I was in high school in the 1960s when I first saw Dave Van Ronk at the Gaslight, one of those little cellar clubs that used to line a Greenwich Village that now lives in myth and legend. I didn't understand what he was doing. It seemed like a jumble whose elements I recognized--folk tunes, ragtime, early jazz, Delta blues--but they didn't gel into what I thought was coherence. It was really only my expectations, though, that were exposed. I felt like Dr. P in Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, scanning deconstructed faces for that single telltale feature that would reveal who I was looking at. I didn't know how to think about it. I couldn't have been more confused if Louis Armstrong had ambled onto The Ed Sullivan Show and followed "Hello Dolly!" with "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
Two things, however, I got: Van Ronk was a hellacious guitar picker, and he was the only white guy I'd ever heard whose singing showed he understood Armstrong and Muddy Waters. He roared and bellowed like a hurricane; he could be threatening, and tender as the night. And he was funny. Not cute funny--really funny. He did bits from W.C. Fields, whose movies, like those of the Marx Brothers, were just being revived. He did "Mack the Knife" with a suddenly acquired tremolo I later found out was Marlene Dietrich's. He finished with "Cocaine," which he'd adapted from the Rev. Gary Davis, his friend and teacher, adding his own asides ("Went to bed last night singing a song/Woke up this morning and my nose was gone"). Decades later, Jackson Browne revived the tune, his band parsing Van Ronk's solo guitar.
There are many Van Ronk undercurrents flowing through American pop culture. The acclamation that followed his death from colon cancer early this year strangely mirrored his ghostly omnipresence during life. He was a missing link: an authentic songster who voiced folk-made music. At his artistic core, he reconnected jazz to folk-music forms that he, like his avatar Woody Guthrie, pursued, learned and kept alive--and, with the wit and humor that kept homage from freezing into reverence, dared to reimagine.
A big, burly guy whose personality was as oversized as his voice, Van Ronk never crossed over to commerciality, never got mainstream-famous. In those ways, he was a true exemplar of the folk-revival aesthetic: becoming too visible or successful equaled selling out. He followed the time-honored American path into this culture's musical heart: He studied sources and learned from living African-American performers. Those sources included Piedmont ragtime pickers like Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller and Delta deep-bluesmen like Son House, as well as parlor music. Then there was the Rev. Gary Davis. He'd dazzled 1940s Harlem street corners with his stylistically wide-ranging guitar and whooping singing, careening from biblical shouts to leering lipsmackers, and by the 1960s had become a teacher who drew Village hipsters to his small brick house in Queens. This was the era when Moondog, the eccentric jazz poet, took up his post near the Museum of Modern Art and did, well, whatever he felt like doing that day.
Maybe it's not surprising that I was so confused by these figures that I didn't guess until later that I'd seen some of the last stages of America's oral culture.
The acceleration of technological change has inevitably altered the oral process of folk-art transmission. In the twenty-first century it seems that, for better and worse, technology has probably rendered the Van Ronks oddly superfluous, apparently redundant. In evolution, if not architecture, form follows function. The concept of folk music hatched by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes, and embodied by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger, has, in the age of mass recording, lost the daily uses that made it folk art. Where once songsters were the repositories and transmitters of our polyglot national folk heritage, where Van Ronk's generation of amateur and semipro musicologist-sleuths sought out records tossed into people's attics and garages to find artists obscured by the mists of time, now, thanks to the omnipresent, profitable avalanche of record-company CD reissues, almost anything they dug up is readily available. Of course, the artists and their cultures are not.
So our easy connection with the cultural past is shaped by the recording studio, with its time constraints and pressures and implicit notion of a fixed performance guarded by copyright--and the possibility of paying publishing royalties that are the core of the music industry's economy. That inevitably alters performances from folk art, where borrowing and repetition are demanded. Thus we've lost the idiosyncratic twists to the oral/aural tradition that an artist of Van Ronk's caliber introduces, casually and yet integrally, however much they appear like asides.
"This song has changed since Gary used to do it," he used to growl, introducing "Cocaine." Which was, of course, part of the point, the method of transmission, of real folk music: If culture is a conservative mechanism, a cumulative record of human activity, change results from disconnections and accretions like Van Ronk's sharp-witted reactions to Davis's barbed blues, originally improvised add-ons drawn from his memory of lyrics the way a jazz musician pulls riffs from history and reworks them into his own voice.
Van Ronk was a die-hard collector of sources, living and recorded. As the liner notes to the 1962 album In the Tradition put it, "Dave Van Ronk has established himself as one of the foremost compilers of 'Jury Texts' regarding traditional tunes. (Jury Texts are when many verses are sung to one tune, usually with some new words appearing with each subsequent recording.) Here, in 'Death Letter Blues,' Van Ronk has arranged some of the most moving verses of this song into a dramatic slow blues." Behold the songster at work--a process found in early Armstrong, Guthrie and Robert Johnson.
Although the building blocks of oral culture are plastic, preservationists in a nonoral culture tend toward reverence, and thus simpler imitation--hence the folk revival's slew of earnest groups like the New Lost City Ramblers. As Van Ronk observed in a late 1970s interview in the folk music quarterly Sing Out!, "It was all part and parcel of the big left turn middle-class college students were making.... So we owe it all to Rosa Parks." While black rhythm-and-blues was revving white teens into rock and roll, black folk artists became heroes to young white collegians. The left cast a romantic, even sacramental aura over black (and white) folk art and its traditions, which implicitly stigmatized creative change; the central notion of folk-revival culture, authenticity, meant avoiding commercial trappings and replicating a recorded past.
Perhaps it was Van Ronk's deep study of that past that helped him avoid fixing it. In a late 1990s interview, asked about Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, he rightly called it the bible of his generation and noted dryly, "I sat up and took notice at how many tunes that, say, Doc Watson does that are on the Anthology.... Some he would have known [via oral tradition]. But you can tell. There are hundreds of possible verses. When someone does [lists three verses in order], you know they've been listening to Bascom Lamar Lunsford."
"One thing I was blessed with is that I was a very, very bad mimic," Van Ronk once observed. Which is another view of how oral tradition mixes conservation and creativity. Van Ronk's background allowed him to understand this uniquely.
He was born in Brooklyn on July 30, 1936, a Depression baby to a mostly Irish working-class family. His father and mother split, and he grew up in blue-collar Richmond Hill, Queens, where he went to Catholic school--or played truant--until the system gave up on him, at 16. In 1998 he told David Walsh, "I remember reading Grant's memoirs, the autobiography of Buffalo Bill. Lots of Mark Twain.... My brain was like the attic of the Smithsonian.... The principal...called me 'a filthy ineducable little beast.' That's a direct quote." Like Guthrie, Van Ronk became a formidable autodidact. While he hung out in pool halls he was listening to jazz--bebop, cool, then traditional, a k a New Orleans or Dixieland jazz, a style with its own cult of authenticity. He fell in love with Armstrong and Bessie Smith, along with Lead Belly and Bing Crosby, his major vocal influences.
