Southern Exposure, which somehow looks--even in its third decade,
in the twenty-first century--as if very advanced high school students
had just stapled it together and put it on your doorstep (that's a
compliment...The Nation strives for that effect, too), is still
doing a fine job on its old beat: investigating the strange mix of
culture and corporatism that has made the South what it is today. By
extension, every issue poses the same basic question: What exactly is
America? In looking at the South in great detail over many decades,
Southern Exposure has begun to propose, although not explicitly,
First, America is a place that advocates equality but thrives on
inequality. In the 2002 Spring and Summer issue, which is subtitled "The
South at War," James Maycock has published a piece on the black American
soldier's experience in Vietnam--especially for people who did not live
through the civil rights movement and that terrible Southeast Asian
conflict, this piece will be riveting. "I'm not a draft evader,"
declares one African-American draftee on reaching Canada. "I'm a runaway
America is also a place where the Marlboro Man has not abdicated, as
Stan Goff shows in his gonzo essay on Vietnam and American masculinity
(in fact, it has crossed my mind that all those ads may have been psy-ops prep for George W. Bush's ascendancy). And last, America is a
place that loves the Army. In its useful and unassailable roundup on the
Southern states and the war industry, Southern Exposure comes up
with important facts. The dollar amount of military contracts to Florida
companies alone last year amounted to $15.2 billion. The military, of
course, is a good place to have your money right now. For example,
Florida's education budget was slashed by 4.2 percent last year while
the stock of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, two of the largest companies
with investments in Florida, were up 25 percent and 40 percent,
respectively. Nutshell portraits of thirteen states provide a real sense
of the give and take between politicians, the military and the job
market, and population in places where the military chooses to spend.
Note also: Of the top twenty-one cities involved in military production
in 2001, excepting Hartford, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Seattle, every
city on the list is in the South or in California. According to
Southern Exposure, 66 percent of the weapons sold to Israel under
the Foreign Military Sales program were produced in the South. The South
has helped situate America in the world today; that puts it in a unique
moral position. But after reading this issue of Southern
Exposure, one really wonders: Do most Southerners care?
After reading about B-29s and F-16s and macho men and Hellfire
missiles made in Orlando--of all places--I was happy to read a few
magazines that go to other extremes. Of the two big yoga magazines
available on the newsstand, Yoga Journal is the yogis' Vanity
Fair, and Yoga International is their Real Simple. We
can dispense with the latter except for the pretzel-position pictures,
but Yoga Journal is a very good niche magazine--good niche
publications take their subject and use it expansively, as a jumping-off
point. The June issue has an excellent and anthropologically important
piece by Marina Budhos on how yoga practice in the West, especially
among Americans, is changing the age-old practice in India, the
Americans behaving like cargo cultists in reverse.
Budhos found that many of the Indians in an Indian ashram (where, by the
way, the hatha yoga teacher was "a really tough Israeli") were attending
because they "were interested in teaching yoga as a career." Many of the
foreigners were simply having yoga fun on vacation--although, as I have
discovered while doing the tortoise position, the word "yoga" and the
word "fun" should never be used in the same sentence. Daniel Ghosal, an
Indian-American, says the Americans who come to India for yoga are seen
by the Indians as "kind of 'cracked.'" Indians don't think of yoga as a
social trend. "The lighting of candles and all that," Ghosal says
dismissively. "To Indians, it's just yoga."
"The Path of the Peaceful Warrior," by Anne Cushman, is also an amusing
piece. In it--after lighting a fire with newspapers in which she sees
headlines about terror and anthrax burning away, and after "folding into
the silence and surrender of a deep forward bend" (that's classic yoga
writing; you just have to push past it)--Cushman proposes a "Yogic
Battle Plan for the War on Terror." I suppose it's better than beefing
up your naval program at Newport News...
The first step: "Stop." I like that. That should be the entirety of an
Op-Ed piece on the Middle East crisis.
There is also "Contemplate death." Under that weighty heading, Cushman
includes this nice aperçu: "The American government's
instruction to 'Be on high alert, yet go about your ordinary life' may
have struck many people as all but impossible, but that paradoxical
injunction is actually...a core yogic practice." (Don't tell Rumsfeld!)
Under "Look Deeply," Cushman cites Tricycle editor James
Shaheen's remark that bin Laden was "inadvertently speaking the Buddhist
truth of interdependence when he said, 'Until there is peace in the
Middle East, there will be no peace for Americans at home.'" "Practice
nonviolence" is another step in the yogic battle; "take action," the
last. By the end, Yoga Journal is beginning to sound like the
editors of Southern Exposure.
Earthtimes, the monthly environmental and social paper
spiritedly edited for twelve years by the effervescent Pranay Gupte, is
folding up shop after July for lack of funding. As Gupte said in a
farewell note to colleagues: "Undercapitalization is always bad for
business; zero capitalization is worse. Since my basement press is
beyond repair, I can't even print rupee notes any longer to sustain
Earthtimes." That's Gupte and the tone of Earthtimes,
too--in moments of pain and crisis, a quiet, self-deflating, sustaining
There are perfectly respectable reasons to disagree with, dislike or
distrust Jesse Jackson. His flaws as a human being are pretty well-known
at this point. Some feel his politics are driven by ego. He certainly is
prone to poetic puffery, as much disposed to allegorical tales in which
he plays Good Shepherd as was Ronald Reagan. He's cheated on his wife.
Most notoriously, Jesse Jackson's credibility as leader of anything like
a rainbow coalition was profoundly shaken by his "Hymietown" remark. I
am among those who distrust him as a result of that one statement,
profuse apologies notwithstanding. But if I distrust him, I distrust him
no more or less than the legions of other politicians who have made
racist, sexist or anti-Semitic comments and then apologized as though
they were children playing "words can never hurt you." I distrust Jesse
Jackson no more than I distrust Jesse Helms or Robert Byrd or Pat
Robertson. I distrust him no more than George Bush or John Ashcroft for
being so cozy with the anti-miscegenist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones
University (even as I also distrust the Catholic Church for its own
history of anti-Semitism). I worry about him exactly to the same extent
that I worry about those members of Congress who have spent their long,
complacent lives as members of country clubs that discriminate against
Jews and blacks and women.
In other words, while Jesse Jackson may have his problems, they can
probably be summed up in a paragraph. Kenneth Timmerman's book
Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson takes that one
paragraph and reworks it for well over 400 pages. While it is important
to document and acknowledge the shortcomings of public figures, it is
also important to maintain a sense of proportion. In reality, Jackson is
imperfect. In Timmerman's rendition, he is a bloated monster of evil
impulses and global appetites, a "dangerous fool," "a David Duke in
black skin" who "drifts off into mumbo-jumbo" "like a Halloween ghoul"
while "mau-mauing" corporations that "think it is cheaper to buy
protection" from the "race industry" he has purportedly milked dry.
The distance between the real Jackson and Timmerman's gargoyle is
inhabited by myth, stereotype, unsubstantiated accusation, illogic and
careless innuendo. It is a world in which the least mundanity of Jackson's existence is milled into
malevolent disguise. Even Martin Luther King Jr.'s death is described as
an event that "set him free. With King dead, Jackson could become his
own boss." If Jackson is an opportunist, he is not this heinous a one,
and nothing in the substance rather than the innuendo of this book says
otherwise. Yet the innuendo playsagainst a backdrop of slapdash
thinking, angry talk-show hosts, thoughtless prejudice. It plays to what
many in the majority of this society think they already know--how else
could such a carelessly contentious book make it onto the New York
Times bestseller list for more than a month?
In the real world, Jackson is paid for his advocacy, for his attempts at
conflict resolution and for his speaking. He is a skilled fundraiser for
a variety of nonprofit organizations. His salary, fees and contributions
are paid, quite straightforwardly, by constituents and supporters. One
may honestly disagree with what he advocates or about whether he's an
effective negotiator or is wise in his beliefs. To resent that he is
paid at all is a tendentious and indirect way of expressing that
disagreement, but that's the essence of what Timmerman seems to mean
when he uses the word "shakedown." In Timmerman's world, Jackson's
entire relation to money is one of "profiting,"
"profiting-at-the-expense-of" and "profiteering."
Yes, Jackson has been investigated a number of times for mishandling
funds, particularly during the setup years of Operation PUSH and
Operation Breadbasket. But despite numerous FBI investigations, despite
frequent IRS audits and despite intense media scrutiny, none of his
enterprises have ever been implicated in anything beyond the usual
scope--promptly corrected--of what all businesses, including nonprofits,
face in the course of accounting for their poor investment decisions,
particularly when those decisions are made by inexperienced and
disorganized administrators like Jackson. Nevertheless, even after
Jackson hires good accountants and smart financial counselors, Timmerman
refers to him as "still just a street hustler" who benefited from the
"most friendly of audits" and whose "scandalous" accounting practices
would surely have resulted in some sort of criminal action had not the
FBI's investigation of him been "shut down during the early months of
the Carter administration." That Timmerman is referring to the notorious
COINTELPRO operation, which disparaged the reputations and disrupted the
lives of so many civil rights leaders, is never made explicit.
