Click here for Eric Alterman's latest dispatch on Florida.
On Tuesday, November 14, exactly one week after Election Day (and with no President yet in sight), a notable though little-noted disclosure was made to the public. I do not mean the news that the federal judge in Florida had turned down the Republicans' stop-the-hand-count motion, or the news that Bush's lead in Florida was now 388 votes, or the news that a Florida state judge had waffled on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's decree that no county votes would be counted if reported after the 5 pm deadline that afternoon, or, for that matter, anything else that was happening in the murk of the Sunshine State. I mean the news that, according to a poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News, 45 percent of the public wanted George Bush to become President whereas only 44 percent wanted Al Gore to become President (6 percent wanted "neither," 4 percent had no opinion and 1 percent wanted "other"). The claim was all the more striking in view of the hard contemporaneous fact that in the most recent count of the actual vote of November 7, Gore led Bush by a nationwide margin of 222,880 votes.
If anyone ever had doubts that politics in the United States is dominated by polling, this poll should put an end to them. A major poll was, in a manner of speaking, calling the election a full week after the vote--and reversing the known results.
The polls had been mercifully silent since the election. Many had good reason to be. Five of seven major ones had been "wrong" about the outcome of the election. That is, their final counts had failed to reflect the winner on Election Day (though some, it's true, were within the margin of error). The New York Times/CBS "final" poll, which put Bush at 46 percent and Gore at 41 percent, had the margin wrong by more than five points and Gore's final tally off by eight points. The Battleground poll, which gave Bush 50 percent to Gore's 45 percent, likewise got the margin wrong by five points. Others were more modestly in error. CNN gave Bush 48 percent and Gore 46 percent; in the Washington Post it was Bush 48 and Gore 45; and in the Pew Research Center poll (with undecided voters counted), it was Bush 49, Gore 47. Only the Zogby poll, which put Gore ahead in the popular vote by 48 to 46 percent, and a CBS election-morning tracking poll, which gave Gore 45 percent and Bush 44 percent, picked the right winner in the popular vote, and with a margin close to the actual result. All in all, Gore's victory in the popular vote came as a surprise. Of course, it's not literally true that the polls were wrong, since there is a margin of error, and people can change their minds between the day of the poll and the election. On the other hand, election results are the only check on the accuracy of polling that there is--they are to polling what experimentation is to scientific hypothesis--and there is no reason to suppose that a poll whose final measure is 8 percentage points off the election result is not 8 percentage points off year in, year out.
Considering the decisive importance that polling had throughout the race in every aspect of the campaign, including media coverage, fundraising and campaign strategy (in the last few weeks of the election, hearts were lifting and falling on single-point fluctuations in poll numbers), these discrepancies deserved much reflection. The reason they did not get it was that on election night the magicians of public opinion went on to make even more egregious and momentous errors, by prematurely predicting the winner in Florida twice and the winner of the national election once. (The election-night calls made by the television networks, which in turn are based on exit polling done by a single, nearly anonymous firm, the Voter News Service, are not quite the same as opinion polling, since they record a deed--voting--rather than an opinion, but their use of sampling techniques to predict outcomes places them in the same general category as other polls.)
The last of these mistakes, of course, led a credulous Gore to concede the election and then, minutes later, to retract the concession. For a few hours, the networks and the candidates appeared to have assumed the power to decide the election between them. There is every reason to believe, for instance, that George Bush would now be President-elect if, moments before his concession speech, Gore had not got the news that Florida had been declared undecided again. If Gore's concession had gone unretracted, Bush had made his acceptance speech and the country had gone to bed believing it had made its decision, it is scarcely imaginable that the close results in Florida would have been contested. Even now, many observers await a concession by one or another of the candidates as the decisive event. But it is not up to either the networks or the candidates to decide who is to be President; that matter is left under the Constitution to the voters, whose will, no matter how narrowly expressed, must be ascertained.
Then a week later, the polls that had played such an important and misleading role in the election were weighing in again, this time on the Florida battle. The poll that brought the startling, seemingly counterfactual news that Bush led Gore in the public's preference also revealed that six out of ten voters were opposed to legal challenges to the Florida results--possibly bad news for Gore, who had been considering a legal challenge to the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County. However, observers who did not like that conclusion could find comfort on the same day in a New York Times/CBS poll, which reported that another 6 in 10 were unworried about a delay in finally deciding upon the next President--good news for Gore, who had been relying on time-consuming hand recounts to erase Bush's narrow lead.
