Our Century: The Nineties

Our Century: The Nineties

The Character of Presidents

The President we get is the country we get. With each new President the nation is conformed spiritually.


The Character of Presidents

The President we get is the country we get. With each new President the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses…. [T]he media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail. One four-year term may find us at reasonable peace with one another, working things out, and the next trampling on each other for our scraps of bread.

E.L. Doctorow, November 9, 1992

A race-transcendent politics is most likely to succeed when the white community takes responsibility for overcoming its racism, not when the black community decides to forget about it.

–Haywood Burns, “Apology for Archie,” December 3, 1990

S&Ls, Triumphs of Capitalism

The savings and loan adventure [has left a] gambling debt of $500 billion ($150 billion plus interest and other incidentals)–or will it be, as some economists predict, a trillion four?…
      If, as seems entirely likely, there is no wholesale imprisonment of S&L scoundrels and no massive ouster of the politicians who betrayed us, who is going to feel most of the pain? You know the answer. You will, sucker. You, O citizen of this wretched Rome, are going to get raptus regaliter. Royally screwed.

–Robert Sherrill, November 19, 1990

“Underclass,” an essentialist category, like underworld, became very popular in the Reagan years. “Overclass” somehow never caught on.

–Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil,” July 24/31, 1989

A Blizzard of Images

Never before has a political movement set about implementing its demands by means of such a calculated manipulation of the media, by plastering the urban landscape with faux Madison Avenue advertisements that plagiarize existing ads or by drawing cartoon balloons containing messages about government inaction that billow out of the mouths of models in fashion and cigarette ads at bus stops.

…Although academic critics have long held that their own efforts are vitally relevant to left politics, ACT UP is the first practical application of the unwieldy apparatus of contemporary art and literary theory to grass-roots activism…. [T]he coalition’s media savvy derives from its members’ convictions that they must generate their own set of countercultural images to inoculate against oppressive racist, homophobic and misogynist ideologies…. ACT UP’s image-centricity is thus not so much one of its major concerns as it is its very modus operandi.

–Daniel Harris, December 31, 1990

In L.A., Burning All Illusions

Although arsonists spread terrifying destruction, the looting crowds were governed by a visible moral economy. As one middle-aged lady explained to me, “Stealing is a sin, but this is like a television game show where everyone in the audience gets to win.” Unlike the looters in Hollywood (some on skateboards) who stole Madonna’s bustier and all the crotchless panties from Frederick’s, the masses of MacArthur Park concentrated on the prosaic necessities of life like cockroach spray and Pampers.

–Mike Davis, June 1, 1992

Notes on Our Patriarchal State

Do we want a free society or a patriarchal one? My question is not rhetorical.

Patriarchal. From the Latin pater, father. As in father knows best. A patriot, then, is someone who serves the fatherland. The notion of the father as chief of chiefs is prehistoric. From this tribal conceit derives monotheism: the idea of a single god-creator who has created at least half of us in his image….

Although the notion of one god may give comfort to those in need of a daddy, it reminds the rest of us that the totalitarian society is grounded upon the concept of God the father. One paternal god, one paternal leader. Authority is absolute.

Gore Vidal, August 27/September 3, 1990

Another Country

Many people did not care for Pat Buchanan’s speech; it probably sounded better in the original German.

In trying to determine just how far to the right the G.O.P.’s loony wing will go, it’s worth noting how Pat Robertson, past and possibly future G.O.P. presidential candidate, is fighting Iowa’s proposed equal rights amendment. Pat says feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

–Molly Ivins, on the Republican National Covention, September 14, 1992

Appointment in Sarajevo

Post-Communist Europe is hesitating on the brink of its own version of Balkanization, and Yugoslavia gives an inkling of what could lie ahead for more than one region, to say nothing of more than one culture. Bosnia matters because it has chosen to defend not just its own self-determination but the values of multicultural, long-evolved and mutually fruitful cohabitation. Not since Andalusia has Europe owed so much to a synthesis, which also stands as a perfect rebuke to the cynical collusion between the apparently “warring” fanatics. If Sarajevo goes under, then all who care for such things will have lost something precious, and will curse themselves because they never knew its value while they still had it.

–Christopher Hitchens, September 14, 1992

There’s an election in America; run for the bomb shelters! No one in the world is safe when the presidency is at stake.

–Editorial, “Back Off Jack,” on plans for renewed US bombing of Iraq, August 17, 1992

Prisons are the largest employer in Imperial County, California. The corollary: One out of every twelve county residents is now a prisoner.

–Mike Davis, “Hell Factories in the Field,” February 20, 1995

Subject to Debate

Women have been unfairly blamed for a lot of things over the years–the Fall of Man (sic), their own rapes and beatings, autistic children….

But poverty? Women cause poverty? That is the emerging bipartisan consensus, subscribed to by players as far apart as Charles Murray and Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton, National Review and The New York Times. All agree that unwed mothers, particularly teenagers,…are the driving force behind poverty, crime and a host of other ills….