To Timmerman, Jackson's every last tic is a deceit. Jesse Jackson is
wrong when he wears shorts and sandals--too déclassé and
inappropriate. He's wrong when he wears suits--too expensive and
self-indulgent. He's a fraud because his "black buddies" give him a
nice, large house in which to raise his family--a "fifteen room Tudor,"
mentioned so many times that to say Timmerman is obsessed with it might
be too kind. The house is in a nice neighborhood--how inauthentic! His
children go to private schools, graduate from college and turn out
well--how hypocritical of him to complain about opportunity for blacks!
His son is elected to Congress--what "dynastic" pretension!
There is a deep streak of class resentment running through this book.
Jackson is disparaged in the classic language of resentment toward the
bourgeoisie or the nouveau riche: He is demeaned for his grammar, for
his manners, for his conspicuous consumption. I think this class bias
accounts for Timmerman's irrational anger whenever Jackson moves beyond
what Timmerman deems his place in the social order. Jackson is painted
as too ignorant and lower class to play with the big boys; yet too
flashy and profligate to make political claims on behalf of the poor.
When Newsweek praises his children as "poised, proud and living
antidotes to inner-city despair," Timmerman snorts that "Jesse Jackson
with his three houses, his flush bank accounts, his first-class travel,
his lucrative friendships with foreign dictators...was as close to inner
city despair as the Beverly Hillbillies were to poverty."
Similarly, any use of economic leverage, including boycotts, is seen as
nothing more than "bullying," the surest sign of someone who'd rather be
staging a riot. Jackson's attempts to convince businesses to "provide
jobs and award contracts" to minorities is redescribed as making them
"pony up." Peaceful boycotts become racial extortion--as though
African-Americans have an obligation to shop till they drop, as though
free enterprise did not include the choice of taking one's business
elsewhere. It is an oddly unbalanced insistence, particularly since
Timmerman seems to feel that free enterprise includes the right of
businesses not to hire or serve any of those supposedly extortionist
When Jackson joins the board of General Motors, he's not working within
the system, heaven forbid, he's just "working" it. Indeed, General
Motors itself is indicted for putting him on its board, for being in
craven complicity with his "plundering." "For the scare-muffins who
still dominate many Fortune 500 companies, it has become cheaper to toss
bones to Jesse than to contest him in the court of public opinion,"
writes Timmerman, and quotes T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor,
who refused to "pony up" to Jackson's concerns about hiring patterns:
"My advice to other CEO's? Why don't you grow a pair of balls? Or if
you're a female, whatever is the female equivalent."
Shakedown is flawed even more by racialized animus than by class
bias, however. "Uncle Jessie," as Timmerman calls him on several
occasions, wants "not just equal opportunity, but equal results."
Shakedown purports to be filled with proof that Jackson and his
"cohorts" have "more than." They are described not merely as lying,
cheating and stealing but as possessing much more than they deserve,
however they came by it. Every last car any member of the Jackson family
ever owned--his son's wife's BMW, for heaven's sake--is listed and
ridiculed, every last exotic make, size of engine, price paid, with a
rundown of features including vanity plates and whether the tires were
radial or whitewall.
There is nowhere offered in this book a chance that Jackson has a
humanitarian bone in his body, no chance that he adheres to principles
or beliefs. Jackson is not even a real minister, according to
Shakedown, but a "seminary drop-out" whose "church" (always in
quotes) is nothing more than a front for his "poverty pimping."
Anything Jackson is associated with becomes just too stupid or too
dangerous to respond to or take seriously. And so Jackson is described
as drawing up a "hit list" of corporations. In a passage astonishing for
its old-style Confederate paranoia, Timmerman worries that Jackson's
"inflammatory words" protesting the outcome of the 2000 election "were
dangerously close to a call for insurrection." Even Al Gore is depicted
as plotting with Jackson in hopes of "unleashing a massive outpouring of
'rage' in black communities across America." (Rage, too, is always in
Whether one likes Jackson or not, reading Shakedown one gets the
sense that Timmerman dislikes him for much more than his bad traits--and
that's where the popularity of this book becomes truly troubling.
Timmerman can't stand anyone who's ever shaken Jackson's hand. He
despises the civil rights "establishment." He hates Bill Clinton, the
Chicago Theological Seminary, African and African-American leaders of
every political stripe, hippies, bleeding hearts and the NAACP. Just for
extra wallop, every chapter or so he lumps them all together with Lenin,
Castro, Hitler, Stalin, socialist "plants," radical "functionaries,"
card-carrying members of the Communist party as well as motley others
"who are, unquestionably, enemies of the United States."
Jackson's closest friends are, according to Timmerman, members of the
Arab League, Louis Farrakhan, Yasir Arafat and Chicago street-gang
members. No matter that some of those gang members bullied Jackson,
engaging in true extortionary tactics; or, more poignantly, were kids to
whom Jackson tried to extend his ministry of social action. The fact
that some gang members were neighbors and family members, or the fact
that numbers of them ended up in jail, including Jackson's own
half-brother, is never evidence of the stresses, the sad scripts, the
human loss of ghetto life; in this book, they're all just part of
"Jesse's World." Based on association alone, street toughs become his
accomplices, his cohorts, his henchmen. Timmerman writes that Jackson
"boasted of his ties to the gangs: 'I get a lot of them to go to
church.'" Boast it may be, but it is not the ordinary or fair
understanding of "ties" to gangs. To describe it so implies something
more sinister, suggests much more.
Indeed, Jackson's mere family relation to Noah Robinson, his
half-brother and a gang member doing hard time, is like a bone that
Timmerman can't stop gnawing. It gets told and retold every few pages.
His no-good, murderous, jailed gang member of a brother. Ten paragraphs
later, Robinson is resurrected, still murderous, still jailed and still
working overtime as Jackson's "link" to gang life.
Similarly troubling is Timmerman's description of Jackson's association
with Jeff Fort, the jailed head of the Blackstone Rangers--none other
than the same Jeff Fort who recently made news as leader of the gang
with which the FBI says José Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomb"
conspirator, once hung. Indeed, Shakedown's appendix contains a
1983 wanted poster of Fort, then on the run from a narcotics charge. The
sarcastic caption reads: "The 'Reverend' Jackson's Best Pupil." Beneath
Fort's picture is the following legend: "Jackson--a seminarian dropout
who never even had his own church or congregation--" (perhaps the
twentieth time Timmerman repeats that) "claims to have 'baptized' Jeff
Fort in their early days together. Perhaps Fort should have sought the
services of a real 'Reverend.'"
This kind of indictment by suggestion occurs in almost every sentence of
the book. In one particularly troubling chapter, Timmerman tries to
implicate Jackson in funding Al Qaeda by something resembling "six
degrees of separation": In early 1999 Jackson negotiated a settlement
between Deutsche Bank and Kevin Ingram, one of the bank's top five
executives, who claimed he'd been fired because of his race. Ingram, who
never saw Jackson again, was arrested two years later for brokering a
sale of weapons on behalf of an Egyptian neighbor of his. The would-be
buyer was a Pakistani national, who, Timmerman implies, represented the
Pakistani military. Since September 11, "federal investigators have been
interrogating Ingram...about possible ties between the ultimate buyers
of the weapons in Pakistan and renegade Saudi terrorist Osama bin
Laden." Why? Apparently Ingram was once spotted in Sierra Leone by a
Florida diamond dealer who said as much while he was being questioned by
federal investigators regarding unrelated fraud charges. What's that got
to do with anything? Well, Libyan, Hezbollah and bin Laden operatives
are known to have traded diamonds in Liberia. Liberia, you ask? Hey,
Sierra Leone and Liberia are right next door to each other... What has
this got to do with Jesse Jackson? Ah. That goes back to President
Clinton (who, as the spawn of Satan and first American President ever to
have traveled to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, is dismissed by
Timmerman as having gone "on safari"). Clinton sent Jackson along as
part of a State Department team that tried and ultimately failed to
negotiate a peace in the diamond wars between Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As Timmerman leads readers down this tortured trail, Jackson's
"race-baiting tactics" in Ingram's case against Deutsche Bank give the
illusion of him being directly tied to Al Qaeda's illicit trade in
diamonds, a trade that has "flourished under the Lomé Accord
Jackson negotiated on behalf of the State Department."
In an era when our vast, unspecified war against terror has been used to
justify detaining José Padilla, an American citizen arrested on
American soil, in a military brig with no charges and no lawyer, one
does begin to worry about what those vague Al Qaeda and Blackstone
Ranger "links" will bring down upon inner-city Chicago and other
communities already so beleaguered by careless suspect profiling. At a
time when due process is fast being shelved as quaint and improvident,
one only hopes that criminality and political heresy will be measured in
some other forum than Timmerman's overwrought court of public opinion.
In an era when politicians and talk-show hosts speak openly of
assassinating a broad range of America's enemies by way of "pre-emptive"
strategy, one worries about Timmerman's recurring theme of Jackson's
alignment with those enemies; of Jackson's affairs being a matter of
national security; of Jackson as threat to the stability of America's
political and corporate culture. Indeed, Timmerman notes ominously, "No
flags or patriotic banners are found at Jackson's PUSH meeting held
September 15, 2001, just four days after the terrorist attack on the
United States. But there was room for a gigantic portrait of himself."
