When Philip Roth compiles lists of the writers he most admires, Tolstoy never seems to make it. There's Flaubert, Kafka, Bellow--the touchstones. Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Céline--the madmen. Henry Miller, of course; even Chekhov and Thomas Mann. But Tolstoy, when he appears in Roth's fiction at all, is usually something of a joke. In The Ghost Writer, young Nathan Zuckerman travels to meet his hero, the reclusive novelist E.I. Lonoff ("Married to Tolstoy" is how the novel describes the plight of Lonoff's wife); lying the first night in the sanctum where Lonoff composes his masterpieces, and knowing that a fetching student of Lonoff's is also staying at the house, Zuckerman is, shamefully, seized by erotic yearnings. He yields to them. "Virtuous reader," he reports, "if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E.I. Lonoff's study and see how you feel when it's over."
As if this wasn't bad enough, four years later Roth began The Anatomy Lesson with a sexual rewriting of Anna Karenina's famous opening. "Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy wrote. "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything at the Oblonskys' was in confusion." Roth's version: "When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she's not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women."
So perhaps it is as punishment for this needling that in his old age Roth has become Tolstoy. His last five novels have been Tolstoyan in scope, and, like Tolstoy, he has been celebrated for them. Like Tolstoy he is loathed by the official organs of religion--an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church suggested that Tolstoy be executed for the antimarital rantings of "The Kreutzer Sonata," while here in America an influential rabbi demanded to know, "What is being done to silence this man?" after Roth's attacks on Jewish suburbia in Goodbye, Columbus. And if it so happens that the Jews are wrong, and Hell exists, there can be no question that the author of Sabbath's Theater will spend eternity there.
But the chief reason that Roth is Tolstoy is that he, almost alone of our contemporary novelists, so insistently has Something to Say, and is prepared, at times, to forsake all his literary instincts in order to say it. Tolstoy's digressions in War and Peace on the mechanisms of history infuriated such early readers as Flaubert ("he repeats himself and he philosophises!"), as well as everyone since. After completing his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy for some time wrote only philosophical and religious tracts. As for Roth, who came dangerously close to turning his last, very powerful novel, The Human Stain, into a political rant against the Clinton impeachment, he too has for the moment dropped most pretenses to fiction and produced, with The Dying Animal, something far closer to an essay.
It is an essay, naturally, about sex. Lenin claimed that Tolstoy was the mirror of the Russian Revolution; for the past forty years, Roth has been the mirror of the sexual one. In his work, the contradictions of that libidinal revolt have found their fullest expression. During the 1960s, Roth hailed its arrival--indeed, three years after the 1969 publication of Portnoy's Complaint, Irving Howe could damningly suggest that Roth was "a man at ease with our moment." But Portnoy, Zuckerman and the rest have also testified eloquently to the costs of such freedom. You may shatter convention, Roth showed, but be warned that society (with its thuggish enforcer, the superego) has the resources to defend itself, with extreme prejudice.
The same paradigm fits the slim plot of The Dying Animal. The narrator, 70-year-old David Kepesh, is a cultural arbiter and professor who has systematically been sleeping with everyone, including and especially his students, since leaving his wife and child in the 1960s. You will perhaps object that Kepesh doesn't have any kids, and you'll be right. Roth has never been scrupulous with his characters' biographies--Zuckerman's childhood, for example, what with the boxing lessons and ping-pong in Swede Levov's basement and the Communism, is beginning to look awfully crowded--and in this case he outfits Kepesh, who appeared in two previous, rather mediocre outings as a hesitant philanderer in The Professor of Desire and as a giant breast in The Breast, with a more virile résumé and an abandoned son from a different first marriage. Nor does he bother to explain how the mammillary Kepesh turned himself back into a man.
But it's still the same Kepesh, of all Roth's narrators the dullest and most methodical. Even when he ceased to be a man, Kepesh was a most reasonable breast. He is reasonable still, as he catalogues his sexual habits, rules and arrangements; of an affair with a middle-aged former student, he explains: "It was a joint venture, our sexual partnership, that profited us both and that was strongly colored by Carolyn's crisp executive manner. Here pleasure and equilibrium combined." Given this regimented administration of his own happiness, it is naturally satisfying to see Kepesh--"the propagandist of fucking"--caught up in all the old emotions after an affair with a particularly stunning student. "This need," he moans, referring not to lust but to attachment. "This derangement. Will it never stop?"
But before everyone runs out to buy this paean to the triumph of the bourgeois spirit, they should be warned that Roth takes Kepesh far more seriously than this plot summary indicates--takes him at his word. It should even be noted--if I may be allowed a quick critical crudity--that Kepesh's style is the closest among his narrators to the style of Roth's own essays and memoirs. His concerns are Roth's, and he shares many of the master's ideas about the world. For Kepesh is not merely a reflection of the sexual revolution, but also its historian.
And here I must stop myself--it is so easy to make fun of Roth. Sixty-eight years old and again with the sex. When Tolstoy published his attack on physical love in "The Kreutzer Sonata," young wits suggested that the Count's own kreutzer might be out of order. It is easy, in other words, to make fun of old men. I myself have done so. I thought--it seems to be the general consensus--that sex for Roth was a device with which to propel his fictions; that he could have used cars, or whales, or sports, and chose sex merely because it was historically ripe, as a subject, and for the simpler reason that it was the quickest way to épater ye olde bourgeoisie. Diaphragm! Cunt! "The Raskolnikov of jerking off"!
I no longer think so. It seems obvious that at this point Roth can do little with sex that he hasn't done already (though he tries in The Dying Animal, he tries). This continued fixation is fictionally fallow--as Roth writes, baldly, in The Dying Animal, "You know you want it and you know you're going to do it and nothing is going to stop you. Nothing is going to be said here that's going to change anything." Since sex is, in this view, overdetermined, it's like writing about gravity. (In fact, not having sex is far more promising--one of the things it promises being future sex.)
Yet Roth persists, and after forty years it can only be because he believes sex the most important topic he could possibly tackle, and now more than ever. So this book demands that we approach it with a straight face, even when a straight face seems the least natural response. Kepesh, of course, is professorial, telling of the Merry Mount trading post in colonial Massachusetts, raided by the Puritans because it was a bad influence on the young. "Jollity and gloom," he quotes Hawthorne, "were contending for an empire." He is also empirical, a one-man research institute, reporting the number of times (one) that he was the beneficiary of oral sex in college in the 1950s, and clinically tracing the progress made in the interim: "The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators. There's been nothing like them ever before among their class of young women."
If this seems deliberately offensive, it is part of the general urgency, even desperation, that pulses through this book. Roth is running out of time; he must tell you as quickly as possible, he must convince you to change your life. Now, Roth has always considered the sexual revolution in quasi-world-historical terms. "The massive late-sixties assault upon sexual customs," he told an interviewer in 1974,
came nearly twenty years after I myself hit the beach fighting for a foothold on the erotic homeland held in subjugation by the enemy. I sometimes think of my generation of men as the first wave of determined D-day invaders, over whose bloody, wounded carcasses the flower children subsequently stepped ashore to advance triumphantly toward that libidinous Paris we had dreamed of liberating as we inched inland on our bellies, firing into the dark.
This is sweet and funny and light--and wholly innocent, it seems, of the damage done.
There is no such lightness in The Dying Animal. When the same idea (Roth as sexual revolutionary vanguard) resurfaces, it has an embattled quality to it, as if Roth is no longer certain what has happened, or who won. "Look," says Kepesh, in his demotic, direct address:
I'm not of this age. You can see that. You can hear that. I achieved my goal with a blunt instrument. I took a hammer to domestic life and those who stand watch over it. And to [my son]'s life. That I'm still a hammerer should be no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that my insistence makes me a comic figure on the order of the village atheist to you who are of the current age and who haven't had to insist on any of this.
