Boston Phoenix

High and Mighty

There are three questions people ask Rick Cusick when they learn he's an editor at High Times magazine.

"How did you get your job at High Times?"

"Can you get me a job at High Times?"

"Can you get me some weed?"

Picking at a greasy cheeseburger and French fries in the magazine's Manhattan lunchroom, Cusick ticks off the triad of common inquiries. The four other High Times staffers at the table crack up. "You told me that when I first started here and I thought you were joking," says a co-worker. "But four days after I started working here, I'd heard all the same questions."

They're not particularly surprising. After all, High Times is a monthly pothead publication, a Day-Glo testament to Mary Jane idolatry with a circulation of 175,000. Marijuana leaves dominate the magazine's glossy covers like hippie Christmas trees; inside are full-color centerfolds of sticky, crystalline buds photographed reverentially like buxom starlets, anonymous photos of clandestine ganja gardens, fatties the size of burritos. Each month, the publication's 96 pages are littered with garish ads plugging urine-detox products and hydroponic growing chambers, not to mention cannabis seeds and cannabis-flavored lollipops.

"There are people who smoke marijuana and there are people who define themselves as marijuana smokers," says Cusick. High Times is for the latter. "These are connoisseurs. These are people who're into the culture."

This is not a casual culture, a smoking circle content with stem-filled dime bags and resin-scraped bowls. Rather, this is the territory of two-foot bongs and herbal vaporizers.

"High Times is for the pot smoker," agrees editor Steve Bloom, who's worked at the publication for 15 years. "They spend money on marijuana; they spend money on paraphernalia. When they travel, they go to destinations that are pot-friendly. They're stoners. And stoners stick together because stoners are persecuted." Since possessing or selling pot is technically illegal, the regular pipe-packing burner is something of an outlaw – and High Times reflects its readers' resulting sense of camaraderie.

But outlaw culture has changed tremendously since High Times was launched in 1974. Drug use is both less and more marginalized than it was 30 years ago, and the drugs of choice have changed. LSD, which made occasional appearances in the early years of High Times, isn't nearly as prevalent as it was 30 years ago; for years, in fact, there's been a national acid shortage. Psychedelics' cerebral trips have given way to ecstasy's physical, full-bodied sensations.

As for marijuana, a specialized-niche magazine like High Times is less essential to casual pot users than it used to be, when it was first flooding the white middle class, and yet weed is also coming under increasing assault. As recently as 2003, the US Department of Justice launched Operation Pipe Dreams, an assault on the drug-paraphernalia industry that indicted more than 50 business owners and landed Tommy Chong in jail. Then there's the little fact that the country's political map is redder than ever. In this climate, can High Times continue to exist, never mind prosper?

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Keyboard Confessional

Some people go to church. Others call their therapists. And then there are those – millions of them – who, when the urge arises to confess the frank, dirty, embarrassing, humbling, and troubling details of their lives, visit GroupHug.us.

Sound crazy? Even Jamaica Plain graphic designer Gabriel Jeffrey, who launched the Web site on a whim in the fall of 2003, never expected that within its first three months, GroupHug would receive 13 million hits. He didn't anticipate that thousands of strangers, drawn to the promise of complete anonymity, would post confessions ranging from the mundane ("I really like the taste of turkey Gerber baby food") to the momentous ("I live the kind of life that lots of others envy, but I think of suicide every day").

Now, a year and a half after its initial meteoric rise, GroupHug is still thriving – and has recently spawned a book, Stoned, Naked, and Looking in My Neighbor's Window: The Best Confessions from GroupHug.us (Justin, Charles; 2004). But Jeffrey's own confession? He's ready to move on to other projects. "My interest in it is done," admits the 25-year-old entrepreneur. "It's like a record that I really liked in high school."

How'd you come up with the idea for GroupHug?

Now and then I'll do some random project. I've been a freelance designer; while I was freelancing, I would do random projects just to keep things interesting. So I'd been wanting to do sort of a community-built magazine, and I thought anonymity would be kind of a cool feature. After distilling the idea, I wound up coming up with the idea of confessions. I figured it was a good, concise way to have a bunch of personal stories that were anonymous. So I thought about it, not really too hard, actually, for a couple of weeks before I just sat down and scribbled down my ideas and made the thing. Total, I probably spent four hours making it.

Who did you originally think would post their confessions?

Oh, just friends and friends of friends. I put it online and sent the link out to half a dozen friends, maybe, and it just started that way.

When did you first realize it was spreading beyond that?

Within a matter of days. I mean, on the first day it was up, there were 30 confessions. The second day there were maybe 50, the third day I think 150. Within a week, I was looking at thousands. Just from the third week alone, there were around 2.5 million hits.

Did you ever feel like you'd gotten in over your head?

Oh yeah, definitely. When I first started it, you would post a confession and it would go immediately to the web site. That worked fine when it was sort of a controlled group, or peers who got it. Very quickly I had to hack together a moderation system; all that did was, somebody would submit a confession, and I would have to go in and approve each one. By the end of the third week, obviously, that became unmanageable. So I got my brother and a couple of friends to start helping me moderate, and at the same time, I put out a little classified ad looking for a programmer to basically work with me for free, to figure out a better way to do it. I actually got, I think, 30 qualified applicants who wanted to do it for free, which was amazing.

Why do you think that is?

Programmers are divas, and they want their name on something big. If that means putting in some free time to build on your portfolio, it's worth it. And by that time, certainly in the web world, GroupHug was starting to be known after a few weeks. A month later I was able to launch the new one with the help of Adam Bregenzer. There have been some refinements since then, but it's really held up pretty well.

What do you think the appeal is? Obviously you didn't expect it to become so huge; why do you think it has?

I think it's kind of the whole package. When I started, I thought it was a terribly original idea, and then of course the first thing anyone does when people start to pay you any attention is to try to burst your bubble. So I got dozens of e-mails saying, "Hey, there's this site that already does that, and that site that already does that." But it was clear after a few weeks that GroupHug, for whatever reason, had caught on in a way that others hadn't.

From a design standpoint, it was very simple, very easy to use. The name, GroupHug, it's fairly disarming, I think. It just felt right to people, fun and safe. It had some serious momentum pretty quickly, and once there was that kind of momentum, it just kept going. I think there was an element of luck, an element of timing, and possibly just having the right friends who had enough friends to keep forwarding it around.

Do you think the popularity of GroupHug goes hand-in-hand with the popularity of reality TV? The whole voyeurism thing?

Definitely. People are eating that stuff up. Everybody wants to be a part of it. For whatever reason, right now the cultural Zeitgeist dictates that everybody wants to be a porn star, and everyone wants to let it all hang out.

Tell me about your encounter with the Secret Service.

It was pretty early on; I think it might've been the same month that I started. I was out of town, and early in the morning I was walking to get coffee, and I got a call from my friend who actually owned the machine that the site was living on, saying that the Secret Service had contacted him, and he'd given them my information. Five minutes later, somebody from the Secret Service called me and asked a bunch of questions about how anonymous is it, what kind of information did I keep? And then they wanted to talk about a specific confession threatening the commander in chief, and if there was any information I could give them. I explained exactly what I did have and what I didn't have, and it satisfied them enough that I didn't hear from them again.

Did that experience make you think, what the hell am I doing?

That certainly made me do a little research as far as my responsibilities with something like this. What I found out, more or less, was that I should be prepared to cooperate.

How do you determine if a confession is real or made up? Or doesn't it matter?

My guidelines have been the same since day one, the guidelines for submitting it and the guidelines for approving it and all that. They're pretty basic. The first one's that it should be a confession. The second and third are basically no violent crimes, no sex crimes. Then no identifying information; it really has to be anonymous. Other than that, it's kind of up to people's best judgment. It's a public-moderation system now, so people sort of vote. I do encourage them to weed out the obvious lies, but that's not so easy. I think the final round of moderation is when people are reading it, and kind of get to decide for themselves. I'm sure there are some really poignant, interesting confessions that are completely made up, but then, I don't know how much that matters, because the point isn't really that this person exists and this exact situation happened.

Aside from the presidential threat, do you ever get confessions that seem dangerous, like someone's thinking of hurting someone else? Is there anything you can do when that happens?

There's nothing I can do. That's probably the biggest dilemma with this whole thing. You can make an argument that because it's anonymous, and because people can post anything, that it's doing more harm than good. But I don't know. If people actually are doing horrible things and confessing about them, they've already done it. I'm providing a public bulletin board. I certainly hope it's not encouraging any kind of unethical behavior.

So you don't ever get confessions from people saying they're planning to do something bad, and then you're left feeling like, oh no, there's nothing I can do to stop this?

That's probably one of the reasons I don't read the thing anymore.

You don't read it at all?

No.

I know initially GroupHug was a spare-time project for you. What were you doing with the bulk of your time then, and what about now?

Then I was a freelance graphic designer. [GroupHug] has never made me any money. Hopefully, the book will make some money. But it's never been a job. As much time as I may have put into it, it was always in my free time. Now I probably spend less time than ever dealing with it. I'm personally moving into a full-time job that's going to really require all of my time. I'm an art director at Arnold Worldwide. So I probably won't have a whole lot of time to coddle my little web baby.

Well, it sounds like you're somewhat bored with it at this point, anyway.

Yeah. The nice thing about the book, for example, was that by necessity I reached a point where I was done with it. Now I just sit back and wait for my millions to roll in. Whereas with something like a web site, it's an indefinite kind of project. I didn't know how long I would keep it around. I've kind of thrown together other little experiments that I got bored enough with to where I shut them down or they just didn't catch on. This one, people are still interested in, so it'll be up, as far as I know, forever. My interest in it is done. I had my fun with it. As far as a social experiment goes, I guess it was a success: it caught on, created a meme. People are still really interested in it. I suppose I'd probably be interested in finding somebody who was more genuinely interested in the topic matter to keep it running.

Who chose which confessions would be in the book?

I did. At that point I was much more familiar with the content than I am now, so I handpicked all of them for the book.

Did you have favorites that had stuck with you?

Yeah, there were a few that I had bookmarked, just because I thought they were particularly funny or interesting. Now none of them stick with me. It's like a record that I really liked in high school.

That you never want to listen to again.

Exactly.

So are you tired of talking about it?

Honestly, sometimes, yeah. I like it when somebody recognizes it, or maybe knows who I am in relation to it. Some people have asked me if it bums me out that it might be one of my major life accomplishments. Not really. I don't expect it to follow me in any kind of negative way.

People are probably asking you to talk about it a lot right now because of the book.

Yeah, exactly. And I'm certainly interested in promoting the book. But as far as the whole concept of the site and all that, I kind of feel like I've talked it to death. I don't have any new analysis on it.

Well, maybe you can talk to me about this: your publisher's publicist says "the concept of the online confessional has numerous social, cultural, and religious ramifications worth exploring." Tell me about that quote.

I think that's probably true. Other people have explored it in far more depth than I have. I've been sent several papers that people have written about it, and some people have written some sort of interesting things in the press. I think what was interesting to me about it in the first place was having a successful project and just seeing what people would do with it. I don't think it has any ramifications, really. People have been doing the exact same thing forever, like messages in a bottle or hobo signs on trains or graffiti or letters to the editor. I think it's one in a long line of people telling stories. I suspect that somebody will do something more interesting with the concept at some point in the future.

Up In Smoke

Two weeks ago, while hearing arguments in the landmark Supreme Court case Ashcroft vs. Raich – which by this spring will decide whether federal agents can arrest medical-marijuana users even in states where such use is legal – Justice Stephen Breyer questioned the logic of having a patchwork of disparate state laws. Instead, he suggested, medical-marijuana proponents would be better off petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reclassify pot as a prescribable drug.

"That seems to be the obvious way to get this done," he said. "Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum."

Would that it were so easy. As it happens, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) late last week effectively blocked the only proposed project that might lead to FDA-approved marijuana, rejecting a petition by Dr. Lyle Craker, professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusets at Amherst, to obtain DEA approval to grow pot for FDA-approved research.

"In practical terms, this really does mean that the door is shut to pursuing FDA approval of marijuana as a medicine in any reasonable time frame," says Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Currently, all marijuana used for research in the United States comes from a Mississippi farm overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But researchers have complained that the stuff is of poor quality and that the feds are stingy distributing it.

More important, says Mirken, "The NIDA crop is grown for the specific purpose of research. There's absolutely no indication that it could ever be available for prescription sale, should the FDA ever authorize that. The reason that's critical is that the FDA, if they're going to approve something as a prescription drug, needs to know how that drug is going to be manufactured, and needs to review clinical trials on the same product that's going to be sold."

Craker's facility would have offered an alternative source for FDA study and, perhaps, a strain that could someday be prescribed.

The DEA's decision comes grudgingly. Craker first submitted his application in June 2001, and this past July, after more than three years without an answer, Craker and the Belmont-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which would have financed the UMass facility, filed suit, charging the agency with stalling unreasonably.

In a Dec. 10 letter to Craker, the DEA's William J. Walker reasoned that granting approval "would not be consistent with the public interest," since "current marijuana research has not progressed to Phase II of the clinical trials [exploratory research into safety and efficacy, with human subjects] because current research must use smoked marijuana ...."

DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite declined to comment, pointing instead to the text of Walker's letter. But MAPS president Rick Doblin charges the DEA with essentially prejudging a study that has yet to take place.

"They're making this decision, before the research is done, that the research would show that it can't work." Moreover, he says, their claim is simply not true. State-funded Phase II research is indeed taking place right now in California. Also, the feds have stalled approval of MAPS-funded work with vaporizers, an alternative to smoking, for almost a year and a half.

"We knew that they would rather delay, as long as they could, than to explicitly telegraph to everybody that they're not going to permit the research to be done," Doblin says. But now that they have, "we get to argue them on the merits."

The next 30 days will find Craker, possibly in conjunction with MAPS, filing for an administrative-law hearing to appeal the decision once and for all – a process that, all told, could take more than a year.

Mirken, for one, isn't holding his breath. "As long as the DEA appears to have a deep prejudice against the medical use of marijuana, which their letter certainly suggests, the game will always be rigged. They will make you jump through these bureaucratic hoops, but they know what the outcome will be, because they've decided in advance what it's going to be."

Moreover, he says, what this finding means in the near term is that "the only way that [medical marijuana] patients are going to be protected is through changes in state law and changes in federal law. The Supreme Court might help us out some in Ashcroft v. Raich, but nobody's betting the farm on that. And even that would only provide protection to patients in states that have medical-marijuana laws."

Still, there may be a silver lining. "Now, what's going to happen is that this is gonna fuel more effort to pass state laws, even if the Supreme Court says the feds have primacy," says Doblin. Mirken, too, thinks state lawmakers will be compelled to pay more attention to medical marijuana once they "realize what [the DEA] has done. I think a lot of people have taken the view that Justice Breyer expressed in the Supreme Court two weeks ago when he said, 'Why don't you guys just go to the FDA?' With that door shut, legislators should see – and our job is to make sure they understand – that the actions they can take are the only protections available to patients for the foreseeable future."

"We're disappointed, but we're not surprised," says Mirken. "This simply illustrates, very clearly, how deep the official prejudice is against considering that marijuana might be a medicine. In the DEA's letter, they essentially pass judgment on research that hasn't occurred yet, saying that the deleterious effect would be too great. Isn't that for the FDA to judge? But I think in some ways it's probably helpful to the cause to have that naked prejudice out there in black and white. It's clear that there's this whole anti-drug bureaucracy that just has no interest in science."

From Dylan to the Blacklist

"Of course, now I realize that smoke should never enter the human lung. Not smoke from a cigarette, not smoke from a marijuana joint, not smoke from the exhaust of a car, not smoke from a burning match, not smoke from a smokestack, nothing! Smoke should never enter the human lung! Smoke is anti-life!"

Al Aronowitz is sitting in a booth at the International House of Pancakes in Elizabeth, N.J., reflecting on lessons learned. He's thinking back on a time in his own life when he smoked an awful lot. Specifically, he's remembering a night, Aug. 28, 1964, in Manhattan's Hotel Delmonico on Park Avenue. The night when he introduced his pal Bob Dylan to the Beatles – and introduced the lads from Liverpool to a poorly rolled joint of his own "evil weed." That night, he'd later write, "I was well aware ... that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music."

Once upon a time, Aronowitz knew everybody. As a cub reporter, he interviewed Marilyn Monroe. He could phone Frank Sinatra at the Sands. He traveled to San Francisco to study the burgeoning Beat movement with a sociologist's rigor and a hedonist's abandon. The unexpurgated, 10,770-word manuscript of his 1964 article on Beatlemania for the Saturday Evening Post is a masterpiece of long-form reportage, a kaleidoscopic up-close view of a seismic cultural shift. (It sold more copies than any issue since Ben Franklin founded the magazine, in 1728.) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his "Pop Scene" column in the New York Post had him rubbing shoulders with the Stones and the Band, and had people whispering his name when he walked into clubs.

But Aronowitz did more than just profile his subjects. He became their friends, and they his. Bob Dylan wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" in Aronowitz's kitchen. Aronowitz drove Dylan to buy his infamous Triumph motorcycle (the one he crashed in 1966 under still-mysterious circumstances). John Lennon photographed him with and without pants. Miles Davis played him his records over the phone. Johnny Cash once threatened to punch him out. Aronowitz was writing about rock and roll before that vocation became a cliché, but he was less reporter than participant. Art Garfunkel called him "Uncle Al, the man who introduces everybody to everybody."

But things fell apart. In 1972, Aronowitz's wife died of cancer. He lost his column thanks to conflict-of-interest charges made by his editor. (Aronowitz suspects there was a personal vendetta at work.) He had managed middling, money-hemorrhaging rock acts in the 1960s, and it cost him his house. The mid-1970s country music concerts he promoted in New York City were bombs. He was freebasing cocaine, dealing drugs, and descending into something approaching madness. "It all made me crazy," he says. "I was crazy. Really crazy." Suddenly, the man who had built his life around others was all but alone. If he wasn't officially blacklisted from journalism, the effect was the same. No one wanted to know the man who knew everyone. Not New York editors, not Bob Dylan. And to hear him tell it, Aronowitz didn't want to know himself.

But then, in 1995, his daughter introduced him to a still-new phenomenon: the Internet. If magazine and newspaper editors wouldn't take his calls, then fuck them; here was a new way to publish. In his dark and druggy days, he'd put out a scattershot Xeroxed 'zine called the Blacklisted Masterpieces of Al Aronowitz. ("YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE FAITH that this book will be recognized as an important literary work and a valuable collector's item to want to pay $100 for it!" trumpeted the 'zine's ad in the Village Voice. "MORE THAN SIX COPIES NOW IN PRINT!") But this was something else: a vast, uncharted expanse that a "compulsive writer" could fill with millions of words, a place where Aronowitz could tell his stories. He cleaned up his act, and got down to it. "The Blacklisted Journalist" was born.

Ten years later, sitting in his dark and detritus-filled apartment, Aronowitz, now 76, still writes almost every day, torrents of words preserving his rock-and-roll memories in cyber-amber. Some would argue the last thing the 1960s need is more documentation, more solipsistic, I-was-there-man reminiscences. But his Web site, and his self-published Bob Dylan and the Beatles: Volume One of the Blacklisted Journalist (AuthorHouse), a chunky paperback tome that collects the best of Aronowitz's writing from then and now, offer riotous and rambling time capsules, comprising detailed vignettes and told in a voice that's direct, disarming, and self-deprecating. It may or may not be true, as the book's promo materials proclaim, that FOR AS LONG AS PEOPLE KEEP LISTENING TO Bob Dylan and the Beatles, PEOPLE WILL WANT THIS BOOK!, but Aronowitz's anecdotes offer an inimitable inside look at the rock era's biggest players. (Next up, look for his "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine," a new book he says is timed to coincide with – and challenge the authenticity of – Kevin Spacey's forthcoming Darin biopic, "Beyond the Sea.")

Aronowitz is no longer the bombastic bear of a man who can be seen in photographs hobnobbing with Dylan and Lennon. After years of drug abuse and an open-heart surgery, he seems to have shrunk. Enormous glasses enlarge his sleepy eyes. His posture and bearing are stooped and subdued. Bouts of phlebitis have him walking with a cane, and his voice is sometimes barely audible. But make no mistake: Al Aronowitz still has a voice. He's got stories to tell, and he's sure as hell not going to wait until he's dead to have them told. "My writing has gotta speak for itself," he says. "Too many people have judged me, rather than judge my work. I'm not Picasso. Maybe I'm a prick. I dunno. But this is my love of loves, this is my work. These are stories of the times. I think they're interesting. That's the job of a journalist. To make sense of the story. And express yourself."

I meet Aronowitz and his girlfriend, Ida, at his hulking brick apartment building on the north side of hardscrabble Elizabeth, N.J.. As we make our way slowly downstairs toward the exit, Ida pauses, remembering that she's left her purse in the apartment. A gentleman, Aronowitz trudges back toward the ancient elevator to retrieve it. When he returns, he deadpans like a Borscht Belt comedian: "I couldn't find your bag, so I grabbed one off the first lady I saw."

At IHOP, Aronowitz sits across from me in a red Rutgers cap and bright blue cowboy shirt and starts at the beginning. Born in 1928, he grew up the son of an Orthodox butcher in Bordentown and Roosevelt Park, N.J. "A lot of anti-Semitism," he says. "I remember when the marshal came to repossess my father's [delivery] truck. My mother was beating on his chest, screaming, 'Don't take the truck away!' I was two or three years old." He went to Rutgers and majored in journalism. "A total waste of time," he says. "I learned more working on the college paper than I ever did in journalism class." When he got out, in 1950, the Phi Beta Kappa grad landed a job as editor of the Daily Times in Lakewood, N.J. Then he moved on to the Newark Evening News, and finally across the river to the New York Post.

At first, he manned the Post's night desk, "rewriting the New York Times for the morning edition." But before long, he was doing feature pieces. One of his first big assignments had him on a plane to San Francisco to profile the Beat poets. Aronowitz says Post editor Paul Sann wanted a hatchet job on this bunch of "dumb-fuck pansies posing as poets." Instead, as he would time and again with other subjects, Aronowitz fell hard for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, awed by their libertine lifestyle, their burning fervor. His 12-part series that ran in 1960 fell just this side of hagiography.

Aronowitz says it was Kerouac's "On the Road" in particular that "changed my life in many ways. It was about real people. I wanna know these people. I had visions of being a journalist so I could get to know them! Which is what I did. I befriended them, and got to know them very well." It was also during his time with the Beats that Aronowitz first smoked dope. Not long after, the Saturday Evening Post enlisted him to write a long profile of a young folkie phenomenon who was drawing fawning crowds to Greenwich Village clubs. The moment he met Bob Dylan, Aronowitz was starstruck. "I felt honored," he writes in "Bob Dylan and the Beatles," "to hang out with this mumbling 22-year-old kid, skinny as a scarecrow and wound up as a telephone cord."

"I was supposed to write a piece on Paul Newman, but I lost interest," he recalls. "I never finished the piece because Dylan stole my interest. It got to the point where I was so hung up on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, side A, that I never got around to turning the record over and listening to side B. For months." The two struck up a relationship, and before long were friends. Aronowitz says Dylan penned "Mr. Tambourine Man" after listening to Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" over and over in his kitchen. ("All night long! I wanted to go to sleep!") He hung out in Woodstock with Dylan and his wife, Sara. Aronowitz even claims credit for persuading the folk hero to go electric. "Dylan was a folkie purist," he says with a grumble. "I hate purists. Purists are like fundamentalists. And fundamentalism is what's wrong with the world. People who refuse to budge an inch, no matter what! These red states. These Muslim maniacs. These Jewish fanatics. I said, 'Bob! Today's pop hits are tomorrow's folk classics!' That was my argument. And I was right. I know I was right."

If meeting Bob Dylan changed his life, Aronowitz says his role in helping Dylan meet the Beatles changed the course of American popular culture. Aronowitz was there at JFK in February 1964, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post, when the Fab Four disembarked from their Pan-Am DC-8 to screaming, teary throngs. He knew right away what a cataclysmic moment it was. "As soon as I met the Beatles, man. The whole press corps were there, ready to shoot them down, with their poison pens pointed. But they got off the plane, and they immediately charmed the shit out of everybody."

The Beatles, of course, were swarmed by press, but Aronowitz had special access, afforded him by the fast friendship he struck up with their road manager, Neil Aspinall. (In one priceless detail in a Saturday Evening Post article full of them, Aronowitz spots Aspinall "expertly and flawlessly" forging the Beatles' signatures on programs meant for the queen.) So it was that this pop journalist was able to spirit Dylan into the Hotel Delmonico for a high summit meeting of the U.S.'s and the U.K.'s leading lights.

At first, Aronowitz recalls, the encounter was "very awkward, very demure. Nobody wanted to step on anybody's ego." So they tried to loosen up. Dylan wanted cheap red wine. The Beatles swilled their whisky and Coke, their pep pills in plastic bags on the nightstand. "They offered us pills, and we offered the Beatnik line," Aronowitz says. " 'Ah, pills are chemicals, man! You don't wanna put those in your body! Marijuana comes from the ground! It's natural!' " Still, the Liverpudlians were skeptical. Ringo was the guinea pig. Remembers Aronowitz in the book: " 'You try it,' John said."

"Soon, Ringo got the giggles," he writes. "In no time at all, he was laughing hysterically. His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing. ... We kept laughing at each other's laughter until every one of us had been laughed at."

In his cluttered apartment, Aronowitz reclines on an unmade bed with mismatched sheets, his wizened, stubbly face bathed eerily in the half-light of a single bulb. "It was all a big laugh," he says wearily, with a weak smile. "John's code word for getting stoned was 'Let's have a larf.' Then, later he called it 'Let's Al Aronowitz!' " He chuckles. "But reporters like to say it was Dylan who turned 'em on. I was the invisible man."

Still, Aronowitz was always keenly aware of the momentousness of the larf-fest he engineered. "I was just a proud and happy shadchen, a Jewish matchmaker, dancing at the princely wedding I'd arranged," he writes. "I hate to think that putting Bob together with the Beatles is the only thing I'll ever be remembered for, but I think it certainly was the right thing to do. Hasn't the whole world benefited? Look at all the beautiful music we have as a result! The Beatles' magic was in their sound. Bob's magic was in his words. After they met, the Beatles' words got grittier, and Bob invented folk-rock."

But regrets? He's had a few. "If I had one stinking iota of junk-bond swindler Michael Milken in me, I would now be worth millions for all the music mergers I arranged," he writes. "But I guess I wasn't enough of a hustler and a con man to compete with the sharks, wolves and snakes with which I had to deal. So now, I'm just a poor, broke, forgotten and ignored blacklisted journalist who has to give away all my stories for free on the Internet because I don't want to wait to be published posthumously. Boo, hoo."

Aronowitz admits that he idolized these megawatt luminaries, Dylan especially. Perhaps too much. "The Cat's Meow, The End, The Ultimate," he calls him in his book. "I adored Dylan too much to see him through critical eyes. I was too impressed with his hipness and too humbled by his artistry." Dylan could have "charmed the bracelets from the tails of rattlesnakes. I found him to be one of the most beguiling men I've ever known. ... To be with Bob was always magical. Every word out of his mouth impressed me as a gem. ... The universe I'd see in Bob's eyes never stopped jolting me."

He's also honest enough to recognize that these starry-eyed musings might as well be the study-hall notebook scribblings of a seventh-grader. But he doesn't disown them. Dylan might sometimes have been a cold and abusive person, but Aronowitz was willing to subject himself to his barbs just to be in his presence. "I liked being friends, I liked hanging out with Dylan," he tells me. "I mean, my God! I was just crazy enough to think he was the new messiah! We all had that feeling about Dylan. We really revered him."

But as his own life began to unravel, more and more friends started to fall by the wayside. He doesn't discount his own failings as a contributing factor. "Bob is another one of those old friends who have written me off," he writes. "I don't blame him. I got to be pretty much of a wreck. I can also look back at myself being something of an asshole. But then, assholism seems to be a chronic condition with me. As hard as I try to cure myself, there's hardly a day goes by without me remembering an occasion as recently as the day before when I was an asshole again."

Aronowitz was also starting to question the life he was leading, this go-go go-between, surrounded by supernova rock stars more than a decade his junior. "My wife was dying, and I didn't want to stay up till four o'clock in the morning getting high and then come in the morning to write a column, then come home and do the shopping, and everything I had to do to raise a family," he says. "My wife was dying, and I had three young kids, and I'm hanging out with the Stones."

He wouldn't be for much longer. It wasn't until just before he was unceremoniously stripped of his column and his life started to disintegrate that Aronowitz even began to intuit that his own personality, brio and writing chops were making him a semi-celebrity in New York City. "I'm unaware of all this," he says, still incredulous. "I'm unaware how big a star this column is making me. They call me a living legend! I walk into a club" – he whispers behind a cupped hand – "Al Aronowitz is here!" Oblivious to his own renown, he was happy instead to surround himself with the glow of stars. "I worshipped these people. I recognized them as immortals, as giants, as icons." He was building his personality around others, measuring his self-worth by the caliber of those who kept him around. But "I liked that position," he says. "It gave me some self-esteem. Which I was terribly lacking. It never occurred to me that I was worth anything."

Back at Aronowitz's apartment, you'd hardly guess that the guy who lives here used to hobnob with rock-and-roll royalty. The place is a mess. "I never won any housekeeping awards. I never tried for any either," he says unapologetically. The shades are drawn; the only light comes from a single wan bulb and a blue-glowing old computer. He putters around this cramped and cluttered labyrinth of ancient filing cabinets, stacked to the ceiling with books and files and papers from decades of journalism. Tall shelves are crammed with vinyl albums, old reel-to-reels of interviews, and studio masters of the bands he used to manage. He's covered them over with wide sheets of tattered newspaper, because "people kept stealing my records." Tabletops are covered with stuff: plastic bags, cassette tapes, orange prescription bottles, browning bananas, a canister of Ovaltine, a box of matzo. A transistor radio sits on the bathroom floor. Above one of the shelves hangs a large color photograph of Aronowitz, a cigarette between his fingers, his face fringed with Brillo-pad hair and stretched with a wide-mouthed grin. "Yeah," he says flatly, looking away. "That's when I was smoking cocaine."

On his desk, half-obscured, is a CD of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," the singer's T-shirt emblazoned with the same motorcycle Aronowitz helped him buy. Propped against a shelf on the floor next to his chair is a vinyl record of the same album. A screensaver rolls slowly across his monitor, orange letters on black background: FUCK ... SHIT ... PISS ... CORRUPTION.

Discovering the Internet was "the thing that made me sane," Aronowitz says. Becoming a cyber journalist offered the chance for a fresh start, "allowed me to make an end run around the blacklist," to free himself of editors' restrictions and revisions. Aronowitz hates editors. Not only has nearly every one he's ever known been a know-it-all, corrupt, or both, but he suspects one once may have cuckolded him. And they make him curb his word count.

He thinks back on a conversation he had with Frank Sinatra in the mid 1960s, when Aronowitz was still with the Post. "I called him. He was at the Sands, getting drunk. He picked up the phone. 'Al, I got $7 million. I don't need the New York Post. What do I wanna talk to you for? I don't need you. I don't trust the editors.' Now I understand. I don't trust editors either. They make me look like an asshole. My whole career! All editors are arrogant. Every editor thinks they can do it better than you wrote it. They're all full of shit. Dummies. If they could write, they'd be writers."

"Bob Dylan and the Beatles" and "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine" are just volumes one and three in Aronowitz's self-published "Blacklisted Journalist" paperbacks. (Volume two was penned by poet/firebrand Amiri Baraka, who's been friends with Aronowitz since the Beat days, back when he was still LeRoi Jones.) Two more books are forthcoming. One, "Mick and Miles," remembers when Aronowitz introduced Jagger to Davis. The other, "For Adults Only," features risqué pieces from six writers who pen guest columns on the "Blacklisted Journalist" Web site. Distribution for that one might pose a problem, however. "Some hick salesman in Indiana said it was pornographic. His mind is in the 18th century."

On Aronowitz's computer screen are two documents, works in progress, with just a few sentences and fragments at the top of each blank page. He's got plenty more stories to tell. Sure, he's no longer surrounded by A-list stars. He sits at home and writes, watches "The Price Is Right" and the Red Sox. ("I'm anti-Yankee. I don't reward arrogance, and that's all they have going for them.") He goes to the movies. He really liked "Ray." "I didn't see any difference between the Ray [Charles] I knew and the Ray on the screen."

One wonders if he misses the people he was once so close to. He used to be a confidant to Bob Dylan; has he ever thought of making an effort to get back in touch with the guy? Aronowitz just stares at me, bemused. "Why do I wanna?" He laughs mirthlessly. "What am I gonna ask him? He kicked me out!" He stares at me again, long and disconcertingly. "If he wants to be friends again, it's fine with me."

If not, Aronowitz is happy to keep telling tales. "Some writers say, 'I gotta challenge the reader!' I don't believe in challenging the reader," he says. "I believe in putting my arm around 'em and telling 'em a story."

Sitting in the gloaming of his tiny apartment, Aronowitz seems glad to have someone to tell his own story to. As I leave, he grabs a copy of his Bobby Darin book from a box full of them, and inscribes it with a shaky, old-man scrawl. "For a good LISTENER! – Al Aronowitz." With his Web site and his books, the rock-writing pioneer is doing for himself what he once relied on others, the stars he surrounded himself with, to do for him: ensuring he'll be remembered. "I was collecting giants," he says. "I was collecting immortal souls." Then, after a long pause, "I thought some of their immortality might fall on me."

Faces of Death

It was a little more than two weeks ago that NBC News broadcast a piece of video from Fallujah that was both startling and sickening. U.S. Marines are seen walking into a mosque where several injured, unarmed Iraqi insurgents are lying on the floor. Although NBC censored the audio, we now know that one of the Marines excitedly said, "He's fucking faking he's dead. He's faking he's fucking dead." The Marine aims his rifle – and shoots the insurgent in the head.

For a few days, at least, the video clip – taken by freelance journalist Kevin Sites, a veteran war correspondent – seemed certain to become one of the signature images of the war in Iraq. And perhaps it will. An investigation is under way, and if and when the young Marine who pulled the trigger is publicly identified, the image may take its place in the pantheon of wartime horror. To this point, though, something odd has happened, or rather hasn't happened. Because so far, it seems, the clip is already fading from memory, and has not joined such terrible images as the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, or those of the American contractors who were butchered and mutilated in Fallujah a year and a half ago, or the heart-stopping photos of casualties, many of them civilian, on display at falluja.blogspot.com, or even the unseen but easily imagined execution of Margaret Hassan, killed in cold blood after a lifetime of helping the Iraqi people.