John Ashcroft recently asked us to trust that the days of J. Edgar
Hoover are gone forever; I would like to imagine that he means it. But
who needs Hoover if Timmerman's book reflects a national backlash
rushing to fill the breach? If Shakedown represents anything like
a popular or dominant view not just in the country but specifically in
the intelligence community (and Timmerman does thank "many" in academia,
law enforcement and intelligence "who have asked not to be named"), we
are in deep, deep trouble. This is a paranoid book, an ignorant book, a
book that posits aggressive disrespect for an immense spectrum of
African-American concerns as some sort of brave moral stance. It is a
book that takes us right back to the 1950s and argues, in effect, that
the South was right about that Negro problem. Indeed, I suppose there's
really no need to read this book at all--one could just go see Birth
of a Nation and wallow in all that panic about insurrection and
uppity, overdressed black politicians who, as D.W. Griffith put it,
"know nothing of the incidents of power."
Call me a Nervous Nellie, but will FBI and CIA agents, with their
expansive new powers, be as subject to mocking and stereotyping black
people as the careless Mr. Kenneth R. Timmerman? To put it another way,
if the FBI and CIA see each other as enemies, do testy, overdressed,
big-spending people of African descent even stand a chance against a
popular culture so racially freighted?
If this book were not selling like hotcakes and if we were not at war, I
might just feel sorry for Timmerman. I'd tell him to get out and make a
few more black friends, maybe take a Democrat to lunch. Let him find out
for himself that we're not as scary as all that. I'd urge that course, I
guess, even for those white Americans whose sympathies are ostensibly
closer to my own--perhaps people like Ward Just, a novelist who in
reviewing Stephen Carter's new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park,
in The New York Times Book Review wrote about his discomfort in
attending a birthday party that Vernon Jordan gave for President Clinton
on Martha's Vineyard:
More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by
sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures. They were
lawyers and business supremos and academics, and many of them had houses
on the island.... Introductions were made, but the names flew by. I had
never been in an American living room where the paler nation was in the
minority, but that did not seem to matter on this occasion, everyone
jolly and conversational, very much at ease. But I was inhibited, in the
way a civilian is inhibited in a room full of professional soldiers,
listening instead of talking, trying to see beneath the skin of
This fear of black social life, the perceived unknowability of it, has,
I worry, become one more blind spot that endangers our national
security, to say nothing of our national unity. There are so many white
people who have still never been to a black home and have never had a
black person to theirs. Of course, there are lots of black people who
have never been much beyond the ghetto. But in general, I think black
people have an overwhelmingly better sense of white people as just plain
old human beings than the reverse. It's impossible not to: Black people
work in white homes, white stores, white offices. If we are
professionals, we can go days without even seeing another black person.
I'd never be able to say at a cocktail party, "Who's that wonderful
white entertainer? Oh, you know the one." And everyone there would have
such a narrow range of reference that they'd all answer in unison, "Oh
yeah, Steve Martin. He's great."
And so I keep wondering about who is reading Shakedown in such
energetic numbers. Who finds it necessary to buy into the frisson
of such hyperbole? Is it possible that the ability to maintain such a
fevered sense of besiegement about Jesse Jackson, of all people, is
related to the gibberishly panicked response of the police officers who
shot Amadou Diallo in that frenzy of bullets in 1999? Are Timmerman's
readers challenged to reflect upon the blind righteousness of the
officers who assaulted Abner Louima two years before that--do they
wonder where Louima would be if he were assaulted now? It should be
remembered that Louima, a noncitizen, was initially mistaken for someone
who had committed a minor crime. Would we ever have known of his plight
if he'd been whisked into a detention center with no trial, no charge
and no lawyer?
Do Timmerman's readers really write off all the disparities of black and
brown life in America--from housing to healthcare, from schooling to
employment--as simple market choices? Do they have a clue of the social
resentment so many blacks endure--yes, even well-educated and wealthy
black people? Sometimes it is in the little things: I do not fully
understand, for example, why Vanity Fair felt it necessary, in a
recent interview, to describe black philosopher Cornel West as not just
extremely knowledgeable but rather "besotted" with knowledge. Sometimes
it's in the large things. When Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered while
changing a flat tire on his Mercedes some years ago, Camille Cosby
wondered aloud where his killer, a vehemently racist young Ukranian
immigrant, had learned to so hate the sight of a black man driving an
Does Timmerman's book bring us any closer to acknowledging how many
times more dangerous those traditions of resentment have become when
political approval ratings soar with talk of ultimate control, of
official secrecy, of necessity, of accident and of disappearance?
How terrifying for black and brown people when a highly dangerous but
nevertheless very small network of terrorists are to be hunted down
based not only on specific information but by employing broadly
inaccurate assumptions about our race, our religion, our national
origin. Who betrays whom when sweepingly invasive surveillance
guidelines are embraced by commentators across the political
spectrum--from Alan Dershowitz to George Will, from Charles Krauthammer
to Nicholas Kristof. Who betrays whom when Timmerman's brand of vulgar
overgeneralization spreads like a poison across the globe, insuring that
whatever the final shape of our brave new world, some of us are doomed
to catch hell from all sides, consigned to a parallel universe, figured
as the enemy within--indeed, the enemy "wherever."
There is a fable about the lion that eats the lamb because the lamb has
offended him with some imagined trespass. "But I didn't do it," protests
the lamb. "Well," sighs the lion, "it must have been your brother"--and
digs into his dinner.
On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September
11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York
Times ran an intriguing headline. "Forget the Past: It's a War
Unlike Any Other," it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting
that "Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a
shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land
already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is
virtually bereft of targets." It was a poor headline for an article that
began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over
control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree
History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming
war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without
anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike
could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about
the role of the United States in the world. And once the "war on
terrorism" actually started, those who tried to speak about a context
for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention
in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such
actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.
In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's
much-discussed "clash of civilizations" thesis, Pakistani writer and
filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such
organized historical amnesia--"the routine disinformation or
no-information that prevails today"--and of speaking forthrightly about
many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as
well as within what he calls the House of Islam. "The virtual outlawing
of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy
to farce," Ali puts it in one chapter, "A short course history of US
imperialism." In such a situation, "everything is either oversimplified
or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility."
Whereas Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis posits a cultural
conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as
"perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people,"
Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain
central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He
rejects Huntington's identification of the West with "human rights,
equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy," and he reminds us
of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the
Islamic world itself.
Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the
neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in
Afghanistan, the broader "war on terrorism" now being fought on numerous
fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts
in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a
heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left
Review and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and
has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The
Clash of Fundamentalisms he surveys a range of regional and
historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation
of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the
unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the
fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is
an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of
history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves
serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons,
geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.
Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking--defending
against religious orthodoxy in favor of "the freedom to think freely and
rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination"--Ali has a
sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas
that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate
Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time
dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of
Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of
Fundamentalisms he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and
selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more
signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and
inconsistent references included in this volume.
Ali writes here of his "instinctive" atheism during his upbringing in
Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His
experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon,
born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a
merchant caravan and traveled widely, "coming into contact with
Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe." Ali writes
that "Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic
passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs
and the need to impose a set of common rules," thus creating an impulse
toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important
element of Islam's appeal.
Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect
that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding
of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter;
some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather
than a revealed document. "The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought
contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries," Ali argues.
But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is
particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the
Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. "What
do the Islamists offer?" Ali asks rhetorically: "A route to a past
which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed."
Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a
response to "the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on
a global scale." Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only
Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of
parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism
in the Third World. These failures--his examples include Egypt and
Syria--were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships
themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of
religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their
own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that "all the other exit routes
have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American
Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm
the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war
against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the
country "was still awash with factional violence," while "veterans of
the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan,
Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia." The factional
instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention,
created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.
To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular
nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for
decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan;
in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US "friends"
such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments
actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia
and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about
past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.
Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and
engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons
learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive
view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves,
setting out his differences with the advocates of "humanitarian
intervention." Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too
quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and
to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only
rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually
motivated by traditional "reasons of state." Where other people see
closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain
to be pursued.
Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate
paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history
recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a
significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in
Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been
so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, "Letter to
a young Muslim," Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his
correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader
to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism
than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be
achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he
notes, "no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even
pretends that it wishes to change anything significant"? What might a
radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount
a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style
capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the
horrors of the Soviet Union?
Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if
Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses
contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted
the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc
more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union
were "striving for a superior social and economic system" is to give
those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some
illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.
Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such
as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None
of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not
living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too
much continuity to the one before September 11.
No one has contributed more to the United States than James Madison. He
was the principal architect of the Constitution, the brilliant theorist
who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for
designing the American system of government. Moreover, along with
Washington and Franklin, Madison was one of the men who made the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia work. Whenever passionate disagreements
threatened the enterprise, it was Madison's calm logic to which the
others listened. As one delegate put it, it was Madison who had "the
most correct knowledge" about government affairs.
And no one did more than Madison to get the Constitution ratified in the
face of strong anti-Federalist opposition. The most hyperbolic
superlatives cannot do justice to the twenty-nine newspaper essays
Madison wrote that, together with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John
Jay (all written under the pseudonym Publius), comprise the
Federalist Papers. Suffice it to say that 200 years later a
distinguished political scientist wrote, "The Federalist is the
most important work in political science that has ever been written, or
is likely to be written, in the United States," and that Madison's
contributions shine the brightest.
And that is not all. At the convention in Richmond when anti-Federalists
George Mason and Patrick Henry used every argument and stratagem to
persuade Virginia to refuse to ratify the new Constitution--which, had
they been successful, would have caused the Union to be stillborn--it
was Madison's cool, clear reasoning that once again saved the day.
