On Tuesday, November 14, exactly one week after Election Day (and with no President yet in sight), a notable though little-noted disclosure was made to the public. I do not mean the news that the federal judge in Florida had turned down the Republicans' stop-the-hand-count motion, or the news that Bush's lead in Florida was now 388 votes, or the news that a Florida state judge had waffled on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's decree that no county votes would be counted if reported after the 5 pm deadline that afternoon, or, for that matter, anything else that was happening in the murk of the Sunshine State. I mean the news that, according to a poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News, 45 percent of the public wanted George Bush to become President whereas only 44 percent wanted Al Gore to become President (6 percent wanted "neither," 4 percent had no opinion and 1 percent wanted "other"). The claim was all the more striking in view of the hard contemporaneous fact that in the most recent count of the actual vote of November 7, Gore led Bush by a nationwide margin of 222,880 votes.
If anyone ever had doubts that politics in the United States is dominated by polling, this poll should put an end to them. A major poll was, in a manner of speaking, calling the election a full week after the vote--and reversing the known results.
The polls had been mercifully silent since the election. Many had good reason to be. Five of seven major ones had been "wrong" about the outcome of the election. That is, their final counts had failed to reflect the winner on Election Day (though some, it's true, were within the margin of error). The New York Times/CBS "final" poll, which put Bush at 46 percent and Gore at 41 percent, had the margin wrong by more than five points and Gore's final tally off by eight points. The Battleground poll, which gave Bush 50 percent to Gore's 45 percent, likewise got the margin wrong by five points. Others were more modestly in error. CNN gave Bush 48 percent and Gore 46 percent; in the Washington Post it was Bush 48 and Gore 45; and in the Pew Research Center poll (with undecided voters counted), it was Bush 49, Gore 47. Only the Zogby poll, which put Gore ahead in the popular vote by 48 to 46 percent, and a CBS election-morning tracking poll, which gave Gore 45 percent and Bush 44 percent, picked the right winner in the popular vote, and with a margin close to the actual result. All in all, Gore's victory in the popular vote came as a surprise. Of course, it's not literally true that the polls were wrong, since there is a margin of error, and people can change their minds between the day of the poll and the election. On the other hand, election results are the only check on the accuracy of polling that there is--they are to polling what experimentation is to scientific hypothesis--and there is no reason to suppose that a poll whose final measure is 8 percentage points off the election result is not 8 percentage points off year in, year out.
Considering the decisive importance that polling had throughout the race in every aspect of the campaign, including media coverage, fundraising and campaign strategy (in the last few weeks of the election, hearts were lifting and falling on single-point fluctuations in poll numbers), these discrepancies deserved much reflection. The reason they did not get it was that on election night the magicians of public opinion went on to make even more egregious and momentous errors, by prematurely predicting the winner in Florida twice and the winner of the national election once. (The election-night calls made by the television networks, which in turn are based on exit polling done by a single, nearly anonymous firm, the Voter News Service, are not quite the same as opinion polling, since they record a deed--voting--rather than an opinion, but their use of sampling techniques to predict outcomes places them in the same general category as other polls.)
The last of these mistakes, of course, led a credulous Gore to concede the election and then, minutes later, to retract the concession. For a few hours, the networks and the candidates appeared to have assumed the power to decide the election between them. There is every reason to believe, for instance, that George Bush would now be President-elect if, moments before his concession speech, Gore had not got the news that Florida had been declared undecided again. If Gore's concession had gone unretracted, Bush had made his acceptance speech and the country had gone to bed believing it had made its decision, it is scarcely imaginable that the close results in Florida would have been contested. Even now, many observers await a concession by one or another of the candidates as the decisive event. But it is not up to either the networks or the candidates to decide who is to be President; that matter is left under the Constitution to the voters, whose will, no matter how narrowly expressed, must be ascertained.
Then a week later, the polls that had played such an important and misleading role in the election were weighing in again, this time on the Florida battle. The poll that brought the startling, seemingly counterfactual news that Bush led Gore in the public's preference also revealed that six out of ten voters were opposed to legal challenges to the Florida results--possibly bad news for Gore, who had been considering a legal challenge to the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County. However, observers who did not like that conclusion could find comfort on the same day in a New York Times/CBS poll, which reported that another 6 in 10 were unworried about a delay in finally deciding upon the next President--good news for Gore, who had been relying on time-consuming hand recounts to erase Bush's narrow lead.
If, however, the arts of reading public opinion helped get us into our current mess, perhaps we can take comfort from the hope that they can also help us get out of it. Many observers have suggested that by failing to produce a clear mandate, the ever-changing vote-count of the year 2000--let's call it the Butterfly Election--will cripple the presidency of the winner. They need not worry too much. In our day, it is not only--perhaps not even mainly--elections that create mandates, once every four years. It is polling data that, day in and day out, create our impressions, however incompletely or inaccurately, of what the public wants. Let the new President act in a way that the public approves, as determined by a poll or two, and he will have all the mandate he needs to govern.
