Jason Epstein's Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future is the third memoir of a major American life in book publishing to reach print in less than two years. It is at once a sign that the guard is changing and a recognition that the business has already changed. It is also, in the case of the 72-year-old Epstein, an opportunity to gaze into the crystal ball to predict the changes to be, something he has been rather good at during the course of his long career.
Simon & Schuster's Michael Korda got the triumvirate rolling in 1999 with Another Life, gossipy and entertaining and novelistic, like the books Korda often publishes. The New Press's André Schiffrin--famously ousted from Random House's Pantheon Books, the once independent imprint his father started--followed suit more recently with The Business of Books, the kind of polemic he has sometimes featured on his list [see Daniel Simon, "Keepers of the Word," December 25, 2000].
It's not surprising, then, that the tone pervading Epstein's memoir--which began with a series of lectures he gave at the New York Public Library, formed two essays in The New York Review of Books and was coaxed into a book by Norton president Drake McFeely--is cool and elegant and full of the gravitas of a man who wanted to be a great writer and instead ended up publishing many such, Morrison and Mailer and Doctorow among them.
He arrived at Random House in 1958, having deemed it time to leave Doubleday when he was prevented from publishing Lolita there. While at Doubleday he had founded Anchor Books and with it the trade paperback format in America. He retired as Random's editorial director in 1998, and during the four decades in between started the Library of America, a unified series of reprints of great American literature; The Reader's Catalog, a kind of print precursor to Amazon; and The New York Review of Books. He had a reputation as a brilliant editor but went beyond that to envisage change and make it happen, and in the process made himself into a pillar of the New York intellectual establishment.
"If I have any regrets, I can't think what they are," he declared during an interview recently, sipping homemade espresso at his large kitchen table in an opulent downtown apartment that could double as the upscale set for one of Woody Allen's Manhattan tales. He still edits authors he's been associated with but now does it from home. He prefers to be based there rather than in the Random corporate offices, wishes to put space between himself and an "increasingly distressed industry" mired in "severe structural problems." Prominent among them are a chain-driven bookselling system that favors "brand name" authors and often returns other new books to their publishers after only a few weeks on the shelves, before the titles have a chance to establish themselves; and a bestseller-driven system of high royalty advances that often do not earn back the money invested, a system that ratchets up unrealistically high sales expectations for new titles overall, and in so doing makes it increasingly difficult to publish certain kinds of books.
One-third of the way through his slim text, Epstein writes that his career has demonstrated an "ambivalence toward innovation." Ambivalence also pervades this elegiac book. Perhaps it is inevitable when a man looks back to his youth and forward to a future in which he will not play a major part, even if he is hopeful about that future. Perhaps, too, it is inevitable when confronting the distress signals of an industry he has spent his life in and clearly loves. Epstein shares his visions of a publishing future liberated electronically, but that future harks back to a deep-seated nostalgia, a longing for what was. His book seems to predict that technology in the form of the Internet will restore to the book business a certain lost rightness from the past.
His first chapter, like Dickens's Christmas tale, moves back and forth among past, present and future in an attempt to limn the larger changes of the past fifty years and what may yet unfold. The rest of the book is chronologically structured. It follows Epstein's career and the transformation of publishing from primarily small-scale, owner-operated enterprises rooted in the 1920s "golden age" of Liveright and Knopf to the "media empires" of today, which are forced to operate within an "overconcentrated," "undifferentiated" and fatally "rigid" bookselling structure. Now, he says, "there can't be Liverights or Cerfs because the context is so different. Roger Straus is the very last of them," and even he has sold his company to the German firm von Holtzbrinck.
Publishing must return to being "a much smaller business again," Epstein is convinced. "It has to, it's a craft and can't be industrialized any more than writing can. It's about to undergo a huge structural shift and there's nothing the conglomerates can do about it. The marketplace has shifted out from under them: the system of big money bestsellers defeats the possibility of building a sustained backlist. And without a sustained backlist, publishing cannot function in the long term. Providentially, just as the industry was falling into terminal decadence, electronic publishing has come along."
Epstein is in no way predicting the demise of print. Rather, his future is predicated on a kind of universal electronic Reader's Catalog, "much like Amazon" but far beyond it, "multilingual, multinational, and responsibly annotated. People will access it on their computers at home, in the office, and in kiosks like ATMs. It will be possible to browse those books, and downloading technology will eventually solve the problem of making it possible to buy those books. They won't exist in print until they're actually bought.
"There is no room on the Internet for middlemen, who sell the same product as their competitors, competing on the basis of price and service, and in so doing eat up their margins." Epstein is of course speaking of the Amazons and B&N.coms of today. "I think Amazon can't be here that much longer," says the man who sat at this same kitchen table doling out advice to its CEO, Jeff Bezos, a few years back.
As for brick-and-mortar stores, "the chains aren't tenable, either. They never were. The superstores have become what the old mall stores were. There are far too many of them, Waldens with coffee bars, and they will shrink. Stores run by people who love running bookstores will arise spontaneously like mushrooms and find a way to stay in business once the chains begin to recede."
And the conglomerate publishers? "I think they can show some financial progress for some years by cutting costs and cutting out redundancies, but eventually they'll find themselves with expensive traditional facilities that are increasingly irrelevant. They'll have to offload many functions on to specialist firms. In the end, they in turn will look for a buyer if they can find one. They should have noticed that the previous owners were all too happy to sell."
Meanwhile, authors will have found a way to bypass their publishers by going directly to the web. People will start independent authors' websites. Books will be much cheaper. Authors will have a much larger share of the revenue.
Stephen King has already gained notoriety in trying to do so. But the spectacular starting bang of Riding the Bullet, done in conjunction with his publisher, Simon & Schuster, attenuated when he tried to serialize online a novel, The Plant, on his own. A downturn in paying customers for the later chapters led King to abandon the project. Asked about this, Epstein insists, "It's like the days of the early cars that ran off the road into the mud. People said cars would never work. Well, one of these days e-publishing will work."
Of other experiments now being tried Epstein is openly dismissive, and he sees a kind of Darwinian process filtering chaff from grain. Mighty Words and similar online publishers "don't know what a book is," he contends. "But people know what a book is. Human beings are designed to distinguish value, and in my opinion that problem will take care of itself."
He disregards the tremors that have gone through the publishing houses ever since B&N.com announced it was getting into the business of publishing books. Barnes & Noble Digital was formed the first week in January to compete with the new electronic subsidiaries of traditional publishers, which are bringing out digital versions of new titles readable on PCs or dedicated devices, as well as original works specifically created for electronic distribution. In addition, they are digitizing backlist and out-of-print books that can be reprinted in very small quantities in a process known as print-on-demand."It's yet another premature entry," says Epstein. "B&N's publishing experience is limited to a remainder operation. That's entirely different from bringing out original works."
While Epstein criticizes the proverbial naysayers' laughing at those early cars stuck in the mud, at the same time he cautions, "I don't think an author who has worked hard to create something of value will want to risk it in the electronic format at this point." He says bookstores will wind up selling new titles at much lower prices than is now the case, $10 or so, but "can't figure out" how that will be done in the black. His predictions are compelling, but they are also much too vague--for instance, he sets out no time frame or actual mechanics for what he believes will transpire.
The bloat of the superstores is something publishers have worried about for years, almost from their rollout. This holiday season's flat sales at the three biggest chains; the margin-slashing of Amazon; and the re-energizing of the independent stores through a marketing program called Booksense, which includes web-based retailing, all serve to illustrate Epstein's points. Borders went so far as to put itself on the block, but found no willing takers. Recent murmurs about B&N's CEO Len Riggio entertaining a buyout offer from media conglomerate Gemstar-TV Guide International, which has aggressively entered the e-book technology market, did not result in a deal but also were more than simple gossip.
The past twenty years have seen the RCAs, MCAs, Advance Publications and the like learn their lessons and abandon book publishing, as Epstein has noted. Other conglomerates have already tried to offload their publishing components and in time will try again. But it also can't be ignored that companies like the German-based Bertelsmann (which acquired Bantam, Doubleday Dell and Random House and consolidated them) and von Holtzbrinck (which has bought Holt, St. Martin's and Farrar, Straus & Giroux) have their roots in the book business itself. They are therefore not as likely to exit the scene as Epstein would have us believe.