Madison's place in the pantheon of great Americans, therefore, is secure
regardless of how we evaluate his performance as the nation's fourth
President (1809-17). His reputation can withstand the central inquiry of
Garry Wills's short and provocative new book, namely: Why was James
Madison so great a constitutionalist but so dreadful a President?
Perhaps I overstate by calling Madison's presidency "dreadful." Wills
does not go that far. He presents an evaluation of Madison's successes
and failures, finding both. Nor do historians generally consider Madison
a dreadful President. When C-SPAN asked historians to rank the forty-two
American Presidents, Madison came in at number 18, putting him slightly
above average and, by way of modern comparisons, ahead of George H.W.
Bush (20) and Bill Clinton (21).
Wills's strongest pejorative is his description of Madison as a "hapless
commander in chief." Nevertheless, Wills's examination makes me wonder
whether, out of deference to Madison's other accomplishments, historians
are being unduly charitable to his presidency.
The defining issue of Madison's tenure was the War of 1812. Some
historians argue that he cannot be blamed for a war thrust upon him by a
"War Hawk Congress." Others, however, including most prominently Ralph
Ketcham of Syracuse University, argue that Madison wanted the war and
maneuvered Congress into declaring it. Wills sides with Ketcham and
builds a persuasive case that Madison deliberately propelled America
into a war for which it was ill prepared.
War was raging between England and France when Madison came to office.
Napoleon's armies were conducting their bloody marches across the
Continent while England was using her sea power to try to keep him
confined there. During his term, Jefferson had been confronted with the
problem of what to do about the combatants seizing ships that were
carrying American exports to their adversaries or, in England's case
especially, boarding American ships to seize sailors, many of whom were
deserters from the British Navy. At Madison's urging (Madison was
Jefferson's Secretary of State), Jefferson imposed an embargo on
American ships crossing the Atlantic. While some supported an embargo to
keep American ships out of harm's way, Madison believed an embargo would
exert enough commercial pressure on England to force it to agree to
leave American shipping alone.
But in fact the embargo meant little to England or France. It meant much
more to America, particularly New England, whose economy depended
heavily on trade with England. In the first year of the embargo
America's exports fell by almost 80 percent. New England preferred
having some of its ships and cargo seized by combatants to suspending
all trade. Under great pressure, Congress ended the embargo and replaced
it with the Nonintercourse Act, which permitted American ships to cross
the Atlantic as long as they did not trade with England or France. The
virtue of this approach was that it was unenforceable; once American
ships disappeared over the horizon, there was no telling where they
The embargo ended on the last day of Jefferson's presidency, and the
indignity of combatants seizing American ships and sailors resumed in
full force as Madison took office. Then Madison heard good news: A
British diplomat reported that his government was ready to grant America
neutral trading rights. Thrilled, Madison immediately issued a
proclamation repealing America's prohibition against trade with
whichever nation, England or France, first granted neutral trading
rights to the United States. Believing troubles with England at sea to
be at an end, 600 ships sailed from American ports confident that all
would be well when they arrived at their trading destinations across the
But England quickly announced there had been a mistake. Its
representative had failed to communicate that England would grant
neutral status only upon several conditions, one of which was that
England would continue to stop and board American ships and seize former
British sailors. Madison was fit to tied. By reneging on its word, said
Madison, England had committed an "outrage on all decency" more horrible
than the capture of black slaves from the shores of Africa.
Madison should have realized something was wrong with the original
repre-sentation, Wills argues. The US government's own survey revealed
that roughly 9,000 American crewmen were British deserters, and England
could not possibly afford so many of her sailors safe haven on American
Madison tried to wipe the egg off his face by announcing a new
policy--America would unilaterally resume trade with England and France
and continue to trade with both until either nation recognized America's
neutral trading rights, at which time America would automatically
reimpose an embargo upon the other. In view of the failure of the first
embargo, there was no reason to believe a potential new embargo would
force England or France to change its policy. But, says Wills, Madison
remained stubbornly committed to the failed policy of embargo.
Unfortunately, Wills believes, Napoleon shrewdly exploited it as a means
to maneuver America into war against England.
Napoleon announced he would repeal his ban on neutral trade on November
1, 1812, provided that the United States reimposed its embargo against
England by then. Acting once again without bothering to get
clarification, Madison reimposed the embargo upon England. But just as
he had previously acted without learning England's details and
conditions, this time Madison acted on Napoleon's offer only to discover
that Napoleon refused to rescind an order confiscating American ships at
port in recently captured Holland and other harbors of the empire.
Getting bamboozled by Napoleon appears, paradoxically, to have made
Madison even more furious at England. For its part, England found
Madison's willingness to side with France deplorable. "England felt that
it was defending the free world against the international tyranny of
Bonapartism," Wills writes. "Anyone who was not with them in that
struggle was against them." And so, increasingly, America and England
perceived each other as enemies.
Madison's anger with England was one factor that moved him toward war,
but there was another as well: He wanted to seize Canada. Jefferson
urged Madison to pluck this ripe plum while England was militarily
engaged with Napoleon. "The acquisition of Canada this year will be a
mere matter of marching," advised Jefferson.
It may be worth pausing to observe that many of Madison's worst
disasters involve following Jefferson. With the exception of the War of
1812, the most lamentable mistake of Madison's career was his plotting
with Jefferson to have states nullify federal laws, specifically the
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts violated fundamental
principles of free speech and press, and Jefferson and Madison cannot be
blamed for opposing them. But the medicine they prescribed--the claim
that the states could enact legislation nullifying federal law--was
potentially far worse than the disease.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison had argued that
Congress should be given the authority to nullify state law, and was
discouraged when he lost this battle. He later betrayed his own
convictions by arguing that the state legislatures could nullify laws
enacted by Congress, though for tactical reasons he called this
"interposition" rather than "nullification." Moreover, Madison allowed
himself to be Jefferson's cat's-paw in this matter. Jefferson, then Vice
President, wanted to keep his own involvement secret, and Madison
fronted for both of them. Madison was haunted by this throughout his
career: Southern states invoked Madison's support of nullification
during disputes over slavery, and Madison's political opponents
delighted in forcing him to try to explain the difference between
"interposition" and "nullification."
Why did Madison so readily follow Jefferson over cliffs? Madison was
nervous, bookish, provisional and physically unimposing (5'4" and 100
pounds). He was so insecure with the opposite sex that he did not
attempt courtship until he was 31. The object of his desire was 15, and
Madison was so crushed by her rejection that he did not venture into
romance again until he was 43, when he successfully won Dolley's hand.
It would be only natural for Madison to fall under the thrall of the
tall, dashing, passionate, cosmopolitan and supremely self-confident
Any sensible strategy to seize Canada from one of the world's
superpowers would necessarily hinge upon a quick and powerful attack to
overwhelm British forces before they could be reinforced or before the
British Navy could be brought to bear in the conflict. Madison and his
military commanders planned a rapid, two-pronged strike: One American
force, commanded by William Hull, was to invade Canada from the west,
crossing over the border from Detroit. Meanwhile, Henry Dearborn was to
lead American forces from the east, crossing the Saint Lawrence River
from various points in New York.
Rather than take the time to raise and train a professional army,
Madison decided to invade Canada with militia forces. But this strategy
was the military equivalent of throwing pebbles at a hornet's nest--and
Madison should have known it.
Before the Revolutionary War, there had been much soapbox rhetoric about
the glories of the militia: Citizen soldiers were supposed to be more
virtuous and therefore more capable than professional soldiers. The
Revolutionary War proved this to be bunk. After the skirmishes at
Lexington and Concord, the militia performed terribly. So often did the
militia bolt in the face of even much smaller opposing forces that it
became Continental Army doctrine to position militia units in front of
and between regular army units, who were ordered to shoot the first
militiamen to run. Washington won the war only after raising and
training a professional army.
Notwithstanding the militia's dismal performance, some
politicians--particularly Southern slaveholders like Madison who relied
on the militia for slave control--continued to cling to the notion that
the virtuous citizen militia was superior to a professional army. One
Southerner who would have found these views laughable if they were not
so dangerous was George Washington. "America has almost been amused out
of her Liberties" by pro-militia rhetoric, he said: "I solemnly declare
I never was witness to a single instance, that can countenance an
opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of
Madison, however, had not been listening. In the Federalist
Papers, he and Hamilton expressed differing views about the militia.
Hamilton argued that an effective fighting force required professional
training and discipline, and he urged Congress to support only a select
militia. Madison, however, continued to envision a universal militia
consisting of all able-bodied white men.
This debate resonates even today in the gun-control debate. Because the
Second Amendment connects the right to bear arms to the militia,
gun-rights advocates suggest that the Founders considered the universal
militia to be sacrosanct. The militia was then composed of the whole
body of the people, and thus the Constitution permanently grants the
whole body of the people the right to keep and bear arms--or so the
argument runs. This makes little sense as a matter of constitutional
law, however, because, as both Hamilton and Madison recognized, the
Constitution expressly empowered Congress to organize the militia as it
Despite the Revolutionary War experience, Madison launched his attack on
Canada almost entirely with militia forces. The results were
predictable. In the east, most militiamen refused to cross the Saint
Lawrence, claiming that it was unlawful to take the militia outside the
United States. Dearborn did manage to coax a small contingent across the
river. But when shooting accidentally broke out among his own forces,
they all fled in confusion back across the Saint Lawrence.