Like Odysseus, Guthrie, Kerouac and Pynchon, Van Ronk decided to take to the sea. In 1957, he got a shore gig at the Cafe Bizarre in the Village. Odetta, the gospel-voiced black singer who gave the 1950s folk scene an interracial connection--as Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Josh White had to the first Depression wave--heard him, liked him and convinced him to make a demo tape that she'd pass on to Albert Grossman, folk-music maven, Chicago club owner and future manager of Bob Dylan. Popping Benzedrine in the best Beat fashion, Van Ronk hitchhiked to Chicago in twenty-four hours, got to Grossman's club, found out the tape hadn't, auditioned, got turned down (Grossman was booking black songsters like Big Bill Broonzy, and Van Ronk accused him of Crowjimming), hitchhiked back to New York, had his seaman's papers stolen and thus decided that he would, after all, become a folk singer.
Given his sardonic realism, it was fittingly ironic that he and his wife, Terri Thal, became quasi parents for dewy-eyed collegiate folkies drawn by Guthrie's songs and Seeger's indefatigable college-concert proselytizing. Seeger's shows planted folk-music seeds on campuses across the country, but Smith's Anthology provided the rich soil for the next generation of folk musicians. "Cast your mind back to 1952," Van Ronk told one interviewer. "The only way you could hear the old timers was hitting up the thrift shops. When the Anthology came out, there were eighty-two cuts, all the old-time stuff. I wore out a copy in a year. People my age were doing the same." As did his musical stepkids.
Van Ronk once said of Seeger, "What am I supposed to say about the guy who invented my profession?" By the late 1950s that profession had migrated far from Lead Belly and Guthrie, songsters who lived the lives they chronicled, and far from Seeger's fierce anticommercialism and romantic faith in a pure, true folk culture. History intervened. Seeger had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had doggedly resurfaced in the post-McCarthy era. Still, less threatening figures like Burl Ives became the commercial faces of folk music. As Joe Klein noted in Woody Guthrie: A Life, the folk revival offered record companies an exit from payola scandals and the racial and sexual fears that had generated mainstream disapproval of rock and roll. The patina of integrity and authenticity covering white collegiate folk music helped the labels repolish corporate images.
Starting in 1957, the Kingston Trio cleaned up old tunes like "Tom Dooley" and "Tijuana Jail" and scored several top-25 hits. Neat folk groups proliferated, feeding into the Village and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where young men and women donning recently acquired rural accents and denims recycled the Anthology's songbook and hoped to catch a label's ear.
In 1959, when Bobby Zimmerman was leaving behind his piano à la Jerry Lee Lewis for college and the Anthology's lures, Van Ronk made his first records, now compiled on The Folkways Years (Smithsonian/Folkways); they unveil a songster misclassified. Van Ronk once said, "I never really thought of myself as a folk singer at all. Still don't. What I did was to combine traditional fingerpicking guitar with a repertoire of old jazz tunes." Here he does a Gary Davis-derived staple of his repertoire, "Hesitation Blues," and more blues and gospel. His big, rough voice and guitar dexterity are self-evident, as is his improvisational feel.
In 1964, he yanged with Dave Van Ronk's Ragtime Jug Stompers (Mercury), recording high-energy versions of tunes like "Everybody Loves My Baby" with a wild and ragged Dixieland outfit. This was his recurrent jazz-folk dialectic. On his solo album Sings the Blues (Folkways), Van Ronk's coarse voice and nimble fingers got looser--like the irrepressible Davis's--and thus he found himself.
"It was more academic than it is now," Van Ronk remembered in the 1970s:
It was 'de rigueur,' practically, to introduce your next song with a musicological essay--we all did it. There was a great deal of activity around New York--not so much you could make money at. But there were folk song societies in most of the colleges and the left was dying, but not quietly. So there was a great deal of activity around Sing Out! and the Labor Youth League, which wasn't affiliated with the old CP youth group, you understand. There was a lot of grassroots interest among the petit-bourgeois left.
Spoken like the sly observer who once told an interviewer from the International Committee of the Fourth International, "I've always liked Trotsky's writings as an art critic."
By 1961 Bobby Zimmerman was Bobby Dylan and had arrived in New York, Van Ronk was an insider on the Village folk scene and the two gravitated toward and around each other, thanks partly to what Van Ronk called the take-no-prisoners quality of Dylan's music and personality. Ramped up by commercial success, the postwar folk revival's peak loomed over debates about authenticity. "All of a sudden," Van Ronk recalled a few years back, "there was money all over the place."
He settled into the Gaslight, a hub for noncommercial folkies. Several other pass-the-hat beat-folk coffeehouses, like Cafe Wha?, opened. By 1962 Dylan had settled in down the block, at the grander Gerde's Folk City. Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, part of the older folk-revival wave, had set up a folk-music showcase, WBAI had broadcast the shows and club owner Mike Porco, realizing he had a salable product, ousted both, lining his bar with record covers and his seats with young beatniks. Porco's Monday night Hoots were the dollar-admission descendants of both Young's and Seeger's earlier informal loft gatherings, and he showcased rediscovered legends like John Lee Hooker with Dylan as the opener. Tom and Jerry--later known as Simon and Garfunkel--and Judy Collins cut their teeth there. Kids flocked to this semi-underground. Jug bands emerged as the college-beatnik equivalent of the 1950s blue-collar rockabilly outbreak in the South, and street-corner doo-wop in the North, prefiguring the 1960s garage-band explosion after the Beatles and electric Dylan. The link: Everyone felt empowered to make music. These were folk musics.
The Newport Folk Festival, the crowning triumph of the postwar folk revival, was first organized in 1959 by jazz impresario George Wein and Albert Grossman, and graduated the purer wings of the folk movement to big-time concerts; Seeger himself was involved. "I never liked those things," Van Ronk characteristically recalled. "It was a three-ring circus.... You couldn't even really hear what you came to hear. Put yourself in my position, or any singer's position: How would you like to sing for 15,000 people with frisbees?" Along with his own musical catholicity, that may be why, even after the Dylan-goes-electric blowup at the 1965 festival, Van Ronk remained a Dylan defender.
"Nervous. Nervous energy, he couldn't sit still," is how he spoke of young Bob to David Walsh in 1998:
And very, very evasive.... What impressed me the most about him was his genuine love for Woody Guthrie. In retrospect, even he says now that he came to New York to 'make it.' That's BS. When he came to New York there was no folk music, no career possible.... What he said at the time is the story I believe. He came because he had to meet Woody Guthrie.... Bobby used to go out there two or three times a week and sit there, and play songs for him. In that regard he was as standup a cat as anyone I've ever met. That's also what got him into writing songs. He wrote songs for Woody, to amuse him, to entertain him. He also wanted Woody's approval.... [Dylan's music] had what I call a gung-ho, unrelenting quality.... He acquired very, very devoted fans among the other musicians before he had written his first song.
Van Ronk was the first to record a tune Dylan claimed to write, "He Was a Friend of Mine," on Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger in 1962 (the album has been reissued as part of Inside Dave Van Ronk [Fantasy]). Three years later, the Byrds redid it on Turn! Turn! Turn!, whose title cut remade Seeger's setting of Ecclesiastes into folk rock, the new sound Dylan had kicked into high gear during his 1965 tour.