If, however, the arts of reading public opinion helped get us into our current mess, perhaps we can take comfort from the hope that they can also help us get out of it. Many observers have suggested that by failing to produce a clear mandate, the ever-changing vote-count of the year 2000--let's call it the Butterfly Election--will cripple the presidency of the winner. They need not worry too much. In our day, it is not only--perhaps not even mainly--elections that create mandates, once every four years. It is polling data that, day in and day out, create our impressions, however incompletely or inaccurately, of what the public wants. Let the new President act in a way that the public approves, as determined by a poll or two, and he will have all the mandate he needs to govern.
Providence put me on a panel debating the Gore/Nader choice with Cornel West at New York University in late October. Most of the audience was for Nader, and the lineup on stage did nothing to improve those odds.
Before the debate began, its organizers took a few moments to speak on behalf of the university's graduate students' struggle for unionization. So did West, who had been handed a flier about it from the floor. And as a man about to lose a debate (and a longtime grad student as well as an occasional NYU adjunct faculty member), I was happy for the interruption. Days later, the National Labor Relations Board set an important precedent by ruling in favor of the students. But here's what I don't understand. How can the student union supporters also be Nader supporters? Nonsensical "Tweedledee/Tweedledum" assertions to the contrary, only one party appoints people to the NLRB who approve of graduate student unions, and only one appoints people to the Supreme Court who approve of such NLRB decisions. No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it's that simple. An honest Nader campaign slogan might have read, "Vote your conscience and lose your union...or your reproductive freedom...your wildlife refuge, etc., etc."
Well, Nader's support collapsed, but not far or fast enough. In the future, it will be difficult to heal the rift that Nader's costly war on even the most progressive Democrats has opened. Speaking to In These Times's David Moberg, Nader promised, "After November, we're going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. If [Democratic candidates] are winning 51 to 49 percent, we're going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They've got to lose people, whether they're good or bad." It's hard to imagine what kind of deal can be done with a man whose angriest rhetorical assaults appear reserved for his natural allies. (The vituperative attacks on Nader, leveled by many of my friends and cronies on the prolabor democratic left, were almost as counterproductive, however morally justified.) But a deal will have to be done. Nader may have polled a pathetic 2 to 3 percent nationally, but he still affected the race enough to tip some important balances in favor of Bush and the Republicans. He not only amassed crucial margins in Florida, New Hampshire and Oregon; he forced progressive Democrats like Tom Hayden, Paul Wellstone, Ted Kennedy and the two Jesse Jacksons to focus on rear-guard action during the final days rather than voter turnout. If this pattern repeats itself in future elections, Naderite progressives will become very big fish in a very tiny pond indeed.
Perhaps a serious Feingold or Wellstone run at the nomination with a stronger platform on globalization issues will convince those die-hard Naderites to join in the difficult business of building a more rational, Christian Coalition-like bloc to counter corporate power within the party. For now, we can expect an ugly period of payback in Washington in which Nader's valuable network of organizations will likely be the first to pay. Democrats will no longer return his calls. Funders will tell him to take a hike. Sadly, his life's work will be a victim of the infantile left-wing disorder Nader developed in his quixotic quest to elect a reactionary Republican to the American presidency.
* * *
Giving Nader a run for his money in the election hall of shame are the mainstream media. Media portraits of both candidates were etched in stone, with nary a fact or figure allowed to intrude upon the well-worn script. Bush was dumb and Gore a liar; pretty much nothing else was allowed in the grand narrative. Like Nader, reporters assumed the enormous policy differences between Gore and Bush--on Social Security, prescription drugs, education, affirmative action, abortion rights, the environment--to be of trivial importance, hardly worth the time and effort to explain or investigate. The media's treatment of this election as a popularity contest rather than a political one between two governing ideologies was an implicit endorsement of the Bush campaign strategy, as the issues favored Gore. But even so, Bush was usually treated like some pet media cause. With regard to such consequential questions as his political program, his political experience, his arrest record, his military service, his business ethics, Bush was given a free pass by media that continued to hound Gore about whether he was really the model for Oliver in Love Story--which, by the way, he was. I guess being a Bigfoot journalist means never having to say you're sorry.
* * *
One election development that had to gladden New Republic owner Marty Peretz's heart was how bad it was for the Arabs. I got a call one day from a Republican Party functionary telling me that Hillary Clinton supported a Palestinian state and took money from groups that supported terrorist organizations "like the one that just blew up the USS Cole." I told the sorry sonofabitch that like Israel's Prime Minister, I, too, support a Palestinian state. And, if there was any justice in the world, Hillary's "terrorist" friends would blow up Republican headquarters while we were still on the phone, so I could enjoy hearing the explosion.
