The Republican Right is already howling over the bombshell dropped by The New York Times on John McCain, the GOP's all-but-official nominee. It's an outrage, they say. A deliberate torpedo. A liberal media smear.
Sorry, but these guys have got it backwards. The Times, in fact, couldn't have found a moment more favorable for Johnny Mack to let this fearsome cat out of the bag. If McCain could have personally chosen when to have this story break, it would have been right about now.
Not to say that the well-researched piece that broke late Wednesday evening isn't any candidate's nightmare. It's not only a detailed run-down of McCain's awfully close friendship with a pert and well-connected lobbyist thirty years his junior; the Times also does an admirable job of rehashing the Senator's long record of cozying up to the same sort of lobbyists against whom he repeatedly rails in public.
So what's my beef? The timing, folks. The timing. Everyone who knows anyone has been hearing about this story for some months. Back in December, Matt Drudge got wind of it from inside the Times and teased it at the top of his site. We all waited, but the shoe never dropped.
Under what is said to be intense pressure from McCain and prominent D.C. criminal attorney Robert Bennett, who was hired to help deal with the matter, the Times capitulated and held off on publishing the story - offering no explanation, then or now. And if you read through the piece just published, there doesn't seem to be any new information that the Times couldn't have had two months ago.
Barack Obama has only one enemy left standing and it's not Hillary Clinton. It's time itself. All the evidence is in: the more that voters are exposed to Obama, the more they flock to him. The more they see Hillary Clinton, the more stagnant her numbers.
If the election were held last Tuesday, Clinton would have walked away with it. If it were to be held a week from this Tuesday, Obama would waltz to victory.
The latest surveys reveal an unmistakable and unprecedented surge by Obama, nationally and in almost every key state on this Tuesday's calendar of 22 primaries.
And one key survey even has him ahead in the gold-ring state of California where, a month ago, he was down by 20 points.
Obama's rise over this past week in the Golden State has been breathtaking. The state has rippled with the energy unleashed by the endorsement handed him by Teddy Kennedy and then follow-up with a one-two punch endorsement from the L.A. Times and the country's largest Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinion. Then along comes Oprah again to rock Sunday's pro-Obama rally at UCLA. Better said, a foreshock. Because the real rattler was the surprise endorsement by Maria Shriver, the wife of the sitting Republican Governor of California. Did I already say breathtaking.
Meanwhile, this Sunday morning while Bill Clinton was campaigning in a handful of black churches in South Central Los Angeles, the Obama ground crew was seen blanketing a much wider array of churches in the area. There were no TV cameras or packs of reporters -- just hard-working canvassers trying to capture support voter-by-voter.
What Obama's late surge tell us is crystal clear. He did the same in every early voting-state, slowly but surely eroding or overcoming the early, wide lead held by Clinton. In each case, she started out miles ahead and in each case Obama closed the gap. Conclusion: Hillary's strength is hollow. Based on stratospheric name recognition, institutional support, and celebrity she starts out with a natural advantage. But as voters get familiar with Obama, as they hear his call for change and change-over, as they watch the Clinton campaign resort to the worst sort of old-style politicking (most recently Hillary suggesting that voting for Obama would be akin to voting for Bush), the momentum builds in the opposite direction.
With just less than a day to go, the question is if Obama can beat the clock. Can he actually win California and the bulk of delegates this Tuesday to stage one of the greatest upsets in modern political history? Can he at least win enough delegates to stay alive and surpass Clinton next month in the Ohio and Texas primaries?
Conversely, a Clinton win this week, produced merely by the absurd acceleration of the primary calendar, would leave the Democrats with what might be called a Twilight Zone candidate -- a nominee who the party rejected but the calendar saved.
For the first time since Vietnam, an organized, robust movement of active-duty US military personnel has publicly surfaced to oppose a war in which they are serving. Those involved plan to petition Congress to withdraw American troops from Iraq.
After appearing only seven weeks ago on the Internet, the Appeal for Redress, brainchild of 29-year-old Navy seaman Jonathan Hutto, has already been signed by nearly 1,000 US soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, including dozens of officers -- most of whom are on active duty. Not since 1969, when some 1,300 active-duty military personnel signed an open letter in the New York Times opposing the war in Vietnam, has there been such a dramatic barometer of rising military dissent.
Interviews with two dozen signers of the Appeal reveal a mix of motives for opposing the war: ideological, practical, strategic and moral. But all those interviewed agree that it is time to start withdrawing the troops. Coming from an all-volunteer military, the Appeal was called "unprecedented" by Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
The Nation spoke with rank-and-file personnel as well as high-ranking officers -- some on the Iraqi front lines, others at domestic and offshore US military bases -- who have signed the Appeal. All of their names will be made available to Congress when the Appeal is presented in mid-January. Signers have been assured they are sending a communication to Congress protected under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. The Pentagon is powerless to take official reprisals and has said that as long as active-duty personnel are not in uniform or on duty, they are free to express their views to Congress.
There are of course other, subtler risks involved. The military command exercises enormous power through individual reviews, promotions and assignments. But that hasn't kept a number of signers from going public with their dissent.
Navy Lieut. Cmdr. Mark Dearden of San Diego, for example, enlisted in 1997 and is still pondering the possibility of a lifetime career. "So this was a very difficult decision for me to come to. I don't take this decision lightly," he says. But after two "tough" deployments in Iraq, Dearden says signing the Appeal was not only the right thing to do but also gave him personal "closure."
"I'm expressing a right of people in the military to contact their elected representatives, and I have done nothing illegal or disrespectful," Dearden adds.
Other interviews with active-duty soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who have signed the Appeal for Redress reveal an array of motivations. Here are excerpts:
"Lisa" -- 20 years old, E-4, USAF, Stationed at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii:
I joined up two weeks after I turned 17 because I wanted to save American lives. I wanted to be a hero like any American child.
I supported the war when I joined because I thought it was justified. Only after my own research and the truth coming out did I learn how wrong I was, how -- for lack of a better word -- how brainwashed I was.
Now I know the war is illegal, unjustified and that our troops have no reason for being there.
When I saw an article about the Appeal in the Air Force Times I went online right away and signed it and have encouraged others to do the same."Sgt. Gary" -- 21 years old. US Army. Deployed with 20th Infantry Regiment, near Mosul, Iraq:
I joined up in 2001, still a junior in high school. I felt very patriotic at the end of my US History class. My idea of the Army was that you signed up, they gave you a rifle and you ran off into battle like in some 1950s war movie. The whole idea of boot camp never really entered my head.
I supported the war in the beginning. I bought everything Bush said about how Saddam had WMDs, how he was working with Al Qaeda, how he was a threat to America. Of course, this all turned out to be false.
This is my second tour, and as of a few days ago it's half-over. Before I deployed with my unit for the second time I already had feelings of not wanting to go. When in late September a buddy in my platoon died from a bullet in the head, I really took a long hard look at this war, this Administration, and the reasons why.
After months of research on the Internet, I came to the conclusion that this war was based on lies and deception. I started to break free of all the propaganda that the Bush Administration and the Army puts out on a daily basis.
So far in three years we have succeeded in toppling a dictator and replacing him with puppets. Outlawing the old government and its standing army and replacing them with an unreliable and poorly trained crew of paycheck collectors. The well is so poisoned by what we have done here that nothing can fix it."Lt. Smith" -- 24 years old, 1st Lieutenant, US Army. Deployed near Baghdad:
I cannot, from Iraq, attend an antiwar protest. Nor could I attend one in the States and represent myself as a soldier. What I can do is send a protest communication to my Congressional delegate outlining grievances I feel I have suffered. Appeal for Redress gives me that outlet.
I am encouraged by the November elections, but still wary. We rushed into the war on false assumptions, and now we might rush out just as falsely. What troops need now is a light at the end of the tunnel, not just for this deployment but for all deployments. Bringing everyone out this summer is too fast to be supported by our Army's infrastructure. We would hemorrhage lives if we do so. But so would we if we stay the course.
I am encouraged by politicians who call for a withdrawal by the conclusion of President Bush's term in office. That seems a realistic timetable for me.Mark Mackoviak -- 24 years old. US Army. Recently returned from Iraq. Stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina:
I joined the Army on September 23, 2001. I had been out of school for a year when September 11 came around, and I was supportive of our action in Afghanistan. I wound up there a year later, and it was pretty eye-opening to see how people live.
I was also in Iraq for about a year, deployed near the International Airport, west of Baghdad. I was never that supportive of the invasion. I thought the media coverage of it was horrendous, really disgusting.
Just about everything I saw in Iraq reinforced my views that it was wrong. The point that really hit me was when the Asmara Mosque got blown up. I said, Wow, this is really a civil war.
I really enjoy being in the Army, enjoy the experience. I just happen to not support this war. I'm very open about that. My buddies either disagree with me or just pay no attention. But I get absolutely no hostility. None."Rebecca" -- 26 years old. 101st Airborne, US Army. Just returned from Iraq. Stationed at Fort Hood, Texas:
I joined in 2004. I was trying to go into the human rights field, but it was very competitive. I was in need of health insurance, and the Army seemed feasible. Now it looks like I will be stop-lossed until 2010.
I had strong feelings about the war, against it, but I'm the type of person that wants to fully understand both sides of the argument.
My experience in Iraq confirmed my views, but it also gave me a more multifaceted view of things. I did see some of the good things being done, but it seemed like a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. Mostly I saw the frivolity of the missions, the lack of direction, the absurdity of the mission. You go out in your Humvee, you drive around, and you wait to be blown up and get killed by an IED.
About 40 percent of my unit were stop-lossed. Their first mission was to take down Saddam and his regime, and they seemed to understand that and agree with the mission to take down a ruthless dictator. Now they can't seem to understand why they are there, caught in the cross hairs of a civil war.
I think it is safe to say that the majority of soldiers are wondering what this grand scheme is that we keep hearing about from those above us but that is never translating down to the ground level.
Some politicians are starting to see that not only a majority of Americans oppose to this war. Now they see this very powerful statement of soldiers who have already been on the front line and who are still in uniform and are also opposed. None of them have been where we have been, none of them have seen what we have seen. It's time they do.For more on this topic, be sure to check out Howard Zinn's book "Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War" from Haymarket books.
Saturday saw the largest political demonstration in the history of Los Angeles, and one of the biggest in recent American history.
A half-million people or more flooded two dozen blocks of downtown L.A. to give voice to some sort of rational, realistic immigration reform.
For some months now I have been warning readers that the immigration issue would break wide open this season -- and here it is in full, living color. Similar demonstrations the past couple of weeks drew 100,000 or more in Illinois, more than that in Denver, and tens of thousands in Phoenix and other cities. Similar protests are scheduled through April 10 as the U.S. Senate begins formal debate on reform this coming Tuesday. (If you have fallen behind in this story, you can catch up by reading one of my overview stories here or here.)
I'm struck by several aspects of this story. Primarily by the way neither party can properly get a hold of this issue. Demographics and global economics are simply racing ahead of any practical political response. The Republicans are deeply divided over the issue. Even as the half-million or so were marching in the streets Saturday, President Bush was on the radio more or less endorsing the protestors' two key demands: that a legal channel be created for the immigration already happening, and that some legal acknowledgement be given to the 12 million "illegals" already living here. Viva Bush!
The Democrats are less divided and generally more inclined toward reform. But can you name even two prominent national Democrats who have taken up this cause in a serious way? (One is Ted Kennedy who, along with John McCain, has co-authored the most sensible reform proposal currently under consideration).
As I have argued previously, what we are currently experiencing is the greatest wave of cross-border migration in recorded history -- a virtual "exodus" of millions from a failed Mexican economy to a country where the wage level is 10-20 times higher. Politicians can only come up with after-the-fact gestures, but policy itself (and walls and fences) will do little to nothing to alter the flow.
My otherwise smart guy friends, Mickey Kaus and Bill Bradley have surely gone off the deep end on this one. They both conjecture that these giant marches, full of Mexican flags and Mexicans chanting 'Mexico! Mexico!' are inviting a virulent nativist backlash. They point to increased voter turnout in favor of the restrictive Prop 187 in California after a similar (and smaller) protest march in 1994. That was then. This is now.
The current situation is not analagous to 1994. There is no hot-button ballot proposition up for a vote this season. And the nativist backlash is already here. The media suck-up to the miniscule Minuteman show of a year ago established an ugly frame for the national debate. The House has already acted in a toxic manner when last December it passed an outrageous and impossible-to-implement measure that would make all illegals (and their employers) into felons. While that bill will not become law per se, the Senate is considering some measures almost as Neanderthal.
It seems to me that when an entire population -- who, after all, cleans our offices, cuts our lawns, serves our food, makes our beds, tends to our children and pays taxes but gets no refunds -- is threatened with criminalization, it has the right and necessity to politically mobilize. It's asking them a lot, don't you think, to remain silent and impassive as their arrest and deportation are actively being debated?
One other point: the white backlash of 1994 was immediately followed by a counter-backlash. An enraged and energized Latino constituency accelerated its entrance into citizenship and onto the voter rolls, and within four years it steamrollered the California GOP -- a flattening from which California Republicans may never recover.
So while the grumbling Archie Bunkers might get their ya-yas all worked up by the Mexican flags flapping in Saturday's demos, you can be damn sure that the smarter among Republican strategists looked at the size of those protests with some trepidation. Many of those in the rally were legal, or have legal relatives, or if illegal might soon be legal. And they just didn't look to be likely Republican voters.
Bradley is one of the smartest analysts around when it comes to California state politics (and he's a good friend) but, I have to say his reaction to these marches border on the phantasmagorical. He went out of his way to title his report "The Pro-Illegal Immigration Rally in Los Angeles" and asks if it was "really necessary" to stage such a provocative rally. It's the wrong question, of course. This wasn't a staged campaign event or some tightly orchestrated TV photo op. While the demos certainly have leaders and organizers, and while the Mexican flags were certainly politically gratuitous, it seems quite obvious that when you bring out a half-million people you've tapped into something quite organic, some self-propelling force way beyond the control or shaping of a few professional organizers. So it hardly matters if it was necessary or not because -- like illegal immigration itself -- it happened anyway. It was a rather natural reaction to the shut-the-borders demagogy that's been ventilating for the past couple of years.
Another not so minor point. Bradley argues that these rallies "enable" people who have "broken the law" to continue breaking the law. Well, no, not exactly. People who have entered the United States improperly and who stay here have, in fact, not violated any criminal statutes but are instead in violation of civil codes -- even though they are commonly called "illegals."
Any of these illegals, if arrested on immigration grounds, are not tried by a criminal court and are, in fact, denied standard due process. Bradley should spend a day in Federal Immigration Court and watch how these "illegals" are deported without as much as the right to a court-provided lawyer. As violators of civil codes, they are cast out, and often their families are broken apart with no more process than the DMV revoking a driver's license.
Indeed, these protests have been sparked to a great degree by the so-called Sensenbrenner bill that would in the future make the "illegals" really illegal by making them criminal felons. It's a distinction worth five or ten years in jail that Bradley is blurring.
Bill, my friend, you've got it bass-ackwards. This was a rally in favor of legal immigration. It called precisely for a way for immigrants who are otherwise already absorbed into our economy and society to be granted the minimal status that they obviously merit. To defend illegal immigration, no protest would be necessary -- you would need only defend the status quo.
My arguments against the sort of simplistic and anachronistic mode of parsing this issue which we glimpse in Bradley's post is well explained in the articles I linked to above -- so no need to rehearse them here. What some people don't get is that we have already been cracking down on the border for more than a decade, and there's a reason why it has so miserably failed. It's about as futile as engaging in prayer dances to stop earthquakes or invoke rain storms.
The only argument we -- as a nation of immigrants -- can make against the current migratory wave is that our grandparents and parents came here legally, so why don't Jose and Maria do the same? Well, America of 2006 is not the America that my family came to in 1915 (and when they came, they also pushed aside better-paid longer-term residents and citizens). Our work force is vastly older and immensely better educated and skilled than even 50 years ago. The industrial revolution which was roaring ahead a century ago has given way, unfortunately, to a service economy. Barring Mexicans from coming across the border is not going to magically reopen shuttered car and tractor factories. On the contrary, if you could even plausibly tamp down the inflow, you would only increase the out-migration of American business.
Our national economy easily absorbs and desperately needs about a million-and-a-half immigrant workers per year to grow and compete. We let a million of them come in legally. The other half million we make run and dart across the border at cost of great peril.
Our reality has outstripped our laws -- and our way of framing the issue. In the end, it will make little difference who prevails in this year's debate, as nothing will change on the ground -- backlash or not. It's a little like debating the tides. Meanwhile, someone throw my pal Bill Bradley a rope. He's waded in at high tide and has sunk in up to his neck.
