There is a value to the much-criticized crawl that zipped along at the bottom of CNN's window during the attack on Afghanistan, beneath clips of dirty traitors and soldier-heroes and starving refugees. As the world's other news ticked blithely by, trivialized by the pictures above it, the ephemeral, superficial crawl reminded us of the worth of words that do not move, and of stories told in columns of type, not in video clips or on film. I don't want to get too sentimental, but isn't the printed page reliable; isn't it familiar; isn't it decent? It feels immutable in a way that other things do not these days. As Walter Isaacson (who is now running CNN) said when he was still at Time: "If the world were based on computers and they told you about magazines, you'd think: 'Wow: what a great technology!'"
Magazines and newspapers (and online versions of these) still often manage to tackle complex stories and say things that have meaning, unlike so much of the media. And meaning, which is so unusual now that content is dead (a friend actually told me that several years ago), meaning generates a ripple of excitement. I found it fun, for example, when Lewis Lapham called the Attorney General "Mullah John Ashcroft" in print, in Harper's, of course. You won't find "Mullah" John Ashcroft doing the crawl on CNN beneath the story about President Bush and his FPS (Failed Pretzel Swallowing). Now that Talk, which had every kind of support behind it, has gone under (in the wake of other recent casualties like Brill's Content, Lingua Franca, Mademoiselle, ON magazine), we can be reasonably sure that the print media is in for further high-temperature shrinking as the economy tightens. This column will check in regularly on the health of content and highlight what's meaningful in print, in general interest and niche publications, and in the little, spirited, idiosyncratic guys one rarely gets to.
What 'The Arab' Thinks
Since the fall of the towers, I've listened to and read so much drivel about "Arab casbah culture" and the "Arabs' nomadic mentality" and about what Arabs think and what really drives "The Arab," that it was good to find Al Jadid, a quarterly published in Los Angeles devoted to Arab culture and arts. The way I found it was unfortunate, however--painful. Suffice it to say that my recent novel (which is about Jerusalem) received from Al Jadid its only English-language notice from an Arab point of view, and the review was not entirely kind. So I was led reluctantly to the magazine, but when I looked into its back issues, I discovered that it contains a wealth of opinion and information that no one else is publishing in English.
I knew Al Jadid was for me when one knowledgeable Arab of my acquaintance told me disdainfully that the magazine was "not influential." I love that; for me, "not influential" means you can read the thing without having to feel you must agree with it. Consider these noninfluential observations, by Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist, essayist and editor, on Saddam (yes, the Saddam) Hussein's first novel, Zubayba and the King (2000): For Arab military dictatorships, Khoury writes,
literature became somehow a field associated with the...dictatorship, perhaps because all writing in [such] regimes is like writing intelligence reports. We find a strange mixture between the writer and the intelligence analyst.... Creative writers first become intelligence report writers and then become authors!... The literary world suffered in a terrifying way thanks to this strange combination: Egyptian authors were imprisoned; Iraqi writers lived between exile, prison and assassination; literature in Syria knew a great decline; and in the Gulf regimes, monarchies, emirates and sheikhdoms, the censor is almost the sole author.
Magazines like Al Jadid, which are concerned with niche obsessions or particular groups, also often speak with unintentional authority to the universal, to the general human experience. One of my favorite examples of this--in the Al Jadid "Editor's Notebook" column by Elie Chalala, in the Winter 2001 issue--is called "Poet and Critic Nouri Jarah Laments Standards of Arab Literary Criticism, Rushing Poetry into Translation."
The first interesting thing you discover in this great piece is that "individuals seeking political asylum" are trying to pass themselves off as Great Poets from their home countries, in order to claim persecution. That's a good ruse. Unfortunately, this is the only eccentric thing you discover about the Arab publishing world. Otherwise, we might as well be in New York or London. Jarah states that "decisions of culture [in the Arab world] are based on exchanges of power and influence" rather than on sheer literary merit. He also points out that "the Arab critic-author relationship is one of enmity rather than amity."
Mmmmmm. Oh yes. Really.
Now I understand where my reviewer was coming from.
Woman on the Go
Working Woman was closed by new management (a bank) last September, on its twenty-fifth anniversary. The magazine went on "hiatus," as the holding company that still owns the name puts it. This leaves Woman's sororal twin, Working Mother, still out there in the market because, as one former employee says, "it's easier for advertisers to understand Working Mother's audience; the demographic is more tangible." Doctors' offices are among Working Mother's largest subscriber groups. (In case you are wondering, Ms. is still published but is not advertiser-supported.)
Working Woman was intended to target CEO-level women, who make about twice as much as, say, the readership of Good Housekeeping (which shows no signs of closing down). But the high-end women were more likely to subscribe to Business Week, Forbes or Fortune. Eventually the advertising community deserted the publication, because it could get at the actual Woman readers better elsewhere: at Family Circle, for example, or in the fashion and beauty and shopper magazines.