Undoubtedly, many of Epstein's electronic dreams are prescient and will one day come to pass. The companies that first turn them into reality, though, will likely be turning out works in the professional, scholarly, reference and educational sectors rather than in the trade world he knows so well. But although the Internet will change book publishing profoundly and in ways even Jason Epstein can't predict, other forces are at work as well and shouldn't be ignored.
A couple of years ago a brilliant and rich entrepreneur who also happens to be a profoundly bookish man devised a model, not unlike Epstein's nostalgic vision, of devolved companies publishing real books that share a central financial source. It is called the Perseus Group. It is still in its early days, far too soon to know whether it will last. But Epstein's longing for a more civilized, human-scale publishing business is shared by many. The Internet may help bring it about, but it won't do everything.
The following debate is adapted from a forum--put together by Basic Books and held in New York City some weeks ago. Participating were: John Donatich, who moderated and is publisher of Basic Books; Russell Jacoby, who teaches at UCLA and is the author of The End of Utopia and The Last Intellectuals; Jean Bethke Elshtain, who has served as a board member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author of Women and War, Democracy on Trial and a forthcoming intellectual biography of Jane Addams; Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University and author of, among other works, The Culture of Disbelief, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Integrity, Civility and, most recently, God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics; Herbert Gans, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and author of numerous works, including Popular Culture and High Culture, The War Against the Poor and The Levittowners; Steven Johnson, acclaimed as one of the most influential people in cyberworld by Newsweek and New York magazines, co-founder of Feedmag.com, the award-winning online magazine, and author of the books Interface Culture and the forthcoming Emergence; and Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for The Nation and Vanity Fair, whose books include the bestselling No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. For Basic, he will be writing the forthcoming On the Contrary: Letters to a Young Radical.
John Donatich: As we try to puzzle out the future of the public intellectual, it's hard not to poke a little fun at ourselves, because the issue is that serious. The very words "future of the public intellectual" seem to have a kind of nostalgia built into them, in that we only worry over the future of something that seems endangered, something we have been privileged to live with and are terrified to bury.
In preparing for this event, I might as well admit that I've been worried about making the slip, "the future of the public ineffectual." But I think that malapropism would be central to what we'll be talking about. It seems to me that there is a central conflict regarding American intellectual work. How does it reconcile itself with the venerable tradition of American anti-intellectualism? What does a country built on headstrong individualism and the myth of self-reliance do with its people convinced that they know best? At Basic Books' fiftieth anniversary, it's a good time to look at a publishing company born in midcentury New York City, a time and place that thrived on the idea of the public intellectual. In our first decades, we published Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Michael Walzer, Christopher Lasch, Herb Gans, Paul Starr, Robert Jay Lifton--and these names came fresh on the heels of Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Erik Erikson and Clifford Geertz.
What did these writers have in common except the self-defined right to worry the world and to believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between the private world of the thinker and the public world he or she wishes to address? That the age of great public intellectuals in America has passed has in fact become a cliché. There are many well-reviewed reasons for this. Scholars and thinkers have retreated to the academy. Self-doubt has become the very compass point of contemporary inquiry. Scholarship seems to start with an autobiographical or confessional orientation. The notion that every question has a noble answer or that there are reliable structures of ideology to believe in wholeheartedly has become, at best, quaint.
Some believe that the once-relied-upon audience of learned readers has disappeared, giving way to a generation desensitized to complex argumentation by television and the Internet. The movie Dumb and Dumber grosses dozens of millions of dollars at the box office, while what's left of bohemian culture celebrates free-market economics. Selling out has more to do with ticket grosses than the antimaterialist who stands apart from society.
How do we reconcile ambition and virtue, expertise and accessibility, multicultural sensitivity and the urge toward unified theory? Most important, how do we reconcile the fact that disagreement is a main catalyst of progress? How do we battle the gravitation toward happy consensus that paralyzes our national debate? A new generation of public intellectuals waits to be mobilized. What will it look like? That is what our distinguished panelists will discuss.
Russell Jacoby has been useful in defining the role of the public intellectual in the past half-century, especially in the context of the academy. Can you, Russell, define for us a sort of historical context for the public intellectual--what kind of talent, courage and/or political motivation it takes for someone to be of the academy but to have his or her back turned to it, ready to speak to an audience greater than one's peers?
Russell Jacoby: A book of mine that preceded The Last Intellectuals was on the history of psychoanalysis. And one of the things I was struck by when I wrote it was that even though psychoanalysis prospered in the United States, something was missing--that is, the sort of great refugee intellectuals, the Erik Eriksons, the Bruno Bettelheims, the Erich Fromms, were not being reproduced. As a field it prospered, but it became medicalized and professionalized. And I was struck by both the success of this field and the absence of public voices of the Eriksons and Bettelheims and Fromms. And from there I began to consider this as a sort of generational question in American history. Where were the new intellectuals? And I put the stress on public intellectuals, because obviously a kind of professional and technical intelligentsia prospered in America, but as far as I could see the public intellectuals were becoming somewhat invisible.
They were invisible because, in some ways, they had become academics, professors locked in the university. And I used a kind of generational account, looking at the 1900s, taking the Edmund Wilsons, the Lewis Mumfords. What became of them, and who were their successors? And I had a tough time finding them.
In some sense it was a story of my generation, the generation that ended up in the university and was more concerned with--well, what?--finding recommendations than with writing public interventions. And to this day, the worst thing you can say about someone in an academic meeting or when you're discussing tenure promotion is, "Oh, his work is kind of journalistic." Meaning, it's readable. It's journalistic, it's superficial. There's an equation between profundity and originality.
My argument was that, in fact, these generations of public intellectuals have diminished over time. For good reasons. The urban habitats, the cheap rents, have disappeared--as well as the jobs themselves. So the transitional generation, the New York intellectuals, ends up in the university. I mention Daniel Bell as a test case. When he was getting tenure, they turned to him and said, "What did you do your dissertation on?" And he said, "I never did a dissertation." And they said, "Oh, we'll call that collection of essays you did a dissertation." But you couldn't do that now. Those of that generation started off as independent intellectuals writing for small magazines and ended up as professors. The next generation started off as professors, wrote differently and thought differently.
So my argument and one of the working titles of my book was, in fact, "The Decline of the Public Intellectuals." And here I am at a panel on "The Future of Public Intellectuals." Even at the time I was writing, some editors said, "Well, decline, that's a little depressing. Could you sort of make a more upbeat version?" So I said, "I have a new book called The Rise of American Intellectuals," and was told, "Well, that sounds much better, that's something we can sell." But I was really taking a generational approach, which in fact, is on the decline. And it caused intense controversy, mainly for my contemporaries, who always said, "What about me? I'm a public intellectual. What about my friends?" In some sense the argument is ongoing. I'm happy to be wrong, if there are new public intellectuals emerging. But I tend to think that the university and professionalization does absorb and suck away too much talent, and that there are too few who are bucking the trends.
Donatich: Maybe the term "public intellectual" begs the question, "who is the public that is being addressed by these intellectuals?" Which participant in this conversation is invisible, the public or the intellectual?
Jean Bethke Elshtain: I mused in print at one point that the problem with being a public intellectual is that as time goes on, one may become more and more public and less and less intellectual. Perhaps I should have said that a hazard of the vocation of the public intellectual lies in that direction. I didn't exactly mean less academically respectable, but rather something more or less along these lines: less reflective, less inclined to question one's own judgments, less likely to embed a conviction in its appropriate context with all the nuance intact. It is the task of the public intellectual as I understand that vocation to keep the nuances alive. A public intellectual is not a paid publicist, not a spinner, not in the pocket of a narrowly defined purpose. It is, of course the temptation, another one, of the public intellectual to cozy up to that which he or she should be evaluating critically. I think perhaps, too many White House dinners can blunt the edge of criticism.
A way I like to put it is that when you're thinking about models for this activity, you might put it this way: Sartre or Camus? An intellectual who is willing to look the other way, indeed, shamefully, explain away the existence of slave-labor camps, the gulags, in the service of a grand world-historic purpose or, by contrast, an intellectual who told the truth about such atrocities, knowing that he would be denounced, isolated, pronounced an ally of the CIA and capitalistic oppressors out to grind the faces of the poor.
There are times when a public intellectual must say "neither/nor," as did Camus. Neither the socialism of the gallows, in his memorable phrase, nor a capitalist order riddled with inequalities and shamed by the continuing existence, in his era, the era of which I speak, of legally sanctioned segregation. At the same time, this neither/nor did not create a world of moral equivalence. Camus was clear about this. In one regime, one order, one scheme of things, one could protest, one could organize to fight inequities, and in the other one wound up disappeared or dead.