As soon as he spots me taking pictures on the steps of the 3-century-old avocado-and-lemon-colored Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe church, Manuelito makes a beeline my way. A pudgy 30-year-old Tzotzil Indian from the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, standing barely 4 and a half feet tall, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, sporting a Marine-like buzzcut, he smiles broadly, opens a mouth full of front teeth capped with shiny gold stars, and, in very fluent and buoyant English, says, "Hey, friend, come and talk to me. I want to talk to you."
After explaining that he's a father of four who can no longer live off his small patch of land, he excitedly hugs me and says victoriously, "I'm going to the Big Apple, to New York City, baby!" That's one reason, he says, why he's spent all of his free time for five years studying English. And he can hardly contain his joy trying it out on me.
When I ask who he knows in New York and what he plans to do when he gets there, he just shrugs. "No matter, man. I know when I get to the border, I just have to walk between the mountain and the red lights on the antenna. That's the way in. From there I will get to New York." And if you get caught by the Migra? I ask.
Again, another laugh. "No matter. They can catch me 10 times, 20 times. It's okay. I keep trying. I'm going anyway." While Manuelito might be among the more eccentric, and one of the very few among them who speak functional English, his predicament, his story and his hopes neatly sum up what's in the heads and hearts of hundreds of other Mexican men standing around the town square this recent Saturday morning. This alternately dusty and muddy, hellish hamlet of Altar, permanent home to barely 7,000, situated an hour and a half south of the Arizona border and bathed in a cloud of diesel fumes, has become the single most important staging area and launching pad for undocumented immigration into the U.S.
Though the Bush administration spent an additional $30 million last year trying to plug the porous southern Arizona border, the illegal exodus has reached a five-year high. Hundreds of new Border Patrol agents were deployed against the human tide, as were Apache helicopters and even unmanned aerial drones. A controversial program that returned home thousands of Mexican migrants caught at the border ran the length of last summer. In the fall, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 200, which demands that state public services be provided only upon proof of legal residence.
None of these measures put as much as a crimp in the immigration crunch, and last year more than 1 million apprehensions were made along America's southern border – the same number as in 2000. But, for the first time ever, the detentions in Arizona totaled more than in all the other border states combined. The bulk of migrant deaths also occurred in the Tucson sector, north of Altar: about 220 – or maybe 250, depending on who's doing the counting – out of an estimated 350 total.
Since the mid-1990s, U.S. border enforcement policy has increasingly squeezed the flow of migrants into the rural and relatively uninhabited – and unforgiving – central Arizona desert. As the Clinton administration imposed draconian lockdowns on traditional border-crossing points near San Diego and El Paso, American immigration officials believed the brutal desert in between would be a formidable and effective deterrent. That theory has been proved irrefutably wrong. The only thing that has changed is a skyrocketing number of migrant deaths. As the daily stream of migrants redirected itself through Arizona, this tiny town of Altar – still invisible on many maps – became the capital of illegal immigration. Indeed, after President Bush – twice in the past year – has issued high-profile statements supporting the enactment of a "guest worker" program, there's been a noticeable spike in the rush to get across the border. With Congress currently considering several pieces of immigration-reform legislation that might "legalize" a certain number of the undocumented, many Mexican would-be immigrants have concluded that now is the right time to get into the U.S. and be in position to benefit from any new federal legislation.
A kidney-crunching 60-mile-long dirt road runs north from Altar to the border village of Sasabe. Maintained only by a local rancher, who charges a toll of $3 per car, the dirt highway is the central pipeline whose tributaries eventually empty into the gardens and nurseries of Brentwood, the orchards of the Central Valley, or the chicken-plucking plants of the Carolinas.
Altar, only an anonymous bus stop along Mexican Route 2 until the last handful of years, is now the system's perpetually whirring pump. Sucking up thousands upon thousands from the poorer Mexican states to the south, it compresses them within its crowded 10-block center and then, at a rate of 10,000 or 20,000 per week, forcefully shoots them back out and northward – with more than enough power to overcome the sensors, cameras, fences and agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.
I've come here accompanied by the tough-talking, Texas-born Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church, and by Steve Laffey, mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island. Hoover is the founder of Humane Borders, a nonprofit volunteer group whose 70 watering stations on the U.S. side of the desert dispense more than 50,000 gallons of water to desperate border crossers.
Mayor Laffey is a 43-year-old former Wall Street investment banker – now a self-described "populist" Republican – who's come all the way from home with a couple of his own local Latino activists to get a firsthand look at the border and what lies below. "I'm very lucky," Laffey says as we walk across Altar's central plaza. "I lost one brother to AIDS. One is in a locked psych ward. A lot of politicians are just talk, they don't come up with solutions. This border is just too far away from people's lives. They have all these people who clean for them and take care of their yards and their kids, but don't know who they are or care. My whole thing is that everybody has to have the opportunity to live the American Dream."
Fair enough. But what we see here is still the Mexican Nightmare. Dozens of clumps of mostly young men, mostly dressed in dark clothes, some with their families, but most with cousins and uncles and friends from their various hometowns, stand or sit listlessly in the square and wait. Wait for word from their own "coyote" or "pollero" – their own smuggler – that it's now time to make the perilous journey north. Wait for some word from home that more money is on the way. Or wait, as they do today, for one of the recent storms to subside. It's hard enough to cross the desert as it is – without monsoon rains and flash floods. "There's no such thing as a typical migrant," says Hoover. "You've got doctors, lawyers and dentists," he says, citing statistics that say about 10 percent of those nabbed by the Border Patrol are college graduates. "You've also got the poorest of the poor. Some who send two children ahead. Some who are coming to stay. Some who will stay only three, four years. Some babies and women. Some really bad guys. Some from Michoacan who have paid $4,500 for an entire package. Some from Chiapas who have no plan and 300 bucks for a ride."
On one side of the plaza sits an endless row of large and battered vans. Almost all bear the simple logo "Altar-Sasabe." They sit idle, waiting for the drizzle to abate. When conditions permit, each will be crammed with 20 or more passengers. (Their seats have been removed and replaced with three rows of benches running the length of the interior cabin.) For 10 bucks a head, they'll rumble up the dirt road and discharge the cargo in the village of Sasabe – a place so grim it seems teletransported from Afghanistan.
Once in Sasabe, the migrants will break up into smaller groups and head out with their coyotes along the many smuggler trails. It's usually a two- or three- or four-day walk to an Arizona highway where – if they are lucky – they'll be picked up by another vehicle from the smugglers' networks and taken to a safe house. Or they will be chased down by a Border Patrol unit. Or left to die in the desert by crooked or desperate smugglers.
The business of the entire town of Altar is given over to supporting and profiting from the wholesale border jumping. Rampaging gangs occasionally rip through town – there are few places in Mexico that congregate so many people with so much folding money in their pockets. Altar's few streets are lined with booths and stalls set up by yet other migrants, mostly from Oaxaca, selling everything needed to make the crossing: black jackets, black gloves, sturdy jeans, running shoes, backpacks, wool sweaters, black ski masks, 1-gallon plastic jugs of water, small plastic bags of combs, toothbrushes, nail clippers, aspirins and lip balm, even $3 plastic trash bags cynically hawked as effective foilers of the Border Patrol heat sensors that riddle the U.S. side of the line. Currency-exchange shops are ready to sell dollars at a premium. Other shops specialize in selling long-distance phone cards. Flophouses charge $9 a head and crowd four or five people in a room.
With no permanent medical facility in town, the Red Cross brought in a trailer clinic. A border-area map on its wall has little red dots showing where migrants died last year. Red Cross workers have given Hoover a handwritten wish list of badly needed supplies: ear drops, ampicillin and other antibiotics. In the main plaza itself, the clusters of migrants seem to have segregated themselves into informal affinity groups based on hometown origin. A young Oaxacan couple in their early 20s – Filipe Cruz and Margarita Lopez – sit forlornly on a bench waiting for God-knows-what as they stare downward. Filipe says he's already spent a year working in the U.S. – he won't say where. But living alone was too hard on everybody, and now, after picking up his family, he will cross again with his wife and his 3- and 5-year-old children. When I ask if he is afraid, he answers quietly, "We are always afraid," and shifts his gaze back to the ground.
Another group of Oaxacans – six young men, all Zapotec Indians – say they have jobs waiting for them, picking grapes in California. They laugh at the possibility of getting caught on the way. "We will cross as many times as we have to," says one. "What do we have to lose?" laughs another. "Only these clothes on our back."
One group of decidedly Guatemalan young men answer my questions curtly, poorly disguising their accents and claiming to be southern Mexicans. If snared by the Border Patrol, they will be classified as "OTMs" – Other Than Mexicans. Instead of simply being put on the other side of the border and in position to quickly attempt another crossing, OTMs are now subject to summary deportation to their country of origin. These fellows have some work cut out for them. Their insistence that they are from Chiapas is about as convincing as the Coneheads saying, "We are from France."
Some of the men in the square say they have paid smugglers $1,200 to $1,300 each to board the underground railway. Many say they haven't paid anything yet, but will have the money taken out of the pay they will get from their promised jobs.
Some say they have no idea where they are going once they cross the border. "I will just look for lights," says a 28-year-old from a Veracruz village renowned for its pineapple production. "Light means a city. And in a city there is always jobs. That's right, isn't it?" Others say they have agricultural jobs waiting near Fresno. Still others are headed for tomato fields in Florida. One has a cousin ready to give him a job in a Van Nuys body shop. He has scrawled the address and phone number on a piece of paper he has hidden in his hatband. "My cousin said if I can get to Phoenix, he can get me to his shop. He has a job for me and for them," he says, nodding his head toward two traveling companions.
A number of those gathered here this morning have already been caught once and are back for a second try. "They grabbed us 15 days ago," says one of five men, all in their early 20s, from Veracruz. "We got about five minutes across the border, and that was it," he laughs. "Handcuffs and two hours later, we're all back in Mexico." The group has spent the last two weeks reorganizing itself. Four of them want to try again. One has had it and wants to go back home. "I don't know where to get the 500 pesos I need to buy a bus ticket," he says.
The group has completely run out of money and had to leave its flop this morning. Now the self-appointed leader of the group is trying to hustle up a mere $5. With that, he says, he can buy a phone card to call his family back home. He's hoping they can wire him an immediate $400 – maybe even this afternoon. "With that, we will have enough for the ride," he says, using the English word. El Ride is the pickup from an Arizona highway toward a safe house or job. "Jobs aren't the problem," he adds. "We have jobs waiting for us in a stable in Chino. We just have to get there."
Inside the town church, the young priest, Rene Castaneda, dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, says that while it's true some of the migrants have no idea what they will do once they cross the border, most, in fact, have a promised job waiting. "They are understandably reluctant to share the information with you – or anybody else," he tells me. "Most of them have contacts, and most of them are in a pipeline – the demand for their cheap labor has no limits."
After nearly six years working in Altar, it is with some sadness that Castaneda has learned he is now being transferred to another mission. He's gained regional recognition and respect for his tireless work on behalf of the migrants, and getting transferred out isn't much of a payoff. "When I arrived here in 1999, maybe 200 migrants a day came through Altar," he says. Since the end of last year, that figure sometimes peaks at 10 times that amount. Or more. "The increase in migrants goes hand in hand with the increase in poverty and unemployment," he adds.
Castaneda arrived in Altar just as last decade's tectonic shift in immigration patterns was maturing and funneling the flow through the Sonoran Desert into southern central Arizona. Now, he argues, it matters little, if at all, what administrative or enforcement measures are taken on the northern side of the border. "Only the route of immigration changes, but nothing else," says the young priest as he sorts through his archives. "It's just like pushing a fully inflated basketball underwater. You can only hold it down so long and then the pressure builds up and it pops up and bursts through somewhere else. If you don't do anything to change the root causes, the problem doesn't change."
Noontime brings a clearing of the skies and a filling of the vans parked alongside the plaza. The daily cat-and-mouse game along the U.S.-Mexican border will now repeat itself for the umpteenth time. And in case anyone has forgotten the stakes, Father Castaneda has posted some stark reminders. On the northern road out of town, he has placed white memorial crosses on the utility poles, commemorating those who couldn't complete the journey.
A good hour north of Altar, and about 20 miles south of the border, one of the more surreal scenes of this drama plays itself out. Under U.S. pressure during the last decade, the Mexican government created its own elite version of the Border Patrol – called Grupo Beta. The Mexican force failed miserably in living up to the professional standards that had been hoped for. Soon there was a stack of stories of Grupo Beta officers organizing their own rackets, shaking down and robbing the hapless migrants.
The Mexican government, under President Vicente Fox, then disarmed the group and retooled its mission. Now, in its distinctive orange trucks and matching jackets, Grupo Beta has no enforcement duties and claims to be a sort of migrant-protection force. There are still some reports of abuse, but not nearly as many. At a dusty spot in the Altar-Sasabe road, best described as situated in the middle of nowhere and known by locals as El Tortugo, Grupo Beta has erected a small, bright-orange, steel pavilion, much like a carport. Every afternoon, a Beta patrol unit parks in the small patch of shade, and two uniformed officers stand by the side of the road, armed only with clipboards and a box full of pocket-size illustrated pamphlets. Their job is to stop each van, count the number of occupants, note their state of origin, and give the migrants a Boy Scout-ish lecture on the dangers that await them – perils outlined in the illustrated booklet they pass out. When Hoover, Laffey and I get to Tortugo, at about 3 in the afternoon, it's a veritable rush hour. A half-dozen brimming vans are lined up on the side of the road as the two Beta officers go to them one by one. Officers Manuel Roldan and Julio Cesar Cancino seem to have been chosen for this task by sheer force of their outgoing, expansive personalities. Both men are extremely friendly, courteous, respectful and warm.
But when they open the back door of each van, and peer into the sardine-packed interior, they are met by decades of accumulated mistrust, suspicion, diffidence and fear. In Mexico, the safe assumption, no matter what you're told, is that uniformed figures of authority are not your friends. Roldan and Cancino, however, are experienced hands in breaking the ice and seem to patiently enjoy the dance of confidence that they must redo with each and every load of passengers.
Roldan opens up the back of one van, and as the daylight floods in, everyone, including those sitting closest to him, looks downward. Over his shoulder I quickly count 27 people in the vehicle. "This is not an inspection station," Roldan says. "You are not breaking the law. It is your human right to migrate. We are only here to help you," he says. A few people now raise their heads – no doubt intrigued by a disarmed cop with such a disarming tone.
The two Beta agents ask the passengers to step out of the van. After asking where their hometowns are, Cancino smiles as he asks the next question. Smiles, because no matter how often he asks, he knows he's going to get the same amusing answer. "Sasabe," a few men answer quietly. "Sasabe?" repeats Agent Cancino, as if he's saying, really? "Sasabe? Or Sasabe Beach?"
With that, the ice cracks and a few smiles begin to sprout. If only desert-bound Sasabe, about as alluring as San Quentin, had as much as a park, let alone a beach or, for that matter, any reason whatsoever to be a destination for such a throng of would-be tourists.
"Come on," says Cancino, now laughing out loud. "We know you're all going to the U.S. You are all going to the U.S., aren't you?" Finally, some heads nod, and the more courageous step forward to confirm the obvious. "Yes, we're going to the North," says one man, in cowboy boots and tight jeans. "As much as we hate to leave this paradise behind," he says, sweeping his hands toward the barren desert around us.
"Good," says Cancino. "You have full rights while in Mexico. It's in the U.S. where you will be breaking the law. We just want to tell you a few things for your own protection. If the Border Patrol begins to chase you, do not run. I repeat, do not run! Do not hide! Whatever you do, don't put your hands in your pockets." Now Cancino has his audience rapt. "If you get scattered and lost during the day, look for tall blue flags. That's where you can find water," he says, referring to the emergency stations that Hoover has set up. "If you get lost at night, then look for the red lights on the radio antenna. They're in Sasabe, in Mexico. Walk back to the red lights and look for one of our trucks – the orange trucks. We will be there to offer you emergency help, first aid and whatever else you need."
The migrants look genuinely grateful. It's probably the first time in their lives that someone in uniform has sounded so concerned about their welfare. In any case, they all know they are only hours away from running a merciless gauntlet, and any advice and compassion are welcome.
Agent Roldan then hands everyone one of the pamphlets – falsely characterized by right-wing talk radio as comic book guides to crossing the border. If anything, they're the opposite: a minicatalog of all the dangers that await the migrants, with only common-sense advice to avoid excessive heat and thirst. As well as urging the crossers to obey the orders of any U.S. authorities.
The passengers settle back into the van. Cancino has some final words for them: "Remember that it's now going to be some very hard days and some very long nights. You are going to have to walk three or four days. Be careful, and buena suerte."
Twenty-seven more migrants are on their way to cross the border. During the hour we spend at El Tortugo, about 15 vans have been registered – about 350 people. Agent Roldan says he and Cancino are currently counting about 1,800 a day. But he admits they have no idea of the total number, as they always leave before sundown. "When it gets dark," he says, "it just gets too dangerous." The enforcement squeeze on Arizona has proved a financial bonanza for the professional smugglers, who increasingly mix the human traffic with the drug trade. Big profits have turned some of the smuggling operations into heavily armed and violent gangs. When the Grupo Beta agents retreat at night, the road becomes fit only for the most daring.