Why this should be is hard to say. But here's a guess: we know too much to let the clip stand alone, without context. In Susan Sontag's 2003 book on photography and war, "Regarding the Pain of Others," she writes that "to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. ... A photograph – or a filmed document available on television or the Internet – is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict." There was a time, perhaps, when Sontag's insight would have been regarded as a revelation. Today, though, it's commonplace. In introducing Sites's report on the Nov. 15 NBC Nightly News, anchorman Brian Williams said, "It illustrates how complex and confusing life can be on the front lines of this war," thus setting the stage for an ambiguous interpretation of video that appeared, on the surface, to be pretty unambiguous. Sites provided more context, reporting that American forces had been killed or injured by the booby-trapped bodies of dead insurgents, and that the Marine who shot the injured Iraqi had himself been shot in the face the day before.

Thus, rather than being cast as a symbol of all that's gone wrong in Iraq, the Marine has been treated almost as an object of pity. To be sure, that has not been universally the case. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called for an investigation into whether the Marine may have committed a war crime. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, went so far as to say that "there is a prima facie war crime here that deserves court-martial." And yes, Arab news services such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, not to mention Web sites that spew flat-out propaganda on behalf of the Iraqi insurgency, have reportedly been showing the video constantly. But among the American media, even staunch anti-war critics have been subdued.

The reason, I suspect, is that Sontag's lesson was internalized a long time ago by a generation of Americans who grew up learning about atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam, who blamed young American soldiers for a failed and immoral policy, and who later realized they were pointing the finger in the wrong direction. What that young Marine did in Fallujah was horrifying. But it didn't take place in a vacuum. Rather, it took place in the midst of days upon days of street-to-street fighting, of exhaustion, of fear, of split-second decisions that could mean the difference between life and death. What happened in that mosque was a tragedy, but who among us could say that we wouldn't have done the same thing? The real tragedy is that a scared young man made a mistake, while there are no consequences for the far more serious mistakes committed by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al.

This is NOT to say that the Marine shouldn't be held accountable. What he did may not have been a war crime, and a court-martial seems pretty drastic for his spur-of-the-moment reaction to a potentially dangerous situation. (Indeed, according to the current U.S. News & World Report, unnamed Pentagon officials expect the Marine will be cleared of all charges.) But to argue that he should not be locked up in Leavenworth is not the same as saying that he did the right thing. Sites wrote a long, impassioned entry on his weblog, www.kevinsites.net, on Nov. 21, eight days after the shooting. Numerous reports have made clear Sites' empathy for the troops with whom he has been embedded. Yet what's been overlooked to some extent is the degree to which Sites, and those around him, understood that something had gone drastically wrong inside the mosque.

Sites wrote about the Marine coming up to him after the shooting and saying, "I didn't know, sir – I didn't know." Sites added, "The anger that seemed present just moments before turned to fear and dread." And he wrote that "observing all of this as an experienced war reporter who always bore in mind the dark perils of this conflict, even knowing the possibilities of mitigating circumstances – it appeared to me very plainly that something was not right. According to Lt. Col. Bob Miller, the rules of engagement in Fallujah required soldiers or Marines to determine hostile intent before using deadly force. I was not watching from a hundred feet away. I was in the same room. Aside from breathing, I did not observe any movement at all." And for those who would argue that Sites should have, well, lost the video, he had this to say: "Hiding this wouldn't make it go away. There were other people in that room. What happened in that mosque would eventually come out. I would be faced with the fact that I had betrayed the truth as well as a life supposedly spent in pursuit of it."

These are the words of an honorable man pursuing an honorable course. Yet so twisted with rage are some of our so-called patriots that they have all but accused Sites of treason for telling the truth – the whole truth, complicated and contextual, explaining not just what the Marine did, but what he had been through before he did it. Sites makes it clear that the U.S. Marine Corps itself is anxious to find out what happened, to learn whether a breakdown in discipline and training had occurred that could place other Marines in danger. To some here at home, though, things look a lot simpler.

Take, for example, "Frank from Malden," who called The Howie Carr Show on WRKO Radio (AM 680) the day after Sites's report aired on NBC. Calling himself "a former Marine and very proud of it," Frank said, "I think this young gentleman should have got a medal for what he did." Then there was this: "I would think that the reporters in country should kind of be looking over their shoulder. Because if the reporters are going to put these kids in that situation, they may have some friendly fire there, you know?" An incredulous Carr asked, "What, do you think they're going to frag this guy the next time he goes out, this Kevin Sites?" Frank replied, "It could happen. That's the way it was. It could be again, you know?" Frank laughed and hung up. Carr seemed momentarily flustered; he then recovered and said that Sites "seems to be a real pro," and that he presumably could not have gotten his video out of Fallujah without military approval.

Yet Frank from Malden's point of view isn't all that unusual. In 1965, Morley Safer, then a young reporter for CBS News, accompanied some Marines to a group of Vietnamese villages known as Cam Ne. What Safer observed was the first televised American atrocity of the war. The Marines set fire to thatched huts, and threw hand grenades and fired flamethrowers down holes, killing the civilians who were cowering inside. It would have been even worse if Safer's South Vietnamese cameraman hadn't intervened. As described by David Halberstam in "The Powers That Be," CBS executives were deeply unhappy when they saw Safer's story, knowing – then as now – that they would be accused of being unpatriotic, of undermining the war effort, by putting the truth on the air. "They knew they had to go with it," Halberstam wrote. "It was not so much that they wanted to as that they simply could not fail to use it." And so they did. And so CBS president Frank Stanton was awakened the next day by a phone call from Lyndon Johnson, who told him, "Frank, this is your president, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag."

As we all know, to this day you can still find reasonably bright people who believe that it was the media that lost the war in Vietnam – that the United States never lost a battle, but it lost the larger fight because the media undermined morale and dissipated support for the effort. Well, it's true enough that we never lost a battle in Vietnam; nor are we likely ever to lose a battle in Iraq. But the dilemma then – and, one fears, the dilemma now – is that no matter how many battles we win, the war can't be won because it's based on false premises. How can we win a war that we're fighting on behalf of people who hate us and who want us to leave their country? In any case, covering up the truth is hardly the solution, then or now.

"I feel very strongly that everything should be shown," says Jules Crittenden, a Boston Herald reporter who was embedded with the Army's Third Infantry Division in the spring of 2003. "In this particular case," Crittenden says of Sites, "he had a job which is very unambiguous. His job is to record what's going on. The military invited him there with full awareness – and I know, because I've spoken to many of the people involved with designing the program – that the embed will produce good, bad, and ugly. The military, in establishing this program, understood that there are going to be some bad days. I think they have always expressed a great deal of faith in the professionalism and fundamental goodness of American soldiers. You don't have a bunch of loose cannons running around out there. And they can trust their people to deal with this. I don't think that sense of trust that the military has on their own part or the trust of the American people has been violated by this incident. There's an investigation under way. The majority of people out there seem to understand the context in which this situation happened."

Context is vital, but it can also change, and it's never complete because everything can't be included. Another moment from Vietnam: in 1968, Eddie Adams photographed South Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan at the very instant that he executed a Viet Cong fighter with one bullet to the head. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, which seemed to encompass all the insanity and immorality of that war. Yet Adams, who died earlier this year, later came to see it quite differently. He got to know General Loan, and realized that the execution was perfectly justified; and he regretted that Loan's life was made much more difficult because of that infamous image.

"Photographs, you know, they're half-truths, you know, that's only one side," Adams told National Public Radio in 1998, shortly after Loan's death. "It's just a sad statement, you know, I think of America. He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and ... all the blame is on this guy. I got to know him pretty well. I talked to him the last time about six months ago. He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while. And I talked to him on the phone, and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life, and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said let it go. And I just didn't want him to go out this way."

I asked Dirck Halstead, himself a former war photographer and an acquaintance of Adams, whether he could draw an analogy between Adams' experience and Sites'. Halstead, now the editor and publisher of a magazine called the Digital Journalist, responded by e-mail. "In general, photojournalists are like cops. They have pledged themselves to always do the right, ethical thing. However, we all have heard of countless police officers who have become traumatized as a result of having to shoot someone in the line of duty. Unfortunately, this comes with the turf," Halstead told me. "Kevin Sites was covering a battle, as a pool embed. His job was to record what was going on. He was as surprised as Adams was by what happened. He also, obviously, was conflicted and confused by what he had just shot. ... He clearly has bonded with the men he has been covering. This happened with most of the pool reporters and photojournalists who have covered the war. This makes it even more difficult, since he obviously feels he let his comrades down. But he has to keep in mind why he was there, and what his job was. I feel for him and want to express to him my respect for a job well done."

Adams only learned of the broader context of Nguyen Ngoc Loan's life later, after his photo had been seen around the world. Sites tried to offer what context he could in his original report – the exhaustion, the fear, the booby-trapped bodies, the death that lurked around every corner. But a photographer can, at best, help tell the story of what's happening just outside the range of the viewfinder. The broader context – the broadest context – remains elusive. On Nov. 17, NPR's Melissa Block interviewed an Al-Jazeera spokesman, Jihad Ali Ballout. The subject: why Al-Jazeera was running Sites' video on an almost-continuous loop, whereas it refused to show the execution of Margaret Hassan, a video that network officials have admitted is in their possession. Ballout told Block that "these atrocities of killing innocent people, especially people such as the late Mrs. Hassan, was really an outrage. There is a difference between that and when there is a whole army of 20,000 military people converging on an area in Fallujah." Block responded by asking whether Al-Jazeera was using a "double standard" in showing the Sites video but not the Hassan execution. Ballout didn't really have an answer.

Now, of course, the Hassan execution does not balance off the Fallujah mosque incident in any way, and the moral equation is complex. On the one hand, what happened to Hassan does not somehow justify the misbegotten war in which we are now embroiled. On the other hand, it is useful to remind ourselves – and it is obviously useful for the Arab world to remind itself – that what the Sites video documents is not the moral equivalent of shooting Margaret Hassan in the head. One was a split-second reaction to a confusing, possibly deadly situation. The other was an act of terror in the most literal sense – that is, it was the taking of an innocent life solely for the purpose of spreading terror. One was a tragic mistake. The other was pure evil. But though we should surely see both – as well as the bodies of the civilians who have died or been maimed by our arrogant act of liberation, as well as the beheadings and the Abu Ghraib images and everything else – we travel down a dangerous road when we use these images to try to justify. At best, they help us to understand, however imperfectly.

"The meaning of these pictures is not embedded in the video itself. What people think about this video is going to depend on what they think about the war," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston University's journalism department, and who is a former war correspondent for ABC News, praises in-depth reportage, such as Dexter Filkins' Nov. 21 New York Times article on accompanying U.S. troops in Fallujah, for educating the public about the terrible consequences of urban warfare. "There has been a realistic picture presented of what these guys are up against," he says. "You read that stuff and you can understand what's going on over there, why anybody would pull the trigger first and ask questions later. Human beings have the blessed ability to make distinctions. We can distinguish between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. The reason we can do that is because of good reporting in each case."

The problem – the tragedy, really – is that though the images tell us much about the way the war is being conducted, they tell us little about the wisdom of the war, or even its ultimate cost. It says much about this war that we can see pictures of a Marine killing a wounded insurgent, of Iraqi inmates being tortured, and of atrocities committed against Americans and other Westerners by terrorists, yet we cannot see the flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. That – as well as the additional suffering we've inflicted on the already-long-suffering people of Iraq – is the ultimate context.

Five on the Floor

When the new Senate storms Capitol Hill early next year, the narrow Republican majority of the past two years will disappear, to be replaced by a much wider Republican majority. Currently, the Senate comprises 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and an independent – Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, a former Republican who usually votes with the Democrats. Because of last week's election, the Senate will soon seat 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and Jeffords.

Who are these people? Unlike the House, where Republican members lead lives of near-anonymous fealty dictated by Speaker Dennis Hastert and majority leader Tom DeLay, senators matter as individuals – not as just a voting bloc. There are moderate Republican senators, such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, of Maine; Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island; and Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania – who nearly got his head handed to him last week for daring to suggest that anti-choice judges might not pass muster. There are religious conservatives, such as Sam Brownback, of Kansas, and Orrin Hatch, of Utah. And there is Jim Bunning, of Kentucky, who's in a class by himself: last week he was re-elected despite widespread reports that he has Alzheimer's disease, and even though two of his supporters had sneeringly suggested that his Democratic opponent was gay.

Seven new Republican senators were elected last week. Two are unremarkable. Mel Martinez, of Florida, was George W. Bush's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Despite a poor record on the environment, Martinez deserves some thanks from Democrats: he and the White House intimidated Congresswoman Katherine Harris (yes, that Katherine Harris) into not running for the Senate this year. In Georgia, Republican congressman Johnny Isakson will succeed Democratic senator Zell Miller, who's retiring. Isakson – a moderate who's pro-choice (except when he isn't) – may well be more a voice of reason than Miller has been. That said, Isakson's outburst earlier this year that Bush is "the best president the United States has ever had" was certainly embarrassing, if not nearly as embarrassing as Miller's red-faced rant at the Republican National Convention.

What remain are five genuine specimens of right-wing Republicanism. Keep an eye on these guys. They're dangerous.

1) Tom Coburn: Keeping us safe from condoms and the 'gay agenda'

Fresh from helping to save Oklahoma from the scourge of teenage lesbianism, Tom Coburn arrives in Washington with perhaps the most bizarre set of right-wing credentials of anyone in the Republican Class of 2004. A former three-term congressman who was swept into office 10 years ago on the coattails of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, Coburn – who succeeds retiring Republican senator Don Nickles – is an obstetrician possessed of an obsessive fascination with other people's sexuality.

In 2003, George W. Bush named Coburn to co-chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. Coburn's very first act was to speak out against the one preventative behavior (other than abstinence) that actually works. "I will challenge the national focus on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV," he said upon his appointment. Earlier, as a congressman, he had sought to force condom manufacturers to label their products as "ineffective" in slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

But that doesn't begin to plumb the depths of Coburn's so-called thinking. In his successful Senate campaign against Democratic congressman Brad Carson, Coburn called for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. That certainly gives new meaning to the term "pro-life." As a physician, Coburn himself performed abortions, although he says it was always to save the life of the woman. Tell it to the judge, Doc. Nor is that the only dissonant note from his career in medicine: Coburn was once accused of having sterilized a young woman without her permission. He says she had asked him to perform the surgery, though he conceded that he had lacked the written authorization that the law required.

In the 1990s Coburn criticized NBC for broadcasting Schindler's List, the Oscar-winning film about the Holocaust, charging that it would encourage "irresponsible sexual behavior." That particular outburst was so odd that even one of his ostensible allies, self-appointed morals czar Bill Bennett, felt compelled to label Coburn's remarks as "unfortunate and foolish." Coburn is also an outspoken opponent of the "gay agenda" in general and same-sex marriage in particular; as a member of Congress, he refused to allow the city of Washington to fund its program for domestic-partnership benefits.

Earlier this year, Coburn said that lesbianism is "so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl [at a time] go to the bathroom." Coburn's source: a campaign worker. He later said his remarks had been taken "out of context," whatever that was supposed to mean. His spokesman gamely insisted that Coburn was worried that "our kids are getting mixed messages about sexuality." Mixed-up, rather, if they've been listening to Coburn.

Sources: Salon, September 13, 2004; AlterNet, March 28 and October 13, 2004; the Associated Press, October 12, 2004.

2) Jim DeMint: 'The Family' values, homophobia, and tax chicanery

If Tom Coburn is #1 on our list of exotic senatorial specimens, South Carolina's Jim DeMint might qualify as #1A rather than #2. Congressman DeMint, who defeated Democrat Inez Tenenbaum in the campaign to succeed another retiring senator, Democrat Ernest Hollings, belongs to a secretive religious organization with anti-Semitic leanings, and is a tax-cut hypocrite and an outspoken homophobe to boot.

The decades-old religious group, best known for sponsoring the annual National Prayer Breakfast, is generally known as "The Family," "The Foundation," or "The Fellowship." A magnet for high-ranking conservative Washingtonians, it is said to have supported some vicious Third World right-wing dictatorships over the years – as well as performing the occasional good deed, such as helping to foster the relationship between Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat. Members also reportedly believe that God's covenant with the Jews is broken, and that they are "the new chosen." DeMint is close enough to the inner circle to have lived, along with five other congressmen, in a million-dollar Capitol Hill apartment subsidized by "The Family."

During his campaign against Tenenbaum, though, DeMint's membership in this little-known group was far less of an issue than his mouth was. At a debate in October, DeMint said, "If a person wants to be publicly gay, they should not be teaching in the public schools." Even a local Christian Coalition official and DeMint supporter named Bette Cox said, "I wouldn't have said that. It's a civil rights issue with me. You can't cut off someone's civil rights." DeMint refused to apologize – although he did apologize for saying that unwed, pregnant women should not be allowed to teach either. And he declined to fire an aide who'd sent out an e-mail referring to "fags" and "dykes" (or, to be more precise, "dikes").

One of DeMint's key issues during the campaign was getting rid of the federal income tax and replacing it with a 23 percent flat national sales tax. It's an idea that President Bush himself has been cozying up to in recent weeks. The simplicity of such a system is undeniably appealing, but, unless carefully designed, it would be the mother of all regressive taxes, biting deeply into the poor and the middle class for everything they buy. So it's pretty amusing to learn that DeMint is a serial tax scofflaw, repeatedly making late payments on his federal, state, and local taxes between 1987 and 2001.

If nothing else, a flat federal sales tax would prevent well-connected people from gaming the system. People such as Jim DeMint.

Sources: Harper’s magazine, March 2003; the Associated Press, April 20, 2003; the Columbia State, October 4, 2004; 365Gay.com; Salon, October 7, 2004.

3) David Vitter: Putting young men and women in harm's way

The election of Louisiana congressman David Vitter to the Senate is an ominous sign of the problems facing the Democratic Party, especially in the South. Vitter won more than 50 percent in a multi-candidate election last Tuesday, thus avoiding a runoff next month. The retiring incumbent, John Breaux, is a Democrat who's conservative enough to inspire teeth-gnashing among liberals. But unlike Zell Miller, who these days sounds more Republican than Dick Cheney does, Breaux is a Democratic loyalist capable of pulling off the occasional bipartisan compromise. Vitter, though, is a straight-down-the-line ultraconservative.

According to rankings published by the National Journal, a nonpartisan political magazine, Vitter is the most conservative congressman elected to the Senate this year – more conservative than 87 percent of his peers. He has a 100 percent ranking from the National Right to Life Committee; a zero percent ranking from Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay and lesbian civil rights organization; a zero percent ranking from the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club; and an "A" from the National Rifle Association.

Vitter's opposition to reproductive choice is so unwavering that he has co-sponsored legislation to require doctors who prescribe RU-486 – a drug that, if used properly, can induce a safe, nonsurgical abortion – to have both the ability and the necessary equipment to perform a surgical abortion should one become necessary. As James Ridgeway observed in the Village Voice, "That's a little like asking a doctor who prescribes heart medicine to be able to do open-heart surgery, right there in the clinic."

Vitter was also responsible for inserting a provision into the No Child Left Behind Act that requires public high schools to supply the names and phone numbers of all juniors and seniors to military recruiters – an invasion of privacy that could have tragic consequences for impressionable, economically stressed young men and women. (To be fair, generous opt-out provisions are included.) When asked to explain his reasoning, Vitter said the previous nondisclosure policy "demonstrated an anti-military attitude that I thought was offensive."

Somehow, no right-wing success story is complete without an example of grotesque hypocrisy. So let the record show that, for several years now, Vitter's supporters have been denying the claims of a Louisiana prostitute that she'd had an 11-month affair with Vitter when he was a state legislator. For the record, we don't care whether the story is true or not. But you'd think the Christian Coalition, which gives him a 100 percent rating, and the Family Research Council, which grades him at 92 percent, would care quite a bit.

Sources: AlterNet, September 29, 2003; the Village Voice, March 27, 2001; Louisiana Weekly, December 29, 2003; National Journal, February 27, 2004. Interest-group rankings from Project Vote Smart.

4) Richard Burr: Corporate errand boy scoops up PAC money

North Carolina has come a long way since the days of Jesse Helms. Its Research Triangle is as sophisticated and well-educated as – well, as in any blue state. So it's only appropriate that John Edwards's successor in the Senate stand out as being somewhat different from his fellow Republican freshmen. To be sure, Congressman Richard Burr is as anti-choice, anti-gay, and pro-gun as the rest of them. But he comes from that strain of Republicanism more interested in sucking up to corporate interests than in joining hands with the godly.

How in the tank is Burr? With $2.4 million in donations, this distant relative of Aaron Burr received more money from political action committees than did any other Senate candidate this year. "The main people he looks out for and answers to are the large corporations. That is the most troubling thing about Richard Burr to me," says Berni Gaither, a North Carolina Democratic Party official. Democratic activist Hayes McNeil puts it more succinctly: "Burr's record in Congress looks like a whore's bed sheet."

The good life, Burr-style, can be awfully good indeed. In April 2002, the National Association of Broadcasters – the fine folks who brought you corporate media consolidation – flew Burr, first-class, to Las Vegas for its annual convention. The amenities included poolside drinks and a massage, although Burr reportedly reimbursed the association for his spa stay. "It's extremely valuable for members to get that overall snapshot of their particular industry," said Burr, who at the time was vice-chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "If not, we rely on everyone to come up here and tell us how things have changed."

North Carolina remains a place apart. Burr and his unsuccessful Democratic opponent, Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, were falling over each other to take credit for a federal buyout of the state's struggling tobacco farmers. But there is an area where Burr stands out: his contempt for the environment. The League of Conservation Voters has named Burr one of its "Dirty Dozen" (along with fellow freshmen senators-elect John Thune and Mel Martinez). The particulars: he supported President Bush on an energy bill provision protecting manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from lawsuits over groundwater contamination; he voted six times against a ban on drilling for oil off North Carolina's Outer Banks; and he has opposed efforts to reduce mercury contamination and greenhouse-gas emissions.

"He has one of the worst environmental records on clean air and clean water in the U.S. Congress," says Mark Longabaugh, the league's political director. "That's one. Two, throughout his entire career he has shown a bias toward special interests, oil and gas or other polluters."

Sources: the Raleigh News & Observer, October 27, 2004; the Durham Independent Weekly, July 7, 2004; the Washington Post, March 11, 2003; Grist magazine, October 26, 2004; National Review Online, September 22, 2004.

5) John Thune: A simple-minded campaign of flag-waving and heterosexuality

Of all the freshmen Republican senators-elect, there is one celebrity – John Thune, of South Dakota, who knocked off Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. But though Thune, a former congressman, is an ultraconservative with ties to the religious right, he doesn't stand out for any particular policy outrage. Rather, Thune is a master of the sort of political cheap shot that excites the imaginations of those who like their symbolism both simple and stupid.

Take, for instance, a debate between Thune and Daschle on NBC's Meet the Press. Thune was agitated over something Daschle had said in March 2003, just before the war in Iraq began – that is, that "this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." Never mind that a) Daschle was speaking the truth, b) he had voted in favor of the war resolution and later backed the $87 billion in reconstruction money for Iraq and Afghanistan, and c) he was a veteran and Thune was not. Thune took the opportunity to accuse Daschle of something close to treason, saying, "What it does is emboldens our enemies and undermines the morale of our troops."

Or take a proposed constitutional amendment against flag-burning – a cause that you might have thought had gone out of style with George H.W. Bush way back in the 1980s. Not, apparently, in South Dakota. "Unfortunately, Senator Daschle has consistently voted against this amendment. My record on this is very clear," Thune said at an event in Rapid City featuring some three dozen veterans, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Don't you wish you'd been there?

Or, finally, take a radio ad that the Thune campaign broadcast this past summer that attempted to lump together Washington, Massachusetts, gay marriage, and Daschle in one unsavory stew. "The institution of marriage is under fire from extremist groups in Washington, politicians, even judges who have made it clear that they are willing to run over any state law defining marriage," Thune intoned. "They have done it in Massachusetts, and they can do it here."

This is just ugly, nasty stuff. The intellectual dishonesty of it all is matched only by its sheer brazenness. By appealing to voters' fears and by demonizing anyone who would get in his way, Thune, unfortunately, demonstrated that he is well-qualified to join the Republican majority.

Sources: the Washington Post, September 20, 2004; the Rapid City Journal, South Dakota, September 22, 2004; Salon, September 30, 2004; the Advocate, July 16, 2004.

Spin Doctor

Tom Waits has worn a lot of hats in his 31 years of recording. Well, mostly that rumply fedora – the one that looks as if he'd picked it out of a dumpster behind a Salvation Army mission. But he's borne the mantles of bar-room poet, beatnik troubadour, lo-fi champion, and stumblebum sonic visionary with equal comfort and increasing success. Now add to those "protest singer."

"Real Gone" (Anti), which came out Oct. 5, is full of the ruminations on love, death and sin that have become his stock. But even Waits, who seems to have created his own universe both in the realm of his art and in the way he conducts business, appears to have been affected by the undercurrents of fear, violence and greed that now ripple through America. "Sins of the Father," with its broad images of destruction and doom, the spoiled-dreams ballad "Trampled Rose," and "Day After Tomorrow," a letter from a soldier to his sweetheart at home, all are distinct products of the post-Sept. 11 Bush era.

Of course, Waits isn't going Phil Ochs on us, and elsewhere on this odd-as-usual-sounding album, he introduces us to the residents of a gypsy circus and assorted denizens of the urban demi-monde. He also seems more in thrall of the late bluesman Howlin' Wolf than ever. Certainly Wolf, like the barbed-wire-throated hipster poet Lord Buckley, has always had some sway over the growling vocal tone Waits uses, but the tight-knit rhythmic interplay of Wolf's classic Chess albums has direct bearing on new tunes like "Don't Go into That Barn." Guitarist Marc Ribot, an occasional Waits accompanist since the mid 1980s, liberally quotes and pays tribute to Wolf's six-string foil Hubert Sumlin throughout Real Gone. And in case you thought Waits had exhausted his timekeeping arsenal after years of banging on chests of drawers, trash-can lids, and amplifier reverb boxes, well, he's got another instrument up his sleeve and in his soiled jacket: Tom Waits, human beatbox.

When Waits began his career, in 1973, with the album "Closing Time," he was in essence a modern variation on the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith. Granted, his address on that songwriters' row was strewn with cigarette butts and empty bourbon bottles, but if you shuffled the trash aside, there was plenty of hope visible, especially in the beautiful "Ol' 55," which was later recorded by the Eagles. After a long spell that might be called his Bukowski period, Waits started really surprising his listeners in 1985 with "Rain Dogs" (Island), a sensitive, urban album full of sweet dreamers and sweet dreams along with bumpy little miracles of shuffling rhythm like "Clap Hands," an angular number about being shanghai'd that would make a good soundtrack to the pursuit sequences in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

There were brilliant albums in between, but perhaps the biggest surprise came in 1999 when his "Mule Variations" (Anti-/Epitaph) sold a million copies of its uneasy listening tales dipped in Delta mud and mania. Or maybe the shocker was seven years earlier, when "Bone Machine" (Island), which set its lyrics of lamplight burials and backwoods slayings to a near-industrial crunch that many Waits diehards pronounced unlistenable, won a Grammy.

The blend of beauty and evil in "Real Gone" makes it a logical successor to Waits's double-album blitz in 2002, when he released "Alice" and "Blood Money" (both on Anti-/Epitaph) simultaneously. Both of those discs were dark and tormented. In "Alice," Waits spun Lewis Carroll's obsession with Alice Liddell, the girl for whom he wrote "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," into an often-affecting ode to unrequited love. No easy task, that, but soft-centered tearjerkers like "Fish & Bird" resonated with the same undisguised sentimentality as the Waits standard "Tom Traubert's Blues" from '76's "Small Change" (Island). "Blood Money" was another crimson-drenched matter, full of croaking odes to Mammon packed with lies, lust, and murder.

"Real Gone" embraces both ends of that thematic spectrum and wastes no time raking muck. "Hoist That Rag," the second tune, comes slithering in on upright bass played by Primus's Les Claypool, and it sounds like the tale of a couple of lowlife mobsters – until we learn that they have the power to "heave and turn the world around." "At night I pray and clean my gun," a thug sings, also offering a concise depiction of George W. Bush's contradictory ethos. As for the "rag," it's likely wearing stars and stripes.

Waits slides into his warmest croon for "Sins of the Father," but the tone is equally strident as he indicts God, the Father, for His complicity in our bloody affairs of state, which put us "smack dab in the middle of a dirty lie/The star-spangled glitter of his one good eye/Everybody knows that the game was rigged/Justice wears suspenders and a powered wig." "Trampled Rose" is more delicate all around, with Waits summoning the memory of gentle metaphorical dreams of the days when Americans shared a vision of their nation as an influence for good – a beacon of diplomacy, leadership, hope, and justice at home and abroad.

The most poignant of these politically loaded numbers is "Day After Tomorrow." Waits uses a hoary songwriter's device, a young soldier's letter home, but he gets so deep inside the character that you're not likely to remain untouched. The letter speaks of missing the banality of raking leaves and shoveling snow at home in Rockford, Ill., as the music gently hums along. "I still believe there's gold at the end of the world," Waits sings in a cottony melody as the solider hangs onto his ideals while waiting for the airplane that will wing him back to the U.S. in two days. But he also wearily reports that "they fill us full of lies, everyone buys/About what it means to be a solider/I still don't know how I'm supposed to feel/About all the blood that's been spilled." He goes on, "You can't deny, the other side don't want to die any more than we do/What I'm trying to say is don't they pray to the same God that we do?/And tell me how does God choose/Whose prayers to refuse." His conclusion: "I am not fighting for justice/I am not fighting for freedom/I am fighting for my life and another day in the world/Here I just do what I've been told/We're just gravel on the road/And only the lucky ones come home."

There's more to "Real Gone" than reflections on our current collective predicament. Fans of Waits the nighthawk will dig his detailed portrait of the twisted soap-opera characters who populate his "Circus," like Horse Face Ethel and her Marvelous Pigs and one-eyed Myra, the ostrich trainer. And "Metropolitan Glide" assembles the motliest crew of shady partiers since the Chicago blues songwriter Willie Dixon first pitched his "Wang Dang Doodle." The disc opens with a DJ cutting and Waits whipping his wind before raggedly piping into a rhythmic chuff and grind. Elsewhere, flashes of Jamaican rocksteady and Latin beats and melodies seep into the stitching of this singular songsmith to fit his quirky design.

But the warm blood of the blues give plenty of these songs their pulse, and in particular the stylings of Howlin' Wolf. "Shake It" is a refraction of Wolf's "Shake for Me," and the intense rhythmic interplay of Waits's musicians, who include his long-time accompanist Larry Taylor playing most of the bass lines, recalls the brazen, seamless chug of Wolf's greatest ensemble on the 1962 "Rocking Chair" Chess album. "Don't Go into That Barn" even lifts the guitar riff from Wolf's "I Ain't Superstitious," but by the time that rumbles in, almost halfway through the 16-song album, it's no surprise. Marc Ribot is saluting Hubert Sumlin, that riff's inventor, right from the start – when he's not making like a Latin king or a '50s jazzbo.

Ribot deserves a lot of credit. Sumlin, who is currently recovering from a heart attack and stroke, is not an easy musician to emulate. His 1950s and early 1960s performances with Wolf were decades ahead of their time, full of slippery zinging sounds, extreme note bending, key-defying solos, and terse riffs that yanked strings in all directions. It's fair to say Sumlin remained in a league of his own until the late Robert Quine came along in the late 1970s to make similarly idiosyncratic statements supporting punk poet Richard Hell in his band the Voidoids and, later, Lou Reed.

That kind of idiosyncrasy possessed by Waits, Wolf, and Sumlin is a mark of greatness. No matter what source, style, and predecessors such artists draw upon, in the end, they always sound like themselves. And in that way they bare a part of their souls – which in turn allows us to see and to feel a little bit more of our own.

Senator Granny of New Hampshire

New Hampshire – Forget the Bush twins and the Kerry girls. Put Teresa and Laura out of your mind. The most intriguing woman of this election season may well turn out to be Doris Haddock, the 94-year-old New Hampsherite better known as Granny D.

The nonagenarian became a neo-populist folk hero back in 1999, when she walked from Pasadena, California, to Washington, DC, to champion campaign-finance reform. Now she's running for U.S. Senate in the Granite State. Her mission: unseating popular Republican incumbent Judd Gregg.

Haddock, who was something of a press darling during her cross-country trek, has yet to reclaim the media spotlight. There have been no The Daily Show appearances, no chats with Dave or Conan – at least, not yet. But Haddock has the potential to serve as a sort of Democratic secret weapon. After all, she's a cute old lady who dispenses devastating takedowns of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. And with the recent addition to her campaign of Joe Trippi – who presided over Howard Dean's improbable ascent last year and is aiding Haddock as a consultant on a pro bono basis – Haddock's chances of waging a meaningful battle on behalf of the Democratic Party have greatly improved.

But while the potential for a funky insurgency is undeniable – just think of all those disenfranchised Deaniacs at the University of New Hampshire who will be desperate for something to do this fall – the reality is that Haddock faces long odds. Gregg, a two-term incumbent, previously served as governor and enjoys broad support throughout the state. Democratic state senator Burt Cohen planned to challenge Gregg in this year's general election, but no one really gave him much of a chance, either. When Cohen exited the race after his campaign manager absconded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, it left a vacuum only Haddock was willing to fill. "It's like running against Ted Kennedy," says PoliticsNH.com's James Pindell of Haddock's challenge.

Then there's the delicate matter of Haddock's nine-plus decades – her pledge to serve only one term notwithstanding. Haddock is a charismatic woman who gives a mean stump speech. In her interactions with the public, she inspires protectiveness, reverence, and general delight. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are vulnerable to Haddock's charms as well; both Jimmy Carter and John McCain have lauded her as a Great American. But while Haddock is lucid and energetic, her age is impossible to ignore. Her skin, etched with a multitude of deep lines, resembles fine but very worn leather. When she speaks in public, her voice is strong, but in one-on-one conversation she is much quieter, pausing often to process questions or track down elusive words. When Haddock walks – and she plans to walk more than 200 miles between now and November to bring her message to the Granite State's voters – she does so with the trademark stoop of the very old, leaning toward the earth, breathing heavily from emphysema-afflicted lungs, and periodically clutching her aching back as she strides ahead. Yes, Haddock is spry. But she's 94 years old.