To say that unwed mothers cause poverty is like saying hungry people cause famine, or sick people cause disease. Out-of-wedlock births do not explain why…corporations nationwide are laying off thousands of white-collar workers, or why one out of five college graduates are working at jobs that require no college degree. Imagine for a moment that every teenage girl in West Virginia got married before getting pregnant. How would that create jobs or raise wages? Marriage might benefit individuals (or not), but it can’t bring back the coal industry. Family values didn’t save the family farm, and they won’t save the millions of people who have been rendered superfluous by the New World Economic Order.

–Katha Pollitt, May 30, 1994

The Border Patrol State

One evening at sundown, we were stopped in traffic at a railroad crossing in downtown Tucson while a freight train passed us, slowly gaining speed as it headed north to Phoenix. In the twilight I saw the most amazing sight: Dozens of human beings, mostly young men, were riding the train; everywhere, on flat cars, inside open boxcars, perched on top of boxcars, hanging off ladders on tank cars and between boxcars. I couldn’t count fast enough, but I saw fifty or sixty people headed north. They were dark young men, Indian and mestizo; they were smiling and a few of them waved at us in our cars. I was reminded of the ancient story of Aztlán, told by the Aztecs but known in other Uto-Aztecan communities as well. Aztlán is the beautiful land to the north, the origin place of the Aztec people. I don’t remember how or why the people left Aztlán to journey farther south, but the old story says that one day, they will return.

–Leslie Marmon Silko, October 17, 1994

Nobody mentions deterrence anymore; the death penalty is about social control of a far more pervasive kind…. After a spasm of official bloodletting, people are impressed with their own powerlessness: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

–Editorial, on the executions of Robert Harris and Rickey Ray Rector, April 23, 1992

¡Zapatista! The Phoenix Rises

The country enters the year 1994 with an insurrection and no one except the rebels understands anything.

They call themselves Zapatistas.

History repeats itself. In Mexico it always repeats itself. Neanderthal Marxists never get tired of reiterating that it repeats itself as farce, but that has nothing to do with it. It repeats itself as vengeance. In Mexico, the past voyages, rides, walks among us. Zapata is the key image: stubbornness, the dream cut short but not sold out….

They have announced that they took up arms against a government founded on an electoral fraud, that they have decreed a new agrarian reform, that they will no longer endure any abuses by the police, the army and the latifundios’ caciques, that the North American Free Trade Agreement is the final kick in the stomach to the indigenous communities….

The night they took San Cristóbal, the Zapatistas burned the municipal archives, the financial records, the land titles. The director of the historical archive negotiated with them: “You aren’t going to burn the historical archive. The papers there tell the history of the origin of this city. The history of the seventeenth-century campesino rebellions and the Tzeltal uprising are there.” The Zapatista committee met. Not only did they not burn it, they posted someone to guard it.

–Paco Ignacio Taibo II, March 28, 1994

Those Iraqis fortunate to receive dollars from relatives abroad can survive, but for a large section of the population, starvation, begging or crime are the only options.

–Selma al-Radi, “Iraqi Sanctions–A Postwar Crime,” March 27, 1995

The Million Man Atonement

ANational Day of Atonement–this is a religious enterprise. Why march on Washington? That’s not where God lives, last I heard. This platform of isolationism, personal responsibility and women-waiting-at-home sounds somewhere between the scripts of the Promise Keepers and the Contract With America….

I also worry about a “personal responsibility” march on the site of the civil rights marches of the past. The privatizing symbolic catchwords of the day seem to have displaced the broader political battles of the past. If past marches were about all blacks achieving the full benefits of citizenship, this march of atoning black men seems to insist that “We exist!” “We are different!” and “We are good!”…

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see…. Why not design a march where Rush Limbaugh and Mark Fuhrman could weep for their sins with Marion Barry; where Pat Buchanan and Louis Farrakhan could jump up shouting with the ecumenical power of divine redemption; in which Clinton atoned for Lani Guinier?…And let’s see Ricki Lake out there atoning too…. Shoving the cameras away, muttering those words we all so long to hear; “Enough!”

Patricia J. Williams, October 30, 1995

The Mirage of Peace

The deep tragedy of Palestine is that a whole people, their history and aspirations have been under comprehensive assault–not only by Israel (with the United States) but also by the Arab governments and, since Oslo, by Arafat….

I do not pretend to have any quick solutions for the situation now referred to as “the peace process,” but I do know that for the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, day laborers, peasants and town and camp dwellers, those who cannot make a quick deal and those whose voices are never heard, for them the process has made matters far worse. Above all, they may have lost hope….

I have been particularly disheartened by the role played in all this by liberal Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Silence is not a response, and neither is some fairly tepid endorsement of a Palestinian state, with Israeli settlements and the army more or less still there, still in charge. The peace process must be demystified and spoken about plainly. Palestine/Israel is no ordinary bit of geography; it is more saturated in religious, historical and cultural significance than any place on earth. It is also now the place where two peoples, whether they like it or not, live together tied by history, war, daily contact and suffering. To speak only in geopolitical clichés (as the Clinton Administration does) or to speak about “separating” them (as Rabin does) is to call forth more violence and degradation. These two communities must be seen as equal to each other in rights and expectations; only from such a beginning can justice then proceed.