Van Ronk once observed, "The area that I have staked out...has been the kind of music that flourished in this country between the 1880s and, say, the end of the 1920s. You can call it saloon music if you want to. It was the kind of music you'd hear in music halls, saloons, whorehouses, barbershops, anywhere the Police Gazette could be found." That's not exactly a full description of what he did over thirty albums and countless performances. Better to think of him as a songster, an older, more encompassing sort of folk artist. Lead Belly and the Reverend Davis are outstanding examples of this type; they drew from multiple local and regional traditions that, in the early days of radio and phonograph, still defined American musical styles. Dance tunes, blues, ragtime, ballads, gospel--anything to keep the audiences on street corners or in juke joints interested and willing to part with some cash. This was, after all, performance. Entertainment was its primary goal; improvisation, found in the vocal-guitar interplay and instrumental backing as well as verse substitutions and extrapolations or shortenings, played to audience reaction.
In 1962, with the Red Onion Jazz Band, Van Ronk cut In the Tradition, which, along with the solo Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album, cut in 1981, will be included on the forthcoming Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk. This somewhat odd couple makes a wonderful introduction to the breadth, depth and soul of this songster's legacy. The smoothly idiomatic Red Onions pump joyful New Orleans adrenaline and Armstrong trumpet into a raucous "Cake Walking Babies From Home"; a sinuous "Sister Kate," that dance hit built from an Armstrong melody; and Dylan's caustic "All Over You." Amid the Dixieland are solos: a stunning version of Son House's "Death Letter Blues" (later recorded by Cassandra Wilson), Lead Belly's "Whoa Back Buck," the virtuosic ragtime "St. Louis Tickle," signature pieces like the gentle "Green, Green Rocky Road" and "Hesitation Blues." The tunes drawn from Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album show no diminishing of talent and a continuing breadth of perspective: Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" (sung with a tenderness that scorches periodically into Howlin' Wolf) and "St. James Infirmary" share space with tunes by Davis and Mississippi John Hurt.
In 1967 he cut Dave Van Ronk & The Hudson Dusters (Verve Forecast), a cross of jug band and electric folk music that foreshadowed The Blues Project, the improvising garage band that Van Ronk pupils Danny Kalb and Steve Katz later formed. There was doo-wop, Joni Mitchell (whose Clouds becomes anguished, thanks to Van Ronk's torturous voice breaks used with interpretive skill, a move he learned from Armstrong and Bessie Smith) and the balls-to-the-wall garage rock "Romping Through the Swamp," which sounds akin to Captain Beefheart.
Recorded in 1967, Live at Sir George University (Justin Time) is time-capsule Van Ronk on guitar, plus vocals, doing pieces of his repertoire: "Frankie and Albert," "Down and Out," "Mack the Knife," "Statesboro Blues" and "Cocaine," of course--all masterful, each distinct.
By then the folk boom, whose audience was bleeding into folk-rock, electric blues and psychedelia, stalled and ended. Van Ronk continued (except for a hiatus in the 1970s) to perform and record and gather new-old material. And he had time, before his death, to deliver some acid reflections.
On 1960s folkies:
The whole raison d'être of the New Left had been exposed as a lot of hot air, that was demoralizing. I mean, these kids thought they were going to change the world, they really did. They were profoundly deluded.... Phil Ochs wrote the song "I declare the war is over," that was despair, sheer despair.
On 1980s folkies:
You're talking about some pretty damn good songwriters. But I'd like to hear more traditional music.... With the last wave of songwriters you get the sense that tradition begins with Bob Dylan and nobody is more annoyed with that than Bob Dylan. We were sitting around a few years ago, and he was bitching and moaning: "These kids don't have any classical education." He was talking about the stuff you find on the Anthology [of American Folk Music]. I kidded him: "You got a lot to answer for, Bro."
When a girl becomes her school's designated slut, her friends stop talking to her. Pornographic rumors spread with dazzling efficiency, boys harass her openly in the hallways, girls beat her up. "WHORE," or sometimes "HORE," is written on her locker or bookbag. And there is usually a story about her having sex with the whole football team, a rumor whose plausibility no one ever seems to question.
Even those of us who weren't high school sluts and don't recall any such outcast from our own school days have become familiar with her plight--through media stories and the growing body of feminist-inspired literature on female adolescence, as well as the talk shows and teen magazine spreads that have made her their focus. What's harder to understand is how the label persists when the landscape of sexual morality that gives it meaning has so drastically changed--well within living memory. If the sexual revolution didn't obliterate the slut, wouldn't the successive waves of libidinous pop stars, explicit TV shows and countercultural movements to reclaim the label have drained it of its meaning? What kinds of lines can today's adolescents, or those of the 1990s or 1980s, for that matter, possibly draw between nice and not nice girls?
Emily White's Fast Girls sets out to look at the central dilemmas of the slut label. Two earlier books that have focused on the slut--Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, a collection of oral histories, and Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities, a reflection on girls' sexual coming-of-age in the 1970s that combines memoir with a casual survey of the women Wolf grew up with--rely primarily on the subjective narratives of women and girls to explore the slut phenomenon. Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution surveys the sexual mores and activities of young women, but not specifically of teenagers. White is the first to combine different methodologies in an attempt to write specifically about the functions and significance of the teenage slut--in her words, "to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur."
White spoke to or corresponded with more than 150 women who had been the sluts of their school (whom she found largely by soliciting their stories through newspaper ads), and she spent "a couple of weeks" observing in a Seattle-area public high school. She also offers cultural criticism--of horror movies and the riot grrrls, for instance--as well as a digest of psychological, sociological and post-structuralist theory pertinent to the subject. White's evident ambition makes it all the more frustrating that the book's impressive breadth doesn't translate into thoroughness or rigor.
When White interviewed the women--most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs--who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a "type" of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and "football team" fantasies inevitably followed.
These similarities make up what White calls the "slut archetype," and for much of the book she riffs on the common factors of the stories, with chapters dedicated to subjects like the role of suburbia, the slut's social isolation and the preponderance of sexual abuse. Though sprinkled liberally throughout the book, the women's testimonies are only a launching point for White's meditations. She writes about these interviews in a way that at times both romanticizes and condescends to the women. "She walks so confidently in her boots," writes White of one 18-year-old, "causing tremors in the ground beneath her feet. She presents herself as a girl who has crawled up out of the underworld, who has found her way through the isolation and the drugged dreams.... It is a way of coping, this tough act. It's a start." Still, despite certain problems of credibility, this overwrought style is pretty effective at conveying the anguish of the ostracized adolescent girl (if only by echoing her earnest self-dramatization). It's much less suited to considering the girl in social and cultural context.
In editing and interpreting her interviews, White emphasizes their similarities at the expense of the kind of detail that makes a particular social universe come to life. Her time observing the Seattle-area high school students inspires mostly familiar observations. ("The cafeteria is high school's proving ground. It's one of the most unavoidable and important thresholds, the place where you find out if you have friends or if you don't.") Only about half the time do we get any real sense of the sort of community an interviewee grew up in or what the social scene was like at her school. There's even less detail about precisely how she fit into the hierarchy before the slut label took hold, whether she was perceived as threatening or flirtatious, what her past relationships were like with girls, boys and teachers. Even worse is that for all their lack of texture, the women's stories are by far the most interesting part of the book; when White pulls away to supply her own commentary, it's usually vague and predictable--precisely because she's not attuned to the details that would reveal how the slut really functions in the teenage universe. Although she acknowledges that the slut myth is much bigger than any individual girl behind it, she is also attached to the literal-minded notion that the girl being labeled has some kind of privileged relationship to the slut myth--that her individual story is the slut story, and the women's emotional recollections of abuses and scars collectively explain the slut myth. In fact, to understand the myth we need to know at least as much about what the rest of the school is thinking.