Given her age and her competition – as well as her seeming lack of enthusiasm for John Kerry (more on that later) – the true nature of Haddock's quest remains unclear. Is she a Democratic asset waiting to be tapped? An amusing novelty candidate, a la Fred Tuttle? Or, in a worst-case scenario, a worrisome liability in a very important election year? With Election Day less than three months away, no one – not even Haddock herself – seems entirely sure.

Haddock's campaign-kickoff speech last Thursday morning, which she delivered in the middle of Portsmouth's Market Square, felt like an outtake from an old black-and-white film. In her youth, before she became a wife, mother, and anti-hydrogen-bomb activist, Haddock studied public speaking at Emerson College, and her oratory is still marked by aspirated T's, dramatic cadences, and an upper-crusty, pseudo-British accent.

This style may be dated, but it also lends old-newsreel drama to her words – and the words she uses in calling for national health care, criticizing the war in Iraq, and railing against corporate domination of politics are often compelling. "There are many people who are doubtful that a 94-year-old woman can get from here to the U.S. Senate, but there are good reasons to think this campaign will work – and I am not in the habit of losing," Haddock declared. "Democracy cannot be hired out. There is too much power involved, and it corrupts absolutely if we, the common people, do not manage it ourselves with a humble spirit and a willingness to cast our own self-interest into oblivion.... If our choice is between a strip-searched Fortress America and, on the other hand, the beautiful world we all long for, what is keeping us from making the beautiful choice? Is it the distortions of the political system? The special interests? The selfish posturing of people who call themselves leaders but who, in fact, only take up valuable space at a critical time in the world's history? Well, let us joyfully roll over them."

The picture of Doris Haddock that emerges when you spend time with her resembles the one presented in her book, "Granny D: You're Never Too Old To Raise a Little Hell" (Villard, 2003) – that of a woman who, despite her age and diminutive stature, knows what she wants, usually gets it, and is not to be trifled with. For example, after pondering campaign-finance reform with a group of friends in her hometown of Dublin, New Hampshire, Haddock – who was recently widowed and also mourning the death of a close friend – undertook her epic 1999 walk to help make the next stage of her life meaningful.

The truth is, though, that Haddock had to be cajoled into running for Senate. Five hours and one five-mile walk after her campaign kickoff, and fresh from a restorative nap, Haddock sits in the lush back yard of a Portsmouth supporter and tells me how she came to enter the race. Earlier this year, she was on the road, registering voters in battleground states, when fatigue prompted her to return to Dublin for a few days. While she was there, Cohen dropped out of the race at the last minute, leaving prospective replacements precious little time to step in.

"My son came to me one morning at 6:30," Haddock recalls. "He had been listening to the radio, and he said, 'How would you like to run for the Senate?' I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' He said, 'No, but poor Dan [sic] Cohen has tried to resign, and you've got until 5:30 tonight to decide whether or not you want to do it.' And I said, 'Well, I don't want to do it. I'm not qualified. I'm not ready for it. I mean, at 94 – that's crazy.' And he said, 'Well, it would give you a chance to have a platform – you could try, you might not win, but at least you would be able to talk about what your love is, and that you would not have it any other way.' So I said, 'Gee, I hadn't thought about that. That's true.'" Next came a hastily arranged meeting with state Democratic Party officials, in which Haddock promised she'd fight to win and vowed to support John Kerry (she voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, but now says she regrets doing so). By the end of the day, Haddock – whose experience as an office-holder has been limited to a stint on Dublin's town-planning board – was a freshly minted Senate candidate.

As her self-deprecatory tone suggests, Haddock is not a boastful woman. Because her modesty comes across as genuine, it is endearing, and it could serve her well if she embraces the role of anti-Bush spokesperson this fall. Too many iconic figures on the left – and since her legendary trek, that is what she has become – argue with a grim earnestness that rallies the faithful but can be off-putting to undecided voters. In contrast, Haddock has a lighter touch, and an appealing willingness to consider alternate points of view.

Sometimes, though, she takes this willingness too far. While Haddock napped, I discussed her candidacy with former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, a Republican known for his bipartisan approach. He was not impressed. "People in New Hampshire aren't going to look at Doris Haddock as someone who has the kind of background, either legislatively or as an executive, to hold a Senate seat," Rudman said. "The only thing this lady is known for is walking around the country on behalf of campaign-finance reform. I commend her for that, but it's not enough to be a U.S. Senator."

When I told Haddock of Rudman's comments, she was surprisingly concordant. Instead of assuming her anti-special-interest stance and delivering a quick rebuttal – "Qualifications mean squat if you've sold your soul to corporate donors!" – Haddock accepted Rudman's premise. "I don't blame him in the least!" she said. "I think a lot of people will think that. A lot of people would say, 'Why would we put in a woman when we have a substantial man who has good standing in several committees?'" (Gregg chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and sits on the Appropriations and Budget Committees.) Haddock then spent several minutes detailing her business background – noting, for example, that in two decades working at Manchester's Bee Bee Shoe Company, she had managed employees, designed footwear, and priced the company line. Like many older people, Haddock seemed to have difficulty escaping the pull of the past and resurfacing in the present as she spoke. But most older people are not waging first-time Senate campaigns.

It's going too far to suggest that missteps like this may seriously harm Haddock, for the simple reason that – even if she were perpetually on point and aggressive – her chances of ousting Gregg are minuscule. In a recent University of New Hampshire poll, Gregg enjoyed a 65 percent to 20 percent lead over Haddock; while 19 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of her, 68 percent said they didn't know enough about her to pass judgment. Even Haddock's confidant, Dennis Burke – who says the Haddock campaign will paint Gregg as a dependable ally of George W. Bush – admits the Republican senator will be difficult to demonize. "He's not a knee-jerk neocon," Burke says of Gregg. (Gregg himself did not respond to a request for comment.)

The implications of Haddock's run go beyond her particular race, however. In 2000, Bush won New Hampshire by approximately 7000 votes; had Al Gore captured the state's four electoral votes, he would be president today. Currently, Bush and Kerry are running close in New Hampshire. Some observers think that, when the New Hampshire Democratic Party traded Burke for Haddock, Kerry's chances in New Hampshire may have taken a slight but significant hit. "Burt Cohen, at the time he left the campaign, had about 20 staffers signing up voters, canvassing neighborhoods, getting out a Democratic message that reinforced John Kerry's vision," says NHPolitics.com's Pindell. "Now you have a campaign run out of one house in a small southwestern town of New Hampshire with a few volunteers and now, finally, some paid staff.... The only argument I've heard that Haddock can help Kerry is that she'll siphon off Ralph Nader supporters to vote [for Kerry]. The problem is, she's done absolutely nothing to bring these people into the Democratic Party."

Factor in Haddock's tepid feelings about Kerry, and the situation becomes even more worrisome for Democrats. Haddock was an enthusiastic supporter of Dennis Kucinich – whom she describes as the "wave of the future" – and Kucinich-campaign veterans have filled key positions on her staff. She is less excited by Kerry. "I think Kerry is going to be a good president," Haddock says of the Democratic nominee. "He understands the man on the street, I believe, and so I think that he will be a good interim." A glowing endorsement it is not.

Yet Joe Trippi rejects the idea that Haddock's candidacy could hurt Kerry. "The great unifying force in the Democratic Party is George Bush," Trippi says. "From the Democratic Leadership Council to the Dean folks, we're all united. I know Doris supports Kerry." And, for good measure, Trippi insists Haddock has a fighting chance this fall. "The only way Gregg can be beat is by somebody that's different," he says. "Somebody who isn't looking over her shoulder worrying about being re-elected, who isn't going to look at every single vote in the Senate and how to reward her supporters, but is going to do what every senator should do, which is go there and change a busted and corrupted system. Granny D walked the entire country trying to do that. There's no other motive for her than to go and effect change. She's as real a shot as anybody's going to get at sending somebody to Washington who'll be dedicated to changing things."

Haddock herself doesn't seem so sure. Sitting in her supporter's back yard, I asked Haddock to assess her chances against Gregg. "I'm going to beat him. I'm going to beat him!" she replied. Then a hint of doubt crept in: "I'm going to work to beat him; I may not do it, but I certainly expect that I have a possibility of it, or I wouldn't be wasting my time." Then, still more doubt: "Although I guess maybe that's not entirely true, because I do have this chance to talk about public funding [of elections]. And I want to educate the people in New Hampshire about what it means and what it would be like."

Considering her advanced age and the novelty of what she's experiencing, it's understandable that Haddock would be unsure what to make of her own campaign. But time is short. For the sake of the nation's Democrats, now would be a good time for Haddock and her inner circle to decide what, exactly, the character of her candidacy is going to be.

Harnessing the Youth Vote

An emerging generation of young, progressive Democrats is networking, brainstorming, and organizing to fill a gap in liberal politics. Because the Democratic Party has long failed to harness their energy, these young people are trying – with the help of several new and extant organizations – to channel it themselves by tapping into their own resources and using the tools of their generation. Their goal? To help build a stronger base and revitalize the infrastructure that has left the party stagnant and struggling against conservative opponents.

Many of the major players in this developing movement were in Boston during last week's Democratic National Convention, and they had more than John Kerry on their minds. Like all Democrats, they know that winning the election this November is essential. These up-and-comers are staunch Kerry supporters, dedicated to getting George W. Bush out of office. But they have identified a weak spot in the party, and to fix it requires a much more farsighted approach than the next-election focus Democrats have held on to for years.

Long-term investment in the party's younger base, missing until now (at least in concentrated form), is a vital part of renovating the Democratic strategy, they say. And a well-organized infrastructure – nuts-and-bolts stuff like fundraising, media communication, candidate training, voter mobilization, and grassroots activism – is imperative to winning back not only the White House in 2004, but the House, the Senate, and state governments (Republicans control four more legislatures and six more governorships than Democrats do) over the next 15 to 20 years.

"The '90s was a period when the party really modernized our message," says New Democrat Network (NDN) president Simon Rosenberg, referring to the centrist rhetoric of the Clinton administration. "What's happening now is that we're modernizing our politics. It's going to make us stronger."
Rosenberg's organization is not a new one – the NDN has been around since the 1980s. Other groups, like MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, also focus on revamping the party's inner workings. But in a May speech, Rosenberg acknowledged that to tackle the challenge comprehensively requires "a new generation of progressive leadership – entrepreneurs, investors, intellectuals, and political leaders."

A major problem, however, is that the Republicans have been cultivating the younger generation for years, which is how they managed to capture both houses of Congress and (for 16 of the past 24 years) the White House in the first place. The need for this strategy has its roots in the 1950s, when conservatives found themselves losing relevance, ground, and influence in the national debate. During the 1970s, particularly in the wake of the Nixon administration's Watergate crisis, Democrats held as many as 70 percent of the seats in the country's state legislatures; from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Around 30 years ago, however, GOP right-wingers kicked into high gear on a mission to grow their party, and they started small, focusing on state races and investing serious time and money.

"They were out of power for a really long time," Rosenberg says. "They set out in a very strategic way, in a very long time-horizon, to try to change the future of the country." He calls the conservative movement an "information-age Tammany Hall," a reference to the heavy-handed (and occasionally corrupt) Democratic political machine that dominated New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Meanwhile, "Democrats never did it," says Joe Trippi, the man behind former presidential candidate Howard Dean's rocket-like primary-campaign rise. Its failure to establish a young-voter-outreach organization has put the party at a disadvantage, he says. Now, however, technology has given liberals the chance to catch up by channeling the combined power of the Internet and the generation that grew up with it.

"If information is power and the Internet is distributing information democratically to anyone who has the 'Net, then the Internet is not distributing information anymore, it's distributing power," Trippi said at a DNC networking session for young progressives. "There is only one hope for our democracy, and I believe this fervently," he told the crowd of about 40 young professionals. "It's you and the 'Net."

But when that session broke up into small discussion groups focused on particular areas (such as fundraising, media, and grassroots training), and the young men and women started sharing ideas and strategies, it became clear that they didn't need to be told how valuable they are. "They've figured out if they want to change things, they have to participate – and they are," Trippi says.

Indeed, the ambitious leaders behind new organizations like 2020 Democrats, the Center for Progressive Leadership, the Campaign for a National Majority, and Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century know what is missing from the party they support and what they can provide. Taken together, these groups address a broad spectrum of issues and counter similar efforts from the other side of the aisle. Their focus goes beyond the conventional young-activist age range of 18 to 24 to encompass people in their mid-to-late 20s and 30s. They're in college and graduate school, working their first jobs, starting families. And, at the convention last week, they showed up to offer their suggestions for a Democratic resurgence.

Take the Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL), created in 2003 to recruit and train what regional coordinator David Zipper, 26, calls progressive "change-makers" – a farm team of rising leaders ranging from candidates to campaign operatives. Many areas of the country have liberal activists and operatives who encourage potential candidates to run in municipal elections for city-council or school-board seats. Later in a candidate's career, the state Democratic Party itself, or outside organizations like the single-issue-oriented EMILY's List, will often support primary winners in larger elections. But the CPL has identified a gap during the time between those two races, says Zipper – the several years a progressive might spend "dabbling in politics, deciding if you want to be a candidate."

"We don't have any national leadership-development programs that are taking progressive leaders and providing them with the tools they need," Zipper says. The tools he's referring to – mentoring, help with fundraising, skill coaching – may seem like campaign common sense. But they are complicated, labor-intensive, and hard to come by. "That process of seasoning campaign staff ... is just extremely important and often overlooked," says Karlyn Bowman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based conservative think tank. "B-team" members who start young and build a base of political knowledge often grow up to be party leaders, she says, citing the Democrats' Terry McAuliffe or the Republicans' Ed Gillespie.

The Democrats, however, have done little to nurture budding talent. "We have not, as a party, focused on building a farm team," acknowledges 34-year-old Kelly Young, executive director of 21st Century Democrats, a group focused on giving candidates grassroots support to build name recognition and gain experience in running local campaigns. "Everyone is recognizing that what we've done in the past hasn't been enough."

The conservative Leadership Institute, on the other hand, has spent 23 years and millions of dollars developing those services. On its Web site, the Arlington, Virginia-based institute says its mission is "to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in the public policy process." The organization offers courses in areas like broadcast journalism, campus elections, or Internet activism, taught by activists like Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and Republican senator Mitch McConnell. "[Conservatives] developed this when their back was against the wall," Zipper says. "We've never had our back against the wall until now." But today, it's "readily apparent how much ground we've lost."

One of the ways liberals hope to regain that ground is by following the conservative model of running and financially supporting candidates in local races. The Campaign for a National Majority (CNM), spearheaded by Harvard Law School students Michael Fertik and Daniel Richenthal, aims to accomplish just that – with the added bonus of involving young people in the process. The group began about a year and a half ago, when Fertik, 25, and Richenthal, 27, recognized the absence of Democratic efforts to reach out to young, professional liberals. When they tapped into their contacts from college, work, and law school, they ended up with a list of people in their 20s and 30s who wanted to get involved but didn't have the time to research candidates or the money to feel they were making a real difference. So, Fertik says, he and Richenthal decided to "find out where they can have impact with that smaller amount of money" – a message reminiscent of Howard Dean's "$100 revolution."

As a result, they've chosen two 2004 elections, one in Texas and one in Iowa, where they think fundraising help will make the most difference. Fertik estimates that CNM will raise several thousand dollars in bundled contributions from its young donors to disperse to the two candidates – David Leibowitz in Texas and Jeff Danielson in Iowa. Like the conservative Club for Growth, which advises potential donors on which candidates to support, CNM eliminates the time-consuming task of identifying where dollars can have the greatest impact. In 2006, Fertik hopes to raise $10,000; the goal is "not to get too big too fast" because "the way to be the most effective is to pick a limited number of candidates each time," and no race is too minor. With any luck, candidates who win will move up the pipeline to bigger things. "On both sides of the aisle, a lot of rising stars start at the state level," says Richenthal. Helping a candidate win a municipal election might not be that glamorous, Fertik admits, but "it'll be sexy" as soon as that candidate decides to run for governor or Congress and helps tip the power scale back toward Democrats.

It's easy to see how these new organizations fit together in a long-term pattern: In a few years, one could imagine candidates that have gone through leadership training at the Center for Progressive Leadership getting financial backing from the Campaign for a National Majority. The New Democrat Network and 21st Century Democrats have similar candidate-endorsement programs, while 2020 Democrats, a one-year-old group formed as a vehicle for young people to discuss and influence long-term party policies, is working to involve and promote new thinkers in the party. And that's not counting the many nonpartisan organizations aimed at increasing political participation. "The whole point is to bring in new people," Fertik says of the smorgasbord of organizations. "We're not staking out turf." Young, of 21st Century Democrats, agrees: "There really has been unprecedented levels of cooperation."

These efforts are complemented by updated voter-mobilization campaigns created to address a variety of concerns. When people start to vote, they tend to think of themselves as members of the party they vote for, Trippi points out. "These people are going to be involved for a long time." So it makes sense that several groups are starting to think creatively about reaching out to young voters. It makes even more sense when you look at statistics: According to the US Census Bureau, only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds and 50 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds voted in the last presidential election – the two worst showings among all demographic groups.

To counteract this trend, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party, the Young Democrats of America (YDA), is using a combination of strategies to reach as many people as possible. For less political voters, it holds club nights where DJs talk about issues and candidates; in swing states (YDA is focusing on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Wisconsin), it joined five other organizations to form the Youth Voter Alliance. All these groups concentrate their resources on increasing youth registration and turnout.

However, even the YDA admits that its party has somewhat neglected the youth element. "We're definitely far behind," admits Jane Fleming, the group's spokesman. The disparity has ranged from mentoring to fundraising – in 2002, the College Republicans had $4 million to spend on mobilization, compared to the YDA's $1 million.

"There's a mix of science and strategy," says Young. She emphasizes the "less sexy part of the process" (her organization makes sure to maintain contact with people in the period between registration and Election Day) that feeds into the rest of the pipeline – those who vote are more likely to become active in politics, and then to run for office, and so on. "It's a winning strategy," she says, noting that the Republicans' 1994 congressional takeover was really the result of grassroots efforts reaching back 15 years.

"We have the patience to watch change unfold over a long period of time," says Josh Green, co-founder of 2020 Democrats. The challenge of revitalizing the party, then, will be not just to make use of all new resources, both human and technological – youth energy, organizations, and the Internet – but also to dominate them, particularly the latter, to disseminate the Democratic message and bring more people into the fold. And there's no one better positioned to do so than young people – it's "their tool, their language," says Trippi.

"There's no question we have to build it," Rosenberg says of the party's overall structure. "I don't know exactly what it's going to look like in 10 to 15 years." But if things continue on their current trajectory, the party's horizon should stretch ever farther.

Jesse Jackson Speaks

Progressive Democrats were out in full force on Thursday afternoon – the final day of the Democratic National Convention – at their own "shadow" convention, held across the Charles River, at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, in Cambridge. The three-day-long rallying effort, dubbed "Take Back America," had made headlines on Tuesday, when more than 1000 people turned out for pep speeches delivered by the two rock stars of the left wing of the party – former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore.

On Thursday, by contrast, the scene was far more subdued. The afternoon session, "Organizing to Take Back America," offered up the nuts-and-bolts of good grassroots action to several hundred loyal progressives. Leaders of the well-heeled political groups registering and mobilizing voters nationwide – from America Coming Together to the Campaign for America's Future (which sponsored the shadow convention) – expounded on the secrets to their voter-mobilization strategies, as well as a few election predictions for the 2004 presidential race. The general consensus among them? Never before has there been a more cohesive, more effective get-out-the-vote effort from the left. Indeed, they optimistically conclude that progressives (some 20 million Americans) represent the constituency that will lead the John Kerry and the Democratic Party to victory.

But the most interesting (and unusual) part of the panel came with the appearance of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a veteran of the progressive movement. I had attended the session specifically to hear Jackson. But when he ascended the podium, I had a hard time discerning his message. He gave a rambling, off-the-cuff speech that covered such disparate topics as the Iraq war, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida in the 2000 elections, the ongoing civil-rights struggle, and the use of "liberal" as a dirty word. Suffice it to say, Jackson's speech lacked any real focus and no connective tissue. But he did manage to spit out a fair share of juicy sound bites. Some of them included:

o "There cannot be a monochromatic progressive movement in this country."

o Progressives are "heavy in the thought department, but have no power shaft. To get from here to California is hard to do without an airplane."

o "In an environment of stolen and frozen votes [a reference to Florida in 2000], the Bush administration has now suggested the idea of suspending the elections. What if they find bin Laden suddenly on October 31. Or on Halloween. Will they say we need to suspend the elections? You might say to me, 'That's absurd.' But is it? ...I'd say we're operating under a real cloud over the integrity of our voting ability."

o "We can win this election and still lose. If our votes count, we can vote in a civilized government. If they don't, we can't."

o "When Kerry wins, the anti-war movement will get bigger by the day."

o "The power we seek doesn't come from the top down. It comes from the bottom up, from people like you.... The people's movement made Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton make the right choices."

o "I want the Democrats to get some definition of who they are. I'm not going to run away from being called a liberal. America is a liberal idea! America is a liberal idea! America is a liberal idea!"

Whatever Jackson said, he fired up the progressives in the audience, all of whom responded with a rousing standing ovation. Now, apparently, they're ready to go back to work.

Free Speech Through Fences

Ladies and gentlemen, please remove your shoes for inspection." The command booms out over the thousands of people queued up on Causeway Street, waiting to enter the FleetCenter for the first session of the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please be prepared to present your dental records."

Vermin Supreme, long-time political-protest gadfly, pauses for a moment, then brings the bullhorn back to his lips.

"Please be prepared for a full-body-cavity rectal search. Remember, it is in the name of national security, and is part of your Patriot Act."

"Oh my God!" squeals a pleasingly pump young woman in a lavender pantsuit, as dawn – finally – breaks over Marblehead. "And I'm ready to take off my shoes!"

It was the intent of the convention organizers to keep Vermin, with his ratty fake-ocelot fur hood and natty red, white, and blue-sequined vest, firmly caged. And the cage they constructed for that purpose is a fine one, indeed. Cement barriers, eight-foot-tall chain-link fencing, hardware cloth, heavy black monkey netting, and razor wire are all contrived to keep demonstrators "from throwing things" at conventioneers, according to one published report. Delegates leaving the buses and walking into the FleetCenter can hear, but only dimly see, the shadowy figures inside the Cage.

However, convention planners failed to take a few things into account. The exit from the protest-zone Cage opens on to Canal Street, where access is not restricted. And instead of arriving at the FleetCenter on shuttle buses that would have whisked them by the back of the Cage to the main entrance of the FleetCenter, thousands of convention delegates and guests decide to take their own transportation and walk up Causeway Street. The Causeway Street entrance to the FleetCenter was designed as a secondary entrance, and only one person can enter at a time. The line backs up for blocks. So on Monday night, the protesters seize the opportunity to engage the delegates directly and head out the back gate of their Cage for Causeway Street. (Indeed, shortly after seven, the Cage is largely empty, occupied primarily by tourists having their pictures taken with the Is this what democracy looks like? signs pinned to the wire.)

At first, the protesters wait until the attendees pass through the gate and into their own enclosure – not too different from the first layer of the Cage – to engage them. A man on the other side of the enclosure wears a press pass identifying him as Robert Gurley, of Indyradio in Santa Cruz. He yells at those entering the FleetCenter: "Quit posing and stand up for something. Stand up!" Sometimes a protester can be defined simply as someone who has an opinion and no convention credential. "This is how we get to talk to you," he says, his fingers wrapped through the mesh.

Robert O'Brien, a Dean alternate from Maine who is attending his third convention, stops and talks with Gurley. Afterward he explains, "I just feel that these are people who are passionate. They're behind a fence." But their sense of disproportion concerns O'Brien. "What I am worried about is we're talking about fixing the kitchen when the freaking roof's on fire. We've got to make sure that George Bush doesn't have the chance to appoint three Supreme Court justices."

As time passes, and the few cops on hand do nothing, the protesters grow bolder, come closer. They jam the intersection of Canal and Causeway, spilling for several blocks down Causeway.

Most heckles are generic, although a Free DC protester with a tricorn hat and roller blades targets Washington, DC, mayor Tony Williams for special abuse. Two women dance as they hand out Planned Parenthood's STAND UP FOR CHOICE stickers. The supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, now specializing in streetside a cappella music, sing the Freedom Riders' anthem "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody (Turn Me Round)." Several movement veterans burst into laughter. "Not bad, not bad at all," says one as he holds up his credential for inspection.

An agitated young Kerry supporter walks up and down, armed with a campaign sign and a lot of frustration. "The hard left continues to be hostile to me," he complains. "Think about it. The people on the far left do not understand that if we do not unite together it will be a hard fight." A Free DC supporter bangs a drum in his ear. Chain-smoking National Lawyers Guild observers in fluorescent-green T-shirts watch quietly. Another young man, demonstrating there is an imperceptible line between half drunk and half-wit, keeps screaming "V-Tek for president! He beat A-Rod!" "Enough already," snaps the cop, in one of the evening's few displays of official temper.

Finally, a few minutes after nine, police reinforcements show up with barricades. It's growing dark, and some of convention-goers still in the creeping line are growing a bit nervous. A cop asks Vermin to step back behind the barricade. Vermin, in a routine he and the cop know well, asks what happens if he doesn't. The cop cheerfully explains that he will have to call a wagon and have him arrested. That's okay by Vermin; he just wants to make sure the cop is playing by the rules. He steps behind the barricade, and shortly thereafter decides to call it a night.

Professor Don Mitchell of Syracuse University's Maxwell School calls the growing trend of creating demonstration zones at political events the "ghettoization" of protest. Indeed, where once protesters were rigidly segregated only at major events and where not too many years before that, they were barely segregated at all, the confinement of protesters has now become commonplace. It is now routine at Bush-administration political events for police and Secret Service agents to create special protest areas, typically located beyond viewing distance from the actual event. The policy applies only to protesters with dissenting views. Recently, the ACLU sued the Secret Service over allegations that anti-Bush protesters were removed from locations where the president would be speaking while Bush supporters were allowed to remain. That case was dismissed after the Secret Service, which never admitted to the segregation policy in the first place, said it would not differentiate in the future.

During convention week, however, it's hard to avoid the impression that free speech is breaking out all over. Despite Democratic organizers' best-laid plans, these protesters managed to get closer to convention attendees than had any protester in recent memory. Indeed, during Teresa Heinz Kerry's speech at the FleetCenter Tuesday night, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, a women's peace group whose members are easily identified by the fact that they wear bright-pink slips with the slogan PINK SLIP BUSH stamped on them, wangled a press pass to get onto the convention floor. She held aloft a US OUT OF IRAQ sign, but was immediately surrounded by delegates from Colorado who tried to hide the anti-war slogan from view. As she was jostled by Democrats from the Rocky Mountain State, a Dennis Kucinich delegate from Alaska came to her rescue ("We're supposed to be better than the Republicans," he explained) before she was whisked out of the convention hall (shouting "US out of Iraq" as she went) by convention security officers and Secret Service agents.

For the most part, nothing was thrown, and nobody got hurt – even if a few delegates did take off their shoes. Meanwhile, members of the Young Republican Executive Committee dress up in rubber sandals and stomp around Faneuil Hall. Falun Gong has taken over Copley Square. And just across from Boston Common, Libertarian Ian Scott, 26, of Mission Hill, wears a hand-lettered sandwich board that says CONSERVATIVES ORGANIZED TO CRUSH KERRY.

"I just wanted a good reason to walk around with a sign that said 'cock,'" he explains cheerfully. Scott is part of the Free State Project, which is trying to get 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire and take over elected politics. Why New Hampshire? "We had a vote, and the second-place winner was Wyoming."

"Essentially, in layman's terms, we're going up there and vote each other into office," Scott says. "It's not essentially a takeover per se," he adds reassuringly.

Inside the convention hall, interested delegates can view a pictorial history of their nominee's commitment to civil disobedience. When the Vietnam Veterans Against the War marched on Washington, in April 1971, Richard Nixon locked them out of Arlington Cemetery. So they took their "military incursion into the country of Congress" to the Capitol, occupied the steps of the Supreme Court, and camped on the Washington Mall. When the Nixon administration tried to evict them, the federal court ruled they could stay on the Mall, exercising their right to free speech, as long as they stayed awake. The vets voted, and John Kerry announced their decision to ignore the order and sleep. The DC police declined to arrest the dozing vets.

Under the Patriot Act, of course, Nixon would have no need to seek court intervention, and the DC police would not have to commit an act of civil disobedience. Today, the vets could be simply rounded up and incarcerated indefinitely. It is, after all, a Time of War.

The feel of protest and the spirit of rebellion infuse DNC-related events, even when there's, well, no protest to be found. At Howard Dean's and the Campaign for America's "Take Back America" conference, the fire marshal has locked things down. No one is allowed to go in; outside, an overflow crowd sits on the grass, as scheduled speakers come out on the patio to reprise their talks for the crowd. They are hoping to catch a glimpse of Michael Moore, but the filmmaker's security team isn't sure they want to let him out in the open air. Too easy to target.

Meanwhile, in the lobby, the air is confident. "We're going to win the election, and we're going to push John Kerry," to make good on his health-care promises, says Congressman Jim McDermott, the Shelby Foote of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. As he waits for a wink from the fire marshal, which will allow him upstairs, the congressman is optimistic about the Democrats' chances of recapturing the Senate, and maybe even the House. "The House is on a knife edge," he says. "Some of these races are going to be won by 100 votes." The Republicans do not have a clue, he says, because they do not poll the right people. "They poll perfect voters, and these kids are not perfect voters. Kids don't vote in three out of the last four elections." However, it is these kids – those engaging in protest at the DNC, those who backed Dean, and those who worship Moore – who will provide the 100-vote margins in 2004.

Over at the Hip-Hop Summit at Roxbury Community College, Leonard C. Alkins, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, is thinking about those kids and strategizing for the future. Hundreds of people have turned out for this event, and each one has been asked to fill out a voter-registration card. If they are too young to vote, their names are entered into a database for future follow-up. Inside the Reggie Lewis Track and Field House, Boston election commissioner Michael Chinetti demonstrates the new optical-scanning voting machines, and shows how they create a paper trail. "Anyone who is partisan in any fashion, we are asking them to step back," says Alkins. "This is for our young people, so they think they are not being used."

Outside the summit, a PETA carrot prances, and the LaRouche volunteers, tired of being under the gaze of Nation of Islam security, break for a pizza. Across the street, Mike Yossarian – "I've heard all the jokes" – has set up shop for Volunteers for Nader. Along with Fraeda Scholz and a woman who calls herself simply Emmia, he awaits the return of Nader ballot petitions, for which they are paid per signature. They have been traveling the country in a Honda Accord station wagon for months now. For these former Kucinich supporters, war is the number-one issue. Backing Kerry simply isn't an option, says Scholz. "Why do I have to compromise everything I believe in and he doesn't have to compromise anything?"

There has been a lot of talk during this convention about free speech and civil rights. But in a world where delegates readily take off their shoes for Vermin Supreme, and attendees at a John Edwards party at the Rack happily hand over their IDs for scanning through a "visitor management system" with recorded name, date of birth, and gender checked against the invite database, it seems that many people have adjusted too easily to the creeping loss of civil liberties. And it's much harder to regain liberties lost than it is to hold hard to them in the first place.

Over at St. Paul's Cathedral, at a forum on the Patriot Act, Dennis Kucinich is calling John Kerry the "kind of politician that remembers where America came from."

"We didn't flee an empire to become an empire," Kucinich says. "We have to continue to challenge the status quo.

"We have to rage against the dying of the light," Kucinich cries, and the house roars.

But perhaps there is an English major or two in the audience who aches to put that line in context. It is not a warrior's call. Rather, inspired by what he witnessed at his father's deathbed, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote those lines about surrender to the inevitable. "Old age should burn and rave at close of day," Thomas wrote, and one hopes Kucinich's use of the line is not prescient: "Though wise men at their end know dark is right,/Because their words had forked no lightning they/Do not go gentle into that good night."

Bourne to Run

Anyone looking for an escape from the issues of the day in the movie theaters may be out of luck. Shun Fahrenheit 9/11 or any of its coterie of left-leaning documentaries for the cheap laughs of Anchorman and you get an indictment of the lackadaisical news media. The special effects of Spider-Man 2 barely conceal its anxiety about the unholy collusion between science and corporate power. And as much as you might try to forget, the slapdash action of The Bourne Supremacy (and the upcoming The Manchurian Candidate remake) will remind you of those lines blacked out of the official history of the recent past.

Bourne, though, might be the most escapist of the lot. Which is odd, given that its predecessor, The Bourne Identity, drew more from the politically and existentially charged secret-agent tradition of The Third Man than from the fantasy fulfillments of James Bond. Not to mention that director Peter Greengrass's previous film, Bloody Sunday, outraged Tories with its depiction of British brutality in Northern Ireland, or that star Matt Damon is a pal of Howard Zinn.

Nonetheless, Bourne's prime directive is to escape. First from the bloated Robert Ludlum novel, to which it fortunately bears no resemblance. Then from any distracting topical relevance or entangling human relationships. After that, escaping from the agents of the secret and amoral organizations that rule the world is a snap. One moment, Jason Bourne (Damon) is pondering his fate in idyllic Goa, a man tormented by nightmares and comforted by a good woman (Franka Potente, returning as Marie). The next, he's in the first of many car chases, the prey of a sniper whose shot misses its target but triggers the terminator. Bourne goes into the familiar routine of ransacking the man's lodgings for caches of handguns, cash, and fake passports, and the chase, basically a matter of physics at this point, begins.

Too bad about the relationships, though. As in life, you don't realize how important they are till they're gone. In the first film, devoid of memory and identity but possessed of invincible killer instincts, Bourne was appealing in his emotional tabula rasa, his initially feral attachment to Potente's frazzled Marie. He even bonded with the killers out to get him. Not so this time. The closest he gets to a potentially sympathetic person is gazing through the lens of a sniper scope or exchanging clipped threats on a cell phone. It's creepy, perhaps, but wasteful of the talents of Joan Allen as Pamela Landy, a CIA chief who tries to out-macho the boys by pushing a risky operation in Berlin investigating a Russian oil oligarch involved with missing CIA money (how hot a political button is that?). An assassin murders two of the agents, and a fingerprint links the killer to the nefarious Jason Bourne, the missing and presumed dead super hitman for the now defunct, renegade "Treadstone" project. But Landy is no shrinking violet; she gathers together the sputtering, mostly male, agency crew and heads for Berlin to track down Bourne.

