Hartford Advocate

Ralph and Me

When George W. Bush squeaked by Democratic candidate Al Gore in Florida to win the right to lead this country for the next four years, I felt betrayed.

Despite Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's unswerving -- some suggested maniacal -- assurances to the contrary, the vote for him had been a vote for Bush. Not only that, but the party failed to get even close to the five percent of the national vote needed to allow it to qualify for federal matching funds. My vote for Nader really had been a waste.

Nader's behavior post-election didn't help me feel any better. Never known for his contrition, in interview after interview, Nader blamed the loss on Gore, obdurately refusing to acknowledge that just maybe his presence in swing states like Florida had absolutely changed the course of this election and therefore this country's future.

My disillusionment was echoed by plenty of others, some of them far more stalwart and closer to the fray than I. "I'm not going to answer his phone calls," Robert Music, director of the progressive Physicians for Social Responsibility, told Mother Jones. "He cost us an election at what may be a turning point in American society," Alice Germond, executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, told the same magazine.

Trial lawyers, formerly among Nader's biggest fans because of his consistent stance against tort reform, were among the most vocal. "I think what he did in the political arena will cost us for a decade," Fred Baron, president of the 56,000-member Association of Trial Lawyers of America, was quoted saying in the Recorder, a publication of American Lawyer Media.

Even citizen groups founded by Nader started distancing themselves. Public Citizen, which Nader founded 30 years ago, was so worried about its post-election drop-off in contributions that it began sending out a letter with a new disclaimer: "Although Ralph Nader was our founder, he has not held an official position in the organization since 1980 and does not serve on the board. Public Citizen -- and the other groups Mr. Nader founded -- act independently." Other Nader groups, such as the Center for Auto Safety and the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, also saw drop-offs.

This initial dismay was only fueled in the first 100 days of the Bush Administration, as the very real differences between Bush and Gore -- particularly in the environmental arena -- became evident. Nader may have insisted on the campaign trail that they were Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but Bush's environmental policies certainly suggested otherwise as he rejected the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, broke his campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and scuttled a Clinton Administration rule cutting arsenic pollution.

Nader's uncharacteristic, almost deafening, silence during both the Florida post-election debacle and Bush's first 100 days only made matters worse for those who had pulled the Green Party lever. Where was Ralph now?

I found myself less and less willing to defend him among former fans who are my friends and peers. And yet, something about this man makes me want to give him a second chance. For one thing, Nader's often right. Whether it's about how major parties handicap competitors, or about the need for public financing of campaigns and the need for universal health care -- to name just a few of his platforms -- he's taken the time to analyze what's needed and he's not afraid to say what he's found. Name one politician willing to do the same.

He is also indefatigable. As one of the most influential persons of the 20th century, a man whom we can thank for many of the safety, health and pubic information privileges we enjoy, the 68-year-old Nader could retire to Winsted to write books and garden, and no one would think less of him.

Instead, he continues to criss-cross this country to lecture and exhort people to action at a level that leaves many of his younger staffers exhausted. After the election, Nader founded Democracy Rising, a coalition designed to link local groups together in a civic movement for accountability and action that he hopes will help hold politicians more accountable in coming elections. To spread the word, he organizes and speaks at Super Rallies.

The rallies, which are part rock show/part old-time political rally, have a decidedly younger skew. But while it's exciting to know that 7,500 can gather in Portland, Oregon in a Nader call-to-action, I worry about an overall movement whose base seems so young. To really make a difference in our civic and political landscape, Nader must lure back the disaffected older voters who took a gamble and voted their consciences in 2000 but now feel betrayed and reach out to the disaffected older voters who were too cautious to take the leap but now feel as if those who did were fools. What will Ralph say to them?

I thought his new book, "Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender," might offer some explanations or perhaps a game plan. While detailed in its behind-the-scenes annotation of events and clear in its agenda for the future, the book is short on any mea culpa. The bad guys are really bad. The good guys are just about everyone associated with Nader's campaign.

It left me unsatisfied, because I think an admission of mistakes and then learning from them is what's needed for certain people to learn to trust Nader again.

It was time to give Ralph a call.

I wasn't looking forward to the conversation. As a reporter, I have had dealings with the Nader family off and on for about six years. I have seen firsthand the speed with which they can attack if they think someone is on the "wrong" side. As a reporter for the Litchfield County Times covering the close of their hometown hospital -- the first hospital in the state to go bankrupt and one whose closure left rural Winsted without immediate serious emergency care -- I was fortunately on the right side ... and received the attention that this can afford. I was invited to their home for a Christmas party. I met their mother, Rose, a woman whose short stature belies her gigantic influence in the Nader siblings' lives. There was talk of my writing a book on the family.

But even as I continued my investigative series, eventually revealing a complicated web of financial mismanagement on the part of the hospital CEO that still couldn't save the hospital in court, I was aware of my tenuous position. I witnessed how quickly the Naders could turn against those they thought were against them, sometimes merely because these perceived enemies offered up another point of view.

So I figured Nader wouldn't take kindly to my asking about the election and if he'd learned anything, that he would continue to parrot his rhetoric that the election was Gore's to lose and that the choice between the two parties is really no choice at all.

I was wrong.

The conversation began with Ralph agreeing that being a consumer activist is different from being a political activist. Where a consumer advocate speaks for people, a politician, in order to gain followers, must speak to them.

Nader admits he's still fine-tuning his approach, which is one reason why he founded Democracy Rising. It brings him back to his roots and lets him do what he does best -- galvanize people to action. As a coalition devoted to helping grassroots groups work together on local issues, it also has little to do with politics specifically other than the hope that people will be moved to political action where appropriate. "There's always a back and forth between the civic and political," Nader says.

Nader is a little less forthcoming when first asked about luring back the disaffected, as he initially gives a now-familiar variation on a theme.

"There comes a time when you have to pronounce that the two parties have flunked," he says, "Everybody has a break-away point." Berating a third party for trying to effect change -- and yes, taking votes away from a status quo party -- is counter-democratic, indeed counter-nature, Ralph says. "That's an unacceptable assumption that you can't exert outside influence." More simply put, whatever happened to competition?

That said, Ralph admits many don't like his approach, which has been called dogmatic at its best, tyrannical at its worst. While not suggesting he should have done some things differently in the election, he is trying to mend a few fences. He relies on intermediaries, for instance, to approach groups who tongue-lashed him after the election. He creates coalitions. "None of us have more collaborators than we need," he says. "The door is always open; I carry no grudges."

The approach seems to be paying off, he says. Already, the Sierra Club, which skewered him in the press for his Green Party bid before endorsing Gore, has been among the groups hosting tables at some of the Super Rallies. "Stagnation gets you nowhere; drawing lines gets you nowhere," Ralph says.

But what about the older, more experienced/cynical voters/non-voters? What about people like me who want to believe but now wonder if 2000 was just the beginning of the nightmare?

Uncharacteristically, Ralph Nader doesn't have a ready answer. "That's a good question," he says, "it's hard to answer." He launches into a story of a friend who had been a compatriot for years who, post-2000 Election Day, sent him a vituperative letter whose venom amazed Ralph. What can you tell someone like that? he asks rhetorically.

"You can tell him 100 things -- Why pick me out? Why don't you blame Gore's performance?" No explanation would really make a difference, Nader says, because these people are "really saying I shouldn't have run, that no third party should ever run." And, that, as Ralph has said before, is an option he refuses to consider because he believes it dooms the democratic process.

So instead Nader is trying to let his actions speak louder than his words.

And he continues to look for the next person to take up the leadership mantle, whether it be as a consumer guru or as someone who galvanizes political change among a disaffected electorate. "I think about it all the time," he says, noting that democracy is an "exhausting cottage industry. If I see a bright young star," he says, "I will take an hour to talk, to connect, to ply them with books -- there is no substitute."

We end the interview by talking about Gov. John Rowland and Democratic hopeful Bill Curry's chances and whether or not the Enron/CRRA scandal will hurt Rowland's run.

I hang up and, as is often the case after I've talked to Nader or heard him speak, I feel reassured. Yes, Ralph can be self-righteous and didactic to the point of becoming a parody of himself -- what was with that recent letter to the NBA commissioner where he complained about the officiating during the LA Lakers' series with the Sacramento Kings and called for a review of the refs? -- but underneath that crusty exterior, Nader really does seem to just want what's best for democracy and, by extension, the American people. Maybe his view isn't everybody's, but at least he's trying to get a dialogue going. And as a reason to take a political leap of faith and trust him again, that's seems as sane an explanation as any for me.

Janet Reynolds is the editor and publisher of the Hartford Advocate. Email her at jreynolds@hartfordadvocate.com.

Who Will Tame the Media Monster

The liberals' nightmare has come true: the Fox News Channel is the king of cable news. For the first time, Rupert Murdoch's high-octane conservative channel beat out CNN, a division of AOL-Time Warner, in the ratings war in January.

Not only did Fox, led by right-wing inquisitor Bill O'Reilly, beat out CNN and MSNBC for attracting more viewers in January, the channel won where it counts: garnering the attention of 25- to 54-year-olds. In this desired group, Fox saw a 159 percent increase in ratings over last year, while CNN and MSNBC saw only modest growth and this at a time when Americans were obsessively clicking to cable news channels to get the latest spin on the war on terror.

That Fox is now king of cable news hardly comes as a surprise. CNN has been chasing Fox's magic for months. Even before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, new CNN boss Walter Isaacson, formerly of Time magazine (another hot AOL-Time Warner media property), tried to hire Rush Limbaugh for a TV show.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, ratings for cable news surged and Fox was ready to pounce on the opportunity. It served up images of bravery and led the bellicose call for revenge or "infinite justice," as President George W. Bush briefly called this new war.

Fox also raided the competition. It lured Geraldo Rivera out of the CNBC studio and into the Tora Bora caves. Rivera arrived for the final assault on bin Laden's forces and even dodged some snipers' bullets. When Greta Van Susteren left CNN to join Fox, it kicked the media wars into full gear. CNN reacted by signing Larry King to a hefty new contract and plucking Connie Chung from ABC.

Meanwhile, the story that has virtually been ignored by media-addicted consumers is the insidious ongoing effects of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Cable is just the most visible arena where massive media empires, Fox and AOL and General Electric and Disney, struggle for dominance. The "content" industry is a lot more concentrated these days and there's nobody in sight who would like to slow it down. (For a breakdown of the competing media empires, look at the "Big Media" issue of The Nation, Jan. 7, 2002.)

In recent months, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has moved to revoke most of the remaining anti-trust rules on media ownership. The FCC is evaluating the 1975 regulation that prevents a single media company from owning a TV station and daily newspaper in the same market. Powell also wants to ax rules that prevent a single media conglomerate from holding more than 35 percent of TV viewers.

And where does the Public Broadcasting System fit into this free-for-all for media monopoly? The non-commercial network, created more than 30 years ago as the exemplar of the medium, still falls short when compared to its commercial rivals. It does not have its own news gathering operation and it's hindered by tight budgets and reliance on corporate underwriting.

PBS does have its own talk shows, like NewsHour and the Charlie Rose Show. However, many people find PBS boring. For years, progressives have complained about NewsHour in particular for ignoring pundits and activists outside the political establishment. David Barsamian, creator of Alternative Radio, a syndicated radio program heard on community radio stations, lays out the usual leftist complaints about PBS in his new book, The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting (South End Press). Barsamian bemoans the PBS he says has sold out to corporate sponsors and spurns documentaries and other controversial fare that might upset its underwriters.

"Radical voices are simply excluded from public discourse," Barsamian writes. "They do not exist. They're not on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. They're never interviewed by Charlie Rose. On rare occasion, Rose has had Edward Said on, but he does not let him finish a sentence ... Yet, when Rose has perennial favorites like Thomas Friedman and Henry Kissinger on, he genuflects and exhibits proper awe and reverence."

Although it offers a lot of conventional wisdom, PBS is able to deliver some first-rate public affairs shows. Frontline has for years done an admirable job in investigative journalism, and Bill Moyers' new weekly show, Now, is powerful television.