This heavy-handed bit of racist manipulation grew out of a story published, surprisingly, not in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post but in the putatively responsible and nominally liberal New York Daily News, owned by Mortimer Zuckerman. It was inspired by the machinations of one Steven Emerson, a discredited "terrorism expert" last heard trying to pin the Oklahoma City bombing on the Arabs by noting that "inflict[ing] as many casualties as possible...is a Middle Eastern trait." Each actor played a dishonorable role in the tawdry drama: The Daily News invented the story. The Lazio campaign brazenly exploited it. Hillary Clinton's campaign capitulated to it. Together with the media coverage of the main event, this mini-drama will go down in history as further evidence of that unhappy nostrum of American politics that this year seems to have escaped everyone from the Nader die-hards to Palestinian militants: Things can always get worse.
As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.
For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.
That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."
I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."
From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.
Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.
Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.
This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).
Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.
When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.
It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.
"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."
To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.
Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."
This issue goes to press on Wednesday, November 8, the day after the election, when all was supposed to have been decided, all was to be made clear. Instead, a great bewilderment has descended over the land. The recount of the vote in Florida, which might conceivably erase Bush's lead of a thousand or so votes and give the state and the presidency to Al Gore, has begun but not been completed. As I write, the numbers are changing hourly, and no two news outlets seem to have the same ones at the same time. There seems to be some fuzzy math going on down in Florida. Meanwhile, we do know that Al Gore has won the popular vote and faces the possibility that the will of the people will be annulled by the Electoral College. In short, we do not know at present who the next President will be or whether, when we do know, the people will have wanted that man.
Ordinarily, journalists hate situations like this, in which the deadline for elucidating a momentous event descends just before the event occurs. We are required, it seems, either to qualify our comments to the point of meaninglessness or else to pen words so vague and general that they will cover all contingencies. Rich as the arts of pontificating are, these occasions seem to stretch them to the breaking point. ("Whoever wins the White House, one thing is clear, the democracy of this great land..." and so forth.)
On this particular occasion, however, the situation is different. History, giving hard-pressed journalists a hand, has, by declining to produce a victor, provided for the time being the perfect metaphor for the campaign that has now ended. In the campaign the choices offered by the two parties were more obfuscated than clarified, more concealed than revealed. Gore decided to distance himself from his partner in the White House, Bill Clinton, declaring himself to be "my own man," assuring the voters that "I will never let you down" and preventing Clinton from going out on the hustings. It was the fundamental strategic decision of the Gore campaign. Yet the reason for it--the scandals that led to the impeachment of Clinton--were never mentioned by Gore. In consequence, impeachment, the most important political event of the last decade, and the one with the most important bearing on the fitness of the Republican Party to be placed in positions of trust and authority, went undiscussed by the Democrats. Had the impeachment been a necessary remedy for a grave danger to the Republic from President Clinton, or had it been (as I believe) a reckless abuse of power by the Republicans? No question was more in need of an answer in this year's election, but none went more thoroughly unaddressed. Gore's decision even prevented him from taking adequate credit for the Clinton Administration's economic successes.
The Republicans, for their part, waged what E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post rightly called a "stealth campaign." They had held the majority in Congress for six years, yet the Congressional Republicans were all in hiding, and their self-described "revolution" of the nineties--including, for example, their attempt to eviscerate environmental law, their attempt to shut down the Department of Education and their shutdown of the federal government--also went down the memory hole. They opportunistically took their stand on Democratic issues--a plan for prescription drugs, a plan for saving Social Security, a plan for education. Only Bush's proposal for an across-the-board tax cut was in keeping with the recent Republican record. (The art of winning elections by stealing the other party's issues is one they appear to have learned from Clinton.)
Astonishingly, the Republicans even pre-empted the impeachment issue--though without mentioning it explicitly any more than Gore had. Bush spent the final week of the campaign attacking the "partisan bickering" in "Washington," as if it had been the Democrats who had tried to impeach a Republican President for frivolous reasons rather than the other way around. Thus did the impeachment issue control the candidates' decisions without being discussed by them. Almost the only issue given a really thorough airing was the entirely jolly one of how to pass out the trillions of dollars of the budget surplus (how much in prescription drug benefits? how much in tax cuts?)--trillions that may never in fact materialize and that the current Congress has in any case been busily spending.
