Jennifer C. Berkshire

This War Is a Real Hummer

When the US and its allies go head to head with Saddam Hussein, I plan to be right there. OK, so I won't actually be camped out in the desert, or in Baghdad, engaged in hand-to-hand combat. I'll be doing my part for homeland security right here -- behind the wheel of my new Hummer.

In my combat-ready H2 -- an updated version of the Army's fave transport, the Humvee -- I can experience the excitement of a military moment without the hassles, inconveniences and bland ready-to-eat meals. Suburban al-Qaeda cells will tremble in their boots as I trundle by in my civilian tank -- that is if they can see me at all. My H2 is fitted with optional camouflage magnetic panels to give the 3-ton ride some serious cover.

Apparently I'm not the only one experiencing military envy these days. Even as plain old civilian-style cars and SUVs sit on dealer lots, idle as pre-positioned tanks in Kuwait, sales of the $50,000+ H2 couldn't be better. Hummer dealers report that in recent months they've sold some 10,000 of what GM describes as "the SUV that can drop and give you twenty."

Hummer gear is flying off the shelves too. Still need a special gift for dad? How about a faux military outfit from the Hummer clothing line, modeled on what a colonel might wear?

What's behind this Hummer fever? Despite the fact that the super-sized rides get a scant 10 miles per gallon, they're great for homeland travel. And the H2's off-road capabilities along with the helicopter-lift "hooks" protruding through its hood make it perfect for this season's most combative activity: homeland shopping. Find yourself in a parking spot tussle with Hezbollah guerrillas or a suburban soccer mom? Not to worry -- this machine reigns supreme. The H2 can even climb a 16-inch straight wall barrier, making lane dividers a quaint relic from the past.

While the road beasts may seem like an extreme choice for driving to Pilates classes or navigating cul de sacs, they're just the latest weapon in what's been a steady suburban arms escalation.

First there was the minvan, then the Explorer, the Expedition, the Excursion, each one out-muscling the last. But somewhere along the line, the SUV lost its, well, manliness. Drastic measures were needed. "You don't just drive a Hummer for the fun of it," said one prospective H2 buyer. "We're sending a message to all the SUV moms in the suburbs: if you want to play hardball, we'll play hardball.'"

As the US embraces its new doctrine of "All war, all the time," the success of the Hummer provides an inspirational tale: With just a little ingenuity, even the most obscure military equipment can be adapted to civilian life. Worried that your spouse is cheating, your nanny tippling or your kids grooving to R-rated rap lyrics? You need the home version of the predator drone. Unsure whether to go with the shoulder bag or the shoulder holster? The shoulder-fired missile could be next season's must-have accessory.

So what will be the next hot military gadget pitched to consumers? With the conflict in Iraq almost certain to be coming to a small screen near you, they'll be plenty of opportunities for military marketing. And $400 billion buys a lot of stuff.

Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance journalist in Boston.

Who Wants to Be Employed?

Out of work or afraid that you might soon be? Not to worry. Americans may soon be able to compete for jobs the old fashioned way: on a reality TV show.

It's no joke. In the latest addition to the reality genre, contestants will go head to head for a chance at that increasingly scarce commodity, employment. Potential candidates will place ads with an employment agency, then undergo tests and on-the-job training. Finally, the two applicants deemed most qualified by the agency will subject themselves to the ultimate job interview: viewer approval. The candidate with the most viewer votes gets the job; the loser will be sent packing: "You are unemployed -- goodbye!"

The format, picked up recently by Sony Pictures Television International and being offered to TV stations around the world, is based on a controversial hit show in Argentina called "Human Resources." In the Argentine version, viewers pick a winner based on whose story is the most moving. (Good looks don't hurt either.)

"The audience prefers poor people who cannot maintain their families," producer Herman Frato told CNN earlier this year. "Maybe their wife is pregnant and they need medicine." In one recent episode, the audience was so touched by the stories of two out-of-work women that they voted to award both a job.

Such heartwarming stories may fly south of the border, but here in the U.S. we like our reality shows served up mean. Think "Fear Factor" meets the unemployment office.