A corporate antiviolence program targets students who don't fit in.
Providence put me on a panel debating the Gore/Nader choice with Cornel West at New York University in late October. Most of the audience was for Nader, and the lineup on stage did nothing to improve those odds.
Before the debate began, its organizers took a few moments to speak on behalf of the university's graduate students' struggle for unionization. So did West, who had been handed a flier about it from the floor. And as a man about to lose a debate (and a longtime grad student as well as an occasional NYU adjunct faculty member), I was happy for the interruption. Days later, the National Labor Relations Board set an important precedent by ruling in favor of the students. But here's what I don't understand. How can the student union supporters also be Nader supporters? Nonsensical "Tweedledee/Tweedledum" assertions to the contrary, only one party appoints people to the NLRB who approve of graduate student unions, and only one appoints people to the Supreme Court who approve of such NLRB decisions. No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it's that simple. An honest Nader campaign slogan might have read, "Vote your conscience and lose your union...or your reproductive freedom...your wildlife refuge, etc., etc."
Well, Nader's support collapsed, but not far or fast enough. In the future, it will be difficult to heal the rift that Nader's costly war on even the most progressive Democrats has opened. Speaking to In These Times's David Moberg, Nader promised, "After November, we're going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. If [Democratic candidates] are winning 51 to 49 percent, we're going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They've got to lose people, whether they're good or bad." It's hard to imagine what kind of deal can be done with a man whose angriest rhetorical assaults appear reserved for his natural allies. (The vituperative attacks on Nader, leveled by many of my friends and cronies on the prolabor democratic left, were almost as counterproductive, however morally justified.) But a deal will have to be done. Nader may have polled a pathetic 2 to 3 percent nationally, but he still affected the race enough to tip some important balances in favor of Bush and the Republicans. He not only amassed crucial margins in Florida, New Hampshire and Oregon; he forced progressive Democrats like Tom Hayden, Paul Wellstone, Ted Kennedy and the two Jesse Jacksons to focus on rear-guard action during the final days rather than voter turnout. If this pattern repeats itself in future elections, Naderite progressives will become very big fish in a very tiny pond indeed.
Perhaps a serious Feingold or Wellstone run at the nomination with a stronger platform on globalization issues will convince those die-hard Naderites to join in the difficult business of building a more rational, Christian Coalition-like bloc to counter corporate power within the party. For now, we can expect an ugly period of payback in Washington in which Nader's valuable network of organizations will likely be the first to pay. Democrats will no longer return his calls. Funders will tell him to take a hike. Sadly, his life's work will be a victim of the infantile left-wing disorder Nader developed in his quixotic quest to elect a reactionary Republican to the American presidency.
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Giving Nader a run for his money in the election hall of shame are the mainstream media. Media portraits of both candidates were etched in stone, with nary a fact or figure allowed to intrude upon the well-worn script. Bush was dumb and Gore a liar; pretty much nothing else was allowed in the grand narrative. Like Nader, reporters assumed the enormous policy differences between Gore and Bush--on Social Security, prescription drugs, education, affirmative action, abortion rights, the environment--to be of trivial importance, hardly worth the time and effort to explain or investigate. The media's treatment of this election as a popularity contest rather than a political one between two governing ideologies was an implicit endorsement of the Bush campaign strategy, as the issues favored Gore. But even so, Bush was usually treated like some pet media cause. With regard to such consequential questions as his political program, his political experience, his arrest record, his military service, his business ethics, Bush was given a free pass by media that continued to hound Gore about whether he was really the model for Oliver in Love Story--which, by the way, he was. I guess being a Bigfoot journalist means never having to say you're sorry.
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One election development that had to gladden New Republic owner Marty Peretz's heart was how bad it was for the Arabs. I got a call one day from a Republican Party functionary telling me that Hillary Clinton supported a Palestinian state and took money from groups that supported terrorist organizations "like the one that just blew up the USS Cole." I told the sorry sonofabitch that like Israel's Prime Minister, I, too, support a Palestinian state. And, if there was any justice in the world, Hillary's "terrorist" friends would blow up Republican headquarters while we were still on the phone, so I could enjoy hearing the explosion.