Had the outcome of the election been known today, a tidal wave of interpretation of the results no doubt would already be rolling over us. It is well that it was stopped. It is better to reflect for a moment on our political confusion. The contest, even when it produces a winner, will not have provided a basis for generalizations regarding the public mind. A foggy campaign has ended in a deep fog, as if the people, not having been offered a true choice, have simply decided not to choose.
Bill Gates for President--next time. Now that we've gotten used to
millionaires running for the presidency, why not a billionaire and a
self-made one at that? At least Gates is aware that the biggest problem
in the world is not how to make some Americans even wealthier but how to
deal with the abysmal poverty that defines the condition of two-thirds of
Odd as it may seem, it took the richest man in the world in a dramatic
speech last week to remind us that no man is an island, and that when
most of the world's population lives on the edge of extinction, it mocks
the rosy predictions for our common future on a wired planet.
Gates shocked a conference of computer industry wizards with the news
that the billions of people who subsist on a dollar a day are not in a
position to benefit from the Information Age. He charged that the hoopla
over the digital revolution, which he pioneered, is now a dangerous
distraction from the urgent need to deal seriously with the festering
problem of world poverty. Gates, who has donated an enormous amount to
charity, also made the case that private donations alone will not solve
the problem, and that massive government intervention is needed.
"Do people have a clear idea of what it is to live on $1 a day?" Gates
asked the conferees. "There's no electricity in that house. None. You're
just buying food, you're trying to stay alive."
The "Creating Digital Dividends" conference he addressed was one of
those occasions in which the computer industry indulges the hope that as
it earns enormous profits, it is solving the major problems facing
humanity. The premise of the conference was that "market drivers" could
be used "to bring the benefits of connectivity and participation in the
e-economy to all the world's 6 billion people."
As reported by Sam Howe Verhovek in the New York Times, Gates, who was
the conference's closing speaker, doused that hope by denying that the
poor would become part of the wired world any time soon. In a follow-up
interview, Gates amplified his view of what occurs when computers are
suddenly donated to the poor: "The mothers are going to walk right up to
that computer and say, 'My children are dying, what can you do?' They're
not going to sit there and like, browse eBay."
Gates, who has long extolled the power of computers to solve the
world's problems, criticized himself for having been "naïve--very naïve."
He has shifted the focus of the $21 billion Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation from that of donating Information Age technology to meeting
the health needs of the poorest, beginning with the widespread
distribution of vaccines.
The New York Times reported that Gates "has lost much of the faith he
once had that global capitalism would prove capable of solving the most
immediate catastrophes facing the world's poorest people, especially the
40,000 deaths a day from preventable diseases. He added that more
philanthropy and more government aid--especially a greater contribution
to foreign health programs by American taxpayers--are needed for that."
Given that Gates is presumably the biggest of those taxpayers, that is
the most provocative challenge to the complacency of the
"free-markets-and-trade-will-solve-everything" ideology that dominates
the thinking of both major parties. US foreign aid to the poor
represents a pathetic fraction of our budget, while we devote ever larger
sums to building a sophisticated military without a sophisticated enemy
in sight. Yet those misplaced priorities went totally unchallenged by the
presidential candidates of both major parties.
Poverty is the major security problem both within and without our
country. These days the have-nots have many windows to the haves, and
resentment is inevitable. It is the breeding ground of disorder and
terror, and it is absurd to think that a stable new world order can be
built on such an uneven foundation.
One of the ironies of the wired world is that those terrorists in
their remote mountain camps are wired into the Internet, which has
facilitated the coordination of their evil plans. The terrorists have all
the laptops and cellular phones they want, but they depend for their
effectiveness on recruiting from the ranks of the alienated poor who
don't have medicines, food or a safe source of water.
Pacifica listeners, the most politically pumped-up demographic in Radioland, are taking to the e-mails again. This time they're galvanized by what they see as a move to oust Amy Goodman, for many years co-host and heart and soul of Democracy Now!, a popular news program that showcases the network's avowedly radical take on the world.
The facts are: Goodman was ordered to institute certain changes in the program's operating procedures, to which she objected as unduly burdensome. There were other demands as well relating to more control over her public speaking engagements. If she did not comply, management threatened "disciplinary actions up to and including termination." Goodman struck back by filing a list of grievances through her union, AFTRA, charging various forms of harassment.