Whatever form the American version of "Human Resources" takes, there's one thing the show will have plenty of: contestants. With millions of Americans now without a regular paycheck, millions more worried about their own job security and the DOW hovering close to ABC's Nielson ratings, there are worse things than mugging for the camera. Just ask the likes of the "Real World" kids, the misfits in the Big Brother House and under-employed semi-celebrities like Kato Kaelin and Coolio.

But will people tune in to watch "Survivors: The Economic Downturn"? You bet. In a thoroughly unscientific survey of current job seekers -- several of whom I'm related to -- I failed to turn up any potential candidates, but found plenty of would-be-viewers. "I'd definitely watch," one out-of-work friend told me. "This is the real thing. Not just spoiled brats on an island competing for a million bucks, or greedy fools being covered with rats."

Note to embattled ABC programming chief Susan Lyne: "Who Wants To Be Employed?" could be the next "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

The only question posed by the show's near certain success is, Why stop there? Sure, plenty of Americans are out of work, but even more are without health insurance and retirement plans. Why not TV shows for all of the things we currently lack?

Seniors could go head to head in an gray-haired version of "Survivor," navigating accessible obstacle courses, munching on strange bugs and worms, even competing to see who can remain upright longest -- "Outwit, Outplay, Outlive." The prize: prescription drug coverage.

Or how about this for the "Real World": an extended family agrees to live in the same house together after the real estate bubble finally pops. Viewers tune in week after week as the family's buying power shrivels.

Then again, reality can be a real drag.

I>Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance journalist in Boston.

Converging Against Capitalism

No topic divides the globo protest movement like the diversity of tactics question. Anarchist snake marches or well-marshaled parades of opinion? A brick through a window or a seat at the table?

And while the better-coifed protesters nearly always prefer the second set of options, even they'll concede that it's the first set -- tactics intended to disrupt and piss off the cops -- that gets the headlines. The demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank last month were no exception. By the time DC rush hour was over on Friday, the first projectile had been lobbed through the window of a Citibank office. By mid-afternoon, some 650 protesters, most part of the loosely organized Anti-Capitalist Convergence, would be in jail. The U.S. anti-globalization movement was back in the headlines.

Whose Streets?

"I'm so sick of these protests," a journalist friend complained to me as we walked through Adams Morgan, a formerly diverse DC neighborhood that is now home to interns from a diverse array of non-profits. "I feel like I'm under siege," he said. To protect the neighborhood from marauding globo-kids, city workers had removed all of the trashcans for blocks; urban detritus was already piling up. Minutes later, a caravan of police cars sped by, providing a shrill, high-speed escort service to someone important.

"That must be one of the delegates," my friend said, referring to the IMF/World Bank meeting invitees who now merit as much security as Dick Cheney. "They don't like to go outside without their taxpayer-financed escorts."

Their Streets

While the globalization protesters did succeed in getting back in the news -- no small feat for a movement that seemed all but washed up after Sept. 11 -- they didn't rack up many points with the locals this time. With posters wheat-pasted all over downtown, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence called on demonstrators to "shut down DC."

The ACC even had an image of what the ensuing chaos would look like: a fist choking off the metro roadway system. A powerful symbol, certainly, but perhaps not the best way to grow the movement, as they say. "Peaceful demonstration is fine, but if people can't get to their jobs, its disruptive," a DC construction superintendent told the Washington Post. "They should lock them all up."

Elsewhere in the city, another group of demonstrators was handing out leaflets to passing motorists, apologizing for any disruption. The massive police force brought in from as far as Chicago wasn't charmed by such niceties. The friendly kids ended up in jail too.

Knowing they were outnumbered, the Friday protesters had a strategy to bite back at the cops: fake 911 calls intended to divert the men and women in blue to mock emergencies all over the city. A victory of sorts for those who lamented the heavy-handed tactics of the police, but also a concession to charges that the demonstrators are from elsewhere, "invaders," as my journalist friend might say. Who else would intentionally divert emergency services away from Southeastern DC, one of the most notoriously under-served communities in the country? When Public Enemy rapped that "911 is a joke," and "Now I dialed 911 a long time ago. Don't you see how late they're reactin'?" I don't think Chuck D. and Flava Flav were complaining about fake calls from globo-kids.