Meanwhile, in the west, Hull's forces were paralyzed by militia refusing
to take orders from regular Army officers. There was an invasion, but
American forces were not the invaders. By the end of 1812, when America
was to be in possession of most of Canada, a few American units that had
failed to retreat successfully back into New York were being held
prisoner in eastern Canada, and English forces had taken Detroit and the
Things continued downhill. Two years later, a British force of 1,200
marched nearly unchallenged into the District of Columbia while 8,000
American troops, mostly militia, "ran away too fast for our hard-fagged
people to make prisoners," as one British commander put it. The British,
of course, burned the White House and Capitol to the ground.
Wills gives Madison high marks for grace and courage during the British
invasion of Washington, and, all in all, the war did not turn out too
badly. The British had not wanted it and settled for the status quo ante
bellum. And rather than feeling disgraced, America took patriotic pride
in a series of Navy successes, remembered through battle slogans and
anthems ("Don't give up the ship," James Lawrence; "We have met the
enemy and they are ours," Oliver Hazard Perry; "the rockets' red glare,"
Francis Scott Key). America came out of war feeling good about itself.
For this, historians give Madison much credit.
Some credit is undoubtedly deserved. More than once, Madison acted with
courage and grace in the midst of panic. America was properly proud of
its naval feats, though it is not clear that a President who took a
nation with seven warships into battle against an adversary with 436
Is it unfair to call Madison a dreadful President? If Wills is correct
about Madison stumbling his way toward war through a series of
diplomatic blunders and then deciding to take on a world power with
militia forces, perhaps not.
And what is it that allowed Madison to be so great a constitutionalist
and so poor a President? Wills argues that it was provincialism and
naïveté: What Madison had learned from the great minds by
reading books allowed him to understand political theory better,
perhaps, than anyone else. But without greater worldly experience, even
Madison could not operate the levers of power that he himself designed.
Yet as Wills aptly concludes, "Madison did more than most, and did some
things better than any. That is quite enough."
Dread ripples through me as I listen to a phone message from our manager
saying that we (The Doors) have another offer of huge amounts of money
if we would just allow one of our songs to be used as the background for
a commercial. They don't give up! I guess it's hard to imagine that
everybody doesn't have a price. Maybe 'cause, as the cement heads try to
pave the entire world, they're paving their inner world as well. No
imagination left upstairs.
Apple Computer called on a Tuesday--they already had the audacity to
spend money to cut "When the Music's Over" into an ad for their new cube
computer software. They want to air it the next weekend, and will give
us a million and a half dollars! A MILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS! Apple is
a pretty hip company...we use computers.... Dammit! Why did Jim (Morrison) have to have such integrity?
I'm pretty clear that we shouldn't do it. We don't need the money. But I
get such pressure from one particular bandmate (the one who wears
glasses and plays keyboards).
"Commercials will give us more exposure," he says. I ask him, "so you're
not for it because of the money?" He says "no," but his first
question is always "how much?" when we get one of these offers, and he
always says he's for it. He never suggests we play Robin Hood, either.
If I learned anything from Jim, it's respect for what we created. I have
to pass. Thank God, back in 1965 Jim said we should split everything,
and everyone has veto power. Of course, every time I pass, they double
It all started in 1967, when Buick proffered $75,000 to use "Light My
Fire" to hawk its new hot little offering--the Opel. As the story
goes--which everyone knows who's read my autobiography or seen Oliver
Stone's movie--Ray, Robby and John (that's me) OK'd it, while Jim was
out of town. He came back and went nuts. And it wasn't even his song
(Robby primarily having penned "LMF")! In retrospect, his calling up
Buick and saying that if they aired the ad, he'd smash an Opel on
television with a sledgehammer was fantastic! I guess that's one of the
reasons I miss the guy.
It actually all really started back in '65, when we were a garage
band and Jim suggested sharing all the songwriting credits and money.
Since he didn't play an instrument--literally couldn't play one chord on
piano or guitar, but had lyrics and melodies coming out of his ears--the
communal pot idea felt like a love-in. Just so no one got too
weird, he tagged that veto thought on. Democracy in action...only
sometimes avenues between "Doors" seem clogged with bureaucratic BS. In
the past ten years it's definitely intensified...maybe we need a third
party. What was that original intent? Liberty and justice for all
songs...and the pursuit of happiness.... What is happiness? More money?
More fame? The Vietnamese believe that you're born with happiness; you
don't have to pursue it. We tried to bomb that out of them back in my
youth. From the looks of things, we might have succeeded.
This is sounding pretty depressing, John; where are you going here? The
whole world is hopefully heading toward democracy. That's a good thing,
John.... Oh, yeah: the greed gene. Vaclav Havel had it right when he
took over as president of Czechoslovakia, after the fall of Communism.
He said, "We're not going to rush into this too quickly, because I don't
know if there's that much difference between KGB and IBM."
Whoa! Here comes another one: "Dear John Densmore, this letter is an
offer of up to one million dollars for your celebrity endorsement of our
product. We have the best weight loss, diet and exercise program, far
better than anything on the market. The problem is the celebrity must be
overweight. Then the celebrity must use our product for four weeks,
which will take off up to 20 pounds of their excess body fat. If your
endorsement works in the focus group tests, you will immediately get
$10,000.00 up front and more money will start rolling in every month
after that--up to a million dollars or more." Wow! Let's see...I've
weighed 130 pounds for thirty-five years--since my 20s...I'll have to
gain quite a bit...sort of like a De Niro thing...he gained fifty pounds for Raging Bull--and won an Oscar! I'm an artist, too, like him...
We used to build our cities and towns around churches. Now banks are at
the centers of our densely populated areas. I know, it's the 1990s....
No, John, it's the new millennium, you dinosaur. Rock dinosaur, that is.
My hair isn't as long as it used to be. I don't smoke much weed anymore,
and I even have a small bald spot. The dollar is almighty, and
ads are kool, as cool as the coolest rock videos.
Why did Jim have to say we were "erotic politicians"? If I had been the
drummer for the Grassroots, it probably wouldn't have cut me to the core
when I heard John Lennon's "Revolution" selling tennis shoes...and
Nikes, to boot! That song was the soundtrack to part of my youth, when
the streets were filled with passionate citizens expressing their First
Amendment right to free speech. Hey...the streets are filled again! Or
were, before 9/11. And they're protesting what I'm trying to wax on and
on about here. Corporate greed! Maybe I should stick to music. I guess
that's why I hit the streets with Bonnie Raitt during the 1996
Democratic National Convention. We serenaded the troops. Bob Hope did it
during World War II, only our troops are those dressed in baggy Bermuda
shorts, sporting dreadlocks. Some have the shaved Army look, but they're
always ready to fight against the Orwellian nightmare. A woman activist
friend of mine said that with the networking of the Net, what's bubbling
under this brave new world will make the '60s unrest look like peanuts.
I don't want "Anarchy, Now," a worn-out hippie phrase, but I would like
to see a middle class again in this country.
Europe seems saner right now. They are more green than us. They're
paranoid about our genetically altered food and they're trying to make
NATO a little more independent in case we get too zealous in our
policing of the globe. When The Doors made their first jaunt from the
colonies to perform in the mother country back in '67, the record
companies seemed a little saner, too. The retailers in England could
order only what they thought they could sell; no returns to the
manufacturers. That eliminated the tremendous hype that this country
still produces, creating a buzz of "double platinum" sales, and then
having half of the CDs returned. Today, there is a time limit of three
to six months for the rackjobbers to get those duds back to the company.
Our band used to be on a small folk label. Judy Collins, Love and the
Butterfield Blues Band were our Elektra labelmates. We could call up the
president, Jac Holzman, and have a chat...and this was before we
made it. Well, Jac sold out for $10 million back in '70, and we were now
owned by a corporation. Actually, today just five corps own almost the
entire record business, where numbers are the bottom line. At
least we aren't on the one owned by Seagram's! Wait a minute...maybe
we'd get free booze...probably not. Advances are always
recoupable, booze probably is too.
Those impeccable English artists are falling prey as well. Pete
Townshend keeps fooling us again, selling Who songs to yuppies hungry
for SUVs. I hope Sting has given those Shaman chiefs he hangs out with
from the rainforest a ride in the back of that Jag he's advertising,
'cause as beautiful as the burlwood interiors are, the car--named after
an animal possibly facing extinction--is a gas guzzler. If you knew me
back in the '60s, you might say that this rant--I mean, piece--now has a
self-righteous ring to it, me having had the name Jaguar John back then.
I had the first XJ-6 when they came out, long before the car became
popular with accountants. That's when I sold it for a Rolls
Royce-looking Jag, the Mark IV, a super gas guzzler. That was back when
the first whiffs of rock stardom furled up my nose. Hopefully, I've
learned something since those heady times, like: "What good is a used-up
world?" Plus, it's not a given that one should do commercials for the
products one uses. The Brits might bust me here, having heard "Riders on
the Storm" during the '70s (in Britain only) pushing tires for their
roadsters, but our singer's ghost brought me to my senses and I gave my
portion to charity. I still don't think the Polish member of our
band has learned the lesson of the Opel, but I am now adamant that three
commercials and we're out of our singer's respect. "Jim's dead!" our
piano player responds to this line of thought. That is precisely
why we should resist, in my opinion. The late, transcendental George
Harrison had something to say about this issue. The Beatles "could have
made millions of extra dollars [doing commercials], but we thought it
would belittle our image or our songs," he said. "It would be real handy
if we could talk to John [Lennon]...because that quarter of us is
gone...and yet it isn't, because Yoko's there, Beatling more than ever."