The shift in tone from the interview is remarkable. The confidence is gone; the winds of history are shifting. Not only have the young forgotten their benefactors, they've started to cede the freedoms won for them--"now even gays want to get married," says Kepesh. "I expected more from those guys." And the deflowered order has been replaced by a new form of surveillance, which Kepesh scrupulously documents during a student conference: "we sat side by side at my desk, as directed, with the door wide open to the public corridor, all eight of our limbs, our two contrasting torsos visible to every Big Brother of a passerby." The revolution for which Kepesh fought so ruthlessly has been betrayed.
Which is a well-known habit of revolutions. Roth might have predicted, in fact, that women could not merely come alive as autonomous sexual beings without also developing ways of defending themselves against groping professors. He might even have predicted that this defense would at times grow absurd, that it would seek regimentation not only for physical but for verbal relations, that it would create a vocabulary of misunderstanding so dense it may take the passing of an entire generation before men and women can speak to one another again.
That all this might have been predicted in no way suggests that Roth is wrong to raise his voice in protest. It is striking, indeed, that a writer forever accused of it has now turned himself so vehemently against vulgarity--against the very leveling and coarsening of our conversation. Toward the end of The Dying Animal, Roth's former lover is beset by tragedy: "She began telling me about how foolish all her little anxieties of a few months back now seemed, the worries about work and friends and clothes, and how this had put everything in perspective," says Kepesh, "and I thought, No, nothing puts anything in perspective."
No, because there is no privileged view, no heights from which to look. This is the endpoint of the nihilist's wisdom. And Roth, after a circle of great radius, comes again to look like Tolstoy, like a writer who turns the light of his reason upon all the expressions and conventions by which we thoughtlessly live. How out of place he seems at a time when most fiction, competent as it is, has taken to being demure about its own necessity; when most writers are such professionals. Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon, of his generation, are all at least as talented as Roth; DeLillo is as timely, as ready to philosophize and to use the word "America." But no one is as urgent, as committed to the communication of his particular human truth.
The Dying Animal is not a great work in the way that The Human Stain, American Pastoral, Operation Shylock and, especially, Sabbath's Theater were great works. But it completes the picture--the picture of what a writer can be. Where DeLillo's recent novella, The Body Artist, was remarkable for its departure from his customary mode, The Dying Animal is remarkable for its fealty to the ground Roth has always worked. It cedes nothing, apologizes for nothing; it deepens, thereby, the seriousness of all his previous books.
"Because [sex] is based in your physical being, in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies," says Kepesh.
Only [during sex] are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It's not the sex that's the corruption--it's the rest. Sex isn't just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don't forget death. Don't ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?
You could answer (virtuous reader), as you have answered Roth so many times before, that art, and its promise of eternity, is greater; or politics, and its promise of justice, is greater; or religion, and its promise of spiritual peace, is more powerful. You could answer Roth thus, but one of you would have to be lying.
Over the past two years, it has become commonplace to read that the casualties among Kosovo Albanians were not sufficiently high to warrant the NATO intervention that put an end--at some remove--to the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Without saying so explicitly, many liberal and "left" types, and many conservatives and isolationists, have implied that the Kosovars did not suffer quite enough to deserve their deliverance. The dispute revolves around two things; the alleged massacre at Racak (which may or may not have been a firefight provoked by the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the relative emptiness of certain identifiable "mass grave" sites.
As to Racak, it might be argued that Western policy-makers seized too fast on the evidence of a Bosnian-style bloodbath, but--in view of what had been overlooked or tolerated for so long in Bosnia--it would be tough to argue that a "wait and see" policy would have been morally or politically superior. Wait for what? Wait to see what? And, since most of those who cast doubt on Racak were opposed on principle in any case to any intervention, as they had been in Bosnia, the force of their objection does not really depend on the body count, or on the issue of who shot first. For those of us who supported the intervention, with whatever misgivings, it was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter.
The bulk of the European and American right had announced in advance that the cleansing of Kosovo by Milosevic was not a big enough deal to justify military action; this seems to remain their view. It was also, according to former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark in his new memoir, the institutional view of the Pentagon. It would therefore have been the right's view, whatever happened or did not happen at Racak. It would presumably also have been their view even if the United Nations had passed a resolution authorizing the operation, over the entrenched objections of Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin. (The Genocide Convention, which mandates action by signatory powers whenever the destruction of a people in whole or in part is being committed, takes precedence in the view of some.)
So we'll never know if another Rwanda was prevented or not, since another Rwanda did not in fact take place. However, on the issue of the mass graves there is now, as a result of the implosion of the Milosevic regime, more forensic evidence to go on.
At the time of the war itself I received a letter from a Serbian student of mine, a political foe of Milosevic but by no means a NATO fan. He told me that his family in Serbia had a friend, a long-distance truck driver whom they trusted. This man had told them of entering Kosovo with his refrigerated vehicle, picking up Albanian corpses under military orders and driving them across the "Yugoslav" border as far as the formerly autonomous province of Voivodina, where they were hastily unloaded. He'd made several such runs. At the time, I decided not to publish this letter because although it appeared to be offered in good faith it also seemed somewhat weird and fanciful, and because rumors of exactly this sort do tend to circulate in times of war and censorship.
In early May of this year, the Belgrade daily newspaper Blic, now freed from the constraints of censorship, published a report about a freezer truck, loaded with Albanian cadavers and bearing Kosovo license plates, that had been pulled from the river Danube in April 1999. The location was the town of Kladovo, about 150 miles east of Belgrade. Local gravediggers told of being hastily mobilized to load the bodies onto another truck, and to keep their mouths shut. The man who found the truck, Zivojin Djordjevic, was interviewed on Belgrade Radio B92. "It was a Mercedes lorry--the name of the meat-processing company from Pec was written in Albanian on the cabin. The license plates were from Pec.... When the lorry was pulled out and the doors of the freezer opened, corpses started sliding out. There were many bodies of women, children and old people. Some women had Turkish trousers, some children and old people were naked."
To this macabre tale, identifiable people have put their names. The director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Natasha Kandic, has been collecting information about comparable incidents in the period between late March and mid-June 1999, with piles of corpses removed from cemeteries or graves in Kosovo and either reburied secretly or incinerated. This is not improvised wartime atrocity propaganda; it is the careful finding of patient human rights investigators after the fact.
One cannot yet say the same about another story, which concerns the mass burning of bodies in the blast furnaces of the Trepca steel plant. The eyewitnesses here are, so far, only a driver named "Branko" and a Serbian "special forces" officer named "Dusko." They suggest that, in that terrible spring, as many as 1,500 murdered Albanian civilians were fed into the mills and furnaces of the steel complex. It would be premature to credit such unconfirmed and lurid reports, even though investigators from the Hague tribunal have already spoken about evidence being destroyed at the nearby Trepca mines. And at first, I didn't quite believe the freezer-truck tale either.
In the relatively new atmosphere of post-Milosevic Serbia, the armed forces have charged some 183 soldiers for crimes committed in Kosovo. This might be part of an "isolated incident" strategy, or it might be the beginning of a real investigation. If the reports now in circulation prove to be true, it would mean (given the complicity of border guards, steelworks managers, traffic cops and cemetery authorities) there was a state design both to the original murders and the secret interments. Such a discovery would help constitute the emancipation of Serbia as well as of Kosovo. But it would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting. We shall see.
They were kidnapped on the street, or summoned to the village square, or lured from home with false promises of work, to be forced into the Japanese military's far-flung, highly organized system of sexual slavery throughout its occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. Of some 200,000 so-called comfort women only a quarter survived their ordeal; many of those died soon after of injuries, disease, madness, suicide. For years the ones who remained were silent, living marginal lives. But beginning in 1991, first one, then a trickle, then hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other former Japanese possessions came forward demanding that the Japanese government acknowledge its responsibility, apologize and make reparations. Despite a vigorous campaign of international protest, with mass demonstrations in Korea and Taiwan, Japan has hung tough: In 1995 Prime Minister Tomiichi Muayama offered "profound"--but unofficial--apologies and set up a small fund to help the women, to be financed on a voluntary basis by business; this past March, the Hiroshima high court overturned a modest award to three Korean women. As if official foot-dragging weren't demeaning enough, a popular comic-book history of Japan alleges that the comfort women were volunteers, and ultraright-wing nationalists have produced middle-school textbooks, approved for use in classrooms, that omit any mention of the government's role in the comfort-woman program.
