This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

Bombs and Bulldozers

Edward Said

September 8, 1997

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Unchained Melody

Marshall Berman

May 11, 1998

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A Global Green Deal

Mark Hertsgaard

February 1, 1999

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“Sensation” in Brooklyn

Arthur C. Danto

November 1, 1999

The Brooklyn Museum of Art, as if persuaded by its own ill-advised publicity that the art in its “Sensation” show might endanger the welfare of its viewers, at first thought it prudent to turn away children under age 17 unless accompanied by an adult. It ought instead to have turned away adult viewers unless accompanied by a child, preferably one well under 17. Children are not squeamish, nor capable of indignation. They giggle at things that make adults uneasy. They do not carry a burden of art history, so they will not dismiss things on the ground that it has all been done before. They are not cynics, nor are they “taxpayers.” And they exist on the same level of feeling as do many of the artists in this extraordinarily youthful show. So borrow a child if you don’t have one—or better still, be your own child, and treat the exhibition initially as if you were making an expedition to FAO Schwarz. There is, surprisingly given the title of the show, no sex to speak of, though there are some oddly distributed penises that the child will find hilarious. Whatever may be said on the floor of the Senate, it really is art. Whatever has been said in City Hall, it is not sick. It is, on the contrary, healthy. The worst that can be said of it is that it is brash. It is the brashness of art students the world around. There is an exuberance, a confidence, a swagger unfortunately not to be found in the demoralized American art world of today (for explanation refer to the floor of the Senate and the offices of City Hall).

The first work you will encounter is a real shark in an immense tank. The child will gasp at the majesty and beauty of a work it would have been difficult to anticipate from photographs of it or from descriptions or representations on the Internet. The artist is Damien Hirst, effectively the chef d’école of the post-Thatcher London art world. Putting a huge fish in a large tank of formaldehyde sounds easy enough for even a city official to do. But imagining doing it requires a degree of artistic intuition of a very rare order, since one would have to anticipate what it would look like and what effect it would have on the viewer. The work in fact has the power, sobriety and majesty of a cathedral, some of which, of course, must be credited to the shark itself.

The philosopher Arthur C. Danto (1914–2013) was The Nation’s art critic from 1984 to 2008.

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Breaking Glass-Steagall

Editorial

November 15, 1999

Although Wall Street has pushed for financial deregulation for two decades, it was last year’s merger of Citicorp and Travelers that set the stage for Congress’s effective revocation of the Glass-Steagall Act in late October. The merger was a violation of the longstanding laws separating banking and insurance companies, but Citicorp and Travelers, because they well knew their power to ram deregulation through Congress, exploited loopholes that gave them a temporary exemption. Indeed, further proving that Wall Street and Washington are two branches of the same firm, the newly formed Citigroup announced only days after the deal that it had hired recently departed Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as a member of its three-person office of the chairman.

For their money, the finance industry bought not only the end of the Glass-Steagall Act but also the partial repeal of the Bank Holding Company Act. These landmark pieces of legislation, recognizing the inherent dangers of too great a concentration of financial power, barred common ownership of banks, insurance companies and securities firms and erected a wall of separation between banks and nonfinancial companies. Now the ban on common ownership has been lifted—and the wall separating banking and commerce is likely soon to be breached. The misnamed Financial Services Modernization Act will usher in another round of record-breaking mergers, as companies rush to combine into “one-stop shopping” operations, concentrating financial power in trillion-dollar global giants and paving the way for future taxpayer bailouts of too-big-to-fail financial corporations. Regulation of this new universe will be minimal, with powers scattered among a half-dozen federal agencies and fifty state insurance departments—
none with sufficient clout to do the job.

There is much more that is wrong with the bill: It does not include adequate protections against red-
lining; it does not require banks to provide basic services to the poor, leaving them at the mercy of check-cashing shops and similar rip-off outfits; and it opens the way for the new conglomerates to gouge consumers. History will record this bill as a landmark in the march toward the consolidation of financial power in America.

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Letter From Ground Zero

Jonathan Schell

October 15, 2001

I live six blocks from the ruins of the north tower of the World Trade Center, which is about as close as you can be to ground zero without having been silenced. My specific neighborhood was violated, mutilated. As I write these words, the acrid, dank, rancid stink—it is the smell of death—of the still-smoking site is in my nostrils. Not that these things confer any great distinction—they are merely the local embodiment of the circumstance, felt more or less keenly by everyone in the world in the aftermath of the attack, that in our age of weapons of mass destruction every square foot of our globe can become such a ground zero in a twinkling. We have long known this intellectually, but now we know it viscerally, as a nausea in the pit of the stomach that is unlikely to go away.