This heavy-handed bit of racist manipulation grew out of a story published, surprisingly, not in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post but in the putatively responsible and nominally liberal New York Daily News, owned by Mortimer Zuckerman. It was inspired by the machinations of one Steven Emerson, a discredited "terrorism expert" last heard trying to pin the Oklahoma City bombing on the Arabs by noting that "inflict[ing] as many casualties as possible...is a Middle Eastern trait." Each actor played a dishonorable role in the tawdry drama: The Daily News invented the story. The Lazio campaign brazenly exploited it. Hillary Clinton's campaign capitulated to it. Together with the media coverage of the main event, this mini-drama will go down in history as further evidence of that unhappy nostrum of American politics that this year seems to have escaped everyone from the Nader die-hards to Palestinian militants: Things can always get worse.
As the media obsessed over the seesaw presidential poll, voters across the country quietly made their choices on more than 200 disparate ballot measures and initiatives. For progressives the results are--as usual--mixed.
First the bad news: Three campaign finance reform initiatives went the wrong way. Clean-money measures providing for full public financing were thumped in Missouri and Oregon. Similar measures had been passed in previous years by voters in Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona as well as by the legislature in Vermont--but this time around powerful, well-financed business lobbies weighed in, and dirty money beat clean money. In Oregon opponents ran an effective (and expensive) radio campaign highlighting the out-of-state financial support for the reform, and it raised the specter of extremists running for office if it passed.
In Missouri corporate opponents--including Anheuser-Busch, KC Power & Light, Hallmark Cards and the Missouri Association of Realtors--poured hundreds of thousands into their victorious antireform campaign. Californians, meanwhile, approved Proposition 34, billed as campaign reform but actually cooked up by the establishment to block real reform. The returns on these three measures should compel campaign finance reform activists to rethink their strategies. These are significant and stinging defeats.
The good news is that the failed drug war was a loser in five of seven related measures nationwide. Medical marijuana initiatives passed in Colorado and Nevada (although a full marijuana-legalization bill failed in Alaska). Oregon and Utah voted to reform draconian drug forfeiture laws. And in California, Proposition 36, providing treatment instead of jail for first- and second-time drug offenders, passed easily. But a similar proposition failed in Massachusetts (which also refused to approve a universal healthcare proposal).
Another bright spot was public education. Voucher measures in California and Michigan were beaten by wide margins. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper put up millions for the California proposal--to no avail. California voters also approved a measure that makes passage of school bonds easier. But bilingual education, banned in the Golden State two years ago, was also thrown out by Arizona voters. As he did in California, businessman Ron Unz fathered and funded the Arizona measure.
Colorado voters defeated the so-called informed consent measure on abortion, but Arizona and Nebraska approved a ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions. In Maine a measure to protect gays from discrimination was defeated. In Oregon the notorious Measure 9, which outlaws "teaching" homosexuality in schools, failed. Oregonians also rejected two antiunion "paycheck protection" measures, which the state labor federation had vigorously fought.
A land-claim suit is pitting Oneidas against other upstate residents.
DNA testing can convict the guilty; it can also destroy the privacy of millions.
In New Mexico, communists who fail to register their party affiliation with the state commit a felony. Under New Mexico's DNA databanking law, if they are caught they are required to submit a DNA sample to the department of public safety. In Idaho, consensual sodomy with a partner other than your spouse constitutes a sex-crime felony. Those unfortunate enough to be caught in the act are similarly required by law to submit a tissue sample to the state's DNA databank for the purposes of preventing future sex crimes. And if Governor George Pataki is successful in the next legislative session, New York will begin collecting genetic material from any person convicted of a misdemeanor, such as resisting arrest or disorderly conduct as a result of peaceful civil disobedience.
In an age of biotechnology and computers, we are all but a needle-stick away from disclosing hereditary-disease susceptibilities, familial relationships and identifying information. Anyone who values privacy should therefore be concerned that US law-enforcement agencies are amassing ever larger portions of the general population's DNA while neglecting to implement measures that would protect the privacy and presumptive innocence of citizens. And because DNA evidence is currently enjoying an unprecedented degree of bipartisan enthusiasm, these gradual developments have tended to be sheltered from the criticism that might otherwise confront such policies.
Not that DNA evidence's celebrity isn't well deserved. It is many rape victims' best hope for identifying their assailants and law enforcement's most penetrating method of apprehending serial offenders. It can be credited with triggering a re-examination of the nation's capital punishment system by exonerating eight death-row inmates. Like its predecessor, the fingerprint, DNA profiles are a reliable means of identifying individuals (except in the case of identical twins). But glib analogies to fingerprints obscure important differences. DNA samples can reveal far more information than fingerprints, including sensitive medical conditions, traits or a person's biological parentage. In addition, while fingerprints are unique to every individual, genetic profiles are partially shared among blood relatives. Thus, databanks contain identifying information on nonoffending relatives of people explicitly covered by databanking statutes. Finally, because we shed our genetic calling cards in a trail of hair follicles, skin flecks, saliva aerosols and finger smudges, DNA can also provide a trace of our activities.