Frustrated in Japan, the comfort women have now turned to the US Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC, Circuit. Under the 212-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners may sue one another in US courts for human rights violations; the women are also relying on a law against sexual trafficking passed last year by Congress. In mid-May, however, the State Department asked the Justice Department to file a brief expressing its sympathies with the women's sufferings but urging that the case be dismissed as lacking jurisdiction: Japan has sovereign immunity, under which nations agree to overlook each other's wrongdoings, and moreover, treaties between it and the United States put finis to claims arising from the war.
In other words, it's all right to seize girls and women and put them in rape camps--aka "comfort stations"--for the amusement of soldiers far from home, as long as it's part of official military policy. War is hell, as the trustees of the New School noted in their letter absolving their president, Bob Kerrey, of the killing of as many as twenty-one Vietnamese women and children. If it's OK to murder civilians, how wrong can it be to rape and enslave them?
"The Administration's position is particularly terrible and irresponsible when you consider the evolution of attitudes toward wartime rape over the last ten years," says Elizabeth Cronise, who with Michael Hausfeld is arguing the comfort women's case. Indeed, sexual violence in war has typically been regarded as the inevitable concomitant of battle, part of the spoils of war, maybe even, for the evolutionary-psychology minded, the point of it: Think of the rape of the Sabine women or the plot of the Iliad, which is precipitated by a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over possession of the captured Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis, although my wonderful old Greek professor Howard Porter didn't quite put it like that. It was only this past February that an international tribunal brought charges solely for war crimes of sexual violence, when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted in The Hague of organizing and participating in the rape, torture and sexual enslavement of Muslim women.
But even by these ghastly standards, the case of the comfort women stands out for the degree of planning and organization the Japanese military employed. Noting, for example, that subject populations tended to resent the rape of local women, authorities typically shipped the women far from home; although the women saw little or no money, "comfort stations" were set up as brothels with ethnically graduated fees, from Japanese women at the top to Chinese women at the bottom. The system was not, strictly speaking, a wartime phenomenon: It began in 1932, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and continued after the war's end. In fact, according to Yoshimi Yoshiaki, whose Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (Columbia) is crucial reading, the Japanese military authorities set up comfort stations for the conquering American troops. As Cronise points out, even if the United States has closed the books on Japan's wartime atrocities, it could still side with the comfort women on the grounds that many of them were enslaved during peacetime.
"The government's position is technically defensible," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for women's rights at Human Rights Watch. "What's not defensible is the Department of Justice's giving as a reason that it doesn't want to jeopardize relations with Japan." Incredibly, the Justice Department is arguing just that, along with the further self-interested point that a ruling in favor of the comfort women would open the United States to human rights lawsuits in other countries. (Remember that the United States has sabotaged the International Criminal Court.) Says Brown, "It shows a failure to understand the significance of the comfort women case as a major step in the development of human rights for women. After all, their case could have been brought up in the Far East tribunal right after World War II, but it wasn't. This is a major chance to move beyond that. You could even argue that the view of women as property--if not of one man, then another--was what prevented sexual slavery from being seen as a war crime until now."
The US lawsuit may well be the comfort women's last chance. Now in their 70s and 80s, most will soon be dead, and since few married or had children, there won't be many descendants to continue the fight for reparations. By stonewalling, the Japanese government will have won. And the Bush Administration will have helped it. All that's missing is the call for healing and mutual forgiveness.
Once in a while you come across a book that is so original, so persuasive, so meticulously researched and documented that it overrides some of your most taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Devices and Desires is such a work. The author, Andrea Tone, associate professor of history at Georgia Tech, belongs to a small band of new historians who are reassessing the lives of nineteenth-century women through attention to their personal (and I do mean very personal) health aids. An earlier example would be Rachel Maines's The Technology of Orgasm, published by Johns Hopkins in 1999, which describes and illustrates the 1880s-style vibrators that doctors freely used in their offices--and women in their homes--for relief of pelvic congestion and the female "hysteria" associated with it.
Devices and Desires opens in 1873 when, through the machinations of Anthony Comstock--star agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV)--Congress unexpectedly voted to make contraceptives illegal. Many Americans disapproved, and when the news reached Ireland, George Bernard Shaw coined the word "Comstockery," which, he predicted, would become "the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States."
It may be that talk of the new law made contraception known to some folks who had never heard of it before. It may be that, as with Eve's forbidden fruit, the ban made pregnancy prevention seem more alluring or naughty--or more fun. Then too, the "bootleg" business environment that ensued was relatively welcoming to entrepreneurial immigrants, smart single mothers with families to support and other ambitious "outsiders." "As with condoms," Tone observes, "creating diaphragms was easy and inexpensive, an ideal venture for those with little money and a penchant for risk." In any case the business of contraception flourished in the Comstock era, embracing scores of diverse devices and spermicides for women and men. Hundreds if not thousands of small entrepreneurs and distributors profited, as did as an impressive handful of industrial giants, including the arch-hypocrite Samuel Colgate, millionaire heir to the New Jersey-based soap firm, who served as president of Comstock's NYSSV while openly promoting Vaseline to "destroy spermatozoa, without injury to the uterus or vagina."
Other well-established companies that made, distributed and freely advertised contraceptives--ranging from intrauterine devices (IUDs) to vaginal pessaries (appliances intended to support the uterus that could also prevent the passage of sperm), and from douching syringes, suppositories and foaming tablets to sponges and male caps--included some still familiar names: B.F. Goodrich, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Goodyear. "The B.F. Goodrich Company," notes Tone, "manufactured three soft-rubber IUDs--one pear- and two donut-shaped, each available in five sizes--and twelve hard-rubber models. Two of the latter models were one-size-fits-all rings." Physicians were leading players in the commercialization of mass-produced IUDs--constructed from rubber, metal, ivory and even wood--although some models were promoted for do-it-yourself insertion.
Tone's exhaustive research led her--like an ace detective or shoe-leather crime reporter--through an eight-year coast-to-coast investigation of Post Office Department records, Federal Trade Commission transcripts (some with decaying diaphragms and condoms glued to the pages), American Medical Association (AMA) Health Fraud Archives, records of the NYSSV, credit reports from nineteenth-century Dun and Co. collections, patents, love letters, arrest records, trial records, advertisements and trade catalogues--as well as "entrapment" letters, some drafted by Comstock himself. (He or another agent would pose as being in desperate need of birth control, get the goods and make the arrest.) Established companies, Tone discovered, run by "honest, brave men" who supported Comstock and NYSSV, were never targets for such treatment, which was reserved for smaller entrepreneurs--especially immigrants ("sly" Jews) and women ("old she villains").
Even so, many of those arrested were let off or punished lightly, while the entrapping agents and prosecutors ran the risk of being scolded and humiliated by judges and juries who doubted the advisability, and constitutionality, of such far-reaching Congressional interference into personal matters. Over time, what Tone calls a "zone of tolerance" was created to buffer the flourishing contraceptives trade and its practitioners. In fact, Shaw's prediction that Comstockery would become a "standing joke" was soon realized here in the United States, even, it would seem, in Congress itself.
The hugely ambitious Comstock Act, however, was hardly about contraceptives alone. It stated:
No obscene, lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character, or any article or thing designed to be intended for the prevention of conception or the inducing of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the things mentioned may be obtained or made...shall be carried in the mail.
You do the math. A small army of Post Office inspectors (known as special agents) were required to enforce such an effort. But Congress refused to drum up a serious budget for the measure when Comstock went into effect and made light of the ambitious national program by raising the number of inspectors--nationwide--from fifty-nine to only sixty-three. Looking at the postal arrest figures from May 1875 through April 1876, Tone counted a total of 410 apprehensions, of which only twenty-seven were for violations of the Comstock law.