–Edward W. Said, October 16, 1995

Big Brown Backs Down

“We’re taking the attitude that no one wins in a strike,” a UPS spokesman said. Others groping for words to console capitalists jittery at the prospect of emboldened labor argued that there is nothing pivotal about this victory, that it doesn’t prefigure a reversal of the [1981] PATCO strike–when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, launching an era of defeat, defensiveness and demobilization in labor–that this was all a case of “U.P.S. exceptionalism.”… Such pleading for the neutral nature of strike outcomes was never made in the wake of the battered warriors from PATCO…or Hormel or Caterpillar or Staley or a hundred other, lesser-known battle sites that serve as markers of labor’s long, grim season. For as everyone knows, in a strike there is always a winner and a loser. And for our side, this win is sweet indeed.

–Editorial, September 8/15, 1997

The Future of Clinton’s Past

The presidency is a Jerry Springer show. The public is variously entertained, appalled and titillated by the smallness and coarseness of it all…. No matter that Asian economies are imploding, the world’s poor are expanding,…the nation is experiencing the widest divergence of income, wealth and opportunity in five decades. It is more fun to ponder semen stains. There was even a Web site, firstpenis.com. It wasn’t worth the visit.

–Robert Reich, September 7/14, 1998

‘Transition’ or Tragedy?

Aterrible national tragedy has been unfolding in Russia in the 1990s, but we will hear little if anything about it in American commentary on this fifth anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union. Instead, we will be told that Russia’s “transition to a free-market economy and democracy” has progressed remarkably, despite some “bumps in the road.”…

For the great majority of families, [however], Russia has not been in “transition” but in an endless collapse of everything essential to a decent existence–from real wages, welfare provisions and health care to birth rates and life expectancy; from industrial and agricultural production to higher education, science and traditional culture; from safety in the streets to prosecution of organized crime and thieving bureaucrats; from the still enormous military forces to the safeguarding of nuclear devices and materials….

Fragments of Russia’s unprecedented, cruel and perilous collapse are reported in the U.S. mainstream press, but not the full dimensions of insider privatization, impoverishment, disintegration of the middle classes, corrosive consequences of the Chechen war or official corruption and mendacity. Why not? Why don’t American commentators lament the plight of the Russian people as they did so persistently when they were the Soviet people?

Stephen F. Cohen, December 30, 1996

Matthew’s Passion

Alot of people worry these days about the death of civil discourse, and would say that I ought not call the Pope a homicidal liar, nor (to be ecumenical about it) the orthodox rabbinate homicidal liars, nor Trent Lott a disgusting, opportunistic hatemonger. But I worry a lot less about the death of civil discourse than I worry about being killed if, visiting the wrong town with my boyfriend, we forget ourselves so much as to betray, at the wrong moment in front of the wrong people, that we love one another…. I mourn Matthew Shepard’s actual death…much more than I mourn the lost chance to be civil with someone who does not consider me fully a citizen, nor fully human. I mourn that cruel death more than the chance to be civil with those who sit idly by while theocrats, bullies, panderers, and their crazed, murderous children, destroy democracy and our civic life. Civic, not civil, discourse is what matters, and civic discourse mandates the assigning of blame.

–Tony Kushner, November 9, 1998

The crucial reality is the need to sell your labor to capital in order to live, the need to carve up your personality for sale–to look at yourself in the mirror and think, “What have I got that I can sell?”

–Marshall Berman, “Unchained Melody,” on the reissued Communist Manifesto, May 11, 1998

Sextuple Jeopardy

Ed Bryant, [one of the House impeachment managers] has famously declared, “Wouldn’t you want to observe the demeanor of Miss Lewinsky and test her credibility? Look into her eyes?”

Did the managers unconsciously remember, perhaps, that the entire scandal began with Clinton looking into Lewinsky’s eyes? Perhaps they had been afflicted by a similar longing. Like psychoanalysts, it seems, they wished to revisit–indeed, to re-enact–the scene that caused the trauma. Isn’t it somehow the measure of the folly of this crisis that, in obedience to a pathology we cannot quite put our finger on, the trial perhaps cannot end until almost the entire US government has, following in the misguided, reckless footsteps of Bill Clinton, gazed into the vacant eyes of Monica Lewinsky?

–Jonathan Schell, February 22, 1999

Historic Question Department,
11th Grade Division

In every century, it seems,
The Constitution’s put to test.
Important questions must be asked,
And ours is, “Did he touch her breast?”

–Calvin Trillin, January 11/18, 1999

There is always another chance to bring a better system to birth, which is what history means, after all.

–Editorial,”Starting Over,” June 20, 1994

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