Let me mention just one issue that I took on several times when I alternated a column called "Hard Questions" for The New Republic. I'm referring to the question of genetic engineering, genetic enhancement, the race toward a norm of human perfection to be achieved through manipulation of the very stuff of life. How do you deal with an issue like this? Here, it seems to me, the task of the public intellectual in this society at this time--because we're not fighting the issues that were fought in the mid-twentieth century--is to join others in creating a space within which such matters can be articulated publicly and debated critically.
At present, the way the issue is parsed by the media goes like this: The techno-enthusiasts announce that we're one step closer to genetic utopia. The New York Times calls up its three biological ethicists to comment. Perhaps one or two religious leaders are asked to wring their hands a little bit--anyone who's really a naysayer with qualms about eugenics, because that is the direction in which we are heading, is called a Luddite. Case closed, and every day we come closer to a society in which, even as we intone multiculturalism as a kind of mantra, we are narrowing the definition of what is normatively human as a biological ideal. That's happening even as we speak; that is, we're in real danger of reducing the person to his or her genotype, but if you say that, you're an alarmist--so that's what I am.
This leads me to the following question: Who has authority to pronounce on what issue, as the critical issues change from era to era? In our time and place, scientists, technology experts and dot-com millionaires seem to be the automatic authorities on everything. And everybody else is playing catch-up.
So the public intellectual needs, it seems to me, to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it's those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers. Reinhold Niebuhr was one such when he decided that he could no longer hold with his former compatriots of the Social Gospel movement, given what he took to be their dangerous naïveté about the rise of fascism in Europe. He was widely derided as a man who once thought total social transformation in the direction of world peace was possible, but who had become strangely determined to take a walk on the morbid side by reminding Americans of the existence of evil in the world. On this one, Niebuhr was clearly right.
When we're looking around for who should get the blame for the declining complexity of public debate, we tend to round up the usual suspects. Politicians usually get attacked, and the media. Certainly these usual suspects bear some responsibility for the thinning out of the public intellectual debate. But I want to lift up two other candidates here, two trends that put the role of public intellectuals and the very existence of publics in the John Dewey sense at risk. The first is the triumph of the therapeutic culture, with its celebration of a self that views the world solely through the prism of the self, and much of the time a pretty "icky" self at that. It's a quivering sentimental self that gets uncomfortable very quickly, because this self has to feel good about itself all the time. Such selves do not make arguments, they validate one another.
A second factor is the decline of our two great political parties. At one point the parties acted not just as big fundraising machines, not just as entities to mobilize voters but as real institutions of political and civic education. There are lots of reasons why the parties have been transformed and why they no longer play that role, but the results are a decline in civic education, a thinning out of political identification and depoliticization, more generally.
I'm struck by what one wag called the herd of independent minds; by the fact that what too often passes for intellectual discussion is a process of trying to suit up everybody in a team jersey so we know just who should be cheered and who booed. It seems to me that any public intellectual worth his or her salt must resist this sort of thing, even at the risk of making lots of people uncomfortable.
Donatich: Stephen, can you talk about the thinning out of political identity? Who might be responsible for either thickening or thinning the blood of political discourse? What would you say, now that we're talking about the fragmentation of separate constituencies and belief systems, is the role of religion and faith in public life?
Stephen Carter: You know that in the academy the really bad word is "popularizer"-- a mere popularizer, not someone who is original, which of course means obscure, or someone who is "deeply theorized," which is the other phrase. And to be deeply theorized, you understand, in academic terms today, means to be incapable of uttering a word such as "poor." No one is poor. The word, the phrase now, as some of you may know, is "restricted access to capital markets." That's deeply theorized, you see. And some of us just say poor, and that makes us popularizers.
A few years ago someone who was really quite angry about one of my books--and I have a habit of making people angry when I write books--wrote a review in which he challenged a statement of mine asserting that the intellectual should be in pursuit of truth without regard to whether that leaves members of any particular political movement uncomfortable. He responded that this was a 12-year-old nerd's vision of serious intellectual endeavor.
And ever since then I thought that I would like to write a book, or at least an essay, titled something like Diary of an Intellectual Nerd, because I like that idea of being somewhat like a 12-year-old. A certain naïveté, not so much about great ideas and particularly not about political movements but about thought itself, about truth itself. And I think one of the reasons, if the craft of being intellectual in the sense of the scholar who speaks to a large public is in decline, is cynicism. Because there's no sense that there are truths and ideas to be pursued. There are only truths and ideas to be used and crafted and made into their most useful and appropriate form. Everyone is thought to be after something, everyone is thought to have some particular goal in mind, independent of the goal that he or she happens to articulate. And so, a person may write a book or an article and make an argument, and people wonder, they stand up in the audience and they say, "So, are you running for office, or are you looking for some high position?" There's always some thought that you must be after something else.
One of the reasons, ideally, you'd think you would find a lot of serious intellectual endeavor on university campuses is precisely because people have tenure and therefore, in theory, need not worry about trying to do something else. But on many, many campuses you have, in my judgment, relatively little serious intellectual endeavor in the sense of genuinely original thinking, because even there, people are worried about which camp they will be thought to be in.
You can scarcely read a lot of scholarship today without first having to wade through several chapters of laying out the ground in the sense of apologizing in advance to all the constituencies that may be offended, lest one be thought in the other camp. That kind of intellectual activity is not only dangerous, it's unworthy in an important sense, it's not worthy of the great traditions of intellectual thought.
There's a tendency sometimes to have an uneasy equation that there is serious intellectual activity over here, and religion over there, and these are, in some sense, at war. That people of deep faith are plainly anti-intellectual and serious intellectuals are plainly antireligious bigots--they're two very serious stereotypes held by very large numbers of people. I'm quite unembarrassed and enthusiastic about identifying myself as a Christian and also as an intellectual, and I don't think there's any necessary war between those two, although I must say, being in an academic environment, it's very easy to think that there is.
I was asked by a journalist a few years ago why was it that I was comfortable identifying myself, and often did, as a black scholar or an African-American scholar and hardly ever identified myself as a Christian scholar. And surely the reason is, there are certain prejudices on campus suggesting that is not a possible thing to be or, at least, not a particularly useful combination of labels.
And yet, I think that the tradition of the contribution to a public-intellectual life by those making explicitly religious arguments has been an important and overlooked one, and I go back for my model, well past Niebuhr, into the nineteenth century. For example, if you looked at some of the great preachers of the abolitionist movement, one thing that is quite striking about them is, of course, that they were speaking in an era when it was commonly assumed that people could be quite weighty in their theology and quite weighty in their intellectual power. And when you read many of the sermons of that era, many of the books and pamphlets, you quickly gain a sense of the intellectual power of those who were pressing their public arguments in explicitly Christian terms.
Nowadays we have a historical tendency to think, "Oh, well, it's natural they spoke that way then, because the nation was less religiously diverse and more Christian." Actually, the opposite was probably true, as historians now think--the nation is probably less religiously diverse now than it was 150, 175 years ago, when religions were being founded really quite swiftly. And most of those swiftly founded religions in the 1820s to the 1830s have died, but many of them had followers in great number before they did.
America's sense of itself as a so-called Christian nation, as they used to say in the nineteenth century, didn't really grow strong until the 1850s or 1860s. So you have to imagine the abolitionist preachers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, preaching in a world in which it could be anything but certain that those who were listening to them were necessarily co-religionists.
In this century too, we have great intellectual preachers who also spoke across religious lines. Martin Luther King is perhaps the most famous of them, even though sometimes, people try to make a straitjacket intellectual of him by insisting, with no evidence whatsoever, that he actually was simply making secular moral arguments, and that religion was kind of a smokescreen. If you study his public ministry and look at his speeches, which were really sermons, as a group, you easily discern that that's not true.
And yet, the religiosity of his language gave it part of its power, including the power to cross denominational lines, to cross the lines between one tradition and another, and to cross lines between religion and nonreligion. For the religiously moved public intellectual, the fact is that there are some arguments that simply lose their power or are drained of their passion when they're translated into a merely secular mode. The greatness of King's public oratory was largely a result of its religiosity and its ability to touch that place in the human heart where we know right from wrong; it would not have been as powerful, as compelling, had it lacked that religious quality.