By Saturday, cooler heads were prevailing. There were few of what the press terms "black-clad protesters" in the crowd; most were cooling their heels in the central DC lock up. The afternoon march from the Ellipse felt more like a parade or a pageant than a political protest. Somewhere near 17th and K streets, the procession stalled and the crowd began chanting that perennial favorite: "Whose streets? Our streets!"

"I feel a little embarrassed chanting this," my marching partner confided. "They're so clearly not our streets."

All Capitalists Converge

Despite smaller than predicted crowds -- organizers estimated 20,000 participated in Saturday's march and rally; cops put the number at closer to 5,000 -- the protesters no longer represent a fringe element within political discourse. A majority of Americans would now seem to agree with the sentiment espoused by one popular poster: "Capitalism Sux."

Ralph Nader, the rally's star speaker, summed up the oddity of this particular American moment best. "It doesn't matter whether you're listening to Rush Limbaugh or Amy Goodman," Nader told the screaming crowd on the lawns of the Ellipse. "Right now everyone is saying the same thing: 'Send the corporate crooks to jail.'"

While Nader may be right, this particular crowd were all Goodman fans. The only likely Limbaugh listeners were corralled into a tiny counter protest encircled by police protectors. They stood stone-faced, holding up signs that read "Daddy Wants His Credit Card Back," "Fry Mumia," and "All Capitalists Converge" and "Hold the Tear Gas, I'm a Conservative."

"I'm more of a pro-capitalist myself," a well-dressed bystander told me. In town from Florida, he was wearing an oxford cloth shirt in pink, a favorite color among the moneyed. But when pressed, the gentleman, who makes his living as an investment manager, launched into a tirade against capitalism to rival that espoused by any of the marchers-by.

"What's happened in this country with corporate corruption is a disgrace," he told me. "These CEOs have stolen more money than they could ever spend. It's really bad." When I broached the subject of his personal money, he became glummer still. "I've lost a fortune. Everyone I know has lost money."

What Next?

The months since Sept. 11 have not been kind to the U.S. anti-globalization movement. Unlike Europe, where protests against mondialisation neo-liberal have continued to attract hundreds of thousands, the ranks of the U.S. demonstrators have thinned considerably. The war is a big reason: much of the activist crowd that once denounced genetically modified food and structural adjustment has since moved onto Bush's wars. And the labor movement, nervous about the easy camaraderie between said war protesters and the globo forces, has pulled much of its support too.

But despite the absence of density on the streets, the U.S. movement now exerts more influence on the debate about globalization than ever. The famously leaderless protests have spawned a generation of savvy movement leaders who, if they don't yet have a seat at the table, are now standing close to the door. To put it bluntly, we've won, something that no less a capitalist tool than the Wall Street Journal now freely admits. "This weekend, the protesters returned," Alan Murray wrote in a recent column. "Their zeal is undiminished. But to a degree many of them still don't recognize, they have won the argument. Capitalism now has the black eye they tried so hard to give it."

The procession through the streets of DC did not have the feel of a victory march, though. And few of the protesters seem to have any idea of the depth of the despair felt by real capitalists right now.

"People are shocked," the investment manager from Florida told me. "They're holding onto stocks that are close to worthless with no end in sight. What can I tell them? Get into cash? The fact that greedy and corrupt CEOs are to blame just makes it worse. They should have a protest about that," he said, pointing to the demonstrators winding slowly by.

Maybe next time they will.

Jennifer Berkshire is a freelance writer based in Boston. Email her at

All Taxed Out

Well, I've done it. The check has been signed and sent, my bank account drained. Now all I have to do is wait for the auditors to show up.

Don't be silly, you're probably thinking. Auditing is for the rich. Why would the IRS come after me, a freelance writer who can't even afford to visit the Bahamas, let alone figure out how to squirrel away money there?

But according to a recent report in The New York Times, it is exactly people like me -- freelancers and small sole proprietors earning less than $25,000 (I know, sad isn't it?) -- that the IRS comes after with a vengeance. In fact, we're more than twice as likely to be audited than are people with business earnings totaling more than $100,000.

The biggest corporations in the country, those with $250 million or more in assets stand a one in three chance of being audited. I'm next on the list; my chances of being set upon by men in dark suits are one in 37. By contrast, that guy sporting Prada loafers, whose other car really is a Lexus (a member of the $100,000-plus club in other words) has only a one in 145 chance of coming home to find the IRS on his doorstep.