Was he talking about the Nike ad, or John and Yoko's nude album cover
shot now selling vodka?
Actually, it was John and Yoko who inspired me to start a 10 percent
tithe, way back in the early '80s. In the Playboy interview, John
mentioned that they were doing the old tradition, and it stuck in my
mind. If everybody gave 10 percent, this world might recapture a
bit of balance. According to my calculations, as one gets up into the
multi category, you up the ante. Last year I nervously committed to 15
percent, and that old feeling rose again: the greed gene. When you get
to multi-multi, you should give away half every year. Excuse me, Mr.
Gates, but the concept of billionaire is obscene. I know you give a lot
away, and it's easy for me to mouth off, but I do know something about
it. During the Oliver Stone film on our band, the record royalties
tripled, and as I wrote those 10 percent checks, my hand was shaking.
Why? It only meant that I was making much more for myself. It was the
hand of greed. I am reminded of the sound of greed, trying to talk me
into not vetoing a Doors song for a cigarette ad in Japan.
"It's the only way to get a hit over there, John. They love commercials.
It's the new thing!"
"What about encouraging kids to smoke, Ray?"
"You always have to be PC, don't you, John?" I stuck to my guns and
vetoed the offer, thinking about the karma if we did it. Manzarek has
recently been battling stomach ulcers. So muster up courage, you
capitalists; hoarding hurts the system--inner as well as outer.
So it's been a lonely road resisting the chants of the rising
solicitations: "Everybody has a price, don't they?" Every time we (or I)
resist, they up the ante. An Internet company recently offered three
mil for "Break on Through." Jim's "pal" (as he portrays himself in
his bio) said yes, and Robby joined me in a resounding no! "We'll give
them another half mil, and throw in a computer!" the prez of Apple
pleaded late one night.
Robby stepped up to the plate again the other day, and I was very
pleased that he's been a longtime friend. I was trying to get through to
our ivory tinkler, with the rap that playing Robin Hood is fun, but the
"bottom line" is that our songs have a higher purpose, like keeping the
integrity of their original meaning for our fans. "Many kids have said
to me that 'Light My Fire,' for example, was playing when they first
made love, or were fighting in Nam, or got high--pivotal moments in
their lives." Robby jumped in. "If we're only one of two or three groups
who don't do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the
long run. The publishing will suffer a little, but we should be proud of
our stance." Then Robby hit a home run. "When I heard from one fan that
our songs saved him from committing suicide, I realized, that's it--we
can't sell off these songs."
So, in the spirit of the Bob Dylan line, "Money doesn't talk, it
swears," we have been manipulated, begged, extorted and bribed to make a
pact with the devil. While I was writing this article, Toyota Holland
went over the line and did it for us. They took the opening
melodic lines of "Light My Fire" to sell their cars. We've called up
attorneys in the Netherlands to chase them down, but in the meantime,
folks in Amsterdam think we sold out. Jim loved Amsterdam.
I received the news of paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen
Jay Gould's death, at age 60, in the week I was reading Jonathan Marks's
new book on genetics, human evolution and the politics of science. My
friends and I discussed our shock--Gould had famously "beat" cancer some
years back--and shared charming and ridiculous Gould information, like his
funny-voice contributions to The Simpsons. Postings on leftist
listservs noted that Gould's fulsome New York Times obituary,
which rattled on about his "controversial" theory of punctuated
equilibrium, his SoHo loft and love of baseball, neglected to mention
his extensive antiracist writing and many other radical activities,
including working with the Science for the People group. Rhoda and Mark
Berenson wrote in to commend his strong support for the release of their
daughter Lori, the young American leftist sympathizer long imprisoned as
a "terrorist" in Peru.
With Gould gone, the landscape of progressive English-language popular
science writing is much impoverished. In particular, in an era in which
silly, and most frequently racist and sexist "it's all in our genes"
narratives have become--alas!--purely commonsensical in the mass media,
if not in the academy, we have lost a stalwart and articulate
evolutionary biologist who wrote prolifically against sociobiology's
reductionist framings of human experience. But molecular anthropologist
Jonathan Marks, with his broad history-of-science background, his
take-no-prisoners stance on scientific stupidity and overreaching, and
his hilarious Groucho Marx delivery, can help to fill that void.
What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee addresses precisely that
question--the issue of human/higher primate connections--and all its
existential and political entailments. Marks reframes the old C.P. Snow
"two cultures" debate, on the gulf between the sciences and the
humanities, in a new and interesting way. Rather than blaming the
general public for its scientific ignorance--which I must confess is my
own knee-jerk tendency--Marks turns the lens around. He indicts
scientists, and particularly his own confrères in genetics, for
their long history of toadying to elite interests: "Where human lives,
welfare, and rights are concerned, genetics has historically provided
excuses for those who wish to make other people's lives miserable, to
justify their subjugation, or to curry favor with the wealthy and
powerful by scapegoating the poor and voiceless." Marks's conclusion is
that genetics "is therefore now obliged to endure considerably higher
levels of scrutiny than other, more benign and less corruptible, kinds
of scientific pronouncements might."
And scrutinize he does. First, Marks provides us with an accessible
history of the linked Western efforts, since the seventeenth century, to
comprehend the natures of nonhuman higher primates, and to develop
biological taxonomy, both before and since the rise of evolutionary
theory. With word-pictures and actual illustrations of explorers' and
others' accounts of "Pongoes," "Baboones, Monkies, and Apes," he makes
vivid for us the ways in which "the apes, by virtue of straddling a
symbolic boundary, are highly subject to the projections of the
scientist from the very outset of modern science." Not the least of
Marks's virtues are his deft along-the-way explanations, as for instance
the key physiological differences between monkeys and apes (the latter
are "large-bodied, tailless, flexible-shouldered, slow-maturing"). Only
last week, I found myself hectoring a hapless video-store worker about
the absurd conjunction, in the store's display case, of an orangutan
(ape) stuffed animal with a Monkey Business movie poster. Now I
can just hand out 98% Chimpanzee.
The "projection" problem, according to Marks, is far more inherent to
biological taxonomy than heretofore realized. He offers amusing
lightning sketches of scientists past and present, from the
eighteenth-century catfight between Buffon and Linnaeus over whether
intrahuman variation could be categorized biologically--the latter
eventually acknowledging Buffon "by naming a foul-smelling plant after
him"--to paleobiologist George Gaylord Simpson's two-martini lunches in
his 1980s Arizona retirement as he declaimed against contemporary
genetic reductionists. These humanized history-of-science narratives
allow Marks to make clear the uncertainties and arbitrariness of "hard"
science categorizations. While "every biology student knows that humans
are mammals," because human females nurse their young, Marks notes that
"it is not obviously the case that breast-feeding is the key feature any
more than having a single bone in the lower jaw (which all
Mammalia, and only Mammalia, have)." He uses historian
Londa Schiebinger's work to show us how Linnaeus, who had been operating
with Aristotle's four-legged "Quadrupedia" label, switched to
Mammalia because he was active in the contemporary movement
against upper-class women sending their infants out to wet nurses: "He
was saying that women are designed to nurse their own children, that it
is right, and that it is what your family should do."
Political apprehensions, as we know, were woven just as deeply into
scientists' evolving modes of categorizing
intrahuman--"racial"--variation. Here Marks tells some familiar stories
in new ways. Many know, for example, about racist University of
Pennsylvania anthropologist Carleton Coon's last-ditch claims, in the
early 1960s, that "the length of time a subspecies has been in the
sapiens state" determines "the levels of civilization attained by some
of its populations." But Marks offers us as well a fascinating sense of
the times. We see, for example, Sherwood Washburn, the Harvard Yankee of
later Man the Hunter fame, and Ashley Montagu, the debonair English
anthropologist redbaited out of the academy and onto What's My
Line appearances, ending up "on the same side, working to purge
anthropology once and for all of the classificatory fallacy that had
blinded it since the time of Linnaeus.... Coon died...an embittered and
largely forgotten figure, done in, he supposed, by the forces of
political correctness, and more darkly (he allowed in personal
correspondence) by a conspiracy of communists and Jews as well."
The importance of cultural constructions, and their irreducibility to
biological functions, have been hoary apothegms in anthropology
classrooms for a half-century. Awareness of the susceptibility of
scientific practice to the politics of reputation has been with us since
the Kuhnian 1960s. Ethnographic, historical and journalistic work on
bench science from the 1980s forward has focused on the political
framing of, and politicized language use in, hard science research and
on the power of corporate and state funding to determine research
directions and even findings. But Marks takes the "cultural construction
of science" line much further than even most progressive critics of the
contemporary idiocies of sociobiologists--although he does get off some
lovely lines, like "sociobiology, which studies the biological roots of
human behavior, whether or not they exist." He takes the critique home
to his specialty, evolutionary molecular genetics, and demonstrates the
multifarious ways that recent claims about human nature and evolution,
based on DNA evidence, have been misframed, are irrelevant or often
That we "are" 98 percent chimpanzee, says Marks, is a profound
misframing. First, our biological closeness to the great apes "was known
to Linnaeus without the aid of molecular genetics." "So what's new? Just
the number." Then he points out that the meaning of phylogenetic
closeness depends upon the standpoint from which it is viewed: "From the
standpoint of a daffodil, humans and chimpanzees aren't even 99.4%
identical, they're 100% identical. The only difference between them is
that the chimpanzee would probably be the one eating the daffodil."