"Berlin, Germany," that is, as a subtitle makes clear for those who thought this might be taking place in New Hampshire. The film also takes place in "Naples, Italy," "Paris, France," "Amsterdam, Holland," and other locations here more reminiscent of an airport gift shop than of an atmospheric and savvy thriller. I would have expected more from Greengrass, whose pseudo-verite Bloody Sunday captured 1972 Belfast on the eve of the Troubles with almost unbearable authenticity. All that remains of the sensibility of that film is the director's penchant for hand-held close-ups and quick cutting, which is a shame because one of the greatest treats of this film (and the first) is watching the wit and precision with which Bourne demolishes his adversaries, the same kind of kinetic magic that graces silent comedies and kung fu movies. And since this is nominally a film about memory and identity, jagged flashbacks interrupt Bourne's programmed rampage.

To its credit, Supremacy passes on the glib vigilante scenario and aspires, fitfully, to something more ambitious and ambiguous, something involving conscience, responsibility, and humility. Had it remained true to that impulse, it might have achieved more than mere escapism. Unfortunately, as cynical old agency crony Ward Abbott (Brian Cox, one of the best things in the movie) might say, "You're walking in a deep puddle of shit, and you're wearing the wrong shoes."

See How They Fund

One year ago, conventional political wisdom held that the Democratic presidential nominee would be in trouble right now. After spending all his cash in a tough primary battle, the thinking went, the candidate would have to spend April through June scrambling to raise money for the general campaign. In the meantime, Bush's team would be free to use that three-month window to define the Democrats' front-runner through attack ads the latter couldn't afford to counter.

Things turned out differently: the attack ads flung at Senator John Kerry have not gone unanswered. In fact, in addition to Kerry's own ads, more than $15 million of political advertising has run in the past three months, most of it bashing Bush, most of it in key battleground states–without costing the Kerry campaign a dime. The ads have been created and paid for by organizations known as "527s," named for the tax-code section that defines them. These groups do not fall under Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations, as long as they limit their activities; most significantly, they cannot support a candidate directly or coordinate their efforts with a candidate's campaign.

They can, however, accept contributions of unlimited size, from anybody. Depending on your perspective, this is either an unsavory back-door maneuver around campaign-finance reform, or an exciting new outlet for political discourse.

Either way, it's probably a big reason why John Kerry entered July in a dead heat in the polls despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on negative advertising against him–and one of the reasons why Bush's favorability ratings are at an all-time low.

The best-known of these 527s is probably the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, formed last September by the progressive California-based MoveOn.org; its most recent television ad, running in Ohio, blames George W. Bush for losing American jobs to outsourcing. The most ambitious group, however, is an interrelated trio planning to spend more than $100 million on this election: Americans Coming Together (ACT), the Media Fund, and Joint Victory Campaign 2004, all operating out of Washington, DC. Its TV and radio ads include "No Oil Company Left Behind" and "Bush and Halliburton."

Another Washington group, New Democrat Network, is taking in and spending about a million dollars a month. Among its projects is an effort to recruit Hispanic voters into the Democratic Party. For the young and hip, there's Music for America and PunkVoter. Several well-known political-action committees, or "PACs," have started separate 527s (such as EMILY's List Non-Federal Fund, and Sierra Club Voter Education Fund). And there are issue-specific 527s, including one focused on labor (Voices for Working Families), one devoted to decriminalizing marijuana (Marijuana Policy Project Political Fund), and several committed to environmental issues (League of Conservation Voters, Environment 2004, State Conservation Voters Fund). In all, more than a hundred 527s filed a quarterly report with the IRS by the July 15 deadline.

The people funding these 527s, with millions of their own dollars, are arguably the Democrats' 2004 MVPs. Yet with the exception of financier George Soros, who has contributed a total of $12,481,250 in the past 18 months and who has been called to task in no uncertain terms by the GOP, they remain surprisingly unknown to the public and uncovered by the media.

The Phoenix has compiled a list of 12 donors (see below) who chipped in more than $1 million each during the first 18 months of the current campaign cycle–the start of 2003 through the end of June–to Democratic-leaning 527s. Collectively, this dozen has donated just over $50 million.

They include a range of people, from the business elite (George Soros, Lewis Cullman) to the glitterati (Stephen Bing, Susie Tompkins Buell), from the well-born (Anne Getty Earhart, Alida Rockefeller Messinger, Linda Pritzker) to the self-made (Andrew Rappaport, Marcy Carsey, Agnes Varis). There's even a drug-reformer billionaire (Peter Lewis)–and an environmentalist (John A. Harris).

Thanks largely to their largesse, 527s are, and will continue to be, major players in the 2004 campaign.

"The 527s are independent. I'm not familiar with what their plans are," says Democratic heavy-hitter Alan D. Solomont, of Boston, a major fundraiser for the Kerry campaign. "What they're doing, I think is terrific."

Congress created 527s 30 years ago, in the wake of Watergate. But only in the mid '90s did nonprofits (both liberal and conservative) begin to take advantage of them, according to Public Citizen, a public-interest watchdog group, and it took Congress until 2002 to require 527s to fully disclose their donors.

Today's 527 fever, which is predominantly liberal, is driven partly by anger with the Bush administration, but it's also been pushed by what former Massachusetts lieutenant-governor candidate Chris Gabrieli calls a "privatization of political activity." He's referring to the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that greatly reduced the amount of money individuals can give to party PACs–and what those PACs can do with the cash. Although 527s had existed previously, most large-money donors preferred to give directly to the party until that law passed in 2002.

"With the advent of McCain-Feingold, suddenly the [political] party wasn't running the kind of soft-money ads they had in the past," says Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which operates a 527. "So donors are actively seeking out organizations like mine."

But that means donors must entrust their money to independent groups, many with no history or track record. That's why Cambridge social activists Greg and Maria Jobin-Leeds, for example, ended up hiring political consultant Mike Folgerberg to help them sort through the dizzying array of 527s before they gave $100,000 to Progressive Majority in January. "There are a lot of them, and almost all of them are new," Maria Jobin-Leeds says. Progressive Majority, founded in 1999, is positively ancient among 527s; dozens have been created in the last 12 months.

Steve Grossman, former co-chair of Howard Dean's presidential campaign and onetime candidate for governor of Massachusetts, says he's had three meetings with 527 executives. He's decided to work with the Kerry campaign instead, but he likes what those groups are doing. "At the beginning of this campaign, the Republicans thought they would have a three- or even five-to-one money advantage," Grossman says. "The 527s grew out of a deep concern that the values of the Democratic Party couldn't compete."

Grossman had to choose between Kerry and the 527s, because 527s are absolutely not allowed to coordinate their activities in any way with the Democratic Party. But how much coordination do you really need? "Anybody with any brains knows where the battleground states are, and where to spend the money," Grossman says.

Besides, these organizations aren't run by hicks–a lot of their leaders are former party insiders, like Harold Ickes at the Media Fund. Former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan is a strategy consultant for the Media Fund and America Coming Together. Or, take the New Democratic Network (NDN). Its president, Simon Rosenberg, is a veteran of the Democratic National Committee and former adviser to the Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis presidential campaigns. Senior vice-president Maria Cardona is a former Democratic Party communications director. The NDN advisory board includes former chairs of the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Democratic Leadership Council, as well as a former White House chief of staff and a former White House press secretary.

These organizations are sophisticated enough to have found a way to wriggle out of a legal straitjacket, a rule requiring 527s to spend less than half their money on federal campaign activities. They move the money around. The Media Fund runs advertising campaigns that are considered federal spending; its sister 527, Americans Coming Together (ACT), does "grassroots" polling and voter registration that counts as state and local spending. The Media Fund gives just over half its contributions to ACT, which counts as spending on local activities, and thus complies with the rule. Contributions to Joint Victory Campaign are split between Media Fund and ACT.

Needless to say, campaign-reform advocates, such as Common Cause, call this money-laundering, a dirty scheme for getting around the law. Republicans, meanwhile, had been caught napping; their success with "bundled" fundraising (in which "pioneers" reap rewards for soliciting contributions from many other individuals) led them to overlook the potential in 527s. This is one time liberals seem to have outfoxed the right. Thus far, the Republicans' vigorous legal efforts to stop 527s have failed, and now they're scurrying to set up their own.

To those who dislike the fact that 527s can accept limitless donations, supporters like Callahan point out that givers are cut off from the candidate completely, and thus cannot be involved in any sort of quid pro quo or pay-for-access arrangement. That claim's a stretch–a half-million donation to a Democratic-leaning 527 surely has more value to John Kerry than $2000 given to his personal campaign. But in reality, the wealthy have always given huge sums to progressive organizations–through 501(c)(3) organizations, which are your common, everyday foundation.

Even so, with such large amounts of money involved, the question remains whether these mega-donors are in the game to advance their own self-interest. Grossman, who knows "some of the individuals" on the $50 million-Dems list, says that the ones he knows give based purely on ideology. "They have a passionate belief in America, a passionate belief in inclusion, and a passionate belief that people should participate in a democracy," he says. "I have an enormous respect for what they are doing."

So does Scott Klinger, co-director of Responsible Wealth, a Boston-based organization through which rich people lobby against their own financial interests–in favor of the estate tax, for example. "People giving to 527s, they're not looking for a payoff," Klinger says. "George Soros has enough money, he could buy a small island and never deal with any of us again."

Corporations have been known to cover their bets by contributing to both the Democratic and Republican Parties, but the donors on our list are not playing both sides. Not one of the 12 has given to a Republican or conservative cause in this election cycle.

For their trouble, these big givers are setting themselves up as targets for the right wing. So far, Soros has been the only one publicly hit: the National Republican Senatorial Committee has labeled him an "out-of-touch, left-wing radical" with an "extreme agenda." Ickes says he has had meetings with people who would like to give, but don't want that kind of public grief. "They're not naive–when you weigh in against this president, that's what you'll get."

And lastly, remember that the jaw-dropping chunks of cash listed below should be viewed in context. A few years ago, Peter Lewis bought a yacht for $16.5 million; that he is willing to spend as much on the future of the free world should perhaps not be so surprising.

The $50 Million Club
The following list of a dozen donors contributed a total of $50 million to "527" organizations in the last 18 months.

1) Peter B. Lewis, Chair, Progressive Corp., Cleveland, Ohio

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Conscience of the Convention

For a candidate who failed to win a single presidential primary, Dennis Kucinich has an impressively healthy sense of his own importance. Last month, Kucinich – the only Democrat other than John Kerry still actively running – opened his Democratic National Convention headquarters in a cramped fourth-floor office on Temple Place, just off Boston Common. Addressing his assembled supporters by speakerphone from Oregon, where he was campaigning in the run-up to the May 18 primary, the Ohio congressman promised to push the party to the left when the convention opens in July.

"We'll have dozens of delegates inside the convention, but we'll have thousands of people in the streets of Boston," Kucinich declared. "We can put pressure on the party to take the right positions on civil liberties, health care, Iraq, and the Patriot Act. We're going to be the conscience of the party. And that will help the Democrats win."

Strong words, coming from someone who's heading into the convention with 68 of the party's 4300-some delegates. When the battle for the Democratic nomination was still going strong and televised debates gave Kucinich regular access to a national audience, few voters saw his agenda – which includes immediate American withdrawal from Iraq and NAFTA, and the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Peace – as viable. There's no reason that should change during a convention focused on selling John Kerry as an electable centrist.

But Kucinich's self-assurance is equaled – and perhaps enabled – by his distinct lack of pragmatism. In a recent phone interview, I asked Kucinich if any Democratic leaders had urged him to quit campaigning. He answered with a loud guffaw and a prickly, pedantic rejoinder that spoke volumes about how and why he persists. "Never," Kucinich said after he finished laughing. "I mean, not at all. I don't even think in those terms. If you don't think in those terms, somehow it just doesn't happen to you." After a pause, he continued: "I want you to think about that now. I don't live in a world like that. Maybe other people do."

It was clear early in the Democratic-primary campaign that Kucinich faced long odds. Some of his problems were substantive: when Howard Dean seized the anti-war mantle, Kucinich – who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and led opposition to the Iraq-war resolution in the House – saw his most appealing stand co-opted by a competitor. Low poll numbers, small fundraising totals, and a string of poor finishes didn't help his cause, either. Other problems, however superficial in nature, were no less damaging. Kucinich is a small man with lank, unkempt hair and large ears; rather than fitting the standard image of a presidential candidate, he looks like a dour elf – one whose manner is often brittle and who, for good measure, just happens to be a vegan.

Still, Kucinich persevered. And though few pundits or voters ever saw him as a serious contender, his doggedness earned the grudging respect of some once-skeptical observers. Kucinich's shining moment came in a University of New Hampshire debate last December, when he scolded moderator Ted Koppel for his fixation on inside-baseball questions and was cheered by a grateful audience. The relentlessly idealistic congressman also engaged in some old-fashioned horse-trading in the Iowa caucuses, engineering a vote swap with North Carolina senator John Edwards that added intrigue to the event and may have helped Edwards, who finished second, increase his margin over the third-place Dean. And in the "Who Wants To Be a First Lady" contest sponsored by PoliticsNH.com, Kucinich signaled a William Shatner-esque willingness to refashion himself as an ironic pop icon.

Kucinich wasn't the only long-shot candidate in the Democratic field, which included the Reverend Al Sharpton and former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun. But he never seemed to realize that he almost certainly wouldn't be the nominee. Quite the contrary – on the day of the Iowa caucuses, Kucinich pondered a scenario in which he would emerge from a deadlocked convention as the Democratic Party's nominee, telling the Associated Press: "It is inevitable, really." As other, more viable candidates bowed out, Kucinich stuck around, only conceding after Super Tuesday that he would not, in fact, become president.

The cynical explanation for Kucinich's persistence is that he came to crave the media spotlight and the adulation showered on him by die-hard supporters, and merely said what was necessary to justify his continued presence in the race. "This is a guy who would eat publicity morning, noon, and night," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "I like to call him the House equivalent of John McCain. He can't get enough press or enough TV time."

Even some of Kucinich's ideological compatriots were annoyed by his apparent obliviousness. "The thing that bothered me about Dennis was that he would never admit the unreality of what he was doing," says former Nation editor Micah Sifry. "Had he done that, he would have been more real right away – 'You know what, folks, this is a long-shot bid. I know how hard this may be, and we may not get there.' But he was always saying he was going all the way, that he was going to be the next nominee. And it made a lot of people say, 'This guy is nuts.'"

But neither Sabato nor Sifry takes into account Kucinich's zealous faith in the power of positive thinking. For Kucinich – who surmounted occasional homelessness as a child to become mayor of Cleveland at the age of 31 – conceptual frameworks rather than practical considerations dictate what can and can't happen. The congressman cites the Romantic poets as major personal influences. He keeps an anthology of Percy Bysshe Shelley's work – open to Prometheus Unbound – on the desk of his Capitol Hill office, and often closes stump speeches with a line from Tennyson's "Ulysses": "Come, my friends,/ 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world." In addition, Kucinich is close to Marianne Williamson, a prolific New Age author whose organization, the Global Renaissance Alliance, advocates the creation of a Department of Peace.

(The Global Renaissance Alliance also champions the use of "peace circles," in which participants use prayer, silent meditation, and visualization exercises to create a "grid of mystical power that will shield the world from its own insanity, and move through the fear to the love." The group's former peace-circles coordinator served as California coordinator for the Kucinich campaign and later as an assistant to Kucinich's national-campaign manager.)

These views haven't hurt Kucinich in his congressional district, which includes Cleveland's liberal West Side: in 2002, he was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote, and tallied 85 percent in this spring's Democratic congressional primary. But for most of the nation's voters, this New Age tinge made it easy to dismiss him as a marginal eccentric. Yet Kucinich insists he never finds it frustrating or disheartening to advocate views that don't jibe with the cultural mainstream. "You just have to keep your heart open," he says. "And as long as you do that, anything can happen. Success always comes to those who have the ability to envision different ways of looking at things." Before Kerry gained a mathematical lock on the nomination, Kucinich's continued optimism had a neat and unassailable internal logic: he could still become president for the simple reason that he still believed it was possible.

Although Kucinich admits he won't be the Democratic nominee, he now insists that he can become the Democratic Party's ideological architect – an equally quixotic ambition. How, exactly, does he intend to do this? Partly through a Web-based petition drive aimed at shaping the Democratic platform to suit his priorities: immediate transfer of US military authority in Iraq to UN forces; universal health care; withdrawal from NAFTA and the World Trade Organization; repeal of the Patriot Act; creation of a US Department of Peace; and comprehensive affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. (Kucinich, who spoke at last weekend's Boston Gay Pride celebration, has been a consistently vocal supporter of full-marriage rights for gays and lesbians.)

His campaign is also planning daily workshops on progressive issues during the July national convention, as well as evening "street actions" and an anti-war candlelight vigil on the closing night of the proceedings. Asked how observers will be able to gauge whether he succeeds, Kucinich answers – true to form – in doubt-free terms: "When the delegates are canvassed, and it's declared that they stand for getting out of Iraq. For ending the Patriot Act. For health care for all Americans. For fair trade."

Yet again, the jaded might say that Kucinich is milking his Warholian 15 minutes a bit too long. His chances of shaping the party's platform aren't much better than his chances of being elected president were. The vast majority of delegates at the FleetCenter will have one priority – helping John Kerry beat George W. Bush – and while some of Kucinich's positions may exercise considerable appeal, it's a safe bet that this year's Democratic platform will be the one Kerry's camp deems most likely to serve that goal.

If Kucinich had more delegates, something unexpected and dramatic might happen. But even some Kucinich boosters concede their candidate probably lacks the leverage to have much effect. "I hope he raises a fuss, because after all, he represents a very large part of the Democratic Party, which is not represented by John Kerry," says Howard Zinn, who belongs to a long list of prominent left-leaning Kucinich endorsers. "But how he can actually make that representation practical and meaningful at the convention.... Can he have an effect on the platform? I don't know. These conventions are controlled by the dominant force in the party, and Kerry is the dominant force."

Of course, Kucinich himself is more sanguine. As he sees it, a Kucinich-engineered makeover of the Democratic Party is not only possible, but has the potential to spur a revolution in American government. "If our party took a clear and strong stand to support universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care, I think you'd have people lining up on Election Day to vote Democrat," he says. "It's both pragmatic and principled to do that. The question is, will we? I think the Democrats are ready for a real shift. And I think a Democratic sweep" – taking control of the House, the Senate, and the White House – "could be generated out of this convention if it's done right. It's the message that I have been carrying, right from the beginning, that may prove to be the winning combination for the Democrats."

In a statement e-mailed to the Phoenix, Democratic National Convention Committee, chair Alice Huffman praised Kucinich and welcomed his participation in the convention. But while Kucinich dreams of a sort of Gingrichian role, anything beyond a token convention appearance could make him the Democrats' version of Pat Buchanan, who alienated moderate voters at the 1992 Republican Convention by showcasing the GOP's most extreme views. Chances are slim that convention organizers will work to showcase Kucinich next month.

There is one way he might actually manage to affect the 2004 election, however: by convincing potential supporters of independent candidate Ralph Nader to vote Democratic. Last year, Nader urged voters to support Kucinich in the Democratic primaries, and in October 2003 the two headlined a rally in Washington, DC, sponsored by Democracy Rising, Nader's progressive organization. Earlier this month, however, Kucinich said he couldn't remember the last time he and Nader talked. And whatever ideological affinity the two men may share, it seems clear Kucinich sees his role – at least in part – as heading off the challenge Nader poses on the left. "There has to be a place inside the Democratic Party for people who are standing strong for peace, for civil liberties, for health care, for fair trade," he says. "And as long as there are spokespersons inside the party who'll reach out and keep trying to attract people in, as long as we continue to work with the party to try to shape its direction, there's always a chance that we can bring people in to support the Democrats."

If the course of the campaign had unfolded differently – if, say, Dean had decided to remain in Montpelier rather than seeking higher office – might Kucinich have parlayed his anti-war stance into a bigger role, however briefly? It's impossible to say. But it's unlikely Kucinich, even without Dean in the field, could ever have served as this year's Eugene McCarthy, whose near-miss 1968 presidential-nomination bid delivered a stinging anti-war rebuke to incumbent Lyndon Johnson and rocked the Democratic Party. As already noted, Kucinich's look and often testy manner pose serious liabilities. (When I asked him if he might create a new progressive organization, à la Howard Dean, Kucinich offered the following comeback, capped by a derisive snort: "There's no question that I intend to create a new progressive organization. It's called the Democratic Party.")

He also lacks the centrist trappings that helped Dean mitigate his anti-war stance. Instead, his eager embrace of the Democratic Party's far-left elements, as well as his backing from fringe groups like the Natural Law Party, severely circumscribes his appeal. "In many ways, Dennis is an admirable and valiant fellow, and his politics are not the politics of convenience," says Doug Ireland, a veteran left-leaning political journalist. "He is a genuine left populist. But if you're going to run a message campaign, I think he could have had a much more effective strategy for collaring broad swaths of the Democratic electorate. I think Dennis should have spent a lot more time talking to working-class Democrats and a lot less time talking to New Age festivals and vegetarian tofu suppers."

Whatever opportunities Kucinich may have missed, it's almost certain he'll be an obscure footnote when the history of the 2004 campaign is written, a long-forgotten name occasionally dropped by political junkies to showcase their mastery of presidential arcana. "It's irrelevant, it's over, he did miserably," Sabato says. "What else can you say?" Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank – a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – is gentler, but no less pessimistic about Kucinich's chances of influencing either the convention or the general-election campaign. "The problem Dennis runs into isn't just that he didn't get delegates, but that he didn't get a lot of votes," Frank says. "Jesse Jackson made his candidacy work in 1984 and 1988 in the primaries, and I think Jackson did have an impact on the party, in terms of making sure that the Democrats stayed with affirmative action. In Dennis's case, the problem is that he just didn't do well enough in the primaries to get a lot of clout."

Frank's Massachusetts colleague Mike Capuano, also a Progressive Caucus member, suggests that's a good thing. "I like and respect Dennis's enthusiasm," Capuano says. "But we have a candidate. And anyone who cannot see that John Kerry's victory this fall would better serve the progressive agenda than anything else we can do between now and November, I would strongly disagree with. That's exactly why we lost the White House so many times in the last 30 years."

And after the election? Kucinich supporters hope he'll labor for years to energize the Democrats' left wing. "He's fairly young, and the Democratic Party is going to be badly in need of a gadfly for some time to come," Zinn says. "Just the very fact that John Kerry is the Democratic candidate shows that, and the power of the Democratic Leadership Council within the party. There'll be a great need for somebody like him, and I think he's likely to play that kind of role for a number of years, until the Democratic Party begins to move out of its lethargy."

But Kucinich's optimism about transforming the party may gradually be eroded by a general lack of interest in his agenda among Democratic politicians and voters. Time will tell whether he can reconcile the probable disconnect between his lofty expectations and what he's actually able to accomplish.

Not surprisingly, however, Kucinich is bullish about his legacy. Asked what historians will say about him in 50 years, he offers the following: "They'll say, 'How does the guy keep going?'" In 100 years? "They'll say, 'He's slowing down.'" With any other politician, it would be easy to dismiss these comments as hokey jokes. The perplexing thing about Kucinich is that you can't be sure he's kidding.

The Secret History of Anonymous

Ever since the Guardian of London revealed almost two weeks ago that "Anonymous," the author of the soon-to-be-published Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (Brassey's, Inc.), is a CIA figure "centrally involved in the hunt for Bin Laden," the American press has been playing catch-up – yet in a strangely coy sort of way.

Public interest in the book itself isn't at all hard to understand: It's not every day that an active US intelligence officer publishes a work that disputes the Bush administration's assertions, holding that, among other things, bin Laden is not on the run; the invasion of Iraq has not made the United States safer; and that Islamists are in a campaign of insurgency, not terrorism, against the US because of US policies, not out of hatred for American values. But what's a bit harder to grasp is exactly why the media seem so reflexively deferential to the idea that "Anonymous" must be anonymous – especially when critical details revealed in a June 23 New York Times story indicated that his real identity is well-known to at least a few denizens of the Washington press corps.

Indeed, the Times piece revealed that Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll knows more about Anonymous than most – enough to give him a first name and details of his career in Coll's recently published and highly acclaimed book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. While the Times identified "Mike" via Coll's book as a 22-year CIA veteran who ran the Counterterrorist Center's bin Laden station (code-named "Alec") from 1996 to 1999, the paper also reported that in spite of that revealing detail – and despite the fact that "Mike" is an overt CIA employee whose name is not a state secret – a "senior intelligence official" held that "Mike's" full identity had to remain unknown because revelation of his full name "could make him a target of Al Qaeda."

For the moment, all the general public knows about the book comes from excerpts posted on a handful of Web sites, and a slew of brief television and radio interviews, where Anonymous has appeared in silhouette. He also published another anonymous book two years ago, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, which analyzed the structure and motives of Al Qaeda.
Anonymous is not squishy; both Hubris and Eyes seem sufficiently apocalyptic to warm the heart of someone as anti-Islamic and bloodthirsty as, say, Ann Coulter. So if liberals seem ecstatic that yet another career national-security official is blasting the Bush administration for unnecessarily invading Iraq and bungling the so-called war on terror, they're also horrified by Anonymous's apparent advocacy (largely rhetorical, actually) of a military campaign that includes "killing in large numbers" and "a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure" as part of "relentless, brutal and blood-soaked defensive military action until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us."

But at issue here is not just the book's content, but why Anonymous is anonymous. After all, as the Times and others have reported, his situation is nothing like that of Valerie Plame, a covert operative whose ability to work active overseas cases was undermined when someone in the White House blew her cover to journalist Robert Novak in an apparent payback for an inconvenient weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence report by her husband, Joseph Wilson. Anonymous, on the other hand, is, by the CIA's own admission, a Langley-bound analyst whose identity has never required secrecy.

A Phoenix investigation has discovered that Anonymous does not, in fact, want to be anonymous at all – and that his anonymity is neither enforced nor voluntarily assumed out of fear for his safety, but rather compelled by an arcane set of classified regulations that are arguably being abused in an attempt to spare the CIA possible political inconvenience. In the Phoenix 's view, continued deference by the press to a bogus and unwanted standard of secrecy essentially amounts to colluding with the CIA in muzzling a civil servant – a standard made more ridiculous by the ubiquity of Anonymous's name in both intelligence and journalistic circles.

When asked to confirm or deny his identity in an interview with the Phoenix last week, Anonymous declined to do either, and said, "I've given my word I'm not going to tell anyone who I am, as the organization that employs me has bound me by my word." His publisher, Brassey's, likewise declined to comment. Nearly a dozen intelligence-community sources, however, say Anonymous is Michael Scheuer – and that his forced anonymity is both unprecedented and telling in the context of CIA history and modern politics.

"The requirement that someone publish anonymously is rare, almost unheard-of, particularly if the person is not in a covert position," says Jonathan Turley, a national security law expert at George Washington University Law School. "It seems pretty obvious that the requirement he remain anonymous is motivated solely by political concerns, and ones that have more to do with the CIA. While I'm sure some would argue that there's some benefit to book sales in being anonymous because it's mysterious and fuels speculation, the fact is that if his full name and history were known and on the book, it would get a lot more attention. It's difficult for the media to cover an anonymous subject who has to abide by limits on what he can say about himself or anything that might reveal who he is."

Upon reviewing Scheuer's manuscripts, the CIA could have done what national-security agencies have done in the past with employees' works that were based on open (i.e., unclassified or publicly available) sources, but whose wide distribution might be problematic: Stamp a "secret" or "top secret" classification on it so it never sees the light of day. Yet, according to intelligence-community sources, this really wasn't an option with Scheuer's work, given the unusual origins of Through Our Enemies' Eyes.

"That book actually started as an unclassified manual in 1999 for new counterterrorist officers working bin Laden and Sunni extremism," says one veteran CIA terrorism specialist. "Scheuer had written it at the request of his successor as Alec station chief, who specifically wanted it to be something that was drawn from open sources in the Arab and Islamic worlds for two reasons: one, so people could take it out of the building and digest it at their leisure, and two, because he wanted new officers to appreciate how much is actually out there that's useful that isn't classified, particularly if you have a context for it."

Given his in-house manual's open-source-based, unclassified status, Scheuer figured it wouldn't be much of a problem to cull more public material to recast the approximately 100 pages as a marketable academic manuscript – which he did over the course of late 1999 and early 2000, submitting the book to the CIA's Publications Review Board (PRB) in the spring of 2000. According to Scheuer, the manuscript was at first denied release because the board took issue with the book's brief favorable discussion of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" theory, which posits that antagonism between Western and Islamic cultures (among others) will drive world conflict in the coming years.

"They wrote back saying our Arab friends would be upset, and 'his views of Huntington's paradigm bring into question his ability to perform official duties,'" Scheuer says. "That came back, and I thought it was beyond the pale, so I appealed directly to the seventh floor [higher-ups]. And it took the better part of a year to get permission to submit it for publication. I believe it was because of 9/11 that they suddenly became less concerned with what they first considered ';areas of sensitivity.' But the condition was that I remain anonymous and that there be no mention of my employer on the cover or anywhere else."

Some have speculated that "Anonymous" has been publishing with at least a measure of blessing from a CIA so angered by certain White House and Pentagon elements that it has taken the unprecedented step of allowing an active intelligence officer to inveigh against the administration – and is enjoying the fact that it can unleash a critic protected by the vagaries of national-security protocols. But the fact of the matter – as interviews with other intelligence-community officials and CIA correspondence show – is that while there might be an element of truth to that now, the agency has only reluctantly approved Scheuer's books for release because he shrewdly played by the rules. And the unique nature of CIA rules has forced him into an unhappy compromise where, even when confronted with his own name, he has to publicly deny his identity unless the agency changes its mind. (The CIA did not acknowledge a call from the Phoenix, and "declined to comment on [Imperial Hubris] or its author" to the Associated Press on Friday.)

According to several long-time intelligence officers familiar with Scheuer's situation, there's no question that the agency's conditional permission was grudging. "Think back to 2002, and imagine what would have happened if a book had come out that said ';by Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit' on the cover – it would have been a bestseller overnight, reviewed and discussed all over the place," says one veteran spook. "But because it was ';anonymous' and didn't even say what exactly he did, let alone what agency he worked for, it was destined to be what it's become: a required read among people who work this stuff, but not much else. Ironically, it seems to be selling well in the agency gift shop at Langley, and everyone from the [National Security Agency] to [the Center for Strategic and International Studies] has had him over to lecture about it. But I don't think it even got reviewed but a couple of places."

One doesn't have to read the manuscript terribly closely to see how it provides some benefit to the CIA. Critical as Anonymous is of his own organization – as well as of the Bush and Clinton administrations – he absolutely blasts the FBI on pages 185 through 192. Many progressives may not cotton to the broad notion he advances here – namely, that the US should simply dispense with any sort of legalistic, law-enforcement approach to combating Al Qaeda and leave it entirely to the covert operators. But in the context of Washington's political postmortems on 9/11-related intelligence failures, this is stuff that at least makes the FBI look worse than the CIA.

Among some in the intelligence community who have either obtained copies of the Imperial Hubris manuscript or heard about certain passages, the rough consensus is that a not-long-for-his-job George Tenet indicated to the PRB that the book's publication should be allowed, as it might blunt or contextualize some of the scathing criticism likely to assail the agency in forthcoming 9/11 Commission and Senate Select Intelligence Committee reports – and also might aid the cause of intelligence reform. According to several intelligence-community sources, the manuscript was in limbo at least three months past the Review Board's 30-day deadline earlier this year. Says one CIA veteran: "I think it's possible that it got the approval around the time Tenet decided for himself that he was leaving."

Whatever the PRB's rationale, Scheuer – who in interviews with the Phoenix never explicitly said he works for the CIA, only an "intelligence agency" – says he agreed to the conditions because, regardless of any issues he may have with the agency, he truly enjoys what he does and has no desire to quit government service. "I could make more money if I left – I have contractors leave cards in my office and take me to lunch, and I have a marketable set of skills, and it would be better for the books if I could actually say who I was. But I really like working where I work and doing what I do. We do marvelous things and stupid things here, but this place is essential to the security of America, and I think we have been at the lead of making the country safer. I'm not disgruntled. If I was, I would have left already. I just want this information and perspective out there."

What he does not like, however, is the notion advanced by the agency that he's agreed to be "Anonymous" based on safety concerns. According to Scheuer and his editor at Brassey's, Christina Davidson, when Nightline wanted to interview Scheuer in 2003, the agency told the program that his anonymity was not compelled but his own choice – an assertion the agency also made in a 2002 note to Brassey's. Davidson was so infuriated that she demanded the CIA state its actual position in writing, which it finally did in a May 25, 2004, fax signed by Paul-Noel Christian, chair of the agency's PRB. The fax, obtained by the Phoenix, reads in part: "This letter is to confirm that it is the Agency, and not the author that insists that approval for the manuscript is predicated upon the author maintaining his anonymity and also that his association with the Agency is not disclosed."

In the wake of the June 23 New York Times story, Davidson sent a terse note to CIA spokesman Bill Harlow that has yet to receive a response. "To say that our author must be kept in the shadows because he has expressed fears about al Qaeda retaliation is patently false and impugns his courage," she wrote, adding the "respectful request that you cease and desist from spreading this falsehood and inform all members of your staff to do the same."

In an interview after the Times story came out last week, Scheuer sounded none too pleased. "I suppose there might be a knucklehead out there somewhere who might take offense and do something, but anonymity isn't something I asked for, and not for that reason; it makes me sound like I'm hiding behind something, and I personally dislike thinking that anyone thinks I'm a coward. When I did the first book, I said it would be a more effective book if I used my name. And they said no."

Embedded with Al-Jazeera

In 1993, with the first Iraq War supposedly put behind us, the subject of D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus's The War Room was spin. With devilish ingenuity, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos maneuvered images and sound bites in the battle between Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush for the presidency. The combat was rhetorical, the carnage abstract, the battleground political.

Eleven years later, Jehane Noujaim, a protégée of Hegedus and Pennebaker (they produced her first film, Startup.com, a look at that distant bubble, the dot-com boom), ponders how spin operates in a war that is as painfully literal as the president waging it. In Control Room, she investigates the news station that is "the most controversial . . . in the Arab world." Banned by several Arab governments because of its criticism of their regimes, denounced by the Bush administration as a "mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden," it is also, of course, the most popular in the region, with 40 million viewers. It is how Arabs see the world.

Is it any more or less distorted than our own network news? And why should we believe this movie? Any film looking at the mechanics of spin, the nature of truth and objectivity, calls into question its own veracity. Some of the same criticisms leveled at both Al-Jazeera and Centcom (the US military's central command in the Middle East, also the central conduit for information about the war for all networks) can be leveled at Control Room. It has an agenda, it lacks context, and it can supersede logic and clarity with incendiary, sometimes gratuitous images. And it is propaganda. What it promotes, however, isn't Al-Jazeera but the value of truth and information. It indirectly denounces abuses of distortion and manipulation. And rather than cajoling audiences with fear and prejudice, it provokes them into reflection and debate.