Now, I'm not being ahistorical, I'm not saying, "Oh, therefore the civil rights movement would not have happened or we would still have racial segregation today"--that's not the point of my argument. The point is that his religiosity did not detract from his intellectual power; rather, it enhanced it. This is not to say, of course, that everyone who makes a religious argument in public life is speaking from some powerful intellectual base. But it does suggest we should be wary of the prejudices that assume they can't be making serious arguments until they are translated into some other form that some may find more palatable. In fact, one of my great fears about the place we are in our democracy is that, religion aside, we have lost the ability to express and argue about great ideas.
Donatich: Professor Carter has made a career out of illustrating the effect and protecting the right of religious conviction in public thought. Herbert Gans, on the other hand, is a self-pronounced, enthusiastic atheist. As a social scientist who has taught several generations of students, how does a public intellectual balance the professional need for abstract theory and yet remain relevant, contribute some practical utility to the public discourse?
Herbert Gans: I'm so old that the word "discourse" hadn't been invented yet! I am struck by the pessimism of this panel. But I also notice that most of the names of past public intellectuals--and I knew some of them--were, during their lifetime, people who said, "Nobody's listening to me." Erich Fromm, for example, whom I knew only slightly and through his colleagues, was sitting in Mexico fighting with psychoanalysts who didn't think politics belonged in the dialogue. Lewis Mumford was a teacher of mine, and he certainly felt isolated from the public, except on architecture, because he worked for The New Yorker.
So it seems to me it's just the opposite: that the public intellectual is alive and well, though perhaps few are of the magnitude of the names mentioned. If I did a study, I'd have to define what an intellectual is, and I notice nobody on the panel has taken that one on. And I won't either. The public intellectuals that exist now may not be as famous, but in fact there are lots of them. And I think at least on my campus, public intellectuals are becoming celebrities. Some of them throw stones and get themselves in trouble for a few minutes and then it passes. But I think that really is happening, and if celebrities can exist, their numbers will increase.
One of the reasons the number is increasing is that public intellectuals are really pundits. They're the pundits of the educated classes, the pundits of the highbrow and the upper-middlebrow populations, if you will. And the moment you say they're pundits, then you can start comparing them to other pundits, of which we have lots. And there are middlebrow pundits and there are lower-brow pundits, there are serious pundits, there are not-so-serious pundits.
Some of the columnists in the newspapers and the tabloid press who are not journalists with a PhD are public intellectuals. There are pundits who are satirical commentators, there are a significant number of people who get their political news from Leno and Letterman. And, of course, the pollsters don't really understand this, because what Leno and Letterman supply is a satirical take on the news.
Most public intellectuals function as quote-suppliers to legitimize the media. Two or three times a week, I get called by journalists and asked whether I will deliver myself of a sociological quote to accompany his or her article, to legitimate, in a sense, the generalizations that journalists make and have to make, because they've got two-hour deadlines. Which means that while there are few public intellectuals who are self-selected, most of us get selected anyway. You know, if no journalist calls for a quote, then I'm not a public intellectual; I just sit there writing my books and teaching classes.
I did a book on the news media and hung out at Newsweek and the other magazines. And at Newsweek, they had something they called an island, right in the main editorial room. On the island were names of people who would now be called public intellectuals, the people whom Newsweek quoted. And the rules were--and this is a bit like Survivor--every so often people would be kicked off the island. Because the editors thought, and probably rightly, that we as readers were going to get tired of this group of public intellectuals. So a new group was brought in to provide the quotes. And then they were kicked off.
The public intellectuals come in two types, however. First there are the ones that everyone has been talking about, the generalists, the pundits, as I think of them; and second are the disciplinary public intellectuals. The public sociologists, the public economists, the public humanists--public, plus a discipline. And these are the people who apply the ideas from their own disciplines to a general topic. And again, to some extent, this is what I do when I'm a quote-supplier, and I'm sure my fellow panelists are all functioning as quote-suppliers too.
But the disciplinary public intellectuals show that their disciplinary insights and their skills can add something original to the public debate. That, in other words, social scientists and humanists can indeed grapple with the issues and the problems of the real world. The disciplinary public intellectuals, like other public intellectuals, have to write in clear English. This is a rarity in the academy, unfortunately--which makes disciplinary public intellectuals especially useful. And they demonstrate the public usefulness of their disciplines, which is important in one sense, because we all live off public funds, directly or indirectly, and we need to be able to account every so often that we're doing something useful for taxpayers. I cannot imagine there are very many legislators in this country who would consider an article in an academic journal as proof that we're doing something useful or proof that we're entitled to some share of the public budget.
Disciplinary public intellectuals are useful in another way, too: They are beloved by their employers, because they get these employers publicity. My university has a professionally run clipping service, and every time Columbia University is mentioned, somebody clips and files the story. And so every time somebody quotes me I say, "Be sure to mention Columbia University," because I want to make my employers happy, even though I do have tenure. Because, if they get publicity, they think they're getting prestige, and if they get prestige, that may help them get students or grant money.
There are a number of hypotheses on this; I'm not sure any of them are true-- whether quote-supplying provides prestige, or prestige helps to get good students, whether good students help to get grant money. There is a spiral here that may crash. But meanwhile, they think that if we're getting them publicity, we're being useful. And, of course, public social scientists and those in the humanities are, in some respects, in short supply, in part because their colleagues stigmatize them as popularizers. (They don't call them journalists, which is a dirty word in the ivory tower.)
It's also fair to say that in the newsrooms, "academic" is a dirty word. If you've ever paid attention, journalists always cite "the professor," and it doesn't matter who it is, and it doesn't even matter if they're friends of the professor. But it's always "the professor," which is a marvelous way of dehumanizing us professors. So there's this love/hate relationship between journalists and academics that's at work here. All of which means, yes, of course, it does take a bit of courage to be a public intellectual or a disciplinary public intellectual. If you turn your back on the mainstream of the academy, that's the way you get a knife in your back, at times.
Donatich: Steven Johnson has used the web and Internet energetically and metaphorically. How will the Internet change public dialogue? What are the opportunities of public conversation that this new world presents?
Steven Johnson: One of the problems with the dot-com-millionaire phenomenon--which may, in fact, be starting to fall behind us--is that it really distracted a huge amount of attention from a lot of other very interesting and maybe more laudable things that were happening online. There was kind of a news vacuum that sucked everything toward stories about the 25-year-old guy who just made $50 million, and we lost sight of some of the other really progressive and important things that were happening because of the rise of the web.
I'm of a generation that came of age at precisely that point that Russell Jacoby talked about and wrote about, during the late eighties, when the academy was very much dominated by ideas from France and other places, where there was a lot of jargon and specialization, and it was the heyday of poststructuralism and deconstruction in the humanities. Which leads me to sometimes jokingly, sometimes not, describe myself as a "recovering semiotics major."
I think that I came to the web and to starting Feed, and to writing the book that I wrote about the Internet culture and interface culture, as a kind of a refugee from conversations like one in the academy, when I was a graduate student, in which a classmate asked the visiting Derrida a ten- or fifteen-minute, convoluted Derridean question on his work and the very possibility of even asking a question. And after a long pause, Derrida had to admit, "I'm sorry, I do not understand the question."
The web gave me an unlikely kind of home in that there were ideas and there were new critical paradigms that had been opened up to me from the academic world. But it was clear that you couldn't write about that world, you couldn't write using those tools with that kind of language and do anything useful. And it was very hard to imagine a life within the university system that was not going to inevitably push me toward conversations like that with Derrida.
So the good news, I think, is that my experience is not unique. In fact, there's been a great renaissance in the last five years of the kind of free-floating intellectual that had long been rumored to be on his or her last legs. It's a group shaped by ideas that have come out of the academy but is not limited to that. And I think in terms of publications like Feed--to pat myself on the back--Hermenaut and Suck are all good examples of a lively new form of public intellectualism that is not academic in tone.
The sensibility of that group is very freethinking--not particularly interested in doctrinaire political views, very eclectic in taste, very interested in the mix of high and low culture, much more conversational in tone--funny, even. Funny is an interesting component here. I mean, these new writers are funny in a way, you know, Adorno was never very funny. And they're very attentive to technology changes, maybe as interested in technology and changes in the medium as they are in intellectual fashions. If there's a role model that really stands out, it's somebody like Walter Benjamin for this generation. You know, a sense of an interest that puts together groups of things you wouldn't necessarily expect to see put together in the same essay.