DNA databanks are premised on statistics indicating that individuals convicted of a serious violent offense often commit other violent offenses that leave behind incriminating DNA. Tissue samples, usually in the form of a blood sample or cheek swab, are thus collected from offenders covered by their state's databank laws and are analyzed using a technique called "profiling," which detects genetic variations among individuals that, at least as currently understood by geneticists, have no biological function. The resulting data are then computerized so that profiles produced from crime-scene samples can be compared with those already in the database, allowing authorities to eliminate certain suspects or target those whose profiles match. In effect, databanks provide a means of genetically frisking anyone who has ever committed a covered offense for any crime in which DNA has been recovered.
As of June 1998 all fifty states had enacted statutes authorizing state and local law-enforcement agencies to operate criminal DNA databases and to pool their DNA profiles into a national FBI-operated database called CODIS (Combined DNA Identification System). Though the earliest laws targeted convicted violent sexual felons, civil libertarians looked to the history of Social Security numbers, fingerprinting and drug-testing to warn of an inevitable migration of the technique from convict to suspect terrain. A decade later, as many states have passed laws to cover new offender categories, the Cassandras appear to have been vindicated. Delaware, for instance, requires submission of genetic samples for all those who have committed offenses against children, which include selling tobacco or tattooing minors without the consent of a guardian. Twenty-three states cover certain categories of misdemeanors, and seven states have enacted legislation that would require DNA submission for any felony, which extends DNA databanking into realms such as perjury, larceny, bribery and fraud. Thus, in addition to New Mexico's statute covering unregistered communists, Alabama's code covers tax evaders and Virginia's targets people who deface brands or marks on timber. Experts like CODIS program director Steve Niezgoda have predicted that all states will eventually amend their statutes to cover all felonies; four states have already done so, and another three have recently considered or will consider such an expansion in their next legislative sessions. Among these three, New York's proposal stands out as by far the nation's most comprehensive, targeting all convicted felons and class-A misdemeanants.
DNA databanking laws are furthermore part of the ferment that is corroding the century-old juvenile justice system that treats minors as a category of offenders separate from adults. More than half of all states authorize inclusion of DNA profiles collected from juveniles in their databanks. In contrast to the convention of sealing or erasing juvenile criminal records after a period of time--a practice grounded on a rehabilitative ideal--none of the statutes require states to remove juvenile DNA profiles from their databanks, and one (Arizona's) expressly prohibits their removal. Several states have revised their original legislation to cover juvenile offenders as well. The spread of DNA databanking to minors is especially troubling when considered against the racial inequities that plague the juvenile justice system. According to Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, "When you control for poverty, white and black [teens] commit the same amount of violent crime, [but] blacks are arrested at four times the rate of whites and imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites. So don't think for a second this databank will be race-neutral. This policy will grossly overrepresent criminal behavior by blacks and exacerbate disparities in incarceration because [databanks are] going to be used against people."
An indirect consequence of expanding DNA databanks is their partial coverage of a larger proportion of nonoffending relatives as well. Because individuals share portions of their DNA with biological relatives--half in the case of siblings, parents and children--an incomplete match between a databanked person's profile and that of a crime-scene sample might lead investigators to question an individual's immediate family. The effect of such profiling by proxy is that identifying information about nonoffenders is present in criminal databank systems as well; in effect, if you have a relative whose profile has been databanked, you're likely to be partially genetically frisked as well.
A critical unresolved question about current databanking practices concerns what law-enforcement agencies actually do with their frozen vials of human tissue. The human genome contains approximately 100,000 different genes, many of which are associated with specific illnesses. Though DNA profiles have few applications beyond linking individuals to biological specimens, the actual tissue samples submitted by offenders could in principle be analyzed for genetic traits ranging from sickle-cell anemia to schizophrenia. Since evolving typing techniques may one day outmode profiles currently being entered into computers, more than half of US states are authorized or required by law to archive their samples so they can be retested. This sustains the possibility that samples may eventually be used for purposes other than profiling.
Most statutes restrict sample use to "law enforcement"--a term whose broadness in this context can only be described as oceanic. Twenty states allow law-enforcement agencies to use samples for research on improving forensic techniques, which could mean searching banked DNA samples for genetic predictors of recidivism, pedophilia or aggression. One Massachusetts legislator publicly advocated such a use, and Tom Callaghan, program manager of the FBI's Federal Convicted Offender DNA Database, refused to rule out such a possibility when pressed at a National Institute of Justice Symposium in September 1999. Moreover, tissue repositories created by databanks would provide genetics researchers with congenial waters in which to trawl for genes thought to be involved in criminal behavior. Alabama's databanking law brushes perilously close to this by authorizing release of anonymous DNA population data collected by law-enforcement authorities to "assist in other humanitarian endeavors including, but not limited to, educational research or medical research or development."