Barsamian hurts his own argument by narrowly defining PBS' ability to telecast dissent by looking at how its producers have routinely ignored leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. His book recounts an incident when Zinn was dropped from a 1991 NewsHour segment that explored the implications for the left of the downfall of the Soviet Union. Contacted by a producer, Zinn explained that the fall of Soviet communism, "would be a big boost for socialism, since the Soviet Union had given socialism a bad name by pretending to embody it, and with the Soviet Union out of the way, it might be possible to restore the good name of socialism."

Zinn was replaced on the NewsHour by James Weinstein, founder of In These Times, a leftist news magazine, who gave a more dour treatment of the fall of the Soviet Empire. This was hardly media censorship but rather good news judgment.

Despite all the negative media trends, there are signs of life among media reformers. Pacifica Radio is now back in the hands of the dissidents who ran a successful year-long boycott. Leslie Cagan, the leading dissident board member, now chairs the five-station radio network. Pacifica also hired Dan Caughlin, former news director at Pacifica Network News, to run the network. Previously, he had helped run the Pacifica Campaign, which orchestrated the onslaught against Pacifica management and its operations at radio station WBAI in New York. Yet, Pacifica must now find a way to pay off its $4.8 million debt created by this infighting.

Although it is only Pacifica, a small radio syndicate best known for its leftist bent, it could be a model for a more democratic American media. The power struggle showed that listeners count when they withhold their contributions and complain to the management. It is the first time that a dissident campaign has succeeded in taking back a media outlet.

The campaign worked because Pacifica ran out of money and faced a determined set of media activists who wanted to retain the network's alternative voice. In conjunction with media-watch outlets like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, activists for media reform need to look at changing the rules of the game for big media. For starters, activists need to focus on the FCC giving away the store to media and telecom giants.

As media analyst Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols argue in a recent essay in The Nation, media reform needs to be considered as important as civil rights and debated in church basements and union halls.

McChesney and Nichols state: "When people hear of the corruption of communications policy-making, they are appalled. When people understand that it is their democratic right to reform this system, millions of them will be inclined to exercise that right."

Who will tell the people about the abuses of the media moguls? Certainly, not CNN or Dan Rather, whose corporate bosses enjoy the privilege of writing the rules of media ownership and deregulation. Activists will need to create their own vehicle to tell the masses.

Legally High

For years, many have searched for the legal buzz -- the Holy Grail of drug use. It may be time to call off the search party -- it seems the quest for the perfect legal drug, one that actually kicks your ass the way you want it to, may at long last be over. Until it is banned that is.

Introducing Salvia divinorum, an obscure Mexican herb that contains the hallucinogen Salvinorin A. It's totally legal in the United States -- it's so far managed to slide beneath the Drug Enforcement Administration's radar and remains to this day uncontrolled and unregulated.

No federal laws govern Salvia divinorum, even though by weight the active component of Salvia divinorum is more powerful than that found in peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, or any other natural hallucinogen, says Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist from Missoula, Mont., who researched the drug for his book, Handbook of Psycho-tropic Herbs.

"This is not a prevalent agent," says Russo. "Though it needs to be treated with a great deal of respect, it's not inherently dangerous the way a lot of other drugs are."

Salvia divinorum is a type of sage plant that can induce intense hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and when taken in higher doses, unconsciousness and short-term memory loss. Anecdotal accounts of Salvia trips, provided in encyclopedic detail on websites like www.sagewisdom.org, describe sensations of passing through time and space, assuming the identities of others and even fusing with inanimate objects. More often than not, Salvia is smoked.

"When someone uses Salvia, first of all most people find that nothing happens," says Russo. "When someone does have a full-blown experience, the worst that could happen is two things: First, they will disassociate from their surroundings. Things may not look as they really are in front of them. They could wander off and get hurt. Second, they can scare the heck out of themselves from this experience. It's one reason why most people do not choose to repeat it."

How Salvia divinorum produces its hallucinogenic effects is still something of a mystery to researchers, in that it doesn't work on any neurotransmitter sites affected by other hallucinogens. Although considered a new drug in a strictly "recreational" sense, this hallucinogenic herb has been used for centuries by Mexico's Mazatec Indians for the purposes of divination. Plus, science has known of Salvia for at least 40 years. Researchers continue to study it because the effects of Salvia on the brain and body aren't fully understood.

Salvia has never been more popular outside of the confines of Mexico than it is today. It's only been within the last five years or so that this herb has started gaining in popularity with recreational drug users. That, says Daniel Siebert, a neophyte botanist living in Malibu, Calif., could be problematic.

"It's not an alternative to anything," says Siebert, who sells Salvia divinorum through his website, www.sagewisdom.org, for as much as $120 an ounce. "Salvia has unique effects that are distinctive. People who are interested in a recreational, social kind of drug experience, something that might be equivalent to marijuana or ecstasy, are just disappointed in Salvia because most people are interested in a more recreational thing, something with a mild effect that they can handle more easily."

Siebert says he too fears Salvia divinorum's criminalization. "It's got useful properties and certainly a lot of people are using it that way so making it illegal would be a shame because you're taking something away from people that's very beneficial," he says.

Russo says there's no real potential for abuse -- as there is with most illegal substances -- with Salvia divinorum, a drug he classifies as a "disassociative hallucinogen." Should the DEA step in and set controls on its use, "it would make it more attractive to people," Russo predicts.

Russo also fears strict controls could cripple ongoing research: "This is a fascinating agent from a biochemical standpoint," he says. "Salvinorin A has been tested against 100 different neurotransmitter systems with no clear explanation for its mechanism of action. It's totally possible that Salvia divinorum will lead us to a new understanding of neurotransmitter systems in our brain."

Now for the bad news. The recent surge in popularity has helped make DEA officials aware of its recreational uses. Says a DEA spokesperson: "It's not currently controlled and we're actually collecting information on it." Stock up now, kids!

When Bondage Becomes Kidnapping

It's May 10, 2000, shortly after 2 p.m., and Eric Molnar's video camera is rolling tape: Time to make a movie.

Opening scene -- the basement of Molnar's house. In the background -- cinder block walls and what looks like a liquor cabinet. In the center of the frame, a young woman, brunette, wearing cutoff jeans. Otherwise, she's naked.

She's tied tightly to a metal folding chair with ropes, wire and telephone cord. The woman is crying and shivering -- either from cold or fear, it's hard to tell.

The woman is gagged with a red bandanna. She tries to speak. On the videotape you can kind of make out what she's saying.

"Ow, it hurts," she says to the man staring down at her. He cracks his knuckles in front of her face and then quickly fakes a jab, a right. His fist moves fast toward her face but stops short of striking her. She flinches.

He walks away, scratching the top of his head. Her eyes follow his every move.

"Why are you doing this to me?" she asks. Without answering, he walks out of the shot and can be heard walking up some stairs. Again, the woman tries to talk.

"Eric? Where are you going?"

"I love you," he responds, still shuffling up the staircase.

"Come back. I wanna be with you. I do. I can't feel my hand. It hurts. Eric? It's numb. Eric? Don't leave me here, please. Come back. Let's work it out."

No response. The woman sits in the chair, sobbing. She briefly eyes the video camera, then somehow loosens the gag. She forces it from her mouth with her tongue. For the next three minutes, silence. The woman sits and waits.

What was going on in the basement of Sheila and Eric Molnar's home was either an intimate expression of the couple's sexual life or a radical departure into a horrifying new territory by Mr. Molnar -- a violent criminal abduction, depending upon who you talk to. Late last year, an eight-member jury was asked to decide which was true: Were these two consenting adults, enjoying a little sadomasochistic play as they'd been doing for years? Or was this a clear-cut case of kidnapping and sexual assault?

The trial lasted a little less than a month, and the jury deliberated for little more than half an hour. In the end, they found that what Eric Molnar had done to his estranged wife was criminal.

Molnar, a nurse's aide and martial arts enthusiast, now sits, a convicted felon, behind bars. He does 1,000 push-ups a day as he awaits his sentencing later this month on several counts of kidnapping, burglary, sexual assault, unlawful restraint, and criminal attempt to commit assault, all of them felony charges carrying stiff penalties.

The Molnar case might have been a more clear-cut criminal case if the activities captured on videotape May 10 had not been very similar to other sexual encounters between the couple that had also been videotaped during their relationship. At the trial, Mr. Molnar's attorney presented videotape evidence of other sexual acts between the couple that included bondage, restraint and force. Those sexual encounters had been consensual. The one on May 10, 2000 -- the prosecution argued -- had not.

Just where the line was drawn, and whether there ever was a line that was mutually determined between the couple as to what was acceptable and what wasn't, was at the heart of the trial.

The Molnar case raises several questions about the law and the role it plays, if any, in the most personal area of our private lives -- the intimacy we share in the bedroom.

Do we need the law to follow us into the bedroom, and if so, just how far down the corridor do we expect it to follow us? And is the law even equipped to look at these kinds of deeply intimate issues with an unbiased eye? Who decides what sexual behaviors are illegal or when the line has been crossed too far?

The range of sexual activities that falls under the acronym BDSM -- bondage, domination and sado-masochism -- is limitlessly broad, and the style and accouterments of BDSM have increasingly entered into mainstream culture in recent years, so that S&M -- once taboo -- is now the object of sitcom jokes and fetish fashion.

"BDSM activities quite often involve things like bondage and pain -- striking with implements, whipping, caning, all of that kind of stuff," says Dr. Gloria Brame, a clinical sexologist, author of the groundbreaking book on BDSM, A Different Kind of Loving, a professor, and an S&M advocate. "And those kinds of behaviors can and sometimes are prosecuted as assaults. The laws are not so finely tuned as to distinguish between pain that somebody enjoys and pain that just looks scary."

The "S" in the S&M, refers to achieving sexual pleasure and gratification by inflicting pain on a sexual partner. The word sadism is derived from the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century French novelist who often wrote about sexual punishment. Sade engaged in sexual sadism himself -- in fact, he was eventually committed to an insane asylum for inflicting cruelty on his sexual partners.

A typical sadistic fantasy might involve having complete control over one's partner, who is terrified by anticipation of the impending act. It is the suffering of the victim, or the assumed, feigned suffering of the victim, that is sexually arousing.

Bondage ranges from physically holding someone down to completely immobilizing the person. The "top" or dominant partner might partially or fully restrain a partner by using leashes, ropes or chains.

Molnar, 31, says he and his wife practiced consensual bondage throughout the marriage, and even a few times before exchanging vows.

"I confronted my ex-wife before our engagement," Molnar told this reporter recently from a prison pay phone. "We were having sex one morning upstairs in her parents' house. The windows were open and she was being really loud," so Molnar took a bandanna and slipped it into her mouth. "It just kind of took off from there," Molnar claims. "She was totally into it."

Even now, Molnar claims he's the real victim in this case, that he was framed by the one woman he thought he'd spend forever with -- a woman who is a paralegal and knows how the legal system works, he says.

Molnar filed for divorce from his wife in April of that year -- about a month before the incidents of May 10. Both Sheila Molnar and her attorney declined to talk to the Advocate about the case.

Molnar and his parents, Frank and Michele Molnar, believe that 28-year-old Sheila Molnar -- who has since exchanged her married name for her maiden one -- might have wanted to punish Eric Molnar because he filed for divorce.

While this case, in its details, is unique, the issues raised aren't all that uncommon in the underground world of S&M, say some advocates and devotees.

There have been cases where what at first appeared to be a consensual sexual encounter turned out badly. Typically, however, such cases do not go to trial.

Sex writer Brame says it's not unusual for two people to engage in consensual S&M sex, but then, looking back, decide that what they'd consented to wasn't exactly what went down.

"You could have two partners; both of them consent, both of them go home, one ties the other one up, keeps him or her tied up overnight, and beats them and whatever, and they've agreed to it," says Brame. "The person who was tied up may go home the next day, and have a change of heart, and say, 'Well, I feel really guilty,' or 'I'm really ashamed, I can't tell anyone. They forced me to do it. I didn't really want to do it. They kidnapped me. They made me experience all that pleasure,' which of course, in retrospect, may not seem like pleasure anymore because they're so ashamed. And they go to the cops, and they bust the guy."

That's what happened to former chess prodigy and Columbia doctoral student Oliver Jovanovic in 1998.

Jovanovic, now 35, was convicted in New York of kidnapping and sexually abusing a 22-year-old Barnard College student he'd met in an America Online chat room. His is perhaps one of the most famous criminal trails involving S&M to date.