How does the web figure into all of this? Why did these people show up on the web? I think one of the things that started happening--actually, this is just starting to happen--is that in addition to these new publications, you're starting to see something on the web that is very unique to it. The ability to center your intellectual life in all of its different appearances in your own "presence" online, on the home page, so that you can actually have the equivalent of an author bio. Except that it's dynamically updated all the time, and there are links to everything you're doing everywhere. I think we've only just begun to exploit it--of combating the problem with the free-floating intellectual, which is that you're floating all over the place and you don't necessarily have a home, and your ideas are appearing in lots of different venues and speaking to lots of different audiences.
The web gives you a way of rounding all those diverse kinds of experiences and ideas--and linking to them. Because, of course, the web is finally all about linking--in a way that I think nothing has done quite as well before it. And it also involves a commitment to real engagement with your audience that perhaps public intellectuals have talked a lot about in the past, but maybe not lived up to as much as they could have.
Some of this is found in the new formats that are available online in terms of how public dialogue can happen. I'm sure many of you have read these and many of you may have actually participated in them, but I'm a great advocate for this kind of long-format, multiparticipant discussion thread that goes on over two or three weeks. Not a real-time live chat, which is a disaster in terms of quality of discourse, which inevitably devolves into the "What are you wearing" kind of intellectual questions. But rather, the conversations with four or five people where each person has a day or half a day to think up their responses, and then write in 500- to 1,000-word posts. We've done those since we started at Feed. Slate does a wonderful job with them. And it's a fantastic forum. It's very engaged, it's very responsible, it's very dialogic and yet also lively in a conversational way. But, because of the back and forth, you actually can get to places that you sometimes couldn't get in a stand-alone 10,000-word essay.
Donatich: Professor Gans, if you had trouble with the word "discourse," I'm wondering what you'll do with "dialogic."
Johnson: I said I was recovering! That's the kind of thing that should be happening, and it seems to me that in five or ten years we'll see more and more of people who are in this kind of space, having pages that are devoted to themselves and carrying on these conversations all the time with people who are coming by and engaging with them. And I think that is certainly a force for good. The other side is just the economics of being able to publish either your own work or a small magazine. I mean, we started Feed with two people. We were two people for two years before we started growing a little bit. And the story that I always tell about those early days is that we put out the magazine and invited a lot of our friends and some people we just knew professionally to contribute. About three months, I guess, after Feed launched, Wired came out with a review of it. And they had this one slightly snippy line that said, "It's good to see the East Coast literary establishment finally get online." Which is very funny, to be publishing this thing out of our respective apartments. I had this moment where I was looking around my bedroom for the East Coast literary establishment--you open the closet door, and "Oh, Norman Mailer is in there. 'Hey, how's it going!'" And so there can be a kind of Potemkin Village quality online. But I think the village is thriving right now.
Donatich: Christopher Hitchens, short of taking on what a public intellectual might or might not be, will you say something about the manners or even the mannerisms of the public intellectual and why disagreement is important to our progress?
Christopher Hitchens: I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated. If only because all these processes are actually undertaken by the elite and leave us all, finally, voting in the passive voice and believing that we're using our own opinions or concepts when in fact they have been imposed upon us.
I think that "populism" has become probably the main tactical discourse, if you will, the main tactical weapon, the main vernacular of elitism. Certainly the most successful elitist in American culture now, American politics particularly, is the most successful inventor or manipulator, or leader of populism. And I think that does leave a great deal of room in the public square for intellectuals to stand up, who are not afraid to be thought of as, say, snobbish, to pick a word at random. Certainly at a time when the precious term "irony"--precious to me, at any rate--has been reduced to a form of anomie or sarcasm. A little bit of snobbery, a little bit of discrimination, to use another word that's fallen into disrepute, is very much in order. And I'm grateful to Professor Carter for this much, at least, that he drew attention to language. And particularly to be aware of euphemism. After all, this is a time when if you can be told you're a healer, you've probably won the highest cultural award the society can offer, where anything that can be said to be unifying is better than anything that can be described as divisive. Blush if you will, ladies and gentlemen, I'm sure at times you too have applauded some hack who says he's against or she's against the politics of division. As if politics wasn't division by definition.
The New York Times, which I'm sure some of you at least get, if you don't read, will regularly regale you in this way--check and see if you can confirm this. This will be in a news story, by the way, not a news analysis. About my hometown in Washington, for example, "recently there was an unpleasant outbreak of partisanship on Capitol Hill, but order seems to have been restored, and common sense, and bi-partisanship, is again regained. I've paraphrased only slightly. Well, what is this in translation? "For a while back there it looked as if there'd be a two-party system. But, thank God, the one-party system has kicked back in."
Now, the New York Times would indignantly repudiate--I'm coming back to this, actually--the idea that it stood for a one-party system or mentality, but so it does. And its language reveals it. So look to the language. And that is, in fact, one of the most essential jobs of anyone describing themselves as an intellectual.
Against this, we have, of course, the special place reserved for the person who doesn't terribly want to be a part of it, doesn't feel all that bipartisan, who isn't in an inclusive mood. Look at the terms that are used for this kind of a person: gadfly, maverick and, sometimes, bad boy. Also bad girl, but quite often bad boy, for some reason. Loose cannon, contrarian, angry young man.
These are not hate words, by any means, nor are they exactly insulting, but there's no question, is there, that they are fantastically and essentially condescending. They're patronizing terms. They are telling us, affectionately enough, that pluralism, of course, is big enough, capacious enough, tolerant enough to have room for its critics.
The great consensus, after all, probably needs a few jesters here and there, and they can and should be patted upon the head, unless they become actually inconvenient or awkward or, worst of all--the accusation I have myself been most eager to avoid--humorless. One must be funny, wouldn't you say? Look to the language again. Take the emaciated and paltry manner and prose in which a very tentative challenge to the one-party system, or if you prefer, the two-party one, has been received. I'm alluding to the campaign by Ralph Nader.
The New York Times published two long editorials, lead editorials, very neatly inverting the usual Voltairean cliché. These editorials say: We don't particularly disagree with what Ralph Nader says, but we violently disagree with his right to say it. I've read the editorials--you can look them up. I've held them up to the light, looked at them upside down, inside out, backwards--that's what they say. This guy has no right to be running, because the electorate is entitled to a clear choice between the two people we told you were the candidates in the first place.
I find this absolutely extraordinary. When you're told you must pick one of the available ones; "We've got you some candidates, what more do you want? We got you two, so you have a choice. Each of them has got some issues. We've got some issues for you as well. You've got to pick." A few people say, "Well, I don't feel like it, and what choice did I have in the choice?" You're told, "Consider the alternatives." The first usage of that phrase, as far as I know, was by George Bernard Shaw, when asked what he felt like on his 90th birthday. And he said, "Considering the alternatives...." You can see the relevance of it. But in this case you're being told, in effect, that it would be death to consider the alternatives.
Now, to "consider the alternatives" might be a definition of the critical mind or the alive intelligence. That's what the alive intelligence and the critical mind exist to do: to consider, tease out and find alternatives. It's a very striking fact about the current degeneration of language, that that very term, those very words are used in order to prevent, to negate, consideration of alternatives. So, be aware. Fight it every day, when you read gunk in the paper, when you hear it from your professors, from your teachers, from your pundits. Develop that kind of resistance.
The word "intellectual" is of uncertain provenance, but there's no question when it became a word in public use. It was a term of abuse used by those who thought that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was guilty in 1898 to describe those who thought that he was probably innocent. It was a word used particularly by those who said that whether Captain Dreyfus was innocent or not, that wasn't really the point. The point was, would France remain an orderly, Christian, organic, loyal society? Compared to that, the guilt or innocence of Captain Dreyfus was irrelevant. They weren't saying he was necessarily guilty, they were saying, "Those who say he is innocent are not our friends. These are people who are rootless, who have no faith, who are unsound, in effect." I don't think it should ever probably lose that connotation. And fortunately, like a lot of other words that were originally insults--I could stipulate "Impressionist," which was originally a term of abuse, or "suffragette" or "Tory," as well as a number of other such terms--there was a tendency to adopt them in reaction to the abuse and to boast of them, and say, "Well, all right, you call me a suffragette, I'll be a suffragette. As a matter of fact, I'll be an Impressionist."
I think it would be a very sad thing if the word "intellectual" lost its sense that there was something basically malcontent, unsound and untrustworthy about the person who was claiming the high honor of the title. In politics, the public is the agora, not the academy. The public element is the struggle for opinion. It's certainly not the party system or any other form whereby loyalty can be claimed of you or you can be conscripted.