Nonetheless, in later generations we took it for granted that from passage of the Comstock Act until the post-World War I rise of Margaret Sanger, the average American had little or no access to what we now call "family planning" (a term, Tone informs us, suggested in the 1960s by Malcolm X--"because Negroes [are] more willing to plan than to be controlled"). And while it's true that some of the contraceptives available at the time were ineffective, dangerous or both, others, including condoms, cervical caps (apt to be euphemistically advertised as pessaries in the Comstock era), diaphragms, sponges and some spermicides were often pretty good and relatively inexpensive. Tone notes that in this sea of alternatives many determined wives and husbands doubled, tripled or quadrupled on protection. Given this environment, it's not surprising that after 1880 the national fertility rates for both white and black women declined rapidly, reaching an all-time low in 1940--twenty years before Enovid, the first birth-control pill, came to market and only three years after the AMA's 1937 resolution to "endorse" contraception and recommend it for inclusion in the standard medical school curriculum.
Between 1880 and 1940 the average fertility rate of whites dropped from 4.4 children per woman to 2.1. For blacks it dropped from 7.5 children to 3. Given these incontrovertible facts--a flourishing contraceptives industry paired with a steady decline in births--how could we have come to believe otherwise, that our great and great-great grandmothers were, so to speak, up the fertility creek without a paddle?
Some of the historical distortion must be attributed to the work of Margaret Sanger, who originally dreamed of female empowerment through woman-oriented contraceptive technologies. She viewed birth control as a woman's right and responsibility, and wrote in 1922 that "the question of bearing and rearing children is the concern of the mother and potential mother.... No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body." Condoms "compromised this objective by placing women's procreative destiny in men's hands." Until her death in 1966 Sanger promoted the manufacture first of diaphragms and later the pill, never quite answering objections from other feminists--in the 1920s and again in the 1960s--that this transferred power over women's bodies to doctors who were overwhelmingly (in the case of gynecologists, 97 percent) male. Sanger came to believe so strongly in medically controlled contraception that in a 1952 letter she stated that her greatest achievement had been "to keep the movement strictly and sanely under medical auspices."
This was an about-face from her earlier position. In her extraordinary 1915 pamphlet, Family Limitation, a home guide to contraception, Sanger, as Tone explains, "envisioned a world of grassroots birth control where women from all walks of life could use contraceptives without reliance on doctors, a populist approach she would soon abandon." Family Limitation discussed douches, condoms and cervical caps. (The essential difference between a pessary or cap and a diaphragm is that the generally thimble-shaped caps fit over the cervix by suction and are less likely to be displaced. The diaphragm, however, more or less divides the vagina vertically into two compartments, protecting the cervix from the arena where sperm is deposited. Both methods can benefit from outside help with fitting and correct technique, but the cap has a better record of over-the-counter success, and was long distributed by this means in France, England and the United States.) Sanger ultimately recommended caps, which she felt could be most easily and discreetly used and controlled by women. She distributed 100,000 copies of her pamphlet, imploring women to learn how to insert caps into their own bodies and then to "teach each other" how to as well.
When Sanger and her sister Ethel opened their first clinic in 1916 they instructed women, eight at a time, on how to use over-the-counter (OTC) contraceptives, including condoms, suppositories and rubber pessaries. When police, inevitably, raided the clinic, they found boxes of Mizpah pessaries. An effective OTC contraceptive, this flexible rubber cap was sold by druggists and mail-order vendors for the alleged purpose of treating such medical conditions as a displaced (or prolapsed) uterus. But as Tone writes: "Family Limitation got Sanger into more trouble. In 1915, she found herself back in Europe dodging American law while continuing her contraceptive education.... The trip across the Atlantic was risky. War had broken out." Back home, her husband, William Sanger, had his own problems. And as fate would have it, so did Anthony Comstock. William Sanger had been arrested by Comstock for distributing Family Limitation. And Comstock, who caught a cold in the courtroom during the trial, died soon after of pneumonia.
After her divorce from William, Margaret admitted she was looking for "a widower with money." James Noah Henry Slee, twenty years her senior, was "a well-heeled member of Manhattan's business elite...part of the same establishment Sanger had vilified in her younger, more radical years." They married in 1922 and with his backing, Tone explains,
Sanger embarked on a new chapter of her career, one that distanced the birth control movement from its radical origins and placed it on a more conservative path.... She recognized...that medical science enjoyed increasing prestige and political clout...she sought birth control allies through an ideology that trumpeted women's health over their civil liberties and cast doctors, not patients, as agents of contraceptive choice.
Sanger switched her preference to the diaphragm, particularly the Holland-Rantos brand, which sold exclusively to doctors. (This company, established in 1925, was funded by none other than Mr. Margaret Sanger, James Noah Henry Slee.) Sanger next prevailed on her besotted bridegroom to hire a distinguished, high-salaried doctor to promote their new company:
1925 is to be the big year for the break in birth control...the medical profession will take up the work...I shall feel that I have made my contribution to the cause and...I can withdraw from full-time activity.... If I am able to accomplish this victory...I shall bless my adorable husband, JNH Slee, and retire with him to the garden of love.
Sanger did not retire. In the following years she worked ceaselessly toward her goal of getting the AMA to endorse birth control. Her "signature" story, often bringing audiences to tears, concerned Sadie Sachs, a young immigrant mother of three, married to Jake, a truck driver. When Sadie begged a doctor to give her birth control he cruelly retorted, "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Sadie later died of septicemia following a self-induced abortion. Sanger was now in the business of helping the public forget that some of the widely available OTC methods worked very well for many people. As Tone points out, if Sadie could afford a physician visit, she could surely afford the far lower price of a contraceptive.
In addition to the move toward medicalization, our collective memory may have been dealt a brainwashing by panic-driven "eugenicists." As Sanger moved up socially she supported birth control for some elitist reasons, such as "the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives." But this was mild compared with the phobic reasoning of some of our greatest national leaders, who also feared the newcomers from Europe. Falling birthrates among our native born and the widespread immigration of foreigners from southern and eastern Europe (over 23 million people arrived on America's shores between 1880 and 1920) led Teddy Roosevelt to warn in 1912 that if middle-class American women used fertility control it "means racial death." In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, our great champion of civil liberties, stunned many of his admirers when, in Buck v. Bell, he agreed to uphold a Virginia eugenics statute legalizing the coerced sterilization of "socially inadequate persons." Carrie Buck, the plaintiff, was young, single and white, the "daughter of an imbecile," the mother of an "illegitimate feeble minded child." Holmes agreed to the cutting of Buck's fallopian tubes, proclaiming, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Tone adds that during the Nuremberg trials following World War II, accused Nazi war criminals cited Buck v. Bell to justify the forced sterilization of some 2 million Germans.
Here in the United States, the eugenics and population control movements promoted--and continue to promote--the need to develop contraceptives that take prescription (and often removal) out of the woman's hands. For example, in interviews with 686 low-income users of Norplant--a hormonal contraceptive, intended to last for five years, that consists of six matchstick-sized capsules implanted in a woman's arm--researchers at Columbia University's Center for Population and Family Health learned that 40 percent anticipated or experienced "cost barriers" that could impede the removal of Norplant. They urge that family-planning clinics "follow a policy of Norplant removal on demand, regardless of the patient's ability to pay." Some feminists charge that the effectiveness of OTC methods (carefully used) is still downplayed in quasi-official figures, a dangerous public health mistake in this age of galloping STDs.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of doctor-controlled methods has been exaggerated, as the FDA has acknowledged. Previously, it gave out "ideal" figures for oral-contraceptive effectiveness, in contrast to discouraging clinic "use" figures for barrier methods. In the new round of product labeling this has been partially corrected; actual-use figures for the Pill are placed in a truthful range of 92-95 percent, not at the falsely optimistic 99 percent-plus.