In an interesting note, Working Mother, which also changed hands and recruited a new staff in September, will now be put out by an editor in chief and a deputy editor neither of whom have ever had children. It's as if you had a white person editing Ebony.
What if we could see the Afghan dead as we've seen the September 11 victims?
It was a mistake--and a beaut--in Matt Bivens's piece "The Enron Box" where he confused the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. It is hereby duly acknowledged and regretted. But what really astonished us was the way it unleashed a slick triple play by the Right-Wing Conspirators (a Class C club that plays the Washington-New York corridor). You've heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Well, this was Wall Street Journal to The Weekly Standard to Fox News's Brit Hume. The WSJ caught Bivens's blooper; then The Weekly Standard grabbed amd waved it long enough to say "Nyah, nyah" before Brit (Mr. Inside) Hume gobbled up the ball and hinted darkly of cover-up (or something) on Fox News. This dazzling play illustrates how the opposing team will seize on a minor miscue and use it to clear George W. Bush of any involvement in the Enron scandal. OK, we admit the error shows we are sometimes sports-challenged; next time we'll check with a baseball expert like George Will. Lest the real issues be lost out in right field, however, we bring you a comment on Bush and baseball posted by the witty sportswriter Charles Pierce, a commentator on NPRs Only a Game and the author of Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He posted it on Jim Romenesko's Media News (www.poynter.org):
"As to The Nation's unfortunate collision with the national pastime--the passage ought to read:
'When George Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers with a bunch of businessmen who had all the real money, construction began on The Ballpark At Arlington, after the ownership group finagled the eminent domain laws in order to swindle some property owners out of the market price for some valuable land. The property owners sued and won, but The Ballpark arose anyway, enabling Mr. Bush to cash out his original investment several times over without ever having done any actual work. This helped launch the successful portion of his political career, culminating in his becoming President of the United States, a job from which he took an evening off last spring in order to be the guest of Kenneth Lay for the opening of Enron Field in Houston. Mr. Lay was CEO of Enron and a well-known political supporter of the president who, these days, of course, would not recognize him from a box of turnips.'
"The Nation, I am sure, regrets the error."
Indeed we do.
One of the major falsehoods being bandied about by apologists for the Bush Administration is that while Enron may have bankrolled much of the President's political career it got nothing for those
Welfare reform has left America dangerously undefended against hard times.
As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.
Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)
A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."
West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.
By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.
The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.
It was not without warning that Congress voted to end welfare-as-we-knew-it in 1996, but still, it seemed to catch the progressive community off-guard.
Concerned about potential taint from the metastasizing Enron scandal, George W. Bush met with reporters recently to distance himself from Enron's chairman, Ken Lay (nicknamed "Kenny Boy" by W. before the scandal). It is testament to how indelible that taint may become that Bush found it necessary to lie about his friend. He claimed that Lay supported Ann Richards in 1994 when Bush ran for governor of Texas and that he only got to know him later. In fact, Lay was a leading contributor to Papa Bush's re-election run in 1992, and by his own account was "very close to George W." Enron's PAC and executives pumped $146,500 into W.'s 1994 race (while Richards received all of $12,500 from Enron sources). Bush "was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office," reports Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
W. has good reasons for trying to minimize his relationship with Lay and Enron in the dying days of his father's presidency. After Clinton's 1992 victory, Enron pushed hard to exempt its energy futures contracts from regulatory oversight before the new Administration took office. The lame-duck chairwoman of Bush's Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Wendy Gramm, wife of Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm, brought the exemption to a final vote on January 14, 1993, six days before Clinton took office. Enron, a leading contributor to Phil Gramm's campaign coffers, then named Wendy Gramm to its board of directors, where she pocketed about $1 million in payments and stock benefits over the next nine years. She served on the company's audit committee and helpfully turned a blind eye to the shady private partnerships Enron set up off the books to hide debt and mislead investors. In 2000, as the Supreme Court was naming Bush President, Senator Phil Gramm slipped a bill exempting energy trading from regulation into Clinton's omnibus appropriations act, avoiding hearings, floor debate and notice. Enron was all set to operate in the dark.
What is the Enron saga about? Enron's bankruptcy, the largest in history, exposes the decay of corporate accountability in the new Gilded Age. No-account accountants, see-no-evil stock analysts, subservient "independent" board members, gelded regulators, purchased politicians--every supposed check on executive plunder and piracy has been shredded. Enron transformed itself from a gas pipeline company to an unregulated financial investment house willing and able to buy and sell anything--energy futures, weather changes, bandwidth, state legislatures, regulators, senators, even Presidents.