Experimenting with offender DNA in this way would violate basic tenets of biomedical ethics by using tissues that were not obtained by consent for purposes that arguably run counter to the interests of the research subject. "If [law-enforcement authorities] want to do research," argues Boston University bioethicist George Annas, "they should follow the same rules everyone else has to follow in terms of informed consent and privacy.... Criminals have privacy rights like everyone else." As such, using databanked samples for research without consent also runs counter to recommendations by the American College of Medical Genetics.
Such research authorizations are especially troubling in light of this nation's checkered history of experimentation on prisoners. In 1875 social reformer and prison inspector Richard Dugdale wrote his famous study of the Jukes family after he noticed a disproportionate number of inmates with that last name. The availability of banked criminals' tissues may prove a valuable resource should society's interest in genetic explanations for social ills be renewed.
Legal challenges of DNA database laws have generally failed and are therefore unlikely to stem their widening sweep. Practices in Britain, the first country to enlist DNA in its crime-fighting cavalry, may portend dramatically widened use of databanking in the United States. Britain's Forensic Science Service is authorized to collect DNA samples from anyone questioned about or suspected of any offense for which a person could be detained. As of July 1999, England had collected 547,000 DNA samples; the effort was projected to reach 30 percent of British men eventually. In addition, England has conducted at least eighty "intelligence-based screens"--the official term for what is colloquially called a "genetic sweep"--in which the general population is asked to submit DNA samples to help police investigate a particular crime. Although samples are provided voluntarily, social pressures, heavy media coverage and the concern that failure to submit a sample may itself invoke police suspicion undermine the notion of submissions being truly consensual. Other countries, including Canada and Germany, have conducted similar sweeps, and while some argue that the Fourth Amendment would probably bar such practices in the United States, privacy watchdogs like New York Civil Liberties Union's executive director Norman Siegel caution that "Fourth Amendment challenges [of databanks] have not been successful; these are the only reference points we have [for predicting how courts will rule on genetic sweeps], and they're not promising."
The next battle between civil libertarians and law-enforcement authorities concerning DNA databanking is likely to concern the leap from profiling convicted felons to arrestees. Former NYPD chief Howard Safir has championed arrestee profiling, and US Attorney General Janet Reno has begun to explore the implications of such a policy by querying a National Institute of Justice commission. Arrestee profiling would dramatically broaden the reach of DNA databanking and, if not subject to careful restrictions, would empower law-enforcement authorities to arrest people for minor offenses, collect a tissue sample and search their databases for a match between the arrestee's profile and another crime-scene sample. Despite widespread enthusiasm in law-enforcement circles, profiling on such a scale isn't likely to be implemented anytime soon, given the backlog of tissue samples awaiting profile analysis and the high costs (at least $100 per sample). Nevertheless, one state (Louisiana) profiles arrestees for sexual offenses, and advancing automation technologies are likely to erode these fiscal barriers.
Though this is reason for despair among privacy advocates, there are a few hopeful signs among the various statutes. Twenty-seven states (and the federal government), for example, prohibit disclosure of genetic materials or information to unauthorized third parties. Wisconsin requires that law-enforcement authorities eliminate DNA samples of convicted persons after profiling is complete, and six states (Indiana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming) restrict what authorities can do with collected DNA by prohibiting analysis of genetic mutations that could predict a person's traits. But in an environment where the political leaders most likely to raise objections to such policies are often silenced by a fear of appearing to be soft on crime, the stability of these protections remains to be seen.
Imagining a fair and protective system for using DNA evidence in the criminal justice system isn't all that difficult. People claiming innocence should be given opportunities to volunteer DNA to clear their name. For them--and more broadly for the credibility of the criminal justice system--DNA forensic technology may be the only life vest within reach. Upon overturning a conviction, volunteered DNA samples and profiles should be promptly destroyed, preserving the individual's presumptive innocence. For people convicted of serious violent offenses and beyond the reach of such exculpatory evidence, however, the trade-off between privacy and public interest may tilt toward favoring a DNA databanking system with strong privacy protections, including sample destruction after profiling and prohibitions on uses other than comparing profiles with those collected from crime scenes. And finally, to protect the presumptive innocence of convicted offenders' family members, states should impose stringent requirements for when a match between a crime-scene sample and a databanked profile can trigger an investigation.
Privacy is a zero-sum entity: The extension of law-enforcement authorities' genetic gaze comes directly at the expense of an individual's power to withhold such information. Where most human DNA handling once occurred in medical clinics and research laboratories--institutions that are generally subject to public oversight and cautious (if imperfect) ethical review--DNA has now entered a territory not particularly distinguished for its ethical circumspection. States are not providing many reasons for the public to be confident that they are taking these concerns seriously; perhaps of even greater concern, negligence in protecting the privacy of offenders and criminal suspects may acclimate a public to weak protections of genetic materials. As the predictive powers of genetic technologies are refined, this could have grievous consequences for everyone.