Jovanovic and the student went on a date after meeting online in 1996, according to news reports. At his apartment, by her own account, the young woman let herself be stripped and tied up. She claimed that Jovanovic then kept her bound against her will for 20 hours and sexually tortured her.

The defense argued that what happened was consensual -- the same defense offered in the Molnar case. That argument was crippled during Jovanovic's initial trial, however, when e-mails between the accuser and the defendant -- ones that reportedly made references to hard-core S&M -- were excluded as evidence. Under New York's rape shield law, the use of the accuser's sexual past is restricted in a defense.

The New York Supreme Court ultimately dismissed all charges against Jovanovic, granting him a second trial when it found the original trial judge -- Acting Justice William Wetzel -- had repeatedly misapplied the rape shield. The second time around Jovanovic was found not guilty and was released this fall after five years in prison.

"He had a most likely consenting relationship with a woman who represented herself as an experienced BDSMer," says Brame, who followed the Jovanovic case closely. "He was probably a clueless idiot who took her too far or something. Whatever he did, he pissed her off. And then she went to the cops and said, 'None of it was by my consent.' You know, it's a he said-she said."

Could that have happened May 10, 2000? Did Molnar push the sexual envelope, dragging what had been an accepted practice between the couple over that jagged line into the realm of the forbidden? Only two people know for sure.

"It's a blurry line, even for BDSMers," says Brame. "It's very hard to know, because sometimes people do take it too far, especially if he was angry with her and did want to hurt her. It's hard to know."

Advocates claim they're always hearing anecdotal recountings of criminal cases where S&M was a focal point, but that there's little documentation or court records of such proceedings, primarily because they never actually make it to open court.

"Most of these cases don't make it to the appellate level," says A. Spencer Bergstedt, a Seattle-based attorney and former president of the National Leather Association, an international organization for S&M players, fetish and leather enthusiasts and others with alternative sexual lifestyles. "Most cases don't even make it to anybody finding out about it because people are embarrassed and they've ended up pleading out the case to a lesser charge."

In many ways, Brame says our laws are written in such a way that effectively makes these types of alternative sexual activities illegal.

"Our laws have not changed as fast as our social mores have," she says, "and neither have they changed in response to academic and scholarly understandings of sexuality."

There are some states that carry domestic violence statutes on the books, laws designed to protect victims of domestic violence, that can be problematic for S&Mers.

"[These laws] are written in such a way that the victim doesn't have to complain that there's been domestic violence," says Bergstedt. "Nor do they have to support the prosecutor in prosecuting the case. [The laws] come from a good place, which is that victims of domestic violence are often reluctant to confront their abusers. While they come from a good place, they are also being used against people who are engaging in consensual behavior.

"If the cops show up at your door and if they then see somebody who looks like they have bruises," Bergstedt continues, "whether or not those bruises were the result of consensual behavior, they are going to arrest somebody."

The Molnar case was unique in that it was so sexually charged, says defense attorney John R. Williams, a well-known civil rights attorney and Mr. Molnar's lawyer.

Williams introduced about six hours of explicit amateur videotape of the Molnars as evidence in the trial. The tapes featured a variety of sex acts between the couple and included incidents where Mrs. Molnar was tied up or handcuffed. Williams introduced the tapes to show the jury that bondage was a regular part of their marriage.

Why Molnar recorded the May 10 incident on video is unclear. As it turned out, that videotape played a key role in Molnar's prosecution by state's attorney Paul Rotiroti.

In the end, the jury didn't buy Williams' argument that the incident was part of their usual sexual play. Doctors testified that she sustained a number of injuries during the incident, including bruises, subconjunctival hemorrhaging of the eyes (Sheila Molnar claimed her husband choked her into unconsciousness several times that evening) and lacerations to her legs and buttocks she says she suffered when Molnar pushed her into a glass door as she tried to escape.

According to police reports, Eric Molnar began May 10 tending the grounds surrounding his and his wife's Mulberry Street, Plantsville, abode. On the market for a couple of months, the Molnars were selling the house as part of their divorce.

A few hours later, the grass cut, the clippings raked away, Eric Molnar was drunk. Molnar hung around the house, waiting for his wife, at her behest, according to what he told this reporter.

An hour later, the camera was rolling, and Sheila Molnar was tied up in the basement.

The video runs more than two hours. At certain points, husband and wife can be seen kissing and are heard discussing their marital woes. At times an intoxicated Molnar tells his captive wife he'd been "planning this for months," that he would "die for her," and "kill for," her, and asks her, "You think you're going to trust me after this?"

At one point on the video Sheila tells Molnar she's afraid he's going to kill her, to which he replies, "If I wanted to kill you, I'd have killed you already. I'd be a coward if I killed you."

At one point Sheila Molnar is left alone, tied to the chair. During this period of time, it appears Molnar leaves the house to move his wife's car. Prosecutor Rotiroti claimed Molnar moved the car so that no one would know his wife was home.

Molnar eventually returns and appears again before the camera. The couple talks about several things, including their marriage, their separation and their sexual relationship right up until the end of the tape. Before it ends, Molnar appears to be passing out from alcohol.

In court, Sheila Molnar claimed that most of what happened to her that evening occurred after the tape ran out. It was at that point that she asked Molnar to free her so she could use the bathroom.

With only her wrists tied behind her, she hopped off of the toilet and darted toward the bathroom door. Halfway through the living room, she says, Molnar tackled her and pulled her onto the couch. She kicked him and dashed toward the kitchen. As she was trying to open the storm door, Molnar came up behind her and started choking her. She passed out and later awoke in bed, naked.

Eventually she managed to slip her hands -- still tied behind her -- in front of her by pulling them forward and under her legs. She grabbed the phone, dialed 911, called out for help and was abruptly cut off by Eric Molnar, who'd pulled the telephone cord from the wall jack. The phone call was long enough, however, for police to trace, and police were dispatched to the Molnar residence.

Police arrived to find a broken glass door and what appeared to be "fresh blood." They entered the home, followed screams to the bedroom, and kicked open the door to find Molnar on top of his wife on the bed. Guns drawn, the officers ordered Molnar to the ground and handcuffed him. Knowing he was a decorated martial arts enthusiast, they taped his legs together and led him from the home.

Rotiroti's approach to trying the case was simple: Play the 911 tape, play video of the May 10 incident, call officers involved in the case to the stand to describe what they'd seen, show pictures of Sheila Molnar's injuries, try to fend off attacks to her credibility during cross examination, and let the jury decide that this wasn't sex, it was violent criminal behavior.

Williams took a different approach.

He tried to paint a picture of what the norm was in the Molnars' sexual relationship while scrutinizing Sheila Molnar's credibility -- this wasn't victimization; this was two people doing what they'd always done.

During her testimony Sheila Molnar told the court she did not enjoy bondage and that it was her husband who tried to fit bondage into the bedroom equation. She says she usually just rolled with her husband's kinks, she feared not doing so might dismantle the marriage.

She told the police shortly after the May 10 incident that she couldn't remember bondage being a constant in the couple's sexual life, but that there were a few occasions where one of them would tie the other up. In her statements to police and to the court, Sheila Molnar said she remembered finding a video camera concealed beneath dirty clothing after she and her husband had had sex, but that she wasn't aware such interactions had been documented. The tapes that were later shown in court were made without Sheila Molnar's knowledge or consent, she told police.

She also said in court that she has suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder since the May 10 incident and that this has hindered her ability to remember certain things, mostly from her four-year marriage, such as their S&M experiences and the fact that they'd videotaped themselves having sex.

Williams tried to demonstrate that Sheila Molnar did know she was being taped. He played for her several videos in which the Molnars were not only having bondage sex but in which she was making references to, and even posing for, the video camera. She maintained the denial.

As far as Eric Molnar is concerned, what happened on May 10 had gone on before. Perhaps he hadn't realized the rules had changed since he'd filed for divorce, or perhaps there had never been rules.

"I think that there are two clear victims in this case," says Williams, who plans to appeal the verdict. "I think Eric is a victim because he has been punished already, way beyond what the circumstances could possibly have called for. And secondly, I think that the judicial system is a victim, in a way. I think the system has been perverted here -- not for the first time, nor for the last -- because the sexual content of this case has gotten in the way of a rational approach to the real legal questions."

"For every person who claims they went along with it, that everything was just fine, but this time, it wasn't -- in my experience, it's one in a million where that's really the truth, and most times, it's revenge," opines Brame. "I don't know this woman. I can't cast any questions on her credibility. If she was hurt, I feel sorry for her. But all I know is that this is a big issue."

Brame says BDSMers can take precautions to protect themselves from falling afoul of the law, including written contracts that spell out in detail what is and what is not acceptable in their sex play.

"You need safe words, contracts, where you write out just how far somebody can go with you," she says. "All of these questions needed to be asked, but I'm willing to bet you any amount of money that no one involved in this case was aware of these issues. Except maybe, possibly, and maybe not even the actual couple. That's where you start to determine whether she really understood what she was doing and whether he really thought everything was going fine, or if she seemed to be giving distress signals that he ignored."

Williams says he feels both the judge's and jury's own biases prohibited them from having any understanding of what it was they were watching and that this may have influenced the proceedings to some degree.

"The jury is instructed they should not form any opinions until they've heard it all and all the rest of it, and I think that most people on juries sincerely try to do that," he says. "But, something as powerful and gut-wrenching as that ... When you first see it, you see it without the background of understanding of where these people are coming from. And by the time you've got that information, maybe it's too late to get over your initial impression."

Brame agrees. "To someone who has never seen it, it's scary shit," says Brame. "People don't have a context for that. The human heart is a curious thing, and human sexuality is infinite in its variations."

Chris Harris can be reached at charris@hartfordadvocate.com.

On the Road with Ralph

Stoop-shouldered and wearing the same gray suit and tie he's worn for the past three days, consumer advocate and Green Party presidential hopeful Ralph Nader stands before a group of about 30 people gathered in Paul Newman's Manhattan living room and speaks of why he wants to be president.

His Lincolnesque stature and craggy face seem oddly in tune with the primitive American art filling much of the wall space.

"I'm not going to start with the usual exhortations," Nader says. "I want to talk to you about Gerry Spence."

Spence, for the uninitiated, is a wildcat flamboyant Wyoming lawyer, famous in part for winning a $1 million-plus verdict for the estate of whistleblower Karen Silkwood against the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Oklahoma, after Silkwood's car mysteriously ran off the road and her apartment was found to be contaminated with plutonium. When Nader heard a few years ago that a U.S. Senate position was opening up in Wyoming, he called Spence and urged him to run.

"Ralph," Nader recalled Spence saying, "I'm sitting here looking out the windows at the Grand Tetons, my life is good, I can take the cases I want. Why would I want to enter that Senate cesspool?"

"I think your country needs you," Nader says he responded. "I said, 'Suppose someone came by in the middle of the night and dropped a truckload full of manure on your front step, blocking your front door. Would you fight it or would you still say, 'I'm sitting here looking out the window at the Tetons and life is good'?"

There was a pause on the other end of the phone before Spence said, "You bastard."

The group in Newman's living room includes former talk-show host and longtime Nader friend Phil Donahue, as well as both the publisher and the editor of The Nation. After a pleasant meal of mushroom-stuffed chicken, wild rice and lightly sautéed vegetables, they chuckle at the punch line. Nader smiles before delivering the real punch.

"I'm only standing here because any one of dozens don't want to."

Not exactly the fist-pumping rhetoric typical of other presidential hopefuls, who call up years of supposed public service as they shout, "I can't do it without you!"

The anti-politician Nader offers a far different message. "We're counting on each other," he said repeatedly to citizens' groups around New England two weeks ago, "and I don't want to do it without you because it doesn't work."

It's a low-key approach that has some dismissing Nader's campaign even as it's begun to hit its stride. By the middle of June, Nader, who announced his candidacy at the end of February, will have visited all 50 states, something no other candidate will do. He has pledged to raise $5 million and has raised more than $600,000 so far. He is on the ballot in 14 states, and volunteers are gathering signatures to get on the ballot in the rest. He expects to have 30 full-time organizers focusing on getting out the vote.

But Nader must overcome more than the already large -- some would say insurmountable -- obstacle of running as a third-party candidate. Besides fighting to get on the ballot and included in the presidential debates, (see "The Debate Debacle"), Nader must combat the perception that he's yesterday's man.