As dusk falls, some of the same men we saw earlier in the day milling around Altar's main plaza now huddle in small groups in the desolate, dilapidated border hamlet of Sasabe. They stand along the rutted roads, chatting and smoking, or picking through their backpacks. There's nowhere to stay here and no reason to be here except to make the jump. When darkness sets in, these groups will fan out and, led by their "polleros" – or guides – will brave the sensors, infrared cameras and Border Patrol agents on the other side of the line. It's the same game every night of the calendar – especially this time of year.
A majority will probably get nabbed and, through an absurd revolving-door policy, will be dumped back into Mexico, all within a few hours. Then they will re-form, regroup, and will try and try again to cross. Only after being detained (and photographed and fingerprinted) and "voluntarily deported" 10 times do they face possible formal arrest and prosecution. An unlucky few of these people gathered here tonight might be among those who – invisible and unnoticed – will be consumed by the desert in the next handful of days. Those who do make it through, as if passing through a magical membrane, will re-appear on the other side as our nannies, maids, gardeners and dishwashers. "If you had a hundred U.S. senators come down here and spend only a day in one of the flophouses or a morning talking to these people, you'd have this immigration issue solved in less than a week," says Cranston's Mayor Laffey as we roll out of Sasabe. "But it isn't gonna happen. Not yet."
First the L.A. Times helped kill off Gary Webb's career. Then, eight years later, after Webb committed suicide this past weekend, the Times decided to give his corpse another kick or two, in a scandalous, self-serving and ultimately shameful obituary. It was the culmination of the long, inglorious saga of a major newspaper dropping the ball journalistically, and then extracting relentless revenge on an out-of-town reporter who embarrassed it.
Webb was the 49-year-old former Pulitzer-winning reporter who in 1996, while working for the San Jose Mercury News, touched off a national debate with a three-part series that linked the CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan Contras to a crack-dealing epidemic in Los Angeles and other American cities.
A cold panic set in at the L.A. Times when Webb's so-called Dark Alliance story first appeared. Just two years before, the Times had published a long takeout on local crack dealer Rickey Ross and no mention was made of his possible link to and financing by CIA-backed Contras. Now the Times feared it was being scooped in its own backyard by a second-tier Bay Area paper.
The Times mustered an army of 25 reporters, led by Doyle McManus, to take down Webb's reporting. It was, apparently, more important to the Times to defend its own inadequate reporting on the CIA-drug connection than it was to advance Webb's important work (a charge consistently denied by the Times). The New York Times and the Washington Post also joined in on the public lynching of Webb. Webb's own editor, Jerry Ceppos, also helped do him in, with a public mea culpa backing away from his own papers stories.
Webb was further undermined by some of his own most fervent supporters. With the help of demagogues like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a conspiracy-theory hysteria was whipped up that used Webb's series as "proof" that the CIA was more or less single-handedly responsible for South-Centrals crack plague – a gross distortion of Webb's work.
But that conspiracy theory played perfectly into the hands of the L.A. Times. When its own three-day series appeared a few months later – attempting to demolish Webb – the Times disproved a number of points that were never made by Webb, primarily that the CIA consciously engaged in a program to spread the use of crack.
The Times' Washington-based reporter McManus, who spent most of the late '80s and early '90s as one of the less-curious fourth-estate stenographers to the Reagan/Bush administrations, relied principally on CIA sources to vindicate the CIA in the anti-Webb series. Citing a "former CIA official" named Vince Cannistraro, McManus wrote that "CIA officials insist they knew nothing" about the Contra-drug dealers named by Webb. Cannistraro, however, was more fit to be a subject of the Times investigation than a source. Over the length of the Times series it was never mentioned that Cannistraro had actually been in charge of the CIA-Contra operation in the early '80s, that is, before moving on to help supervise the covert program of CIA-backed Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan (who themselves were, and continue to be, knee-deep in the heroin trade).
Which brings us back to this week's obit written by Nita Lelyveld and Steve Hymon. The lead and body of the obit focus on the discrediting of Webb by the L.A. Times and fail to mention his Pulitzer until a dozen paragraphs down in the story.
Long before we learn of Webb's Pulitzer, won in 1990 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake, Lelyveld and Hymon obediently recite their own papers indictment of Webbs expos on the CIA-drug connection. They quote the 1996 McManus slam on Webb, saying, "...the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of [Webb's] allegations."
It's an astounding and nasty little piece of postmortem butchery on Webb (which never mentions that after his series appeared, Webb was voted the 1996 Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists). Absolutely missing from Webb's obit is that it was his series that directly forced both the CIA and the Justice Department to conduct internal investigations into the scope of any links between the Agency and drug dealers.
Worse, the results of those investigations proved that the core of what Webb alleged was, indeed, true and accurate. When CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz presented the findings of his internal investigation to Congress in 1998 (two years after Webb's piece and the ensuing Times vindication of the CIA), he revealed for the first time an eye-popping agreement that the CIA had cemented with the Justice Department: Between 1982 and 1995, the CIA was exempted from informing the DOJ if its non-employee agents, paid or unpaid, were dealing drugs. In short, it was the policy of the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to such connections.
The same report by the CIA inspector general, by the way, admitted what we all knew in any case – that those connections did, in fact, exist.
And here's the low point in this tale: After the CIA inspector general made public the second part of his investigation – the one sparked by Webb – which admitted to some links between the agency and Central American drug dealers, the L.A. Times chose not to publish a single story about the report. (No surprise here. Back in 1989, when a panel led by Senator John Kerry found similar CIA-drug-running links, the Times showed equal disinterest.)
In short, when it came to the Gary Webb series and its allegations, the L.A. Times wound up being more protective of the CIA than the CIA itself.
None of this explains why, in Webb's obit, Lelyveld and Hymon omit the on-the-record admissions by the CIA of its involvement with drug-connected Contras, an admission owed directly to Webb's work. Maybe, you say, the Times reporters are lazy and just didn't look beyond their own paper's archives. And because the Times didn't cover those admissions, Lelyveld and Hymon remain (eight years after the fact) in the dark.
No. I fear the answer is worse than that. One of the Times reporters who wrote the obit, we now learn, called veteran reporter Bob Parry the other day for comment on Webb's death. Back in 1985, Parry and his partner Bob Barger – working for the AP – were the first to break the story of CIA involvement with drug-linked Contras. Says Parry: "The Times reporter who called to interview me ignored my comments about the debt the nation owed Webb and the importance of the CIA's inspector-general findings. Instead of using Webb's death as an opportunity to finally get the story straight, the Times acted as if there never had been an official investigation confirming many of Webb's allegations."
Gary Webb's work deserved to be taken seriously and to be closely scrutinized precisely because of the scope of his allegations. As more-objective critics than the Times have pointed out, Webb overstated some of his conclusions, he too loosely framed some of his theses, and perhaps (perhaps) overestimated the actual amount of drug funding that fueled the Contra war. And for that he deserved to be criticized.
The core of his work, however, still stands. When much of the rest of the media went to sleep, Gary Webb dug and scratched and courageously took on the most powerful and arrogant and unaccountable agencies of the U.S. government. His tenacious reporting forced those same agencies to investigate themselves and to admit publicly – albeit in watered-down terms – what he had alleged.
Webb's reward was to be drummed out of the profession. After his editors cowardly recanted his stories (which they had vetted), he was demoted to a suburban bureau. After a year, Webb quit and wrote up his findings into a book. The book was mostly ignored by the press. Webb took up a job as an investigator for the California Legislature and helped spit-roast one Gray Davis. Last year, Webb lost that job and yearned, unsuccessfully for the most part, to get back into journalism. From a conservative Southern California military family, Webb was driven not by an ideological agenda but rather by a sense of fairness and justice. He was found last Friday in his Northern California home after he shot himself to death.
Recently, Webb was interviewed for a book profiling 18 journalists who found themselves discredited or censored. Let his own words be a more fitting epitaph than the hack-job L.A. Times obituary:
"If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me... I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests....
"And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job.... The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."
Gary Webb, R.I.P.
It's easy to understand how filmmaker Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) was captivated by the theatrical buoyancy of Jean Dominique, one of Haiti's most prominent human-rights fighters and that bedeviled country's most combative radio journalist. Though Dominique -- slim, wiry, a pipe stuck in his mouth -- cuts a somewhat unprepossessing figure, his emotive-verging-on-manic personality easily fills a screen, even when recorded on shaky video. Demme met and began to film Dominique in exile, in the late 1980s, and continued shooting footage with the Haitian crusader over the years. The result is a 90-minute homage to the man and his cause that also serves, unfortunately, as an epitaph to his martyrdom, and to that of his nation.
Indeed, Dominique's life almost perfectly coincides with Haiti's modern history. He was born in 1930, when U.S. Marines were still occupying the island, so his nationalist indignation took shape early. After studying in France, he returned home as a young agronomist -- and, incidentally, as the committed cinephile who opened Haiti's first film club, only to see it shuttered a few years later by the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
By the mid-1960s, Dominique had purchased Radio Haiti Inter and turned the station into a bold voice of opposition. "Risky business," he called it. Jailings and beatings followed and eventually led to his 1980 exile in New York City. When the Duvalier regime collapsed seven years later, Dominique returned to Port-au-Prince and was met at the airport by 60,000 cheering supporters. By 1990, when the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been elected president by a two-thirds majority, Dominique had reason to believe that his dreams of Haitian democracy and freedom were at last being realized. That reverie came crashing down within a year: A right-wing military coup unseated Aristide and once again thrust Dominique into exile. In 1995, when Aristide was restored to power by the "peaceful invasion" of U.S. troops dispatched by Bill Clinton, the always-ebullient journalist reopened his radio station.
An ardent supporter of the social revolution promised by Aristide, Dominique became disillusioned when the new regime began more and more to resemble the old one. In April 2000, after a public squabble with one of Aristide's security chiefs, Jean Dominique, age 70, and an assistant were gunned down on the steps of Radio Haiti Inter.
In The Agronomist, Demme reconstructs this extraordinary life, deftly mixing stock news footage with his own interviews with Dominique, and with the journalist's courageous wife, sisters, daughter and co-workers. And although the film may be about 20 percent overweight, the human story of a man who -- for four decades -- spat in the eye of his tormentors and gleefully accepted his role as a latter-day Sisyphus commands the viewer's attention.
Demme's chronicle concludes with Dominique's wife, Michele Montas, reopening the station yet again, a month after her husband's funeral. Ending The Agronomist here saves the audience further pain. Twenty months after Dominique's murder, the news director of another Haitian radio station was hacked to pieces by a machete-wielding gang. Soon after this, a third station burned to the ground. Montas' bodyguard was murdered in late 2002, and she once more fled the country. Earlier this year, an odd coalition of street thugs, former military officers and disaffected grassroots groups squeezed Aristide out of power. If Dominique were alive today, he'd be amazed, no doubt, to find his people are right back where they were at the time of his birth -- with U.S. Marines guarding an unelected government.
The Agronomist is clearly a labor of love for Demme, whose big-budget remake of The Manchurian Candidate -- transposed from the Korean to the Gulf War -- opens this summer. I can't imagine anyone in Hollywood urging him to use what was essentially his home video to craft a full-length project on such an obscure and earnest subject. He's to be doubly congratulated, then, and not least for his persistence in producing a valuable and deeply haunting portrait of a social activist who lived and died for the highest ideals.
After two decades in the U.S. Air Force, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, now 43, knew her career as a regional analyst was coming to an end when -- in the months leading up to the war in Iraq -- she felt she was being "propagandized" by her own bosses.
With master's degrees from Harvard in government and zoology and two books on Saharan Africa to her credit, she found herself transferred in the spring of 2002 to a post as a political/military desk officer at the Defense Department's office for Near East South Asia (NESA), a policy arm of the Pentagon.
Kwiatkowski got there just as war fever was spreading, or being spread, as she would later argue, through the halls of Washington. Indeed, shortly after her arrival, a piece of NESA was broken off, expanded and re-dubbed with the Orwellian name of the Office of Special Plans. The OSP's task was, ostensibly, to help the Pentagon develop policy around the Iraq crisis.
She would soon conclude that the OSP -- a pet project of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld -- was more akin to a nerve center for what she now calls a "neoconservative coup, a hijacking of the Pentagon."
Though a lifelong conservative, Kwiatkowski found herself appalled as the radical wing of the Bush administration, including her superiors in the Pentagon planning department, bulldozed internal dissent, overlooked its own intelligence and relentlessly pushed for confrontation with Iraq.
Deeply frustrated and alarmed, Kwiatkowski, still on active duty, took the unusual step of penning an anonymous column of internal Pentagon dissent that was posted on the Internet by former Colonel David Hackworth, America's most decorated veteran.
As war inevitably approached, and as she neared her 20-year mark in the Air Force, Kwiatkowski concluded the only way she could viably resist what she now terms the "expansionist, imperialist" policies of the neoconservatives who dominated Iraq policy was by retiring and taking up a public fight against them.
She left the military last March, the same week that troops invaded Iraq. Kwiatkowski started putting her real name on her Web reports and began accepting speaking invitations. "I'm now a soldier for the truth," she said in a speech last week at Cal Poly Pomona. Afterward, I spoke with her.
What was the relationship between NESA and the now-notorious Office of Special Plans, the group set up by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney? Was the OSP, in reality, an intelligence operation to act as counter to the CIA?
Karen Kwiatkowski: The NESA office includes the Iraq desk, as well as the desks of the rest of the region. It is under Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bill Luti. When I joined them, in May 2002, the Iraq desk was there. We shared the same space, and we were all part of the same general group. At that time, it was expanding. Contractors and employees were coming though it wasn't clear what they were doing.
In August of 2002, the expanded Iraq desk found new spaces and moved into them. It was told to us that this was now to be known as the Office of Special Plans. The Office of Special Plans would take issue with those who say they were doing intelligence. They would say they were developing policy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the invasion of Iraq.
But developing policy is not the same as developing propaganda and pushing a particular agenda. And actually, that's more what they really did. They pushed an agenda on Iraq, and they developed pretty sophisticated propaganda lines which were fed throughout government, to the Congress, and even internally to the Pentagon -- to try and make this case of immediacy. This case of severe threat to the United States.
You retired when the war broke out and have been speaking out publicly. But you were already publishing critical reports anonymously while still in uniform and while still on active service. Why did you take that rather unusual step?
Due to my frustration over what I was seeing around me as soon as I joined Bill Luti's organization, what I was seeing in terms of neoconservative agendas and the way they were being pursued to formulate a foreign policy and a military policy -- an invasion of a sovereign country, an occupation, a poorly planned occupation. I was concerned about it; I was in opposition to that, and I was not alone.
So I started writing what I considered to be funny, short essays for my own sanity. Eventually, I e-mailed them to former Colonel David Hackworth, who runs the Web page Soldiers for the Truth, and he published them under the title "Insider Notes From the Pentagon." I wrote 28 of those columns from August 2002 until I retired.
There you were, a career military officer, a Pentagon analyst, a conservative who had given two decades to this work. What provoked you to become first a covert and later a public dissident?
Like most people, I've always thought there should be honesty in government. Working 20 years in the military, I'm sure I saw some things that were less than honest or accountable. But nothing to the degree that I saw when I joined Near East South Asia.
This was creatively produced propaganda spread not only through the Pentagon, but across a network of policymakers -- the State Department, with John Bolton; the Vice President's Office, the very close relationship the OSP had with that office. That is not normal, that is a bypassing of normal processes. Then there was the National Security Council, with certain people who had neoconservative views; Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff; a network of think tanks who advocated neoconservative views -- the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy with Frank Gaffney, the columnist Charles Krauthammer -- was very reliable. So there was just not a process inside the Pentagon that should have developed good honest policy, but it was instead pushing a particular agenda; this group worked in a coordinated manner, across media and parts of the government, with their neoconservative compadres.
How did you experience this in your day-to-day work?
There was a sort of groupthink, an adopted storyline: We are going to invade Iraq and we are going to eliminate Saddam Hussein and we are going to have bases in Iraq. This was all a given even by the time I joined them, in May of 2002.
You heard this in staff meetings?
The discussions were ones of this sort of inevitability. The concerns were only that some policymakers still had to get onboard with this agenda. Not that this agenda was right or wrong -- but that we needed to convince the remaining holdovers. Colin Powell, for example. There was a lot of frustration with Powell; they said a lot of bad things about him in the office. They got very angry with him when he convinced Bush to go back to the U.N. and forced a four-month delay in their invasion plans.