As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.
For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.
That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."
I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."
From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.
Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.
Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.
This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).
Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.
When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.
It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.
"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."
To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.
Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."
This issue goes to press on Wednesday, November 8, the day after the election, when all was supposed to have been decided, all was to be made clear. Instead, a great bewilderment has descended over the land. The recount of the vote in Florida, which might conceivably erase Bush's lead of a thousand or so votes and give the state and the presidency to Al Gore, has begun but not been completed. As I write, the numbers are changing hourly, and no two news outlets seem to have the same ones at the same time. There seems to be some fuzzy math going on down in Florida. Meanwhile, we do know that Al Gore has won the popular vote and faces the possibility that the will of the people will be annulled by the Electoral College. In short, we do not know at present who the next President will be or whether, when we do know, the people will have wanted that man.
Ordinarily, journalists hate situations like this, in which the deadline for elucidating a momentous event descends just before the event occurs. We are required, it seems, either to qualify our comments to the point of meaninglessness or else to pen words so vague and general that they will cover all contingencies. Rich as the arts of pontificating are, these occasions seem to stretch them to the breaking point. ("Whoever wins the White House, one thing is clear, the democracy of this great land..." and so forth.)
On this particular occasion, however, the situation is different. History, giving hard-pressed journalists a hand, has, by declining to produce a victor, provided for the time being the perfect metaphor for the campaign that has now ended. In the campaign the choices offered by the two parties were more obfuscated than clarified, more concealed than revealed. Gore decided to distance himself from his partner in the White House, Bill Clinton, declaring himself to be "my own man," assuring the voters that "I will never let you down" and preventing Clinton from going out on the hustings. It was the fundamental strategic decision of the Gore campaign. Yet the reason for it--the scandals that led to the impeachment of Clinton--were never mentioned by Gore. In consequence, impeachment, the most important political event of the last decade, and the one with the most important bearing on the fitness of the Republican Party to be placed in positions of trust and authority, went undiscussed by the Democrats. Had the impeachment been a necessary remedy for a grave danger to the Republic from President Clinton, or had it been (as I believe) a reckless abuse of power by the Republicans? No question was more in need of an answer in this year's election, but none went more thoroughly unaddressed. Gore's decision even prevented him from taking adequate credit for the Clinton Administration's economic successes.
The Republicans, for their part, waged what E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post rightly called a "stealth campaign." They had held the majority in Congress for six years, yet the Congressional Republicans were all in hiding, and their self-described "revolution" of the nineties--including, for example, their attempt to eviscerate environmental law, their attempt to shut down the Department of Education and their shutdown of the federal government--also went down the memory hole. They opportunistically took their stand on Democratic issues--a plan for prescription drugs, a plan for saving Social Security, a plan for education. Only Bush's proposal for an across-the-board tax cut was in keeping with the recent Republican record. (The art of winning elections by stealing the other party's issues is one they appear to have learned from Clinton.)
Astonishingly, the Republicans even pre-empted the impeachment issue--though without mentioning it explicitly any more than Gore had. Bush spent the final week of the campaign attacking the "partisan bickering" in "Washington," as if it had been the Democrats who had tried to impeach a Republican President for frivolous reasons rather than the other way around. Thus did the impeachment issue control the candidates' decisions without being discussed by them. Almost the only issue given a really thorough airing was the entirely jolly one of how to pass out the trillions of dollars of the budget surplus (how much in prescription drug benefits? how much in tax cuts?)--trillions that may never in fact materialize and that the current Congress has in any case been busily spending.
Had the outcome of the election been known today, a tidal wave of interpretation of the results no doubt would already be rolling over us. It is well that it was stopped. It is better to reflect for a moment on our political confusion. The contest, even when it produces a winner, will not have provided a basis for generalizations regarding the public mind. A foggy campaign has ended in a deep fog, as if the people, not having been offered a true choice, have simply decided not to choose.
What ought to be read--and why--are questions that have a unique urgency in a multicultural milieu, where each group fights, legitimately, for its own space and voice. In the past couple of decades, battles over the Western canon have been fought strenuously in intellectual circles--one such flash point was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and the debates that ensued. These skirmishes have much to do with the fact that America is undergoing radical change. The Eurocentric place once acknowledged as the heart of its culture has ceased to be so. Alternative groups, from different geographies, have brought with them the conviction that public life with a myriad of cores rather than a single one is far more feasible today.