Devices and Desires is replete with riveting histories of women and men who labored--legally and illegally--in the ever-challenging arena of conception control, from the Comstock era through today, and includes portraits of the men who developed Enovid, the first pill, as well as those behind the notorious IUD, the Dalkon shield. Those who read this fascinating book will have a far keener and more credible sense of what has happened and where we are now. Most women are still unsatisfied with their contraceptive choices, and as Tone concludes,
It is ironic that in a post-Roe v. Wade world that celebrates reproductive choice, the most frequently used contraceptive in the country--by a wide-margin--is female sterilization. In a very real sense Americans are still waiting for the heralded "second contraceptive revolution" to arrive.... In the absence of universal health care or prescription drug coverage, one way out of the contraceptive conundrum may be the development of more affordable over-the-counter methods, which would increase men's and women's options without tethering contraceptives to the medical marketplace from which millions are excluded.... Today to meet the needs of women and men who lack sufficient resources, we must supplement reliable medical methods with inexpensive over-the-counter options.
In the 1960s, the introduction of the Pill, revival of the ever-treacherous IUD and "stealth sterilization" of welfare moms--whose tubes were tied, without permission, after giving birth--placed contraception still more firmly in doctors' hands. In the parlance of that decade the "greasy kid stuff," including condoms, was left in the dust. Because of overpopulation fears, the new technologies enjoyed a diplomatic immunity--at women's expense. At an annual meeting of medical school deans, Nobel laureate Dr. Frederick Robbins declared, "The dangers of overpopulation are so great that we may have to use certain techniques of conception control that may entail considerable risk to the individual woman." Original Pills contained 150 micrograms of estrogen; today we know that 20 suffices. Millions of women served as guinea pigs for high-dose pills and IUDs, and thousands died. In 1970, at Senate hearings, Dr. Louis Hellman, chairman of the FDA advisory committee that twice declared the Pill safe, admitted that in his equation of benefit versus risk he "put population first, before benefits to the individual woman's health."
As women demanded to "take our bodies back" from deceitful doctors, the spirit of Comstock rose up again. In 1973 Our Bodies, Ourselves, Ellen Frankfort's Vaginal Politics and my book Free and Female were banned in Cleveland and Washington, DC. In 1979 shipments of cervical caps that independent women's self-help clinics imported from England were seized by FDA agents. Senator Ted Kennedy helped to get the caps released, but the FDA restricted their use to "investigational device" (ludicrous--the same caps had been in continuous use in England for a century), thus subverting the grassroots revival of the cap. Who can say who put the FDA up to this, but perhaps some future Andrea Tone-type women's history sleuth will get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, one of my hopes for Tone's extraordinary book is that it might encourage many people--men as well as women--to reconsider the barrier methods, respect them more and possibly learn to enjoy them, as some say they do. In contrast to the steady decline of teenage pregnancy, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in young adults is increasing at a truly alarming rate. For example, estimates are that 46 percent of female college students are now infected with human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause both genital warts and cervical cancer. Are student health services reliably advising their clients of this? My informants say no.
Thirty-eight years after the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, two of the four principals are dead, but the issues are still full of life. Thomas Blanton Jr. is one of two surviving Klan bombers, and after a jury convicted him in early May of murdering the four black girls that Sunday morning, former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley wrote a blistering Op-Ed for the New York Times accusing the FBI of concealing evidence and aiding the Klan for decades after the event. The FBI's denial made page one the next day: "There's no reason we would have done that," a bureau spokesperson declared. The Times also published a letter from the special agent in charge of the FBI's Birmingham office, calling Baxley's Op-Ed "a disservice to all the agents who tirelessly investigated the 1963 bombing."
Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home is a history of that bombing, of the FBI "investigation," of the people responsible for it--high and low--and of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. She grew up there--she was 10 years old at the time of the bombing--and later she worried, because her father, who had fallen from an elite family, had spent many evenings attending what her mother called "civil rights meetings." But Diane knew he had Klan literature around. Eventually she realized that her father could have been attending Klan meetings, and might even have been one of the bombers. Many years later she set out to find out the truth about him--and ended up writing this magnificent book.
Although the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point for demonstrators in the 1963 campaign, it was not a Movement church. McWhorter calls it "the snootiest black congregation in the city," and its founding minister worked with the local industrialists to persuade blacks not to join the union. At services they didn't sing gospel songs but rather "the sedate hymns of white Christianity." And 16th Street Baptist was the only church in the city that charged the Movement for using its facilities.
The bomb was a huge one--perhaps a dozen sticks of dynamite. When the blast was heard across town, Klansman Ross Keith, almost certainly one of the bombers, told a friend, "I guess it's somebody discriminating against them niggers again." The four girls who were killed were in the women's lounge, freshening up for their roles as ushers in the main service. Denise McNair was 11; the three others were 14: Carole Robertson, Addie May Collins and Cynthia Wesley--Wesley was wearing high heels for the first time, "shiny black ones bought the day before."
There is a survivor who was in the women's lounge with the other four: 12-year-old Sarah Collins, sister of Addie May. When they found Sarah in the rubble, her face was spurting blood. She was loaded into an ambulance--a "colored" one. On the way to the hospital she sang "Jesus Loves Me" and occasionally said, "What happened? I can't see." Today she is 50 and still blind in one eye.
Immediately after the four girls were identified, the authorities began "furious background checks on them, the search for some flaw deserving punishment." But their records were clean: None, that is, had participated in the recent civil rights demonstrations. Thus, even the city fathers and the local press had to agree they were "innocent."
The big question was never who the bombers were--they were identified by the FBI and the police almost immediately. The big question, McWhorter shows, is what permitted them to get away with it--"the state's malevolence or the FBI's negligence." Dozens of bombings had been carried out by the Klan in the preceding few years, virtually none of which were prosecuted. The FBI's informant in the local Klan, Gary Thomas Rowe, participated in some of them. McWhorter's index has ninety entries for "bombings," starting in the late 1940s. Most Klan bombings in the fifties targeted upwardly mobile blacks moving into middle-class white neighborhoods.
After the 16th Street church bombing, local authorities kept suggesting that blacks were the bombers. The police took the church custodian in for questioning. The FBI's pursuit of witnesses was unhurried, which gave the Klansmen more time to coordinate alibis. FBI informant Rowe told a Birmingham policeman that the man who put up the money to have the church bombed was Harry Belafonte.
The man convicted just weeks ago, Thomas Blanton Jr., was part of an extremist subgroup of the Klan. Initially he focused his violent hatred on Catholics, like the Klan of the 1920s. He had a neighbor, a widow, who was Catholic; she received regular "anonymous calls" from a voice she recognized as his--she had known him for eighteen years--telling her "Niggers and Catholics have to die." Once he threw red paint on her new white Ford and slashed her tires. Earlier in 1963 Blanton had been talking about organizing a church bombing, but he wanted to bomb a Catholic church, not a Negro one. "His associates pronounced him not intelligent enough to make a bomb but dumb enough to place it."
The other man recently charged with the bombing has been judged mentally incapable of standing trial. But in 1962-63, Bobby Frank Cherry was 32 years old, had "no upper front teeth, a 'Bobby' tattoo on his arm, seven kids, and a wife he beat and cheated on." He had been a police suspect in the 1958 attempted bombing of Birmingham's Temple Beth El, and McWhorter has evidence strongly suggesting that he also participated in bombing churches in January 1962, almost two years before the four girls were killed. If the FBI had investigated him after the 1962 explosions, that might have prevented the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings, but as McWhorter points out, "instead the FBI was investigating Martin Luther King," proposing to, as the bureau put it, "expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the leader of the civil rights movement. (In the middle of the Birmingham battle, Bobby Kennedy agreed to let J. Edgar Hoover wiretap King.)