General Tony Zinni is another one. Zinni, the combatant commander of Central Command, Tommy Franks' predecessor -- a very well-qualified guy who knows the Middle East inside out, knows the military inside out, a Marine, a great guy. He spoke out publicly as President Bush's Middle East envoy about some of the things he saw. Before he was removed by Bush, I heard Zinni called a traitor in a staff meeting. They were very anti-anybody who might provide information that affected their paradigm. They were the spin enforcers.
How did this atmosphere affect your work? To be direct, were you told by your superiors what you could say and not say? What could and could not be discussed? Or were opinions they didn't like just ignored?
I can give you one clear example where we were told to follow the party line, where I was told directly. I worked North Africa, which included Libya. I remember in one case, I had to rewrite something a number of times before it went through. It was a background paper on Libya, and Libya has been working for years to try and regain the respect of the international community. I had intelligence that told me this, and I quoted from the intelligence, but they made me go back and change it and change it. They'd make me delete the quotes from intelligence so they could present their case on Libya in a way that said it was still a threat to its neighbors and that Libya was still a belligerent, antagonistic force. They edited my reports in that way. In fact, the last report I made, they said, "Just send me the file." And I don't know what the report ended up looking like, because I imagine more changes were made.
On Libya, really a small player, the facts did not fit their paradigm that we have all these enemies.
One person you've written about is Abe Shulsky. You describe him as a personable, affable fellow but one who played a key role in the official spin that led to war.
Abe was the director of the Office of Special Plans. He was in our shared offices when I joined, in May 2002. He comes from an academic background; he's definitely a neoconservative. He is a student of Leo Strauss from the University of Chicago -- so he has that Straussian academic perspective. He was the final proving authority on all the talking points that were generated from the Office of Special Plans and that were distributed throughout the Pentagon, certainly to staff officers. And it appears to me they were also distributed to the Vice President's Office and to the presidential speechwriters. Much of the phraseology that was in our talking points consists of the same things I heard the president say.
So Shulsky was the sort of controller, the disciplinarian, the overseeing monitor of the propaganda flow. From where you sat, did you see him manipulate the information?
We had a whole staff to help him do that, and he was the approving authority. I can give you one example of how the talking points were altered. We were instructed by Bill Luti, on behalf of the Office of Special Plans, on behalf of Abe Shulsky, that we would not write anything about Iraq, WMD or terrorism in any papers that we prepared for our superiors except as instructed by the Office of Special Plans. And it would provide to us an electronic document of talking points on these issues. So, I got to see how they evolved.
It was very clear to me that they did not evolve as a result of new intelligence, of improved intelligence, or any type of seeking of the truth. The way they evolved is that certain bullets were dropped or altered based on what was being reported on the front pages of the Washington Post or The New York Times.
Can you be specific?
One item that was dropped was in November . It was the issue of the meeting in Prague prior to 9/11 between Mohammed Atta and a member of Saddam Hussein's intelligence force. We had had this in our talking points from September through mid-November. And then it dropped out totally. No explanation. Just gone. That was because the media reported that the FBI had stepped away from that, that the CIA said it didn't happen.
Let's clarify this. Talking points are generally used to deal with media. But you were a desk officer, not a politician who had to go and deal with the press. So are you saying the Office of Special Plans provided you a schematic, an outline of the way major points should be addressed in any report or analysis that you developed regarding Iraq, WMD or terrorism?
That's right. And these did not follow the intent, the content or the accuracy of intelligence . . .
They were political . . .
They were political, politically manipulated. They did have obviously bits of intelligence in them, but they were created to propagandize. So, we inside the Pentagon, staff officers and senior administration officials who might not work Iraq directly, were being propagandized by this same Office of Special Plans.
In the 10 months you worked in that office in the run-up to the war, was there ever any open debate? The public, at least, was being told at the time that there was a serious assessment going on regarding the level of threat from Iraq, the presence or absence of WMD, et cetera. Was this debated inside your office at the Pentagon?
No. Those things were not debated. To them, Saddam Hussein needed to go.
You believe that decision was made by the time you got there, almost a year before the war?
That decision was made by the time I got there. So there was no debate over WMD, the possible relations Saddam Hussein may have had with terrorist groups and so on. They spent their energy gathering pieces of information and creating a propaganda storyline, which is the same storyline we heard the president and Vice President Cheney tell the American people in the fall of 2002.
The very phrases they used are coming back to haunt them because they are blatantly false and not based on any intelligence. The OSP and the Vice President's Office were critical in this propaganda effort -- to convince Americans that there was some just requirement for pre-emptive war.
What do you believe the real reasons were for the war?
The neoconservatives needed to do more than just topple Saddam Hussein. They wanted to put in a government friendly to the U.S., and they wanted permanent basing in Iraq. There are several reasons why they wanted to do that. None of those reasons, of course, was presented to the American people or to Congress.
So you don't think there was a genuine interest as to whether or not there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
It's not about interest. We knew. We knew from many years of both high-level surveillance and other types of shared intelligence, not to mention the information from the U.N., we knew, we knew what was left [from the Gulf War] and the viability of any of that. Bush said he didn't know.
The truth is, we know [Saddam] didn't have these things. Almost a billion dollars has been spent -- a billion dollars! -- by David Kay's group to search for these WMD, a total whitewash effort. They didn't find anything, they didn't expect to find anything.
So if, as you argue, they knew there weren't any of these WMD, then what exactly drove the neoconservatives to war?
The neoconservatives pride themselves on having a global vision, a long-term strategic perspective. And there were three reasons why they felt the U.S. needed to topple Saddam, put in a friendly government and occupy Iraq.
One of those reasons is that sanctions and containment were working and everybody pretty much knew it. Many companies around the world were preparing to do business with Iraq in anticipation of a lifting of sanctions. But the U.S. and the U.K. had been bombing northern and southern Iraq since 1991. So, it was very unlikely that we would be in any kind of position to gain significant contracts in any post-sanctions Iraq. And those sanctions were going to be lifted soon, Saddam would still be in place, and we would get no financial benefit.
The second reason has to do with our military-basing posture in the region. We had been very dissatisfied with our relations with Saudi Arabia, particularly the restrictions on our basing. And also, there was dissatisfaction from the people of Saudi Arabia. So, we were looking for alternate strategic locations beyond Kuwait, beyond Qatar, to secure something we had been searching for since the days of Carter -- to secure the energy lines of communication in the region. Bases in Iraq, then, were very important -- that is, if you hold that is America's role in the world. Saddam Hussein was not about to invite us in.
The last reason is the conversion, the switch Saddam Hussein made in the Food for Oil program, from the dollar to the euro. He did this, by the way, long before 9/11, in November 2000 -- selling his oil for euros. The oil sales permitted in that program aren't very much. But when the sanctions would be lifted, the sales from the country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet would have been moving to the euro.
The U.S. dollar is in a sensitive period because we are a debtor nation now. Our currency is still popular, but it's not backed up like it used to be. If oil, a very solid commodity, is traded on the euro, that could cause massive, almost glacial, shifts in confidence in trading on the dollar. So one of the first executive orders that Bush signed in May  switched trading on Iraq's oil back to the dollar.
At the time you left the military, a year ago, just how great was the influence of this neoconservative faction on Pentagon policy?
When it comes to Middle East policy, they were in complete control, at least in the Pentagon. There was some debate at the State Department.
Indeed, when you were still in uniform and writing a Web column anonymously, you expressed your bitter disappointment when Secretary of State Powell -- in your words -- eventually "capitulated."
He did. When he made his now-famous PowerPoint slide presentation at the U.N., he totally capitulated. It meant he was totally onboard. Whether he believed it or not.
You gave your life to the military, you voted Republican for many years, you say you served in the Pentagon right up to the outbreak of war. What does it feel like to be out now, publicly denouncing your old bosses?
Know what it feels like? It feels like duty. That's what it feels like. I've thought about it many times. You know, I spent 20 years working for something that -- at least under this administration -- turned out to be something I wasn't working for. I mean, these people have total disrespect for the Constitution. We swear an oath, military officers and NCOs alike swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. These people have no respect for the Constitution. The Congress was misled, it was lied to. At a very minimum, that is a subversion of the Constitution. A pre-emptive war based on what we knew was not a pressing need is not what this country stands for.
What I feel now is that I'm not retired. I still have a responsibility to do my part as a citizen to try and correct the problem.
Marc Cooper writes for the LA Weekly.
It's lucky for George W. Bush that he wasn't born in an earlier time and somehow stumbled into America's Constitutional Convention. A man with his views, so deprecative of democratic rule, would have certainly been quickly exiled from the freshly liberated United States by the gaggle of incensed Founders. So muses one of our most controversial social critics and prolific writers, Gore Vidal.
When we last interviewed Vidal just over a year ago, he set off a mighty chain reaction as he positioned himself as one of the last standing defenders of the ideal of the American Republic. His acerbic comments to L.A. Weekly about the Bushies were widely reprinted in publications around the world and flashed repeatedly over the World Wide Web. Now Vidal is at it again, giving the Weekly another dose of his dissent, and with the constant trickle of casualties mounting in Iraq, his comments are no less explosive than they were last year.
This time, however, Vidal is speaking to us as a full-time American. After splitting his time between Los Angeles and Italy for the past several decades, Vidal has decided to roost in his colonial home in the Hollywood Hills. Now 77 years old, suffering from a bad knee and still recovering from the loss earlier this year of his longtime companion, Howard Austen, Vidal is feistier and more productive than ever.
Vidal undoubtedly had current pols like Bush and Ashcroft in mind when he wrote his latest book, his third in two years. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson takes us deep into the psyches of the patriotic trio. And even with all of their human foibles on display -- vanity, ambition, hubris, envy and insecurity -- their shared and profoundly rooted commitment to building the first democratic nation on Earth comes straight to the fore.
The contrast between then and now is hardly implicit. No more than a few pages into the book, Vidal unveils his dripping disdain for the crew that now dominates the capital named for our first president.
As we began our dialogue, I asked him to draw out the links between our revolutionary past and our imperial present.
MARC COOPER:Your new book focuses on Washington, Adams and Jefferson, but it seems from reading closely that it was actually Ben Franklin who turned out to be the most prescient regarding the future of the republic.
GORE VIDAL: Franklin understood the American people better than the other three. Washington and Jefferson were nobles -- slaveholders and plantation owners. Alexander Hamilton married into a rich and powerful family and joined the upper classes. Benjamin Franklin was pure middle class. In fact, he may have invented it for Americans. Franklin saw danger everywhere. They all did. Not one of them liked the Constitution. James Madison, known as the father of it, was full of complaints about the power of the presidency. But they were in a hurry to get the country going. Hence the great speech, which I quote at length in the book, that Franklin, old and dying, had someone read for him. He said, I am in favor of this Constitution, as flawed as it is, because we need good government and we need it fast. And this, properly enacted, will give us, for a space of years, such government.
But then, Franklin said, it will fail, as all such constitutions have in the past, because of the essential corruption of the people. He pointed his finger at all the American people. And when the people become so corrupt, he said, we will find it is not a republic that they want but rather despotism -- the only form of government suitable for such a people.
But Jefferson had the most radical view, didn't he? He argued that the Constitution should be seen only as a transitional document.
Oh yeah. Jefferson said that once a generation we must have another Constitutional Convention and revise all that isn't working. Like taking a car in to get the carburetor checked. He said you cannot expect a man to wear a boy's jacket. It must be revised, because the Earth belongs to the living. He was the first that I know who ever said that. And to each generation is the right to change every law they wish. Or even the form of government. You know, bring in the Dalai Lama if you want! Jefferson didn't care.
Jefferson was the only pure democrat among the founders, and he thought the only way his idea of democracy could be achieved would be to give the people a chance to change the laws. Madison was very eloquent in his answer to Jefferson. He said you cannot [have] any government of any weight if you think it is only going to last a year.
This was the quarrel between Madison and Jefferson. And it would probably still be going on if there were at least one statesman around who said we have to start changing this damn thing.
Your book revisits the debate between the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Hamiltonian Federalists, which at the time were effectively young America's two parties. More than 200 years later, do we still see any strands, any threads of continuity in our current body politic?
Just traces. But mostly we find the sort of corruption Franklin predicted. Ours is a totally corrupt society. The presidency is for sale. Whoever raises the most money to buy TV time will probably be the next president. This is corruption on a major scale.
Enron was an eye-opener to naive lovers of modern capitalism. Our accounting brotherhood, in its entirety, turned out to be corrupt, on the take. With the government absolutely colluding with them and not giving a damn.
Bush's friend, old Kenny Lay, is still at large and could just as well start some new company tomorrow. If he hasn't already. No one is punished for squandering the people's money and their pension funds and for wrecking the economy.
So the corruption predicted by Franklin bears its terrible fruit. No one wants to do anything about it. It's not even a campaign issue. Once you have a business community that is so corrupt in a society whose business is business, then what you have is, indeed, despotism. It is the sort of authoritarian rule that the Bush people have given us. The USA PATRIOT Act is as despotic as anything Hitler came up with -- even using much of the same language. In one of my earlier books, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, I show how the language used by the Clinton people to frighten Americans into going after terrorists like Timothy McVeigh -- how their rights were going to be suspended only for a brief time -- was precisely the language used by Hitler after the Reichstag fire.
In this context, would any of the Founding Fathers find themselves comfortable in the current political system of the United States? Certainly Jefferson wouldn't. But what about the radical centralizers, or those like John Adams, who had a sneaking sympathy for the monarchy?
Adams thought monarchy, as tamed and balanced by the parliament, could offer democracy. But he was no totalitarian, not by any means. Hamilton, on the other hand, might have very well gone along with the Bush people, because he believed there was an elite who should govern. He nevertheless was a bastard born in the West Indies, and he was always a little nervous about his own social station. He, of course, married into wealth and became an aristo. And it is he who argues that we must have a government made up of the very best people, meaning the rich.
So you'd find Hamilton pretty much on the Bush side. But I can't think of any other Founders who would. Adams would surely disapprove of Bush. He was highly moral, and I don't think he could endure the current dishonesty. Already they were pretty bugged by a bunch of journalists who came over from Ireland and such places and were telling Americans how to do things. You know, like Andrew Sullivan today telling us how to be. I think you would find a sort of union of discontent with Bush among the Founders. The sort of despotism that overcomes us now is precisely what Franklin predicted.
But Gore, you have lived through a number of inglorious administrations in your lifetime, from Truman's founding of the national-security state, to LBJ's debacle in Vietnam, to Nixon and Watergate, and yet here you are to tell the tale. So when it comes to this Bush administration, are you really talking about despots per se? Or is this really just one more rather corrupt and foolish Republican administration?
No. We are talking about despotism. I have read not only the first PATRIOT Act but also the second one, which has not yet been totally made public nor approved by Congress and to which there is already great resistance. An American citizen can be fingered as a terrorist, and with what proof? No proof. All you need is the word of the attorney general or maybe the president himself. You can then be locked up without access to a lawyer, and then tried by military tribunal and even executed. Or, in a brand-new wrinkle, you can be exiled, stripped of your citizenship and packed off to another place not even organized as a country -- like Tierra del Fuego or some rock in the Pacific. All of this is in the USA PATRIOT Act. The Founding Fathers would have found this to be despotism in spades. And they would have hanged anybody who tried to get this through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Hanged.
So if George W. Bush or John Ashcroft had been around in the early days of the republic, they would have been indicted and then hanged by the Founders?
No. It would have been better and worse. [Laughs] Bush and Ashcroft would have been considered so disreputable as to not belong in this country at all. They might be invited to go down to Bolivia or Paraguay and take part in the military administration of some Spanish colony, where they would feel so much more at home. They would not be called Americans -- most Americans would not think of them as citizens.
Do you not think of Bush and Ashcroft as Americans?
I think of them as an alien army. They have managed to take over everything, and quite in the open. We have a deranged president. We have despotism. We have no due process.
Yet you saw in the '60s how the Johnson administration collapsed under the weight of its own hubris. Likewise with Nixon. And now with the discontent over how the war in Iraq is playing out, don't you get the impression that Bush is headed for the same fate?
I actually see something smaller tripping him up: this business over outing the wife of Ambassador Wilson as a CIA agent. It's often these small things that get you. Something small enough for a court to get its teeth into. Putting this woman at risk because of anger over what her husband has done is bitchy, dangerous to the nation, dangerous to other CIA agents. This resonates more than Iraq. I'm afraid that 90 percent of Americans don't know where Iraq is and never will know, and they don't care.
But that number of $87 billion is seared into their brains, because there isn't enough money to go around. The states are broke. Meanwhile, the right wing has been successful in convincing 99 percent of the people that we are generously financing every country on Earth, that we are bankrolling welfare mothers, all those black ladies that the Republicans are always running against, the ladies they tell us are guzzling down Kristal champagne at the Ambassador East in Chicago -- which of course is ridiculous.
And now the people see another $87 billion going out the window. So long! People are going to rebel against that one. Congress has gone along with that, but a lot of congressmen could lose their seats for that.