Not always successfully. One of the biggest problems with the film is its lack of clarity, its failure to answer the basic questions of journalism. It starts out with one subtitled date: "March, 2003" After that, you're pretty much on your own. Fortunately, the "who" is one of Control Room's strengths. If there are obvious villains, there are also sympathetic characters with depth and complexity, such as Lieutenant Josh Rushing ("If I were a woman" an Arab journalist gushes, "I would marry you!"), a blue-eyed, John Agar type of Marine working as a press officer. His ideas -- that the war is being fought to free Iraq and to eliminate an immediate threat to the world; that his role is to deliver the truth without distortion -- are genuine. And contradictory, as he freely admits in moments of reflection. He recognizes that he has trouble seeing things from the Arab point of view. When Al-Jazeera outrages the coalition by showing footage of dead Americans and terrified POWs, Rushing muses on how when he saw the images he felt nauseated and enraged. But when he saw similar images of dead Iraqis, he had no such feelings. "That upset me profoundly," he says.

He has a job to do, however; he is, like so many others in this film, just following orders. One of his duties is to wrangle with the likes of Hassan Ibrahim, a large, jolly Al-Jazeera journalist whose deep suspicion of US motives is balanced by his "absolute faith in the American Constitution and the American people." Another shrewd Al-Jazeera personality is Samir Khader, a senior producer who states early on in the film that any commander who doesn't put the media and propaganda at the top of his agenda is a poor military planner. As a journalist, though, he has different values. When an assistant hooks him up with an American "political analyst" who recites an anti-Bush screed, Khader berates the subordinate and tells him they're looking for someone who's balanced. At another point, exhausted after a 19-hour day, he says that he'd gladly work for Fox News and trade "the Arab nightmare for the American Dream."

The discussions between these opponents are civil, even cordial. On the battlefield, it's a different story. In a still unresolved episode, US forces attack the clearly demarcated Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing one journalist. "We got the message," says Khader. Al-Jazeera withdraws from the front line, watching the fall of Baghdad from its offices in Doha, Qatar, 700 miles away. "With victory," Khader, concludes, "no one cares about justifications." But with the Bush administration's victory proving as dodgy as its justifications, maybe there's still a chance for truth to prevail.

Peter Keough is a film critic for the Boston Phoenix.

Defying Convention

Seven weeks ago, in a packed Philadelphia courtroom, protesters making plans for this year’s Democratic and Republican National Conventions won a major battle. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief when Judge William Mazzola found Providence activist Camilo Viveiros and two co-defendants not guilty of charges that they assaulted Philadelphia police chief John Timoney during the August 2000 Republican National Convention. The "Timoney Three" were the last of 420 arrested demonstrators, including 43 people charged with felonies, to go on trial. They were also the last to prove the "R2K" prosecutions a spectacular failure: not a single defendant was sentenced to jail time, and most had their cases dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.

But those who think this means activists won the war against police intimidation at the upcoming conventions in Boston and New York should think again. While the lack of convictions may have embarrassed a few Philadelphia prosecutors and police, says R2K Legal Collective spokesperson Kris Hermes, ultimately they were "able to chill dissent, to silence dissent." Not only were Timoney’s repressive tactics widely seen as a response to the successful 1999 World Trade Organization demonstration in Seattle; after Philadelphia they were employed elsewhere, most notably in November 2003 at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami, where Timoney is now police chief. And now, as thousands of New Englanders prepare to demonstrate at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions this summer, many worry that the same tactics will be used again.

Already, anti-war activists in New York City, where Republicans will renominate President George W. Bush during the last days of August, have been told they cannot hold a rally in Central Park, and their legal requests for marches have gone unanswered so far. They fear a replay of the massive February 2003 demonstration opposing the US invasion of Iraq, which, they say, was disrupted by police. In Boston, where Democrats will nominate US Senator John Kerry for president during the last week of July, no protest permits have been issued, and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts object to a new permitting process, which they say is overly bureaucratic. They also complain that a small "protest zone" is too far away from the FleetCenter to be effective.

Four years ago, similar problems in Philadelphia and Los Angeles led the ACLU to sue police in both cities before the national political conventions began, resulting in the removal of at least some of the obstacles placed in protesters’ way. City officials in New York and Boston say, however, that they will accommodate nonviolent demonstrators. "We’re not looking to discourage peaceful protest in any way," says Paul Brown, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information. "We’re looking to accommodate it." In Boston, "Mayor [Thomas] Menino has said repeatedly, ‘What would a convention be without protests?’" says mayoral spokesman Seth Gitell. "That’s democracy at work."

The extent to which local officials are calling the shots remains uncertain, however. The US Secret Service, which imposes a "security zone" to protect major political figures like Bush, Kerry, and Vice-President Richard Cheney, is a shadow presence behind local police departments. The Secret Service, observes Christopher Dunn, associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was "the common denominator" in alleged civil-rights violations in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami. In a pending lawsuit the ACLU also accuses the agency of discriminating against Presidents Bush’s critics, confining them to protest areas where the president and media will not see them.

Protesters and police frequently clash at political conventions. Four years ago, at the Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles police attacked what the ACLU of Southern California characterizes as an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration. During the melee, the ACLU contends, police intentionally fired rubber bullets at members of the press and hit them with batons. Meanwhile, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, police threw scores of people in jail before they even had a chance to start protesting.

And then, of course, there was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police denied protesters a permit to hold a march against the Vietnam War. They then attacked marchers, in what a presidential commission subsequently characterized as "a police riot." According to John McWilliams’s The 1960s Cultural Revolution (Greenwood Press, 2000), some police officers took off their badges and started chanting, "Kill, kill, kill" before wading into protesters with their clubs. McWilliams writes that almost 700 people were arrested and more than a thousand injured.

Thirty-six years later, as activists organize to demonstrate in Boston and New York, many critics charge that the United States has criminalized protest.

The post-Seattle anti-demonstrator strategy, says Hermes, involves four steps.

First, prior to demonstrations, protesters are demonized by public officials, who often emphasize the role of anarchist groups and charge that outsiders are coming to town to engage in violence and destroy property. Two months before the 2000 Republican National Convention, for example, Philadelphia mayor John Street was quoted in local newspapers as saying, "I have strong feelings about First Amendment stuff, but we have got some idiots coming here. Some will come and say whatever obnoxious things they want to say and go home. Some will come here to disrupt, to make a spectacle out of what’s going on. They are going to get a very ugly response."

In addition to discouraging public participation in the demonstrations, Hermes says, pronouncements about violence and arrests help police justify placing severe limits on demonstrations. In 2000, the ACLU was forced to go to federal court in both Los Angeles and Philadelphia to lift protest restrictions.

During the second step in discouraging protest, Hermes says, police harass and intimidate activists by engaging in surveillance, as well as illegal stops and searches. In Philadelphia in 2000, two men were seen taking photographs of weekly protest meetings at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom office. Initially, they denied being police, but when the Philadelphia Inquirer traced the photographers’ license plates, they acknowledged that they were cops. In Los Angeles — after police harassed protesters by recording the license plates of those who entered the building, and arrested others for jaywalking — the ACLU won a temporary restraining order barring police from entering demonstrators’ headquarters without a search warrant.

The third step? "Arrest masses to destabilize the protests and worry about the Constitution later," says Hermes. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this tactic was the arrest of 75 people on the second day of the 2000 Republican National Convention at what has become known as "the Puppet Warehouse." Police surrounded the warehouse as demonstrators were preparing props, all those inside were arrested, and the props were dumped into a garbage truck. High bail — reaching as much as $1 million — was imposed for those arrested by police. This kept key organizers in jail until the convention was over and forced protesters to switch from criticizing the Republican Party to fundraising and jail-solidarity work.

As a fourth and final step, Hermes says, police departments intent on undermining protest "maliciously prosecute, whether or not there’s a viable case." In Philadelphia, nearly all the cases against the convention protesters fell apart in court. During Viveiros’s trial, for example, the city pressed ahead with police chief Timoney’s story about how, after Viveiros purportedly struck him with a bicycle, he wrestled the pony-tailed activist to the street and helped arrest him.

Whether police in New York and Boston will employ all the anti-demonstrator tactics described by Hermes remains to be seen.

Discussions in Boston have centered on three issues, according to John Reinstein, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts: where people can march and assemble, apportioning space to demonstrators, and police practices. The ACLU criticizes a new permitting process for convention-week protests, according to the Boston Globe, as a bureaucratic maze that will discourage free speech. The city, however, defends the procedure as necessary to coordinate protests and expedite applications.

The ACLU also objects to a designated protest area near Haymarket Square, two blocks away from the FleetCenter. The area does not meet court requirements that protests be allowed "within sight and sound" of convention delegates. "The convention planners," Massachusetts ACLU executive director Carol Rose told the Boston City Council in February, "appear to have given short shrift to the First Amendment."

Boston city councilor Chuck Turner, a Green-Rainbow Party member who is helping to organize some protests says that although many activists support Kerry, they have no confidence in his ability to change the country’s direction "unless people stand up and demand change." He adds, "Both the Democrats and Republicans are supporting militaristic policies that make it impossible to deal with the needs of people."


Perhaps the most ambitious political action for the Democratic Convention is being planned by the Boston Social Forum. Organized by a variety of groups, including the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, Public Citizen, and several unions and peace groups, the event is modeled on the World Social Forum, an annual international gathering of activists. The group hopes that 3000 to 5000 people will attend workshops on corporate globalization, American foreign policy, health care, and other issues. Speakers advertised include black militant Angela Davis and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

The AFSC will also bring its "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit to Providence before the convention, and then to Boston for the convention itself. Designed to promote understanding of war’s meaning, the exhibit features 770 pairs of boots, representing America’s war dead in Iraq, and a wall listing the Iraqi war dead.

Bridging the month between the two conventions, the Next Step Collective is organizing a 276-mile walk from Boston to New York, by way of Providence, Hartford, and New Haven, to promote a variety of causes, including direct democracy, just and fair labor, sustainable food sources, and an end to corporate power, according to the group’s Web site (www.dnc2rnc.org). The Olympia, Washington, organization says the march will draw attention to "the two-headed Corporate Party," and encourage people along the route to work for change in their communities.

In New York, plans for demonstrations are bigger and fears of police disruption are greater than they are in Boston.

The New York ACLU and protest groups worry most about a repeat of events at the February 15, 2003, anti-war demonstration. As part of a worldwide day of protest against the impending US invasion of Iraq, anti-war groups had proposed a massive march past the United Nations, followed by a rally. The police, citing security concerns, refused to issue a march permit. The ACLU then sued, but it lost in both federal district and appellate court. Defeated, protest groups negotiated arrangements to hold a stationary rally on First Avenue.

What followed, according to an ACLU report, Arresting Protest, was a civil-liberties mess. Police blocked side-street access to the rally site, so thousands of people could not get to the demonstration. As crowds grew, people pressed against police barriers and spilled into the streets. Applying what many witnesses called excessive force, police used horses and pepper spray to get crowds out of the street. More than 350 people were arrested, the report states, most for minor offenses. "Substantial numbers" of arrestees were driven around the city for several hours, the report continues, in dark unheated vans with no food, water, or bathroom facilities. Some were interrogated later about their political and religious activities. Those who made it to the rally area found themselves penned inside metal barricades, with few exit routes.

The NYPD’s Brown agrees that the February 2003 anti-war demonstration was a mess, but he blames the march’s organizers. The event was poorly planned, he says, and organizers did not provide the promised number of marshals to direct protesters. Frustrated that they could not get to the demonstration site, people moved barriers and problems started. "We were left to clean up their organizational mess," Brown says.

Three lawsuits filed after the February 2003 anti-war protest, which challenge the use of pens and horses, and searches of protesters, will go to trial in June. "These lawsuits," says Dunn, "are aiming at problems that are likely to arise at the convention."

Defending the NYPD, Brown says, "There’s this notion the police department has a political agenda. We could care less." Speaking of the upcoming Republican National Convention, he adds, "We want this to be done safely. We’re not going to tolerate any violence." So far, Brown says, 13 anti-war, environmental, abortion-rights, and economic-justice groups have submitted 15 requests for permits for demonstrations. Groups have been urged to apply by June 15, and police will make their decisions after that. Then, if a group is dissatisfied, he says, it can appeal to federal court.

The largest demonstration at the Republican National Convention may be an anti-war protest organized by UPJ. Seeking to be "the curtain raiser" for the event, the group has applied for permits to march past Madison Square Garden on Sunday, August 29, and then hold a rally at the Great Lawn in Central Park. While police have not acted on the UPJ’s march-permit request, the Parks Department, citing probable damage to the grass, denied the group’s request to use the Great Lawn.

Noting that huge events, including a papal mass and concerts, have been held on the Great Lawn, UPJ media coordinator William Dobbs says the group may launch a public campaign to force the Parks Department to change its decision. Organizers hope the march will attract hundreds of thousands of people who opposed "the Bush war-making agenda," Dobbs says, adding, "This is the only public space that can allow people to exercise their constitutional right to assemble in Manhattan."

Critics’ right to assemble on the Great Lawn already has the support of the conservative New York Post. " ‘Keep off the grass,’" the paper commented in a recent editorial, "appears nowhere in the First Amendment."

Plans for even more New York marches are in the works. Still We Rise, a coalition of low-income nonprofit groups, for example, has asked for a permit to march from Union Square to Times Square on Monday, August 30 to protest cuts in low-income housing vouchers and scientifically proven HIV-prevention programs, and the assault on immigrant civil rights. "We are marching," explains Jennifer Flynn, co-director of the New York Housing Network, "so the faces and voices of low-income New Yorkers are heard by this administration, and for that matter, whoever is going to challenge Bush." Not all protests will be marches. On August 31, a group named RNC Not Welcome plans to conduct "creative resistance outside the protest pens," according to its Web site (www.rncnotwelcome.org).

Whether activities outside the convention halls remain orderly will depend largely on protesters and local police. A far less visible factor is the US Secret Service, the federal agency best known for providing a safe zone around the president.

Although the Secret Service’s exact role in policing protesters is unclear, the ACLU alleges in a pending lawsuit that the agency does not play fair — or, in the words of the Massachusetts ACLU’s Reinstein, "Where you stand essentially depends on where you stand." Supporters of President Bush, the suit charges, are consistently permitted to demonstrate closer to the president than opponents are, and all demonstrators are placed farther away than neutral bystanders. By separating Bush from his critics, the suit contends, the Secret Service violates the US Constitution because he cannot hear complaints, and the media and the public are led to believe there is less dissent.

To buttress its case, the ACLU cites 15 examples of such discrimination since March 2001, elaborating on only one. Members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a low-income advocacy group, sought to demonstrate when Bush visited the US Treasury building in Philadelphia, in July 2003, to celebrate the printing of child-tax-credit-refund checks. While ACORN was told to protest diagonally across the street from the Treasury building, the suit alleges, pro-Bush demonstrators were allowed to gather in front of the structure. When ACORN’s lawyer complained, the activists were ordered to move even farther away. ACORN immediately went to federal court, and won a temporary restraining order allowing the anti-poverty group to return to its previous location. They did, but then, according to the suit, police parked large vans in front of protesters, blocking their view of Bush and his view of them.

Although he refused to comment on the lawsuit, Secret Service spokesman Thomas Mazur said the agency has a longstanding policy of protecting the president without making a distinction "as to the purpose, message, or intent of any particular group or individual."

Numerous protesters at the 2000 political conventions filed lawsuits charging that police violated their civil rights, but the litigation brought mixed results. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, the ACLU collected more than $5 million, according to Carol Sobel, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s mass-defense committee. Protesters sued after accusing the police of firing rubber bullets at demonstrators and strip-searching those arrested.

How police handle peaceful protests in Boston and New York will determine whether this year’s conventions produce another round of police-misconduct charges and lawsuits. As Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York ACLU, put it in a statement last year, "Hundreds of thousands of people will be coming to New York next summer to engage in peaceful protest at the Republican National Convention. They are entitled to be treated with the same respect as those attending the convention itself."

On-the-ground Reality TV

On November 22, 2003, the 16th paragraph of an Associated Press story filed from Baghdad reported that troops from the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division had arrested former Iraqi lieutenant general "Taha Hassan" "for alleged involvement in mortar attacks on police stations" in his hometown of Baquoba. One day later, Agence France-Presse noted the arrest of "Taha Hassan Abbas," as he was correctly identified, in a report that included additional dramatic details. A Fourth Infantry Division spokesman quoted by AFP provided the official account of the arrest: Abbas had "resisted when an assault force approached his house," and "engaged [in] fire," which was returned by U.S. troops who "captured" Abbas and two others.

Far more important than the AP's errant reporting -- itself a reflection of the story's low priority -- is that these two dispatches moved over the wires but went unpublished by any newspaper. Instead, in what has become par for the course, readers were treated to brief depictions of beleaguered U.S. troops engaging in the challenge of bringing law and order to a country beset by Ba'athist insurrectionists. But as disturbing details and images continue to flow from investigations into the horror show that was Abu Ghraib, an increasingly outraged American public is trying to fathom why U.S. forces seem so obviously out of control in their sweeping arrests and torturous interrogations of Iraqis. Just as important, they're also wondering whether the American media have failed -- by design or default -- to convey the ground-level truth of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, minimizing the causes of Iraqi alienation and resentment.

In a soon-to-be-released documentary, a top international investigative reporter offers a tentative explanation for both forms of derailment. On March 14 -- almost six weeks before 60 Minutes II aired its Abu Ghraib story -- the Australian NineNetwork's Sunday newsmagazine program aired a scaled-down version of Iraq -- On the Brink," reported by Ross Coulthart, a journalist whose award-winning investigations have spanned rough-and-tumble assignments in East Timor and Afghanistan to seminal intelligence and public-corruption investigations in the U.S. and Australia. Indirectly, Coulthart raises serious questions about American media self-censorship -- something journalists have been wrestling with since the first Gulf War. The film also raises the possibility that, then as now, such self-censorship may have helped the military cover up Iraqi wartime deaths. (A 15-minute trailer for "Iraq -- On the Brink" can be seen at the Journeyman Pictures website Latest RealPlayer required. American audiences may get to see snippets of the documentary in Michael Moore's award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11, depending on how it's released.)

Indeed, what began at Abu Ghraib as a probe into torture has now forced the Army to reveal that at least 32 Iraqi deaths may qualify as homicides. Whether Taha Hassan Abbas was one of the victims is difficult to say; extensive official and unofficial inquiries by the Phoenix into the former general's status yielded no answers. Yet as film footage shot by the NineNet crew shows, the Fourth Infantry Division's official account of Abbas's arrest was disingenuous at best.

Beyond the sometimes-shocking documentary content of "Iraq -- On the Brink," the film bears witness to the yawning gap between what on-the-scene journalists see and what the rest of the world sees. The Hassan-arrest footage was not recorded or guarded or classified by the U.S. Army. It was shot and marketed by a major news organization, the Associated Press Television News (APTN). So why doesn't footage like this make it into U.S. news coverage? TV news services send out teasers for potential stories, and clients buy footage based on what they see in the teasers. The trouble is, either teasers don't include the most damning material or, even if such material is included, news producers, for whatever reasons, decide not to buy the whole piece. However, it happened, the footage that made it into Coulthart's documentary, as well as that which was left out, was as available to American TV networks as, say, footage of George W. Bush carrying a turkey platter to troops on Thanksgiving Day. Yet no one chose to run it.

Coulthart goes out of his way to present a nuanced view of the occupation. He notes that under the command of Colonel David Teeples, soldiers of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, which was charged with enforcing a 9:00 p.m. curfew in the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Qusabah, were exceptionally careful. Coulthart's camera crew captured images of Teeples's resolute but respectful soldiers questioning Iraqis through translators, and in one case, quickly entering and exiting a house in pursuit of a suspected curfew violator. In other encounters, U.S. troops make a point of explaining why they're doing what they're doing, and ask for the Iraqis' help in the future. Heavy weaponry aside, the footage plays like a domestic-dispute encounter from Fox TV's Cops.

These scenes stand in stark contrast to what comes next. "The Americans need to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis," Coulthart says in his voiceover. "But that's not helped by aggressive raids like this one carried out by troops not under the command of Colonel Teeples." Though the troops are not identified, patches on their uniforms peg them as soldiers from the 588th Engineering Battalion of the Fourth Infantry Division. "It's the dead of night outside the house of a senior former Iraqi officer," Coulthart continues, referring to Taha Hassan Abbas, "who's suspected of helping the insurgents."

The soldiers don't exactly approach with stealth. They kick open a gate to the house's yard. What happens next, as Coulthart explained in an interview with the Phoenix, illustrates a perilous gap in American and Iraqi cultural understanding. "First, you have to understand that guns are ubiquitous in Iraq -- most people have them, and it's very common for them to shoot them in the air all the time for any number of reasons -- from celebrations to anger to whatever," he says. "Burglary has become very common in the past year, and oftentimes, if people hear something outside their homes at night, they'll fire a shot or two into the air to scare burglars away. Now, you could just go up to a house, like other soldiers do, and just knock on the door. But some treat these missions like full-fledged combat operations and start kicking things in with guns drawn, and then you get what happens next."

Coulthart's voiceover continues: "The officer's son -- thinking the soldiers are thieves -- goes to the roof of the house and fires into the air to scare them away." The response from U.S. soldiers: "We've got a shooter on the roof!" followed by a hail of bullets loosed at the house.

The next shot -- of film, that is -- shows Abbas, a clearly unarmed, middle-aged, balding man in pajamas, hands above his head, trembling as he stands across from at least a half-dozen U.S. soldiers whose M-16s are trained on him. "Inside the house, the officer surrenders, but he doesn't understand what the Americans are saying -- and they don't have a translator," Coulthart explains. Abbas repeats the only English he appears to know -- "Welcome! Welcome!" -- over and over again, keeping his hands far above his head as the Fourth Infantry Division soldiers handle the situation in a way almost exactly the opposite of how the Third Cav troops acted in similar circumstances. The Fourth Infantry soldiers' manner foreshadows the images at Abu Ghraib that the world would see months later.

"Want me to shoot him in the leg?" one soldier yells. "I might shoot you!" another growls at Abbas. As Abbas stands motionless in the doorway between his kitchen and the next room, one soldier shouts, "He's trying to draw us in there!" Another solider half mutters, half yells, "I don't give a shit, I'm gonna shoot, I'm gonna shoot, I'm gonna shoot!" while another hollers, "I can shoot him in the leg!"

"Get the fuck over here, get the fuck over here," shouts another, while the previous soldier repeats his desire to shoot Abbas in the leg, adding that someone should also "shoot him in the foot."

Abbas steps away from the doorway and moves his back to the wall. "The Iraqi officer, thinking he's about to die," Coulthart's voiceover resumes, "can now be heard praying." The American response is far from ecumenical, with one soldier yelling, "Who the fuck are you talking to? Who the fuck are you talking to? Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!" The soldier then grabs the man's pajama top and hurls him across the room into the hands of another soldier, who in turn hurls him into a chair that goes flying as the Iraqi sprawls onto the floor. One soldier begins to kick Abbas, who, though on his back, has his hands in the air again, repeating, "Welcome! Welcome!" Three soldiers put their gun barrels in his face, with one solider yelling repeatedly, "Shoot him!" Another asks, "Who's shooting?" when he hears gunfire from the roof, and then yells, "Bullshit" at the prone Abbas, who continues to repeat, "Welcome!"

The next sequence shows the capture of Abbas's adult son, who had shot the gun off on the roof; as he's being restrained, a soldier's voice barks menacingly, "Take the camera off him." The film then resumes with a shot of two women -- apparently Abbas's wife and daughter -- kneeling on the ground at gunpoint, their hands on their heads, their faces pictures of anger and humiliation.

The final shot shows the former general. Though fleeting, it is, perhaps, the most disturbing sequence of the film, given that in his previous appearance Abbas was terrified but physically unharmed. Now, his arms are restrained behind his back. His face is battered and bruised. His left eye is beginning to swell shut. The front of his shirt is stained with blood, and a stream of snot and blood dangles from his left nostril.

"No one here was killed," Coulthart's voice resumes. "But it's raids like this that can only fuel the resentment against Coalition forces."

Speaking from Australia, Coulthart doesn't entirely fault the soldiers for their initial reaction to gunfire from the roof: "One could reasonably, though incorrectly, conclude that one was being fired on, and it makes perfect sense to fire back if that's what you think." But, he says, it again raises the question of who gave the order for the squad to apprehend the general in the way it did -- especially without a translator -- given the obvious potential for creating an unnecessarily inflammatory situation. "People don't seem to realize the incalculable damage something like this causes," he says. "You can see on the face of the young woman that her heart and mind are gone forever to the Americans. When we first saw this footage, the first reaction of our Iraqi fixers was absolute anger -- I can only begin to guess what the reaction is to the scenes from Abu Ghraib."

Coulthart says he's not sure what's more troubling: that the arrest of a former Iraqi lieutenant general apparently merited no coverage; that footage showing an arrest almost completely at odds with the official account was not distributed in its entirety by Associated Press Television News; or that what was distributed wasn't of interest to any APTN clients.

"We had a hunch that there was probably some very disturbing footage cameramen had shot that American network producers had consciously chosen not to air, or that broadcast-news-service editors had edited teasers in a way that didn't prominently feature footage like this," he says. "I think the problem is more with the clients for TV news services than the services themselves. In this case, the edited version sent out was just a shortened version that didn't show the drama that we realized when we viewed the entire sequence. When we saw it, we couldn't believe no one had used it. Because the clients should have realized first off that the version was an indication of something more sinister worth investigation."

At the same time, he says, it may be asking too much of news organizations to air such footage. "This is part of the irony of how modern news systems actually work to keep stuff like this off the air. Places like APTN and Reuters TV generate so much, squirting out images 24 hours a day on permanent satellite-feed channels, that there just isn't time to monitor it and watch it all. Which is too bad, because it's the wire services like APTN and Reuters that are doing most of the really ballsy shooting."

Coulthart is similarly vexed by the lack of attention U.S. media paid to the American use of cluster bombs last year -- and how the damage they've done has engendered extreme ill will towards the American occupiers, particularly in the Doura section of Baghdad. Condemned by most international humanitarian organizations, cluster bombs explode and then spray smaller explosive bomblets over a vast area; all too often some of the bomblets don't immediately explode, causing civilian casualties later on. Featured prominently in "Iraq -- On the Brink" is Aida al-Ansari, an English-speaking Doura resident whose son and 25 others were killed when a U.S. warplane cluster-bombed her neighborhood as American forces were fighting their way into Baghdad last spring. While a handful of stories mentioned the Doura bombing last year, there's been no follow-up since -- another missed opportunity, as the Sunday crew discovered, to understand the roots of growing Iraqi anger at the occupation.

When Coulthart visited the Doura neighborhood this year, he discovered al-Ansari, who still has the shrapnel-torn, bloodstained jeans her 16-year-old son, Fahad, was wearing when he died on the operating table at a local hospital, bereft of any anesthetic to ease the pain. Almost a year later, Coulthart reports, "grief among Fahad's family and friends has now hardened to anger" directed at the U.S. government. "They hate them," al-Ansari tells him of the Americans, explaining that "they don't hate the people, but they hate Bush and the Army."

"Did they hate the United States before this war?" Coulthart asks.

"No," she responds. "They were -- everybody used to dream to go to United States to work or to do something."

"Has anyone from the Coalition ever come to you or to this community and apologized for what happened?" he asks.

"No. No one."

The documentary also includes another type of footage rarely seen on American television. Though ABC originally aired it briefly (and though a handful of Web sites have shown it at various lengths), "Iraq -- On the Brink" includes the full night-vision footage taken from the gun cameras of a U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopter that shows the killing of three men, one of whom appeared to be hiding a rocket-propelled grenade. Though it's impossible to verify just what the man has, the crew is nonetheless instructed by radio to "Smoke 'em," and then coolly fires through the dark at each suspected insurgent in turn. In this sort of video-game-style footage, we're used to seeing the destruction of bunkers and buildings, not human figures.

However shocking it is to watch, the action is actually permissible under the U.S. Army's rules of engagement; indeed, it was likely that reliable intelligence led the helicopter to stake out the scene in the first place, and as helicopters are notoriously vulnerable to rocket-propelled-grenade and other shoulder-fired-missile attacks, it's not entirely surprising that the Apache fired away. Rather, says Coulthart, the importance of the footage is that it reflects what many non-American Coalition military units said to his crew: that they've grown increasingly concerned about the political ramifications of the Americans' take no-prisoners/show-no-mercy approach. "When it came up in conversation with one Coalition officer," says Coulthart, "he shook his head and said, 'The Americans have gone feral and no good will come of it.'"

"Iraq -- On the Brink" also captures the brusque aloofness of CPA administrator J. Paul Bremer, the shiftiness of Ahmad Chalabi, the still-being-uncovered hidden horrors of Saddam's regime, and the bravery of the Baghdad Police Department's bomb squad in defusing scores of bombs each day. (The Americans use remote-controlled robots to neutralized explosives threatening U.S. troops; the Iraqis display what Coulthart calls a "splendid madness in heroism" as they are left to defuse bombs by hand, with no protective gear.)

While Coulthart thinks the documentary makes for an accurate and timely snapshot of post-Saddam Iraq, he exhales a rueful sigh at the mention of Abu Ghraib -- a sigh that reflects a sense of both self-recrimination and angst born of the economics of foreign correspondence. When his crew was en route to meet Teeples and his Third Armored Cavalry soldiers in Iraq's western desert, their route took them past Abu Ghraib. As Coulthart recalls, no discussion was required to stop the van; the scene they beheld "was like something out of Dante's Inferno." "We all knew what it was and what it stood for, this thing with mythological status in Iraq where all this death and misery took place," he says. "Part of what was striking was that, frankly, it wasn't looking much different now -- barbed wire, troops with menacing gun emplacements, lines of people trying to get in to see relatives.

"While we're filming overlays, up walks this mother, who tells us this horror story about her sons essentially being abducted from their home in Um Qasr by the Americans in the middle of the night. I did the interview, of course, but didn't run it in our story because it seemed a little off our focus. You're so focused on the story you tell yourself is the story -- in part because the cost is so high and the budget is so tight. It cost us $1500 a week to be there, and unless we deliver results, it's harder in the future to get the support this kind of work requires."

Indeed, Coulthart says, those sorts of cost considerations actually kept the cluster-bomb segment from appearing on Sunday for a year. "Most of that we shot last year, but we had to focus on the story we were supposed to be telling, which was mostly about Chalabi," he says. Determined to advance the dormant story on his latest visit to Baghdad, days of street reporting led the crew to al-Ansari, whose experiences ultimately made for a much more informative and affecting piece of journalism.

Yet the fact remains that a disturbing reality went unreported for a year, essentially due to constraints on time and money. "And with Abu Ghraib, it was the same situation again," Coulthart sighs. "Though we had the luxury of more time and more flexibility than anyone who covers Iraq day in and day out, we felt like we couldn't shift our focus. And the irony was, here was this story of a lifetime right under our noses. There were people standing in queues trying to see their sons, waiting eight hours a day and often being told to come back the next day, and then the next and the next. Looking back on it, I'm not only kicking myself now, but am kind of ashamed. I'm sure that if we had scratched the surface and had taken the time to systematically interview people coming out to Abu Ghraib trying to figure out what had happened to their loved ones, we could have dug something up then."

Coulthart's sentiment is not uncommon among seasoned, independent-minded reporters cognizant of the complexities of most foreign stories. But in some respects, the dice have been loaded against journalists covering Iraq since the beginning of the war. While a handful of journalists has provided a steady stream of exemplary reporting, there are some who feel that whatever good reporting has been done since the end of "major combat operations" has involved an even greater uphill battle for attention than usual. Why? Because the Bush administration's practice of embedding journalists with the troops set the tenor of Iraq-war reporting.

As the Washington Post's Richard Leiby wrote last year, embedding was nothing short of a "propaganda coup" for the Defense Department. By embedding scores of reporters (many with little or no combat or foreign experience) in rapidly advancing frontline units, argued Leiby, the Pentagon ensured that virtually no one who was "cover[ing] the instability and power vacuum left in the invasion's wake" got nearly the play their "embedded" colleagues did -- thus minimizing the disturbing realities of poor post-war planning and lulling Americans into a sense of complacency, not about what was to come, but about what was already happening.

Speaking at an extraordinary-but-unnoticed symposium at the University of Texas last year, award-winning combat photographer Peter Turnley was unsparing in his criticism of the increasingly institutionalized self-censorship he believes began in the first Gulf War, and has only become more insidious since. In Gulf War I, Turnley -- then a top Newsweek photographer -- was so uncomfortable with the Pentagon's control of journalists through its "pool" system that he actually left Saudi Arabia before the war and snuck across the Kuwaiti border by dressing as an Army colonel. While many of his colleagues were being shepherded through the theater of operations by U.S. military minders, Turnley at one point found himself surveying a horrific scene that the Army thought it had successfully quarantined from journalists.

"I witnessed U.S. soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners at gunpoint to pick up bodies and pile them up and put them in mass graves where bulldozers would come and cover them up," he said. "There were two Iraqi soldiers, they were really very pathetic, in their 40s, didn't have teeth, very tired and fatigued, and at gunpoint being made to pick up dozens of bodies. It seemed rather inhuman to me, how long they were obliged to do this. I remember as they dropped a body next to a stack of bodies, one of the Iraqi soldiers fell to his hands and knees and started sobbing. I got on my knees and started to make a picture -- at that point an American soldier came up and punched me in the chest and said, 'You animal.' And I grabbed him by the shirt and told him I didn't make these guys do this."

Although Turnley took rolls of disturbing and moving images -- some of which he showed to the symposium audience -- almost none saw the light of day, either in Newsweek or through distribution by his photo agency. Yet almost every newspaper reproduced Turnley's photograph of a wounded U.S. soldier in a helicopter, crying as a comrade died in his arms.

During the 2003 Gulf War, Turnley -- this time for the Denver Post -- once again struck out on his own, purposely avoiding U.S. and British soldiers and focusing his attention on the Iraqi people. "For the first three weeks, I would see a convoy, a whole troupe of writers from major media outlets that would come in for a half day's reporting so they could get their dateline and then get out," he recalled. "It took me literally five seconds of entering into Iraq and looking into the eyes of people whose eyes showed mistrust, open hostility at the worst. There were towns that troops had just flown through, not staying to create any law and order. People showed me leaflets the Americans had dropped from the sky saying they should be embraced with joy and welcomed because we were bringing liberation and food and water and power, and they'd scream at me, 'Where's the water? Where are the medical supplies? In the hospital we have nothing.'"