Many listeners feel that management's move against Goodman, ostensibly to "professionalize" the operation, is really an attempt to bland down the show. Our main concern is that Democracy Now! be preserved under Goodman and her current co-host, Juan Gonzalez. The program has broadcast a string of scoops and garnered some of radio's highest awards. It features the kind of hard-nosed investigative reporting that only noncommercial radio can do. Its series on the Chevron Oil company's collaboration with the murderous Nigerian dictatorship won a George Polk Award (see Goodman and Scahill, "Drilling and Killing," November 16, 1998, and "Killing for Oil in Nigeria," March 15, 1999). Goodman's reports from East Timor with Allan Nairn resulted in a documentary that collected numerous awards. Democracy Now! has covered a host of other stories that the mainstream media ignored or on-the-other-handed to death. Its reports on the Republican and Democratic conventions focused on the corporate domination of these political trade fairs, still another example of what alternative radio can do that the commercial networks won't.
Even the often admirable National Public Radio has sunk to the practice of corporate underwriting; it recently (and disgracefully) joined the big-bucks broadcast lobby in opposing low-power community radio. Pacifica is one of the few noncommercial radio voices left--"the last bastion of the precept, enshrined in the FCC Act, that the public airways are a public trust," as we said in a previous editorial. Goodman and Democracy Now! belong on Pacifica. Make that with an exclamation point!
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, diagnoses an anti-Israel tilt in the US media, in which "the Israelis have come through a miraculous alchemical formula to become the giants and everyone else is the David.'' What planet is this man living on?
Just look at the numbers. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, compared with just five Israeli Jews. The Palestinians attack with stones, Molotov cocktails and the extremely rare automatic weapon. Unlike nations that quell riots by their own people with tear gas and rubber bullets, the Israelis respond with live ammunition: antitank rockets, helicopter gunships and armor-piercing missiles. Armed Jewish vigilantes have undertaken murderous rampages against unarmed Arab citizens, shooting them in cold blood. The UN Security Council condemns Israel's "excessive use of force."
Yet aside from the Palestinians invited to speak explicitly for their own cause, the mainstream US media condemn the Palestinians and exonerate Israel with Soviet-like consensus. Editorial pages are unanimous in apportioning the blame exclusively to Yasir Arafat rather than the war criminal Ariel Sharon, who provoked the riots to advance his political career. Sharon was puffed up in extremely sympathetic interviews by Lally Weymouth published in the Washington Post and Newsweek, and held forth as well on the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page. Meanwhile, the members of the punditocracy who appeared during the weekend of Barak's ultimatum spoke as if channeling American Jewish Committee talking points.
While Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio battled one another to shower the Palestinians with higher and higher degrees of contempt in their second debate, the only American voices heard to speak to the larger context of the conflict were the twin electoral outliers, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Given his history of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, the former Crossfire host has forfeited any credibility he once had on the issue. Nader's criticism of Sharon, which he expressed on CBS's Face the Nation, was therefore far more valuable, especially in light of the relative scarcity of such voices on network television.
More typical, however, are the views of Charles Krauthammer, who has apparently contracted the same mental and emotional affliction that drove poor Abe Rosenthal insane. The pundit actually compared the phenomenon of Palestinian riots and rock-throwing to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Complaining of overly sympathetic coverage of Palestinian "frustration"--"frustration with what?" Krauthammer demanded in mock horror, as if the average Palestinian refugee lived next door in Chevy Chase--Krauthammer termed Israel's dovish leaders "feckless" for seeking an accommodation to create a nation where Jewish soldiers are no longer in a position to gun down unarmed 12-year-old boys.
Sure Arafat is a corrupt, untrustworthy leader, and I wish he had somehow found the courage to risk his own neck and embrace Barak's surprising concessions at Camp David, if only as a foundation stone in a much longer peace process. The concessions were, unfortunately, the best offer the Palestinians are likely to get for some time. But it's not Arafat's indecision or Palestinian rock-throwing that lies at the root of the current conflict. Rather, as the Israeli lawyer Allegra Pacheco wrote on the Times Op-Ed page, it is the fact that "the proponents of the agreement, including the Clinton Administration, never fully informed the Palestinian people that the [Oslo] accord did not offer any guarantee of Palestinian self-determination, full equality and an end to the military occupation." Since Oslo, Pacheco notes, the quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has declined from terrible to nearly unbearable. Owing to the lack of good will on both sides, what is being constructed from Oslo is less peace than apartheid.
I have walked across open sewage in Palestinian refugee camps surrounded by children begging for candy. I have been served tea at the home of a Palestinian family whose 13-year-old son was killed days earlier by the Israeli Defense Force as a suspect in a murder that turned out to be the work of a crazed Jewish fanatic. I have stood in the rubble of Palestinian houses that the Israelis bulldozed as a warning to those who would continue to protest. Seven years ago, I stood on the White House lawn and listened, tearfully, to Yitzhak Rabin say "enough" to the killing on both sides. Alas, it was not enough. And given the realities on the ground, for every Israeli who loses a son or daughter, so too will scores of Palestinians.
