even if we include such additional innovations as
"fuck buddies," "orgy rooms," "glory holes" and "lube guns." Personally,
I'd rather reserve the word "revolution" for that halcyon day when we
manage to eradicate racism, poverty and the subjugation of women.

To be sure, the pursuit of bodily pleasure is, given our puritanical
traditions, decidedly a force for good. But too self-congratulatory a
focus on glutes and orgasms often seems yoked to an undernourished
political sense that comes across, ultimately, as a form of
provincialism light-years removed from any concern with the survival
issues that dominate and defeat most of the planet's
inhabitants--including most of its gay people.

Celebrating what is special and innovative in urban gay male life is a
needed antidote to generations of negative stereotyping. But simply
affirming our cultural achievements won't cut it. We need to weigh them
against theories and evidence that don't simply reflect our community's
self-referential values. A concrete example of what I have in mind would
be to incorporate into our debates about, say, primary relationships the
writings of Stephen Mitchell, one of the founders of relational
psychoanalysis and among the very first to challenge the once-standard
view of homosexuality as pathology. Mitchell's new, posthumously
published book, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, is
not aimed at a gay audience, but the questions it raises assuredly
apply.

The book throws unsettling light on the dynamics of longstanding
relationships, unsettling because Mitchell turns some cherished formulas
on their heads--like the view, shared by many gays and straights alike,
that erotic excitement and domesticity cannot coexist for long. The
usual explanation for their incompatibility is some version of
"familiarity breeds boredom." But in Mitchell's view, turning off to our
primary partner is essentially a function of risk management. We
separate sex and love because otherwise the stakes would be too
high--too likely to heighten dependency and vulnerability, too
threatening to our (illusory) sense of being in control of our lives.

And, Mitchell points out, this is more true for men than women. The
macho masculinity we privilege in our culture, Mitchell argues, is
"easily destabilized by dependency longings." Most men cannot
risk monogamy. And we give them an easy way out: Our cultural
script tells men that for them (unlike women), sexuality is rapacious
and indiscriminate; that the male libido demands adventure.

Mitchell reports that when his patients "complain of dead and lifeless
marriages, it is often possible to show them how precious the deadness
is to them, how carefully maintained and insisted upon." Long-term
partners "collapse their expectations of each other," he writes, "in
collusively arranged, choreographed routine."

We then relocate our sexual desire away from our primary partner,
telling ourselves that he or she has become too familiar to ignite
desire--whereas in fact we're fleeing the threat of deeper knowledge of
the other and deeper exposure of ourselves. We refuse to acknowledge
that our partner, far from having become wholly known or from being
securely centered, is a mysterious multiplicity of selves. But armed
with our denial of the other's (and our own) potential, we rush off to
our one-night stands, threesomes and orgies. Nimmons relabels erotic
adventuring "diffuse intimacy" (the "diffuse" part, anyway, is
unassailable), and urges us to applaud it. Yet in light of Mitchell's
sensitive distinctions, the applause seems too sweeping, too
psychologically naïve.

I'm deeply committed to ending the era of gay apologetics. But we need
to be on guard against the temptation to replace it with an era of
extravagant self-congratulation.

It was an early November morning when I met Gairam Muminov on the steps
of a courthouse on the outskirts of Tashkent, the sprawling capital of
Uzbekistan. He was leaning against a white stone banister, nervously
smoking a cigarette. His thin, sunburned face was carved with deep
furrows and strained by even

deeper worries, which seemed to manifest themselves most intensely
around his dark gray eyes. Inside the courthouse, local authorities were
keeping his son, Abdulvali, locked up for participating in a forbidden
religious group. Although Muminov's job as a builder prevented him from
attending the trial, the 57-year-old father had come that morning to
find out firsthand how long his son would be imprisoned. Abdulvali's
sentencing was scheduled to begin at 10 am.