Then, the diagnostic genetic dissimilarities between chimpanzees and
humans do not cause the observed differences between them, and are
therefore irrelevant to discussions of the "meaning" of our genetic
When we compare their DNA, we are not comparing their genes for
bipedalism, or hairlessness, or braininess, or rapid body growth during
adolescence.... We're comparing other genes, other DNA regions, which
have either cryptic biochemical functions, or, often, no known function
at all. It's the old "bait and switch." The genes we study are not
really the genes we are interested in.
Thus all of the wild claims about our "chimp" nature, which have ranged
over the past forty years from male-dominant hunter (early 1960s) to
hippie artist and lover (late 1960s through 1970s) to consummate
competitor (Gordon Gekko 1980s) are entirely politically constructed.
And, Marks adds, in considering the "demonic male" interpretation of
chimp competition as like that of Athens and Sparta, they are simply
argument by analogy: "Maybe a chimpanzee is sort of like a Greek
city-state. Maybe an aphid is like Microsoft. Maybe a kangaroo is like
Gone With the Wind. Maybe a gopher is like a microwave oven."
Just plain dumb.
Using this set of insights, Marks eviscerates a wide array of
contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom about heredity" claims, from the
"successes" of both the Human Genome and Human Genome Diversity Projects
to the "Caucasian" Kennewick Man, the "genetic" athletic superiority of
black Americans, the genetics of Jewish priesthood and the existence of
a "gay gene." He is particularly trenchant against the Great Ape
Project's use of human/ape genetic similarities to argue for "human
rights" for apes, frequently to the detriment of the impoverished
African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands: "Apes should be
conserved and treated with compassion, but to blur the line between them
and us is an unscientific rhetorical device.... our concern for them
can't come at the expense of our concern for human misery and make us
numb to it."
There is much more in 98% Chimpanzee, a real treasure trove of
thoughtful, progressive scientific thought. But I do have a quibble.
While Marks takes an uncompromising equal rights stance when it comes to
female versus male biology, he doesn't delve anywhere near as deeply
into the insanities of contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom" about
sex--like the "rape is genetic" claims of a few years back--as he does
about race. And they are legion, and just as politically consequential.
Nevertheless, this is an important and refreshing book, the first
claimant to replace the magisterial and out-of-print Not in Our
Genes, and a fitting monument to Stephen Jay Gould's passing. Now
tell me the one again about the duck with lips.
Although car chases are formulaic, they needn't be standard issue. One
of the many substantial pleasures that The Bourne Identity offers
is a thoughtful car chase, a loving car chase, in which the characters
truly care about their conduct amid prolonged automotive mayhem. It
doesn't hurt, of course, that the scene is Paris. The streets there are barely wide enough for a single fleeing vehicle--which means that Jason Bourne may as well use the sidewalk when he needs an extra lane. Once the pedestrians dive out
of the way, he gets to skid through every degree of turn except
ninety--Descartes never laid his grid over this city--until the route
ends at a set of stairs. They're very picturesque; and considering what
his car's undercarriage was already like, they can't do much harm.
By the time the car fully resumes the horizontal, some of the pursuing
motorcycle cops have managed to pull up. "Turn your head," Jason warns
his passenger, Marie Kreutz, in a surprisingly gentle tone. She was
guzzling booze straight from the bottle even before this ride; he'd
rather not worsen her alarm by letting her watch the next maneuver. But
we see it, as one cop after another is shaken off and the car hurtles
onto a highway. At last--a chance to make time! The camera drops to
within an inch of the macadam so that our brains, too, can get a good
rattle, as Jason and Marie's car seems to race straight out of the
screen. Then, almost without transition, it's shooting through more
non-Cartesian turns, off a ramp, past the spot where the last motorcycle
cop makes his rendezvous with a passing truck, to come to a very
temporary version of rest.
How should a car chase end? If the sequence is standard issue, the
filmmaker will require a fireball, or a roll downhill and then a
fireball, followed perhaps by the sight of the good guys speeding away.
But in The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman has been witty
enough to conclude the sequence by having Jason pull into a parking
garage. From this, we may learn that the hero is a fundamentally
conventional person, despite what he's been doing for the past five
minutes. But this is only part of what we learn--because Liman is also
clever enough to make the real action start when the motor stops.
All but vibrating from what they've been through, Marie and Jason sit in
the car in silence, each glancing awkwardly toward the other and then
looking away. The camera, static at last, takes them both in at once.
Time stretches; they squirm. Someone is going to have to say something
pretty soon--and the words, when they come, will have the shy banality
of a postcoital stab at conversation, when the two people have scarcely
met and are wondering what the hell they've just done.
For me, this was the moment when The Bourne Identity revealed its
true nature, as a study of those people in their 20s who can't yet put
up with workaday life. Liman has looked at such characters before, in
Swingers and Go. Those movies were about using
recreational drugs, selling recreational drugs, selling over-the-counter
medicines that you claim are recreational drugs, losing yourself in
music, losing yourself in lap dancing, losing your sense that this cute
thing before you might not be an ideal companion when you get to be 70.
Jobs in these movies count for little or nothing; friendships mean the
world, though they're always breaking apart. If you can recognize these
attitudes, and if you're familiar with the behavior through which
they're expressed nowadays, you will understand Jason Bourne and Marie
Kreutz. They're typical Doug Liman characters, who just happen to live
in a spy thriller.
Now, since The Bourne Identity is adapted from a Robert Ludlum
novel and was written for the screen by two people other than the
director, you might doubt the wisdom of ascribing all the above to
Liman. But look at the casting. In the title role, Liman has Matt Damon,
who carries over from Good Will Hunting his persona of the
regular working stiff--an unpretentious guy who must nevertheless come
to grips with a great power he's been given. In Good Will
Hunting, the gift was mathematical genius, which somehow was shut up
behind Damon's sloping brow and wary, squinting eyes. In The Bourne
Identity, in which he plays a CIA assassin suffering from amnesia,
Damon is puzzled to hear himself speak many languages, and to find that
his arms and legs demolish anyone who threatens him. Different skills;
same aura of being troubled, but decent and game. When Jason Bourne
refuses to hold on to a gun--something that he does more than once in
the picture--Damon infuses the gesture with the gut-level morality of a
Catholic boy from South Boston.
Paired with Damon, in the role of Marie, is Franka Potente, the young
German actress who is best known for Run Lola Run. She, too, has
retained her persona from the earlier film, so that she brings to Marie
a convincing impression of having enjoyed quite a few good times over
the past years, many of which she can't remember. Her basic facial
expression is something between a scowl and a sneer--the sign, you'd
think, of a feral sexuality that bores her, because it encounters no
worthy challengers and yet prevents her from concentrating on anything
else. No wonder she runs--or drifts in this case, playing someone who
has done nothing since high school except wander about. When first seen
in The Bourne Identity, Potente is at the American Embassy in
Zurich, making a pain of herself by demanding a visa to which she is
most likely not entitled. When first approached by Damon, Potente
establishes her baseline attitude toward people by snapping "What are
you looking at?" Her Marie isn't a bad person, you
understand--she's just been bad news for any man she's hung around. Now,
though, she's met the right guy in Jason Bourne, meaning someone who can
be bad news for her.
I think it's worthwhile to compare these characters with those played by
Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company, a routine
bomb-in-a-suitcase thriller, whose main function is to help audiences
kill time till the release of Men in Black 2. Hopkins plays the
self-controlled CIA agent, who is so white he's English. Rock plays
(guess what?) the street-smart, fast-talking black guy, who must be put
into the field at once, or else the world will end. There's an
underground trade in nuclear weapons, you see, which Hopkins can foil
only with the aid of someone who looks exactly like Rock.
And there's the essential problem of Bad Company. The mere
appearance of Chris Rock is supposedly enough; the assignment requires
no one to act like him. In any decent movie of this sort--48
Hours, say, or Trading Places--the white character will fail
in his task, except for the wiles the black character can lend him. But
in Bad Company, Rock exists solely to be educated. A very smart
man who has made nothing of his abilities--the reasons for which failure
are left disturbingly vague--his character must be trained to wear a
suit, sip Bordeaux and rise at dawn. These traits, according to the
movie, are proper to a white man; and Rock will help defeat terrorism by
adopting them. As an interim goal for the character, this is bad enough.
What's worse is the final justification for rubbing some white onto
Rock: to make him a fit husband.
Bad Company was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Joel
Schumacher and written, so far as I can tell, by the welfare policy
officials of the Bush Administration. Heartless in theme and faceless in
style, it is so many thousands of feet of off-the-shelf filmmaking,
through which you sift, disconsolate, in search of a single live moment.
There is one: the scene in which Rock tells off a CIA supervisor. Of
course, this, too, is part of the formula; but when Rock lets loose his
falsetto indignation, the world's shams all wash away in the torrent.
You feel clean and free, listening to Rock's outrage. I wonder what he'd
say in private about this movie.