Speaking of elections, is George W. Bush going to be re-elected next year?
No. At least if there is a fair election, an election that is not electronic. That would be dangerous. We don't want an election without a paper trail. The makers of the voting machines say no one can look inside of them, because they would reveal trade secrets. What secrets? Isn't their job to count votes? Or do they get secret messages from Mars? Is the cure for cancer inside the machines? I mean, come on. And all three owners of the companies who make these machines are donors to the Bush administration. Is this not corruption?
So Bush will probably win if the country is covered with these balloting machines. He can't lose.
But Gore, aren't you still enough of a believer in the democratic instincts of ordinary people to think that, in the end, those sorts of conspiracies eventually fall apart?
Oh no! I find they only get stronger, more entrenched. Who would have thought that Harry Truman's plans to militarize America would have come as far as we are today? All the money we have wasted on the military, while our schools are nowhere. There is no health care; we know the litany. We get nothing back for our taxes. I wouldn't have thought that would have lasted the last 50 years, which I lived through. But it did last.
But getting back to Bush. If we use old-fashioned paper ballots and have them counted in the precinct where they are cast, he will be swept from office. He's made every error you can. He's wrecked the economy. Unemployment is up. People can't find jobs. Poverty is up. It's a total mess. How does he make such a mess? Well, he is plainly very stupid. But the people around him are not. They want to stay in power.
You paint a very dark picture of the current administration and of the American political system in general. But at a deeper, more societal level, isn't there still a democratic underpinning?
No. There are some memories of what we once were. There are still a few old people around who remember the New Deal, which was the last time we had a government that showed some interest in the welfare of the American people. Now we have governments, in the last 20 to 30 years, that care only about the welfare of the rich.
Is Bush the worst president we've ever had?
Well, nobody has ever wrecked the Bill of Rights as he has. Other presidents have dodged around it, but no president before this one has so put the Bill of Rights at risk. No one has proposed preemptive war before. And two countries in a row that have done no harm to us have been bombed.
How do you think the current war in Iraq is going to play out?
I think we will go down the tubes right with it. With each action Bush ever more enrages the Muslims. And there are a billion of them. And sooner or later they will have a Saladin who will pull them together, and they will come after us. And it won't be pretty.
Four years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct a 40-minute radio interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. I found him fascinating. A formidable intellectual wrestler, agile and combative, he was also remarkably self-reflective, ready to re-assess anything and everything about his life and career, brimming with second -- and third and fourth -- thoughts about his role as prime architect of the Vietnam War. My only regret was that I didn't have the opportunity to lay down another half-dozen hours of talk with him on tape.
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death) did, and the artfully constructed 106-minute film that emerges -- one that clearly intends to portray the now 87-year-old McNamara in all his complexity and ambiguity -- evokes a handful of compelling and tantalizing passages. Consisting mostly of the gnomish former Pentagon chief talking at the fixed camera, intercut with newsreel footage and delicately executed re-creations staged to augment and punctuate the narration, The Fog of War unpacks some stunning moments: McNamara's virulent denunciation of nuclear weapons; his call for a more cooperative foreign policy; his emotional musings and teary-eyed remorse over the firebombings of Tokyo (in which he played a role in the closing days of World War II); his stirring emotional homage to Norman Morrison, the Quaker pacifist who immolated himself right below McNamara's Pentagon office window during the height of the Vietnam quagmire.
Vietnam and McNamara's role in that war naturally reside at the center of the documentary. But here, Morris' handling of the subject provides more frustration than satisfaction. This period is the Gordian knot of McNamara's life. In his books and interviews, he has toyed and tugged with the strings of that history. His explanations for his contradictory behavior have been, well, contradictory -- sometimes self-serving, other times piercingly self-critical and revisionist.
In Morris' film, which relies in part on archival recorded phone conversations, we hear the young McNamara, just seated in his Pentagon job after being hired away from his post as president of Ford Motor Co., energetically counseling President Kennedy to withdraw all of the 16,000 U.S. military advisers then deployed in Vietnam.
Three months later, after Kennedy's assassination, McNamara is back on the phone with his new boss, Lyndon Johnson, and the grumpy Texan is reaming him for ever having suggested an American withdrawal. For five more years, until he was essentially fired by LBJ in 1968, McNamara would zigzag between predicting disaster in Vietnam and faithfully carrying out the murderous escalations ordered by an obsessed American president.
Though it's no doubt McNamara's public ambivalence about his career that motivated Morris to make the movie, I fear that he misses much of the story. Morris is a more talented filmmaker than he is an interviewer. Meanwhile, McNamara is a subject so complex and so rich in nuance that he requires no cinematic embellishment -- no Spielbergian snowstorms, no dominoes collapsing again and again over a sepia-toned map of Indochina -- only intensive intellectual engagement.
Nearly 30 years after the end of the war, McNamara, who has not yet finished exploring his own psyche and moral responsibilities, is chock-a-block with stories and reflections that need to be patiently coaxed and teased out by someone willing to spend days and months not just aiming a lens at him, but rather engaging him in deeper and deeper dialogue.
Instead, the most Morris can offer is a handful of questions, awkwardly shouted off-camera. "Do you feel responsible for the war?" Morris demands near the end of the film. "Do you feel guilty?" McNamara responds curtly: "I don't want to go any further with this discussion."
But this is patently not the case. I know from McNamara's books and from my own talk with him that he's willing to go down that road if gently led -- or, if necessary, dragged. Instead of pushing, Morris just moves on, shortchanging both audience and subject.
Flawed as it may be, however, The Fog of War is very much worth seeing. Though Morris thought up the idea in 1995 and filmed most, if not all, of his film before U.S. troops poured into Baghdad, the unspoken parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are eerie and provocative. News footage of the middle-aged McNamara -- arrogant, cocky-as-hell, jousting with the press in his wire-rimmed glasses -- look uncannily like the briefing follies run today by Donald Rumsfeld. Likewise, the manner in which the Johnson administration cooked the intelligence over the Gulf of Tonkin and then proceeded to delude the American people, and itself, that we were acting on behalf of the cause of Vietnamese freedom is a sober cautionary tale that meshes neatly with today's headlines.
McNamara, recalling Vietnam, peers into Morris' camera and warns, "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." Those words, coming from the wrinkled little man who helped engineer and orchestrate that unique period of national madness in which America stood alone and scorned in the world, should be carefully heeded.
Marc Cooper writes for LA Weekly.
It's time to tune out the bleating elites and vacant talking heads whose doomsday warnings about these exciting times raise questions about their sanity. They need to spend more time with their de Tocqueville, who could have warned them that here in America nothing is more chaotic than democracy itself. Let's debunk five myths about the recall.
Myth No. 1: The recall election is a circus.
It's a circus only to the degree that cynical, shallow media make it so. Especially the electronic media in which the ringmasters are the TV news directors -- a species that wouldn't recognize a "serious" election if it fell on their empty heads. We're now going to get civics lectures from a bunch of ratings whores who long ago traded in their Sacramento bureaus for freeway telecopters?
Every election cycle attracts marginal and aberrant candidates, and the media usually ignore them after the one or two initial and totally predictable soft features. Angelyne, Gary Coleman, Larry Flynt et al. loom so large in this election only because the telephoto lenses remain so tightly locked onto them.
The L.A. Times (and other major metros) have also helped promote the circus theme, giving undue attention to the carnival candidates. A strange twist, as this is the same Times that barred Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader from the presidential debate it organized during the 2000 campaign. Times management argued at the time that Nader wasn't a serious enough candidate to warrant inclusion. Nader's mistake, apparently, was to not have Gary Coleman chauffeur him down to Spring Street in Angelyne's pink Vette.
Myth No. 2: The recall election will throw the state into chaos.
Whenever encrusted elites lose control of one of their processes, they always warn of chaos, catastrophe and dire consequences. Only they are wise enough to guide our lives. Nothing strikes so much fear into their manipulative little hearts as when the hoi polloi spin out of control -- out of their control.
An election in which pliant, predictable candidates are handpicked in backrooms and bankrolled by special interests, in which the victor comes to power through a $75 million campaign of slash-and-burn TV ads with a record-low turnout, well, thats just one more serious and orderly round of balloting, were supposed to believe. But let just any dumb bastard citizen off the street run for office, totally beyond the reach of the party and lobbyist elites, and that is a sure sign that California is sliding into the sea. What has the establishment so panicked about this election is hardly the threat of chaos. It's rather the unpredictability of the process and its outcome. Imagine electing some candidate that hasn't already been bought and paid for. The horror, the horror.
We're told the recall is a hijacking, a coup, the illegitimate overturning of a legitimate election; ultimately, we're warned, this is the unwashed and witless electorate running riot. Pundits beware: This "circus" election is likely to generate a bigger turnout than last year's "official" contest. A staggering 90 percent of voters say they plan to cast ballots on October 7. In a recent Gallup Poll, almost 70 percent of likely voters said they want to oust Gray Davis.
Those who continue to insist this recall is a sham perhaps ought to take the advice Bertolt Brecht once gave the East German regime: Maybe the government should dismiss the people and elect a new one?
The latest apocalyptic warning from the panicked elites is that with more than 100 names on the ballot, it could take 10 minutes (!) for a voter to go through and maybe 40 hours for some small counties to tally. As a reporter, I've been to more than one country where people braved jail and gunfire in order to vote, or even to just suggest an election should be held. Somehow I think the republic will survive if a lengthy ballot makes a few Californians late to Pilates classes on Election Day.
Myth No. 3: Organized labor is the force behind progressive politics.
It could be and should be. But it isn't. Ask just about any group of frontline union organizers --those 60-hour-a-week troops who actually pick up the authorization cards -- what they think of Gray Davis and they'll start to gag. In private conversation, even the labor bosses openly disdain Davis. These are the same folks, after all, who every couple of years mumble the same pie-eyed gibberish about "taking back the Democratic Party."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But when served up the golden opportunity to dump a Lite Democrat like Davis (one who had to be threatened with hunger strikes before he signed pro-UFW legislation) and actually take a stab at remolding the party, the labor hierarchy still refuses to make the break. Instead, County Federation chief Miguel Contreras threatens that he will sink any Democrat who breaks ranks in labor's defense of Davis. If only Contreras and the rest of Big Labor had been half that tough with the weenie governor during his first four years. Instead they now circle the wagons around Davis and begin their ritual moaning about right-wing conspiracies. It's boring. And disheartening.
What spectacular evidence of the political bankruptcy of the Democratic Party. Now all those "progressive" labor Democrats can spend the next eight weeks arguing over whether just to vote no on the recall or also vote affirmatively for Cruz Bustamante, the soporific darling of the anti-labor Indian casino lobby and dogged booster of the conservative Joe Lieberman. These self-styled progs are now reduced to almost comical blackmail: Support the most conservative and sluglike Democrat -- Bustamante -- or be accused of "spoiling." Spoiling what?
Myth No. 4: The Green Party is a viable alternative.
This should be a historic opportunity for Green candidate Peter Camejo, who got 5 percent of the vote in last year's gubernatorial election.
Camejo has pushed marijuana legalization and instant-runoff voting to the top of his agenda. These might be cutting-edge issues along the Venice boardwalk or in the UC Santa Cruz dorms, but they are not even remotely now on the minds of most California voters. The Greens' preference for talking to themselves rather than to others destines the party to soon wash up and splinter like the Peace and Freedom folks. Eventually the California Greens will be meeting in one guy's house with different sectarian groups caucusing in the living room and dining room.
Myth No. 5: An independent governor couldn't govern.
Nonsense. Only a populist independent could break up the special-interest logjam in Sacramento. That's why I'm pulling for Arianna, the most progressive candidate with the broadest appeal. When it comes to solving the state's economic crisis, the most Arnold has offered is that he will make sure all Californians have '"fantastic jobs." Right.
And Bustamante panders by vowing to roll back auto-registration fees.
Only Arianna has addressed the 900-pound gorilla of California politics: Proposition 13. Her number-one campaign vow is to start collecting fair --that is, radically increased -- taxes on commercial (not residential) property. She says if elected, she would take that proposal, along with measures for public financing of elections, and a guarantee of universal health care and adequate education, to the Legislature. If, as expected, the Legislature balks, Huffington says she would place the whole package before the voters as a set of ballot initiatives and would use her bully pulpit as governor to push for their approval. That's a serious, responsible and plausible outline for deep reform. The only one on that very long ballot.
But beware: To be successful, it would require actually trusting the voters.
Mark Cooper writes for the LA Weekly.
An American friend of mine visiting from South America walked away from one of last month's parties around the L.A. Times Books Festival rather shaken and bewildered. "I felt like I was in a loony bin," he said as we emerged from a chic book-launch party in the Hollywood Hills. "If one more crazy person came up to me with some crackpot theory, I swear I would have thrown him off the balcony," he said.
I know what he meant. With the 2004 presidential campaign now under way, it seems clear that as whacked out as George W. Bush may be, he's driving his opponents even crazier. Nothing short of some sort of mass hysteria has gripped everyone to the left of Condi Rice.
Within one 30-minute period during that book gathering, my friend and I logged the following revelations offered us by some of our fellow partygoers: Bush will steal the 2004 election because "It's all in the voting machines -- keep your eye on those machines." There will be no next election because Bush will stage an auto-coup. Bush's 70 percent approval rating for the war isn't real -- it's a made-up number. American, not Iraqi, troops set the oil wells on fire in 1991. U.S. Marines directed and orchestrated the looting of Baghdad. Fidel Castro didn't really want to lock up all those writers and execute those three hijackers without a proper trial, but the Bush administration forced him to do it. We've entered a period of cultural repression worse than McCarthyism. And, my current favorite, Michael Moore wasn't really booed at the Oscars -- instead, the network ran an amplified and prerecorded loop to discredit him. (I know this one is crazy because I alone booed loudly enough from my Woodland Hills living room to be clearly heard in the Kodak's upper deck.)
Where does all this paranoia come from? Fluoride in the water? And these hyperbolic views are hardly confined to the political amateurs drawn to Sunday-evening gatherings by finger food and Chardonnay. In the current edition of The Nation, Princeton professor emeritus of politics Sheldon Wolin argues that the Bush administration has embarked on building a regime akin to that of Nazi Germany and that ordinary GOP voters might be no less than the "mass base" needed for totalitarian rule (wait till my poor blue-rinsed Aunt Gertie finds out she actually joined up with the Sturmabteilung when she voted last March for that nice-looking Billy Simon).
Even this month's liberal American Prospect proclaims George W. Bush as "The Most Dangerous President Ever." I can buy the notion that Dubya might be the worst president ever. But the most dangerous? More dangerous than nuke-slinging Harry Truman, who also set up the CIA, helped spawn the Cold War and opened the doors to Senator Joe from Wisconsin? More dangerous than LBJ, who murdered a couple of million Vietnamese? What about a drunken and pilled-out Dick Nixon playing atomic roulette during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War?
I'll be the first to admit that it's galling to watch a smirking C-minus daddy's boy like George W. Bush get away with so much. But let's not lose our grip on reality. Things are bad enough that we need not exaggerate or fabricate. What really worries me is that by magnifying the damage Bush wreaks, we pave the way to settling for some really, truly sorry alternative -- like, say, Dick Gephardt. We also make it much harder to beat Bush.
Those who deny Bush's popularity and his appeal aren't so much living in Nuremberg as in la-la land. To millions of Americans still traumatized after September 11, watching Bush strut onto the flight deck of that aircraft carrier in his TV-friendly pilot's suit last week was a much more reassuring image than that of Big Bill getting his weenie waxed under the desk while taking congressional phone calls about Bosnia.
So let's do a quick reality check. No, Mr. Wolin, we are not living in Nazi Germany nor anything vaguely resembling it. And arguing that Bush is some sort of Nazi isn't going to win over a single undecided vote. Bush has shown more or less the same zeal to roll back civil liberties as Clinton did after Oklahoma City. And you can be sure John Ashcroft has a soft spot in his heart for Janet Reno, who didn't flinch on extending the death penalty.
Tim Robbins, Janeane Garofalo and the Dixie Chicks are going to continue to make millions of dollars, thank you very much. And some deluded right-wingers pushing commercial boycotts and attacking Web sites are a far cry from the blacklists, loyalty oaths and mass firings of teachers of a half century ago.
What we are instead confronted with is a highly ideological conservative administration that wants to go even further than the Democrats in lavishing tax giveaways and regulatory benefits on the corporate elite. We've seen this before in American history, and we have survived, without having to learn German.
With unemployment at an eight-year high, consumer confidence stalled, and even some moderate Republicans bailing on the most insidious tax-cut measures, the administration's domestic program is in tatters. Plans for privatizing Medicare and Social Security have been scuttled by the soured stock market. Dreams of endless war seem to be crashing on the hard beach of Iraqi Shia intransigence and decaying security in Afghanistan. With the unexpected demotion of Occupation Proconsul Jay Garner this week, there are even suggestions that the balance of power in the administration might be tipping away from the neoconservative Jacobins and back toward the corporate types.