White suggests that "the slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign...where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast." But, given the arbitrary relationship White found between the slut label and a girl's actual sex life, does the slut myth really have any practical applications for girls? Do they limit sexual activity out of fear of these rumors? Are there particular sex acts that can bring censure in themselves? Can social status insulate some girls from slutdom, regardless of how much they fool around? White doesn't directly pose these questions, but one of her findings hints that, though they may fear the label, kids themselves interpret slutdom as primarily an expression of social status rather than a direct consequence of sexual activity: "Girls who at one time might have been friends with the slut recede as her reputation grows; they need to be careful how they associate with her or they will be thought of as sluts along with her."
The slut doesn't seem to point to an actual line that a nice girl can't cross; she commemorates the fact that there once was such a line, and suggests that the idea of a line still has currency, even if no one can figure out where it is anymore. It's no surprise that she is such a popular subject for third-wave feminists; her ostracism seems to have implications not only for residual sexism but for the way that we personally experience sex and desire.
Ididn't think I had a personal connection to the slut story. For most of my adolescent years, which were in the late 1980s and early '90s, I was very good, and too awkward to attract attention from boys. In the schools I attended there were whispers about who did what, and some girls were considered sluttier than others, but there was no single figure who captured the imagination of the whole class.
Then I remembered something about one of the girls I was closest to from age 10 to about 13 or 14. We didn't go to the same school, but for much of the time we both attended Saturday Russian classes held in her kitchen by an elderly neighbor. She was the only one of my friends who was, like me, born in Russia, though her family still lived in Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhood while mine had moved to a more prosperous, non-Russian suburb several years earlier. My family had a bigger house. We had, thanks to my American stepdad, more American ways of doing things. I was a better student. I think she was more popular at her school than I was at mine; at least, she was more easygoing and sociable. I never felt in awe of her, as I did of other friends. I was not always nice to her, though usually I was.
She knew more about sex in our early years than I did, but, like me, she didn't go out with anyone in the time we knew each other. She was pretty, in a round-faced, unfashionable way that made me think I had a discerning eye for appreciating it. She always seemed more developed than I was. (That may not have been true in any measurable sense.) At some point in those years, though it didn't particularly affect our friendship, and I don't remember thinking about it while I was actually with her, I began to spend nights casting her as my proxy in every kind of pornographic fantasy I could conjure.
It's always difficult to figure out the relationship between cultural fantasies and mores, on the one hand, and actual behavior and sexual self-image on the other. You could probably spend a long time listening to teenagers and still not get to the bottom of how the slut myth filters into their own lives. Still, the site of the slut's continuous re-creation, the high school hallways, deserves closer scrutiny, and the mysteries of her endurance await further exploration.
Campbell McGrath's entertaining and frustrating fifth book of poems--every single one of them devoted to some aspect of Florida--raises two large questions. One has to do with representations of that state; the other, with precision, personality and populism in poetry, and the relative value of each.
Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Key West for some years, called Florida "the state with the prettiest name," "the state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white"; Wallace Stevens saw in Florida's "venereal soil" an escape from intellection--though he came to find its fertility unnerving. Among living poets, William Logan, Tony Harrison and Michael Hofmann have all taught in Gainesville and written about it. Donald Justice described the Florida of his youth in such poems as "A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida." Dionisio D. Martínez evoked the state's lightning-prone flats in Bad Alchemy, while Karen Volkman skewered Miami in her much-anthologized "Infernal."
McGrath aims to capture in verse a Florida as disturbing as any of those, and far more comprehensive. His narrative, didactic, essayistic and lyric poems together try to depict the whole troubled state, a state that (in McGrath's view) cries out either for political action to set it on a new course or for an apocalypse to wash it all away. As in his celebrated Spring Comes to Chicago (1996), McGrath's models here include the Ginsberg of Howl; the Whitman of big catalogue poems like "A Song for Occupations"; crowd-pleasing comic poets like Billy Collins; and writers of the modern left--from Carl Sandburg to Martín Espada--who wish to tie locally oriented description to socioeconomic protest. McGrath offers, first, a ten-part narrative poem (based on Aristophanes' Birds) called "A City in the Clouds"; next, a group of short poems on subjects Floridian; last, a long verse-essay called "The Florida Poem." Though they share attitudes, topics and techniques, each section has to be judged on its own.
McGrath's narrative shows the rise, success and eventual fall of an airborne city built above Florida--one that bears remarkable resemblances to it. Readers of Aristophanes, or of the headlines, will know quickly what fate McGrath's cloud-folks face (or refuse to face): Seeking a carefree New World, the cloud-dwellers end up dependent on complex irrigation, McDonald's sandwiches, tourism, real estate speculation, overbuilt prisons and exploited noncitizen "laborers [who] were needed...to man the pumps for the earthward flow of water upon which their entire economy depended." Menaced by aerial alligators, then by failing machinery, the cloud-folks finally let the city collapse. The poem's most original moments are those closest to (prose) science fiction: In one, the cloud-dwellers haul up "whatever could be gathered at the ever-shifting terminal point where the wind-flexed elevator shaft met the ground."
Despite such descriptive energies, McGrath's cloud-poem lacks the verbal reliability we expect from most modern verse: His long lines can forsake semantic control. Here, for example, the citizens view their new home:
Times the clouds were like riven badlands, foils and arroyos and alluvial fans, rough country best traversed with safety ropes as if crossing polar seas over plates of tilting ice.
Times the clouds were gongs and temples, a rapture in pewter, grand passions, coffers of incense and precious woods.
Rapture and passions. Badlands and alluvial fans, and ice. Often McGrath seems to operate by the rule "Never use one word when three will do": The cloud-dwellers "missed things, various places and objects, old friends or distant cousins, specific sounds, familiar certainties" (as against unfamiliar ones). Later we see "luxurious waterfalls rooted in the barest mist or veil of vapor." Nor is such excess confined to the narrative poem. In the short poem "The Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial" McGrath summons "the vestigial memory of some as yet undreamed/category of violent distinction and hatred," a phrase almost any prose editor would blue-pencil.
McGrath's vivid description and his social critiques carry over into his short poems. So, alas, does his insistence on spelling things out. In a villanelle about the Florida State Fair,
...we're stamping and hooting all over the place
while the Texas swing band plays "Rocky Top, Tennessee"
and Haitian kids dip kettle candy beneath a live oak tree
in historic Cracker Country, apt and ironic misnomer for the place,
because this is Florida, after all, not Texas or Tennessee.
McGrath has to tell us what he finds "ironic"; otherwise we might not know. Elsewhere it can be hard to tell if he's kidding: "Trouble with Miami," one poem opines, "is...a dearth of cultural infrastructure so profound//that the only local institution worth its salt is the ocean," where "watching the beautiful women on the beach/...may be our best shot at real enlightenment." Is this a persona we're meant to dislike? Apparently not: "Florida," McGrath explains later, "is bereft of mythic infrastructure,/symbolically impoverished." It's an odd complaint in a book full of (highly symbolic) conquistadors, Seminoles, mangroves, alligators, mouseketeers and scarily iconic restaurants (of which more below). If that's "symbolically impoverished," what to call Delaware?