And pity the poor slobs who apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit, meant to be an income supplement for the working poor. "A tax credit usually means more money in your pocket," states the 2001 IRS tax guide. It also moves you straight to the top of the "to-be-audited" list. One out of every 47 people who applied for the credit will win the booby prize this year.

To make sure that the minimum wage crowd's claims of poverty are honest, The IRS employs a small army of investigators -- 2,200 of them, in fact. These wage watchers spend their days checking report cards to verify the existence of kids listed as exemptions, and comparing official records to the humble entries on tax returns.

The irony here, of course, is that it's no easy task for those of us on the low end of the wage scale to cheat on our taxes. If there are loopholes, havens and shelters hiding out in my 1040 EZ form, I'm certainly not aware of them. And if one were tempted to fudge just a little, by perhaps failing to mention a certain 1099, well good luck! Chances are the IRS already knows all about it. They know how much we make -- our employers are required to pass on detailed information about our wages -- even how much interest we earn on our pitiful passbook savings accounts.

By now you must be wondering how exactly the IRS does it all. How can they keep up this level of scrutiny on the working poor, lowly freelancers and sole proprietors, while also going after tax cheats at the top of the scale, the same ones who cost the government tens of billions every year? The answer: they don't. The wealthiest 5 percent of Americans simply aren't subjected to the same standard of scrutiny that the IRS lavishes on you and me. Their earnings, often from investments, rents, and partnerships, aren't reported to the government. The champagne set is simply trusted to tell the truth about how much they make.

There is another irony here as well. Not only is the IRS wasting time and resources on honest taxpayers, but we're also far less likely to complain about the burden of paying taxes than our gated community counterparts. Think about it. How often do you hear lowly wage earners -- as opposed to Steve Forbes -- bemoaning the fact that we're obligated to pay taxes? The same people who are rich and savvy enough to weasel out of writing a check on April 15 are also the most likely to denounce the system as onerous, unfair and even unjust. They're right, of course; they've just got it the wrong way around. It is unfair that the IRS targets the folks on the bottom, while giving the rich a pass.

In the meantime, I'm gearing up for my audit. I can picture it now: the team of investigators will arrive, armed with documents, hyper-alert to signs of off-balance accounting, reverse prepay schemes, and cash stashed in the Caribbean. "I'm detecting some signs of shredding," Agent 200439 will report to Agents 54983 and 97634, paying close attention to my tax preparation area, a nightstand that doubles as a cosmetics storage center.

"There wasn't any shredding," I'll respond, honest as always. "I'm just really messy."

Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance writer and taxpayer based in Boston.

After the FTAA

Tens of thousands of people protested in Quebec City last month, voicing their opposition to a proposed hemispheric-wide trade agreement. The Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, would create a single economic entity, should it go into effect in 2005, stretching from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego.

The protesters came from all over Canada and the U.S. Busloads of students drove in from Toronto, Montreal and points in between. Joining them were thousands of union workers, representing hundreds of different Canadian unions.

In contrast to protests in Seattle, Washington DC and Prague, which were primarily populated by out-of-town protesters, the anti-FTAA events in Quebec City had a distinctly homegrown feeling -- and with good reason. The infamous 2.5-mile chain-link fence that Canadian security forces erected around the perimeter of Old Quebec -- intended to separate protesters from President George W. Bush and his fellow delegates at the Summit of the Americas -- galvanized the local population. Even Quebecois who were divided on the relative merits of the trade agreement itself agreed on a few simple points: the "wall of shame," as it came to be known, was at best an eyesore; at worst, it was an affront to the very idea of a democratic Canada.

In the end, the protesters were not able to shut down the Summit, although they did delay its start. Delegates even made progress on the some terms of the FTAA agreement, stipulating a "democracy clause" that would suspend any country from the free trade zone area that ceases to be a democracy.

Bush and the other delegates did their best to put a positive spin on the Summit, even as clouds of tear gas swirled around their meeting place and local firefighters rushed to hose down the building. But cracks in the free trade edifice were obvious. Inside the Summit, hemispheric leaders like Kenny Anthony, Premier of St. Lucia, warned that while "globalization has brought prosperity to some, we cannot deny [that] it has destroyed the lives of others." Concluded Anthony: "Until the hemisphere as a whole enjoys the fruits of trade liberalization, we cannot proclaim its glory."