When the time came, we entered the Akmal Ikramov District Court, a
rundown edifice of cheap marble and concrete located on a dusty road
beside the city's Police Station No. 2. Inside it was dim. On the first
floor, an unusually large, bone-dry fountain and a portrait of Uzbek
President Islam Karimov were visible beneath the few fluorescent lights.
The sentencing was to be held in a room on the second floor. Standing by
the door, in a gloomy hallway, were the families of nine other young
convicts who had been tried with Abdulvali. They waited in an atmosphere
of tense anticipation. Some mothers smoothed out their brightly
patterned dresses in silence; others explained why they thought this
case might be different: With the US-led war on terrorism under way and
renewed international attention brought to the Karimov regime's harsh
crackdown on independent religious expression, they hoped the usually
unforgiving Uzbek justice system might--just this once--tilt toward
leniency.

It was, in many ways, a farfetched hope. The ten men were arrested for
participating in the pan-Islamic group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, what
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book calls "the most
popular, widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan." The movement shuns violence but is no less radical because
of that. As Rashid explains, Central Asian acolytes of Hizb ut-Tahrir,
which was founded by dispossessed Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and
Jordan in 1953, foresee "a moment when millions of its supporters will
simply rise up and topple the Central Asian governments--particularly
the Karimov regime--by sheer force of numbers." In place of the region's
various secular states, the movement seeks to fashion a single
Taliban-style Islamic republic stretching from the Caspian Sea to
western China and beyond. It's a threat that the local autocracies, as
well as Washington, take seriously. According to its leadership, Hizb
ut-Tahrir has already attracted tens of thousands of members in the
region. And while two years ago the Clinton Administration narrowly
concluded that the movement did not sponsor terrorist activities, Rashid
argues: "The fear is that young [members]... may soon ignore their
elders' advice and turn to guerrilla warfare."

That fear may be somewhat hasty. But for the government in Tashkent, it
has been amplified by the activities of a much more militant insurgency
known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, whose leaders made
just such a transformation from nonviolence roughly ten years ago. Since
1998, when the IMU officially came into being, it has clashed with the
government forces of three states, engaged in kidnappings and the drug
trade, and engendered an atmosphere of distrust and hostility among the
region's strongmen. The movement's leadership has established close
links with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and even moved the IMU
headquarters to northern Afghanistan when the more welcoming Taliban
regime was in power. Uzbek President Karimov blames the IMU, among other
opposition groups, for detonating a series of car bombs in Tashkent in
February 1999. The explosions killed thirteen people, injured more than
a hundred and touched off the latest and harshest in a series of
government campaigns against independent religious expression and
political dissent. Following the bombings, Karimov announced that even
the fathers of sons who participated in IMU activities would be
arrested. "If my child chose such a path," he said, "I myself would rip
off his head."

However, again and again, Rashid rightly argues in Jihad: The Rise of
Militant Islam in Central Asia
that the growing popular support for
groups like the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir are largely a response to the
corrupt Karimov government's inability to bring even a modicum of
economic prosperity or democracy to Uzbekistan, the region's natural
axis of power. Central Asia has known harsh leadership and violent
upheaval before. Prior to the Soviets there were the czars, and prior to
the czars there were the local khans, who ruled brutally. However, when
the republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan fell into independence following the collapse of Communism,
they not only experienced a crisis of national identity (none had ever
existed before as an independent state), they also joined a more
integrated world, where political and economic expectations for open and
fair governance are arguably higher than they have ever been. All this,
at a moment of religious reawakening across the region.

In this context, Central Asia's radical Islamic movements were very much
forged in a modern political pressure cooker. "In a series of crackdowns
in 1992, 1993, and after 1997, Karimov arrested hundreds of ordinary
pious Muslims for alleged links with Islamic fundamentalists, accusing
them of being Wahhabis"--converts to the strict brand of Islam embraced
by the Taliban--"closing down mosques and madrassahs, and forcing
mullahs into jail or exile," Rashid writes. "The result of these
repressive policies has been the growth of exactly what Karimov feared:
extremist Islamic militancy."