I would propose for the moment two tasks for the public intellectual, and these, again, would involve a confrontation with our slipshod use of language. The first, I think, in direct opposition to Professor Carter, is to replace the rubbishy and discredited notions of faith with scrutiny, by looking for a new language that can bring us up to the point where we can discuss shattering new discoveries about, first, the cosmos, in the work of Stephen Hawking, and the discoveries of the Hubble telescope--the external world--and, second, no less shattering, the discovery about our human, internal nature that has begun to be revealed to us by the unraveling of the chains of DNA.
At last, it's at least thinkable that we might have a sense of where we are, in what I won't call creation. And what our real nature is. And what do we do? We have President Clinton and the other figures in the Human Genome Project appear before us on the day that the DNA string was finally traced out to its end, and we're told in their voices and particularly the wonderful lip-biting voice of the President, "Now we have the dictionary which God used when he was inventing us." Nothing could be more pathetic than that. This is a time when one page, one paragraph, of Hawking is more awe-inspiring, to say nothing of being more instructive, than the whole of Genesis and the whole of Ezekiel. Yet we're still used to babble. For example, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx says, quite rightly, I think, "When people are trying to learn a new language, it's natural for them to translate it back into the one they already know." Yes, that's true. But they must also transcend the one they already know.
So I think the onus is on us to find a language that moves us beyond faith, because faith is the negation of the intellect, faith supplies belief in preference to inquiry and belief, in place of skepticism, in place of the dialectic, in favor of the disorder and anxiety and struggle that is required in order to claim that the mind has any place in these things at all.
I would say that because the intellectual has some responsibility, so to speak, for those who have no voice, that a very high task to adopt now would be to set oneself and to attempt to set others, utterly and contemptuously and critically and furiously, against the now almost daily practice in the United States of human sacrifice. By which I mean, the sacrifice, the immolation of men and women on death row in the system of capital punishment. Something that has become an international as well as a national disgrace. Something that shames and besmirches the entire United States, something that is performed by the professionalized elite in the name of an assumed public opinion. In other words, something that melds the worst of elitism and the absolute foulest of populism.
People used to say, until quite recently, using the words of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, the play that gave us the patronizing term "angry young man"--well, "there are no good, brave causes anymore." There's nothing really worth witnessing or worth fighting for, or getting angry, or being boring, or being humorless about. I disagree and am quite ready to be angry and boring and humorless. These are exactly the sacrifices that I think ought to be exacted from oneself. Let nobody say there are no great tasks and high issues to be confronted. The real question will be whether we can spread the word so that arguments and debates like this need not be held just in settings like these but would be the common property of anyone with an inquiring mind. And then, we would be able to look at each other and ourselves and say, "Well, then perhaps the intellectual is no longer an elitist."
The "Christmas coup" at New York's WBAI-FM radio, in which Pacifica management changed the locks in the middle of the night, just hours before summarily firing three longtime station employees, marks another dismal turn of events in the recent history of America's pre-eminent network of community radio stations. Nation readers no doubt recall the lockout at Pacifica's KPFA-FM in Berkeley in 1999. In that case, virtually the entire KPFA community of listeners and staff organized against the lockout, and Pacifica's national management was forced to relent.
It will be more difficult to do that at WBAI. Pacifica management learned an important lesson from the KPFA debacle, which was not to permit the station staff to be united in its opposition. At WBAI, Pacifica's national management chose a well-known program host, Utrice Leid, to replace the fired station manager. Leid has been a visible figure at WBAI over the years and has the support of some on the staff and in the community. (I have been a guest on her WBAI program and have always had an enjoyable time.) She has stated her opposition to censorship and her support for WBAI's traditional values.
Any notion that this was going to be a calm transition exploded on January 23, when Leid restricted access to a WBAI Local Advisory Board meeting at WBAI's offices in lower Manhattan. The LAB is a Corporation for Public Broadcasting requirement, and it has been holding meetings at the WBAI office for the past twenty-five years. When participants in the prospective meeting protested, the police arrested nine people for trespassing.
On the all-powerful eighteen-member Pacifica National Board, a marginalized minority of six opposes the firings at WBAI. One of the six, Leslie Cagan, says that Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash, who quarterbacked the Christmas coup and installed Leid, refuses even to discuss the matter with her. (I tried unsuccessfully to reach Wash and Leid.) In a strongly worded statement on January 18, the dissidents called for a reinstatement of the three fired employees, a return to traditional labor-review practices, a full national board meeting to consider the crisis at WBAI and an end to the high security "martial law" environment at the station. These are fair demands.
What happens at Pacifica is not a minor issue of concern only to those who work at WBAI and the other Pacifica stations, or who live in one of the five Pacifica cities. We all need a healthy and vibrant Pacifica. It is the most widely consumed progressive medium in the United States; it is the basis for a national community radio network; it has considerable potential for growth. For all the talk about the Internet and the digital revolution, radio is the true people's medium. And in the commercial wasteland that US radio has become under deregulation, the prospects for noncommercial radio look better than they have for a very long time.
Nor are the problems at Pacifica anything new; there is a long history of internal squabbles. My general sense from afar was that both sides had their flaws, while opportunism masked by political posturing abounded. But in the past few years matters have changed. The newly aggressive national management has shown minimal respect for fair play or the values of community broadcast and little interest in preserving Pacifica's distinctive dissident and independent political focus.
The authoritarianism at WBAI is highlighted, as it was at KPFA, by the unwillingness of the Pacifica management to speak fully and honestly about its strategies and plans. To the limited extent that Pacifica has attempted to justify its actions at WBAI and KPFA, it has been on the grounds that these stations need to expand their audiences dramatically. I am quite sympathetic to that position [see McChesney, "From Pacifica to the Atlantic," October 11, 1999], but Pacifica's actions do not lend credence to this claim. The attack on WBAI, as on KPFA, seems more about seizing power, with the concerns of the audience, existing or potential, nowhere to be found.
This, then, points to the core problem: The management structure at Pacifica is inappropriate for this kind of enterprise. The notion of a self-appointed board of directors having all the legal power makes sense for a small nonprofit group where a small number of people do almost all the labor and strongly influence the board. But at Pacifica this model makes no sense. The Pacifica stations were built up by the staff and listeners over the past fifty years, yet they have hardly any legal power. Many of the current board members have scarcely any prior hands-on involvement with Pacifica and seemingly know little about community radio in theory or practice, yet they hold nearly all the legal cards. That is why their numerous opponents have been reduced to demonstrating, filing long-shot lawsuits and hassling board members in hopes they will quit.
The solution is therefore simple: Revise the legal structure of Pacifica so that it better reflects the actual nature of the five stations and how they do operate, and should operate. Give the staff and listeners more formal power. But the solution is also maddeningly complex. There is no simple way to restructure Pacifica to be democratic and effective and to make everyone happy. Some of those currently disgruntled may never get gruntled.
The proposal developed by numerous people, including FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, seems like the most prudent course: a transitional slate of a dozen highly respected progressive figures should be appointed to the existing board (www.fair.org/press-releases/pacifica-proposal.html). (Disclosure: I was recommended to be on this slate in the original proposal; due to increased obligations, I now cannot accept such a post.) This transitional board would then make a formal study of how Pacifica could be restructured to be more democratic, more relevant and more open to audience expansion, while remaining true to its core values.
This proposal has been endorsed by progressives ranging from Jim Hightower, Michael Moore, Martin Espada, Alice Walker and Studs Terkel to nonprofit media consultant Herb Chao Gunther, foundation president Hari Dillon, Barbara Ehrenreich, June Jordan, Tom Morello, Carlos Muñoz Jr., Jill Nelson, Ramona Ripston and Howard Zinn. The dissident members of Pacifica's national board have called for precisely such a long-term and sweeping re-evaluation. As board member Cagan told me, "The lack of democracy within the institution makes it impossible to have any open and honest discussion of the problems facing Pacifica." The plan can be carried out in accordance with Pacifica's current bylaws.
Tragically, as this goes to press, the board majority is moving in the opposite direction. It proposes to revise Pacifica's bylaws so that it will be "very much modeled on a corporate structure, not a nonprofit one," according to Cagan. This would, in effect, destroy Pacifica. The current board members must remember that they do not own Pacifica; it is not their plaything. They should not revise the bylaws and should adopt the Cohen proposal. Their legacy would then be that they were responsible for making Pacifica a strong and viable model for community broadcasting and media for the coming decades.