Sure, he was instrumental in the mid-'60s and early '70s in changing political history. His intervention between 1966 and 1970 via Nader's Raiders, a group of young lawyers dedicated to exposing government abuse and corporate wrongs, is directly responsible for the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act, Wholesale Poultry Products Act, Wholesale Meat Act, Radiation Control Act, Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and Occupation Health and Safety Act. In addition, Nader was a key player in creating the Freedom of Information Act and the Consumer Protection Agency.

But in a society whose attention span can be measured in 30-second sound bites, many wonder what Nader has done for them lately. Those who do remember his role in this country's history may worry that his low-key approach and insistence on citizen involvement and grassroots democracy are anachronistic in an age rooted in cynicism and apathy.

Nader is haunted as well by his 1996 presidential bid. He spent less than $5,000 and did not campaign as the Green Party's candidate then, prompting people and political pundits to ask why they should believe he's really running this time around -- especially if it means that a vote for Nader is a vote taken away from presumed Democratic candidate Al Gore.

To dismiss Nader this way, however, is to miss the many ways in which he could be a real factor in this campaign and the ways in which he could, as he has in the past, change the course of political history. Overwhelmingly disgusted with political patronage and corporate corruption, Americans have avoided the voting booth in hordes in recent elections.

Supporters are counting on Nader's common-sense approach, coupled with his insistence of working on the people rather than for them, could lure people back into politics. Already, one national poll puts Nader in the 5 percent to 7 percent range, ahead of likely Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who has been campaigning for years.

Meanwhile, in Oregon Nader is at 7 percent -- before even campaigning there -- and in California, a key Democratic state, he's at 9 percent.

After spending time with him on the campaign trail, this much is certain: Nader is up for the challenge. And as history shows, there's nothing Ralph Nader likes more than a good fight.

Which is good, some pundits, say because he's in for a losing battle. Besides the difficulty of getting on enough ballots to garner at least 5 percent of the national vote -- the magic number required for federal matching funds for the next election -- and trying to get included on the national presidential debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, Nader could be hurt by the credibility of the party he's likely to represent.

After all, how seriously can people take a party whose other presidential hopefuls include former Dead Kennedys punk star Jello Biafra and Stephen Gaskin, who helped found The Farm, a hippie commune, in the '60s?

Nader's name recognition may help. But although he was a household name 35 years ago, an entire generation of new voters has no idea Nader is the man who has made their lives cleaner and safer.

"Ten to 15 years ago if Ralph Nader was going to a college campus, they had a sense of who he was," says Bruce Altschuler, chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Oswego. "Now he's been out of the spotlight, and I think more people in that age group, if you say, 'Ralph Nader,' you need some explanation. He'll have to make himself known. He's also not what you call a hip figure." (This despite the fact that Time magazine recently referred to Nader as "retro cool.")

Nader's name recognition and appeal only become more important when you consider the Green Party itself. While not as openly divisive as the Reform Party, which is gradually imploding under the new involvement of right-winger Pat Buchanan, the Green Party is certainly not without controversy.

The U.S. Green Party, founded about 20 years ago, had as its inspiration the Green Party founded on environmental principles in Germany. The U.S. Greens now have two factions, the National Green Party and the Green Party USA, under the broad Green Party label.

Randy Toler, one of the original Green Party founders, remains confident the party will galvanize around Nader.

"We have to get our act together here," he says. "Ralph Nader has his faults, but he is the best bet to push Al Gore on the environment. The Green Party needs Ralph Nader more than Ralph Nader needs the Green Party."

Finally, while Nader dismisses the spoiler effect, others don't. "Most people who are clearly on the left will end up voting for Gore," says political science professor Arthur Paulson. "The voter for Nader is not really a swing voter," someone who votes for a candidate rather than a party. "In the absence of Nader, that voter would vote Democratic most of the time.

"I really don't think a lot of people will sign on to the Nader idea," continues Paulson, who specializes in third parties and elections. "The disgusted voter will tend to stay home as they have in recent years."

You don't need to spend much time at all with the Naders, some of whom still live in Ralph's boyhood Winsted, Connecticutt home, to know that little if anything is done without a family chat. Sister Claire is a social scientist who helps run the family's community trust, an organization dedicated to helping citizens wend their way through the democratic process. She is followed by Laura, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. At 66, Ralph is the baby of the family. The eldest son, Shafeek, who helped found the first college in Connecticut's community system died in 1986 of prostate cancer. Their father, Nathra, is also dead, survived by his widow, Rose.

Immigrants from Lebanon, Nathra and Rose taught by example, taking their children to Winsted town meetings. Anyone who ate at the family's Main Street restaurant knew that their food came spiced with commentary by Nathra. When a doctor commented that he charged his patients based on their ability to pay, Nathra said his martinis were $5 for doctors, 10 cents for the poor. Nathra once started a protest about congressional pay raises by walking alone down Main Street decrying the change. By the time he reached the end, the protest had become large enough to warrant an Associated Press photograph that was published around the country.

Nathra's spirit lives on in regular anecdotes. Nader often tells a story of his father asking him, when he was about 10 years old, whether he had learned to think or believe at school that day.

"I went into my room to think about that!," Nader laughs at a recent campaign stop. Another favorite is his father's response when a young Ralph told him America needed a good third party. Said Nathra, "I'd settle for a second."

Rose is still a regular part of Nader's audience whenever possible. In one speech Nader recalled his mother urging him to make his country more lovable when he became an adult.

Questioning the status quo began early for Nader, while an undergrad at Princeton University majoring in Far East politics and languages. (He learned to speak Russian, Spanish and Chinese.) In 1951, Princeton boys wore white shirts and tweed jackets. Nader thought this a silly convention, so he showed up to class one day dressed in his bathrobe. At another point, he noticed dead birds on campus the day after the elm trees had been sprayed with DDT. Suspecting a correlation, he wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian, which was not printed. Nader complained.

The complaining continued at Harvard Law School, where Nader spent more time turning the student newspaper, the Harvard Law School Record, into a muckraking journal -- tackling the exploitation of migrant workers and the myth of black inferiority -- than he did attending required classes.

But it was while hitchhiking home from Harvard -- hitchhiking is the only way Nader traveled to and from college and home -- that Nader's consumer career path perhaps began. He saw a car accident in which a young girl in the back seat had been decapitated by a glove compartment that flew open on impact. He wrote a paper on car safety.

After graduation, he wrote an article for The Nation on car safety. But it wasn't until 1964, when then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked Nader to help prepare a report for a federal conference on traffic safety, that Nader really began to explore car safety in earnest. In addition to the report, Nader wrote an article on the Corvair for the New Republic, which led to the book Unsafe at Any Speed, which forever changed the auto industry and gave rise to the consumer activism movement.

Before this 1965 book -- published two years after Rachel Carson's environmental call to arms, Silent Spring -- the consumer was essentially held responsible for car safety. Nader's book showed how a car's design has a direct impact on the safety of its passengers. He accused the automotive industry of sacrificing safety for the bottom line.

Regardless of the agency under attack or the focus of his fingerpointing, Nader's theme ever since has been corporations putting profits over people. He has had an impressive string of victories. In addition to the laws cited above, Nader founded the original Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C. -- which spawned statewide groups around the country -- as well as the Center for Responsive Law and Citizens Consumer Action Group, to name just a very few of his involvements. Concerned about the health implications of secondhand smoke, Nader petitioned the Federal Aviation Agency to ban smoking on all flights -- in 1969, a full 20 years before the industry began to ban smoking on domestic flights.

By 1972 Nader was such an icon and political force that George McGovern considered him as a vice presidential candidate.

By the '80s, though, Nader's influence had waned. With Ronald Reagan at the helm, the government's attitude toward regulating industry did a 180. Reagan felt regulations stifled free trade and enterprise, and slashed away at many of the social services and agencies Nader had spent his career creating and building up. The Environmental Protection Agency, another creation Nader helped spawn, was especially hard hit. In 1986 his brother died and Nader suffered an attack of Bell's Palsy, paralyzing the left side of his face and affecting his speech.

It was the insurance industry that brought him back. In 1988, California citizens took on the insurance industry's usurious rates. Nader got behind Proposition 103, a measure to force insurance companies to roll back their rates. The insurance giants spent $70 million to fight the campaign. Nader et al. had only $2 million. They won.

That was just the beginning. As the country began to feel the effects of Reagan deregulation, damaging oil spills and the savings and loan debacle, Nader went on the attack. He was on the forefront of the S&L battle and a leader against a 51 percent pay raise for Congress. Nader was back.

Which is one reason he doesn't put a lot of stock in naysayers. He doesn't have time.

At Newman's fundraiser, Nader answers the spoiler effect argument -- in which people suggest a vote for Nader and the Green Party is essentially a vote for George W. Bush -- this way: It's a vote for progressive change rather than a vote against the least worst candidate.

In the car ride back from Manhattan to Winsted, Nader is abrupt about the suggestion his candidacy may hinder more than it helps.

"It helps with name recognition," he says of his candidacy. "It raises the sights beyond certain single issues."

As for the toll his '96 presidential stroll -- rather than serious run -- may take on this campaign, "That's dissipating fast," he says. "We're going to every single state."

Echoes campaign manager Theresa Amato: "When he first announced, that was the concern. But the last 10 weeks should have dispelled any such notion. In '96 he stood for election; now he's running."

And people who can make a difference in attracting voters are endorsing him weekly. To date Ani DeFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Beatty, Susan Sarandon and columnist Jim Hightower have endorsed him, while Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine have said they will do voter registration on his behalf at their concerts this summer.

Indeed, it takes only a few days on the campaign trail to prove Nader's seriousness of intent. In a whirlwind tour through the six New England states in six days recently, Nader meets with citizen groups to talk of their successes or help with their struggles or give speeches on college campuses.

The overall theme is making all politics local.

So at Dis Mas House, an alternative incarceration home in Worcester, Mass., Nader talks of the cost savings and success rate of this kind of facility over a traditional state correctional approach. After noting that it costs $3,000 annually to house an inmate at Dis Mas rather than $60,000 at a traditional jail, and that the home has a much lower recidivism rate, he berates the governor for slashing appropriations to the facility and bemoans the national trend toward privatizing the prison system. "Almost nothing is off-limits to corporatizing except the Pentagon," he says.

In Rhode Island, at the State House Rotunda, he talks to a crowd composed heavily of college students about their fight to end sweatshop labor. In Hartford, he cites the fight against the Patriots stadium as a success story that shows citizens can make a difference.

"We need to merge the political movement with the civic movement so the political movement never forgets its roots," he says of this deliberate linking of his campaign with the citizenry. "You can't change inside Washington inside Washington."

At Newman's apartment, Nader tells the group, "We're not allowing people to label themselves and turn themselves off," adding he will talk to any constituency, including conservatives.

Nor will Nader say outright what he knows to be true: that he won't win. "I don't have to believe one way or the other," Nader said when asked at Assumption College in Worcester, where he had gone to celebrate a nurses' win in a strike. "Whatever we get in November, we build on for the future."

"I'm not holding this campaign to any artificial ceiling," he said at a press conference in Hartford's North End. "We're out for every vote."

Nader points to history as proof that third parties and dedicated citizens can effect change. Abolitionists and trade unionists, for instance, succeeded against seemingly unbeatable odds.

"The key is, we don't grow up with a sense of civic stamina," he says. "The only place democracy comes before work is in the dictionary."

So Nader plugs away, repeating his message in homes and colleges across America. Time and again he reminds audiences that it only takes 1 million people each donating 100 hours of time and raising $100 to make a third party viable.

"To those who say, 'I'm not turned on to politics,' I say, 'then politics will turn on you.'"

Just how far he must travel, though, is clear. During a meet-and-greet that polished political pros would take an hour to accomplish, Nader walks down the street, intent in conversation with people. He has to be reminded to stop to meet various merchants along the way. Not once does he utter the words, "I hope I have your vote in November."

When the occasional person on the street whispers and points or, as one man does, yells out, "Yo, Ralph Nader my man," he doesn't even look up. Indeed, for the most part Nader walks unrecognized.