In an instant and without warning on a fine fall morning, the known world had been jerked aside like a mere slide in a projector, and a new world had been rammed into its place. I have before me the New York Times of September 11, which went to press, of course, the night before the attack. It is news from Atlantis. “Key Leaders” were talking of “Possible Deals to Revive Economy,” a headline said, but who was paying attention now? Only one headline—“Nuclear Booty: More Smugglers Use Asia Route”—seemed fit for the day’s events.

There are many hundreds of thousands of journalists in the world today. I think of them—us—as a kind of army, indeed, a very large one, as armies go. It is an army that terrorists almost always seek to recruit. Their deeds seek to influence public opinion, which is to say public will. The terrorist act of September 11, though costing more lives than any other, was no exception. As so many have observed, it was, probably by evil design, a disaster film—even a comic book or video game—brought sickeningly to life: horrific “infotainment” or “reality TV.” The use of real life and real lives to enact a plot lifted out of the trashiest entertainments was an element of the peculiar debasement of the event.

If the hijackers’ hope was to weaken the will of the United States to oppose their cause, obviously their plan backfired. American will to defeat them could scarcely be stronger. On the other hand, weakening American will to lash out may not have been their goal. Just the contrary may be the case. If I were a terrorist leader, there is nothing I would be praying for more ardently than an attack by the United States on one or more Islamic countries leading to the death of many innocent Muslims. If this happened, then, having successfully recruited the media army, I would have recruited the armed forces of the United States as well and would be well on my way to creating the war between America and Islamic civilization that at present I could only dream of.

Vaclav Havel once invoked the “power of the powerless,” by which he meant the power of the nonviolent weak to defy and defeat totalitarian regimes through unarmed acts of noncooperation and defiance. But the powerful have some power, too. Terrorism is jujitsu, by which the violent weak use the power of the powerful to overthrow them. Nineteen men with plastic knives and box cutters used some of the United States’ biggest and most sophisticated aircraft to knock down some of its biggest buildings, all in the apparent hope of enlisting the world’s media army to provoke America’s real army to commit acts that would rally opinion in the terrorists’ part of the world to their own side. But the powerful can refuse to cooperate. Tom Friedman of the Times advised that the United States, like the Taliban, should act “a little bit crazy.” But the Taliban are a poor model. That way lies our undoing. It is not in the power of America’s enemies to defeat us. Only we can do that. We should refrain.

Jonathan Schell (1943–2014) was The Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent from 1998 until his death.

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Our Mobsters, Ourselves

Ellen Willis

April 2, 2001

Midway through the first season of The Sopranos, the protagonist’s psychotherapist, Jennifer Melfi, has a not-exactly-traditional family dinner with her middle-class Italian parents, son and ex-husband Richard. She lets slip (hmm!) that one of her patients is a mobster, much to Richard’s consternation. An activist in Italian anti-defamation politics, he is incensed at the opprobrium the Mafia has brought on all Italians. What is the point, he protests, of trying to help such a person? In a subsequent scene he contemptuously dismisses Jennifer and her profession for purveying “cheesy moral relativism” in the face of evil. His challenge boldly proclaims what until then has been implicit: The richest and most compelling piece of television—no, of popular culture—that I’ve encountered in the past twenty years is a meditation on the nature of morality, the possibility of redemption and the legacy of Freud.

Self-consciousness is a conspicuous feature of Tony Soprano’s world even aside from therapy; in fact, it’s clear that self-consciousness has provoked the anxiety attack that sends him to Jennifer Melfi. It’s not just a matter of stressful circumstances. Tony’s identity is fractured, part outlaw rooted in a dying tribal culture, part suburbanite enmeshed in another kind of culture altogether. Despite his efforts at concealment, his criminal life is all too evident to his children (after all, they too have seen The Godfather), a source of pain and confusion on both sides.

Richard Melfi’s charge of moral relativism is highly ironic, for Jennifer finds that her task is precisely to confront the tribal relativism and cognitive dissonance that keep Tony Soprano from making sense of his life. He sees his business as the Sicilians’ opportunity to get in on the American Dream, the violence that attends it as enforcement of rules known to all who choose to play the game: Gangsters are soldiers, whose killing, far from being immoral, is impelled by positive virtues—loyalty, respect, friendship, willingness to put one’s own life on the line. It does not strike Tony as inconsistent to expect his kids to behave or to send them to Catholic school, any more than he considers that nights with his Russian girlfriend belie his reverence for the institution of the family.

Jennifer’s trip is also a rocky one. In her person, the values of Freud and the Enlightenment are filtered through the cultural radical legacy of the 1960s: She is a woman challenging a man whose relationship to both legitimate and outlaw patriarchal hierarchies is in crisis. It’s a shaky and vulnerable role, the danger of physical violence an undercurrent from the beginning, but there are also bonds that make the relationship possible.