It strikes me as emblematic that the voices most sonorous in the battlefield over the fate of literature are often Jewish, from those of the two Blooms, Allan and Harold, to that of Cynthia Ozick. This is not a coincidence: After all, the Jews are known as "the people of the book." For the Talmudic rabbis, to read is to pray, but so it is, metaphorically, among secular Jews...or, if not to pray, at least to map out God's cosmic tapestry. Among the most deeply felt Jewish expressions of book-loving I know is a letter to the legendary translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, a Spanish Jew of the illustrious translation school of Toledo in the twelfth century, written by his father. In it the elder Tibbon recommends:
Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be filled with delight.
But to turn Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into a companion, to satiate one's soul with it--ought that to be a Jewish pastime? I'm invariably puzzled at the lack of debate among Jewish intellectuals, especially in the Diaspora, on the formation of a multinational literary canon made solely of Jewish books. Why spend so many sleepless nights mingling in global affairs, reorganizing a shelf that starts in Homer and ends in García Márquez, yet pay no attention whatever to those volumes made by and for Jews?
The idea of a Jewish literary canon isn't new. Among others, Hayyim Nakhman Bialik, the poet of the Hebrew renaissance and a proto-Zionist, pondered it in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed the concept of kinus, the "ingathering" of a literature that was dispersed over centuries of Jewish life. Bialik's mission was to centralize it in a particular place, Israel, and in a single tongue, Hebrew. And a handful of Yiddish and Jewish-American critics, from Shmuel Niger to Irving Howe, have addressed it, although somewhat obliquely. Howe, for instance, in pieces like "Toward an Open Culture" and "The Value of the Canon," discussed the tension in a democratic culture between tradition and innovation, between the blind supporters of the classics and the anti-elitist ideologues. But in spite of editing memorable volumes like A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, he refused to see Jewish literature whole.
The undertaking never achieved the momentum it deserves--until now. A number of books have appeared in English in the past few months that suggest the need for a debate around a modern Jewish library. The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska), by Steven Kellman, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, while partially concerned with Jewish literature, addresses one crucial issue: the polyglotism of authors like Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the so-called grandfather of Yiddish letters, whose conscious switch from Hebrew into Yiddish didn't preclude him from translating many of his novels, like The Mare, back into the sacred tongue. The presence of multilingualism in the Jewish canon, of course, is unavoidable, for what distinguishes the tradition is precisely its evaporative nature, for example, the fact that it emerges wherever Jews are to be found, regardless of tongue or geographical location. This complicates any attempt at defining it in concrete ways: What, after all, are the links between, say, Bruno Schulz, the Polish fabulist and illustrator responsible for The Street of Crocodiles, and Albert Cohen, the French-language author of the masterpiece Belle du Seigneur?
Also recently released is a book by Robert Alter, author of the influential The Art of Biblical Narrative and translator of Genesis. It is titled Canon and Creativity (Yale) and attempts to link modern letters to the biblical canon to stress issues of authority. Alter is attracted to the debate of "canonicity" as it is played out in academia and intellectual circles today, but he isn't concerned, not here at least, with purveying the discernible edges of Jewish literature historically. Far more concerned--obsessed, perhaps--with the continuity between Jewish authors from the Emancipation to the present is Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, whose volume The Modern Jewish Canon will legitimize the debate by bringing it to unforeseen heights. For purposes of mitigated objectivity, I must acknowledge up front that together with Alter and Wisse and four other international Jewish critics, I am part of a monthslong project at the Yiddish Book Center to compose a list of the hundred most "important" (the word cannot fail to tickle me) Jewish literary books since the Enlightenment. So I too have a personal stake in the game. But sitting together with other candid readers in a room is one thing. It is another altogether to respond to the pages--at once incisive and polemical--of one of them whose views have helped to form my own.
Wisse is a conservative commentator of the Jewish-American and Israeli scenes and, most significant to me, an intelligent reader of strong opinions whose work, especially her study of Itzjak Leib Peretz and her monograph The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, I have long enjoyed. In her latest work she ventures into a different territory: From specialist to generalist, she fashions herself as a Virgil of sorts, thanks to whom we are able to navigate the chaotic waters of Jewish culture.
Probably the most estimable quality of The Modern Jewish Canon is simply that it exists at all. It insinuates connections to document the fact that Jews have produced a literature that transcends national borders. Albert Memmi's Pillar of Salt and Philip Roth's Operation Shylock might appear to be worlds apart, but Wisse suggests that there is an invisible thread that unites them, a singular sensibility--a proclamation of Jewishness that is clear even when it isn't patently obvious.