Until he enters a local bookstore, where he is scheduled to give a speech and sign copies of No Contest, a book on how corporate lawyers have perverted justice in America. As soon as he walks in the door, the clapping begins. First it's just a few of the clerks by the door. By the time Nader has climbed the stairs to the open space created for his speech, the applause and cheers resound from the couple hundred gathered there, many of them holding "Nader 2000" posters.

Again, no glad-handing. Nader walks to the side of the podium and waits patiently for the Green Party members to conduct a little business. Then he speaks.

"Why is it other Western nations have better public transportation? Why is it other Western nations have better health care? More livable downtowns? Are ahead in alternative energy?" Nader says. "We're supposed to be number one.

"Well, we're number one in the number of people in prisons. We're the world's leading debtor."

A few minutes later Nader holds up a bottle of Poland Spring water. "The contented classes can afford this, and they're no longer interested in improving our drinking water. The problem is that the contented classes have too many ways to exit."

He concludes his speech with a quote from two disparate and yet similar historical figures: Sir Alfred North Whitehead and Cicero. "Duty," Whitehead noted, "arises out of the power to alter the course of events."

"Freedom," Cicero said, "is participation in power."

The crowd cheers and Nader smiles.

A Few of Nader's Favorite Stats

According to Nader, the top 1 percent of the richest Americans have wealth equal to the combined wealth of 95 percent of other Americans: "It used to be said a rising economic tide lifts all boats. Now a rising economic tide lifts all yachts."

Twenty percent of American children live in poverty; in the Netherlands that figure is 3 percent.

The minimum wage today is lower, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than in 1979.

Today's worker works 160 hours longer per year than 25 years ago.

Bill Gates' wealth equals the combined wealth of the poorest 120 million Americans, or 45 percent of our population. "This is a failure of the political system to defend the people."

Less than one in 10 workers belongs to a trade union in the private sector.

Two million Americans are in prisons, 500,000 more than in communist China, which has a 1.3 billion population.

Forty-seven million people work for less than $10 an hour -- this in a decade of sustained economic growth. "With a wage like that, people can't be considered employed despite the fact that they have jobs."

"When it comes to corporate greed, the synonym is infinity. They want it all."

Nader's Platform at a Glance

Public financing of all public campaigns: voluntary check-off donation of up to $100; in exchange, candidates can't get free TV and radio time and take private money.

Strengthening trade union rights; repeal Taft-Hartley Act; give whistleblowers rights.

Crack down on corporate crime; end corporate subsidies and corporate welfare. "Under capitalism, corporations have a right to succeed and a right to fail, not the right to succeed and the right to go to D.C. for a bailout."

Universal health care.

Notification to the World Trade Organization of our intent to withdraw in six months and renegotiate to build environmental and labor standards up, not hold standards down.

Improve public education: fix buildings, preserve public education -- no vouchers; adequate pay and standards for teachers; decommercialize schools -- no more ads in school; teach civics.

Lower military budget.

Gun laws: "You have to be licensed to drive a car, and a car is not presumptively assumed to be a weapon. The same should be true of guns." First priority to reduce loss of life through misuse of weapons: people should be trained and licensed; manufacturers should be accountable for whom they sell to. Guns should be required to have gun locks.

Community policing, effective civilian review boards, better police training.

Losing Our Minds

Brice Taylor calls it the Lincoln Memorial (Oral Sex) Tour: Beginning in the early 1960s when she was in her teens, Taylor -- the pseudonym for Susan (Eckhart) Ford of North Carolina -- says she joined foreign dignitaries, congressmen and other leaders on a shuttle service that offered more than a tour of the national monument.Taylor, who claims she was brainwashed from birth by a government agency to be a mind-controlled sex slave, asked each "tourist" if they wanted their shoes shined, a joke to loosen up the man, before engaging in oral sex with him. JFK was one of her frequent fliers, she says, and he did not limit their relationship to the limo, often bringing her to the White House for further sex acts. Many of these men were repeat guests for the tour; Taylor says her boss, entertainer Bob Hope, was responsible for bookings.This is just one of hundreds of similarly degrading experiences in Taylor's life, including the times she says she was forced to act in porn films -- including one involving actor Sly Stallone, in which she and her daughter had sex with dolphins. She was also expected to download mind files for Henry Kissinger. In other words, her brain had been trained to store intelligence information, which she couldn't access herself, which she would then download on command by regurgitating the information.All of this is documented in a 311-page, self-published memoir, Thanks for the Memories, The Truth Has Set Me Free: The Memoirs of Bob Hope's and Henry Kissinger's Mind-Controlled Sex Slave.Taylor may be what we used to call crazy, and yet fear of being controlled by another entity -- whether religious groups, the government or a club -- is perhaps as old as history itself. One could argue that the wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, were wars about "mind control," with both sides animated by the fear that the other side was in the grip of an external power -- the Pope or Luther -- whose influence so clouded the minds of their followers that it limited their capacity to see the truth clearly.But the kind of mind control that Brice Taylor claims happened to her -- in a sense, being made into a robot by a government agency -- is a relatively new kind of paranoid anxiety, one that many argue began with the Cold War. Think of Otto Preminger's 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, with Frank Sinatra, where Korean war veterans return to the United States to fear they have been "brainwashed" -- a Cold War term -- during their spell in prison to become political assassins, and you get the flavor of a particularly 20th century anxiety.An anxiety-based reality, however. The CIA and other government agencies now freely admit that during the Cold War they experimented with LSD, sensory deprivation, and other kinds of brain-altering technologies to see if "brainwashing" was feasible. While the Cold War may be over, our collective anxiety about just how far our governments might go to insure our unbridled loyalty has not dissipated. Dozens of films in recent years have had as their premise an all-seeing, all-powerful and nefarious government conspiracy. In Conspiracy Theory, with Mel Gibson, for instance, the lunatic ravings of a New York cab driver with a whacko conspiracy theory turn out to be the truth. In Enemy of the State, with Gene Hackman and Will Smith, a government agency with advanced satellite technology effortlessly tracks the protagonists' movements through the streets of Washington.In other words, during the Protestant Reformation, if you wanted to hide from the government you could make yourself scarce. Now, with Social Security numbers, e-mail monitoring, and the like, it is pretty hard to disappear.Having said that the question remains -- is Brice Taylor's story a credible one? Some believe that it is, while others -- perhaps more dependable and critical -- say it is as fantastical as it sounds.But either way, her story is an interesting one. Even if it is a paranoid fantasy, Taylor's narrative may be thought of as a symptom of the current state of our subconscious suspicion where the government is concerned. What makes it particularly stark and compelling is that in Taylor's memoir the murkiest sexual desires meet the most high-flown Cold War fantasy to create a specter of total control and subjugation. Even more than George Orwell's 1984, where at least there remained a kernel of human autonomy, however repressed, Brice Taylor's vision is of a world where not even our bodies or our minds are our own -- where all human dignity has been stripped away.Now the "clinical director and neurotherapist" for a North Carolina healing center, Taylor is not easy to find. Despite months of calls and a couple of brief phone conversations, she was impossible to track down for long. Her phone number is unlisted -- even close friends do not have it.She doesn't look like a psychotic on the fringe of society. In her photograph, she is a petite, attractive woman. She is consistent and detailed when recounting the alleged horrors she suffered for her country.According to her story, Taylor's father tortured her, by starving or sexually abusing her, with the intention of creating multiple personalities that would help her create government mind files and respond to various sexual and intellectual demands when she was older. Taylor says her father also brainwashed her mother, who obsessively cleaned the house and listened to music, which kept her in a hypnotic state.Songs, children's fingerplay games like "Where is Pointer," and movies like The Wizard of Oz were used to program Taylor, she writes. Through the Wizard of Oz, she claims she was programmed to develop amnesia whenever her parents said the word "home."By the time she was five, Taylor's uncle had introduced her to Henry and Bob -- that is, renowned entertainer Bob Hope and Noble Prize-winning former secretary of state and assistant to the president for national security affairs Henry Kissinger. She writes:Henry had other "robots," as he called them, but I was the one with whom he spent the most time perfecting. He said I was the perfect subject and that my father had done such a great preliminary job that his work was guaranteed a success, where other robots fell short because they "bled through" and so couldn't be relied upon.By the time she was 10, Taylor says she could pass for a girl of 16. She had her hair done weekly so she could look mature. She had braces that a brainwashed orthodontist removed for special appointments. Those appointments varied from memorizing secret files in the Pentagon to performing sexual favors for various politicians, including Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy (who liked "violently and sadistically torturous sex"), Senator Alan Cranston (who liked "spankies" and once passed out drunk in the middle of having sex with Taylor, who was tied up), former California governor Pete Wilson, Casey Kasem, Lee Iacocca, and Frank Sinatra (who liked whips and chains and "those very scary leather straps").But it wasn't all blowjobs and stripteases. Taylor was a bright girl and all that torture from her father trained her brain to break apart, thus allowing her to memorize thousands of pages of secret documents that could be accessed only by specific triggers. She whispered programmed phrases into Neil Diamond's ear that he would then incorporate into his songs.Kissinger was more familiar with how to access the information than anyone else was because he created the system. He knew how to access me for different functions, in addition to keeping the plan of the global elitists organized. This form of communication allowed them to secretly communicate around the globe at times they didn't want anyone to be able to publicly associate their connections. I not only kept rooms full of information, neatly tucked away in my brain for easy access, but it gave Kissinger and others an advantage as it appeared they were less prepared and had less data at their fingertips than they actually did... I was a REAL robot.Eventually, the stress of acting as a personal library and free prostitute wore her down and Taylor suffered a breakdown. She says she began remembering the events of her early life in her mid-thirties. She suspected it was due to some kind of memory phenomenon and started researching Vietnam vets' experiences with flashbacks.She underwent daily therapy for four years before she says, "I was forced to leave my home and family in California, due to a clever plot and threat to my life if I continued to pursue remembrance of my past in therapy and try to become healed."One of her therapists, Margaret Paul, author of books such as Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by God, suggested Taylor leave Los Angeles for safety reasons, so Taylor fled to Hawaii where she says she was "still part of the project and still not free."Since then, she seems to have freed herself, though she is still concerned about retaliation. She says her husband and children have also been brainwashed. In November she was preparing to bring her daughter, Kelly, home after a brief stay in a mental institution. She says that she and her daughter were terrorized as the pair drove to Los Angeles with friend and former FBI agent, Ted Gunderson.In a phone interview from California, Gunderson explains that a woman wearing sunglasses and driving a brown car made subtle hand motions on the steering wheel, "re-triggering" Kelly. This was not simply an incident of someone bopping along to tunes on the radio, he says. The woman was clearly trying to control Kelly's mind and, he says, he took down the woman's license plate number and "will take care of her" though he won't say how.There are lots of people who believe what Taylor and Gunderson believe. Many have found each other through the Internet at sites like Parascope, (www.parascope.com). The site boasts a chronology of CIA history, all based on declassified intelligence documents that reveal mind control experiments, hypnosis experiments and plots to kill Fidel Castro. Another site, (www.ufomind.com/people/m/mkultra/) has a section for users searching for others who have experienced similar misdeeds by the government. An AOL user writes, "I was a guinea pig at edgewood arsenal in 1965 and am having a real hard time getting proper medical attention. Looking for others who may have been there."And there are national conferences that attract thousands of attendants. For the third year in a row, Neil Brick, a Massachusetts man who says he was a victim of satanic ritual abuse, will bring the SMART conference (Stop Mind control And Ritual Abuse Today) to Windsor Locks, Conn. in August where survivors of ritual abuse and incest will meet in an effort to learn how to stop ritual abuse.At last year's conference, Taylor spoke of her experiences as part of a panel. Other panel members included other ritual abuse survivors, a professor of criminology, psychologists and a law enforcement officer familiar with interrogation tactics. One hundred people from around the country attended the conference.Gunderson, who worked in New Haven from 1965-73 for the FBI and was an anti-terrorism consultant for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee, says he firmly believes the government is responsible for mind control experiments taking place today."People have come out of the woodwork," says Gunderson. "They've come from all over the country claiming they were victims of mind control. They're not related and they all come up with the same basic story. That's when I started believing it."Political scientists say belief in government conspiracy theories is on the upswing. According to a 1997 survey by the Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, more than half the Americans surveyed said they believed federal officials were responsible for the assassination of President John Kennedy. More than half believe the CIA deliberately allows Central American drug dealers to sell cocaine to black children in the inner city. Relatives of the victims of the Branch Davidian massacre in Waco, Texas are suing the government for inappropriate actions taken during the standoff there, and claim there was a conspiracy to kill the Davidians and cover it up. Many intelligent and mainstream Americans are sympathetic to their view of events.Over the last several decades there have been dozens of similar accusations. But one of the most stunning is one that the government now admits is true.In the '50s and '60s, CIA agency officials tested mind control on Americans. They used electroshock, LSD and hypnosis all in an effort to find non-lethal ways to build up their defense tactics. These practices have been widely corroborated and reported in magazines like Newsweek and Time and in prestigious newspapers such as The New York Times.U.S. intelligence agencies became concerned in the years after World War II that the Soviet Union had developed means to "brainwash" their opponents into making confessions. This seemed to be confirmed by the Stalinist show trials of the 1940s, where Stalin's enemies publicly confessed to crimes against the state that they could not have committed. In order to keep up with the Russians, in 1950 the CIA instituted Project Bluebird to learn how to control individuals through interrogation techniques and prevent the unauthorized extraction of information from individuals.The CIA renamed the project Project Artichoke and evaluated the use of drugs and hypnosis in mind control. Not long after, in 1953, the CIA instituted MK-ULTRA, which was rumored to test the use of radiation, electroshock and drugs such as LSD. Most of the documents involving MK-ULTRA were destroyed in 1973 by the order of then-director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms.The subjects for these experiments were American citizens: patients of mental institutions, soldiers, blacks, college students and johns who were slipped drugs by prostitutes. Even CIA agents tested out LSD, slipping the drug into their co-workers' drinks and even the punch bowl at the annual office Christmas party.According to an L.A. Times obituary, Sidney Gottlieb -- a renowned scientist who worked with the CIA and who died in March 1999 -- led 149 mind control experiments. Twenty-five of those were on unknowing subjects. He supposedly halted the experiments in 1972, saying the drug rendered subjects "too unpredictable" to be very useful.But that was after at least one tragic death due to the experiments. Gottlieb, or someone working on his orders, spiked a drink with LSD, according to a documentary entitled Mind Control by Turner Original Productions. An Army scientist and germ warfare specialist named Frank Olson had a very bad reaction to the drug. He became very disoriented and delusional for several days. According to a coworker who stayed with him one night, he woke up to see Olson run across the room and hurl himself through a 10th floor window. Agents told Olson's family he had been suffering from job-related stress. It was not until the 1975 Rockefeller Commission on CIA domestic activities that the Olsons learned that their husband and father had been slipped the drug.Canada's McGill University in Montreal was also a home for a series of CIA-sponsored experiments attempting to change behavior patterns of unknowing subjects. Patients were knocked out for months at a time during which they underwent electroshock therapy and were given LSD. Nine out of 10 patients have since sued the American government.But supposedly all of these experiments were dropped by the '60s when the CIA realized those tactics weren't all that effective and, in fact, unethical and even dangerous. In 1976, President Gerald Ford demanded there be no further drug testing on human subjects.So, if the government has a record of using its own citizens for experimental purposes, doesn't Brice Taylor's story take on the hue of truth?Not really, say mainstream observers. While there may be reasons for strong distrust of government, most historians point out that there are limits to what our government can and will do. Political scientists like Daniel Pipes, author of Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From, say mistakes like the CIA mind control experiments of the '50s are in our past."Our government is staffed by human beings who make mistakes. All sorts of mistakes have been made. But that's quite different from saying the United States government is an aggressive maligning institution," he says.In fact, Pipes says the United States government is actually quite harmless, and one of the least dangerous countries -- especially when compared to China, Nazi Germany and Iraq. Whereas other countries have a strong need to conquer and take over, the U.S. tends to fight their war, make their point and return home."The logic is completely backwards," Pipes notes. "The most benign states are the ones accused of the most terrible crimes. And the most horrible ones are ignored. They," he says of conspiracy theorists, "have it absolutely wrong." he says.Daniel Shea, a political science professor at Allegheny College, adds that conspiracy theories are fueled by a lack of connection with local governments. "There's a growing disconnect between government and citizens. It used to be that people felt connected to government in a very interpersonal way."The Internet has contributed to the paranoia boom, both men say. "Whereas before you may have been the only person with a particular theory, in chat rooms where people share things there is a better chance of finding someone with similar ideas," says Pipes. "The Internet allows wacky ideas to proliferate. And it's hard to tell what's real and what's not. It's cheap and easy to get a decent looking Web site; it's not as easy to publish a newspaper."How then do we explain Taylor's story, and its remarkable level of detail?Taylor says she remembered most of her repressed memories while alone in Hawaii, and believes that accurate memories can be retrieved in that way.The validity of such recovered memories, however, are disputed in the psychiatric community. The theory is that through hypnosis, visualizations and sodium amytal (a truth serum), patients can remember events of their past. The actress Roseanne Arnold, for instance, said she had repressed memories of childhood abuse until undergoing psychotherapy, as have famed patients diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.But memories are very delicate. They naturally decay over time and they are highly subjective. Originally, scientists thought memory acted as an in-the-brain recorder that passively took facts and filed them away.Instead memories are easily distorted after an event, simply by a suggestive question. For example, a 1978 study tested the fallibility of memory by showing a group of subjects a series of slides of a car turning right at a stop sign and hitting a pedestrian. Weeks afterwards, subjects were asked a passing question making reference to a non-existent yield sign instead of a stop sign. Subjects then answered a questionnaire. A majority of students who were aware of the stop now suddenly replaced it in their memory with the yield sign.In another instance, Dr. Robert Baker, a professor emeritus at the psychology department at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, says a radio report of a panda escaping from a zoo generated sightings in a 150 mile radius. But not one of those people could have possibly seen the panda, which had dug itself into a hole and died.In January scientists announced that mass hysteria, or psychogenic illness, was the explanation for an incident in Tennessee in which 170 students and teachers at a high school were hospitalized for nausea, dizziness, headaches and drowsiness in November 1998. The illnesses started after a teacher noticed a "funny smell" and fell ill. Officials closed the school for more than two weeks and spent nearly $100,000 to investigate the cause of the illnesses.According to Paul Martin, director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center -- which offers programs to help people recover from abusive relationships and cult-like environments, like hysteria, mind control like that claimed by Taylor can be as simple as a suggestion. All human beings are vulnerable given the right conditions, he says."Any human being is vulnerable if their moorings are temporarily destabilized," he says. Basically, people want to fit in and a strong desire to build a support system may void any concept of thinking for oneself. "Mind control is a systematic program of controls and manipulations. It's a belief system, a way of propagating and maintaining a belief system by strict rewards and punishments."All of this stuff about electrical shock and sensory deprivation is stuff out of science fiction. It's really crude and ineffective," he continues. "You can get a lot more mind control out of people by being suave and persuasive. If you have a big carrot, you need a very tiny stick."Baker says delusions most likely play a role in experiences similar to Taylor's."This sounds like run-of-the-mill delusions," says Baker. "We all like to think that we are important. If we are important, important people will pay attention to us. As a result of these delusions, they will assume they are terribly important. The next thing you know, they say someone is out to get them."Is it a sense of powerlessness, then, that fuels Taylor's conspiracy theory? Instead of being a confused nobody, does Taylor's "history" give her a sense of order, that there is some logic to a life that has been experienced as frightening and confusing?Jon Blumenfeld, chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the New England Skeptics Society, says everybody wants to be somebody. "When you hear religious organizations prophesizing about the end of the world, you rarely hear them say the world will end in 250 years. They all say it will end next Thursday because they all want to be involved," he says."There's a desire for transcendence," he explains, "and being an important part of history."No one is likely to convince Taylor that she is making it up though. On the inside leaf of her manuscript she writes: "As a citizen of the United States of America, I have the constitutional right under the First Amendment to disseminate the autobiographical account of my own life and to convey it to the American people. My account is the absolute truth...I would suggest that those planning legal action against me, consider instead doing so against those agencies in the Federal Government that have used and abused me...Since my mind was invaded at birth...I cannot in good faith take full responsibility for my mental perceptions, which brought forth the disclosures in this book. This also I have fully documented and certified. Therefore, to all those who take action against me, you have been forewarned."