Bush can be beaten. But not if we speak in a language that is alien and offensive to those we wish to convince. Their fears are real and legitimate and should not be dismissed as solely effects of watching too much Fox TV.
As a teenager, I was attracted to the left because of its commitment to rational and cool-headed analysis. It was amusing to watch the Birchers and the extreme right twist themselves up into feverish rants against secret U.N. cabals, one-world government and, yes, water fluoridation. Let's not become like them.
Bill Bennett set himself up as the conservative right's morality czar. So he can't be surprised that a lot of people are now chuckling over the news that he lost as much as $8 million while binge-gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos over the past decade.
But what was actually going on with the guy? In one sense, Bennett was a classic high roller, wielding $200,000 credit lines in at least four casinos, going through tens of thousands of dollars in an evening, and sometimes making $500 bets. Compare this with the average American visiting Las Vegas, who plunks quarters into the slots or lays down $10 bets on the blackjack table, usually with a gambling budget of about $500 for an entire trip.
But "high roller" more typically conjures up the image of a happy-go-lucky boaster with a pinkie ring and a cigar, who plops down wads of cash on the craps or 21 tables, all the while back-slapping and glad-handing other players. What we think of as a high roller is what experts in problem gambling call an "action gambler" -- someone who's drawn to wagering for the "juice," the buzz, the flutter in the stomach. Action gamblers also enjoy the social aspect of betting. These players lose big and win big and often try -- sometimes even succeed -- in making a living off their obsession. These are adrenaline junkies who thrill to the ups and downs of playing high-wire games of cards, dice and roulette, always with the hope that the next deal or roll could change everything.
This is not Bill Bennett. With his bestselling homilies and his $50,000 speaking fees, he hardly needs to supplement his income. Bennett, by his own admission, is a "machine person" who eschews the noisy and crowded tables in favor of sitting alone for hours robotically pumping his money into faceless slot and video poker machines. Bennett claims this is purely a function of his desire for privacy. "When I go to the tables, people talk, and they want to talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax," he told Newsweek.
But that doesn't ring quite true. The secluded high-stakes rooms where Bennett says he likes to play offer just as much privacy for those hunkering down at table games as for those plugged into the slots. Casinos will even open up a totally private table for those betting as high as Bennett. Instead, it seems, Bennett is just one more among a growing army of zombie-like gambling machine addicts in America.
With casino gambling now in dozens of states and slot machines as familiar to most Americans as ATMs (albeit with a reverse flow of money), more and more average people are getting hooked. "The machine gambler is someone who wants to be numbed, who wants to escape, who essentially becomes a zombie," says Bo Bernhard, an assistant professor of sociology and director of gambling research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "For these gamblers it's not at all about the money. The gambling is just a substance that fills some void in their lives."
And they are becoming the norm. The profile of the average U.S. problem gambler today is no longer a race-track sharpie or hustler blowing his paycheck on a dice game. More typically, says Bernhard, it's an alienated single mother in her 30s with a couple of years of college, addicted to the unblinking video poker screen or the quiet whir of a computer-driven slot machine. Ten days before the Bennett story broke, Bernhard told me: "What a video poker player fears most is that someone will sit down and start talking to them." Sound familiar?
On a recent weekday evening I sat in on a group therapy session at the Las Vegas-based Problem Gambling Center where Bernhard is a consultant. Among the 15 people in the room, none was a Damon Runyon type. They were sad, frightened people -- insurance salesmen, grocery checkers, waitresses and a professional or two -- who had lost, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars, their homes, their livelihoods, their families and parts of their souls, quarter by quarter in video and slot machines. They were all now struggling with great pain to break free of their addictions.
One woman cried as she admitted that on her way to the meeting, and only in her fourth day of treatment, she had stopped at the local drug store and blown a roll of quarters on video poker. Everyone sympathized with her predicament. The presiding therapist predicted this might not be the last time she succumbed to her weakness.
These are the kinds of people Bennett has made millions from, lecturing them in his books and speeches to take responsibility for their own lives. It's true he didn't end up financially ruined, but that may simply be because he had more of a cushion going in. He insists that he broke even, that he didn't have a gambling problem. But I wonder whether Bill Bennett would have recognized himself in the people in that room? And I wonder, what measures will he now take to tame whatever it is that drives him into such self-destructive behavior? No one dumps millions into gambling machines for fun or "relaxation" -- but only out of pain and obsession.
As Bennett wrote in "The Book of Virtues for Young People": "Life isn't just about winning. Much of life is about losing. It's something we do over, and over and over again."
This article originally ran in the LA Times.
Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to the Nation magazine and a columnist for LA Weekly. His forthcoming book is "The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas."
A specter haunts Las Vegas: organized strippers. Behind this nightmare vision lurks Andrea Hackett, a former male factory-worker turned nude dancer. And the headlines Hackett has been making have nothing to do with her sex change. Here in Glitter Gulch that raises no more eyebrows than, say, a PTA president's divorce in Peoria.
No. Hackett's the talk of the town because the lanky, blond-streaked 49-year-old with a spectacular set of enameled fingernails has been frenetically trying to organize Vegas's thousands of strippers and nude dancers, launching them into a head-on battle royal against local government -- and indirectly against the all-powerful corporate gambling interests that dominate this city's political life. "They wanted a fight," she says, unpacking a file of organizational charts and strategy notes. "And now I'm giving it to them."
This unusually colorful episode of open class warfare erupted last summer when the Clark County commissioners voted 5 to 1 to heavily regulate the stripping and lap dancing that bring millions of tourists and conventioneers and many more of their dollars annually into Vegas's thirty-six "gentlemen's clubs" and provide income for 15,000 women dancers. (No one knows for sure, but the guess is that something like a million lap dances a year are performed in Vegas clubs at twenty-five bucks a pop or more.)
Like a Church Lady skit straight out of SNL, the county commissioners took a hands-on approach -- excuse the pun -- to defining what would now become a legal or illegal lap dance. In brief, a dancer would no longer be able to sit on a customer's genital area -- i.e., his lap -- more or less rendering the very essence of the dance impotent. Dancers could no longer solicit tips. Customers could offer them but were specifically barred from any longer performing the traditional gesture of placing currency in dancers' G-strings. "This was a declaration of war," Hackett huffs. "In short, they were outlawing lap dancing."
Before her sex-change operation in 1995, Hackett spent seventeen years working for Boeing in Seattle as a machinist and union activist. Now she drew upon her previous organizing experience to fight back. "I know I'm the only nude dancer in Vegas who went to Woodstock and who burned her draft card," she says. And for good measure, she adds, "I'm also a socialist."
Within days of the bill's passage, Hackett founded the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance, and by the end of the summer she had signed up nearly 1,000 members. She now has "club reps" -- sort of clandestine shop stewards -- in about two-thirds of the dance establishments, and they are signing up about 25 new members a week. In addition to holding regular organizing meetings at the local library, Hackett's LVDA published a "Dancers Voter Guide" for the November 2002 election and conducted the first known voter-registration drive in history of nude and lap dancers. "We registered almost 500 new voters among the girls," she says proudly.
The LVDA has affiliated unofficially with almost 50 other groups, including the Sierra Club and the northern Nevada NAACP, that make up the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), and Hackett has forged a close working relationship with the local ACLU.
"She's got the energy of ten organizers and the skills to go along with it," says Paul Brown, southern Nevada director of PLAN. "The County Commission has set off a spark that has turned into a firestorm. This basically comes down to an important issue of labor practices."
In the past few weeks Hackett has also met with state AFL-CIO officials and other union activists exploring affiliation. "Do we want to become a union?" she asks and then answers her own query. "Let's just say that all roads are leading to the same conclusion." One organizer for a major international industrial union who met with Hackett says his organization is looking seriously into some form of collaboration. "We'd love to have these dancers eventually in our union, and we're going to help out every way we can," he says.
Hackett and other local political observers agree that the crackdown on lap dancing can be traced to the economic squeeze the big Vegas casinos and hotels have been feeling since 2000. Business is only down 2 - 4 percent, but that's an ice-cold shower for an industry that has been spoiled by two decades of uninterrupted growth and profitability. To jack up the inflow of tourists, many of the casino resorts have been turning to racier floor shows, but they are still prohibited by state regulation from mixing gambling with strip or lap dancing. In the past few weeks all of America has been exposed to a new, sexually suggestive, multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign run by Vegas gambling and hotel interests promising "What happens here, stays here." Meanwhile, the mega-lit billboards atop the giant Vegas hotels are filled more and more with explicitly sexual lures.
The lap-dance clubs near the big hotels commit the cardinal sin of drawing guests off these resort properties and out of the casinos and pricey restaurants. And some of these clubs are very big businesses in themselves. The newly opened Sapphire Gentleman's Club is a $25 million investment that draws upon a pool of 6,000 dancers. In short, it seems the casinos have been using their political clout to shut down competition from the dance clubs. "This is life in the post-9/11 economic environment," says Hackett, sounding very much like a union economist. "It's all about the corporations shifting their revenue and profit stream away from gaming." Traditionally, the corporate owners of Vegas have made 60-70 percent of their profits from gambling and the rest from lodging, food and entertainment. But at the recent "American Gaming Summit," the CEO of the powerhouse MGM Mirage boasted of how his corporation has managed to invert that formula.
Not everyone agrees with Hackett that the big casinos are the lone motivating force behind the lap-dance suppression. "No question that in the end this is about economics," says Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU. But Peck thinks the pressure might also be coming from some of the bigger, politically connected dance clubs trying to squeeze out the smaller ones. He also argues that some of the county commissioners behind the ordinance have a less than healthy view of sex. "It's very difficult for me to delve into the heads of that crowd," he says with a laugh. "But I can certainly tell you they are obsessed with sex!" Of his alliance with Hackett, Peck says: "She's working with women who are working people and whose business is protected by the First Amendment. And that is where our interests and concerns coincide."
Hackett, meanwhile, has found fertile organizing territory among the dancers, who have also been feeling the economic pinch of the past two years. While in the salad days of the dot.com bubble a top dancer could count on maybe forty to fifty lap dances a night at $25 each, today she is lucky to do ten. "You might think that's a lot of money either way," says Hackett. "But we are exploited by everybody." Vegas's exotic dancers are treated as "independent contractors" by club owners, meaning not only are they not on the payroll, thus receiving no benefits or insurance, but they have to pay the owners as much as $70 a night just for the right to perform. Then there are payoffs to the bouncers, the deejays and sometimes even to the parking valets. And whatever money is generated by the dancers has to be split with the club owners, sometimes on a 50-50 basis.
The non-employee status of the dancers may eventually thwart unionization efforts, but in that case the LVDA could still exert influence as a "professional organization," perhaps on the model of the National Writers Union. The alliance is also close to concluding a deal with an insurance carrier so that dancer-members would be able to purchase healthcare at group rates. Once that deal is concluded, alliance membership could soar.
LVDA can already claim some partial victories. Vigorous lobbying, a few rallies and marches downtown, and oodles of local and even international publicity forced partial reversal of last summer's near-total ban on lap dancing. Some weeks ago Clark County officials amended the ordinance so that G-string tipping would once again be allowed. Hackett's group has also convinced local county and city officials to put on the back burner proposals to impose a stiff registration and licensing tax on individual dancers. Nevertheless, there's been a marked increase in arrests and ticketing of dancers since last summer's law went into effect. "All that law has done is turn us into criminals," says Hackett. So she's moving ahead with a new project: sponsoring a countywide measure, known as the Protection of Dancing Initiative, that will impose standardized regulation of the industry and reverse the more draconian aspects of the recent legislation. "Call it Christmas for dancers," says Hackett. To qualify these measures for the ballot, thousands of voter signatures will have to be gathered in the next few months. Hackett is confident. "We've already lined up squads of volunteer signature gatherers," she says mischievously. "And they are all hardbodies," she says, using the industry term that refers to the youngest dancers, usually 18-21 years old. "Now you tell me, honey," she says, "you think anyone walking the streets of Vegas is gonna say no to these girls?''
The signature campaign is now getting under way. But even before that, Hackett and her hard-core group of about fifty activists were already working around the clock, leafleting the dance clubs for new members, shopping around for union affiliation and plotting out the initiative campaign.
By night Hackett is still dancing at the Deja Vu Showgirls club. By day she is putting the finishing touches on what she's calling her own "Politics of Dancing" educational course -- designed, she says, to offer a quick political education to the average apolitical 19-year-old nude dancer. Hackett has already written a first primer. Skimming through the 7,500-word pamphlet, it's clear that the enforcers of decency at the County Commission and the casino interests behind them have taken on a formidable opponent. Hackett closes by saying she hopes her work can "help solidify the great natural allies of the American left and begin to heal the wounds inflicted by our natural enemies on the American right...the first basic facts to remember are these: There are far less rich people than poor people. And the rich generally want things to stay the way they are. The poor, by their very nature, want things to change, hopefully for the better."
Hackett has recently started working with a nucleus of nude dancers in Texas who are trying to organize. And eventually, she says, she'd like to have a national organization. "I've already got the name figured out. The United States Dancers Alliance. Or USDA," she says with a laugh, slapping her flank. "Get it?"
Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of The Nation and the author of "Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir" and "Roll Over Che Guevara: Travels of a Radical Reporter."
It was politics, not the smell of gas and burnt rubber, that lingered in my head as I grazed at the annual car show recently at L.A.'s downtown Convention Center. Tens of thousands flocked to the main exhibition halls to kick the tires of the newest Chevys, Caddies and Camrys. But the real human traffic pileup occurred in the smaller Concourse Hall, set aside for the top drawer in motoring vehicles.
I stood like a squeezed sardine as throngs panted over quarter-million-dollar yellow Lamborghinis, red Ferraris and the ultracool Azure series Bentleys. There was barely room to breathe as the crowd elbowed one another away to snap digital pictures of the gleaming machines.
And this was no creamy elite (they need go no farther than their own driveways to appreciate a $280,000 Testa-rossa). No, this was strictly the hoi polloi, el pueblo, the regular folks, in cutoffs and baggy pants and fanny packs and T-shirts. There was a slightly pornographic aspect to the whole scene. Like a youngster thumbing through National Geographic, or a teenager peering at Playboy, these voyeurs were salivating over exotica they'd love to explore but somehow knew they'd never quite get there.
Or do they? Extravagant wealth is both scorned and admired in America and not always in equal measure. Even the poorest among us secretly, and often not so secretly, sometimes convince ourselves that one day soon . . . well, you know the rest. This is what underlies many of the idiosyncrasies of American politics. Slam the rich -- but not too hard, because one day I intend to be one of them.
How else can one explain the nonchalance with which the American people stand by and so passively watch the ongoing accelerated transfer of wealth in this country from the bottom upward? For surely in a more politically sophisticated, more class-conscious country, President Bush's recent economic speech would have been met at the very least by outraged citizens throwing open their windows and furiously beating on pots and pans, by marches of protest, and perhaps a torchlight rally in front of the White House.
But not in America, where CNN's Lou Dobbs and other media gargoyles fawn over the smirking Bush as if he were some sort of philosopher-king. Bush's "plan" -- I wince just writing that word -- to provide increased "jobs, growth and opportunity," as he put it, is but one more bald-faced gimmick to further enrich the rich. Excuse an additional automobile metaphor, but if your car engine blows a head gasket, you don't fix it by charging a new set of chrome wheels on your MasterCard.
Some 10 million people are unemployed across the country right now. Not in decades has national job loss mounted so quickly as in the last two years. Wages are once again leveling off and even dropping. More Americans than ever have no health insurance. The elderly can't afford prescription drugs. Even the professional classes can't afford spiraling college tuition. Doctors walk off the job, unable to pay for malpractice coverage.
But what does Bush propose? Not only speeding up his $1.6 trillion favor-the-rich tax cuts already passed by Congress, but an additional cut in taxes on stock dividends. On stock dividends! Will those of you who earn more than a thousand, no, make that a hundred, dollars a year in dividends now raise your hands?
Fact is, some 40 percent of all stock dividends in this country go to only 2 percent of the population. A full quarter of the benefits included in the Bush dividend tax cut will go to those who earn more than $1 million a year. So if Reaganomics was correctly dubbed "trickle-down," then the Bush approach is more akin to "piss-on-you" economics. About the only measure missing now from the Bush plan would be a proposal to make monthly payments on yachts, vacation homes and Lamborghinis tax-deductible. Indeed, aren't they owned by what the CNBC commentators and the White House like to call "our most creative and productive citizens"?
The only silver lining here is that the Bush administration might be too distracted by its program of economic looting and sacking to be a significant threat to world peace -- the possible war with Iraq notwithstanding. These guys are such committed thieves that it's only through happenstance that they could ever rise to the stature of serious imperialists. Their hearts are much closer to greed than geopolitics.