Unlike in the U.S., protesters seemed to win the propaganda war in Canada, with newspapers and television stations running a variety of opinions on the Summit and protesters. But regardless of the American media's take, those on the street remained certain of their convictions. "Average workers understand these deals aren't really about them," said Don Rama, a ship builder at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Me. "They're about expanding benefits for corporations."

AlterNet spoke with six activists and trade specialists to assess the impact of the anti-FTAA protests.

Why do journalists in the U.S. often accept arguments for free trade without question?

Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research: It's definitely the case that the marketing of "free trade" has won over the press and the pundits in the U.S. But the reality is that there is now a big gap between what the press says about globalization and what the general population thinks about it. This shows up in the polls: when asked to describe their views on trade, only 10 percent chose "free trader." Fifty percent chose "fair trader," a label rarely used by anyone outside the labor or protest movement. And 37 percent chose "protectionist"-- a word that is never granted a positive connotation in the press, and has probably become as discredited in official opinion as "communist." Although there were mixed feelings about globalization in general, people most often chose "protecting the environment" and "preventing the loss of U.S. jobs" as a major priority for trade agreements -- putting them very much at odds with our policy makers and trade officials.

When it comes to mainstream reporting on trade issues, confusion reigns. The World Trade Organization is depicted as the protector of poor countries, because it allows trade to take place under a "rule-based system." Similarly, the International Monetary Fund is seen as a lender of last resort, the global equivalent of an individual nation's central bank. Most journalists assume that the alternative to these institutions is chaos, the law of the jungle and a steep descent into protectionist, isolationist stagnation.

The main thing we have to is challenge the idea that these agreements are about "free trade" at all. Take the FTAA, which has very little to do with "free trade." In fact, this agreement will almost certainly strengthen some of the most expensive, economically wasteful and (in the case of life-saving pharmaceuticals) deadly forms of protectionism.

How are international trade institutions understood outside the U.S.? And what kind of support can Americans offer those who are hurt by them them?

Njoki Njoroge Njehu, Director, 50 Years Is Enough Network: The reality is that most of the world's population is all too aware of how much these institutions matter to their every day lives. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, continues to pay back more to the World Bank and the International Monetary fund than it actually gets from those institutions. As supporters of the movement global economic justice, we have to send a clear message: the movement for global justice continues to grow, and will not stand for continuing efforts by these institutions to structure the world for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy.

The World Bank Bonds Boycott is a good example of how supporters of the movement in the U.S. can work to effect change here at home. We're using the boycott to demand an end to the Bank's policies, which place corporate rights over human rights. At the same time, the boycott is supporting the poor peoples movements around the world who have said "enough is enough." Already, some 25 institutions throughout the U.S. including city governments, trade unions, churches and investment firms have committed not to buy World Bank bonds. And resolutions are pending at more than 20 additional institutions. This gives us a chance to talk about structural adjustment programs and harmful lending practices in a way that is meaningful to organizations and individuals in the U.S.

We're also helping to plan a major mobilization at the end September to coincide with meetings of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, DC. Activists from all over the world will come to Washington from September 28 to October 4 to protest and expose the illegitimacy of the institutions and officials who continue to claim the right to determine the course of the world economy.

Because of Canadian union participation in the Quebec, it was the first time since Seattle there was a significant union commitment to a trade protest. Why was this so? And why didn't the U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO, have much of a presence?

Fred Azcarate, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice: Some people argue that since Seattle, the AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have backed away from the anti-corporate globalization movement. I disagree with that view. Did Canadian unions play a major role in activities around the Quebec City protests? Thankfully, they did. Of course, the meeting was in Canada. But still, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney spoke at the People's Summit. Other U.S. union leaders were in Quebec City as well, including Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers (full disclosure: he is Canadian and the Steelworkers are one of the largest unions in Canada) and ed Fire of the IUe/CWA.

More importantly labor union leaders and activists were at the core of efforts to localize the movement against the FTAA in the United States. Jobs with Justice worked with the AFL-CIO, SeIU, the Teamsters, the Steelworkers, the Communication Workers and the United electrical Workers to organize over 50 actions across the U.S. during the same week as the Summit activities in Quebec.