Girl Rockers

In 1997, women rockers were the rage. You could not turn on the radio -- any station -- without hearing Sarah McLachlan, the Indigo Girls or Shawn Colvin. Not anymore. While women continue to be well-represented in pop and even R&B, fewer women hard rock acts are getting airplay and concert promotion. Rock music -- as in aggressive, guitar-driven rock -- is currently experiencing an estrogen drought. Stations have traded in female acts like Paula Cole for all man bands such as Creed; they've exchanged Veruca Salt and Babes in Toyland for Godsmack and Sevendust.It's always been hard for women to make their way in the male-dominated rock world, particularly in the guitar-thrashing, mosh-pitted sub genres like heavy metal, punk or alternative rock, which have typically been the domain of the adolescent male, and expressive of the aggression and alienation that comes with them. Historically, a few women have broken through the gender barrier on the rough edge of music, like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, or Chrissie Hynde. But typically, female rockers have either been decorative adornments -- maybe that's what Grace Slick really was -- or they've been novelty acts, like Joan Jett or Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics -- screaming into a microphone but not wearing a shirt: a bit decorative, a bit of a novelty.It looked for a moment in the 1990s that this might be changing. Female rockers like The Breeders started to get airplay on college radio, and soon the music found its way into the mainstream. The trend came to a head in 1997 with the Lilith Fair, a nationally touring summer festival of female-led bands and soloists, the brainchild of singer Sarah McLachlan. For three seasons, the fair brought acts like Tracy Bonham and Luscious Jackson to national consciousness, and that attracted record companies to women bands like flies to honey. Women rockers were the next big thing, and everybody wanted a piece of them.That has changed. Radio stations say they are playing fewer cuts from female rock artists than they were, and women artists say they are finding it harder to get a record company to promote them. There are a few reasons for this, say people in the business. Pop music has always been a game of trends. Maybe the trend has passed.But there may be underlying factors. For one, the Lilith Fair, so much a part of the women rock scene, leaving a hole where promotion of women acts is concerned. Second, say some women, men in the music business were threatened by women's success and have started to close the doors again.And there may be a third, more fundamental determinant: demographics. During the 1990s more women were buying records than ever before. In 1997, women made up more than half of the record buying public for the first time in recorded history, up to 51.4 percent from 43.5 percent in 1988 according to the Recording Industry Association of America. While there are no recent figures from the RIAA, it does seem that the demographic pendulum has swung back to favor the adolescent male. A recent CNN report claims that there are more 12- to 24-year-old males -- prime head-banging material -- than any time in history. In 1999, this group spent $278 billion dollars, and had 33 percent more buying power than their female peers. That puts a lot of financial power in the pockets of male consumers -- who are using it on music made by other men."I think there is a backlash against women in music," says Emily Saliers, the folkier half of the folk/rock duo the Indigo Girls. "People thought women were taking over the charts. Everyone thought there was an inequality."The success of the Lilith Fair threatened many men because of its exclusivity, says Saliers. The intention of Lilith was not to alienate men but to celebrate women in music, and that might have hurt a few egos."I think that men did feel threatened," agrees Liz Queler, a musician and board member for Women in Music, a New York-based, not-for-profit organization attempting to help women achieve success in the music industry. "I heard many male musicians asking why they couldn't have an all-male festival, but they did. It was called Lollapalooza."Other men did feel threatened and not because women were getting all the attention, but because they weren't getting the attention. If you're an artist and something is going on and you aren't involved, you feel threatened," she adds.Because the fair was such a success -- proving that women were not only in demand but could also generate enough dough to carry a tour -- some male acts felt they were losing ground. This was one trend that simply stated "no boys allowed" -- at least not in prominent roles as lead singers.The Lilith phenomena was said to have grown out of alternative radio listeners who had grown up -- and grown tired of the grunge scene. Listeners wanted something cleaner, softer, different, but not something as offensively syrupy as adult contemporary. That's when the softer, singer/songwriters that typified so many of the women acts were able to get a hold on the radio listening market.But now, in the year 2000, the radio-listening market is significantly younger and predominantly male, and they want harder rock."The whole climate of alternative radio has really changed since our last album," says Kate Shellenbach, Luscious Jackson drummer. "Right now radio is in a very interesting place. Music is either superduper mindless pop or heavy, guitar-based, male-dominated Korn type of stuff."But since rock is on the rise again, why wouldn't female rock bands -- especially the harder, heavier ones -- get a lift as well? Doesn't a rising tide lift all boats? The reason, say observers, is that enthusiasm for rock and roll in particular is primarily driven by identification. The audience -- mostly male, mostly young -- wants to see themselves reflected in the bands that they like. We want to be like our music stars. We want them to speak for us.That gets a bit complicated for a male audience when the voice presuming to express rage, lust, anger -- is the voice of a woman."When a woman goes up on stage and is a rocker, there's a toughness that takes away that femininity," says Don Grierson, who worked for several major record labels, such as EMI and Capitol, working with acts like Celine Dion and Heart. He now is a private consultant and works for an online service called Taxi (www.taxi.com) that helps artists make inroads to major labels."Males audiences never really accept it," he continues, "and females are more likely to listen to something more sensitive like Sheryl Crow or Sarah McLachlan, who are certainly from the rock world, but their music is more melodic, not hard-ass, in-your-face rock. Rock is very masculine and women who are masculine are not considered very attractive."Few women have successfully melded the rocker girl image and when they have, their lyrics have primarily spoken to female audiences. For example, PJ Harvey can manhandle a guitar but lyrics like "Look at these, my child-bearing hips and look at these, my ruby red lips" are distinctly female.Still, there are a few female-led rock bands that are making a name for themselves in the male-dominated world of rock. The teenaged punk/metal quintet, Kittie, is certainly making waves with their new single "Brackish" off their first album Spit. They sound like a female incarnation of Marilyn Manson, complete with churning guitars, growling vocals and the goth-metal image. Joydrop, led by vocalist Tara Slone, has also received at least semi-regular airplay at rock and modern rock stations nationwide.Michael Creamer, manager of the rock group Letters to Cleo, a female-fronted band that was quickly signed in 1994, says he is optimistic that women will have another chance in the spotlight. "The pendulum swings in this business. It will swing back," he says.Creamer says when he first tried promoting Letters to Cleo, radio stations didn't have any female artists on their play lists. But when women artists were hot, he had no problem getting singles like "Here and Now" on modern rock stations.Yes, agrees Grierson. It's a fickle business, and big labels don't encourage a band to keep touring if it isn't making money in a hurry, Grierson explains."This is a very interesting business. It's a business for followers, not leaders," says Grierson. "Our business today as an industry is built on finding a quick fix. They'll do typically anything to make their numbers look good, but they don't do a good job developing artists or looking towards long-term success. They're all looking for an easy way to make a quick buck."So if women bands want to escape the ebb and flux of market-forces, then they are better off with a small label. "If you're an unknown and a major label is courting you, that's fucked," says Holly Figueroa, singer/songwriter and founder of Indiegrrl, a music collective for independent female artists. "They're only looking to crack the next big thing and when that big thing isn't so cool anymore, they'll drop you for someone or something else."There's no question in my mind that signing a major label deal is a death sentence," Figueroa adds.Still, everyone in the business agree that there is a solid, if smallish, audience for female rockers, and that will continue to develop as long as women who like the music continue to support it.