The killing of the four black girls finally spurred the Kennedy Administration to propose, Congress to pass and new President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination in public facilities--the first significant civil rights legislation in a century. The bombing followed the biggest and most successful mass civil rights demonstrations in US history--police met the thousands of marchers with fire hoses and dogs. Today the history of the civil rights movement seems like one of steady progress: first the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which propelled King to national prominence and established nonviolent direct action as the new tactic, supplanting the legal gradualism of the NAACP; then, in 1960-61, the sit-in movement, in which small groups of courageous students across the South took the lead in a direct personal challenge to segregation; then the Freedom Rides, where a few brave people provoked racist violence that compelled the Kennedy Administration to enter the civil rights arena; and finally Birmingham, where mass protests filled the jails and finally won national legislation outlawing segregation in public accommodations.
What's been forgotten is the grim situation that faced King and the Movement at the outset of the Birmingham campaign in 1962. It had been seven long years since the Montgomery bus boycott--seven years with intermittent acts of immense heroism but without concrete victories. The Southern states were defiant, and the Kennedys, as Victor Navasky argued in Kennedy Justice, considered activists like Martin Luther King to be a problem that endangered their real initiatives, like a tax cut and fighting communism. By 1963 King and the Movement desperately needed a nationally significant victory, somewhere.
King himself had not, up to 1963, initiated any civil rights protest himself--starting with Montgomery in 1955, he was brought in as a spokesman after the action had already begun. Birmingham was no different. Here the real hero and moving force was Fred Shuttlesworth, in many ways the opposite of King--a man of the people, not of the elite; a man who courted danger and pushed the envelope, who stayed till the end, unlike King, who was criticized for leaving town early and leaving "a community stranded with false hope and huge legal fees." Much of the story of Birmingham is the story of Shuttlesworth's brilliant strategic initiatives and awesome physical courage--and King's more cautious efforts to negotiate a settlement by enlisting the White House, in exchange for calling off the demonstrations. It was Shuttlesworth who set out to launch mass demonstrations, fill the jails and compel the city leaders to desegregate downtown businesses and public facilities. McWhorter's book also shows just how close the Birmingham campaign came to failure. A month into the campaign, few people had signed up to go to jail--barely 300 in total, even though King himself had gone to jail. "There are more Negroes going to jail for getting drunk," one Movement leader commented.
What turned this around was an idea of James Bevel's--he had been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader, who later became field secretary for King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His idea for Birmingham: Fill the jails with children. The adults were full of doubt and fear, but the kids were eager. Hundreds boycotted school on May 2, 1963, instead gathering at the 16th Street Baptist Church, then marching into the streets--more than a thousand of them. The children confronted the cops, singing in high voices "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" and "Which Side Are You On?" and then were ushered into buses to go to jail. For the first time, King and his lieutenants had achieved Gandhi's goal--fill the jails.
The next day thousands more showed up to march. That was the day of the fire hoses. The city's fire chief initially resisted officials' attempts to enlist the fire department in attacking demonstrators, on the grounds that the national union of firefighters officially opposed using fire equipment to "control" crowds. But when the orders came, they turned on high-pressure hoses powerful enough to knock a big man off his feet, blast the shirts off people's backs and flush individuals down the gutters.
The success of the civil rights movement on the national political landscape required not just heroic action by large numbers of ordinary black people; it also required that the viciousness of the opponents of civil rights be presented vividly and dramatically to ordinary American newspaper readers and TV watchers. In this, the Birmingham movement turned out to be supremely fortunate to have the grotesque Eugene "Bull" Connor as police commissioner. Photos of young demonstrators linking arms and standing up to the high-pressure hoses made page one around the world. Life magazine ran a two-page spread of the most dramatic photo of firemen blasting demonstrators, headlined "They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out." The photos of police dogs attacking demonstrators had the same effect. The New York Times ran a photo of a dog biting a demonstrator on page one, three columns wide and above the fold, headlined "Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham."
Key reporters had already found the civil rights drama a compelling story. In 1960, the New York Times published a blazing Harrison Salisbury story on page one before the Birmingham campaign got going: "Every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, reinforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state's apparatus." State authorities responded by charging Salisbury with forty-two counts of criminal libel. The Times's response was to order its reporters to stay out of Alabama--not exactly a fighting stance--which meant that other news organizations would henceforth get the story while the Times relied on wire copy for the climactic battles. The Times didn't return until a year later, when Claude Sitton persuaded executives to let him cover the aftermath of the Freedom Rides.
While the Times proved gun-shy on Alabama, CBS-TV didn't; network president Frank Stanton sent reporter Howard K. Smith to Birmingham to make a documentary. (Even though Stanton was not exactly a civil rights advocate; he also "blacked out all Negro speakers at the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions.")Smith's crew set out to interview leading whites; the head of the elite Women's Committee told him on camera that "one of the contributing factors to our creativeness in the South is sort of a joyousness of the Negro." But she was worried because it had been four or five years since she had "heard Negroes just spontaneously break into song." Smith also turned out to be the only national reporter on the scene when the Freedom Riders arrived and were savagely beaten by a white mob while the police stood by.
Who Speaks for Birmingham? aired on CBS in 1961 and featured Smith's account of the mob attack on the Freedom Riders. Network executives complained that the program "presented Birmingham's Negroes in a better light than its whites," but executive producer Fred Friendly fought to keep the whole thing, and in the end gave up only Smith's closing line, a quote from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." But when the same Howard K. Smith criticized Kennedy in his regular Sunday radio commentary, asking whether "we really deserve to win the cold war" in view of the racist violence in Birmingham, CBS News suspended him from his job as Washington bureau chief.
The media coverage was crucial, but one of the secrets of the demonstrations was that neither the police nor the media distinguished between marchers and spectators. Only a couple of hundred people joined the early official demonstrations, but a thousand or more turned out to watch and see what happened. The police attacked everybody, and the press reported thousands of demonstrators.
Carry Me Home includes the most detailed account ever of the Birmingham Movement's strategy and tactics, day by day and hour by hour, but what makes it unique is its account of the local opposition to civil rights, and particularly the links between the "Big Mules," who ran Birmingham's industrial economy, and the Klan bombers. The book's most important contribution is its decisive evidence that the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church "was the endgame in the city fathers' long and profitable tradition of maintaining their industrial supremacy through vigilantism."
Birmingham had never been what you would call a happy place--the New South's one center of heavy industry, it was a city where the ruling elite fought working-class militancy with the most blatant racism. Power in Birmingham centered on US Steel, which ran the town along fascist lines--one Communist organizer in the 1930s was sentenced to a shackled road crew for possessing "seditious" literature, which included The Nation magazine. The dirty work of the Big Mules was carried out by the Alabama Klan, which was reorganized in the 1930s as an antiunion shock force.
Charles DeBardeleben headed the Big Mules--he ran the biggest coal company in the state, and his father had pretty much founded Birmingham as a coal and iron center. By the mid-1930s DeBardeleben was also a secret corporate benefactor of the Constitutional Educational League, part of a global network of pro-Nazi propagandists. The league's 1938 banquet featured George Van Horn Moseley, who "advocated sterilizing all Jewish immigrants to the US." McWhorter names the names of the other key Big Mules and shows their connections to the bombers of the 1950s and 1960s.
History also loomed large for the Jewish businessmen who owned the downtown department stores that were the target of the demonstrators' demands for integration and jobs. Birmingham's Jews had been traumatized a generation earlier during the Scottsboro trial, when the nine "Boys" were defended during their rape trial by a Jewish attorney from New York named Samuel Liebowitz. The state's closing statement challenged the jury to "show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York." The jury obliged.
That was 1933. Thirty years later, Birmingham's Jews were still feeling defensive. One liked to tell his gentile friends, "It wasn't the Birmingham Jews who killed Jesus. It was the Miami Jews." Now they declared that they were as opposed to "outside agitators" as Bull Connor--indeed, one Birmingham Jewish organization issued a public statement demanding not only that Martin Luther King stay away but that the Anti-Defamation League stay out of Birmingham.