In Turnley's view, the media-government arrangement that effectively produced much of the coverage of Gulf War II and the early occupation conspired to create what he terms a "projected idea of reality" -- which policymakers actually consider tantamount to reality. Yet wrenching situations like the one he witnessed in a Baghdad hospital five days after the city's liberation, he says, are precisely what people need to see to drive home the reality that the invasion was not about American pride, but about America's failure to secure the blessings of liberation for the Iraqi people. "I saw this beautiful little girl on the bed -- yellow socks, white shirt -- and I noticed two doctors were doing cardiac massage on her chest, and that I was watching the life of this little girl evaporating. I thought I saw her chest exhale and I had this leap of joy, I thought she was coming back to life -- and one of the doctors had this look of disgust and put a towel over her face and walked out."

The girl, Turnley found out, had died of pneumonia, for which she could have been treated. But because the Americans had failed to plan for crowds running riot, the girl's father couldn't get her to the hospital before it was too late.

A clip and transcript of "Iraq -- On The Brink" are available on the Journeyman Pictures website. A transcript of the shorter version of the documentary that aired on NineNet's Sunday program is available here; a transcript of Sunday's 2003 piece "The Spoils of War" is available here. You can also read related articles by Ross Coulthart at The Bulletin, an Australian newsweekly.

Jason Vest is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix.

Gay Gentrification

As we've seen, the gay-marriage issue has divided the African-American community over whether the fight for gay and lesbian rights is identical to the struggle for racial equality. The documentary Flag Wars makes a cogent argument that homophobia and racism aren't the same thing, especially when class isn't factored in.

Several years ago, African-American filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant visited her parents in Columbus, Ohio, and found her old neighborhood swarming with activity: homes being rehabbed on every block. In the past, low-income people of color had inhabited these houses; now yuppie gays and lesbians were everywhere, with rainbow flags fronting their spiffy redone domiciles. Bryant came to Columbus a second time accompanied by Laura Poitras, a white lesbian filmmaker, to chronicle this dizzying transformation of an unfashionable African-American ghetto into Olde Towne East, a ritzy designated historic district with a mainly homosexual populace. A fabulous gay oasis in Ohio? A depressing defeat for poor African-Americans, who find themselves redlined from the neighborhood where they grew up?

From the first images of Flag Wars, we know where the sympathies of the filmmakers lie: old black ladies lounging on a front porch find their restive day destroyed by the harsh noise of a buzz saw. The camera pans right and we see the place next door being wrecked and fixed up pretty: gay white folks are moving in. "As a [Caucasian] lesbian, I am aware . . . that my class and race privilege open doors every day of my life," Poitras says on the Flag Wars Web site. "My sexuality does not erase these privileges. . . . I especially want Flag Wars to be seen by queer audiences and to raise debate around class and race in the queer community."

The entrepreneur behind much of Olde Towne East's bulldozing arrives on camera: Nina Masseria, an Italian-American lesbian who operates the lucrative Carriage Trade Realty. If there's an arch-villain in Flag Wars, it's Masseria, the unapologetic voice for survival of the toniest, who's annoyed that old-timers want to stay in their houses. "Some family's been there forever,' she sneers about a domicile of holdouts. In a patronizing voice, she imitates those who dare say no to her: " 'I'm not selling!' " Then she gets Biblical, intoning, "It too shall pass," as if Providence had endorsed her real-estate maneuvering.

The filmmakers try for balance by focusing on one sympathetic gay man, Jim Yoder, who is building his home with his own labor, and from earnings squeezed from 12-hour-a-day jobs. No spoiled yuppie he! Flag Wars also shows also that not even the well-off queers of Columbus are insulated from homophobia. There's a series of street attacks on gay men, and the KKK and a homo-hating evangelist arrive in Columbus to protest the flying of a rainbow flag at Ohio's state house. Finally, Flag Wars eavesdrops on uncomfortable anti-gay commentary from various African-Americans in the movie.

If there's an implied hero here, it's the self-named Chief Baba Olugbala, who runs an amateur African museum out of his house. He encourages fellow blacks, through participatory dancing and drumming, to discover pride in their African roots. Also, he's a sterling neighbor. He goes way out of his way to assist Linda Mitchell, a mentally unstable black woman who survives, barely, in a cavernous, unkempt home willed to her by her dying father. Olugbala is there to unfreeze her basement pipes in winter, and to visit her when she's hospitalized, rubbing her feet to raise her spirits. Nothing much can help this enfeebled, paranoid, secretly alcoholic lady who is thinner and sicker each time we see her.

Off camera? Masseria and company are circling about, vultures eager to sink their teeth into the Mitchell property.

Russian Adolescence

So, what's in the box? The glowing MacGuffin from Pulp Fiction? The plutonium from Kiss Me Deadly? Gwyneth Paltrow's head? Or maybe a suitcase bomb left over from the Cold War? That's the least of the enigmas posed by Andrei Zvyagintsev's first feature, The Return, a huge festival hit and a limpidly accessible excursion into the murky realm of visionary Russian film of such directors as Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov.

To the mystic rhapsodies of archetypes, history, family dynamics, and personal history composed by that pair of geniuses, Zvyagintsev adds formal tightness and down-to-earth detail. The questions the film raises may be unanswerable, its meaning irresolvable, but its depictions of the pathology and the desperate love of that basic political and social unit, the family, are wrenchingly acute and familiar.

Sibling rivalry, for example. On top of a dismal lighthouse at the end of a long pier stretching into the Gulf of Finland, 13-year-old Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), taunted by his pals as a pig and a coward, is too afraid of heights to jump into the water. His older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), at first encourages him, then abandons him in disgust, and Vanya remains weeping and shivering on his perch until his mother (Natalia Vdovina) comes to rescue him. The next day, Andrei grudgingly joins the others in ragging Vanya about his disgrace. The brothers fight and run home.

It's just kids squabbling, of course, but it's also Cain and Abel, or maybe it's the struggle between the fledgling forces vying for control of post-Soviet Russia. Such religious and political subtexts inevitably underlie Russian films, and Zvyagintsev shows no reluctance to indulge in that tendency. Once home, the boys are shocked to learn from their mother that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko, who looks like an evil George Clooney) has returned from a long absence -- 12 years, or since the fall of the Soviet system.

The brothers rush to the bedroom, where dad lays inert under a sheet in a pose reminiscent of some Renaissance painting of Jesus (Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ, as it turns out). The boys then troop to the attic to find an old family photo to confirm his identity: The photo is stuck in a Bible next to an illustration of the sacrifice of Isaac. The next morning, after a meal in which the father shares wine (!) with his sons (Andrew and John!), he invites them on a fishing (!) trip.

That's more allusions than you'll find in the average Matrix movie, with many more overlooked and to come. And no special effects. Instead, what follows is an authentic lousy family road trip that takes father and sons to an eerie island in Lake Ladoga where dad digs up the mystery box and things get really strange. But never ungainly or implausible -- all is meticulously detailed and superbly acted and played out against the decrepit Baltic beauty familiar from such filmmakers as Aki Kaurismäki and Sarunas Bartas.

Vanya, played by Dobronravov in a depiction of bullheaded pre-adolescence rivaling that of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Les quatre cents coups/The 400 Blows, is at first the stronger-willed of the boys. He suspects the father and resents his encroachment, and his sullen, passive resistance (refusing to call his father "dad," not eating his soup, constantly complaining) brings increasingly blunt and even brutal reprimands. Andrei is more ambivalent; he wants dad's approval but also needs Vanya's companionship. Vanya calls Andrei a suck-up and imitates his sycophancy. Dad calls Andrei a blockhead and bounces his head against the car door. Both use him as a pawn in their Machiavellian power struggle. Until Andrei discovers his own power, that is, and the circular nature of the story implied by the title begins to emerge.

To what point? Why, for example, is the submerged boat shown in the opening images empty? Why is the father shot in the same pose in the boat at the end as he was in the bed in the beginning? Why does his image vanish from the family photos? Why is he in none of the photos Andrei has taken of the trip? (Marin, who resembles an adolescent David Hemmings in Blow-Up, drowned in Lake Ladoga shortly after the film was finished.) Any answers lead to more questions; for me they're all rendered moot when the two sons look out at the water and shout, in recognition and in despair, "Dad!"

What Would Jesus Watch?

Every ardent moviemaker gets the Jesus he deserves. To imitate Christ's life on celluloid takes hubris, and the image created often reflects the director, his audience, and the times more than the elusive subject. The latest case in point may be Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. I haven't seen the film yet, but reports suggest it takes to heart Jesus's assertion that he came to bring not peace to the world but a sword (an appropriate sentiment for the star of Lethal Weapon). Does this Passion foment anti-Semitism and preach intolerance? As someone once said, by their fruits you shall know them.

Most films about Jesus, though, offer reconciliation, not provocation. In contrast with Gibson's renunciation of Vatican II, Pier Paolo Pasolini dedicates his masterpiece Il Vangelo secondo Matteo/The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) to Pope John XXIII, who convoked that ecumenical council (which declared tolerance for all religions) in 1962. A Marxist, Pasolini gives us a Jesus who looks like a leftist Spanish economics student, which is indeed what Enrique Arazoqui, the non-professional actor who played him, was. Otherwise, the director intrudes little ideology into his version of the Gospel; it is perhaps the purest on film. His images are as austere as the stones that Jesus refuses to turn into bread when tempted by Satan in the desert. Pasolini is true to the letter of the text; the viewer provides the spirit.

The bread/word dichotomy for Pasolini, however, is crucial. Men do not live by bread alone, as Christ says in response to Satan's goading in the desert, but by the word of God. Material consumption doesn't satisfy the soul; despite his dialectical materialism, Pasolini reveals his own and the times' spiritual hunger. The film does include the infamous "Let his blood be on our children!" In this context, though, it's unlikely to spawn any hate crimes. Those who kill Jesus in Matthew are not "the Jews"; they're the entitled, the greedy, and the hypocritical, all those whose vanity and power he threatens.

Such is also the case in Franco Zeffirelli's mammoth 371-minute mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which he made in the aftermath of the 1973 Christ-as-hippie celebrations Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Robert Powell's Jesus possesses a porcelain British reserve. Sure, he has moments of doubt, but the audience never does, and overall He's as unflappable as Ian McKellen's Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Jesus of Nazareth, moreover, compares with Jackson's trilogy in theme and narrative structure as well as in length; it's The Lord of the Kings. Jesus gathers his motley fellowship of disciples -- comic and quarreling but good of heart -- and descends into Mordor, or Roman-occupied Jerusalem. There he must submit to authority and death -- his destruction of the Ring of Power -- to save the world.

The bad guys, once again, are political, not religious. They include the hypocrite establishment, of course (led by a scribe played by Ian Holm, who would later play Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings), but also the rebellious Zealots. The conflict is not between revolution and reaction but between the purity of the spirit and the defilement of the world.

Zeffirelli and Powell present a Christ who is a model of detachment. Willem Dafoe's Jesus in Martin Scorsese's 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ is a mess. The film opens with a quote from Kazantzakis stating that in his book he wanted to explore the age-old conflict between the flesh and the spirit. Scorsese, no stranger to that theme, takes him at his word. Tormented by dreams of a demanding God, this Jesus tries to drive them away by flagellating himself and making crosses for the Romans. But at last he submits to his father's will, and shadowed by his doppelganger Judas (Harvey Keitel), who seeks peace by the sword of insurrection, Jesus stumbles his way to Calvary.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a conflict in style as well as philosophy: between exoticism and banality (Paul Schrader's dialogue and the American accents add little to King James), between sublimity and kitsch. I thought it sophomoric when I first saw it; seeing it again, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I'm astonished at how much the film has learned in 16 years. Despite the protests and marches and the bomb threats when it was released (this Jesus was not an anti-Semite, but he did dream about women), The Last Temptation didn't make a dime.

Gibson, though, is a lot savvier in the ways of the movie world. He's gotten endorsements (the pope! -- maybe) and spun the controversy to his advantage, and he plans a 2000-screen opening targeted at specific markets (the South, black neighborhoods) on Ash Wednesday. It should be the biggest-grossing movie about Christ ever made. But ask yourself this: Which movie would Jesus watch?

Campaign Dot-com

Trident Booksellers & Café is located within walking distance of John Kerry's residence, so you might expect a gathering of his supporters to fill the small shop. Especially since this was a MeetUp -- arranged through MeetUp.com, which former Vermont governor Howard Dean's campaign has used to recruit thousands of followers. So the seven Kerry fans who came to Trident last Thursday evening couldn't hide their disappointment. (Actually nine showed up, but two well-groomed thirtysomething buddies left quickly, apparently having anticipated more of an opportunity to MeetUp with single women.) Trident's wait staff was also surprised by the poor attendance; more people than this had come to an atheists MeetUp the previous week, and even a recent MeetUp of witches had seen a better draw.

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What Is It About Harry?

The publication of Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic) marks yet another media triumph for author J.K. Rowling and her boy wizard. More than 200 million copies of the first four Potter titles are already in circulation, and 8.5 million copies from Order of the Phoenix's first print run (five million of which sold the first day) are now being shipped in the US alone. At that rate, there could be 300 million Potter books in circulation quicker than a Nimbus 2003 broom at a championship Quidditch game.

With the Potter movies -- and myriad spin-off products such as Quidditch rule books, talking hats, flying brooms, board games, action figures, and magician robes -- the Potter madness that began shortly after the first book was published in 1997 shows no signs of abating. Apparently, people love Harry Potter. Even the Vatican -- an institution that generally stays above the fray of popular culture -- went out of its way in its February publication "Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the 'New Age'" to praise the Potter books. A Vatican spokesperson claimed that "they help children to see the difference between good and evil."

Everybody, it seems, loves Harry -- except for a growing number of evangelical-Christian groups, including individual congregations and national publications. As the series' success has grown over the past five years, so has the fury of these evangelicals, who think Potter's popularity poses a decisive threat to children. The Harry Potter books, they argue, glorify sorcery, celebrate the occult, and encourage witchcraft -- all of which turns impressionable children away from true salvation through Jesus Christ.

Focus on the Family's publication Citizen: Family Issues in Policy and Culture has run several articles decrying the Potter books, most notably John Andrew Murray's reasonable sounding "The Trouble with Harry" in June 2000. Baptist.org, "the homepage for all Baptists," was a bit more strident in a two-part Aug. 27, 2001, article titled "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Why It Is Truly Satanic." Even the more mainstream Christianity Today ran a piece in its Oct. 26, 2000, issue called "The Perils of Harry Potter," and Christian Parenting Today, in its September/October 2000 issue, claimed that Harry was "pure evil." Many of these groups also sell their own anti-Potter books. Ankerberg Theological Research Institute sells a videotape featuring founder and president John Ankerberg titled "What Christian Parents Should Know About Harry Potter," and will send you articles like "Bewitched by Harry Potter" for a small donation.

These evangelicals have continued the offensive by demanding that schools and public libraries remove the Potter books from their shelves. They have been implicated in several high-profile legal cases, the most recent resolved on April 23, when a state judge ruled that Arkansas's Cedarville School District had to put the books back into general circulation after sequestering them on a special "parental permission" shelf. Even more frightening, the Potter books have been burned publicly on at least a dozen occasions. On March 26, 2002, the Reverend George Bender of the Harvest Assembly of God Church in Butler County, Pennsylvania, received national attention when he gathered his congregation around a bonfire to burn copies of the Rowling books. The campaign against the Potter series is so intensely persistent that the American Library Association's anti-censorship task force reports that for the past fours years -- 1999 to 2002 -- there were more attempts to ban Potter books from libraries than to ban any other title or author. Forget Eminem, gansta rap, sexy Hollywood films, and violent video games: Harry Potter is the real danger to American kids.

Queer As Folk

That may sound ridiculous to most, but for the first time in its public-moralizing career, the Christian Right just might be -- at least partly -- right. The Harry Potter books are a threat to normally accepted ideas about the social welfare and good mental health of American children. Not because they romanticize witchcraft and wizardry, but because they are deeply subversive in their unremitting attacks on the received wisdom that being "normal" is good, reasonable, or even healthy.

The Harry Potter books are, in a word, queer. As used today, "queer" means "homosexual," but it has larger connotations too. The word also suggests a more generally deviant, nonconformist, renegade identity. In its oldest, original sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which recently added the word "Muggle" to its august pages), queer means "deviating from the expected or normal; strange" or "odd or unconventional in behavior." The Harry Potter books can be read as queer in the "gay" sense, but also in the broader sense.

When the series begins, we find orphaned Harry trapped in a house with his aunt Petunia, uncle Vernon, and cousin Dudley, none of whom loves or understands him. He is grappling with feelings and physical reactions he doesn't understand and which he and others find frightening. In short, Harry is different and condemned to live in the world of normal people. And as Rowling puts it, Harry's relatives -- the Dursleys -- are emphatically normal: "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Lane, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

The Dursleys wear their normality as a badge, but they wear it defensively, for although they "had everything they wanted ... they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it." The secret, of course, is that Harry is the son of Mrs. Dursley's late sister, Lily, and her husband, James, an extraordinarily talented witch-and-wizard couple, and is, indeed, a wizard himself. The Dursleys are terrified of the non-normal, the queer, and the magical. In the witch-wizard world, non-magic people are called Muggles -- an evocative word that summons images of those who are unimaginative, dull, ordinary, repressive, afraid, and blind to the endless possibilities of the world -- people rather like the evangelical Christians now trying to censor the Potter books.

Coming Out

So much of the basic Potter plot is identical to the traditional coming-out story: Harry's differentness makes him an outcast in his own family. He is physically, emotionally, and mentally mistreated by the Dursleys. Their cruelty is calculated and dangerous -- he is, in essence, repeatedly queer-bashed by them. And as in so many coming-out stories, Harry is confused by his secret desires (although here they are driven by secret powers such as telekinesis and the ability to talk to snakes). Harry only begins to understand when his true nature is explained to him by Hagrid -- the trusty Keeper of the Keys at Hogwarts, the world's most important school of magic, and a close friend of Harry's parents -- who explodes in anger when he discovers that the Dursleys have done everything in their power to keep this information from Harry. As Hagrid says with righteous fury, "It's an outrage! It's a scandal! Harry Potter not know his own story...."

Now, Rowling has never stated or even implied that the Potter books are gay allegory, but her language and story details effortlessly lend themselves to such a reading. In the first book, Mr. Dursley keeps noting that wizards and witches dress in purple, violet, and green clothing -- all colors associated with homosexuality (green being the color no one wore to school on Thursday; purple and violet being variants of lavender). More tellingly, the language Rowling has the Dursleys use to discuss Harry's mother and her wizard husband, referring to "her crowd" and to "their kind," mirrors that often used to invoke homosexuality. And once Harry discovers the nature of his difference, the Dursleys demand complete silence and total concealment. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second volume of the series, Harry is continually reprimanded for his use of the "M" word (magic). His uncle -- a petty, mostly ineffectual tyrant who lives in fear of any deviation from the norm -- explodes: "I WARNED YOU! I WILL NOT TOLERATE MENTION OF YOUR ABNORMALITY UNDER THIS ROOF!"

Sure, all this may seem like "reading into" the novels -- which is, after all, what literary criticism does. But what are we to make of the fact that Harry, before he learns of his true identity, is forced to live in a closet? Or that before he learns of his acceptance to Hogwarts, he is preparing to go to Stonewall High School?

In the newly released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rowling seems to play more openly with a gay reading of the books. During an argument with Harry, the obnoxious Dudley mentions that his cousin spoke in his sleep about someone named Cedric, lashing out, "Who's Cedric -- your boyfriend?" And in the ensuing argument, Dudley seems to have a homosexual panic attack when Harry takes out his wand: "Don't point that thing at me," he says repeatedly. Much has already been written about Harry's physical and psychological maturation in Order of the Phoenix and, consistent with that change, the young wizard's wand is also described in more phallic terms. When a high-ranking witch discovers that Harry can produce a fully formed, corporeal creature (a Patronus) from his wand, not just "vapor and smoke," she is amazed: "Impressive ... a true Patronus at that age ... very impressive indeed." As Harry gets older and the subject of sexuality becomes unavoidable, it will be interesting to see where Rowling goes with it.

Secrets in the Closet

Even more intriguing -- from a queer perspective -- is how Rowling has structured the double world in the Potter books. Since the world of wizardry scares non-magic normal people, it must be kept a secret. But secret-keeping goes both ways. Witches and wizards know that, for their own safety, they must remain secret -- closeted -- as well. As a result, the world of magic surrounds Muggles, but they are unable to see it. Often in the Potter books, little glints of magic life -- flocks of owls, too many shooting stars -- are noticed by Muggles but, by and large, they are unable to interpret or understand them. Sometimes they have an inkling of another reality -- as Hogwarts professor McGonagall notes in Chamber of Secrets, "Well, they're not completely stupid" -- yet for the most part they are clueless.

The interplay between the world of magic and the world of Muggles in the Potter books is identical to how queer historians and sociologists describe the interplay between the closeted gay world and the mainstream world, particularly in the days before the gay-liberation movement. Homosexuals were everywhere, yet heterosexuals usually could not see them. Gay bars looked just like straight bars from the outside. Gay people invented elaborate codes, often in language, dress, and deportment, so they could recognize one another but not be seen as abnormal by the heterosexual -- Muggle -- world.

In his book "Gay New York," historian George Chauncey writes of the "invisible map" that exists in all cities that enables queers to find fellow travelers and assembling places: people and places usually invisible to the unknowing heterosexual. This is precisely the situation in the Potter books, where Hogwarts, Diagon Alley (where the magic shops are), 12 Grimmauld Place (the meeting place of Order of the Phoenix), Azkaban Fortress, and even magical buses and trains that run out of major terminals exist in the middle of large cosmopolitan cities and yet remain invisible to Muggles who simply cannot see them.

Medieval Misrule

It would be lousy literary criticism simply to claim that the Potter books are "gay"; they can obviously be read in myriad ways. But they are profoundly queer in the broader sense of the word. They are -- with their flagrant, loving, and complicated celebration of magic and the unusual -- an embodiment of the medieval idea of Misrule. The concept of Misrule runs throughout all Western civilization, and means something like "the world turned upside down" -- a phase used by the prophet Isaiah in the King James translation of the Hebrew Bible. It implies that the world has gone mad, topsy-turvy: left becomes right, night becomes day, sin becomes salvation, male becomes female, and abnormal becomes normal. Misrule threatens when traditional values are turned on their heads -- whether it involves men wearing their hair long in the 1960s, women demanding to be treated the same as men, and, most pertinent today, gay people demanding the right to marry.

In the Middle Ages, some holidays were clearly marked out for Misrule -- usually around Christmastime -- during which gender roles were sometimes reversed, sexual license was permitted, nobles served dinner to peasants, and the Lord of Misrule, usually portrayed as a fool, was crowned king. These holidays survive in some form today -- think of Mardi Gras. They have always been contained and regulated, however, for the fear of real Misrule is indeed great. Misrule is what Isaiah warned against and every Muggle -- and social conservative -- fears: an attack on civilized norms, expectations, and regulations.

The Harry Potter books play with the idea of Misrule. Magic completely reverses what we consider normal. Portraits talk, mythical animals live, cars fly, enchantment spells work, talking hats make decisions for us -- it is the world turned upside down. The reason the world of magic corresponds so much with the queer world is that homosexuality is -- in obvious and more discreet ways -- the world turned upside down as well. It is not surprising that medieval enactments of Misrule often broke down regulated sexual behavior and gender roles: Controlling the most intimate aspects of life, such laws of "civilized" conduct were the most pervasively mandated. In these reversals men didn't have to act like "men," women didn't have to act like "women," and sex was for love and pleasure, not for reproduction. This is a nightmare for Muggles, for as frightening as Misrule is, it also offers an excitingly seductive break from the humdrum reality of everyday life and the enforced regulation we are told is necessary to sustain civilization.

That's why evangelicals like Bender and Ankerberg, who are demanding that the Harry Potter books be removed from libraries because they pose a danger to children, are in a very important sense correct. The Potter books celebrate a revolt against accepted, conventional life -- against the world of the Muggles, who slavishly follow societal rules without ever thinking about whether they are right or wrong, if they make sense or not. They are at heart an attack on the very idea of normalcy. When we read these books, with whom do we identify? Harry and his friends at Hogwarts? Or the dim-witted, violence-prone Dursleys and their fellow Muggles? The Harry Potter books tell children again and again that being normal is dull, unexciting, unimaginative, and deadening.

Children, before they are completely socialized, have vibrant imaginations and often a very finely tuned sense of alternative possibilities. They are, in a very real sense, queer. They have to be taught how to become "civilized." Socialization involves mastering table manners and politeness, but it also concerns learning how to conform to the world's most terrible ways. Children have to learn racism -- to hate or fear certain people because of how they look; they have to be taught that work is far more important than play and that pleasure is always suspect; they have to be taught that there is only one correct way to worship God and everyone else is going to hell; they have to learn that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of sexual behavior, and that some forms of sexual pleasure are wrong. They are taught to be normal -- whatever that may mean -- within the terms of the prevailing culture. They are taught to be Muggles. Is it any wonder evangelical Christians find the Harry Potter books threatening?

Whither Wizards?

Actually, the real question is, why do so many people think the Harry Potter books are good for children? The answer surely has something to do with the sad fact that -- to a large degree -- children and their interests are not taken all that seriously in our culture. In a world where many parents regard television as a great babysitter and video games (except for the extremely violent ones) as useful ways for kids to pass time, reading Harry Potter looks downright cultured. But just what are they reading? The irony here is that Rowling often displays a fairly sophisticated political sense, yet her views are lost on most parents.

One of the themes running through all the Potter books, which comes into full flower in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is a clear attack on racial purity. Some wizards believe that only full-blooded wizards should have power, and refer to wizards without an impeccable "blood" lineage as "mudbloods." Yet you hardly ever read popular commentary on the Potter series that discusses their race politics, just as the books' Christian critics can't see beyond a myopic vision of sorcery promotion.

The question raised by the evangelical attack on the Harry Potter books is this: Do we dismiss their complaints as yet another example of right-wing craziness, or do we invest the time, the thought, and even the empathy to listen to what they are saying? Obviously, banning the Harry Potter books is absurd and wrong. But the anti-Potter frenzy might prompt us to examine the deeper, more serious reasons why children love these books and the complicated, and very disruptive, precepts on which they are based.

If Harry Potter presents children -- and the rest of us -- with a tantalizing vision of Misrule and the world turned upside down, let's try to understand why we don't like parts of the world in which we live now. If we don't want to be Muggles -- at least not all the time -- maybe being queer, in the broadest sense, might be a lot more fun. This means, on a very basic level, reconceiving the very structures of what we call society, civilization and freedom.

Michael Bronski can be reached at mabronski@aol.com.

Mad as Hell at the FCC

If you've followed the media-consolidation story for lo these many years, you might discern a certain resemblance to the movie "Groundhog Day" -- with one notable difference. Bill Murray was destined merely to live out the same day over and over again. With media concentration, it gets a little worse each time, as more television channels, radio stations, and newspapers fall into the hands of ever-larger, ever-fewer corporate owners.

Thus it was this past Monday, when the Federal Communications Commission -- chaired by Michael Powell, son of the secretary of state -- voted by a three-to-two margin to loosen the few restraints that were still in place. Daily newspapers will now be able to buy television and radio stations in the same communities in which they publish, a heretofore illegal arrangement known as "cross-ownership." Conglomerates will be allowed to own television stations reaching 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent. A company will be allowed to own two -- and in some larger cities three -- TV stations in the same market.

"It violates every tenet of a free democratic society to let a handful of powerful companies control our media," said FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in a blistering dissent. "The public has a right to be informed by a diversity of viewpoints so they can make up their own minds. Without a diverse, independent media, citizen access to information crumbles, along with political and social participation. For the sake of democracy, we should encourage the widest possible dissemination of free expression through the public airwaves."

And so it goes.

But wait. This time it might be different. This time there are signs that the public, as well as opinion leaders of various and diverse ideological stripes, are finally so outraged by this ongoing power grab that they will demand action.

The public snoozed during the 1980s, when the Reagan White House eased the public-interest and equal-time provisions to the point of irrelevance. It looked the other way when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 set off a gold rush, especially in the radio sector, which was taken over almost in its entirety by a tiny handful of owners. And that somnolence was encouraged by the news media, which, whether by design or indifference, served their corporate masters by failing to cover what was happening as anything other than a routine business story.

By contrast, the run-up to Monday's vote was distinctly unquiet. Opposition to the FCC's latest deregulatory moves came from an unusually broad cross section, from liberal and reformist groups such as Common Cause, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Consumer Federation of America to conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the Parents Television Council.

And it wasn't just special-interest groups that got in on the action. More than a half-million people reportedly submitted comments to the FCC, nearly all of them opposed to deregulation. MoveOn.org, a progressive organization founded to fight Bill Clinton's impeachment, forwarded some 180,000 electronic comments to the FCC. The group, which emerged earlier this year as a leader in the anti-war movement, also took out television commercials that raised the specter of international media baron (and Fox News Channel founder) Rupert Murdoch's extending his global reach even further.

"This really is just the beginning," Eli Pariser, the Maine native who is international campaigns director of MoveOn.org, told me by e-mail. "When we decided to engage on this issue, we knew that Commissioner Powell was probably committed to the approach of railroading the rule change through. We wanted to highlight his contempt for the democratic process and raise the noise level to the point where Congress paid attention."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, believes progressives were finally mobilized by their disgust at the rah-rah, unquestioning tone of much of the war coverage. "The most important thing post-June 2 is to take the momentum and broaden this from the coalition that we've been able to create and go after some very serious victories on legislative action," says Chester. "You have the potential for a left-right coalition here to go back to Congress and try to be serious." As an example of legislation that could ameliorate the effects of the FCC's ruling, Chester says media reformers might push for a rule requiring companies that own a newspaper and a television station in the same market to employ separate editorial managers.

Besides that, Chester adds, he and other activists intend to protest every single merger. "We will file petitions to delay. We will slow down the process," he vows.

In a country whose Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the very idea of media regulation has an un-American ring to it. And in fact, strictly defined, "the press" -- that is, newspapers, magazines, and other print outlets -- are essentially unregulated. By contrast, the rules that govern television and radio stations are grounded in the laws of physics: there are only so many broadcast frequencies available, and they must be divvied up in such a way that one station isn't trampling on space reserved for another.

If you want to start a daily newspaper, you can. It will cost many millions of dollars and you will probably fail, but no one will tell you that you aren't allowed to try. But if you want to own a TV or radio station, you'll need to buy one: nearly all the available frequencies are already being used by other broadcasters. It is this situation that gave rise to the current regulatory regime, which dates back to the 1930s. The airwaves, according to this doctrine, are finite and publicly owned. Licenses to use these airwaves are granted for a limited period of time, and must be exercised in the public interest.

That was the theory, anyway. Starting in the 1980s, though, the system began to crumble. During the Reagan presidency, public-interest programming started to disappear, as regulators made it clear that they no longer considered it a condition for license renewal. The Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions gave way to today's reality, in which nationally syndicated talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity can openly call for listeners to vote Republican, with virtually no one on the air to take the other side.

Commercial radio was so thoroughly destroyed by the Telecom Act of 1996 that FCC member Michael Copps -- a Democrat who has emerged as Michael Powell's most outspoken opponent -- cited it as an object lesson in his 22-plus-page dissent to Monday's ruling. "Diversity of programming suffered. Homogenized music and standardized programming crowded out local and regional talent. Creative local artists found it evermore difficult to obtain play time on the air," Copps wrote, adding: "Competition in many towns became non-existent as a few companies -- in some cases a single company -- bought up virtually every station in the market. This experience should terrify us as we consider visiting upon television and newspapers what we have inflicted upon radio. 'Clear Channelization' of the rest of the American media will harm our country."

That last bit is a reference to Clear Channel, a conglomerate that has expanded its empire to some 1200 radio stations since 1996. Companies today can own as many as eight stations in a given market; Monday's ruling did not change that. Perhaps the most infamous case of radio gone bad is the town of Minot, North Dakota, where Clear Channel owns all six commercial stations. According to a New York Times report, when a 1 a.m. train derailment caused toxic gas to leak into the air in January 2002, police attempted to alert the Clear Channel station that was the town's designated emergency broadcaster -- and couldn't get their calls answered, forcing them to rouse station employees at home. Police complained that because the station was programmed by remote control, no employees were actually at the station, a charge that Clear Channel denied. Still, the story has become a cautionary tale regarding the evils of deregulation, and has transformed Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) into an anti-monopoly crusader.

Incredibly, Clear Channel criticized Monday's ruling because the FCC announced that it intended to take some mild oversight steps with regard to radio. Then, too, Clear Channel went to great lengths to make sure its stations were on board with the war in Iraq, even going so far as to organize pro-war rallies. Perhaps the company's executives believe that the Bush administration is showing insufficient gratitude.

It's not just news that gets short shrift -- culture suffers as well. Donna Halper, a radio consultant and Emerson College journalism professor, saw what happened to radio firsthand. In 1974, she was music director at WMMS, in Cleveland, when she received a record in a plain brown envelope. It was by an unknown band called Rush. She put the record on the air -- and thus gave a huge boost to a band that has proved to be both highly popular and long-lived.

"If I were a music director doing my job today, I couldn't do what I did in 1974," Halper told me. "I couldn't run down to the disc jockey on the air and say, 'Hey, I just heard this great new band, we've got to put them on the air.'" Increasingly, she observes, radio stations in small and medium-size markets -- the kinds of places where music promoters used to be able to break new acts -- are programmed out of headquarters many hundreds of miles away.

This kind of gigantism can take a more malignant turn as well. Last week, ABC's Nightline -- in a segment for which Halper was interviewed -- reported that Cumulus, the second-largest radio chain (after Clear Channel), banned the Dixie Chicks from all its 42 country stations after lead singer Natalie Maines dissed George W. Bush. Now, you could argue that that was Cumulus's right, or that it might even have been a good business decision. But one company taking a group off 42 stations is considerably different from 42 separate radio-station owners making the same decision.

After all, it is nearly unimaginable that 42 different individuals would make that same decision. Which is, after all, the whole point about what's wrong with media consolidation.

As Michael Powell accurately notes, consolidation is not taking place in a vacuum. For one thing, in recent years the increasingly conservative federal court system has been knocking down various media regulations, meaning that some loosening of the rules was inevitable. For another, there are many more media outlets than ever before -- hundreds of thousands of Web sites, satellite television, and a cable universe that won't stop expanding until it's up against the current technological limit of 500 channels.