One Bank Under God

When the message flashes on the ATM screen telling you you're about to be charged $1.50 to take out $20, asking whether you want to proceed with the transaction (YES? NO?), you're made part of a grand experiment in consumer "choice" that banks have been running (despite complaints from municipalities and state attorneys general) for more than a decade. You know it's a rip-off. But you don't know where the next ATM is -- the choice one that your bank owns. And it's cold out. And you're in a hurry.You pay for the convenience, feeling very inconvenienced. You think of switching banks, but, then, they'll charge too, won't they?According to a 1997 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, ordinary people -- that is, not Donald Trump or Sen. Chris Dodd or Sen. Phil Gramm -- pay an average of more than $218 per year for the privilege of having a checking account in a large bank. Fees have risen inexorably regardless of interest rate changes and despite advances in technology that have reduced the bank's incremental cost of having you as a customer to nearly zero, whatever your average daily balance.So you may have been pleased to hear the fanfare last month as politicians and powerful businessmen announced that their long-sought "financial services modernization" had become reality. The new law, for the first time since the Great Depression, allows insurance companies into the banking business, stock brokerages into insurance and banks to sell and manage stock portfolios. Called the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, the new law repeals the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act which, in the interest of safeguarding the nation against depressions fueled by stock market crashes, separated these businesses."By liberating our financial companies from an antiquated regulatory structure, this legislation will unleash the creativity of our industry and insure our global competitiveness," said CitiGroup Co-chairmen Sanford A. Weill and John S. Reed in a press release on Oct. 22, the day the compromise bill was announced in the Senate. "As a result, all Americans -- investors, savers, insureds -- will be better served."Added President Bill Clinton as he signed the bill into law on Friday, Nov. 12: "This will, first of all, save consumers billions of dollars a year through enhanced competition. It will also protect the rights of consumers. It will guarantee that our financial system will continue to meet the needs of underserved communities... which has been largely done through the private sector and honoring the Community Reinvestment Act."Politicians and economists aligned with the financial services industry rushed to praise the legislation and denigrate the old law. With "one-stop shopping" for financial services, consumers will at last be freed from the drudgery of schlepping to their bank for a mortgage, their broker for a mutual fund, their insurer for health and property insurance, they promised. At last, these tiny, feisty American companies -- Chase Manhattan, Fleet, Prudential, CitiGroup -- will be unleashed to compete on the global stage with the powerhouse banks of Europe and Asia.Truly a win-win-win deal.However, among the remarkable ironies about the law are these: Although the money folks had long said the repeal of Glass-Steagall was inevitable as rain, it still took 50 years to happen -- and then in a cliff-hanger, post-midnight arm twisting session involving Senate Banking Commission Chairman Phil Gramm of Texas and Connecticut's Sen. Christopher Dodd. Although the law is claimed to be for the benefit of consumers who will enjoy a financial world teeming with new competitors, the stocks of major banks, investment brokerages and insurance companies shot up the day after the deal was reached -- in expectation of mergers that would logically serve to consolidate market share and diminish competition.Critics call the notion that American financial institutions had been somehow hobbled internationally by a law that kept American commercial lenders from selling insurance and American stock brokerages from buying banks dubious. "They say we need to compete globally? I say who?" says Matthew Lee, director and chief counsel for Inner City Press, a Bronx, New York-based lending watchdog group. "Which countries' banks are beating out American banks for deals in Thailand? The answer is none."On Nov. 12 CitiGroup announced it was extending a $100 million line of credit to the troubled Bank of Thailand.Press coverage of the historic repeal has been, in most cases, positive. Despite mentions of the privacy concerns by some consumer groups, complaints from low-income loan advocates and the shady side deals tucked deep into the law, analysis of the sweeping new law has tended to take at face value the notion that consumers will benefit. After all, if not for consumers' benefit, why would voters' representatives stay up until 2 a.m. on a week night -- and miss a World Series game -- to craft such a law?Holman Jenkins, Jr. writing in the Oct. 27 Wall Street Journal, provides an answer: "This was pure, unpasteurized special interest legislation," he gleefully brags under a column headlined, "Hooray for Soft Money." "It took 20 years to rally commercial bankers, insurance agents and stockbrokers behind a common set of new financial rules. Does anyone think Congress would have gotten off its duff without the continuous and concentrated applications of lobbying and PAC money?"And, indeed, would banks, investment houses and insurance companies have spent an estimated $308 million in federal campaign contributions and lobbying expenses -- nearly a third of a billion dollars -- in the past two years simply for the privilege of competing with one another to give you the best deal on a used car loan?Clearly something else is afoot.What Gramm and Clinton, Weill and Dodd and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan have created is nothing less than a new world. Rarely before has so much money, power and influence been concentrated into so few hands. Never before has a nation's lawmakers so self-consciously midwifed the birth of private entities potentially richer and stronger than nations themselves -- yet as fragile as a newborn baby.The inevitability factor has been lamented, sometimes from quarters one might not expect."I don't think it is healthy to have this dramatic concentration of financial power," investment banker Felix Rohatyn told the New York Times 11 years ago, near the end of the last great American stock/mergers/acquisitions boom. "But it's just like the nuclear age, you can never uninvent the atomic bomb any more than you can uninvent these astronomical capital markets."These markets have increased in size by 100-fold since then, even as regulation has withered. And that's a good thing, say economists like former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who has said this change could save consumers $15 billion a year in fees paid to banks, brokers and insurance sellers.The financial services companies have for more than a decade been getting into one another's businesses through loopholes. Banks have acquired nearly two dozen regional brokers and investment banks in the past three years, while many banks already sell insurance.Bankers Trust Corp. acquired Alex. Brown & Sons in 1997, BankAmerica bought Robertson Stephens, NationsBank Corp. purchased Montgomery Securities and Travelers Group Inc. bought Salomon Brothers. Recently, Chase Manhattan Corp. agreed to buy technology investment banking boutique Hambrecht & Quist Group.Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan himself, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee early this year, explained that "dramatic advances in computer and telecommunications technologies of the past decade have so significantly altered the structure of domestic, indeed, global finance as to render our existing modes of supervision and regulation of financial institutions increasingly obsolescent."The new law concentrates regulatory power in the Federal Reserve, the nation's most powerful and independent regulator (with the responsibility for determining the basic interest rates for American dollars) and historically the regulator with the least direct concern for ordinary consumers. Greenspan's policy -- for which he takes credit for the nation's second longest sustained period of economic growth -- is to raise interest rates at the slightest hint of inflation, which he defines narrowly as increasing wages. For more than two decades the Federal Reserve has sought to hold wages down in deference to people whose income and wealth derive from ownership of stock portfolios and supermarket chains. He also disdains what he calls "outmoded loan file and balance sheet surveillance" -- the bedrock of today's regulatory model. Greenspan prefers to regulate by means of risk management, allowing the best and brightest financial minds to creatively determine the prudence of a given investment strategy.Much of the balance of power to regulate these colossal new corporations is vested with the U.S. Treasury Secretary, who controls the presses that print cash, plus a vast array of auditors and investigators who try to make sure all the banks and brokerages (to say nothing of 1040a-filers) behave honestly.The final bit of oversight -- and one that appears to have been given the least amount of thought -- is of the insurance business. That will continue to be handled by the states. Connecticut State Insurance Commissioner George Reider, who is also president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, says he fought hard to maintain the 100-year tradition of state jurisdiction over the insurance business. "In order to compete effectively with the Dutch and the Swiss and so forth, financial modernization can work very well," Reider says, "but not at the expense of consumers."Of course, in a state with some of the highest insurance premiums and some of the most stratified rates for things like auto insurance, protecting consumers is not always perceived to be job one. But at least state legislators have access. "The insurance department has certainly been a very great friend to the industry," says state House member Art Feltman (D-Hartford), who is currently trying to get his urban constituents a break on car insurance. "But we can beat them up, invite them to the committee and yell at them."The varying quality of the state laws and their enforcement, combined with the narrow reach of such agencies, gives the companies an edge that their soon-to-be increased size will leverage mightily.The example of CitiGroup is illustrative. When the Travelers announced it was acquiring CitiBank in the spring of 1998 in a $70 billion stock swap, it was widely interpreted as a death knell for Glass-Steagall. The law forbade the merger, yet analysts assumed -- correctly -- that the companies had received permission from the Federal Reserve and would bull-through legislation to allow it. Worried consumer groups claimed that many larger banks, including CitiBank, have poor records of compliance with Community Reinvestment Act provisions, while they increasingly market "subprime" loans to less wealthy, unsophisticated customers and charge high interest rates and bundled, expensive loan insurance.Martin Lee, a New York lawyer and CRA watchdog, complained futilely to the Fed about these issues before taking his case to the state insurance departments. On June 4, 1998, he arrived at the offices of the Delaware Department of Insurance, in Dover. He met Rashmi Rangan, director of the Delaware Community Reinvestment Action Council, and Mary Harris, a Delaware resident who said she had been ripped off by a Travelers' subsidiary called Commercial Credit.Harris testified that she had responded to an advertisement from Commercial Credit and went to consolidate her family's car payments, mortgage and some consumer loans.According to a complaint filed with the Office of Thrift Supervision, Harris went to Commercial Credit for a $7,000 loan, and ended up with total payments, including points, interest and insurance, of more than $72,000.Her testimony was ignored by the insurance commissioner.Under state law, the only question at the hearing was whether Travelers Group could acquire Citicorp Assurance Co., an internal reinsurance agency that covers risks for the bank. By narrowing the question under study, the state regulator sidestepped the larger questions raised by the merger and comments like Harris'. Those were the Fed's responsibility, Hearing Officer Tony Meisenheimer told Lee and Rangan.Rangan and Lee are part of a small community of consumer activists who monitor the lending patterns of banks under the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act. The law, which has been weakened several times since its passage but remains in force even now, requires banks to lend money in the geographical area where they have branches, and to lend to historically underserved communities. The law also requires the banks to report this lending to regulators. It is an upshot of the studies of bank "redlining" that were done in the 1960s and '70s, when it was discovered that banks would refuse to lend money to African-Americans and to anyone with a home or business in a predominantly minority area. Some loan officers had maps with red lines drawn around the forbidden zones.The new law almost did not come to a vote because its main architect, Texas senator Gramm, hates the CRA. Gramm wanted the CRA completely repealed. Some Democrats, responding to pressure from folks like Lee, refused. When the House bill was being drafted, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Rep. Tom Barrett (D-WI) tried to introduce amendments that would have applied CRA to all the lending and basic banking activities of a financial holding company. This means that mortgage companies, insurance company affiliates, and security company affiliates that make loans and offer other checking/savings accounts would have been covered by CRA. Those amendments were killed, and CRA requirements were reduced for