It would behoove those in the media who hold forth on this issue to address themselves for once to its larger context. It is Israel that is oppressing the Palestinians, and it is the Palestinians who are doing virtually all the dying. True, Ehud Barak has taken massive political risks by offering concessions that go well beyond the Israeli consensus. He is a brave leader and an authentic soldier for peace. But given the magnitude of the physical, psychological and sociological costs of the Palestinian "catastrophe," Barak's best is simply not good enough. The only chance for lasting peace will come when Israel agrees to share Jerusalem with a full Palestinian partner, granting equal rights to citizens of both nations; with Israeli rule in the West and Palestinian rule in the East.
Perhaps it's too much to ask a victorious people to offer genuine justice and material sacrifice to the nation it has vanquished on the battlefield--particularly when the hatred of the defeated nation continues unabated. But the Palestinians will accept nothing less.
I'm a Jew with deep emotional ties to Israel and strong sympathies with the Labor/Zionist project. My own words fill me with foreboding. But if it must come to war, then let us at least be honest about it. Like Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it will be a war that Israel has chosen because it could not countenance the alternatives. And it will be the Palestinians who, once again, will endure the lion's share of the suffering.
New York City
The Nation acknowledges that military and civilian trials in Peru violate due process of law in terrorism cases, that thousands of innocent people have been convicted and that thousands remain in prison in Peru today after political trials. Presumably it agrees that DINCOTE, the Peruvian antiterrorism police responsible for those convictions, are about as restrained and trustworthy as the elite national police that served Pinochet in Chile, the military governments in Argentina and Guatemala in the seventies and eighties and similar other police states.
Why then did The Nation choose to use its resources and invest its credibility to challenge Lori Berenson's innocence by relying on what are allegedly DINCOTE documents [Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo, "The Lori Berenson Papers," Sept. 4/11]? The Nation was told that Peru planned to nullify Lori's military tribunal conviction and sentence to life imprisonment on the basis of a petition she filed in December 1999, and that The Nation was being used by DINCOTE to support charges against Lori for a new show trial.
Jonathan Levi misleads his readers by implying that the Berensons and I questioned only the authenticity of the records. If he will listen to the tape he made of our interview, he will hear it was the reliability of the papers, not merely their authenticity, that we challenged. We told The Nation that DINCOTE leaked the papers, "never before seen by the public but obtained by The Nation," precisely to spread false information about Lori in its pages, which reach so many of Lori's supporters, at the very time Peru would nullify Lori's military trial and begin yet another propaganda campaign against her in a new show trial in civilian courts, a trial that is itself illegal and not capable of fairness. The military tribunal, after a nine-month delay, nullified Lori's conviction and began the new proceedings just as the Nation cover story with its picture of Lori was being distributed.
The article accepts as gospel the false DINCOTE allegations of fact even where Lori has had the rare opportunity to state the opposite. The article refers repeatedly to Lori's "testimony," "deposition," "transcripts," suggesting there exist exact verifiable statements by Lori. But there are no transcripts, depositions or verbatim testimony, there is only what Levi claims a DINCOTE file they will not disclose contains. Who believes DINCOTE? Nor is it accurate to say that the papers "shed new light." All the false claims about Lori have been leaked to the press and printed repeatedly.
Levi has refused to permit the Berensons, or me, to see the papers he has. This places him in the same position as DINCOTE, which he concedes refused to provide copies of the documents "even to her lawyers," and in the same position as the Fujimori government, which has refused to provide any documents to the Berensons, Lori's counsel or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Levi said he is "especially afraid with the trial coming up" to provide Lori a copy of the documents, because that would "have us working for the defense." Incredible. He is working for DINCOTE. He claims to have "sources intimately familiar with [its] workings." We ask only for a copy of the false papers with which Levi challenges Lori's innocence, not the source for the papers.
Aside from the moral outrage of promoting DINCOTE propaganda, the Nation article is patently cheap and demeaning to Lori Berenson. In a single sentence, asserting how "most ordinary Peruvians" feel about Lori, Levi writes that she "is a Beauty who slouches...toward Latin America, only to turn into a terrorist Beast, eyes wide open." Why the triple play on a fairy tale, a Didion book title and a prurient movie? Why the repeated references and allusions to sex? Above all, why is Levi, who has never met Lori, compelled to deny the possibility that she acted from inner qualities of goodness, even greatness, as he observes heroines in "classical tragedy" to do? Instead, he argues that she is doing the reverse: "She seems to be translating her fall into a theatrical grandeur." Lori has spent nearly five years in life-threatening prison conditions without a trial by any civilized standard on false charges in complete isolation, where any effort at "theatrical grandeur" can be seen by no one. All while the controlled press in Peru demonize her daily and The Nation serves DINCOTE's cause here in the United States.