The problem with Powell's first argument, though, is that he appears far too eager to do the media conglomerates' bidding rather than test the limits of the courts' forbearance. Powell has encouraged a shockingly cozy relationship with the industry. According to a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity, "FCC officials have taken 2,500 trips costing nearly $2.8 million over the past eight years, most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industries the agency regulates." Top destinations: Las Vegas, New Orleans, and New York.

The problem with the second argument is that, though there are more broadcast and cable outlets than ever before, the majority of them are owned by five huge companies: AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS, General Electric/NBC, Disney/ABC, and Murdoch's News Corporation. Studies show, in fact, that those companies control some 75 percent of the prime-time audience.

To be sure, the notion that big-is-bad is too complicated to be correct in all cases. Local media activist Steve Provizer, the founder of Allston-Brighton Free Radio and the Citizens Media Corps, notes that a study earlier this year by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that TV stations owned by newspaper companies (under "grandfathering" arrangements) tend to produce higher-quality newscasts than other stations. He also observes that WHDH-TV (Channel 7), an independently owned operation (there is a sister station in Miami), introduced the sort of whiz-bang graphics and quick hits that dragged down local news throughout Greater Boston, with the chain-owned stations emulating at least some of Channel 7's style in a desperate bid to retain audience share.

"You can throw around the big terms: democracy, civic discourse. But I'm at the point where I've been doing this a long time, and people's real choices have got to change," Provizer says. "Will people choose their media on the basis of the fact that it's an independent rather than a group owner? They never have." He adds: "In my own mind, I feel like community and alternative media have got to do some real significant work if they're going to have any impact on people's media habits."

These days, Provizer is involved in a project called the Commonwealth Broadband Collaborative, which is aimed at producing high-quality, community-based programming for public-access cable TV and the Internet.

Provizer is right: independent owners aren't always better than corporate chains, and community-based media do no good if people aren't paying attention. Still, there are limits to the amount of damage a bad independent owner can do. The FCC's stated goals of localism, diversity, and competition are far better served by a multiplicity of owners than they are by a handful of corporate titans controlling most of what we see, hear, and read.

So what's next? The new FCC rules won't actually take effect until fall at the earliest. There's been considerable speculation about what might happen in Boston, but the truth is that no one knows. The New York Times Company, which owns the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, also owns TV stations, and editorialized in favor of dropping the cross-ownership ban. Tribune Company, which owns WLVI-TV (Channel 56), has made it clear that it would like to gobble up TV stations in cities where it already does business. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell has publicly stated that he would like to buy a radio station. He might also find a way to do business with his old mentor, Rupert Murdoch, who owns WFXT-TV (Channel 25).

Then, too, there is a possibility -- slight though it may be -- that Congress will seek to prevent some or all of the FCC changes from taking effect. David Moulton, a spokesman for Representative Ed Markey (D-Malden), a key opponent of deregulation, says the congressman might file legislation to retain the 35 percent national-audience cap. Markey himself said in a statement that "all segments of the population will enjoy fewer and fewer options for independent news and information" as a result of the FCC decision.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator John Kerry, denounced the FCC decision. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a national leader in the fight against deregulation, said in a written statement that Monday's action would "limit freedom of expression and curtail discourse, which are the very tenets of freedom and democracy our nation is built on." Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), an outspoken critic of the way Clear Channel muscles musicians with its monopolies in radio and concert promotion, announced that he was considering various legislative options as well. And these progressives have been joined by such conservative Republicans as Senators Trent Lott of Mississippi and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Like Eli Pariser and Jeff Chester, University of Illinois media scholar Robert McChesney believes the coalition that formed around the FCC's latest deregulatory steps may represent a real opportunity for those who believe in a decentralized, democratic media. McChesney is involved in a new organization, Free Press (www.mediareform.net), based in Northampton, that is attempting to organize around issues related to media concentration and ownership.

"What we've seen this time is an extraordinary amount of activism and interest in this issue. We've had nothing like this in the last 50 or 100 years that's even remotely comparable," says McChesney. "This is not the last battle in a war that is now lost. This is the first battle in a war that is just beginning."

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

Gay Goes Mainstream

If there was any doubt left that a potential war with Iraq is what's on everyone's mind, it was erased with the opening joke of a recent episode of "Will and Grace." After Karen flirts outrageously with the handsome owner of the restaurant in which they are eating, Grace asks, "Are you trying to get a date with that man?" Karen answers with her best baby-doll voice: "Oh, honey. I haven't had a date since Bush was president and we were about to invade Iraq."

The line captured perfectly the intersection of foreign policy and camp sensibility (bet you didn't know about that intersection). That such a joke could be made on television's only queer sit-com is part of an interesting phenomenon: Many pockets of the organized queer community are taking policy stands on the potential war. This didn't happen in 1991 during Gulf War I, and has happened only rarely since. (Two years ago, for instance, a number of gay groups took stances against the death penalty.) Ironically, it marks not only the maturation of the gay movement, but also a return to its origins in a politics of broad social change.

Consider how the community responded to the first President Bush's war against Iraq. Back then, the board of directors of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) issued a strong statement against the war. It declared the war an international social-justice issue that demanded NGLTF's attention, given the organization's mandate to deal with gay-and-lesbian issues. From NGLTF's point of view, the Persian Gulf War would adversely affect not just the lives of those lesbians and gay men in the armed forces, but also vital domestic-spending programs on health care and research for AIDS.

NGLTF was the only national gay group to take such a stand, and it was excoriated by the gay press and public for having strayed beyond the narrowly drawn definition of a "gay issue." It's true that there were a few local grassroots groups, such as independently organized chapters of ACT UP, that did the same. But for the most part, NGLTF stood alone in its stance against the war. The group took substantial hits in its fundraising for having involved itself in issues that were not "gay."

Fast-forward to the second President Bush and, presumably, the second war in the Persian Gulf. NGLTF has again taken a stance on the war. But so, too, have the Log Cabin Republicans, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Lavender Green Caucus (which advocates on behalf of gay-and-lesbian issues within the Green Party), and the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network (CABN), a queer grassroots advocacy group that has published a series of advertisements in both of Chicago's gay papers publicizing its stance. These groups have been joined by a host of openly queer celebrities, including R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray, Ani DiFranco, and Lily Tomlin, all of whom have come out publicly against a potential war with Iraq.

Clearly, a lot has changed.

Consider the language and tone of these antiwar statements. Here's CABN's Dec. 15 statement against the war: "A new U.S. war will indirectly kill people in our community here at home by diverting necessary funds away from already scaled-back social service programs. For example, programs that prevent HIV+ people from losing their homes and provide other life-saving services are already facing severe cutbacks during the current recession as a bloated military budget is given precedence over everything else. Just this year we've seen huge cutbacks at Horizons Community Services and the Howard Brown Health Center, while three AIDS service agencies collapsed into one in order to save money, and the entire $2.5 million state of Illinois budget for AIDS minority outreach was wiped out."

The statement was signed by many of Illinois's most prominent queer activists, including Larry McKeon, the state's out gay state representative; Miranda Stevens-Miller, a noted transgender activist; and the Reverends Alma Crawford and Karen Hutt, co-pastors of Church of the Open Door, the city's black GLBT congregation. Additionally, many activists with Equality Illinois, the most vocal GLBT lobbying group in the state, signed on as individuals.

The point-by-point refutation of the Bush administration's push for war with Iraq by the Green Party's Lavender Green Caucus, the only caucus to have achieved official status within the Green Party, reads like a '70s-era antiwar pamphlet: "The Lavender Caucus of the United States Green Party stands united in opposition to military aggression and war against Iraq and her people, for the following reasons:

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How To Go On A Nationwide Book Tour And Not Get Laid

I: In which the author anticipates nookie

On the eve of my first coast-to-coast book tour, my pal -- I'll call him Wilhelm -- took me aside for a little literary man-to-man: "The last time I went out on the road it was crazy, dude. Women every night. They just come up to you. They offer themselves."

It is important to note that Wilhelm is a poet. And when a poet tells you he's getting that much play, well ... you can pretty much draw your own conclusions.

What's more: I had written a book of short stories -- "My Life in Heavy Metal" (Grove, 2002) -- with enough erotic content to convey the impression (however mistaken) that I know my way around the female anatomy.

And so, for the first time in many years of traveling, I packed condoms, four varieties, in their bright, hopeful little wrappers, affixed with all those salacious buzzwords -- ribbed, lubricated, extra-sensation -- which have the effect, even now, back in my lonely writer cage, of giving me semi-wood.

II. In which the author ... not

But, see, that's just not how the road worked for me. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I'm kind of goofy-looking. Or that my stories tend to be about sexual disaster. Or perhaps Wilhelm is simply mas macho than I.

I sure never experienced the carnival of casual sex he so blithely described. What I found was that women (and men) come to readings seeking an intellectual, creative connection. And while this isn't always incompatible with sexual adventurism, it tends to diminish the chances for a quickie in the self-help section.

In my case, there was also a logistical issue to consider, one best represented by the following equation: no hotel = no coochie. Yes, to help save money, I stayed with friends. And friends don't let friends fuck drunk.

Besides which, there's something indisputably scummy about using your cachet as an artist to hit on a fan. I know it's a timeworn tradition and all, one of the perks of the biz. But half my stories are about jerks who use sex to primp their frail egos. (This, come to think of it, might also help explain the dearth of fawning bachelorettes.)

III. In which the author addresses the, uh, ejaculation issue

One of the things that became apparent as I read my work aloud is that people tend to get hung up on the sex. As soon as someone starts talking blowjobs, the crowd just freezes. This was especially true when I read the title story, which includes the following passage:
Gradually, her legs sagged to the bed. Her pelvis vaulted into the air. I followed her up, pressed my tongue harder, and suddenly there was a warm liquid coming out of her, a great gout of something sheeting across my cheeks, down my chin, splashing onto the comforter.
The first time I read this scene, the ladies in the front row looked like they'd been bopped in the back of the head with Ron Jeremy's manmeat.

The first question I got from audiences was, almost invariably: "Have you ever had sex with a woman who ejaculates? (Or: "How much of your work is autobiographical?", which is just a wimpier way of asking: "Have you ever had sex with a woman who ejaculates?")

My basic response to this question was: yeah, I did. But that's not really the point. Sex is just the strange chemistry and plumbing of our bodies. I'm far more interested in the emotions that live beneath the thrashing.

Still, the issue wouldn't die. In Minneapolis, a reviewer named Ann Bauer called my rendering of the female anatomy "woefully inaccurate," setting off a tsunami of protest. One women (God bless her) wrote in to confess that she gushed, was proud to be a gusher, and expressed what I would consider a charitable pity for Bauer.

No less an authority than the New York Times offered the following in-depth analysis of my narrative strategy: "The thing about Almond's stories is that his characters like to have sex. Really like to have sex."

Yes, Virginia, and often with their clothes off.

IV. In which the author talks cock

For the most part, I think, people who came to hear a story managed to suss out that the sex wasn't really the point, that my characters have a tendency (like many of us) to throw their bodies before their hearts.

But then every so often, I'd get a question like this: "Why do men always write about their penises?" -- a question of such dazzling sophistication that I'd be forced to review my basic understanding of the Western literary canon.

Homer? Dante? Milton? Cock. Cock. Cock. Faulkner? Cock. Forster. Pure cock. "Crime and Punishment"? Yeah, come to think of it ... cock.

I should note that this question came from a woman, and my guess is that she thought she was being clever, in a kind of snarky feminist way. To me, though, her question was just sort of sad. Not how stupid it was, but the way in which it revealed how embarrassed folks still are about the human body and its desires.

I mean, here we are in a culture that has appropriated sex as its chief marketing tool. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting some naked stick figure in lousy mascara. And yet most of us are still freaked when it comes to a serious contemplation of our genitalia. But what the hell else should writers write about? We think about our pussies and cocks all the time. We admire them. We worry about them. We stroke them. We press them against strangers. They take up a hell of a lot of psychic space. (Need this be mentioned: Half of the World Wide Web is devoted to the display of genitalia in action.)

And yet somehow, whenever genitals are attached to actual emotions or thoughts, they become dangerous. They threaten to distract us from the product.

This is why Hollywood, as a big for-instance, has such an abnegating relationship with sex. It will show us everything but the jewels, in scenes that are crafted to excise all emotional content from the frottage.

V. In which the author considers a career in porn

Fortunately, there are still pockets of the country where a healthier attitude survives. In North Carolina, I stayed with my pal Sean, who works at Phil Harvey Enterprises. PHE, for those of you who don't know, is one of the nation's premier purveyors of pornography and sex toys. It is located in a quaint little industrial park, which Phil himself built on the outskirts of Hillsborough.

The PHE nerve center is housed in a nondescript building just past the artificial lake with the geese. It's full of the standard corporate stuff: cubicles, workers hunched before computer monitors, bulletin boards with perky blood-drive announcements.

Only when you take a closer look do you start to see the nature of the office tchotchkes: dildos, photos of porn stars, the odd butt plug.

One of Sean's jobs is to write the blurbs that go on the movie boxes. This requires him to watch half a dozen movies a day, fast-forwarding through the sex scenes so he can get a sense of each film's deeper ambiance and setting. The porn no longer arouses him, he says, though given that he's heterosexual, the gay stuff is still a little tough to watch. (He'd just finished up "Ass Angels 3" when I visited.)

Sean's tour of the facility included the administrative offices of PHE's film division, which does not house an actual studio -- the movies are shot in LA -- but did include two women cheerfully talking PTA politics and splicing money-shot scenes together.

PHE's warehouse is 40,000 square feet and contains, in addition to videos and DVDs of every possible stripe, the largest selection of sex toys in the world. Sean was quite excited, on the day I visited, about a new device that, when affixed to the end of one's tongue, aids in cunnilingus.

Here's the coolest thing about PHE: Phil Harvey himself is a raging humanitarian. He's a former president of the ACLU who funnels a large portion of his profits toward promoting safe sex in the Third World.

That's right: all us wankers over here in suburban America who are ordering Phil's products so we can stroke off into napkins -- we're the ones funding the fight against STDs and unwanted pregnancies abroad.

It's enough to make me love America, just for a minute.

VI. In which the author (finally) sees one of his fans buck naked and writhing

This was in Portland, where a striking platinum blonde walked up before my reading and introduced herself. She told me she was a friend of my pal Jane and that she did an act with music, and invited me to come see her show after the reading.

I knew from Jane that this woman had gone to Williams (possibly the most uptight college in the entire country), that she was "a genius" and a social activist. I naturally assumed she was some kind of performance artist.

Nope.

By the time my pals and I walked into the club, Jane's friend was gone, replaced by a creature named Viva Las Vegas, a heartbreakingly limber and uniformly tan stripper with a penchant for exotic yoga positions and a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. Without dwelling on particulars, I feel compelled to note that Portland allows full nudity in bars and that Viva appeared to have more than a passing familiarity with hair-removal products.

Fortunately, her club was not the kind where cokeheads and mouth-breathers prevail. It was a sort of local strip bar, with low-key regulars and women who clearly loved what they were doing.

Viva told me she'd been stripping for more than five years, that the freedom of expression was what hooked her -- though I can't imagine the money hurts, either. True to her role as an activist, Viva led a contingent of strippers to City Hall several months ago, to protest an attempt by the city council to place restrictions on her profession. The local media, predictably, had a field day.

Viva told me all this on her break. She gave me a little hug and wished me well. Then she leapt on stage and performed a heavy-metal set -- in honor of my book -- which featured a remarkably acrobatic version of "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."

VII. In which the author concedes defeat

When I talked with my (male) friends from the road, they wanted to know one thing: whether I was getting laid.

These friends had a great deal of difficulty expressing, in complete sentences, their disappointment when I reported to them that I was not.

"Dude, c'mon.... No-brainer, man.... Close the deal."

They had expected some juicy stories, after all -- and not the kind you read in some damn book. They wanted Penthouse Forum-type action. Exhibitionistic librarians. Swedish twins. A menage a trois (at least) with horny groupies.

Strangely enough, I did receive a few interesting e-mails over the next month or so. It seems that a number of my friends were reading my stories to their partners, using my book, in essence, as a kind of high-brow sexual aid.

After an initial period of confused envy, I've come around to liking this idea. I think it's just great, actually. So I've gotten in the habit of sending these folks a very special gift: one of my unused condoms.

Steve Almond's book, "My Life in Heavy Metal" (Grove, 2002), is available in stores now. Visit his Web site, www.stevenalmond.com, for information on upcoming readings. He can be reached at sbalmond@earthlink.net

Church Chat

Not a day goes by without the emergence of some new and damaging information in the ever-unfolding pedophile-priest crisis rocking the Archdiocese of Boston. To date, more than 80 area clergymen have been named as child molesters, and thousands of pages of once-secret files have exposed the Church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse by its priests. Bernard Cardinal Law has resorted to hiding from the media crews that have become fixtures outside the chancery.

But what does all this mean for the Catholic Church? Will its influential role in shaping public policy fade? Frances Kissling, who heads the Washington, DC-based reform group Catholics for a Free Choice, will participate in a debate on those questions and more at an upcoming forum titled "Sex, Scandal, and Power: Is this the End of the Catholic Church’s Political Influence?", hosted by the Women’s Studies Program at Harvard, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City University of New York, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I caught up with Kissling recently to discuss the decline in the Church’s authority caused by the ongoing scandal.

Q: What kind of a Catholic are you?

There are many kinds of Catholics. There are pious Catholics, for whom being Catholic means, "I go to mass on Sunday; I pray the rosary." There are Catholics who follow the social-justice message of the gospel. There are intellectual Catholics for whom theologians like Thomas Aquinas are most important. There are conservative Catholics who believe whatever the pope says. And then, there is what I call "Catholics in resistance." I’m a Catholic in resistance. Changing the Church characterizes my staying.

Q: How has your faith been tested by the clergy sexual-abuse scandal?

My faith has never depended on the institutional Church. There is a profound distinction between the Vatican, the Curia, the Holy See, and my life as a spiritual person. I’ve always seen the sacramental side as meaningful, and the governing side as often corrupt. Abuse of power comes as no surprise, whether it’s sexual, financial, or personal. My belief that the Church’s governing structure is corrupt has only been reinforced. But it doesn’t present me with a problem because I never thought the structure was a divine creation. It has been, to use the buzzwords, an elitist patriarchal entity, and these entities have a tendency to corruption.

Q: What’s your take on last week’s meeting of American cardinals at the Vatican?

It had all the trappings of the way in which large corporations act when they’ve gotten caught with hands in the cookie jar. The pope made a generic statement honoring victims, but victims weren’t there. He chose to meet with upper management. The cardinals went in with a line about what should be done, yet came out with no improvements. They think they can get away with spin. It was a disgraceful show of contempt for victims, with no recognition that the bishops and cardinals are the problem, not the solution.

Q: Five months ago, before the scandal blew wide open, how influential would you say the Church was in matters of social and public policy?

It was an influential force at both the state and federal levels. Take the decision by the Republican Party to make a monumental attempt to court conservative Catholics. The party gave [prominent Catholics] a skybox at the [2000 Republican] convention. One of the first events that George Bush attended after becoming president was dinner at Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s house. The Church’s power in the State House is also well known. It has access, writes bills, lobbies. On a number of social issues, it wins.

Q: When you consider Church leaders like Bernard Cardinal Law -- an outspoken figure on abortion and other issues -- what do you see today?

One sees a broken man. His physical persona is different. He doesn’t stand as straight. He speaks with less firmness. He’s simply not as visible. His moral authority is profoundly eroded. What will be interesting to see as we move into the 2002 election cycle is how many politicians want a photo op with Law. The number will be far less than it was two years ago.

Q: Articles suggest that people aren’t walking away from the teachings of the Church, so how could this scandal harm the Church’s stature?

The Catholic laity has already rejected the moral authority of bishops on divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, contraception, abortion. So their faith is untouched. But the scandal harms the Church’s stature in the public-policy arena. The bishops have been unable to speak with moral authority on sexual issues inside the Church for 30 years. Now they’ll have great difficulty speaking with authority on those issues outside the Church.

Q: As far as crises go, how would you say this one measures?

It’s not as big as the Protestant Reformation, but it’s close. It will mark the Church in a negative way for hundreds of years. The American Church’s current leadership will never recover. They may never retire, because the drive to protect the patriarchy takes precedence over everything. But this scandal has vastly eroded their authority. Church leaders have misused their power in other ways that have caused suffering. That they have the clout to deny condoms to people with AIDS in the Third World is a scandal. That they could be complicit in the deaths of 600,000 women yearly who die from botched abortions or unsustainable pregnancies is a scandal. If this sex-abuse scandal contributes to diminution of political power of bishops, that’s a good thing.

This article originally ran in the Boston Phoenix.

On the Back of the Bumper

On the evening of Tuesday, February 26, the ashes of Sylvia Rivera were taken from the standing-room-only Metropolitan Community Church in midtown Manhattan and placed in a horse-drawn carriage. The carriage, along with hundreds of mourners, moved slowly down Christopher Street, past the historic Stonewall Inn where the gay-liberation movement was born. When it came to a stop, Sylvia’s ashes were scattered off the piers on the Hudson River. It was a fitting end for a drag queen who had been in the forefront of enormous changes for the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) movement over the past 33 years.

The funeral was exactly what Sylvia would have wanted; indeed, she had made all the arrangements in the months before her death from liver cancer at age 50. Let’s face it: Sylvia -- reputed to have hurled the first beer bottle in the Stonewall Riot -- had learned long ago that if you wanted something done (never mind done right), you’d better do it yourself.

Sylvia had always remained on the outer fringes of the gay movement -- she spent a substantial portion of her adult life homeless and struggling with substance abuse and was famous for her street-smart, no-nonsense, fuck-you-in-your-face brand of politics. But in death she was widely mourned, both by her comrades in Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, or STAR (which she had co-founded in 1971 as Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), and by the most mainstream of gay groups. Indeed, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) -- one of the most respectable, conservative, and well funded of the national gay-rights groups -- issued a lengthy statement of respect for her that read, in part, "We are deeply saddened by the passing of Sylvia Rivera, a brave pioneer who helped pave the way for the future of GLBT Americans.... We are proud to honor her enduring legacy."

But the love fete didn’t go both ways. Rivera was constitutionally opposed to the top-down politics of HRC -- and that’s putting it mildly. "One of our [STAR’s] main goals now," she wrote in April 2001, "is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore -- it’s the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back." Just weeks before her death, STAR issued a press release that called HRC "a separatist organization devoted to money and power that has insulted STAR and the transgender community through ignorance, arrogance, and transphobia." Indeed, in light of Sylvia’s Rivera’s true feelings, HRC’s reverential elegy seems not only smarmy, but hypocritical.

But what looks at first glance like a nasty in-fight between scrappy transgender street radicals and Beltway professionals -- the skirts versus the suits -- is actually a fight for the heart and political integrity of the gay-rights movement. While the gay community has always acknowledged the cultural importance of drag queens, cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals, and people of variant gender, the political movement has been focused on securing a variety of legal protections for women and men who, as a group, are identified by their sexual attraction to others of their own gender. The idea that the gay-rights movement might also fight for the right to express gender differently -- whether by appearing too butch or too femme, or dressing in clothing intended for (in that quaint phase) "the opposite sex" -- is fairly recent. The term transgender itself -- a very loose concept connoting pretty much anyone who identifies and presents him- or herself in ways outside of socially prescribed gender roles -- came into play only in the early 1990s and was popularized by works such as Leslie Feinberg’s 1992 Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come (World View Forum) and Kate Bornstein’s 1994 Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (Routledge). It was an idea whose time had arrived, but it did not meet with complete acceptance within the pre-existing movement. The gay mainstream may have enjoyed the spectacle of campy drag shows, but it had little intention of fighting for the rights of a group that most "normal" people considered freakish or mentally ill.

When Sylvia Rivera argued for civil rights for transvestites and drag queens in 1971, she was far, far ahead of her time. Although she had support in the fresh flush of post-Stonewall politics, when she was a member of the leftist, radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) -- whose antiwar, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist agenda was, well, liberationist in the widest possible sense -- that window of truly progressive queer politics was short- lived. GLF lasted less than two years. Meanwhile, the national movement became a narrowly focused gay-rights movement that, over the next two decades, would struggle for its members to be accepted by mainstream society as "normal" American citizens who were just like everyone else -- except for the fact that they were homosexual.

Drags and trannies not only ran counter to this image, they exploded it. They were the poster children for the mainstream’s worst possible fears. Though many straight people came to accept discreet homosexuals who practiced their vice in the privacy of their own homes, they had a much harder time with men and women who publicly violated gender norms. This was true in 1972, when the New York–based Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) deleted transvestite and drag issues from the first anti-gay-discrimination bill introduced to New York’s City Council, and to a large extent it is still true now.

Over the past 10 years, mass entertainment -- movies like La Cage aux Folles, Tootsie, and Boys Don’t Cry -- has helped lower fears and raise consciousness about gender expression, and most gay organizations now include "transgender" issues among the litany of their concerns. But when legislative push comes to shove, it is still nearly impossible to draft legislation (never mind get it voted on) that includes provisions to counter discrimination based on gender expression. Two immediate cases in point are the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and New York State’s Sexual Orientation Nondiscrimination Act (SONDA), both of which would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. First introduced in 1992, ENDA stands very little chance of passing soon, but it has garnered support from the likes of Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Christie Todd Whitman, Coretta Scott King, and the late Barry Goldwater, as well as corporations such as General Mills, Ben and Jerry’s, and Eastman Kodak. SONDA has been up before the New York State legislature since 1971. It has passed the Assembly by growing margins every year, and this January it passed by an overwhelming majority of 113 to 27. After three decades, it’s still awaiting a vote in the Senate, but things are looking up: Republican governor George Pataki mentioned the bill in his State of the State address this year; and the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), a nonprofit lobbying group behind the bill, has hired William Powers, former chair of the New York State Republican Party, to lobby for its passage in the Senate. Neither of these bills covers transgender concerns or protects gender expression. (Rivera was fighting to include transgender rights in both bills at the time of her death.)

If you speak to the supporters of this legislation -- such as HRC and ESPA -- it is a simple case of political expediency: if these bills include gender-expression protection, they simply will not pass. And these supporters are mostly correct. It has taken more than half a century -- since the formation in 1949 of the Mattachine Society, an early homophile-rights group -- for Americans to seriously consider protecting women and men against anti-gay discrimination. But for many people -- homosexual as well as heterosexual -- deviance from accepted gender norms is far more threatening than deviance from standard heterosexuality. While there is some support to protect the jobs of openly gay or lesbian teachers, for example, those numbers plummet when the subject shifts to protecting those who do not conform to gender norms. Indeed, one of the right wing’s favorite scare tactics is to claim that passage of a gay-rights bill would allow drag queens to teach in public schools.

But this desire for expediency is caught in a complicated web of politics with a long history -- one in which nearly all parties recognize that the fight for gay rights cannot be pitched to mainstream acceptance alone. Almost all major gay- and lesbian-rights groups advocate a transgender agenda -- they think that gender expression should not be grounds for discrimination in jobs or public accommodation. It’s just that they won’t advocate it formally in bills such as ENDA and SONDA. Another bill before the New York legislature, sponsored by openly gay Democratic senator Thomas Duane, does include protections for gender expression, but it hasn’t passed the Assembly, and it doesn’t look viable. The bill’s dim future can be chalked up to mainstream gender-expression prejudice, without a doubt. But the fact that it doesn’t have ESPA’s active support is also to blame.

It is no wonder that transgender activists are both frustrated and infuriated by this confusing and, on the face of it, hypocritical scenario. But far from disappearing, the issue of legal protection for transgender people increasingly threatens to rip asunder the already shaky alliance between mainstream advocacy groups and the increasingly visible and vocal transgender activists. A recent acrimonious exchange between ESPA and the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) points both to what is at stake legally for transgender activists and to how quickly the two positions are hardening. In the end, NYAGRA used the specifics of the Dawn Dawson case to successfully refute ESPA’s claim that SONDA would "almost always" protect gay and lesbian transgendered people. Dawson is a butch-lesbian hair stylist fired last year by a Manhattan salon. Because other out lesbians were not dismissed from the salon, NYAGRA argued that it was specifically Dawson’s "gender presentation," rather than her sexual orientation, that caused her to lose her job -- which SONDA would not have prevented.

There are other signs of trouble. Local activist Sue Hyde, who works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and is a founder of the Cambridge Lavender Alliance (CLA), notes that her organization has withdrawn its endorsement from ENDA because the bill excludes gender protections. Hyde says that "especially given the slim chance of [its receiving] serious consideration in this session of Congress, a trans-inclusive bill is very much worth consideration and worth fighting for." And she notes that while the Cambridge Human Rights Ordinance was passed in 1984, it was only in 1994, after lobbying by the newly formed Cambridge Lavender Alliance, that an amendment was added to "cover the group of people who would be most likely to be fired, denied housing or denied public accommodation -- people whose gender expression didn’t match their sex at birth."

Obviously, transgender activists cannot always rely on the integrity and good will of gay and lesbian groups like NGLTF or the CLA, and depending on what happens with bills such as ENDA and SONDA, transgender activists may find themselves fighting a serious endgame with the gay-and-lesbian-rights movement. By focusing so intently on securing legislation to ensure civil rights for a portion of the community, mainstream groups may be overlooking the larger picture, they claim. "It is crucial to pass anti-discrimination legislation with the widest possible scope," says New York–based activist Bill Dobbs, "but let’s not forget that it doesn’t guarantee anybody a job or a place to live. It is one small step to much larger social justice. We have to take off the blinders and realize the limits of such laws. We have forgotten our roots as a liberation movement and only see equality or civil rights as a goal."

One of the ironies here is that the transgender-activist community and the mainstream gay-rights movement deeply need one another. People fighting for legal protections for transgender people recognize that without the mainstream movement’s limited but ongoing support, gender activism would not have gotten as far as it has already. Conversely, mainstream groups -- understanding that there is enormous groundswell support in the GLB community for transgender rights -- must articulate support for those rights, both to maintain the moral high ground and to avoid alienating their constituencies. The overlapping connections among sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender are confusing and often difficult to articulate. But if the mainstream gay groups talk the talk without walking the walk, there is going to be trouble.

The death of Sylvia Rivera has re-catalyzed many both in and out of the transgender community. Her bravery, guts, and sheer streetwise bravado were an inspiration for three decades. Whether these activists will -- or can -- continue working with mainstream gay-rights organizations is an open question. But these days, Sylvia’s words are ringing in their ears more loudly than ever: if you want something done right, you’d better do it yourself.

Michael Bronski can be reached at mabronski@aol.com.

Monopoly Money

A.J. LIEBLING WOULD not be pleased. Nearly 40 years ago, the legendary press critic lamented the rise of one-newspaper cities, a phenomenon considerably less common then than today. Where there is no competition, Liebling wrote, "news becomes increasingly nonessential to the newspaper. In the mind of the average publisher, it is a costly and uneconomic frill, like the free lunch that saloons used to furnish to induce customers to buy beer. If the quality of the free lunch fell off, the customers would go next door."

Since then, things have gotten only worse.

When the first edition of Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press) was published, in 1983, some 50 corporations were identified as controlling most of our newspapers, magazines, books, television networks, radio stations, and movie and music studios. Twenty years later, in the current "Big Media" issue of the Nation, that list is down to 10 international conglomerates, their vast holdings detailed in a fold-out color chart.

But though media consolidation is hardly a new story, there is a disturbing sense that the pace of monopolization is accelerating, and that the end game, or something like it, is at hand. Particularly distressing is the rapid consolidation of the cable industry, which threatens to turn the wide-open, decentralized, but slow Internet of the 1990s into a corporate-owned, profit-oriented, high-speed network with no room for independent voices. The Net is the last, best hope for a truly democratic media. Yet if we don't act, it may soon be too late to save it.

The most significant recent development took place just a month ago, when AT&T Broadband, the country's largest cable-television provider, was acquired by Comcast, the number-three company. AT&T Comcast, as the new company will be known, will control some 22 million subscribers — more than a third of the nation's 60 million cable households. And if that weren't chilling enough, analysts are already predicting that the most humongous media conglomerate of them all, AOL Time Warner, whose 13 million cable subscribers make it the number-two company, will work out some sort of a partnership with AT&T Comcast.

The AT&T Broadband–Comcast deal did not take place in isolation. Earlier last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose alleged job is to make sure that media giants do not trample upon the public interest, dumped a half-century-old rule that had prohibited one network from owning another. The result: Viacom, which owns CBS, was allowed to acquire UPN. That's why, in Boston, you can now watch Channel 4's news on Channel 38 (see "Big Media Stalk Hub," sidebar).

At about the same time that the cable giants were consolidating, the French media conglomerate Vivendi Universal announced that it would buy USA Networks for about $10.3 billion. Vivendi owns the Universal movie studios; USA's holdings include a television-production operation and the USA and Sci-Fi cable channels. Earlier in the year, Vivendi acquired Houghton Mifflin, the last of the big, independent, publicly traded book publishers — and the holder of the suddenly lucrative Lord of the Rings franchise.

Moreover, all of this is taking place at a time when a series of pro-industry court rulings and changes at the FCC threaten to sweep away what few restrictions remain in place following passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which greatly relaxed ownership rules. The FCC appears poised to junk such old standbys as the prohibition against a newspaper's owning a television or radio station in the same market, as well as a passel of local and national restrictions on the number of radio stations, television channels, and cable systems any one company is allowed to own.

"The problem is that a lot of this stuff is happening behind the scenes," says Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org, a media-watchdog Web site with an international and progressive orientation. "The FCC may make any concerns about this completely irrelevant when it chooses to lift all remaining regulations, which is certainly possible. I think there really is kind of a tipping point. It's hard to get it back to the way it was, not that the way it was was so great. But what you did have was more of an ethos, at least a lip-service ethos, to public service. And now even that has gone out the window."

At the center of all this is President Bush's handpicked FCC chairman, Michael Powell, who, like his father, Secretary of State Colin Powell, is bright, smooth, and articulate -- but who, unlike his father, espouses the kind of doctrinaire free-market conservatism that Bush favors in his domestic-policy appointees.

Michael Powell has a penchant for saying provocative things, and sometimes the nuances get lost. For instance, when he was asked last year about the "digital divide" — the technology gap that exists between rich and poor -- Powell memorably replied, "I think there's a Mercedes divide. I'd like one, but I can't afford it." The Washington Post later showed that Powell's remarks immediately before and after showed considerably more thoughtfulness than the dismissive sound bite suggested.