Birmingham is also famous as the place where Martin Luther King composed his best-known written work, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." It wasn't King's idea. Harvey Shapiro, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, suggested that King write a "letter from prison" for the magazine. The missive that King wrote turned out to be a classic, "the most eloquent treatment of the nexus between law and injustice since Thoreau's essay 'Civil Disobedience.'" But when King submitted his piece, the Times editors rejected it. It wasn't printed for another two months, and then in The Atlantic Monthly.
The Martin Luther King who appears in McWhorter's account is not very heroic. His claim that "unearned suffering is redemptive," made at the March on Washington earlier that year, seemed irresponsible to more and more blacks, ranging from SNCC militants to ordinary Birmingham blacks. In King's first statement after the bombing, he asked, "Who murdered those four girls?" and answered, "The apathy and complacency of many Negroes who will sit down on their stools and do nothing and not engage in creative protest to get rid of this evil." Carole Robertson's mother had not participated in the demonstrations; she was so outraged at King blaming her for her daughter's murder that she refused to join the three other families in a mass funeral for the girls.
At the other end of the spectrum in black Birmingham were the men who saw the events as providing "a chance to kill us a cracker." The Movement's insistence that marchers take a pledge of nonviolence was based on leaders' knowledge of the deep rage that black men in particular bore for whites. "At mass meetings, King began passing around a box for people to deposit razors, knives, ice picks, and pistols, and salted his inspirational calls to dignity with reminders that being black did not in itself constitute a virtue." People needed courage and hope before they could take the pledge of nonviolence.
McWhorter's panoramic cast includes blacks on the wrong side of the Movement. "Rat Killer" ran the 17th Street Shine Parlor, a popular after-hours spot where visiting stars like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and the Temptations hung out, and where Movement preachers got their shoes shined. But Rat Killer was "Bull Connor's right-hand man" in the black community--he traded information for informal permission to sell bootleg liquor and do some pimping.
McWhorter weaves her personal story throughout the book, and these sections provide uniquely rich and revealing evidence of the blindness of middle-class whites in this era. The book opens at Birmingham's elite white country club on a Sunday, when McWhorter was having brunch as usual with her family. It turns out to have been the morning the church was bombed. McWhorter was a year younger than the youngest of the four girls killed. Although the bombing marked a turning point in the nation's history, her family took little note of it. She doesn't remember it at all, and her mother's diary entry for that day says only that Diane's rehearsal for the community theater production of The Music Man was canceled--not in mourning over the deaths but because whites feared that black people would riot.
The police dogs that horrified the world were well-known to McWhorter. Before the historic day they attacked the demonstrators, the police brought one of the dogs to an assembly at her school to demonstrate its crime-fighting abilities. McWhorter was so excited by the event that she changed her career goal to police-dog handler (she had planned to become an Olympic equestrian).
At the end of the book, McWhorter finally confronts her father on tape. He says he's told friends his daughter is writing a book about "the nigger movement," but says he wasn't in the Klan and was never involved in murdering anyone. She concludes he was a camp follower but not much of an activist.
The rest of the key figures in the story are mostly dead now: Bull Connor died in 1973; Robert Chambliss, until Blanton the only man convicted in the bombing (in a 1977 trial brought by then-Alabama Attorney General Baxley), died in 1985 while serving his prison term. (Baxley ran for governor in 1978 and lost.) The FBI's Klan informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, admitted that he and three Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march; the killers were acquitted of murder (but not of violating her civil rights), and Rowe went into the witness protection program after the trial and died in 1998. The other Klan bombers died too, until the only ones left seemed to be Bobby Frank Cherry and Tommy Blanton.
Chambliss's 1977 trial exploded back to life early this May with Baxley's New York Times Op-Ed. He wrote that he had "requested, demanded and begged the FBI for evidence" from 1971 through 1977; that his office was "repeatedly stonewalled"; that the bureau practiced "deception," the result of which was that Blanton went "free for 24 years" while the FBI had "smoking gun evidence hidden in its files." He concluded by describing "the disgust" he felt over the FBI's conduct. No state attorney general has ever spoken so forcefully in criticizing the bureau.
Now Blanton has been convicted, but virtually all the other Southern white men who killed blacks during the heyday of the civil rights movement have gone unpunished. In the end the Klan bombers may not be the biggest villains in this story. It's the city and state officials, including the police and the FBI, who tolerated and sometimes encouraged racist violence, and the Kennedy brothers, who didn't want to do anything about it until they were forced to. Diane McWhorter started writing about "growing up on the wrong side of the civil rights revolution"; she ended up with the most important book on the movement since Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters. It should become a classic.
May 23, 2001
Best known as a place where the Air Force shoots satellites into orbit, the
Eastern Space and Missile Center--just south of the Kennedy Space Center in
Florida's Brevard County--would appear to fo
Enslave your girls and women, harbor anti-US terrorists, destroy
every vestige of civilization in your homeland, and the Bush
Administration will embrace you. All that matters is that you line up as
an ally in the drug war, the only international cause that this nation
still takes seriously.
That's the message sent with the recent gift of $43 million to the
Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, the most virulent anti-American violators
of human rights in the world today. The gift, announced last Thursday by
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in addition to other recent aid, makes
the United States the main sponsor of the Taliban and rewards that "rogue regime"
for declaring that opium growing is against the will of God. So, too, by
the Taliban's estimation, are most human activities, but it's the ban on
drugs that catches this administration's attention.
Never mind that Osama bin Laden still operates the leading
anti-American terror operation from his base in Afghanistan, from which,
among other crimes, he launched two bloody attacks on American embassies
in Africa in 1998.
Sadly, the Bush Administration is cozying up to the Taliban regime at
a time when the United Nations, at US insistence, imposes sanctions on
Afghanistan because the Kabul government will not turn over Bin Laden.
The war on drugs has become our own fanatics' obsession and easily
trumps all other concerns. How else could we come to reward the Taliban,
who has subjected the female half of the Afghan population to a continual
reign of terror in a country once considered enlightened in its treatment
At no point in modern history have women and girls been more
systematically abused than in Afghanistan where, in the name of madness
masquerading as Islam, the government in Kabul obliterates their
fundamental human rights. Women may not appear in public without being
covered from head to toe with the oppressive shroud called the
burkha , and they may not leave the house without being accompanied by
a male family member. They've not been permitted to attend school or be
treated by male doctors, yet women have been banned from practicing
medicine or any profession for that matter.
The lot of males is better if they blindly accept the laws of an
extreme religious theocracy that prescribes strict rules governing all
behavior, from a ban on shaving to what crops may be grown. It is this
last power that has captured the enthusiasm of the Bush White House.
The Taliban fanatics, economically and diplomatically isolated, are at
the breaking point, and so, in return for a pittance of legitimacy and
cash from the Bush Administration, they have been willing to appear to
reverse themselves on the growing of opium. That a totalitarian country
can effectively crack down on its farmers is not surprising. But it is
grotesque for a US official, James P. Callahan, director of the State
Department's Asian anti-drug program, to describe the Taliban's special
methods in the language of representative democracy: "The Taliban used a
system of consensus-building," Callahan said after a visit with the
Taliban, adding that the Taliban justified the ban on drugs "in very
Of course, Callahan also reported, those who didn't obey the
theocratic edict would be sent to prison.
In a country where those who break minor rules are simply beaten on
the spot by religious police and others are stoned to death, it's
understandable that the government's "religious" argument might be
compelling. Even if it means, as Callahan concedes, that most of the
farmers who grew the poppies will now confront starvation. That's because
the Afghan economy has been ruined by the religious extremism of the
Taliban, making the attraction of opium as a previously tolerated quick
cash crop overwhelming.
For that reason, the opium ban will not last unless the United States is
willing to pour far larger amounts of money into underwriting the Afghan
As the Drug Enforcement Administration's Steven Casteel admitted, "The
bad side of the ban is that it's bringing their country--or certain
regions of their country--to economic ruin." Nor did he hold out much
hope for Afghan farmers growing other crops such as wheat, which require
a vast infrastructure to supply water and fertilizer that no longer
exists in that devastated country. There's little doubt that the Taliban
will turn once again to the easily taxed cash crop of opium in order to
stay in power.
The Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own war drug war
zealots, but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure. Our
long sad history of signing up dictators in the war on drugs demonstrates
the futility of building a foreign policy on a domestic obsession.
This magazine has been inundated of late with missives from irate Naderites demanding that the editors immediately exile me to The New Republic, the DLC or worse. My last column on Nader, which merely pointed out that he and his campaign should be held morally responsible for the awful acts of the Bush Administration--since without Nader's candidacy there would be no Bush Administration--inspired 122 such responses, a high percentage of which were personally abusive. Yet when the man himself appeared in these pages to denounce the President whose election he abetted, only twenty-seven readers were so moved. These numbers point to a perennial problem for liberals: Such zeal and enthusiasm that exists for politics at all anymore appears to rest exclusively with the extremes of left and right. Too bad that instead of learning from the far right's march to power through a grassroots takeover of the Republican Party, the Naderite left seems intent on destroying the fragile gains of seven decades of social progress.
True, it's not easy to support a party with standard-bearers like Clinton and Gore, temperamentally conservative career politicians whose lifetimes of compromise have made them untrustworthy except as weathervanes telling the direction of the political winds. Many (though not all) Democrats are no different. Yet virtually every day the Bush Administration reminds the non-Naderites among us that the only alternative is far worse. And so long as leftists are too weak to create a movement to rival the Republican right, the fight against Bush, DeLay & Co. will require whatever imperfect weapons we have at our disposal. The problem is how to excite people about such unexciting prospects.
Fortunately, the landscape is not entirely barren. Beyond the useful-but-wonkish American Prospect and the well-written but frequently neocon New Republic, the niche economics of Net publishing has spawned a number of sites that manage to combine sensible politics with humor and enthusiasm. Most are tiny operations run on love and charity, largely dependent on their communities of readers for information and support. As such, they have remained pretty much invisible to the mainstream media. Here are a few of my favorites.
§ Despite its criticism of this magazine and some of its columnists--an argument I think I'll stay out of--www.mediawhoresonline.com has a wonderful joie de vivre and some great punchlines. They view the mainstream media as being the captive of the right wing, whether for reasons of ideology or, as the site would put it, "whorishness." Most of the site's material and commentary is designed to insure that the media's "credibility in the public mind be brought in line with its genuine lack of credibility." To do this, they're willing to "mimic the tactics of the wingnuts," referring to all with whom they disagree as "whores" or occasionally "fascists" and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they deem to be that of a "non-whore." Hypocritical, you say? "We don't believe it is hypocrisy at all to follow their standard, but fairness," responds Jennifer Kelly, the site's guiding spirit. "And what's more, it's really easy and doesn't require anything in the way of conscience or diligence." I don't follow this philosophy myself, but take my word for it: These people are as funny as they are fearless. Unfortunately, they are a bit unfair to actual whores...
§ www.bartcop.com began as a critique of Rush run by a fellow who wishes to remain anonymous but describes himself as "your average Okie liberal with too much time on my hands." It's developed into a very smart, funny critique of the right and is financed to the tune of $600 a month by Marc Perkel of San Francisco, who simply liked it and offered to pay the freight.
§ www.buzzflash.com, run by Mark Karlin, provides a liberal antidote to Matt Drudge, offering a bit less in the obnoxious self-promotion department and a bit more in the way of accuracy. Turn to it for up-to-the-second reports on, and links to, the Bush Administration's outrage du jour, frequently with smile-inducing headlines ("Yes We Have to Post It Twice: Doobie Brothers Guitarist Is Helping Design Bush's Missile Defense Shield").
§ Despite its unpromising name, www.democrats.com has no relationship to the somnolent party it seeks to revive. Its sponsors tell me, "We think the progressive Democratic message is the winning message, but the party needs to live up to its message by fighting for its principles." Bob Fertik, Dave Lytel and some 200 local chapters do this by highlighting news of interest to progressives, connecting a community of progressive Democrats, publicizing demonstrations to "Irk the Smirk," as Mediawhoresonline puts it, to protest the "stolen election of 2000." They try to fill "an enormous void left by the Democratic Party, which keeps Democratic activists at arm's length."
§ www.americanpolitics.com is a terrific place for links, satires and cartoons. It's also a great place to find incriminating quotes by the bad guys. Oh, and check out the shapely "email@example.com" before someone makes them take her down. Similarly comprehensive, www.onlinejournal.com contains original reporting from a sensibly leftish perspective.
§ www.bear-left.com offers first-rate in-depth analysis of whatever topic strikes the fancy of its authors, Paul Corrigan and Tim Francis-Wright, including an insanely detailed recent analysis of Skull and Bones's tax filings. See also its fantastic links page at www.bear-left.com/links.html.
§ www.mediatransparency.org does not really belong on this list, since it's more of an intellectual and political resource for journalists and scholars doing research on the connections between right-wing foundations and public policy. But it does deserve recognition for its public service and the widest possible audience for the tireless research on this neglected topic undertaken by its founder, Rob Levine.
§ And if you need cheering up, try www.bushorchimp.com, but remember it's a joke. The left got rolled for years by Ronald Reagan's dumb act, and I fear "W" is no dummy either--appearances, quite obviously, to the contrary.
Susan Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Haaretz the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians."
In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements, and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall.
Sontag told the Jerusalem Post that there'd been a lot of pressure on her not to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and accept the prize. Publicly--at least in this country--I think my columns (e.g., here on April 23) constituted the only such pressure. Maybe they helped firm up Sontag to make the remarks noted above. Anyway, I'm glad she did. Out of interest, I asked my colleague Jonathan Shainin to check the record to see if she'd said anything critical about Israeli government policies in the past. He didn't find much, but one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert.
Back on February 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center. It began as follows:
"We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem, for what the Israeli Government first called 'subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence.'"
The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him. "We are concerned that the Israeli Government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war."
This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag's public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Haaretz ran a commentary titled, "What Freedom, What Society?":
Yesterday evening Jerusalem's Mayor conferred the "Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society" to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to "shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh" was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.
In a different world, Sari Nusseibeh would be a leading candidate for such a prize, rather than the Jewish-American writer who was involved naively in a celebration of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. A Palestinian prince and cordial, dignified philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh has built a splendid academic research framework. Not the type to surrender to threats, or to physical blows or the temptations of power, he had created bridges of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and furnishes original ideas and plans to resolve the dispute. This is the man depicted by Israel's establishment as "a security threat," rather than a culture hero.... In a different world, people of culture and supporters of freedom would have suspended such an awards celebration, waiting for circumstances to arise under which universal meaning to the concept "freedom and society" might crystallize.... One should marvel at the prize givers' ability to compartmentalize and the ability to reconcile the contradiction between "freedom of man and society," and a "plan" designed not only to ruin human freedom, but also a society located just a few hundred meters from where the prizes were conferred.... One of the last, still operating, joint Al-Quds University-Hebrew University projects is a botanical catalogue, an attempt to identify and describe the flora of the shared homeland. When will these botanists be recognized as the ones whose works should be lauded, rather than those of righteous hypocrites?
So Sontag accepts a prize from a group that's trying to boot Nusseibeh out of East Jerusalem--the very same man whose detention she petitioned to end ten years ago, during the first intifada! She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further. For example, she praised the man giving her the prize, Mayor Olmert, as "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person." This is like describing Radovan Karadzic as a moderate in search of multiconfessional tolerance. Olmert is a fanatical ethnic cleanser, one of the roughest of the Likud ultras. During his period in office, he has consistently pushed for the expropriation of Arab property and the revocation of Arab residence permits. Olmert was a principal advocate of the disastrous 1996 tunnel excavation underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. During the ensuing demonstrations, Israeli security forces shot dead about fifty Palestinian civilians. The mayor was also instrumental in the seizure of Palestinian land at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, another link in the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem. This too led to prolonged rioting.
Such people have no right to award a prize on "freedom."