A visit to Uzbek courts is a good way to see this machinery in motion:
the steady spinning of the gears that wind moderate Muslims into
radicals. Here too, the display is one of the precarious fragility of
Uzbekistan's current order, and I can think of no better corollary to
Rashid's careful descriptions of a region approaching the edge of chaos
than the observations of Bill Berkeley, a journalist who has spent
numerous years reporting from Africa. "Many suppose that tyranny and
anarchy are at opposite ends of a linear spectrum," Berkeley has
written. "But often they are side by side on what might better be
described as a circle: the one is a product of the other, and vice
versa." For a number of Central Asian states, that circle has been
getting tighter and tighter over the past decade, and the ouster of the
Taliban regime from Afghanistan has done little to prevent it from
shrinking toward its explosive focal point.

The anarchy of tyranny is starkly evident in a place like the Akmal
Ikramov District Court. After Gairam Muminov and the other families had
waited for several hours, frustration and impatience set in. A few
splintered off to find a bailiff or clerk, but no one was able to find
out when, exactly, the sentencing was to occur. An Uzbek journalist
waiting with me explained: "The authorities do this on purpose. They
want to wear people down; they are counting on people like you and me to
get tired, hungry. Maybe we will have to leave for business or lunch,
and then suddenly the doors will open and court begins. This way they
can say they are being open but attract the minimum amount of
attention." However, at 3 pm, when Judge Nizom Rustamov, a stout and
smug man in a shiny sharkskin suit, finally ambled up the courthouse
steps, a slightly different picture emerged--that of the unaccountable
bureaucrat who probably decided against rushing to work simply because
he could. Matilda Bogner, Uzbekistan's Human Rights Watch
representative, described the judge this way: "Rustamov is known to have
sentenced someone to the death penalty for possessing fertilizer at home
because fertilizer can be used as an ingredient in the making of
explosives."

Such capricious power infests Uzbekistan's neighboring governments as
well. As the Soviet Union began to implode, none of the five Central
Asian republics rushed to embrace independence, democracy or economic
reform. Indeed, leaderships in a number of the republics actively
plotted to stymie the demise of the Communist system, however rotted,
because it had been nourishing them so well. As Rashid demonstrates,
this reluctance to break away was to a large degree ironic, given the
region's vast reserves of natural resources--primarily in oil, gas and
minerals--and its potential for prosperity (not to mention the potential
to funnel that prosperity into the hands of local elites). Moreover, as
he points out, "the Soviet policies of closed borders, forced cotton
agriculture, farm collectivization, population relocation and--most
significant--Stalin's redrawing of the map of Central Asia to create
five incongruous states had left the region economically hard-pressed,
[and] ethnically and politically divided."

Ten years on, much of Central Asia remains mired in its Soviet
inheritances: petty and sometimes not-so-petty corruption are a part of
everyday life; news is censored, often heavily; dissidents are
imprisoned, exiled or caused to disappear; resources are squandered;
environmental damage continues unabated. Yet, as the region remains
politically and in many ways economically stagnant, it is experiencing a
demographic surge. "The population gets younger," Rashid notes. "More
than 60 percent of the region's 50 million people are under the age of
25. This new generation is unemployed, poorly educated, and hungry--how
long will it continue to tolerate the decline in living standards and
the lack of rudimentary freedoms?"

There is no easy answer to this question. And Rashid is shrewd enough to
avoid offering one. Just as he is sensitive to the dangers that could
well belong to the region's future, he shows with great nuance that
important differences among the five republics have already led to a
diversity of outcomes. Turkmenistan, for instance, is now ruled by a
bizarre hermit-dictator who had himself decreed President for Life, a
position he plans to hold until 2010, when he intends to retire.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, the only country of the five not to become an
immediate heir to its Soviet-era leader, has shown a promising
willingness to reform, even if that willingness has waned over the past
several years. However, if these two countries sit at the region's
political poles, the most intriguing case among them may be Tajikistan,
which in Rashid's eyes serves as both a warning and a potential model
for its neighbors.