McGrath seems to mean not that Florida lacks symbols, but that its symbols end up either sinister or ridiculous, or both. The poems he finds he can make out of them are comic, and the comedy moves him to complain. When McGrath instead describes his private life, he can be more careful, and far more likable: "The Zebra Longwing" (named after a butterfly) ends as follows:
have borne them awayWings
have borne them away
from the silk
of the past as surely
as some merciful wind
has delivered us
to an anchorage of such
Elizabeth. All my life
I have searched, without knowing it,
for this moment.
McGrath has transported James Wright's famous poem "A Blessing" to a warmer climate and a happy marriage. He's done it so carefully that the transposition works.
McGrath rarely gets that calm, though; normally he wants for his own work the prophetic enthusiasms of Whitman or Ginsberg, who also combined sometimes-radical politics with long personal digressions. Yet Ginsberg and Whitman at their best were fascinated by the individuals who made it into their poems, whether for half a book (Carl Solomon in Howl) or for a couple of lines (Whitman's soldiers, prostitutes, firefighters). McGrath almost always considers people other than himself in fairly large groups--cloud-dwellers, exploited workers, the Calusa, the old folks, the tourists. He does better with "Maizel at Shorty's in Kendall":
All shift them sugar donuts
been singing to me,
calling to me something crazy in a voice
Dolly Parton'd be proud of--Maizel, honey,
eat us up!
Notice the alphabetical acrostic (lines begin a, b, c--), a form McGrath uses three times. It suits him, since it allows for long free-verse lists. "What I loved most," he declared in Spring Comes to Chicago, "was the depth and rationality of the catalogue"; here one acrostic ("Seashells, Manasota Key") comprises nothing but catalogue, from "Abras, augers, arks and angel wings" to Zirfaea crispata.
These lists take their place among other manifestations of McGrath's exuberance: He loves to say what he sees, and he finds most of it either very attractive or ugly indeed. Poetry, Yeats said, came not from our quarrels with others, but from our quarrels with ourselves. If there's such a quarrel here, it sets McGrath's impulse to celebrate absolutely everything--cars, lightning, alligators, America--against his understandable sense that Florida, and the other forty-nine states, are resource guzzlers headed for a fall. Usually, though, these poems enact McGrath's excited quarrels with others. Of "Disney's realm of immortal/simulacra," McGrath says that it makes too easy a target "when there are nastier vermin to contest," vermin like "Orlando itself," where "the anthem of our freedom is sung by Chuck E. Cheese." There follows a three-page attack on that fast-food chain and its iconic mouse, "the monstrous embodiment of a nightmare," designed "to entice the youngest among us/to invest their lives in a cycle of competitive consumption." This lengthy philippic against a pizzeria moves beyond predictability, beyond comedy and beyond politics into a vituperation as excessive as it is entertaining: What did Chuck E. Cheese ever do to McGrath?
In poems like that one ("Benediction for the Savior of Orlando"), McGrath is at bottom a dazzling performer, as much so as the cartoon figures he says he hates, though with an admirable politics his corporate nemeses obviously lack. The standard critique of, say, TV ads (they reduce us to passive receivers) might hold just as true for McGrath's verse, which leaves us little to figure out for ourselves. "The Florida Anasazi" attacks "the alligator-headed figure known to us as The Developer who works his trickery upon the people of the tribe, pilfering communal goods, claiming to produce that which he despoils." Pound called poetry news that stays news. Is this news? Does it tell us anything unexpected, either about how to understand evil developers or about how to resist what they try to do?
The long poem titled "The Florida Poem" is a different, and happier, matter. In it McGrath returns to a form that can showcase his talents and neutralize most of his faults. The form is the long, research-filled essay-cum-rant, with roots (McGrath's note suggests) in Pablo Neruda's Canto General--and in McGrath's own bigger, better, earlier, funnier "Bob Hope Poem" (from Spring). Neruda in one way, and "Bob Hope" in another, tried to give the history of a continent; here McGrath contents himself with one state in the union, about which his form allows him to say, and to enjoy saying, anything at all, from the whimsical to the sarcastic to the mock-classical ode:
Sing through me, o native goddess, o sacred orange
blossom nymph, o Weeki Wachee naiad...
Florida: it's here!
Florida: it's here and it's for sale!
Florida: it's neat, in a weird way!
Florida: Fuckin' Fantastic!
This would be my official suggestion for a new state motto...
Much of the poem returns to familiar targets, "marketers/and technocrats and mouseketeer apparatchiks" and so on. Yet the real subject of "The Florida Poem" is not the damage such folks have done but instead McGrath's feelings about the state they have produced, with its eye-popping sights and consumerist excess, its real fun and its false Fountains of Youth:
been enticed to sw...I myself have more than once
been enticed to swim in the icy oasis of DeLeon Springs,
and have eaten at the remarkable restaurant
reputedly housed in an old Spanish mill
where they grind still the wheat
to mix the batter you pool and flip on a griddle
in the middle of your very own table.
Pancakes and alligators and paddleboats and ruins
of vanished conquerors vanquished
in their turn. It's one of my favorite places in the state,
not merely for the flapjacks and historical ironies
but for the chaste fact of its beauty.
In this kind of writing, compression, obliquity, even precision, may be sacrificed for the sake of a voice. For this reason alone "The Florida Poem" is by far the best in the book. Its size lets it encompass both the obvious judgments McGrath thinks we need to hear (conquistadors bad, manatees good, "Indians...easily romanticized" yet "human, familiar with power and avarice") and the details that make those judgments entertaining even at their most predictable. (Floridian readers--especially if they speak Spanish--may call to mind aspects of their state McGrath leaves out.) Above all, "The Florida Poem" gives us the sound of a person talking: It has not only the faults but some of the virtues of what's now called "performance poetry" (a movement to which McGrath has not been linked):
...Andrew Jackson bought the whole place
for five million dollars and a solemn promise
to relinquish all future American
claims to Texas.
It's because McGrath--ordinarily--can't slow down for more than a couple of syllables that he gets comic effects from that one-line nonword. Elsewhere his rant reminds me of Williams's splendid and splenetic "Impromptu":
What the governor meant was
come and get it,
down, rip it up,
mill it for lumber, boil it for turpentine,
orchard it for oranges or pit-mine it for phosphates,
shoot it for hides or skins or quills
"It" comes to mean at once particular natural resources, the exploited population and the whole state: It's a neat rhetorical effect, one McGrath can only achieve in a long poem, and one that makes this long poem worth a try. As it spreads back into the prehuman past, and then into a misty future, McGrath applies these effects of capacious verve not just to the parts of the state he hates but to scenes within the state he loves:
of an element so...visceral
of an element so clear each grain of sand
sings forth, each bordering leaf of oak or heliconia,
each minnow or sunfish in the mineral wicker-work,
one jump, one plunge
toward the crevice of rifted limestone
wherefrom the earth pours forth
its liquid gift...
Now that's a Florida worth going to see.
As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
If you're in the mood to see great acting, I recommend that you watch Aurélien Recoing get caught in a lie in Laurent Cantet's Time Out. As Vincent, a French management consultant who is secretly unemployed--playing hooky from life, let's say--Recoing is forever being asked why he's hanging around in office
towers, motel lobbies or parking lots. The truth is, he's dawdling: killing his own time, or spying on the way other people use theirs. But since dawdling in the modern world is a category of malfeasance, midway in seriousness between a theft and a threat--theft of an organization's private airspace, the threat to use that space without management approval--Vincent must continually justify his mere presence. Each time he fails to do so, Recoing brilliantly shows you how Vincent is a little slow with the first words of his excuse, a little too quick with the rest. You can see the lie form behind his pale, high forehead.