This is a crucial assertion, given that Jewish communities worldwide often seem imprisoned in their insularity: Language and context serve to isolate them from their counterparts in other countries and continents. For example, American Jews, for the most part, are miserably monolingual. (I doubt Jews have been so limited linguistically at any time in the past.) They insist on approaching their own history as starting in the biblical period but then jump haphazardly to the Holocaust, and thereon to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Spanish period, so exhilarating in its poetic invocations, is all but ignored, and so is the importance of Jewish communities beyond those of Eastern Europe. Why are the echoes from the Tibbon family to Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra and medieval Spanish letters in general so faint? The power of these poets, the fashion in which they intertwined the divine and the earthly, politics and the individual, the struggles of the body and the soul, left a deep imprint in Jewish liturgy and shaped a significant portion of the Jewish people through the vicissitudes of the Ottoman Empire and northern Africa. Even the Dreyfus Affair is little known or regarded, as is the plight of the Jews in Argentina from 1910 to the bombing of their main cultural building in Buenos Aires in early 1994. And where the verbal isolation is not a problem, the insular perspective still applies: For instance, only now is Israel overcoming its negation of Diaspora life, which has deformed Israeli society and resulted in an institutionalized racism against those co-religionists whose roots are not traced to Yiddishland.
Wisse displays genuine esteem for high-quality literary art. She trusts her instincts as a savvy reader and writes about what she likes; no affirmative action criteria seem to apply in her choices--and for hewing to her own perspective, she ought to be commended. The common traits she invariably ascribes to what is a varied corpus of Jewish literature always point to Russia and Europe. Her encyclopedism is commendable in that it surveys a vast intellectual landscape, but it has clear limitations. She is well versed in English, Hebrew and Yiddish letters. But what about Sephardic culture? Ought she to exclude all that she is unfamiliar with?
The study is divided into ten chapters of around thirty pages each, ordered chronologically according to the birth dates of authors. She starts in the right place--with Sholem Aleichem, the author of the most beloved of all Jewish novels and my personal favorite, Tevye the Dairyman. And she ends with Israeli literature. In the interim, she mixes excerpts, critical commentary and historical perspective in exploring the work of Kafka, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer and scores of other luminaries, some of questionable value in my eyes (Jerzy Kosinski, for instance) and others often overpraised (here I would include Ozick). The contributions of critics such as Dan Miron, Chone Shmeruk, Lionel Trilling and Howe are acknowledged by Wisse in these pages, their perspectives still fresh and inviting.
It may be ungenerous to accuse Wisse of a certain nearsightedness; after all, to capture the essence of a literature written in a plethora of tongues and cultures, a literature that is by definition "undefinable," any potential cataloguer would need to be versed in each and every one of them. But The Modern Jewish Canon suffers another serious shortcoming, entirely within control: It is too dry a read. For a treatise that aspires to connect the various Jewish Weltanschauungen and juxtapose a rainbow of imaginations, each responding to different stimuli, from the eighteenth century to this day, Wisse offers little by way of narrative enchantment. She is a scholar and writes as such. Scarce effort is made to turn words into metaphors, to twist and turn ideas and allow them to wander into unexplored regions. The reader finds himself lost in a sea of "objective impersonality." Too bad, for shouldn't a book about the beauties of a polyphonic literature aspire to that on its own?
Wisse herself announces: "Modern Jewish literature...promises no happy merger into universalism at the end of the day." And yet some form of universalism is what she is attempting to describe, extending connective tissue between literary works where, at least superficially, there seemed none before. In that sense the achievement is impressive. Immediately after finishing the book, I took up pencil and paper to shape a list of what would be my own choice of books. In one of her last pages Wisse, who concentrates on novelists, includes a list of almost fifty titles, "meant to serve as a reference guide." Included are Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous, Piotr Rawicz's Blood From the Sky, Pinhas Kahanovitch's The Family Mashber, and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. But I found myself asking, Where are Marcel Proust, Elias Canetti and Moacyr Scliar? And that, precisely, is one thing a book of this sort should do: force readers to compose a response to the invisible questionnaire the author has quietly set before our eyes.
Future generations will find The Modern Jewish Canon proto-Ashkenazic and hyper-American, a sort of correlative to the Eurocentrism that once dominated American letters. They will kvetch, wondering why the Iberian and Levantine influence on today's Jewish books--from the poetry of the crypto-Jew João Pinto Delgado, to the inquisitorial autobiography of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, to even the Sephardic poetry that came out of the Holocaust--was so minimized in the English-language realm. Kvetch is of course a Yiddish word--or, as Leo Rosten would have it, a "Yinglish" one--but fretting and quarreling are Jewish characteristics regardless of place, and they inhabit the restless act of reading as well. The idea of a Jewish canon, modern and also of antiquity, hides behind it an invaluable fact: that Jews are at once outsiders and insiders, keepers of the universal library but also of their own private ones. Books have always served as their--our--companions for renewal and delight. The content of that private library might be up for grabs, but not its endurance.
The attempt to see Jewish literature whole, as expressing a singular sensibility, has never had the momentum it deserves--until now.