Yet there's little question that when it comes to deregulation, Powell intends to outdo even his deregulation-minded, Clinton-appointed predecessors, Reed Hundt and William Kennard. In a little-noticed interview with the Wall Street Journal published last September 10, Powell spoke disdainfully about "what I call the 'Big Fish Problem,' which is this inherent anxiety about bigness in a capitalist economy." He also made it clear that his view of the public interest was not necessarily the same as that of those whose business it is to act as the public's eyes and ears.

"Every decision I make, I will argue to the last day I am here, I am taking in the name of the public -- not in the name of some company and not in the name of some consumer-interest group," Powell said.

Says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of one of those consumer-interest groups, the Washington-based Media Access Project: "He's very bright, very, very shrewd. And although it's a very appealing package, he is in fact a good deal more conservative than his father, and he's hell-bent on lifting ownership rules. I'm always the optimist, and we won't stop working on him. But he's intent on where he's going, he's come in with preordained objectives, and he's pushing very hard to obtain them."


TO BE SURE, not all media bigness is necessarily bad, and even when it is, not all of it can be regulated or outlawed. The most significant obstacle: the US Constitution. After all, the First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." As my Phoenix colleague Harvey Silverglate, a noted civil-liberties lawyer, likes to say, "What part of 'no law' don't you understand?"

That doesn't mean media companies can engage in illegal predatory practices aimed at putting their competitors out of business. But it does mean that government can't break up media conglomerates based merely on a sense that such conglomerates are somehow not in the public interest.

Besides, there is at least an argument to be made that only big media have the power and influence to cover the large institutions that dominate modern life. In January 2000, Jack Shafer wrote a piece for the online magazine Slate (owned by the extremely big Microsoft Corporation and thus part of a media alliance that includes NBC, MSNBC, General Electric, the Washington Post, and Newsweek) arguing exactly that.

"Small, independently owned papers routinely pull punches when covering local car dealers, real estate, and industry," Shafer wrote, asserting a nasty little truth known by every reporter and editor who has ever worked for a locally owned community newspaper. "Whatever its shortcomings -- and they are many -- only big media possesses the means to consistently hold big business and big government accountable."

And though Shafer doesn't say it, the whole notion of government officials' regulating the size and scope of media companies sounds suspiciously like what's going on in Russia, where the government of President Vladimir Putin has shut down nearly all of that country's big independent media -- in the public interest, of course. To quote Liebling again: "Men of politics cannot be trusted to regulate the press, because the press deals with politics. Pravda is even duller than the Times."

Moreover, despite the dominance of just a handful of huge conglomerates, it's hard to argue that we have fewer choices today than we did, say, a generation ago. US Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat poised to take over the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet if his party can recapture the House this fall, is worried about media concentration — and says he plans to order a "top-to-bottom review of the ownership rules aimed at restoring diversity and localism as cornerstones of telecommunications policy." Yet Markey is quick to add that, in some respects, consumers have never had more options than they do today.

In the 1970s, Markey recalls, there were just three major commercial television stations in Greater Boston. Now there are five stations with daily newscasts, New England Cable News, dozens of channels on cable, and the Internet. "I don't think there's any question that people are better off today than they were then in terms of total diversity," Markey says. And, because of the increasing ubiquity, speed, and capacity of the Net, Markey sees the situation only getting better -- if, he adds by way of warning, the Internet remains as free and open as it is today.

That brings me back to cable television, which may, in turn, pose most the important media-regulation question of all.

The entire rationale for media regulation is the notion of scarcity. The reason that the government may regulate the number of radio or TV stations a company owns is that those stations make use of the airwaves -- a finite, public resource. The Internet, at least theoretically, is infinite. Seen in that light, there's no more rationale for regulating the Internet than there would be for regulating the number of newspapers Gannett can own on the basis that its papers are made of ground-up trees, which are, after all, a finite, public resource. And since just about all media -- radio, TV, newspapers, what-have-you -- will one day be delivered over the Internet or something like it, then government regulation will, of constitutional necessity, go the way of all dinosaurs.

Except it's not that simple.

Last summer, a small advertising firm in Wakefield called Prime Communications filed a $20 million lawsuit against AT&T Broadband. According to accounts in both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, Prime accused AT&T of refusing to sell it advertising time after Prime turned down AT&T's offer to buy an Internet-based business it had developed. Prime president Neil Bocian told the Herald, "I have to have access to all the media. Now I can't buy cable, and I don't have an alternative because they own all the cable systems."

AT&T, of course, denied Bocian's charges, and it remains to be seen how this will play out. But it's a perfect illustration of a much larger problem: cable companies typically control both programming (or some of it, anyway) and the pipeline over which that programming travels. Cable companies such as AT&T claim a First Amendment right to run their businesses as they see fit. The problem is that one aspect of their business -- the pipelines -- is a monopoly, usually granted by local elected officials. That gives them enormous leverage over what content will be allowed to travel through those pipelines. It's as if state highway officials let you drive on the Mass Pike only in cars you rented from them. Neil Bocian may be right or he may be wrong, but this much is certain: he can't take his business to a competing cable company, because there isn't one. And with cable companies emerging as the preferred provider of high-speed Internet access, corporate control of the pipeline is becoming a threat.

As Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig argues in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (Basic Books, 2000) and his new The Future of Ideas (Random House), the reason that anyone can be a content-provider on the Internet is that the Net was specifically designed to be wide-open, democratic, and neutral. The flip side, Lessig warns, is that it could just as easily have been designed another way -- and big media, having missed out on the first wave of the Net, could take advantage of the dot-com meltdown and the rise of broadband to rewrite the rules to their advantage this time around. In an interview with Newsweek's Steven Levy this week, Lessig said that "every major change that's going on right now around the Internet is a change to undermine that neutrality, so those who control the legal system or control the physical network are able to veto innovations they don't like. So you get the right to innovate depending on whether AOL or AT&T or the music industry likes your innovation."

Without government regulation, in other words, there's nothing to stop the cable companies from excluding Internet content just as surely as AT&T Broadband may be excluding Prime Communications. This private Internet could be engineered in such a way that only content approved by the cable company can be accessed. Or only content for which the cable company is receiving money can be easily found. Or certain types of content that the cable company doesn't want to compete with, such as streaming video from independent media, can't be transmitted at all.

It's not that the old, wide-open Internet will go away, says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy. It's that the high-speed Internet is going to become Fun City, and few people will bother with the traditional Net, where nonprofit and independent voices will cry out to be heard. It's at least theoretically possible that the full range of content will remain available only to those who keep a slow dial-up connection --- something most people just aren't going to do.

"While the Internet posed a truly competitive threat in the early 1990s of a much more open and democratic communications system, that promise is now truly threatened," Chester says. "It is not visible, it is not apparent, it is an iceberg sitting in the water. It's not like somebody's going to take away your Internet, but the fact is that the Internet is going to change in subtle ways. Clearly the network owners are going to have the ability to banish certain Web sites if they wish."

Chester fears that when Big Media perfect the high-speed, privatized Internet, with full video, music delivery, personalization, and other features, "people are going to love this stuff. That's the other problem." Independent voices, he says, "will just fade into the digital twilight."

CALL IT THE GREATEST story never told. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, which keeps an eye on the unappetizing stew of politics and money, media corporations and their employees contributed $75 million to candidates for federal office and the two major political parties between 1993 and mid 2000. From 1996 to 2000, the report continues, the 50 largest media companies and four of their trade associations lobbied Congress and the executive branch to the tune of $111.3 million.

Among the goodies these media moguls sought were more-corporate-friendly copyright laws, the elimination of the estate tax, fewer restrictions on tobacco and alcohol advertising, a halt to proposals that would mandate free air time for political candidates, and, most important, the elimination of FCC rules aimed at restricting ownership.

Usually the media love such a story of greed and influence -- especially when it's spoon-fed to them in the form of a respected interest group's report, complete with a predigested three-page summary. But chances are you didn't read, hear, or see anything about this one, titled, fittingly, Off the Record. "This is major news about the influence of an extremely powerful industry and its relationship to government and its favors from government," says Charles Lewis, executive director of the center. "And it was basically nonexistent in terms of news coverage. I don't think that's completely coincidental. Of course, what makes the media industry so powerful is not just the amount they spend, but the fact that they control access to the airwaves and newspaper pages."

It was the power of the media lobby -- especially in the form of the National Association of Broadcasters -- that croaked a plan by the previous FCC chairman, William Kennard, to license low-wattage, nonprofit, community-oriented radio stations whose reach is measured in city blocks rather than square miles. The NAB -- joined, believe it or not, by National Public Radio -- argued, against compelling technical evidence, that these small stations would interfere with its members' own signals, even if care were taken to locate the low-powered stations on unused portions of the FM dial. Kennard's vision, limited though it was, got nixed by Congress in the closing days of the Clinton administration, with no prospects of revival any time soon.

"It's been shut down completely in any urban area," says Steve Provizer, who heads a tiny, grassroots outfit called Allston-Brighton Free Radio, which transmits a barely detectable signal at AM 1670. (Some of its programming is rebroadcast on WJIB, AM 740.) "It's really a service that will only be useful in rural areas or exurban areas. God bless it for having that much usefulness, but it's largely been undermined by congressional action as instigated by NPR and the NAB." Previously, Provizer ran Radio Free Allston, shut down by the FCC several years ago for broadcasting without a license. Illegal? Well, yes. But also vital -- so much so that the station had received a commendation from the Boston City Council for broadcasting local political debates and otherwise serving the community in ways that bottom-line-obsessed commercial stations just don't care about.

The media lobby's next target: ownership rules that prevent a company from owning more than eight radio stations in a given market, that prohibit one company from owning a cable system and a TV station in the same market, and that prevent one company from owning a TV or radio station and a major daily newspaper in the same market.

That last regulation -- known as the cross-ownership rule -- had a major role in shaping the Boston media landscape. The Boston Herald Traveler, a predecessor to today's Herald, survived for years on the strength of its ownership of a radio station and a TV station through a waiver it had dubiously obtained from the FCC. The Globe fought back — and in the early '70s, the Herald Traveler lost its broadcast properties. The paper fell into the hands of the Hearst Corporation, and it appeared to be dying a slow, lingering death until international media magnate Rupert Murdoch acquired it in the early 1980s. (So close did the Herald come to shutting down that work crews started ripping vending machines out of the cafeteria.) Murdoch himself ran afoul of the cross-ownership rule when he bought WFXT-TV (Channel 25) in the late '80s, and Senator Ted Kennedy, a frequent target of the Herald, blocked Murdoch's attempts to obtain an FCC waiver. Murdoch sold Channel 25 only to repurchase it after selling the Herald in 1994 to his long-time protege Pat Purcell.

To bring the story full circle, Purcell -- who a year ago bought about 100 community papers in Greater Boston and on Cape Cod -- would now like nothing better than to go into the broadcasting business in order to compete more aggressively with the Globe, whose corporate owner, the New York Times Company, also owns the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and, unless the sale is derailed, will soon own a chunk of the New England Sports Network and the Boston Red Sox as well.

"If the rule didn't exist anymore, who knows what would happen?" asks Purcell. "It's a little early to speculate, but a whole lot of options would open up for us." Clearly, it's a subject close to his heart. His newspaper has come out against the cross-ownership rule on both its editorial page and in its business columns. And Herald reporters are already featured on Channel 25 — just as Globe reporters are featured on New England Cable News and on Channel 4's The Boston Globe/WBZ News Conference.

The cross-ownership rule, in fact, may need some rethinking. Allowing a media executive such as Purcell, who's rooted in the community, to extend his franchise and spread out his costs could benefit not just him but also those who like the Herald's brand of journalism. But simply repealing the rule could be dangerous. Who, after all, would be better positioned to buy a TV or radio station (or both) than the mighty Times Company, thus giving the Globe even more of an advantage in a market that it already dominates?

The Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester says he would have no problem with allowing, say, the number-two newspaper in a market to acquire the number-three or -four TV station. But he adds that Boston -- one of the few competitive newspaper towns left in the country -- "is a unique case." Preventing one media company from amassing too much power in a given community, Chester says, is still a worthwhile goal.

BACK WHEN A.J. LIEBLING was writing about the death of newspapers, he was mainly concerned about the cuts in news coverage that monopoly publishers inevitably ordered. "Money is not made by competition among newspapers, but by avoiding it," he wrote. That's still true today, even when competition at least theoretically exists. Witness the foreign bureaus that were closed and the reporting positions that were eliminated during the 1990s as the Big Three networks fell into the hands of conglomerate owners -- cuts that made it difficult (although not, thankfully, impossible) to cover the war against terrorism following the September 11 attacks.

Just as important as competition or the lack thereof is the dominance of corporate over community values.

Huge radio companies compete fiercely, but they do so by offering lowest-common-denominator syndicated programming in city after city, such as Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony, and right-wing talk shows, such as Rush Limbaugh's. The crude-but-intelligent Imus in the Morning is a notable exception, but even that stands in contrast to the localism that once made radio a unique medium.

A conglomerate such as AOL Time Warner produces the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and then promotes it in its magazines (Time, People, Sports Illustrated), on CNN, and on the AOL Internet service.

NBC News and ABC News have to think two or three times before running any negative reports on their corporate owners, General Electric and Disney, respectively.

Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post Company, which has a content-sharing relationship with MSNBC and MSNBC.com. That will prevent Newsweek from ever again getting beaten on its own exclusive, as it was with Michael Isikoff's revelation that Bill Clinton had had sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. But there are weeks when the magazine looks like nothing so much as a print version of MSNBC, flogging the MSNBC.com Web site on every page and, recently, publishing a piece of media criticism by that noted journalistic thinker Chris Matthews. (His verdict: the media are doing a pretty damned good job, thank you very much!)

"Who owns these companies makes all the difference," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Ownership matters profoundly. It's not just the system of ownership, it's the human values of the people who do the owning." He adds, though, that he is concerned whenever news organizations are acquired by conglomerates whose primary businesses are not news. He notes, for example, that ABC News represents just two percent of profits at Disney.

"There's a lot of reason to worry about the fact that journalism is being subsumed as a minority presence inside conglomerates," Rosenstiel says. "One dark cloud of conglomeration is if you have owners who don't care about journalism. The second dark cloud is if they see their properties as an opportunity for synergy."

Michael Powell told the Wall Street Journal last September, "I think I'm a little misunderstood on the whole area of media consolidation." He added: "The public interest is not always served by strict liability and slavish commitment to a linear judgment made 30 years ago."

Big isn't always bad, and, in some respects, it makes as much sense to rail against media conglomerates as it does to boycott Starbucks, where the coffee is better than it was at the mom-and-pop shop it replaced and where the employee benefits include health insurance and stock options. Nostalgia based on blind allegiance to the past is just stupid.

But Powell needs to understand that the public interest doesn't consist merely of getting the coolest technological advances into the public's hands as quickly as possible. A diversity of voices and a place for independent media are just as much a part of the public interest.

There's a reason that the First Amendment protects the media from government regulation: the framers believed that free and independent media were absolutely essential for the same public interest that Powell claims is his primary guide.

The danger is that Powell will release the media from the last vestiges of government regulation — and then stand back and watch as the media's corporate masters use their power and influence to silence any voices that threaten their economic interests.

Dan Kennedy is a media critic for the Boston Phoenix.

Beef Stew

Last fall, The Wall Street Journal published a horrifying article on its front page. Under the headline THE U.S. MAY FACE MAD-COW EXPOSURE DESPITE ASSURANCES FROM GOVERNMENT, staff writer Steve Stecklow reported that the domestic cattle herd is far from safe, and that the government is doing little to test either cattle or people for signs of illness.

Yet despite Stecklow's meticulously detailed findings and the story's prominent placement in one of our most respected newspapers, it pretty much disappeared without a trace. To the extent that any attention has been paid to mad-cow disease during the past month, it was to plug a reassuring report by the Center for Risk Analysis, at the Harvard School of Public Health, that there is vanishingly little likelihood here of a British-style outbreak of mad cow.

What a difference a year makes. In late 2000 and early 2001, network television newscasts and national newsmagazines were filled with terrifying stories about what had happened in Europe, especially in Britain. Cattle in increasing numbers were coming down with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a little-understood disease that kills by punching the brain full of tiny holes.

Worse -- much worse -- was the likelihood that a similar fatal brain disease affecting humans was spreading through the consumption of contaminated beef. The illness was called a "new variant" of a rare condition named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and thus became known, for short, as nvCJD. More than 100 people, nearly all of them from Britain, have died of nvCJD over the past five years.

For the US media, the story was made to order, featuring as it did video of wild-eyed, staggering cows, heaps of burning animal carcasses, distraught farmers, and — in a few cases — footage of twentysomething nvCJD victims trembling through the final stages of their awful disease. "I hate to be blunt, but there was a strong visual to go with it," says Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz. "A typical science story doesn't get much play, because you need a visual to be aired ad infinitum or ad nauseam to make it a television news story. And video of shaking, crumbling cows gives you a visual."

There was, though, a problem with sustaining interest in mad-cow disease. First, there was the inconvenient fact that not a single case of BSE or nvCJD had ever been found in the US. Second, federal officials assured the public that steps taken several years earlier -- banning the importation of beef from Britain, and outlawing the use of beef byproducts in animal feed, thought to be the principal means by which BSE is spread -- would prevent an outbreak from ever occurring here. By spring, few mad-cow stories were making their way onto the front pages or the network newscasts, as the media turned their attention to more characteristic obsessions. No, it hasn't disappeared completely -- witness a recent episode of The West Wing in which the Bartlet administration debates how best to spin an outbreak of mad cow. But in terms of public consciousness, this is one potential crisis that has faded far into the background.

"There was a period when mad-cow disease was a very telegenic story in an ugly and disturbing sort of way," says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. But then, he notes, "the summer of Gary occurred, and all of a sudden we had all of that time being spent in the cable and broadcast media on Gary Condit and Chandra Levy." Finally, Thompson observes, "what Gary Condit did to mad cow and some other stories, September 11 did to Gary Condit."

But if mad-cow disease is, understandably, not as pressing an issue as the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it remains, as the Wall Street Journal article suggests, an important, ongoing story. If mad cow -- and, more crucially, nvCJD -- breaks out into the US population at some point during the next several years, the media's chronically short attention span in covering this complicated scientific and medical story will surely stand out as one of their principal failures of 2001.

MAD-COW DISEASE, "classic" (that is, non-nv) CJD, and a similar illness in sheep called scrapie are all known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. All of them occur naturally, and scientists believe that mammals, humans included, contract TSEs at the rate of one per million in population. Although the exact cause of TSEs is poorly understood, it is thought by many scientists to be related to the presence of "prions" -- proteins that somehow take on a different and deadly shape, and that force other proteins to follow their lead. This process has been compared to "ice-nine," the substance in Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel Cat's Cradle that destroys the earth by changing all the water so that it turns solid at room temperature.

Among the best and most thorough treatments of mad-cow disease was an article written for the Atlantic Monthly in 1998 by science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell. She argues that if BSE arises in cattle naturally at the rate of one in a million, then there would be 100 with BSE among the nation's 100 million head of cattle at any given time. And if any of those cattle somehow entered the food chain -- say, in high-protein animal feed that is later fed back to cattle -- then BSE can spread far beyond those 100 head. Humans are exposed by eating contaminated beef -- a danger heightened by such practices as slaughtering cattle with pressure guns, which blast highly infectious brain and spinal tissue into the edible parts of the animal carcass.

Shell focuses especially heavily on animal-rendering plants, "a series of altogether unsavory places where dead cats and dogs, road kill, the occasional circus animal, and the diseased carcasses of farm animals are mixed into a ghastly, belching stew." Yum. Among the products made by these plants is the aforementioned high-protein animal feed, which turns cows into cannibals by feeding them byproducts of other cows -- including, potentially, cows with BSE. Complicating this considerably is the fact that other animals dumped into the stew may also have TSEs -- especially road kill such as elk and deer, which, in the Western United States, are experiencing an epidemic of a TSE known as chronic wasting disease. Finally, to save on energy costs, rendering plants in recent decades have perfected a system of low-temperature cooking. The problem is that sustained exposure to high temperatures is absolutely essential for killing TSEs.

But if feeding cows to cows is now illegal, well, why should we worry? As it turns out, it's not nearly that simple. It is still perfectly legal to feed cow byproducts to pigs and chickens, which are not thought to harbor TSEs. And it's perfectly legal to toss those same pigs and chickens into the rending vats to manufacture feed that can then be fed back to cows. Also, as the Journal article reports, 13 percent of rending plants do not comply with the new regulations against putting beef byproducts into feed intended for cows -- and the federal government itself admits that "scores of shipments of animal byproducts for use in animal feed came into the U.S. in recent years from countries that now have mad-cow disease in their cattle herds, a potentially serious source of contamination."

There is still, though, the simple fact that no cases of BSE or nvCJD have ever been diagnosed in the US. Right? Well, maybe. Some mad-cow specialists say the problem is that the United States has not been inspecting cattle in anywhere near the numbers or with the rigor that British and European authorities now do, meaning that cases of BSE could be slipping by. As for the lack of any human cases, there is at least some reason to believe that there are, in fact, tens of thousands of cases -- many of them sitting right in front of us when we visit the nursing home.

In the 1990s, researchers at Yale University and the University of Pittsburgh studied autopsy results of people who had died of Alzheimer's disease. Although their sample sizes were small, the results were chilling: somewhere between eight and 13 percent were found to have actually had CJD rather than Alzheimer's. That's far more than the 250 or so cases that would be statistically expected of "classic," or naturally occurring, CJD, meaning that a more likely explanation would be the consumption of contaminated meat.

That would also fit with the decades-long incubation period for CJD and nvCJD. According to the Web site of the Alzheimer's Association, approximately four million Americans have Alzheimer's -- about 10 percent of those who are 65 or older, and nearly half of those who are 85 or older. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber wrote in their book Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (Common Courage, 1997), "If the true number of CJD cases in the United States turns out to be 40,000 instead of 250, the implications for human health would be severe. It could mean that a deadly infectious dementia akin to Britain's problem has already entered the U.S. population. And since CJD has an invisible latency period of up to 40 years in humans, 40,000 cases could be just the beginning of something much larger." (A downloadable version of Mad Cow U.S.A. is available for free on the Web site of the Center for Democracy and Technology.)

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, whose Web site contains an extensive archive of mad-cow information, says that at a minimum the federal government should launch a program of quick, inexpensive tests of both cattle and Alzheimer's-disease patients to determine whether we may have a hidden mad-cow crisis that warrants further study and action.

"It's not a question of 'Do we have mad cow in this country?' Of course we do," says Cummins. "Every livestock-grazing country in the world has always had it at low levels. The question is 'How much do we have, and how quickly is it magnifying?'"

The conventional wisdom is that we have little to fear from mad-cow disease, and of course the conventional wisdom may be right. Lloyd deMause, editor of the Journal of Psychohistory, says it's not unusual for societies to develop a cultural fear of poisoning at the end of a long period of prosperity -- it's a natural reaction to feelings of guilt over having experienced such good fortune. Seen in this light, last year's media obsession with mad-cow disease -- an illness never detected in this country -- is similar to panicky news stories over West Nile virus, a rare, rather mild, flu-like illness, and this fall's outburst of fear over anthrax, which, after all, killed just a tiny handful of people.

"Why poison? This is pre-verbal," deMause says. "It goes way back to when you were still drinking milk from the mommy's breast or from the bottle." (It's this same dark, guilt-ridden fear of the forces around us, deMause says, that explains what he considers to be our overreaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11. "I'd be glad to shoot bin Laden in the cross hairs myself. I'm not a pacifist," he says. "But it seems to me that we're going to go back and finish the job in Iraq and do all sorts of other horrible things that we should not do.")

But even if fear of mad-cow disease somehow taps into our more primal cultural obsessions, there is the fact of mad-cow disease that must still be contended with. And the fact is that the seeming dearth of mad-cow cases in this country may be the entirely predictable result of our failure to look.

Michael Greger, a Jamaica Plain physician who is a nationally recognized expert on mad-cow disease (he's listed in the acknowledgments of Mad Cow U.S.A.), blasts the US Department of Agriculture for what he calls a "'don't look, don't find' program of surveillance," adding: "Every week in Europe they test 10 times as many cattle than we have tested in a decade. Europe has tested five million at this point. If the US had as high an incidence as Europe, the current USDA testing program would not detect it. It is irresponsible to assert that we have no mad-cow disease in the United States when we simply haven't looked hard enough to tell."

As for what the future holds, Greger replies that "no one knows what the risk of eating American beef is. And by the time we know for sure, it may be too late. I counsel my patients to err on the side of caution and stop eating beef. Better safe than sorry."

For obvious reasons, mad-cow disease remains a big story in Britain. Last September, London's Guardian newspaper published a harrowing two-part series on the small village of Queniborough, where five young adults had died of nvCJD over a period of several years. The reporter, Kevin Toolis, noted that all the victims may have gotten sick because of such antiquated butchering practices as mixing brains and meat. His description of the long, agonizing death of Stacey Robinson was particularly horrifying.

"The howling went on for five months, night and day, from the autumn of 1997 to the spring of 1998, a low, growling, demonic yowl that escaped her lips as if it came from deep within the earth; the cry of the damned," Toolis wrote. "It could be heard halfway along the ward in Leicester's Royal Infirmary as Stacey plunged into madness. She soon lost the power to walk, to eat, to clean herself, to use the bathroom. She turned aggressive, kicking, swearing and assaulting her nurses. She battered her forearm against the bed until it was black and blue. She held her hand under a scalding tap and felt no pain. In the end, the doctors turned her ordinary city hospital room into a padded cell."

Mad-cow disease could be much ado about nothing; it could also turn out to be a scourge for the ages. To date, only 100 or so people in Britain (and just a handful in other countries) have died of nvCJD, even though some 60 million may have been exposed to BSE-contaminated beef. But because of the decades-long latency period, those who have died so far may merely represent the bleeding edge. According to some estimates, the worst-case scenario is that some 100,000 Britons could die the way Stacey Robinson did.

Last winter, when mad-cow disease was all the rage, both Time and Newsweek ran big stories on it. CAN IT HAPPEN HERE? asked Time. CANNIBALS TO COWS: THE PATH OF A DEADLY DISEASE was Newsweek's lurid take. A search of the New York Times' Web site turns up 114 references to mad-cow disease during the first three months of 2001 -- but just 43 during the slow-news months of June, July, and August.

Three and a half months after September 11, the media are gradually returning to normal, however you want to define normal in a country scarred by terrorism and war. The New York Observer last week predicted that the Times may cease publication of "A Nation Challenged," its special section on the war against terrorism, sometime after the New Year. How long will it be before Geraldo, back from misrepresenting his whereabouts in Afghanistan, treats his new viewers on the Fox News Channel to a special on JonBenét Ramsey?

The media have distinguished themselves this year, proving that -- despite a decade of corporate downsizing and a growing obsession with celebrity and scandal -- they can still provide sustained, in-depth coverage of vitally important news. If the reinvigorated media are looking for other important stories to cover in 2002, they should take another, longer look at mad-cow disease. They had the chance in 2001, and they walked away. But discerning the extent of this threat to our food supply is surely as important as describing the threat from Al Qaeda.

Dan Kennedy is Media Editor at Boston Phoenix and can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com

Bring in the Peacemakers

The oldest question about global conflict is why can't we all just get along? But the second-oldest has to be what if women were in charge? Might women bring something to the peacemaking and -keeping table that men do not? The short answer is yes. Qualities universally perceived, often condescendingly, as women's strengths -- an ability to listen, share experiences, empathize with all sides of an issue, and compromise -- while useful in negotiations, are rarely seen in the almost exclusively male circles of international diplomacy, where a premium is placed on the ability to outsmart the person sitting across from you.

Women Waging Peace, a project of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, works to break open those diplomatic circles "by identifying the essential role and contribution of women in preventing violent conflict, stopping war, and sustaining peace in fragile areas around the world." For three years, the project has hosted an international colloquium on how to involve women in the rarified circles of global conflict resolution. This year's colloquium, currently taking place at Harvard University, has special resonance in light of the war in Afghanistan and the threat of even more terrorist attacks hanging over the United States.

As the wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo have shown, and as the current international crisis further attests, geopolitical conflicts in the post–Cold War era test the limits of international diplomacy as never before. Brokering peace in these hot spots is a much different game than the high-stakes chess played by the United States and the former Soviet Union. Wouldn't it make sense to look to the half of the population that has been silenced for so long -- and the one that traditionally uses peacekeeping skills -- to create today's new diplomacy?

"The makers of war should not design the peace. It's a bad habit," says WAPPP director Swanee Hunt, a former ambassador to Austria. "The women in Bosnia said, ‘If we are going to be the victims, we want to be part of the decision-making.' I go even further: I say, let's draw from a bigger talent pool."

Hunt describes a UN official who recalled that African men didn't want women on their negotiating team because they feared that the women would compromise. She smiles at this notion as if to say, precisely.

This year's colloquium has drawn about 200 women from around the world, many from war-torn regions marked by centuries of tribal and territorial conflict, including Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, and the Middle East. While few of these women hold positions in the power structure of their countries, they represent the world's community organizers. These are the grassroots activists, educators, health-care workers, academics, researchers, and religious leaders who keep their countries running even in times of war. They do the unheralded traditional work of women, and, judging from the participants' stellar credentials, they do it with excellence.

But the Women Waging Peace (WWP) colloquium aims to push these successful women from behind-the-scenes support positions into the corridors of power where they can affect change on a much larger scale. Toward that end, many of the panels and talks at Harvard focus on giving them the practical tools to make their voices heard. The cornerstone of this strategy involves sharing personal stories of survival, justice-seeking, and fragile rebuilding efforts in ravaged countries.

Sheenah Kaliisa listened to emotional testimony from a delegation of Cambodian women. Kaliisa, a young journalist working for radio outlets including the South Africa Broadcast Company and the East African Standard in Nairobi, covers her native Rwanda. Most of her stories focus on the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 genocidal war, during which some 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. The Cambodian women's stories -- detailing how a lack of justice and resolution following Pol Pot's 1970s genocidal regime has kept Cambodia in the stranglehold of unresolved conflict -- helped put her own work in perspective, says Kaliisa. In other words, the political became the personal and vice versa.

"I try to build peace by telling the stories of war, by disseminating information about women because no one else will tell their stories," she says. "Genocide was not committed by the army or the government; it was neighbor cutting up neighbor. Rape was rampant during genocide. Men were shot and cut up, but the women had to be raped first. They saw their daughters raped. I know one woman who was raped by 30 men, one after the other. Then they raped her 15-year-old daughter.... There can be no reconciliation if women who are living and dealing with it are not included."

In sessions that translated personal stories into strategy, women also shared experiences as researchers and experts in a particular region. In a panel discussion on transitional justice and reconstructing war-torn communities, women researchers grappled with the issue of what happens to a country and its people after war or conflict. What is the role of women in countries trying to reconcile with the citizenry and attempting to rebuild? For the panelists, women are the key to the process of rebuilding.

"There is an African saying, 'Women make memory,'" says Paola Cesarini, a political scientist at Columbia University. "Women are often the widows, mothers, and orphans. They have a key role in the passing on of memories of the struggle or the change from a military regime to a democracy. Women live longer. They are the caretakers of children and the elderly."

Women create the narrative for where a country has been and where it will go after a war, adds Vanessa Farr, an expert in women's coalition-building in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Again, women's traditional role as communicators and memory-keepers isn't just useful, it is essential and underused. "Women are the transmitters of stories, but often women's own stories get lost," Farr says. "When reparations come around, women are recast, no matter what they did. Even if they were combatants or arms smugglers, they become the wives and daughters and sisters of the men whose stories are being told."

This pattern occurred even during the highly publicized and just-completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa. "Women mostly told the stories of men," says Farr. "So much of the brutality was sexualized; it was not easy for the women to talk about it. There was no space for women to talk, so their stories fell off the page."

"Until a woman has told her story, she isn't in a place to think analytically about frameworks and how it relates to policy," says Hunt. "By giving the women space over three and one-half days to talk about the death, destruction, and terror they've experienced, they start feeling like they are not alone and out there on their own." In other words, the colloquium aims to meld '70s-style consciousness-raising with practical skills such as negotiating tactics, conflict resolution, strategizing, and critical thinking.

The immediate impact of the sessions will be felt November 16, when hundreds of mostly male policymakers from the United Nations, the US State Department, and the US Agency for International Development, and ambassadors from India, Russia, the Congo, and other countries come to the colloquium to listen to some of these stories themselves.

Why is this important? Well, says Hunt, "Last year I had a former assistant secretary of defense tell me, 'I've never heard from people who were affected by our policies before.' I find that appalling."

In the end, though, what matters is what's accomplished. While there's an academic, theoretical tone to the proceedings, past WWP colloquiums have delivered results. At minimum, the conferences have given women greater access to diplomatic channels. Last year, for example, three Rwandan women were appointed to the negotiating team for the Congo/Ugandan peace talks in 2000, a move that came after Hunt met with Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

WWP member Aloisea Inyumba, the executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in Rwanda, visited Harvard with Kagame in February. She is now preparing villages in Rwanda for the reintegration of 80,000 prisoners who allegedly participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. More than three million Hutus who fled to the Congo will return to Rwanda and its Tutsi-run government; it will be Inyumba's job to make sure these Hutus are not massacred when they return to the very villages where they committed atrocities.

After the first WWP colloquium and policy day in 1999, members worked with Bill Wood, a deputy assistant secretary at the US State Department, to develop language on the role of women in preventing conflict. They also traveled to Japan for the G8 Foreign Ministers' Meeting in July 2000. This year, Wood advocated inclusion of the statement on women in the peace process in the G8 agenda. The United Nations and European Union, along with the foreign ministers of the G8 countries, have recently adopted measures supporting the involvement of women in formal peace-negotiation processes.

Heady stuff. And it all evolved from simple acts of sharing — and listening. Boston's Jaleh Joubine-Khadem, for instance, told of her work in Ecuador. Born in Iran and schooled in art history, Joubine-Khadem volunteered to go to Ecuador five years ago to help with tuberculosis education. She returns to the country each year to work with indigenous villagers and to facilitate alliances between women of means and the rural poor. The eye-opening experience, with its sense of mission, is one she wants to share with others.

"Once we help them, they take the ball and run with it," says Joubine-Khadem. "Men are simply absent from many of these villages. They go to the larger cities, claiming they will earn money and send it home, but they don't." She notes that it is the women who are left, and the women who want to learn how to protect the community's health, how to purify the water, how to make sure there is enough to eat.

As representatives from WWP prepare to sit down with policymakers in an effort to affect change on the world stage, it's clear that the personal is indeed the political. And if the WWP organizers have their way, the personal will shape policy -- however slowly and tenaciously. Women will have a seat at the peacemaking table. And when they talk, they will be heard.

We'll all be better off for it.

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