That expanse of flesh seems transparent not only to you but also to the security guards who challenge Vincent. They see how a flush tints his otherwise bloodless, round-cheeked face; they read the effect as shame (which it is, in part). But Recoing's ability to alight cleanly on each emotion, as a dancer hits the mark, is only the beginning of the marvels he performs in this role. What's really impressive is the talent he displays for playing simultaneously to his fellow actors and to the audience, revealing aspects of Vincent's makeup to you even as he conceals them from the people onscreen. The security guards often fail to guess what you do, that the flush comes from anger as much as shame; they seldom hear the note of outrage that wavers beneath Vincent's thin-lipped patter.
Of course, this two-faced performance owes a lot to Cantet, the writer-director of Time Out. He's the one who plotted out the successive views of Vincent, so the man's emotional truth would accumulate even as his lies pile up. But it's Recoing who is so good at making Vincent lie badly. One moment, you'd think his eyes opened onto the rear wall of his skull; a second later, and the pupils are glittering near the surface, in slits like two flesh wounds. All the while, as his mind visibly shoots forward and retreats, Vincent keeps pouring out the words, hopelessly, uselessly, as if he wanted and deserved to be caught.
Maybe he talks so volubly because words are all he has: the words of a corporate functionary, backed up by a cell phone, a car and a carefully tended dark suit. Time Out begins with Vincent using most of the above assets in one of those rare and ingenious opening shots that instantly define a movie. You see a field of nocturnal mist, which gradually proves to be a fogged-up windshield. Vincent has been sleeping behind the wheel. As the shot continues and dawn breaks, a bare landscape takes shape beyond the membrane of the car. Inside the automotive bubble, Vincent picks up the cell phone. Yes, he tells his wife smoothly, the meeting went well--so well that now he has to stay over. He probably won't be back tonight. Miss you, too.
The windshield has cleared. Outside, the world's activities have begun. Inside, Vincent is insulated (though none too well) from the first of the film's challenges. He isn't supposed to be parked where kids get off the school bus? Then he'll drive elsewhere. As you eventually learn, Vincent likes to drive.
We'll get to that revelation. But for now, since I've told you some of the plot, it's probably more important to acknowledge the true story that underlies Time Out. You may remember the newspaper account: For years, a man in France said goodbye to his family each morning and drove off to a nonexistent job. He spent his time sitting around in parking lots and coffee shops; he got his money by floating loans, which he never repaid. When the debts grew so pressing that exposure was at hand, the man took a gun and ended the imposture; he killed his family but, though he tried, not himself.
Cantet has transformed this violent reality by draining it of almost all physical menace. Granted, in one memorable scene Vincent seems on the verge of killing his wife (Karin Viard), but his method is the relatively passive one of abandonment in the snow. Also, at the climax of Time Out, Vincent raises his voice and storms clumsily through the house; but despite that, Cantet doesn't go in for explosive denouements. He's far more interested in the normal texture of this abnormal story. Cantet wants to explore the corridors of a glass office tower, to sink into the squared-off armchairs in a motel lobby, to follow a strip of road wherever it leads. As much as Vincent's anger and anxiety keep mounting throughout the film, the shots and rhythms remain coolly composed.
When filmmaking is this precise and intelligent, critics habitually tack on a third adjective: dull. It's a judgment I was tempted to make whenever Vincent got together with his family. Those scenes felt obligatory, with Vincent trapped among the overbearing father, the surly son, the increasingly frustrated wife. If I had to live with this bunch of stock characters, I too might sleep in my car. But Cantet's vision of domestic life, though uninspired, makes up only a minor part of Time Out, whose patient and meticulous technique pulled me in whenever the film turned to a more congenial subject: criminality.
Vincent's most important relationship in Time Out is not with his wife but with a lean, wolf-faced smuggler named Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), who strikes up an acquaintance after catching him sleeping in that motel lobby. There's something wickedly avuncular about Jean-Michel, with his low, low voice and ironic smile. You could take him home to dinner (and wind up feeling like a guest in your own home). Jean-Michel leads Vincent into a world of darkened rooms full of cardboard boxes and darkened roads that slip across borders--a world that temporarily appeals to him.
It's during this time with Jean-Michel that Vincent makes the revelation I mentioned earlier, explaining how a love of driving cost him his job. When on the road to a business meeting, Vincent used to ignore the turnoff and simply keep going; he would drive on for one more exit, then for two, until he eventually stopped showing up at all and was fired. Jean-Michel gives Vincent the courtesy of accepting this story as a confession of good sense. And from what Time Out shows us of the business world, Jean-Michel is right.
What do people talk about in all those meetings? At one point, Cantet has Vincent spy on a conference-table gathering, so we can hear the presentation for ourselves: public-private strategic infrastructure business-model development. Nothing that you could smell or taste or pick up in your hand. Who wouldn't prefer the hum of wheels, the sound of the radio, to these endless polysyllables? And when you consider the cloudiness of this language of global trade, why shouldn't Vincent's old school chums believe him when he says he can take their cash into Switzerland and invest it in, ah, something or other? Some of these buddies all but force their money onto him. After all, he speaks so well.
Cantet's previous film, Human Resources, was similarly skeptical about the modern arts of management. That picture told the story of a young man from a working-class family who comes home from school to work in his father's factory. The father labors on the shop floor; the son, with his college education, hunches over a computer. I admired the way Cantet dramatized the homecoming, with congratulations quickly giving way to suspicion and resentment. (Wear a tie to work, and your favorite old bar might no longer be so comfortable.) But once the film's story kicked in, with the workers threatening to go on strike and the son being maneuvered to lie to them, Human Resources turned into more of a diagram than a movie. You could have taken a piece of graph paper and plotted the characters' relationships. In fact, that's what Cantet seemed to have done.
But there's nothing schematic about Time Out. However neat or decorous the storytelling, the movie respects the oddness of Vincent's refusal; which is to say, it reveals something of the oddness of the normal world by letting Vincent haunt it from a slight remove. And in Aurélien Recoing, the movie has a perfectly bland-looking Vincent whose every breath is charged with mystery. Recoing is your boring neighbor from down the hall, suddenly glimpsed doing the perp walk on the 10 o'clock news. He's Bartleby for the age of the euro; he's what you see in the mirror on Monday morning, before your eyelids mercifully ungum.
Recoing is an actor playing a character who is himself onstage full-time. He's in every frame of Time Out; and to every frame, he contributes something of genius.
Like it or not, America has been able to achieve and maintain its supremacy as a global power because of its capacity to absorb the best from the rest of the world. This dependency on foreign imports is especially clear in the realm of science and technology. Roughly one-third of US Nobel laureates were born outside the United States and became naturalized citizens. The father of the American nuclear program was a foreigner. But most foreign-born scientists toil away unrecognized in our nation's research labs, universities and private firms, forming the backbone of American high technology. In computer software development, now widely considered the most important area of American advantage, foreign nationals are commonly recognized as being among the best programmers. Almost a third of all scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are of Chinese or Indian decent.