Maybe he'd say The Bourne Identity has more soul than all of Joel
Schumacher's films put together. I think soulfulness has to do with
acknowledging the reserves of personality in someone who might at first
seem a mere type--or acknowledging, for that matter, the personality in
a movie that appears generic. It's about individual but strict judgments
of right and wrong; and, always, it's about the exuberance of talent.
This last point is the one that makes The Bourne Identity into
Liman's movie. His direction is a performance in its own right,
combining the logic and flair of a first-rate bop solo. He attends to
the small, naturalistic gestures--the way Jason pauses to brush snow off
his sleeve, or Marie shields her mouth to hide a smile. He pushes the
cinematography to extremes, using low levels of light from very few
sources, to give you a sense of intimacy with the characters' flesh. He
continually thinks up ways to keep the action fresh. Sometimes his
tricks are unobtrusive, as when he makes a shot shallower than you'd
expect, and so more arresting. Sometimes he's expressive, as when Bourne
teeters on a rickety fire escape, and the camera peers down at his peril
while swinging overhead. And sometimes he's flat-out wild. In the midst
of a fight scene, Liman tosses in a point-of-view shot, about half a
second long, to show you what the bad guy sees as he flies over a desk,
upside down. If my schedule of screenings and deadlines had been more
merciful, I would now compare Liman's direction with that of the master,
John Woo, in his new Windtalkers. But I wasn't able to see
Windtalkers by press time; and, on reflection, I'm glad I didn't.
The Bourne Identity deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake.
If you're interested in the plot, you can enjoy that, too. I've left it
till last, since that's what Liman does. In one of his cheekiest
gestures, he lets the movie's McGuffin go unexplained. But as a public
service, I will give you this much detail: The Bourne Identity
assumes that the CIA's activities are an endless chain of cover-ups,
with each new calamity needing to be hidden in turn. That's why the
agency needs unlimited power.
Bad Company? Right.
How their wealth and power threaten democracy
On May 14, 2002, the first wave of Internet file-sharing died.
Politics were never far from anyone's mind at this year's fifty-fifth
Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still
reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's
victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first
round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election's second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually
invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the
offices of Le Pen's party, the Front National, a mere block away from
the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of
Europe's rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely.
Le Pen's cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings)
contained little mention of cinema. But it's doubtful that this
resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal--this
time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noë's
Irréversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric
meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci
is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes--fits Le Pen's definition
of a wholesome art "that respects our national identity and the values
of our civilization."
In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first
conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of
Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current
organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for
competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the
outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as
well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two
simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and
Critics' Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of
cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese
auteur Manoel de Oliveira's latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing
sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh
or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.
The festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, went to Roman Polanski's
The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work
of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who
returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon
childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the
memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody)
who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding.
What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from
an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto's microhistory, and then
shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman's solitary
transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.
At the film's press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero's
voyeurism and enforced passivity--Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto
uprising from the window of his apartment hideout--reflected his own
choice of filmmaking as a profession. "That's one of those questions
you'd need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one," the director quipped
acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on
Schindler's List and Aimée & Jaguar) why
big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of
Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.
Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman's brilliant
fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening
out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an
actress from the Comédie Française, performs a text drawn
from Russian author Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate--a
chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in
German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines
in safety. Visuals reminiscent of German Expressionist film--the
actress's physiognomy and the shadows surrounding her figure--combine
with the pure power of language to conjure up the lost world of the
ghetto (the poor patients who pay her with potatoes, the neighbor in an
elegant linen suit, wearing his yellow star like a camellia). Using
these subtle and minimalist means, Wiseman's film builds to an
emotionally devastating conclusion.
But that's Cannes, where the purest cinematic pleasures coexist beside a
rare degree of hype and glamour. Where else would a jury including
surrealists (president David Lynch and fellow director Raoul Ruiz) and
powerful babes (actresses Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh) assemble to
judge the fate of world cinema? They gave this year's critical favorite,
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past,
the Grand Jury Prize, while its star, Kati Outinen, took the award for
Best Actress. A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost
his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a
world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned
Helsinki port, The Man Without a Past seemed to distill Europe's
hope for redemption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with
lyricism, gentleness and beauty.
In the Official Selection, refugees and genocides were everywhere: from
the boat filled with survivors of the Shoah heading toward the shores of
Palestine in 1948 during the mesmerizing opensequences of Kedma,
Israeli director Amos Gitaï's alternately moving and unwieldy
existential drama about the first days of Israel's founding amid the
confusion of war between British, Arab and Jewish forces; to the hordes
of Armenians fleeing Turkish forces in Atom Egoyan's Ararat, an
overly intellectualized evocation of Turkey's 1915 extermination of its
Armenian population (which came complete with a condemnation by that
government); to the Kurds massed along the boundary between Iraq and
Iran in Bahman Ghobadi's Songs from My Mother's Country, a letter
from an ongoing genocide; to the largely unseen immigrants heading
secretly north across the border in Chantal Akerman's From the Other
Side, a bracingly experimental (if ill-paced) documentary
exploration of the frontier between the United States and Mexico.
Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami provided a triumph of minimalist style
in Ten, a film shot in digital, in which a divorced woman driving
hectically through the streets of Teheran picks up a series of
passengers--including an elderly peasant, a prostitute and her own young
son--whose conversations illuminate her own condition in Iranian
society. At the film's emotional climax, she stops her car to talk, and
we suddenly feel the losses that have propelled her relentless forward
motion. In an Official Selection routinely dominated by male directors,
Ten was one of a mere handful of films to address women's
It was a good year for gallows humor and dark comedies. Nebraskan
satirist Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (an adaptation of the
novel by Louis Begley) was notable both for its mordant wit and for Jack
Nicholson's restrained performance as a retired insurance executive
suddenly confronted with the meaninglessness of existence. A far wackier
vision of America emerged from Michael Moore's Bowling for
Columbine, the first documentary to screen in competition at Cannes
in forty-six years, which received a special prize from the jury. At
times hilarious and biting, Moore's film ropes together the 1999 high
school shootings in Colorado, the Oklahoma City bombing and an incident
that occurred near Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, where one
6-year-old shot another, to raise the question, Why is gun violence
endemic in America? Officials of the Lockheed Corporation, members of
the Michigan Militia and Timothy McVeigh's brother James (a gun-toting
tofu farmer) weigh in with their suggestions. There are a few surprises
(a sheriff, for example, who thinks workfare should be abolished), but
as an interviewer Moore is overly fond of the rhetorical question, and
his film founders when it encapsulates the history of American foreign
policy as a unique series of bloody coups and massacres. (Even the
liberal French daily Libération took issue with Moore's
anti-Americanism, which it deemed too much in the spirit of France
today.) And so we're left to wonder, is it something in our water or in
Alas, even a cursory glimpse at the festival's other selections showed
violence to be far from an American exception. There was Brazilian
director Fernando Meirelles's fast-paced favela epic, City of
God, in which trigger-happy children devastate the slums of Rio. And
there was Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine
Intervention, a comedy set (miraculously) on the West Bank and in
the town of Nazareth, where he was born. Playing E.S., a figure like
himself, Suleiman melds Buster Keaton's melancholy and Jacques Tati's
precision into a film whose plot revolves around a father's death and
Palestinian lovers who meet at a checkpoint between Ramallah and
Jerusalem. But this slim story is merely a thread upon which to hang a
series of inane gags--a discarded apricot pit that blows up a tank, a
Santa Claus stabbed by a knife--that poetically encapsulate the
absurdity, paralysis and rage-filled fantasies underpinning contemporary
Palestinian life. Suleiman finished his script two years ago, just
before the West Bank exploded. Though he considers himself a pacifist,
at least a few of the dreams of his character have since become
realities. During the festival's closing ceremony, in which winners
evoked a variety of political causes--from the plight of Belgian actors
to that of the people of Mexico--Suleiman (whose film took the Jury
Prize) made a short speech noteworthy for its absence of polemic. He
thanked his French producer.
Two offerings from different parts of the globe suggested that the best
course for artists is to steer clear of politics. Italian auteur Marco
Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile is a psychological thriller about
a middle-aged painter, an atheist and a leftist, who suddenly realizes
with horror that his deceased mother is being considered for
canonization. ("Wouldn't it be useful for our son's future career to
have a saint for a grandmother?" his estranged wife asks him, with what
certainly appears to be an excess of calculation.) The film seemed a
visionary nightmare, from a member of the generation of '68, about the
state of contemporary Italian society.
And from Korea, Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon provided a lusty and
inspired portrait of the legendary painter Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub, who
sprang from common roots to dominate nineteenth-century Korean art.
Ohwon (who apparently incorporated the worst qualities of both Van Gogh
and Pollock) was never sober for a day, and kept a constantly changing
series of mistresses filling his cups; he negotiated the intricacies of
chaotic Chosun Dynasty politics with the proverbial delicacy of a bull
in a china shop; yet his precise and remarkably vivid scrolls and
screens filled with fog-covered mountains, wild beasts and flowers
seemed to surge forth endlessly from some hidden well of creation. The
66-year-old Im (who shared the directing prize with American
Wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson for his Punch-Drunk Love)
is perhaps the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some
ninety-eight features to his credit, including dozens of studio genre
pictures from his salad days as a hack, before his conversion to high
culture. "In art," he said in an interview, "there is no completion, but
only the interminable struggle toward it."