Levi seems to know little about Peru, or Lori's case, except what DINCOTE and people within its sphere of influence told him. Lori's Peruvian lawyer in the military trial, who has not represented her for years, despite Levi's assertion that he still does, "although he is not as active as he once was," was never present during her nearly nine days of intense interrogation and sleep deprivation when Lori was alone in the tender hands of DINCOTE. On the day the statement DINCOTE prepared was given to her to sign, he saw Lori for the first time but was never able to talk with her in private before, during or thereafter. From time to time he has made statements harmful to Lori for whatever reason, which Levi joins the Peruvian press in repeating with glee.
The utter emptiness of the effort to support some level of guilt is found in Levi's repeated references to the one exposure to the Peruvian press just before her sentencing that was forced on Lori, in which she courageously and angrily spoke with passion about her concerns for the poor and about the absence of social justice in Peru. She also expressed the opinion that the MRTA is a revolutionary movement, not a terrorist group. Can the expression of a single opinion in less than twenty words be a crime? Levi thinks so. He refers to the "contempt in that face" from the film clips, although he has never seen her face. Lori was very angry for good reasons. Peru claims her words are the crime translated as "apology." It carries a lengthy prison term. Levi distinguishes the fate of an Italian woman who was convicted like Lori--but according to them on "more hard evidence"--and who was released after seventeen months, based on her claim of innocence, but Lori has always insisted she was innocent. Apparently he never saw the film clips of the Italian woman, who appeared far more agitated than Lori.
Levi called the Berensons to congratulate them when they heard Lori would get a new trial. But surely even he knows such a trial will not be fair. We can ignore the outrageous and repetitious claims of DINCOTE against Lori carried in The Nation. They are false. Lori will tell the truth if she is forced into a public show trial, and the truth will keep her free in spirit and someday make her free in body.
It is more difficult to ignore the role of The Nation in using its pages to support false DINCOTE propaganda planted to poison US opinion about Lori. A majority of Congress has demanded Lori's release from prison because Lori's parents, despite all the propaganda from Peru and the "Washington Peru policy," have persuaded them Lori is innocent. The Nation has not helped truth find its way out.
Perhaps the Nation Institute will now investigate how this happened.
LEVI & MINEO REPLY
New York City; Cambridge, Mass.
It's sad to watch such a historic defender of human rights as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark so willfully misread our report on his client, Lori Berenson. This misreading starts even before our story begins. Throughout his letter Clark attributes the article solely to Jonathan Levi. In fact, the byline was shared by Levi and Liz Mineo. Clark writes: "Levi seems to know little about Peru or Lori's case." Mineo, a full partner in the research and writing of the piece, was not only born in Lima but lived there for more than thirty-five years and worked (as her bio indicated) as an investigative reporter for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including El Comercio, a newspaper that the Berensons have lauded for its fair coverage of their daughter's case.
Clark makes some strong claims about our journalistic integrity and the motivations behind our story, but he fails to provide any evidence to support them. We reported in the article that Berenson's own lawyer in Peru, Grimaldo Achahui, signed the DINCOTE record of her interrogation and later confirmed its authenticity. Clark attempts to disparage Achahui by declaring that he "has not represented [Lori] for years" and that "he has made statements harmful to Lori." In fact, his last action on her behalf was filing Berenson's appeal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1999, and as recently as August the Berensons themselves referred to Achahui as Lori's Peruvian lawyer. The only statements of his that we repeat pertain to his verification of Lori's testimony to DINCOTE and his opinion that her sentence was unfair.
Clark writes, "The article accepts as gospel the false DINCOTE allegations of fact...." Perhaps Clark missed the following sentence: "The story that emerges from the documents is one of unusually hasty police surveillance, negligent interrogation and reckless reliance on one witness whose testimony was neither challenged nor corroborated. The documents give a crude demonstration of how hyperinflation can be applied to a police charge, raising Berenson, in its final pages, from the obscurity of a minor suspect to the limelight of a major leader of the MRTA." Our aim was to examine all received truths about the case. To that end, we conducted interviews with dozens of people in Peru, including former and current members of DINCOTE as well as former and current members of the MRTA and educated observers within the diplomatic and business community. Nowhere did we represent the DINCOTE documents as the record of a fair and balanced judicial process. Although we described discrepancies between Berenson's story as it appears in the documents and other available evidence, we also clearly showed grave inconsistencies in the government's case against her.