America cannot afford to lose the loyalty of these high-tech coolies it has come to depend on, yet that's exactly where it seems to be heading with recent cases of immigrant-bashing and racial and ethnic profiling by opportunistic politicians seeking short-term political gains. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the animosity aimed at the enemies of the United States has also been extended to immigrants and American citizens who originally came from the same part of the world. Hundreds of Arab-Americans and Asians from the Indian subcontinent have been detained as suspects, without charges filed against them, under "special administrative measures" in the name of national security. The majority of Americans, the interpreters of polls tell us, approve. It was in the name of the same national security that a Chinese-American physicist, Wen Ho Lee, was accused some three years earlier of stealing the "crown jewels" of the US nuclear program and giving them to mainland China; similarly enacted special measures threw him in chains and into solitary confinement, although the government had no evidence against him. His public lynching, which was caused by and fed into America's national angst concerning enemy number one of that time--China--is the subject of the two books under review. As a perfect example of a national security investigation botched by racial and ethnic profiling, which led to a shameful failure of all the institutions involved, it could not have been exposed at a better time.
China emerged as America's prime antagonist after the end of the cold war. During the cold war, it was always easy to tell who was America's enemy and who was a friend. Then, with the normalization of Chinese-US diplomatic relations in the late 1970s, those lines began to blur. For a time at least, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was no longer a foe. Individuals and institutions from all walks of life were happily embracing the idea of scientific and cultural exchange, and even nuclear scientists went back and forth. It was understood that the common enemy was the USSR. This cozy relationship ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, when US policy-makers, without clearly defined targets, began to show signs of what Henry Kissinger calls "nostalgia for confrontation" and cast about for a manichean opponent. With its rapidly expanding economy in the 1990s, which brought it into some conflict with American interests in Asia, China became the most logical choice.
The targeting of Chinese-Americans and the questioning of their loyalties did not begin in earnest until after the 1996 general election, when Republicans accused members of the Chinese-American community of passing campaign donations from government officials of the PRC to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. It was said to be a clandestine plan by China to influence US policy; the charge was not substantiated, but Asian-American contributors to the Democratic Party were investigated by the FBI for possible involvement in traitorous activities, and suspicions of disloyalty among Chinese-Americans lingered.
The investigation of Wen Ho Lee, who was then a research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, started soon after the campaign scandal. It was initiated by an intelligence report that in 1992 China had tested a bomb very much like the Los Alamos-designed W-88, considered one of the smallest and most highly optimized nuclear weapons in the world. Carried on Trident II submarine-launched missiles, the W-88 can hit multiple targets with great accuracy. When a Chinese defector to Taiwan brought documents with diagrams and text descriptions of a long list of US strategic weapons, including the W-88, US counterintelligence circles cried espionage and began an investigation.
Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, who covered the story for the San Jose Mercury-News and the Albuquerque Journal, teamed up to write A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage, in which they reveal the scandalous details of the misguided search for the Chinese-American spy. Written like a crime novel, their book is at its best as an exposé of the behind-the-scenes workings of Washington politics, in which the truth is all too easily sacrificed for political expediency. The authors blame everyone involved, from the incompetent employees of the FBI and the ambitious bureaucrats of the Department of Energy (DOE) to the zealous anti-China hawks in Congress and a colluding press corps all too willing to swallow government-distributed information without corroboration.
The government spent four years and millions of dollars to pin Wen Ho Lee, ultimately only to find him innocent of spying. Many American weapons designers who were familiar with the Chinese nuclear program saw no reason that Chinese scientists could not invent in the 1990s the miniaturized warheads US scientists had developed in the 1950s. Others pointed out that most of the details on US missiles were available on a website maintained by the Federation of American Scientists. China could have easily made its own bombs by processing the mounds of information gathered from newspapers, magazines and scientific literature that Chinese students and scientists, over more than a decade of scholarly and business exchanges, had obtained legally--a method US counterintelligence circles refer to as gathering grains of sand. Yet the director of counterintelligence at the DOE, Notra Trulock, refused to believe that the Chinese were capable of developing the most modern weapon in the US arsenal on their own. "There's one spy out there and we're going to find him," he reportedly told an assistant.
The spy, if there was one, could have been any of the scientists from a half-dozen national nuclear-weapons-design labs, or an employee of one of the many plants that manufacture the parts, as they all had blueprints. Yet Trulock's order for an administrative inquiry stipulated that the initial consideration would be to identify those US citizens of Chinese heritage who worked directly or peripherally with the design development. This was a logical starting point, the attached memo went on to explain, based upon the intelligence community's evaluation that the PRC targets and utilizes ethnic Chinese for espionage rather than persons of non-Chinese origin. Following this perilous logic, the investigation took on the shape of a funnel: The list of suspects swiftly shrank from the employees of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore research labs who had traveled to China to the scientists of Chinese heritage who had worked directly or peripherally on the W-88 design development and had had contacts with Chinese scientists. From there, it was a quick jump to Wen Ho Lee as the only person who had the opportunity, motivation and legitimate access to the specific nuclear weapons information believed to have been leaked to the Chinese.
The choice of Wen Ho Lee as the spy was far from logical. He was a native of Taiwan and had openly expressed his sympathy for Taiwanese independence, and has in fact admitted to providing unclassified scientific documents to the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology--Taiwan's military research center involved in developing nuclear weapons. Also, he had been trapped into cooperating with the FBI many years earlier in an investigation of another Chinese-American scientist, while his wife was recruited to act as an unpaid informant on the activities of visiting Chinese scientists.
This may explain why no one at the FBI or any other government agency initially believed Trulock's accusations against Lee. Trulock's first request for a wiretapping order from the Justice Department was turned down. But he doggedly took his spy story to the CIA, the White House and the Defense Department until he finally found a sympathetic ear among Republicans in Congress. Representative Christopher Cox of California was heading the House Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns, which was investigating the Clinton Administration for jeopardizing national security by being soft on China in exchange for campaign contributions. Cox immediately saw the potential of using an indictment against Wen Ho Lee to help the charges against Clinton stick. Trulock's unverified assertions became bombshells in Cox's committee report. On one occasion a zealous committee member even confused the scientist Wen Ho Lee with Bill Lann Lee, who was at the time waiting to be confirmed as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
But the real damage was done when someone leaked the spy story to the ever-hungry-for-a-Clinton-scandal press. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times passed the information along without corroboration, and soon Congress and the media were "locked in a game of one-upmanship," describing Lee's crime in ever more superlative-laden rhetoric, according to Stober and Hoffman. In no time, expressions of fear and hatred of the Chinese inundated the Internet, TV and radio talk shows. As the storm gathered, Clinton's appointees, instead of standing up against wrongful accusations, buckled. The new Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, weighing the risk of losing his nomination as the running mate to presidential candidate Al Gore, ordered that Wen Ho Lee be summarily dealt with.
The FBI at first tried to scare Wen Ho Lee into confessing that he had passed nuclear secrets to China. The Rosenbergs professed their innocence, he was told, and the Rosenbergs are dead. When that did not work, he was put in jail, although the government still had no evidence to convict him as a spy. Five years of relentless hounding by its agents--at times more than 100 FBI personnel were working on his case--had produced nothing. The only wrongdoing he could be charged with, discovered by accident during a search of his office, was his downloading of several weapons codes from the lab's secure computer system onto the unsecured one. Similar security infractions were often ignored at the lab, rarely resulting in disciplinary measures. (In an error of potentially much graver consequences for national security, former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch had downloaded top-secret files onto his unsecured home computer, which a family member had been using to surf pornography websites. Deutch was disciplined but he did not lose his job, much less end up incarcerated.)