It is Enron's rise that lays bare the hypocrisy of modern conservatives--call them Enron conservatives. Enron conservatives fly the flag of free markets but actually use political and financial clout to free themselves from accountability, rig the market and then use their position to ravage consumers, investors and employees. These are not the small-is-beautiful compassionate conservatives George Bush advertised in the election campaign, or the tory conservatives who protect flag, family and honor. Enron conservatives make the rules to benefit themselves. "They have clout and the ability to get the rules written their way," said Stephen Naeve, chief financial officer for Houston Industries, Inc. about Enron in 1997. "They play with sharp elbows."
Ken Lay learned about regulation while working at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). After he created Enron, he lavished millions on lobbyists and campaign contributions to free Enron from regulation and to push energy deregulation. His lobbyist stable has included James Baker, Bush I's Secretary of State; Jack Quinn and Mack McLarty of the Clinton White House; and Marc Racicot, current head of the Republican Party.
Enron's lobbyists played a large role in California deregulation--setting the state up for a hit. Most experts believe that Enron, controlling about a quarter of wholesale trading in electricity with no regulatory oversight, was central to the market gaming that led to last year's "energy crisis," which cost Californians about $50 billion. For six months Pat Wood, Enron's handpicked head of FERC, refused to impose price controls. The White House, led by economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, a former Enron consultant, ridiculed the very notion. In those six months, Public Citizen reports, Enron posted increased revenues of nearly $70 billion. When the price controls were finally enacted, the "crisis" disappeared. Spencer Abraham, Bush's clueless Energy Secretary, now informs us that this is a triumph of deregulation.
Enron conservatives prefer plunder to production. Enron's twenty-nine top executives cashed in a staggering $1.1 billion in stock in the three years before the firm went belly up. Small investors got soaked, and faithful employees got stiffed. In August, after Lay and CEO Jeffrey Skilling had cashed in more than $160 million in Enron stock, Skilling abruptly resigned. Lay personally e-mailed his employees to assure them that "our growth has never been more certain." Enron then maneuvered to ban its employees from selling the Enron stock in their retirement accounts as its value plummeted, leaving thousands stripped of their life savings.
Enron conservatives aren't limited to the Houston boardrooms. Enron conservatives in the Administration pushed through the $15 billion airlines bailout that included zero for workers. Enron conservatives in the House passed the "stimulus" package that featured tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy while scorning unemployment insurance and healthcare assistance for those losing their jobs. Enron itself was slated to receive $254 million from retroactive repeal of the minimum corporate tax. Enron conservatives in Congress passed the President's tax cut, which showered almost half its benefits on the wealthiest 1 percent. And they even repealed the estate tax, insuring that Lay and his fellow executives could pass along their ill-gotten gains intact to their heirs.
Enron conservatives aren't all Republicans. Enron's deregulation plans, and its contributions, were popular with the Clinton White House. Enron gave $10,000 to the New Democrat Network, the money wing of the Democratic Party. With his employer, Citigroup, owed at least $750 million by Enron, Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin didn't hesitate to call Treasury to suggest it intervene to forestall the downgrading of Enron's credit rating.
But the leading Enron conservative is W. himself. After all, Bush made his own fortune with inside connections while other investors in his company were getting soaked. Lay and Enron were Bush's leading supporters, contributing $113,800 directly to his campaign and another $888,265 to the Republican National Committee, an arm of the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bush repaid Lay and other "Pioneers"--those who raised $100,000 or more for his campaign--with his shameful tax plan. He continues to push for a stimulus plan that benefits corporations over workers. He is pressing Congress to pass the Enron energy plan, which features massive subsidies to energy companies and further deregulation. And while the White House has begrudgingly admitted to six meetings between Enron representatives and the Cheney energy task force, it continues to stonewall efforts by the General Accounting Office to find out who met with Cheney to draw up the plan.
Public Citizen reports that Enron set up a staggering 2,832 subsidiaries, with almost a third located in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens. On taking office, the Bush Administration announced that it was abandoning Clinton efforts for a multilateral crackdown on these havens, saying, in Treasury Secretary O'Neill's words, that the Administration will not "interfere with the internal tax policy decisions of sovereign nations."
The Administration crows that there is no smoking gun vis-à-vis Enron. We'll see. But the real scandal is not what was done illegally but what was done under cover of law. Enron conservatives don't violate the rules; they change the rules to suit themselves.
As Bush was distancing himself from his old friend Kenny Boy, one of the President's first regulatory acts in office went into final effect: the repeal of the Clinton rules that allowed the government to deny contracts to companies that are repeat violators of workplace safety, labor, environmental and other federal laws. Enron conservatives don't see why corporate lawlessness should get in the way of federal largesse. After all, in this Administration Enron's rise and fall are seen, in the words of Treasury Secretary O'Neill, as a "triumph of capitalism."