It is Clark who displays a striking ignorance of Fujimori's Peru. Although anti-regime journalists (including Mineo and many of her former colleagues) have been harassed and threatened by the government, they continue to operate with vigor. Like journalists everywhere, they routinely use anonymous government sources in their work. We came upon the documents in question through sources within DINCOTE who, in our judgment and that of other independent journalists in Peru, were reliable.
Moreover, contrary to Clark's implication, our article, which was published five days before the announcement that the military charges against Berenson had been dismissed, fairly represented the Berensons' fear that their daughter would be retried in civilian court on the charge of collaboration with terrorism, which carries a sentence of twenty years. (She had previously received a life sentence for "treason against the fatherland and conspiracy to overthrow Congress.")
Clark seems most angry that, after our article appeared, we would not show him the documents. An associate of Clark's asked for the documents on a Monday because Lori was due to be examined by the civilian judge on Wednesday. Once the new legal process had begun, we would have risked compromising our credibility as journalists by showing Clark or his associates the documents. We believe that the Peruvian court was wrong to withhold these documents from Berenson and her attorneys. But one does not have to be a lawyer to understand the difference between a judge and a journalist.
In Clark's view, since we were not willing to work for him and the Berensons, we must be working for DINCOTE. It is a charge that is beneath Clark, a veteran of the struggle during the dark cold war days of this country, when loyalty was painted red or white, and if you weren't on our side you were on theirs. Although we feel great sympathy for Mark and Rhoda Berenson and can only hope that our parents might fight so tirelessly and energetically if we found ourselves in Lori's position, we react with an appalled sadness to Clark's slander.
THE EDITORS REPLY
We stand by Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo's careful reporting for this magazine on the Lori Berenson case. We also share Ramsey Clark's belief that justice is not possible for Berenson in Peru and that she should be released, a view we expressed in an editorial accompanying Levi and Mineo's article and another just after her new civilian trial was announced. The only "truth" we presumed to reveal was that the investigation of her case, her trial and conviction were deeply unfair and the government's evidence against her hopelessly tainted. Therefore, our recommendation was not for her case to be reopened but for human rights advocates to step up pressure on the regime to free her and all those unjustly convicted of terrorism in Peru.
I read with interest the timely report on Lori Berenson, which coincided with the Peruvian government's decision to grant her a retrial. This decision, welcome as it may be by human rights activists and the Berenson family and friends, is, however, seen by large sectors of the Peruvian public as a cynical attempt by a beleaguered government nationally and internationally perceived as illegitimate to improve its relations with the United States. While it makes sense for Berenson's family and well-wishers to portray her at best as totally innocent and at worst as a useful idiot, the documentation provided by The Nation points to a much more conscious collaboration with a guerrilla group intent on forcibly deposing a foreign government. In the United States too, long sentences have been imposed on foreigners convicted of aiding in the planning and/or perpetration of acts of terrorism. The World Trade Center case comes to mind.
As a Peruvian, I find the methods used by my government against the guerrillas excessive and often more criminal than the groups it was fighting. The time has come to re-evaluate many of those actions, in both the military and the legal realms. As scandalous as the lack of due process that led to Berenson's incarceration was, it would be equally scandalous for her to be set free simply because she is a well-represented American at a time when freeing her becomes expedient to the Peruvian and US governments, while hundreds or thousands of others remain indefinitely in jail, sentenced under similar conditions and including the truly innocent.
New York City
That Lori Berenson was denied fair jurisprudence and that our government has not secured her release are both clear. But Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo's attempts to paint a personal portrait of Lori Berenson (through evidence that may have been completely fabricated or through her "militant" attitude during her press statement, where she was instructed to yell to be heard) miss the point. In an instance of gross human and civil rights violations, it is entirely inappropriate to look for kernels of rationale based on the victim's behavior. That Lori is innocent isn't even the issue here--would you deem it appropriate to examine the behavior of a Jewish storekeeper in Nazi-era Germany in order to find a shred of justification in his subsequent gassing at Auschwitz? Lori's imprisonment, her health problems and the outrageous treatment she has suffered by the Peruvian courts are the issues. I don't care if she's a country club Republican or an Uzi-toting terrorist's moll. She's a human being and an American, and she must come home.
How the New York Times convicted Wen Ho Lee.