It’s grandiose, perhaps, to see in one television series, however popular, a cultural trend; and after all The Sopranos is on HBO, not CBS or NBC. But ultimately the show is so gripping because, in the words of Elaine Showalter, it’s a “cultural Rorschach test.” It has been called a parable of corruption and hypocrisy in the postmodern middle class, and it is that; a critique of sexuality, the family and male-female relations in the wake of feminism, and it’s that too. But at the primal level, the inkblot is the unconscious. The murderous mobster is the predatory lust and aggression in all of us; his lies and cover-ups are ours; the therapist’s fear is our own collective terror of peeling away those lies. The problem is that we can’t live with the lies, either. So facing down the terror, a little at a time, becomes the only route to sanity, if not salvation.

Ellen Willis (1941–2006) wrote essays for The Nation on topics from pop culture to the “war on terror” between 1981 and 2004. 

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Is Texas America?

Molly Ivins

November 17, 2003

Well, sheesh. I don’t know whether to warn you that because George Dubya Bush is President the whole damn country is about to be turned into Texas (a singularly horrible fate) or if I should try to stand up for us and convince the rest of the country we’re not all that insane.

Truth is, I’ve spent much of my life trying, unsuccessfully, to explode the myths about Texas. One attempts to explain—with all good will, historical evidence, nasty statistics and just a bow of recognition to our racism—that Texas is not The Alamo starring John Wayne. We’re not Giant, we ain’t a John Ford western. The first real Texan I ever saw on TV was King of the Hill’s Boomhauer, the guy who’s always drinking beer and you can’t understand a word he says.

So, how come trying to explode myths about Texas always winds up reinforcing them? After all these years, I do not think it is my fault. The fact is, it’s a damned peculiar place. Given all the horseshit, there’s bound to be a pony in here somewhere. Just by trying to be honest about it, one accidentally underlines its 
sheer strangeness.

If you want to understand George W. Bush—unlike his daddy, an unfortunate example of a truly Texas-identified citizen—you have to stretch your imagination around a weird Texas amalgam: religion, anti-intellectualism and machismo. All big, deep strains here, but still an odd combination. Then add that Bush is just another li’l upper-class white boy out trying to prove he’s tough.

Among the various strains of Texas right-wingism (it is factually incorrect to call it conservatism) is some leftover loony John Birchism, now morphed into militias; 
country-club economic conservatism, à la George Bush père; and the usual batty anti-
government strain. Of course Texas grew on the tender mercies of the federal government—rural electrification, dams, generations of master pork-barrel politicians and vast subsidies to the oil and gas industry. But that has never interfered with Texans’ touching but entirely erroneous belief that this is the Frontier, and that in the Old West every man pulled his own weight and depended on no one else. The myth of rugged individualism continues to afflict a generation raised entirely in suburbs with names like “Flowering Forest Hills 
of Lubbock.”

It is widely believed in Texas that the highest purpose of government is to create “a healthy bidness climate.” The legislature is so dominated by special interests that the gallery where the lobbyists sit is called “the owners’ box.” The consequences of unregulated capitalism, of special interests being able to buy government through campaign contributions, are more evident here because Texas is “first and worst” in this area. That Enron was a Texas company is no accident: Texas was also Ground Zero in the savings-and-loan scandals, is continually the site of major rip-offs by the insurance industry and has a rich history of gigantic chicanery going way back.

As Willie Nelson sings, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane. This is our redeeming social value and perhaps our one gift to progressives outside our borders. We do laugh. We have no choice. We have to have fun while trying to stave off the forces of darkness because we hardly ever win, so it’s the only fun we get to have.

Molly Ivins (1944–2007), who first wrote for The Nation in 1984, sounded early warnings in the magazine about the rise of George W. Bush. Molly Ivins: Letters to The Nation was published by eBookNation in 2013. 

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The Case Against the War

Jonathan Schell

March 3, 2003

War in Iraq has not yet begun, but its most important lesson is already plain: The time is long gone—if it ever existed—when any major element of the danger of weapons of mass destruction, including above all nuclear danger, can be addressed realistically without taking into account the whole dilemma. When we look at the story of proliferation, whether from the point of view of the haves or the have-nots, what emerges is that for practical purposes any distinction that once might have existed (and even then only in appearance, not in reality) between possessors and proliferators has now been erased. A rose is a rose is a rose, anthrax is anthrax is anthrax, a thermonuclear weapon is a thermonuclear weapon is a thermonuclear weapon. The world’s prospective nuclear arsenals cannot be dealt with without attending to its existing ones. As long as some countries insist on having any of these, others will try to get them. Until this axiom is understood, neither “dialogue” nor war can succeed.