The Bushies are essentially, as The Sopranos' dear, departed Ralphie would call them, "whoe-ahhs" for the corporate lobbyists. On every major domestic economic issue of the last two years, the Bush White House has taken the strict industry position: dishing out juicy war-profiteering welfare to the airlines in the wake of 9/11, shilling for the oil drillers in the Alaska wilderness, fronting for the automakers in the fight around fuel-efficiency standards, imposing a patients' bill of rights friendly to Big Pharma and the HMO mafias, overturning workplace ergonomic standards to please only the employers, revising bankruptcy laws to punish consumers, and, of course, developing an energy policy as much as written by the K Street lobbyists.
Now presiding over this whole economic shell game is new Treasury Secretary John Snow. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out this week, Snow sat as CEO of railroad giant CSX while, during the years 1998-2001, it raked in nearly a billion dollars in profit. Not only did CSX not pay a cent of income tax during that period, it actually got back $164 million in tax rebates. Don't try that at home without adult supervision.
So don't give this crew too much credit. Don't assume they're even capable of world domination as some of their critics allege. They ain't smart enough. Take a look at the new book "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush" just out by David Frum, the speechwriter who helped pen the term "Axis of Evil." Writing of his inside view of the administration, he says, "One seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met someone who possessed unusual knowledge . . . conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House."
Perhaps I'm too harsh in blaming the American people for their passivity. It's not like they're being offered much choice of leadership. The Democrats still cling to their Herbert Hooverian worship of balanced budgets and are proposing a meek and mostly benign alternative "stimulus" program. The Democrats want to give you a one-time $300 tax rebate, about 75 cents a day, and hardly on the scale of what CSX got back from the Treasury. But what the hell, you're just a citizen -- not a corporation.
Settle down for two or three months of mostly empty debate over the Bush economic plan. In the end, most if not all of it will be approved by Congress. It will do nothing to help all those car-show lookie-loos buy the machine of their dreams. But if you already own one of those Bentleys or Maseratis, these sure are sweet times.
Marc Cooper is editor-at-large for the LA Weekly. His books include "Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir" and "Roll Over Che Guevara: Travels of a Radical Reporter."
In a letter to both houses of Congress in early October, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney broke what had been Big Labor's public silence on a possible war with Iraq when he wrote, "We must assure them that war is the last option, not the first." Sweeney also questioned the timing of the Bush Administration's push for war, saying it "has as much to do with the political calendar as with the situation in Iraq."
The letter was hardly a call to stiff antiwar resistance. But with an American labor movement long accustomed to interpreting the subtle political nuances of its cautious leadership, Sweeney's message was nonetheless unmistakable. The federation was openly shifting away from its markedly prowar stance after September 11 and offering at least some cover for militant action by antiwar elements in its ranks. "It wasn't the strongest statement in the world," says Michael Letwin, co-convener of the grassroots New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW). "But it makes people in the labor movement feel they now have some room to oppose the war."
That same week, Gene Bruskin, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO's food and allied service trades department, sent a letter of his own to Sweeney urging organized labor to take the lead in opposing the Administration's war plans. Bruskin said labor has been "naive at best" in trying to oppose Bush's domestic policy without more forcefully opposing its foreign policy. War with Iraq, he argued, would only provide the Administration with increased leverage in pressing a conservative agenda that conflicts with the interests of working Americans. "To support the War," Bruskin said, "is to invite all the inevitable political and economic effects."
Bruskin's call for the national labor leadership to speak out more consistently and loudly on the issue has not yet been heeded. "All of our energy really went into the midterm elections," says one AFL official. "Maybe now with the Republicans controlling everything, we can better find our voice on the issue of war and peace."
In the meantime, a small but determined network of antiwar labor activists is coming together and making its voice and influence felt through organized lobbying inside the Central Labor Councils and state labor federations. Letwin's NYCLAW is among the largest of the groupings, with endorsements from about 1,400 union members and sixteen current and former union presidents. "We're trying to be both an antiwar pole in the labor movement and a labor pole within the peace movement," says Letwin.
But an objective evaluation would conclude that so far only the former is being achieved. Peace is still very much a minority position within the greater world of labor, and so labor is still a minor part of the peace movement. The bulk of NYCLAW's support comes from white-collar, mostly intellectual workers like Letwin's own local of legal-aid attorneys. The school principals' union, the National Writers Union, museum workers and university staff and professors are also among the major players in the New York antiwar network.
Yet, the small peace circle within labor continues to expand as the threat of war with Iraq persists. New York's powerful healthcare union, 1199SEIU, recently bought a full-page ad in the New York Times unequivocally condemning war with Iraq. Chicago-based Teamsters Local 705, the second largest in the country, also adopted an antiwar resolution. The 100,000-member California Teachers Union did the same. And on October 1 the executive committee of AFL-CIO's Pride at Work, representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, followed suit. In Northern California the SEIU's large and politically influential Local 250 has also condemned a unilateral attack on Iraq and urged cooperation with the UN. And there's open talk that the SEIU might become the first national union to take an antiwar stance.
Meanwhile, rank-and-file groups similar to NYCLAW have sprung up in Albany, Washington, Detroit, Portland and Seattle. And while the uniformly progressive San Francisco Labor Council went firmly on the record against Bush's overall war on terrorism in August, its activists also fuel the very involved San Francisco Labor Committee for Peace and Justice.
But the growth of antiwar activity is uneven and is leaving some gaping holes. In Los Angeles, where the county federation has earned a progressive reputation on local and domestic issues, there have been no antiwar initiatives coming from the leadership. "You can sense a real antiwar sentiment in the union halls," says a local SEIU organizer. "But apart from individuals trying to hook up with each other, there's been no real attempt at significant organized action."
Similar stories come from other urban labor councils. When George W. Bush came to Cincinnati in October to deliver a televised policy statement on Iraq, about 3,500 protesters rallied outside. But only about 150 of the demonstrators came from the ranks of organized labor. "A lot of our community coalition partners were at that demonstration," says Dan Radford, a member of SEIU Local 7 (Firefighters and Oilers) and executive secretary-treasurer of the Cincinnati Central Labor Council. "But it hasn't really come up as an issue at the council. It's sort of funny because even some of the more conservative unions have not shown much enthusiasm for Bush on this war with Iraq. But at the council level it's just not been discussed very much at all." Indeed, Radford says, the most dynamic local antiwar figure comes not from labor but from show business. Television ringmaster Jerry Springer, a former liberal mayor of Cincinnati, gave the most fiery antiwar speech at a recent Democratic get-out-the-vote rally.
In Seattle, the King County Labor Council, which played a high-profile role in the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization, took the opposite tack and has actively endorsed antiwar activity. The council's executive secretary-treasurer Steve Williamson was a lead speaker at the October 26 Seattle peace rally, which brought out as many as 5,000 people.
"The national [AFL-CIO] didn't really want to deal with this issue, after pretty much supporting whole hog the war in Afghanistan," says Steve Hoffman, a member of the municipal employees' union who also holds a seat on the King County Labor Council and is a leader of Seattle's Organized Labor Against the War. "But now they see the way the war has been used to cut jobs, to call in the government on the ports strike, just the amount of money being spent on this. The AFL is finally coming under pressure from below, with more and more peace resolutions being passed at the level of county labor councils and those being proposed inside the international unions."
Hoffman helped to ratchet up that pressure by shepherding a successful antiwar resolution through to adoption in August by the 500 delegates and guests of the Washington State Labor Council, the first such statewide statement.
The limited appeal of antiwar activity within unions is not only the responsibility of labor's cautious leadership, but also of the peace movement in general and of some peace activists within labor, who have made a few strategic missteps. Many of the labor activists in the forefront of the Iraq peace movement are the same people who unsuccessfully tried to jump-start a similar movement in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks. Seriously misreading the sentiment of mainstream labor, which believed that at least some sort of limited US military response was in order, these mostly white-collar and ideologically left activists tried to drum up a movement to oppose intervention in Afghanistan. On September 27, 2001--just two weeks after the attacks and while the national and New York AFL-CIO were still actively mourning the death of hundreds of members in them--activists from NYCLAW, for example, had already issued their first public statement opposing any sort of US military action.
"This was really way off base," says a politically progressive AFL official close to John Sweeney. "No matter what one's personal political opinion, you really had to be out in left field to not understand the angry patriotism that was rippling through labor. We had just lost something like 500 guys, and no one was in the mood to go light candles at a peace vigil."
NYCLAW's Letwin concedes that the rushed September 27 peace statement by his group was looked on as "tainted" because of its timing. But, he argues, "I think that along with a lot of union leadership, a lot of the grassroots saw that as a good statement. They were saying to themselves, 'I'm not going to sign it, but I'm glad someone is out there saying these things.'"
Maybe, but in any case, many at the top of the federation agree that the Iraq situation is very different from Afghanistan, and they recognize that there is now a lot more visible and vocal discomfort with and opposition to the White House's overseas plans. "Also, the elections are now over," says the federation official. "And if the Democrats take a harder line against the war than they have so far, labor will be more willing to do the same. But that leaves open the question of just what peace movement we are comfortable being part of."
That's a reference to discomfort with those currently orchestrating some of the highest-profile antiwar protests. While demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco brought out scores of thousands with an eclectic range of politics, the protests were organized and the podium dominated by a small, sectarian Stalinist group, the Workers World Party. Consequently, while much of the demonstration rhetoric was against the war, it was also tinged with an anti-Americanism and loaded down with ancillary issues ranging from support for convicted murderers Mumia Abu-Jamal and H. Rap Brown to sometimes paranoid condemnations of Zionism that in no way resonate with the bulk of organized labor. No doubt the rally crowds were peppered with hundreds, if not thousands, of union members and activists, but there was no institutional representation of Big Labor, as there has been at numerous antiglobalization events of the past few years.
"John Sweeney is no George Meany," says the AFL official, referring to former federation president Meany's aggressive support for the Vietnam War. And he notes that significant participation by labor in the peace movement would, indeed, aid in broadening and mainstreaming the antiwar message, pushing some of the sectarians to the side. But, he added, that moment is not yet upon us. "It's not at all unthinkable that in the weeks to come we will see Sweeney speaking out more against the war. But you can be sure he isn't going to be speaking from the same stage as the Workers World Party."
Marc Cooper is a Nation contributing editor. His books include "Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir" and "Roll Over Che Guevara: Travels of a Radical Reporter."
As the stock market was swooning last week, there I was, wide-awake at 3 a.m., pondering my next move. I don't play high tech or small caps. I ignore semiconductors, telecoms and certainly dot-coms. I'm oblivious to margin calls, and I abhor options. I don't go short or long. And while I skip over blue chips, I do favor green-green and red $25 casino chips. Keep Merrill Lynch. I prefer blackjack at Mandalay Bay.
With four of those green "quarter" chips I have just purchased two cards now staring coldly up at me. A 7 of hearts and an ace of spades -- an 8 or 18, depending whether I count the ace as an 11 or a 1. Holding it as a "soft" 18 would be acceptable -- it's what just about every how-to-play book recommends. But Ziggy, my favorite dealer at the Mandalay -- who is sitting across from me with his knowing smile -- looks down at his one showing card, a 10 of clubs. Ziggy smiles because he knows that I know that he argues against "the book" -- insisting that a player should hit the soft 18 when the dealer's showing a 9, 10 or ace.
Not that Ziggy is guaranteeing anything.
I give it a try. I scratch the table for another card, and Ziggy slaps me with a red 6. Now I have a miserable 14. I have to hit again and am in danger of busting. But out comes a 7 of diamonds that brings me to a cool and triumphant 21. Ziggy flips over his hole card. A queen of spades gives him a losing 20. "This is what I've been telling you," he says as he pushes over my $100 in winnings.
About an hour later, when I am up about $1,800, I have my epiphany. Let's solve the stock-market crisis by turning Wall Street over to the casinos.
Why not? Playing blackjack or roulette or buying corporate stock are all forms of gambling. It's just that casinos are more honest. The game never changes and the odds never budge: The casino has a 5.26 percent edge on the roulette wheel. And only about 2 percent at blackjack. Slot machines run at about 3 percent to 4 percent.
You say you don't like those odds? Are you sure? Well, if you've invested any amount in even the most sure-fire, no-fail stock over the last couple of years, you've been more wildly reckless than a guy who plays, say, his wife's bra size or his idiot cousin's IQ on the roulette wheel. As the June 10 edition of Fortune magazine reported, of the 40,000 stock recommendations made by 213 brokerages during the year 2000, the most recommended stock declined 31 percent in value. And -- yes -- the least recommended stock went up a whopping 49 percent.
In other words, all the stock touts, including gargoyles like Kudlow, Cramer, Cavuto, Insana, and Citigroup's horrible Mr. Jack Grubman, simply did not, do not and will never have a clue. And why should they? That's why it's called gambling -- not winning. And therein resides the real crime of these stock-market shills -- to have participated in a grand conspiracy to convince the American people that playing the market was anything but rolling the dice. (And, as it turns out, shaved dice.)
As a result, we've now got a whole generation of Americans who believed -- until roughly 10 days ago -- it was their God-given birthright to rake in 18 percent a year for doing nothing more than sitting on their asses.
Which brings me back to the wholesome integrity of casino gambling. There is no pretense on either side of the table. No dealer or croupier ever tells you what to bet. Mercifully, there are no 21 analysts or any Caribbean Stud Poker researchers. The very notion is ludicrous. Everyone knows that the luck of the draw or the spin of the wheel is serendipitous. All you know are the odds. Blackjack pays 3-2. A full house 5-1. A straight-up number on the wheel pays 35-1. A corner pays 8-1. Red or black -- even money, of course. Take 'em or leave 'em.
With the house advantage built into the game, there's no need to dupe the player. No need to call in Arthur Andersen to cook the books. Every transaction, every exchange of money, is videotaped. Think something's fishy; the eye in the sky'll be happy to rerun the tape for you. Try that with your Enron 401(k)!
There hasn't been a major casino scandal since the days when Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal (the De Niro character in Casino) was running the Stardust. And when the casino boys do cheat, they leave us civilians out of it and just rip each other off. When's the last time you saw an upstanding casino owner get hauled off in handcuffs like Adelphia gangster John Rigas did last week? (And just to put Rigas' fraud into context: The $60 billion he is alleged to have shaken down from stock investors is enough to construct almost a hundred new Mirage Hotels.)
Likewise, only the most delusionary player believes he or she is owed any payback from the house. You risk, you don't invest. During the 30 years I have played in a casino, I've yet to see one defeated player start moaning that he just lost his retirement fund because he busted out hitting a 15. At least I've never seen anyone publicly admit to such tomfoolery, because only a moron would risk his future pension on an uncertain bet.
Unless, of course, you are one of those 70 or 80 million Americans who just learned the hard way.
So let's get on with the plan. We shut down all the brokerages. Caesar's Palace or Harrah's takes over your old and now- depleted J.P. Morgan account. Programming on CNBC is replaced by 24/7 keno games. New roulette wheels will be minted, and the numbers will be replaced by the names of the Fortune 500. No more poring over boring P&E reports. No more wondering if accountants are hiding losses. You just pick any company you like the name of, and if it comes up on the wheel, you win. If not, you walk. Free drinks and comp show tickets as long as you're playing. And staring face to face with the odds, the bet is you won't be tempted again to put your kid's college fund on the line.
In the meantime, I like 18 red.
He might be america's last small-r republican. Gore Vidal, now 76, has made a lifetime out of critiquing America's imperial impulses and has -- through two dozen novels and hundreds of essays -- argued tempestuously that the U.S. should retreat back to its more Jeffersonian roots, that it should stop meddling in the affairs of other nations and the private affairs of its own citizens.
That's the thread that runs through Vidal's latest best-seller -- an oddly packaged collection of essays published in the wake of September 11 titled Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To Be So Hated. To answer the question in his subtitle, Vidal posits that we have no right to scratch our heads over what motivated the perpetrators of the two biggest terror attacks in our history, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and last September's twin-tower holocaust.
Vidal writes: "It is a law of physics (still on the books when last I looked) that in nature there is no action without reaction. The same appears to be true in human nature -- that is, history." The "action" Vidal refers to is the hubris of an American empire abroad (illustrated by a 20-page chart of 200 U.S. overseas military adventures since the end of World War II) and a budding police state at home. The inevitable "reaction," says Vidal, is nothing less than the bloody handiwork of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh. "Each was enraged," he says, "by our government's reckless assaults upon other societies" and was, therefore, "provoked" into answering with horrendous violence.
Some might take that to be a suggestion that America had it coming on September 11. So when I met up with Vidal in the Hollywood Hills home he maintains (while still residing most of his time in Italy), the first question I asked him was this:
Are you arguing that the 3,000 civilians killed on September 11 somehow deserved their fate?