Of course, some believe it's more important to move people from big event to big event -- Seattle, DC, Prague, Quebec -- while I believe these meetings should no longer be allowed to take place without the scrutiny of public protest. Over the long haul what we really need to do is to build more power in local communities. We have to make connections between local struggles and global corporate greed. We have to make the case that trade institutions and agreements matter to our day-to-day lives. We have to build solidarity across borders -- and not allow workers or communities in different countries to be pitted one against the other. It's a simple mathematical equation: let's generously assume that there were 50,000 folks protesting in Seattle, Washington, DC, Prague and Quebec City. Also generously assume that no one attended more than one action that would be 200,000 folks. Anyone who thinks that's enough folks to stand up to the collective power of the General electrics, Microsofts and their ilk (not to mention the state power wielded by their political cronies) underestimates what it takes to win.

Since CNN and other major U.S. media outlets cover the demonstrations by filming the "anarchist" Black Bloc, should the movement try to do something to mute their occasionally violent actions?

Mike Prokosch, Globalization Coordinator, United for a Fair Economy: I can't make up my mind about the Black Bloc. I really think that overall we have to shape our tactics to communicate with all of the people involved in the immense coalition this movement could be. Personally, I like the idea of thinking about what we do as symbolic action. If George Bush and the other grey suits are barricaded inside a fortress, we should be outside in bright colors, acting out freedom. This doesn't mean that we have to let the mainstream media shape our message, but it does mean being conscious of them as one important channel. Our protests shouldn't just be for the people in them.

Molotov cocktails and rocks are not a good idea. Pulling down the fence? That was probably a good idea. But the larger question is "Who decides?" We need to have a serious movement-wide discussion about tactics and strategies. But right now, we don't have the kind of political space that would allow that. The civil rights movement used nonviolent direct action to force people to make a moral choice. The question I would ask is what choice is our movement forcing people to make in its choice of tactics?

Were the anti-FTAA protests anywhere as effective as those in Seattle?

Christophe Aguiton, International Officer, ATTAC France:
The Quebec City demonstrations reminded me of May 1968 in Paris. They shared a real sense of fluidity and the unexpected. In both cases, there was a powerful link between young people and other groups: workers, residents, etc. The difference, however, was that in Quebec "all was not possible."

But even what was possible was incredibly powerful. During two days, thousands of people -- probably more than 10,000 -- surrounded the wall that protected the heads of state. The city only has 300,000 residents. Demonstrators came from the U.S. and the rest of Canada, but French was by far the language most spoken in the confrontations around the wall. Solidarity united the residents of the city, the students -- at least 15 universities were on strike -- and the trade unionists.

I think that even the media was effected by this climate. Before the first day's actions, most of the reporting was quite hostile to the demonstrators, and you heard a lot about "troublemakers" coming from the U.S. Then, the journalists, perhaps impressed by the massive presence of young people from Quebec itself, began to broadcast live the "fall of the wall" and the confrontations that followed. From this point of view, you can say that the demonstrators won the war of opinion, even if they weren't able to stop the actual Summit. In fact, this is exactly what the Financial Times reported.

As an American high school student, were you surprised by the number of young people who participated in the protests?

Courtney Babin, Senior, Melrose High School, Melrose, MA
To go up to Quebec and see so many kids, was amazing. I was surprised too by how much they knew about the issues. I went up to shoot footage of the demonstrations for a documentary, and when I showed my video at school, no one had a clue what it was about.

I think that's a big problem. We need to make sure kids get the information they need, whether it means speaking out more or running stories in our school newspapers. When I explain to other students what I was doing at the protests, they don't necessarily understand about the trade agreement. But when I mention the fact that my dad's factory is trying to send jobs to Mexico where the workers only get $6 a day, then they start to understand. Where I live, a lot of kids have parents who work in factories. Once they start thinking about their own families, then the issues don't seem so far away.

Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance writer based in Boston. She covered the recent Quebec City protests for the Boston Herald.

The Angina Monologues

There's a Bush back in the White House and beef is on the menu once again. Gone are the bobo-ish affectations of the Clinton era, as dated as Brie and Chardonnay. The cattle country club set prefers scotch and sirloin.