The days of the double standard are over. We cannot preserve it and should not want to. The struggle to maintain it by force, anachronistically represented by Bush’s proposed war on Iraq, in which the United States threatens pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons to stop another country merely from getting them, can only worsen the global problem it seeks to solve. Nations that already possess nuclear weapons must recognize that nuclear danger begins with them. The shield of invisibility must be pierced. The web of terror that binds every nuclear arsenal to every other—and also to every arsenal of chemical or biological weapons—must be acknowledged.

A revival of worldwide disarmament negotiations must be the means, the abolition of all weapons of mass destruction the end. That idea has long been in eclipse, and today it lies outside the mainstream of political opinion. Unfortunately, historical reality is no respecter of conventional wisdom and often requires it to change course if calamity is to be avoided. But fortunately it is one element of the genius of democracy—and of US democracy in particular—that encrusted orthodoxy can be challenged and overthrown by popular pressure. The movement against the war in Iraq should also become a movement for something, and that something should be a return to the long-neglected path to abolition of all weapons of mass destruction. Only by offering a solution to the problem that the war claims to solve but does not can this war and others be stopped.

Let us try to imagine it: one human species on its one earth exercising one will to defeat forever a threat to its one collective existence. Could any nation stand against it? Without this commitment, the international community—if I may express it thus—is like a nuclear reactor from which the fuel rods have been withdrawn. Making the commitment would be to insert the rods, to start up the chain reaction. The chain reaction would be the democratic activity of peoples demanding action from governments to secure their survival. True democracy is indispensable to disarmament, and vice versa. This is the power—not the power of cruise missiles and B-52s—that can release humanity from its peril. The price demanded of us for freedom from the danger of weapons of mass destruction is to relinquish our own.

Jonathan Schell (1943–2014) was The Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent from 1998 until his death.

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Rolling Back the 20th Century

William Greider

May 12, 2003

George Bush II may be as shallow as he appears, but his presidency represents a far more formidable challenge than either Reagan or Gingrich. His governing strength is anchored in the long, hard-driving movement of the right that now owns all three branches of the federal government.

The movement’s grand ambition is to roll back the twentieth century. That is, defenestrate the federal government and reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it was before the New Deal’s centralization. With that accomplished, movement conservatives envision a restored society in which the prevailing values and power relationships resemble the America that existed around 1900, when William McKinley was President.

The movement has a substantial base that believes in its ideological vision—people alarmed by cultural change or injured in some way by government intrusions, coupled with economic interests that have very strong reasons to get government off their backs—and the right has created the political mechanics that allow these disparate elements to pull together. Cosmopolitan corporate executives hold their noses and go along with Christian activists trying to stamp out “decadent” liberal culture. Fed-up working-class conservatives support business’s assaults on their common enemy, liberal government, even though they may be personally injured when business objectives triumph.

The right’s power also feeds off the general decay in the political system—the widely shared and often justifiable resentments felt toward big government, which no longer seems to address the common concerns of ordinary citizens.

All in all, the right’s agenda promises a reordering that will drive the country toward greater separation and segmentation—higher walls and more distance for those who wish to protect themselves from messy diversity. The trend of social disintegration, including the slow breakup of the broad middle class, has been under way for several 
decades—fissures generated by growing inequalities of 
status and well-being. The right proposes to legitimize and encourage these deep social changes in the name of greater autonomy. Dismantle the common assets of society, give people back their tax money and let everyone fend for himself.

Is this the country Americans want for their grandchildren or great-grandchildren? Autonomy can be lonely and chilly, as millions of Americans have learned in recent years when the company canceled their pensions or the stock market swallowed their savings or industrial interests destroyed their surroundings. For most Americans, there is no redress without common action, collective efforts based on mutual trust and shared responsibilities. In other words, I do not believe that most Americans want what the right wants. But I also think many cannot see the choices clearly or grasp the long-term implications for the country.

The first place to inquire is not the failures of government but the malformed power relationships of American capitalism—the terms of employment that reduce many workers to powerless digits, the closely held decisions of finance capital that shape our society, the waste and destruction embedded in our system of mass consumption and production. My own conviction is that a lot of Americans are ready to take up these questions and many others. Some are actually old questions—issues of power that were not resolved in the great reform eras of the past. They await a new generation bold enough to ask if our prosperous society is really as free and satisfied as it claims to be. When conscientious people find ideas and remedies that resonate with the real experiences of Americans, then they will have their vision, and perhaps the true answer to the right wing.

William Greider has been The Nation’s national affairs correspondent since 1999. His most recent book is Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (2009).

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