Not long after the Soviet collapse, mountainous Tajikistan fell into a
five-year civil war that appeared to mirror the conditions in
neighboring Afghanistan. From 1992 to 1997 the multiparty conflict,
which primarily cut across clan lines but also included Islamic rebels,
democrats and former Communist bosses as the main combatants, claimed
the lives of more than 50,000 people and forced roughly 750,000 people
from their homes. In Rashid's view, the primary engine of that conflict
was the Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRP--Central Asia's first popular
Muslim fundamentalist movement--which led a unified band of rebel groups
from headquarters based in Afghanistan and Russia. The fighting might
have ground on indefinitely (or remained frozen in stalemate), but in
1996 "the regional equation changed dramatically when the Taliban
captured Kabul," says Rashid. Fear that the Taliban regime would project
its influence into Afghanistan's post-Soviet neighbors pushed the rest
of Central Asia and Russia to force the Tajik government into making the
necessary concessions for peace. A year later, the parties signed an
agreement that legitimized the IRP and brought it into Tajikistan's new
coalition government.

The complexity of Tajikistan's civil war makes it difficult to summarize
neatly, and perhaps for this reason, coupled with its remoteness, it
received scant attention in the West. For Rashid, though, the outcome is
one that must not be ignored, not only because the peace agreement held
the country together over subsequent years but also because the radical
IRP has seen a dramatic loss in popular support since its inclusion in
government. "In many ways," Rashid argues, "Tajikistan is the key to
peace and stability in Central Asia--something the international
community must recognize, and soon." The logic being: Bringing
fundamentalist Islamic groups into the light rather than driving them
underground is the best way to show that their platforms are unworkable
and at odds with the region's traditionally moderate religious
sentiments.

This may be true, but Tajikistan's civil war is an unlikely example to
prove it, primarily because the conflict was largely one of regionally
based clans vying for political and economic power. Although radical
Islam colored the conflict, it was by no means the driving force. The
coalition government, if anything, was a joining of competing warlords
dressed in various ideologies and beliefs rather than a bridging of
deeply held convictions on secular and Islamic fundamentalist
state-building. This difference must be obvious to Rashid, who awkwardly
suggests the coalition government is an instance of the latter while
acknowledging the former, sometimes in dramatically confusing ways. At
one point, he writes that Soviet "collectivization...had fragmented the
clan structure.... Thus, many Tajiks saw the Islamic revival as a means
to cement a Tajik identity and ensure Tajikistan's development as a
unified state." Then, later, he writes that "most Tajiks identified with
their regions and clans rather than with their country." And later
again: "The civil war had quickly become a battle between clans rather
than an Islamic jihad." This last statement is by far the more realistic
and complete assessment--one echoed by Central Asia scholar Martha Brill
Olcott, who has argued that the "larger issues contested in Tajikistan's
civil war were clearly those of economic and political control."

In fact, the weakness of the government--its inability to protect
Tajikistan's borders and control its rugged territory--has made the
country an ideal base for the region's most extreme militants and best
organized drug traders (often one and the same). Today, roughly 70
percent of the world's heroin funnels through Tajikistan from
Afghanistan, and since the early 1990s Tajikistan's Tavildara Valley has
been an important training area for the IMU's charismatic military
leader Jumaboi Khojaev, a former Soviet paratrooper who later assumed
the name Juma Namangani after his hometown, Namangan, Uzbekistan. The
kind of detailed portrait Rashid has sketched of Namangani, who was
recently reported killed alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban units during the
latest war in Afghanistan, is unparalleled. This is where Rashid is at
his best, especially when he shows how the secretive Central Asian rebel
makes unusual company with Osama bin Laden, despite their close ties.
During one of Rashid's many exclusive interviews in the region, a former
Namangani compatriot explained how the notorious rebel was "shaped by
his own military and political experiences rather than Islamic ideology,
but he hates the Uzbek government--that is what motivates him above all.
In a way, he is a leader by default because no other leader is willing
to take such risks to oppose Karimov."