George Walker Bush has barely warmed his Oval Office chair, but the national media already seem eager to forget the rancor he incited on his way there, all but ignoring the shouts of the thousands
Only yesterday pundits assured us that George W. Bush, who lost the popular election by half a million votes, would tread softly and govern meekly. "He has no mandate to do anything except Be Nice," Molly Ivins wrote in the December Progressive. But who needs a mandate, with the mainstream media resolutely ignoring the still-unfolding scandal of the Florida election? Bush is making hay while the sun shines--paying off his debt to business with the nominations of Elaine Chao, late of the Heritage Foundation, for Labor; Gale Norton, lead-paint champion, for Interior; and Christie Whitman, governor of the state with the second-worst air pollution in the country (Texas is first), for EPA. Over at HHS, anti-choicers get Tommy Thompson--whose devotion to welfare reform provides a note of continuity with the worst aspects of the outgoing Clinton Administration. Most ominous, the Christian and loony right gets its reward for keeping quiet during the campaign: the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General.
How far to the right is Ashcroft? As I write, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are doing their best to help him obscure his ghastly twenty-five-year record on abortion, guns, women's rights, gay rights, the separation of church and state. A rare exception was Ted Kennedy, who closely questioned the nominee on his crusade as Missouri's Attorney General against voluntary school desegregation. But so far the only senator who has publicly said she will vote no is Barbara Boxer, never a Nation favorite, while "progressive" stalwarts like Paul Wellstone and Russell Feingold (who was particularly fawning and vacuous in his questioning), not to mention Tom Daschle and Joe Biden, have all said they were inclined to vote yes (Wellstone and Biden later backpedaled after an outcry). You'd think the Democrats had lost the popular election! Unless Ashcroft is discovered to be sleeping with Barney Frank, his confirmation looks assured. Who in the Senate can be expected to care that as governor of Missouri, Ashcroft twice vetoed bills that would have equalized voter-registration procedures in mostly black and mostly white counties, given that not one senator would sponsor the Congressional Black Caucus's January 6 protest of the Electoral College vote? As the Last Marxist says, the Republicans really are reactionaries, but the Democrats are only pretending to be liberals.
If Ashcroft is not too far out to be confirmed, who is? Accepting an honorary degree at Bob Jones University in 1999, Ashcroft proclaimed that in America, "We have no king but Jesus." (Why aren't Jews up in arms about that?) This is a man who, on the eve of his swearing-in as a Missouri senator, anointed himself with Crisco, supposedly after the manner of the Hebrew kings. Can it be that Barbara Boxer is the only senator discomfited by the thought of an Attorney General who thinks the Bible instructs him to put salad oil on his head?
John Ashcroft is not just a conservative: He stands at the place where Christian fanatics, anti-choicers, militiamen, gun nuts and white supremacists come together. As Chip Berlet reports, he has acknowledged meeting with the head of the St. Louis chapter of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens to discuss the case of a member jailed on federal charges of conspiring to murder an FBI agent. He defended the leaders of the Confederacy in Southern Partisan, the neo-Confederate magazine that has done a brisk business in T-shirts celebrating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Timothy McVeigh was wearing one when arrested). If Southern Partisan rings a bell, by the way, it's because when editor Richard Quinn was discovered to be managing John McCain's South Carolina campaign, a Bush spokesperson criticized McCain for associating with him.
Among Ashcroft's many connections on the far side is Larry Pratt, who, as head of Gunowners of America, functions as a kind of liaison between the militia movement and Capitol Hill. A handwritten note from Ashcroft is posted on Pratt's website (www.gunowners.org). According to the Manchester Guardian, "the two men know each other from a secretive but highly influential rightwing religious group called the Council for National Policy, of which Mr Pratt is a member and whose meetings Mr Ashcroft has attended." Tom DeLay and Trent Lott also belong.
In a glowing profile in CounterPunch (July 1/15, 1999), Alexander Cockburn uncritically paraphrases the position for which Pratt is best known--that the surest proof against Columbine-type school shootings is to arm teachers to shoot students "just like they do in South Africa, where one instructor recently gunned down a bellicose student." South Africa is one of the world's most violent countries, with a long history of serious corporal punishment--with whips--in its dismal black schools, so it's not immediately obvious why the United States should follow its lead even if Pratt's tale is true. But the South African Consul says there is no such policy and knows of no such incident having occurred, nor did a media search turn one up. Need one point out as well that millions of pistol-packing teachers present something of a danger to defenseless schoolchildren? On the other hand, since Pratt also believes in guns for kids (Ashcroft's note was to thank Pratt for enlightening him about the antigun provisions in the juvenile justice bill), the students could just shoot back.
Pratt's website is a grab bag of nuttiness ("What the Bible Says About Gun Control"; "Guns Save Health Care Costs"). But it would be wrong to see him as a marginal, if colorful, figure. CounterPunch doesn't mention it, but Pratt has been a leader of the hard-core Christian right for many years: He led the walkout of religious conservatives at the White House Conference on Families in 1980; he has fundraised for Operation Rescue. In 1996, he was co-chairman of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign until he was forced to resign when his links to Christian Identity and white-supremacist groups became public. Today Pratt pals around with Lott, DeLay and Ashcroft--whom Bush Senior reportedly considered for the Attorney General post but rejected as too extreme to be confirmed.
That was then, this is now.
Media events have a life of their own. Consider the launch of the so-called Tiananmen Papers. On January 7, Mike Wallace interviewed on CBS's 60 Minutes an anonymous person in disguise who claimed, at some undisclosed time and place, to have hand-copied a massive number of Chinese secret documents that included transcripts of meetings, telephone conversations and other communications that the top leaders of China had with one another at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He said he smuggled out transcriptions of a portion of this data on computer disks. He has assumed a disguise so he would have the option of returning to Beijing. A portion of this material has been published in a book, The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People (Public Affairs), edited by Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and Perry Link, professor of Chinese language and literature at Princeton University, with an afterword by Orville Schell, an author and former consultant to 60 Minutes. The material also appeared in Foreign Affairs with an introduction by Nathan. Completing the circle, CBS Evening News quoted the 60 Minutes statement that the documents had been "authenticated" by experts.
Authentication is a defined procedure in which a questioned document, or a part of it, is compared with the original or to an authenticated copy of it. In this case, however, the experts cited by CBS had no opportunity for matching documents with the originals. They did not even possess the questioned hand-copied documents, only the putative transcriptions of parts of them downloaded from a computer disk. And they acknowledged that they did not have proof that the originals existed.
The editors were able to verify bits of information contained in questioned documents from other sources. Much of the chronology of meetings, for example, could be found in Nicholas Kristof's authoritative November 12, 1989, article "How the Hard-Liners Won" in The New York Times Magazine. But such verification does not demonstrate that the documents are authentic. Bogus documents may contain accurate information (for example, facts in Clifford Irving's bogus Howard Hughes autobiography were verified by both Time-Life and McGraw-Hill, and information in the bogus "Hitler Diaries" was verified by the eminent Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper). Indeed, invented documents frequently involve peppering the text with verifiable information.
The credibility of documents therefore rests on their provenance--the traceable chain of custody. By what means did these classified documents get from the files of the Chinese Politburo and Chinese security services into the hands of the media in America? How were they copied without detection, transcribed onto tape and transported to this country? Hand-copying such massive files from secret archives, which would constitute espionage of the highest order, would involve care and time to evade security. According to the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press, some 15,000 pages were copied and, from them, a small fraction was selected for the book. This would be a tall order. If the copier managed to transcribe one page an hour, and worked (in addition to his regular job) six hours a day, five days a week, it would take him ten years to copy 15,000 pages (not counting the time to enter them into a computer). Whoever copied such documents would have to have had access to classified material in different secure areas. So, to establish a provenance, it would be necessary to determine the copier's position, rank, level of access to classified documents and tenure in office.
Those connected with the book did not provide this provenance. Orville Schell told me that he "is not at liberty to say from whom, or how, the documents were obtained." James Hoge Jr., the editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote regarding the problem of the time needed to transcribe these files, "The work was done by a number of persons at the behest of high level reformers." He explained further that the anonymous person who appeared on 60 Minutes and whom the experts debriefed was merely their designated deliverer. If so, a deliveryman might himself not know who provided the documents to the group of transcribers. So, what remains missing is the chain of custody between the putative copier(s) and the deliverer.