smaller institutions.Meanwhile, a provision of the law added by Gramm was designed to punish watchdogs like Lee's group by requiring them to divulge any agreements such as loans that they have with banks. It's no problem to do so, says Lee, but when other community groups call for help when a bank is closing branches in poor neighborhoods, he has to tell them that if they file a complaint with the Fed, they have to open their books to an extraordinary degree.Many of the groups, who don't have full-time lawyers or accountants, aren't staffed to do such reporting, Lee says: "It couldn't be more clear that the intent and the effect of that is to discourage CRA commenting."CRA has been the only effective lever consumer and community groups had over large financial institutions. By attacking their community lending records during merger hearings, groups like Lee's and Rangan's could delay regulatory approval, costing the banks money. To avoid delays the banks would often offer the community groups loans and grants, or offer to partner them in a loan fund to serve the poor."Now the Fed is going to be regulating community groups," Lee notes, "the very community groups who are trying to say, look at the banks' lending records" which the Fed has traditionally ignored.Big banks miss opportunities to lend to the corner store proprietor partly because their eyes are focused on more lucrative customers, like former Mexican President Carlos Salinas' brother, Raul.As lawmakers on congressional banking committees crafted the financial services reform bill this fall, the Senate Select Subcommittee on Investigations examined the lack of oversight of so-called "private banks," highly selective, secretive institutions central to vast money-laundering schemes. One of them is Citibank, which the subcommittee found engaged in a "pattern of poor account management," according to its report."There never was a pattern," CitiGroup co-CEO John Reed said in Nov. 9 testimony before the subcommittee. "We have to admit that in some of our businesses, some of our activities, we've had failures."According to the committee's investigation, a General Accounting Office report and internal Citibank audits, the failures, which involved stolen national treasuries, bribes and possibly drug money, stretched over years and continued despite internal bank warnings. A 1995 audit of the Monaco private bank office found that "80 percent of the Unit's client base [is classified] 'high risk' using the Legal Affairs Office criteria for money laundering."Although the unit has established 'Know Your Customer' policies, there is no effective transaction profile monitoring for high risk clients," the report continues.A 1996 audit of private bank offices handling Latin American clients found four "major deficiencies" which "increase[d] the exposure to money laundering schemes and internal fraud." The audit stated that it "seems the Unit's priority was to focus on customer service, even when it meant that internal controls would be compromised," according to the committee report. Citibank handled more than $85 million for Raul Salinas, referring to him only as "Confidential Customer 2," or "CC-2" to protect his privacy. Salinas is now in prison for murder.But he was far from the largest -- or weirdest -- Citibank account.President El Hadj Omar Bongo, who has ruled Gabon for more than 30 years and been a Citibank client since 1970, has moved more than $130 million through private-bank accounts since 1985, according to records reviewed by the subcommittee staff. Citibank collected more than $1 million a year in fees from this account, the subcommittee report states.When Citibank was asked by regulators in 1996 to document the source of one $52 million Bongo deposit, Alain Ober, the Citibank officer handling the account, sent an e-mail to a colleague stating: "Neither Bill nor myself ever asked our client where this money came from. My guess, as well as Bill's, is that...The French government/French oil companies...made 'donations' to him [very much like we give to PACs in the U.S.!]."The account was closed this year.While these customers asked for and received extraordinary privacy, the laws governing the privacy of your financial transactions -- and probably your medical records as well -- have been loosened under the new law.At the last minute, lobbyists for GE Capital Services Corp., the giant defense conglomerate's credit card subsidiary, got a provision slipped into the law that allows financial service companies to share your personal data not only within their own subsidiaries, but also with outside companies, like GE Capital, with which they have a business relationship. GE Capital services about 70 million credit cards for retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart."We had to make strong policy arguments," said Kate Fulton, a GE Capital lobbyist. "We take privacy very seriously."So, of course, do money managers. And while deregulation has encouraged price competition for such things as on-line stock trading, it has also broadened and hidden much of the business that used to be done on regulated trading floors. The result has been an explosion of financial activity, much of it secret, with which existing regulators cannot hope to keep up."It's what I call nonpublic markets, and there are a lot of them already," says Jane D'Arista, an analyst with the Financial Markets Center, a think tank. "They're going to take the last few public markets we have, and disappear them."D'Arista studies debt ratios and the total capitalization of markets -- a kind of systems analysis for the whole financial world -- and the trends disturb her. "The big guys don't care," she says. "They want to be as invisible in their trading as they are on the foreign exchange market, where $1.5 trillion is traded each day. That's compared to $35 billion on the [relatively transparent and regulated] US stock exchange."Secrecy is power, but it's also danger. And the trend in the 1990s has been a quiet concentration of unregulated and highly-leveraged trading, most of it done in the name of risk management -- insurance.Derivatives, for example, are contracts that derive value from an underlying asset such as U.S. Treasury Bills or Japanese yen. You might buy yen today and hold them at the prevailing Japanese interest rate, and agree to sell them tomorrow night at 9 -- or three months from now -- for a fixed price. If the interest rates do what you guess they'll do, you win. If they go the opposite way you thought they would, you lose. A derivative amounts to a futures option for money. A sophisticated institutional investor might make a derivatives play in order to balance another risky venture. The current notional amount (total level of the money traded) in derivatives is $80 trillion, D'Arista says. In 1995 it was $35 billion -- more than 2,000 times less.What do derivatives do to promote productivity? "Absolutely nothing," D'Arista says.The leveraging can be breathtaking. Long Term Capital Management, a Greenwich-based hedge fund founded in 1994 by two Nobel Laureates and the former deputy of the Federal Reserve, took about $4 billion in real assets to put $100 billion "at risk" in international currency, swap and options markets by the summer of 1998. On that $100 billion rested between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in notional assets.Then the Russian government devalued the ruble.The best and brightest financial minds fundamentally miscalculated their risk, by failing to account for volatility.The hedge fund's collapse threatened to bring down America's largest banks and some of the best known public pension systems in the United States. The Fed could not give money to the fund, so in late September New York Fed President William McDonough arranged for 14 of the banks and securities firms he regulates (including Citibank) to lend the money -- knowing full well the loans could never be repaid."Although no public money was involved, this is the first time the too-big-to-fail doctrine has ever been applied beyond insured depository institutions," Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA) said in introducing hearings on the matter last October. "This intervention is also the first one in my memory that involved a commitment of funds by those summoned to the elegant quarters of the New York Fed."In the world of high finance, such too-big-to-fail institutions and their bailouts are known as "moral hazard." A new study of the international financial system by the Council on Foreign Relations expends much ink and thought on ways to reduce such instances. It even calls the influx of speculative money into Russia several years ago, when anyone who looked realized corruption and fundamental weakness made for an unsustainable economy -- but that a bailout was guaranteed -- "the moral hazard play."The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 further frees American financial institutions to make such plays. Leach's authorship of the law may one day be seen as an ironic affront to concerns he expressed just the year before."Federally-insured institutions are subject to well-understood regulation which, among other things, places a premium on prudence and disclosure," Leach said during his hearings on the Long Term Capital affair. "In this case, however, some of the country's largest and most sophisticated banking institutions provided loans -- and, according to a Long-Term Capital officer, fought for the privilege for doing so -- to an institution that shielded its operations in secrecy, denying lenders and the regulators any data about its positions or its liabilities to other lenders. The rationale was that sharing information was competitively disadvantageous to the fund. Implicitly, however, this practice made lenders to the fund responsible for a kind of blind-eyed banking practice that no community bank I know would countenance, and complicit in speculative actions that might in some cases prove destabilizing for the very financial system upon which banks and the public rely."D'Arista says such plays are likely to continue -- and worsen -- because despite the Long Term Capital fiasco (or maybe because of the bailout), institutions we think of as creditors are piling up unprecedented levels of debt, almost all of it undertaken in order to bet on currencies and bonds using derivatives.The regulated market in derivatives is open and subject to rules about how much of a given bet a player can borrow, D'Arista says. But the over-the-counter market has no margin rules. "They make it up as they go along," she says. "It's seven times the size of the [regulated] market."Ninety-five percent of market is controlled by eight banks," D'Arista says. "CitiGroup is one... Chase is another." The Fed keeps the list secret.D'Arista spends all her time studying this debt, trying to understand what it means. She says the amount of direct borrowing by financial institutions plus securitized lending held by investors has risen from $2.4 trillion in 1989 to $7 trillion today -- bigger than household debt and almost double the size of non-financial corporate debt.This at a time when, despite a supposedly booming economy, consumer debt in the U.S. has risen to a staggering 98 percent of income.In short, the current prosperity rests on a thin bubble, and the consolidation of large financial institutions all chasing the same highly leveraged investments will leave all of them swamped the next time a currency is unexpectedly devalued or a stock market crashes. The looming possibility is that no bucket will be large enough to bail them out."There are a number of us out there who really believe there's an Armageddon waiting, and there are not a lot of options for deflecting it," D'Arista says. "And the few options there might be out there, they aren't going to take."***SIDEBAR ONE: How Uncle Sam Will Get You!The Gramm Leach Bliley Act of 1999 is hailed as a boon to consumers, who will hence forth enjoy lower prices for loans and stock trades and insurance. U.S. Financial Institutions will also get stronger, proponents say, because they will be able to combine into even larger corporations with even more diversified assets. But on three key counts the new law fails to deliver:Privacy: Central to the strategy of CitiGroup and others who will merge in the wake of this law is "cross marketing," the ability of the company to, when you're sitting in a loan office, sell you insurance and mutual funds and such. To do this, the companies will merge their existing databases into one big one with all your financial history, your jobs, taste in consumer goods (ever buy anything with a credit card?) and perhaps even your medical records. This will give them tremendous power over not just individual customers, but potentially whole geographic areas. "The banks have been engaged in a major ongoing project to develop a demographic and transactional database on customers to market products and services more efficiently," reads a letter from a Travelers lawyer to the lawyer for the Federal Reserve a few days before the CitiGroup merger was announced. "The Banks and the Insurance Companies would expect to share such information on customers..." The new law allows such data sharing even with outside corporations.Fees: As banks have become larger and more efficient, fees have increased. According to a 1997 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, folks pay an average of more than $218 per year for the privilege of having a checking account in a large bank.Too-big-to-fail Doctrine: For decades, the largest U.S. banks have gotten into deep trouble making risky investments, only to be bailed out by taxpayers. The larger the financial institution, the more likely its bankruptcy will be viewed as destabalizing to the financial system as a whole. The bankers know this and can't help but act on it; economists call the concept "moral hazard." Policy analysts are stumped by the looming specter of 20 to 50 giant financial services companies -- all too big to fail -- comprising the entire financial world.

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