This in many ways appears to be a capsule characterization of militant
Islam in Central Asia, where religious extremism is primarily harnessed
to the cause of political and military aims, whether in internecine clan
warfare, in insurgencies acting against repression or in the meddling of
outside empires. As readers of the great historian Peter Hopkirk might
recognize, Namangani's pragmatism situates him in a long-running Central
Asian tradition in which strategic objectives rather than fundamentalist
religious ones ultimately lie behind the call to jihad. It was a move
even the Soviets tried. In 1920 Grigori Zinoviev, a close associate of
Lenin, called the Muslims of Central Asia to battle at a weeklong rally
in Baku, Azerbaijan. "Brothers," Zinoviev boomed to a wildly fervent
crowd brandishing swords and revolvers, "we summon you to a holy war, in
the first place against English imperialism!" This display fell in with
a briefly held plan Moscow had at the time: fomenting a chain of
uprisings and establishing an "Army of God" that would penetrate India
through Afghanistan and trigger enough Muslim unrest there to subvert
Britain's hold over South Asia. However, as Hopkirk notes in Setting
the East Ablaze
(and as the United States learned painfully after
aiding militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s), cultivating pan-Islam
"could be double-edged." Religious and nationalist sentiments could just
as easily flow against Moscow. The Basmachis, Central Asia's homegrown
mujahedeen, resisted Soviet power for more than a decade after the
Russian Revolution--and with a good deal of support from the British,
who slipped them caravans of arms and munitions from India.

Today, although the spirit of jihad has largely been unhinged from the
machinations of outside empires intent on controlling the region, its
proponents see themselves very much as bearers of the Basmachi
tradition, as Rashid demonstrates. But his book is also instructive in
pointing out differences between the region's Islamic groups of then and
now. Hizb ut-Tahrir's growing popularity suggests that outside
influences of a very different kind are leaking into Central Asia.
(Along with the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir's adherents subscribe to the strict
Wahhabist brand of Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia, rather than
the more indigenous Sufism, which tends toward mysticism rather than
millenarianism.) This time it's happening at the grassroots--and feeding
off the criminality of local regimes.

There is probably no way to know whether Gairam Muminov's son,
Abdulvali, was truly a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir or was simply caught
praying in the wrong place, or listening to the wrong person, or
carrying the wrong leaflet. I'm sure even his lawyer doesn't know. When
one of the accused suggested that they had been tortured to confess (to
"anti-constitutional crimes"), Judge Rustamov would not hear of it. The
next day, I watched Muminov's hands shoot up to his face when Rustamov
sentenced his son to ten years of imprisonment. And as the father slowly
drew his shaky fingers away, his mouth fell open, his eyes turned blank.
I wondered: Earlier, this man shrugged off my criticisms of Uzbekistan's
ironfisted approach to dissent, saying he had all the freedom in the
world--limitless choices in the marketplace, among whichever apples and
oranges he desired. Was that still good enough for him?

That is a question the United States must begin asking if it intends to
become more active in fostering stability in the region. Rashid's
book--which follows his bestseller, Taliban--was rushed to
publication after September 11, so it is understandably short on
evaluating current US Central Asia policy. But it is the first good,
hard look at the region's Islamic movements and deserves the attention
of policymakers and interested everyday readers alike. The careful
consideration Rashid has given the grassroots causes that set these
insurgencies into motion will keep this book relevant for a long time to
come. As Rashid argues: "The Clinton administration policy of helping
Central Asia's repressive governments combat terrorism whilst mildly
lecturing them on their human-rights violations did not constitute a
strategic vision for the region." It still doesn't. Under the George W.
Bush Administration, military and economic aid to the region has
increased; so too, it seems, has the repression.

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