Tiananmen Papers co-editor Nathan says the computer disk he printed out contained 516 pages of Chinese text. He suggested that reports in the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press that it was drawn from 15,000 pages of purloined documents were in error. He reasoned that the stories "didn't come from me or Perry [Link], the only authoritative sources on this question," and were therefore inaccurate. For his part, he says he cannot reveal the size of the underlying archive the transcribers had access to because it would endanger their safety.
Maybe so. But by asserting that he and his co-editor are the only "authoritative sources," he is excluding all the others--including the deliverer (who gave his own press interviews), the group of transcribers who boiled down the documents to 516 pages and the members of the faction that purportedly directed them and who copied the documents. Certainly, if such a treasure trove of documents exists, there would be a great number of people in a position to know its approximate size. Moreover, Nathan himself does not claim to have firsthand knowledge of those involved, other than the deliveryman. At best, from his work editing them, he has, as he puts it, "my views about the identities of the persons involved." He may be intuitively right--or wrong--but views do not make a provenance.
Finally, there is the question of motive. Schell said in the Wall Street Journal that he was convinced that the work was legitimate, both because of the deliverer's apparent knowledge of the inner workings of the Chinese government and the clarity of his motive in releasing documents. His motive, Schell explains, was to help reformers gain power in the Communist Party in Beijing. But the same clarity of motive, a desire for power, might also lead a group to arrange to publish bogus documents.
The authors have, of course, every right to publish a book they intuitively believe is truthful. But we do not know who, if anyone, took and copied these documents--or how many documents there are in the archive. We do not know why they were transcribed or who transcribed them. We do not know who directed this process--or why--and who selected, or wrote, the 516 pages delivered for publication. All we know for sure is that some anonymous person from China delivered for publication in America a computer file that cannot be authenticated.
As busy as he is these days, George W. Bush should take time out to see Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's new movie about the war on drugs. For, in coming days, Bush must name a new drug czar, and seeing this movie could--and should--affect his choice. Traffic contains the usual disclaimer about its characters bearing no resemblance to real individuals, living or dead, but it is in fact a thinly veiled attack on the drug policy of the Clinton Administration and its outgoing drug czar, Barry McCaffrey. (As he prepares to leave office, Bill Clinton has suddenly become a drug reformer, calling for the decriminalization of marijuana and the overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders. Where was he when we needed him?) In the movie, the drug czar, like McCaffrey, is a military man, and as in Washington, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has been taken over by the military and law enforcement. And as in real life, the White House is preoccupied with stopping the flow of drugs from Latin America into the United States.
In Traffic, Soderbergh dramatizes the real-life futility of that undertaking. Having written about the drug issue for years, I expected the movie to take many Hollywood-driven liberties with the facts. At points, the movie does lapse into melodrama; overall, though, it depicts US counternarcotics efforts with dead-on accuracy. In making the film, Soderbergh gained the cooperation of the US Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. When a Customs official complained about aspects of the script, Soderbergh let him rewrite part of it. The DEA felt so comfortable with the director that it allowed him to shoot a scene inside the El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas--the first time a film crew was ever allowed inside the surveillance complex.
Often, access leads to co-optation, but not in Soderbergh's case. On the contrary, the input from law enforcement, by increasing the movie's verisimilitude, has added to the force of its indictment. One drug agent in the movie acknowledges that the traffickers have access to telecommunications devices far more sophisticated than anything the DEA has. A Customs officer concedes that for every drug shipment that gets seized, several others get through. A trafficker in a witness-protection program chides a DEA agent about the hopelessness of his effort to bring down a smuggling ring--even if he succeeds, others will quickly fill the gap.
Soderbergh's main vehicle for getting his message across is Robert Wakefield, a tough-on-crime state Supreme Court judge in Cincinnati (played by Michael Douglas). After being selected to become the next drug czar, Wakefield prepares for the job by going out into the field. At every stop, he is confronted by evidence of the drug war's failure. On a plane ride back from the border, the judge--surrounded by military officers--asks for new ideas in fighting the war. He is met by total silence.
What finally pushes Wakefield over the edge is his own 16-year-old daughter's descent into cocaine addiction--a subplot that's one of the movie's main weaknesses. Within a matter of days, the teenager goes from perky straight-A student to freebasing zombie who sells her body for drugs. Shades of Reefer Madness. Furthermore, the movie strongly implies that it is suburban whites like Wakefield's daughter who make up the heart of the nation's drug problem--indeed, every drug user depicted in Traffic is white and well-off. Of course, many privileged whites do abuse drugs, but so do plenty of poor African-Americans and Latinos. It's as if Soderbergh can't trust us to sympathize with drug-using minorities. This distorts the nature of the challenge facing drug policy-makers: The movie's addicts are all so well-heeled that they can pay for rehab out of pocket, but if treatment is a superior way to deal with drug abuse, as Traffic suggests, then the government will have to do much more in the way of providing it.
When Wakefield finally tracks his daughter down to a squalid flophouse in inner-city Cincinnati, he realizes that drug abuse is a deeply rooted social problem that cannot be fought with helicopters, guns or wiretaps. At the press conference to announce his appointment, the judge interrupts his prepared, cliché-ridden speech to ask, "How do you wage war on your own family?"
More and more Americans are asking the same question. Almost every time a drug reform measure has been put up for a vote, it has passed. In November, voters in California--tired of paying for ever more prisons--approved a referendum to treat, rather than incarcerate, nonviolent drug offenders. In Manhattan, increasing numbers of prospective jurors are being dismissed after expressing their reluctance to serve on cases involving low-level drug offenders. In early January, New York Governor George Pataki announced his intention to "dramatically reform" the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. The crowds lining up to see Traffic offer further evidence of the changing public mood.
How will Bush respond? On the one hand, he has repeatedly voiced sympathy for people dependent on drugs and alcohol. He has spoken frankly about his own drinking problem and how he managed to overcome it by religious faith. On the other, as governor of Texas, he presided over the nation's largest prison system, and he has seemingly never encountered a drug law he didn't like. Moreover, by invoking only the faith-based form of treatment, he leaves the impression that all addicts need to get well is to open their hearts to Jesus. Most troubling of all is Bush's nominee for Attorney General. Whenever he's had the chance, John Ashcroft has pushed for an intensification of the drug war. He belongs to a group of hard-core Congressional Republicans who have helped stymie all efforts at reform.
At a screening of Traffic in Washington last fall, Bill Olson, the staff director for Republican Senator Charles Grassley's drug caucus, walked out after Michael Douglas's bailout speech. "Shame on you!" he scolded Soderbergh--testimony to the strong emotions the movie is stirring and the stiff resistance its message is facing in Washington.
The company that the Florida secretary of state contracted with in 1998 to help purge the state rolls of ineligible voters is well connected to GOP circles. The chairman of the board of Database Technologies, now the DBT Online unit of ChoicePoint Inc. of Atlanta, was former astronaut and prominent Republican Frank Borman.
Also on the board were billionaire Ken Langone, who was co-chairman of the fundraising committee for New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's aborted US Senate race; and big GOP funder Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot. Howard Safir, former New York City police commissioner under Giuliani, is a consultant to the company, and Vin Weber, best known as Newt Gingrich's legislative enforcer when the pair controlled the House of Representatives, is the company's lobbyist. The company says that it favors no party.
A report that Secretary of State Katherine Harris had ordered the removal from voting lists of 8,000 Florida citizens, every one of them wrongly identified by DBT as felons from Texas, first appeared in Britain's Observer, where I work as an investigative reporter. Harris and ChoicePoint claimed at that time to have corrected their erroneous ways, but the Observer, with the help of a team from Salon, reported in December that, extrapolating from known figures, at least 15 percent of the 58,000 felons named on the new scrub lists had also been wrongly identified as felons.
A ChoicePoint spokesman termed the British reports a "vile, lying, inaccurate pack of nonsense." A more upbeat spokesman noted with pride that "fifteen percent wrong [is] eighty-five percent right!" In a later statement the company said the scrub list contained the names of potential felons only, and that "Florida law prevents names from being removed from the voting roll unless the information is confirmed by local officials--not by us."
One county (Leon, which includes Tallahassee) allocated resources to verify independently the criminal records of those on the list who lived in that county. According to officials there, it could confirm only thirty-four of 694 names, indicating that the error rate could be as high as 95 percent, not 15 percent.
Thousands of citizens can't register or have been wrongly thrown off the rolls.
Police are up to old tricks: disrupting and spying on legal political activities.