Lee was prosecuted under the cold-war-era Atomic Energy Act, which allowed for the harshest treatment: He was put in manacles and shackles that were chained to his waist, and was locked up in solitary confinement. When members of his immediate family were permitted to visit him for one hour each month, they were not allowed to speak in Chinese--the language they spoke at home. Lights in his cell were on twenty-four hours a day, with a guard on constant watch. Such conditions are rarely experienced by even the most vicious convicted criminals.
Much to Wen Ho Lee's credit, he did not crack. The US district court judge in New Mexico who was put in charge of the prosecution was so incensed by the government's handling of the case that he said to Lee: "I believe you were terribly wronged.... [Government officials] have embarrassed our entire nation.... I sincerely apologize to you."
This unusual gesture, with which Wen Ho Lee opens his account of the ordeal in My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, is by the book's end almost certain to draw applause from the readers, as an enlightened conclusion to a grave miscarriage of justice by the government; but the negative consequences of the incident have yet to be fully tallied.
More than 150,000 Chinese-American engineers and scientists work in US industry, government and academia today; roughly 15,000 are employed by the defense sector alone. Because of the way in which the government handled Wen Ho Lee's case, many found that their loyalty was being severely questioned by their bosses and colleagues. They were frequently subject to innuendo and distressing jokes. There were numerous reports of security clearances withdrawn and promotions denied, of people forced into early retirement. A survey conducted by the Committee of 100 and the Anti-Defamation League soon after Wen Ho Lee's release from prison found that 68 percent of Americans feel negative toward Chinese-Americans; 32 percent believe that Chinese-Americans are more loyal to China than to the United States; and 46 percent believe that Chinese-Americans passing secrets to China is a problem.
Even Stober and Hoffman, who make every effort to show the lack of credible evidence proving that Lee was a spy, maintain that his own unexplained actions fed into the political furor that made him all too convenient a target. For instance, Lee lied to the FBI, to his family and to his lawyers about why he had copied voluminous amounts of non-work-related computer codes used to design nuclear weapons and put them on portable tapes that have never been completely recovered.
In his own book, Lee explains the copying as a precautionary measure against losing his files--as had happened to him when the lab switched from one computer system to another. He defends the volume of downloads as necessary to test his portion of the codes "against the snapshot of the whole code at a certain time," because as the weapons designers change their calculations, his codes are affected as well. To Lee's scientific mind, the measure was prudent and logical. John Richter, a Los Alamos physicist known as "the guru of gurus" on the subject of plutonium explosives, testified in court in Lee's defense. He described Lee's actions with an old saying: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Whatever the case, Lee comes across as impossibly naïve as he recounts the events of late 1998, considering that he was in the very eye of the storm raised by the Cox investigation. He continued to cooperate with investigators by submitting to polygraph tests and repeated FBI questioning, without the presence of a lawyer. When his daughter told him that a New York Times article headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets from Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say," published March 6, 1999, was about him, he didn't believe it. He didn't read newspapers, didn't vote and professed not to care about politics. Yet his book is politically sophisticated. It shows the unmistakable imprint of his co-author, Helen Zia, an experienced freelance journalist and a seasoned and respected Asian-American activist, who understood the significance of Wen Ho Lee's case in the context of American ethnic and civil rights politics.
In contrast to the position taken by Stober and Hoffman, who credit Lee's lawyers as being the only morally noncorrupt heroes of this story, Zia recognized that the legal case gained moral weight and credibility through the support of brave people who were willing to risk their careers to speak out in Lee's favor. The American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued statements condemning the government's harsh treatment of Lee. A number of eminent scientists, among them several of Lee's colleagues, individually took the stand. Richter, the guru, provided crucial testimony debunking the government's nonsense that Lee had stolen the nation's "crown jewels," thus altering the balance of power in the world.
The Chinese-American community, still licking the wounds inflicted by Clinton's campaign fundraising scandal, was initially cautious in dealing with the sensitive issue surrounding nuclear secrets. But it picked up Lee's cause as soon as the government went public with its outrageous actions. Foreign-born Chinese-American scientists and engineers, who for years had sweated away quietly in research labs and universities, unrecognized, unappreciated and underpaid, but who were suddenly all suspect, turned their anger into building the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his legal bills. Supporters established websites and organized rallies and teach-ins around the country, demanding that members of Congress stop the persecution of Lee. When Professor Ling-chi Wang, director of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, called for a collective boycott of DOE-overseen national labs by all Asian-American scientists and engineers, the labs took notice. (An agreement with the labs on new procedures appeared imminent at press time.)
Job applications by foreign graduate students, from among whom most research labs and engineering firms recruit their future staff, are down. The National Science Board estimates that 30-50 percent of those who hold science or engineering doctorates in the United States are foreign-born (the number is the highest in math: 57 percent). About 7 percent of all physicists and 15 percent of all engineers in the United States are Asian-American. If Asian-American and other foreign-born scientists are discouraged from entering the US work force, notes Eamon Kelly, chairman of the National Science Board, the country could have a hard time filling the gap.
Yet, spurred by the September 11 attacks, Senator Dianne Feinstein has called for a moratorium on admissions of foreign students to US educational institutions. American national interests can ill afford this type of mindless antiforeign hysteria. American high school students rank near the bottom in math and science, according to studies on schooling worldwide. The country's best and brightest students often opt for careers as lawyers, doctors and financial professionals, where they can command much higher salaries than in the pure science fields. Wen Ho Lee, for instance, despite holding a PhD from an American university and with twenty years of experience at the Los Alamos labs, made only $80,000 a year--an absurdly meager remuneration for a man accused of changing the balance of power in the world.
If there is a lesson in all this, it is that the pre-eminent position of the United States in the world--"our scientific capabilities and national security," in the words of the president of the American Physical Society, James Langer--was in fact compromised by the government's action in the case of Wen Ho Lee and the resulting alienation of the most qualified foreign-born scientists necessary to maintain that pre-eminence. Unfortunately, the lesson is also, as Wen Ho Lee found out, that an immigrant dream--coming to America, working hard, getting an education, taking care of one's family and minding one's own business--can easily be shattered by politics. Only by becoming politically engaged and organized can immigrants gain the respect of the rest of the American people and stop being singled out as easy victims.
If I die one day from the bullet of a young killer--
a Palestinian who crosses the northern border--
or from the blast of a hand grenade he throws,
or in a bomb explosion while I'm checking the price
of cucumbers in the market, don't dare say
that my blood permits you to justify your wrongs--
that my torn eyes support your blindness--
that my spilled guts prove it's impossible
to talk about an arrangement with them
to talk about an arrangement----that it's only possible
to talk with guns, interrogation cells, curfew, prison,
expulsion, confiscation of land, wisecracks, iron fists, a steel heart
that thinks it's driving out the Amorites and destroying the Amalekites.
Let the blood seep into the dust: blood is blood, not words.
Terrible--the illusion of the Kingdom in obtuse hearts.
Translated from the Hebrew by Shirley Kaufman
Black filmmakers seize the moment.
By identifying ethics with civic virtue, we create an ethics of the left.