"Beef is definitely back," says Bill Carter, general manager of The Prime Rib, a Washington institution that has been feeding politicos for 25 years. "Beef is the food of celebration," Carter says.

Red meat politics are back as well, and no one serves them up better than that "son" of the beef belt, Vice President Dick Cheney. From recommending that the Arctic Refuge be opened for business, to touting nuclear power as a solution to the country's energy woes, Cheney has offered up a menu guaranteed to please political carnivores.

If the return of red meat politics has taken many liberals by surprise -- but Bush said he was compassionate! -- the fact that members of the sirloin set actually eat what they preach may be even more surprising. For never before have the ill effects of the meat itself been so apparent.

Just look at poor Cheney. A lifetime of rib eyes, roasts and rump steaks has taken its toll on the Vice Presidential ticker. The VP, who is said to love a thick juicy steak, even on a fishing trip, has suffered four heart attacks since he turned 37, and had to be hospitalized again this spring due to a rapidly closing artery.

"Cheney's taste for blood is literally killing him," says Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, sounding more than a little gleeful. "Unless he stops with the steaks, he won't be around to advocate his programs much longer."

On the other side of the Atlantic, they're not just rejecting hormone-laden policies like Bush's missile defense plan and the shredding of the Kyoto Climate Accord. The Europeans are also turning up their noses at red meat. Beef sales have plummeted due to fears about Mad Cow Disease, the cattle virus that lays waste to the human brain. In Italy, the demand for beef is off by an astounding 75 percent. In France, consumption of le boeuf is down by 47 percent. Top restaurants such as L'Arpege in Paris have even gone so far as to remove steak from the menu.

And that's just the cows. Now that foot-and-mouth disease has popped up in the Netherlands, Ireland and Britain -- where more than 1,000,000 animals have been destroyed as a precautionary measure -- pigs and sheep are under siege as well. A report by Britain's Agriculture Secretary tying the outbreak of the disease to "pig-swill," a concoction made from boiled garbage and fed to pigs, is unlikely to send the British racing back to the butcher shop any time soon.

While Americans have yet to abandon red meat en masse like their European counterparts, there is some evidence that they are beginning to lose their enthusiasm for the traditional red-blooded diet. Despite all of those "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" spots run by the Beef industry, consumption has dropped some 25 percent in recent years. And the anecdotal evidence points to an even broader shift.

Consider Eric Schlosser's unlikely best seller, Fast Food Nation, a scathing indictment of the burger business. In his expose of "what really lies between those sesame seed buns," Schlosser uncovers a tale of epidemic obesity, particularly among children; of tainted meat that the government is helpless to recall; and of rampant worker abuse in the meatpacking industry, now the most dangerous job in the US. It's an unsavory story, and one that American readers are gobbling up.

But are they reading it at the White House? If so, it hasn't made much of an impact on the official taste buds. While Vice President Cheney may be the most notorious member of the barbecue bunch, he's got plenty of company. George W's favorite restaurant, for example, is a little barbecue joint near his ranch famous for serving up brisket, ribs, sausage and chops by the pile.

Only Cheney -- AKA the patient in chief -- has attracted the ire of medical groups over his dietary choices, though. The VP is setting a bad example for other Americans by chowing down on the foods that damaged his heart in the first place, proclaimed Physicians for Responsible Medicine after Cheney was hospitalized with heart attack number four. "Cheney is an intelligent man and, with all eyes on him, America needs him to make healthful choices," said PRM President Neal D. Barnard, MD.

But is the Vice President's apparent taste for self-destruction really all that surprising? This is, after all, the undisputed brains behind the operation that has proposed such pro-health measures as increasing the level of arsenic allowed in water. Some arsenic with that scotch and water, sir? It's an issue that many Democrats are hoping will prove plenty self-destructive -- to Cheney's party in 2002.

For the VP's heart, it may not be too late. Experts like Neal Barnard insist that even advanced cases of heart disease can be turned back by maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is on Cheney's side; they're offering to send him one of their emergency vegetarian starter kits. But it's Cheney's taste for red meat politics that is unlikely to be replaced by tofu good will any time soon. For those of us who find his policies hard to digest, it's likely to be a long four years.

Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance writer based in Boston. Her writings on food and politics appear regularly in the Boston Herald.


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