GORE VIDAL: I don't think we, the American people, deserved what happened. Nor do we deserve the sort of governments we have had over the last 40 years. Our governments have brought this upon us by their actions all over the world. I have a list in my new book that gives the reader some idea how busy we have been. Unfortunately, we only get disinformation from The New York Times and other official places. Americans have no idea of the extent of their government's mischief. The number of military strikes we have made unprovoked, against other countries, since 1947-48 is more than 250. These are major strikes everywhere from Panama to Iran. And it isn't even a complete list. It doesn't include places like Chile, as that was a CIA operation. I was only listing military attacks.
Americans are either not told about these things or are told we attacked them because . . . well . . . Noriega is the center of all world drug traffic and we have to get rid of him. So we kill some Panamanians in the process. Actually we killed quite a few. And we brought in our Air Force. Panama didn't have an air force. But it looked good to have our Air Force there, busy, blowing up buildings. Then we kidnap their leader, Noriega, a former CIA man who worked loyally for the United States. We arrest him. Try him in an American court that has no jurisdiction over him and lock him up -- nobody knows why. And that was supposed to end the drug trade because he had been demonized by The New York Times and the rest of the imperial press.
[The government] plays off [Americans'] relative innocence, or ignorance to be more precise. This is probably why geography has not really been taught since World War II -- to keep people in the dark as to where we are blowing things up. Because Enron wants to blow them up. Or Unocal, the great pipeline company, wants a war going some place.
And people in the countries who are recipients of our bombs get angry. The Afghans had nothing to do with what happened to our country on September 11. But Saudi Arabia did. It seems like Osama is involved, but we don't really know. I mean, when we went into Afghanistan to take over the place and blow it up, our commanding general was asked how long it was going to take to find Osama bin Laden. And the commanding general looked rather surprised and said, well, that's not why we are here.
Oh no? So what was all this about? It was about the Taliban being very, very bad people and that they treated women very badly, you see. They're not really into women's rights, and we here are very strong on women's rights; and we should be with Bush on that one because he's taking those burlap sacks off of women's heads. Well, that's not what it was about.
What it was really about -- and you won't get this anywhere at the moment -- is that this is an imperial grab for energy resources. Until now, the Persian Gulf has been our main source for imported oil. We went there, to Afghanistan, not to get Osama and wreak our vengeance. We went to Afghanistan partly because the Taliban -- whom we had installed at the time of the Russian occupation -- were getting too flaky and because Unocal, the California corporation, had made a deal with the Taliban for a pipeline to get the Caspian-area oil, which is the richest oil reserve on Earth. They wanted to get that oil by pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan to Karachi and from there to ship it off to China, which would be enormously profitable. Whichever big company could cash in would make a fortune. And you'll see that all these companies go back to Bush or Cheney or to Rumsfeld or someone else on the Gas and Oil Junta, which, along with the Pentagon, governs the United States.
We had planned to occupy Afghanistan in October, and Osama, or whoever it was who hit us in September, launched a pre-emptory strike. They knew we were coming. And this was a warning to throw us off guard.
With that background, it now becomes explicable why the first thing Bush did after we were hit was to get Senator Daschle and beg him not to hold an investigation of the sort any normal country would have done. When Pearl Harbor was struck, within 20 minutes the Senate and the House had a joint committee ready. Roosevelt beat them to it, because he knew why we had been hit, so he set up his own committee. But none of this was to come out, and it hasn't come out.
Still, even if one reads the chart of military interventions in your book and concludes that, indeed, the U.S. government is a "source of evil" -- to lift a phrase -- can't you conceive that there might be other forces of evil as well? Can't you imagine forces of religious obscurantism, for example, that act independently of us and might do bad things to us, just because they are also evil?
Oh yes. But you picked the wrong group. You picked one of the richest families in the world -- the bin Ladens. They are extremely close to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, which has conned us into acting as their bodyguard against their own people -- who are even more fundamentalist than they are. So we are dealing with a powerful entity if it is Osama.
What isn't true is that people like him just come out of the blue. You know, the average American thinks we just give away billions in foreign aid, when we are the lowest in foreign aid among developed countries. And most of what we give goes to Israel and a little bit to Egypt.
I was in Guatemala when the CIA was preparing its attack on the Arbenz government [in 1954]. Arbenz, who was a democratically elected president, mildly socialist. His state had no revenues; its biggest income maker was United Fruit Company. So Arbenz put the tiniest of taxes on bananas, and Henry Cabot Lodge got up in the Senate and said the Communists have taken over Guatemala and we must act. He got to Eisenhower, who sent in the CIA, and they overthrew the government. We installed a military dictator, and there's been nothing but bloodshed ever since.
Now, if I were a Guatemalan and I had the means to drop something on somebody in Washington, or anywhere Americans were, I would be tempted to do it. Especially if I had lost my entire family and seen my country blown to bits because United Fruit didn't want to pay taxes. Now, that's the way we operate. And that's why we got to be so hated.
You've spent decades bemoaning the erosion of civil liberties and the conversion of the U.S. from a republic into what you call an empire. Have the aftereffects of September 11, things like the USA Patriot bill, merely pushed us further down the road or are they, in fact, some sort of historic turning point?
The second law of thermodynamics always rules: Everything is always running down. And so is our Bill of Rights. The current junta in charge of our affairs, one not legally elected, but put in charge of us by the Supreme Court in the interests of the oil and gas and defense lobbies, have used first Oklahoma City and now September 11 to further erode things.
And when it comes to Oklahoma City and Tim McVeigh, well, he had his reasons as well to carry out his dirty deed. Millions of Americans agree with his general reasoning, though no one, I think, agrees with the value of blowing up children. But the American people, yes, they instinctively know when the government goes off the rails like it did at Waco and Ruby Ridge. No one has been elected president in the last 50 years unless he ran against the federal government. So, the government should get through its head that it is hated not only by foreigners whose countries we have wrecked, but also by Americans whose lives have been wrecked.
The whole Patriot movement in the U.S. was based on folks run off their family farms. Or had their parents or grandparents run off. We have millions of disaffected American citizens who do not like the way the place is run and see no place in it where they can prosper. They can be slaves. Or pick cotton. Or whatever the latest uncomfortable thing there is to do. But they are not going to have, as Richard Nixon said, "a piece of the action."
And yet Americans seem quite susceptible to a sort of jingoistic "enemy-of-the-month club" coming out of Washington. You say millions of Americans hate the federal government. But something like 75 percent of Americans say they support George W. Bush, especially on the issue of the war.
I hope you don't believe those figures. Don't you know how the polls are rigged? It's simple. After 9/11 the country was really shocked and terrified. [Bush] does a little war dance and talks about evil axis and all the countries he's going to go after. And how long it is all going to take, he says with a happy smile, because it means billions and trillions for the Pentagon and for his oil friends. And it means curtailing our liberties, so this is all very thrilling for him. He's right out there reacting, bombing Afghanistan. Well, he might as well have been bombing Denmark. Denmark had nothing to do with 9/11. And neither did Afghanistan, at least the Afghanis didn't.
So the question is still asked, are you standing tall with the president? Are you standing with him as he defends us?
Eventually, they will figure it out.
They being who? The American people?
Yeah, the American people. They are asked these quick questions. Do you approve of him? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah, he blew up all those funny-sounding cities over there.
That doesn't mean they like him. Mark my words. He will leave office the most unpopular president in history. The junta has done too much wreckage.
They were suspiciously very ready with the Patriot Act as soon as we were hit. Ready to lift habeas corpus, due process, the attorney-client privilege. They were ready. Which means they have already got their police state. Just take a plane anywhere today and you are in the hands of an arbitrary police state.
Don't you want to have that kind of protection when you fly?
It's one thing to be careful, and we certainly want airplanes to be careful against terrorist attacks. But this is joy for them, for the federal government. Now they've got everybody, because everybody flies.
Let's pick away at one of your favorite bones, the American media. Some say they have done a better-than-usual job since 9/11. But I suspect you're not buying that?
No, I don't buy it. Part of the year I live in Italy. And I find out more about what's going on in the Middle East by reading the British, the French, even the Italian press. Everything here is slanted. I mean, to watch Bush doing his little war dance in Congress . . . about "evildoers" and this "axis of evil" -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea. I thought, he doesn't even know what the word axis means. Somebody just gave it to him. And the press didn't even call him on it. This is about as mindless a statement as you could make. Then he comes up with about a dozen other countries that might have "evil people" in them, who might commit "terrorist acts." What is a terrorist act? Whatever he thinks is a terrorist act. And we are going to go after them. Because we are good and they are evil. And we're "gonna git 'em."
Anybody who could get up and make that speech to the American people is not himself an idiot, but he's convinced we are idiots. And we are not idiots. We are cowed. Cowed by disinformation from the media, a skewed view of the world, and atrocious taxes that subsidize this permanent war machine. And we have no representation. Only the corporations are represented in Congress. That's why only 24 percent of the American people cast a vote for George W. Bush.
I know you'd hate to take this to the ad hominem level, but indulge me for a moment. What about George W. Bush, the man?
You mean George W. Bush, the cheerleader. That's the only thing he ever did of some note in his life. He had some involvement with a baseball team . . .
He owned it . . .
Yeah, he owned it, bought with other people's money. Oil people's money. So he's never really worked, and he shows very little capacity for learning. For them to put him up as president and for the Supreme Court to make sure that he won was as insulting as when his father, George Bush, appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court -- done just to taunt the liberals. And then, when he picked Quayle for his vice president, that showed such contempt for the American people. This was someone as clearly unqualified as Bush Sr. was to be president. Because Bush Sr., as Richard Nixon said to a friend of mine when Bush was elected [imitating Nixon], "He's a lightweight, a complete lightweight, there's nothing there. He's a sort of person you appoint to things."
So the contempt for the American people has been made more vivid by the two Bushes than all of the presidents before them. Although many of them had the same contempt. But they were more clever about concealing it.
Should the U.S. just pack up its military from everywhere and go home?
Yes. With no exceptions. We are not the world's policeman. And we cannot even police the United States, except to steal money from the people and generally wreak havoc. The police are perceived quite often, and correctly, in most parts of the country as the enemy. I think it is time we roll back the empire -- it is doing no one any good. It has cost us trillions of dollars, which makes me feel it's going to fold on its own because there isn't going to be enough money left to run it.
You call yourself one of the last defenders of the American Republic against the American Empire. Do you have any allies left? I mean, we really don't have a credible opposition in this country, do we?
I sometimes feel like I am the last defender of the republic. There are plenty of legal minds who defend the Bill of Rights, but they don't seem very vigorous. I mean, after 9/11 there was silence as one after another of these draconian, really totalitarian laws were put in place.
So what's the way out of this? Back in the '80s you used to call for a new sort of populist constitutional convention. Do you still believe that's the fix?
Well, it's the least bloody. Because there will be trouble, and big trouble. The loons got together to get a balanced-budget amendment, and they got a majority of states to agree to a constitutional convention. Senator Sam Ervin, now dead, researched what would happen in such a convention, and apparently everything would be up for grabs. Once we the people are assembled, as the Constitution requires, we can do anything, we can throw out the whole executive, the judiciary, the Congress. We can put in a Tibetan lama. Or turn the country into one big Scientological clearing center.
And the liberals, of course, are the slowest and the stupidest, because they do not understand their interests. The right wing are the bad guys, but they know what they want -- everybody else's money. And they know they don't like blacks and they don't like minorities. And they like to screw everyone along the way.
But once you know what you want, you are in a stronger position than those who can only say, "Oh no, you mustn't do that." That we must have free speech. Free speech for what? To agree with The New York Times?
The liberals always say, "Oh my, if there is a constitutional convention, they will take away the Bill of Rights." But they have already done it! It is gone. Hardly any of it is left. So if they, the famous "they," would prove to be a majority of the American people and did not want a Bill of Rights, then I say, let's just get it over with. Let's just throw it out the window. If you don't want it, you won't have it.
Minnesota can be considered a veritable mecca for insurgent third parties. Its governor is maverick independent Jesse Ventura. Its own Democratic Party is an outgrowth of the Farmer-Labor Party. No surprise, then, that its Green Party is one of the best organized in the country.
After winning more than 5 percent of the state vote in the 2000 presidential election, the Minnesota Greens now qualify for major ballot status. Taking advantage of the public financing provisions available as a result, the party could snag as much as $250,000 to run its gubernatorial candidate this fall. Other Greens will compete for other statewide offices and for state legislative seats. Already Greens sit on the Minneapolis and Duluth city councils. For those seeking alternatives to a two-party system ever more beholden to special interests, the news coming from the northern plains this elections cycle could have been welcome.
Could have been. But unfortunately, when hundreds of Minnesota Greens met for their state nominating convention two weeks ago, they took a precipitous lunge toward political suicide. By more than a two-thirds margin, the Minnesota Green Party endorsed a candidate to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone -- arguably the most liberal, the most "Green-ish" member of the U.S. Senate. Wellstone is already engaged in a touch-and-go fight for his political survival. The White House is pouring in support for his conservative rival, Norm Coleman, as the Bushies hunger to retire the obstreperously liberal Wellstone and to simultaneously win back the Senate for the GOP. It is an election in which every vote counts, and even a relatively small Green vote could tip the scales in favor of Coleman.
A Green running against Wellstone has little in common with Ralph Nader's presidential run in the 2000 elections. Greens and other progressives opposed Al Gore because he was too timid on core issues of social justice. By running Nader in the 2000 elections, the Greens had a chance to qualify for millions of dollars in public matching funds, build up their state and local party organizations and inflict some well-deserved and corrective pain on a national Democratic Party that continued to drift rightward.
But what's this got to do with Wellstone? The former college professor is about as liberal as you can get within the Democratic Party. In the 2000 primary Wellstone also opposed Gore, stumping for (and often outshining) candidate Bill Bradley. Unlike Gore (but like the Greens), Wellstone has fought for single-payer health care. He has opposed his own party on the drug war and intervention in Colombia. He faced tear gas and rubber bullets as he marched alongside the Greens against the World Trade Organization's blueprint for corporate globalization in the 1999 "Battle in Seattle." His labor record is impeccable. His environmental record is, well, a lush green.
With all this in mind, the Greens' 2000 vice presidential candidate, Winona LaDuke, sent an open letter to the Minnesota party convention passionately urging it not to endorse a candidate against Wellstone. But LaDuke's plea was pushed aside and her fellow Greens chose a Native American, writer Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa, to run against Wellstone.
Apparently Wellstone's unpardonable sin was to have supported the U.S. military action after Sept. 11 and to have voted, along with 98 other senators, for the USA Patriot Act.
But here comes the really troubling part of this story. Green candidate McGaa, a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam, says he also supported a military response to last year's attacks and that he opposes the Green Party's plank on the war against terrorism.
In other words, the Greens -- in the name of principle -- are risking the defeat of the greenest member of the Senate by running a candidate who agrees with Wellstone on what the party evidently thinks is the make-or-break issue. Talk about not being ready for prime time.
As a backlash against this silly move builds, the Greens are now scrambling to explain away the mess. Some say they "had" to endorse McGaa, otherwise anyone off the street could have paid the filing fees and wound up on the Green primary ballot -- and ultimately run as the Green candidate in the final election. But McGaa himself, with little prior visibility among the Greens, seems to have been chosen on the spot and with virtually no serious scrutiny. Within hours of his endorsement by the Greens, McGaa made a series of confusing and intemperate public statements that revealed him to be anything but a reflective student of political strategy. When asked by the Progressive magazine if he was concerned about being a spoiler against Wellstone, McGaa said: "I'm an American Indian. We're not as analytical as you folks are. We observe and go forth with our life ... We're less materialistic."
Among those Minnesota Greens who wanted to stay out of the Wellstone race was Brian Kaller, co-editor of his party's state newspaper. But even Kaller said McGaa's politically correct credentials proved irresistible. "McGaa was not familiar to a majority [of the delegates]," he said. "But there were at least some people from the Native American community there who ... vouched for him. And while we are all pro-union, McGaa [was] a union worker. We are all in favor of peace, but he's a Korean and Vietnam war veteran who has also spoken out for peace. He is a member of a historically disenfranchised people. He's a feminist. And an environmentalist." For many Greens, Kaller said, McGaa is simply a "dream candidate."
The Minnesota situation is not, unfortunately, an anomaly in Green politics. Since their emergence in Germany 30 years ago, the party has always had a strain of fundamentalists, known as "fundis,"who are allergic to political compromise and seek a politically pure party, despite the electoral consequences.
Opposing them have been the "realos," the more pragmatic faction that argues that politics is the art of building coalitions. The success of this approach can be seen in the current "red-green" alliance of Social Democrats and Greens that governs the German Federal Republic.
In a place like Germany, both factions can easily coexist within the Greens. In a proportional representation system, where even small minor parties can win parliamentary seats, a viable argument can be made to keep the party small but pure.
But how can the "fundi" strategy -- as symbolized by the selection of McGaa to go against Wellstone -- sustain itself in the winner-take-all American electoral system? A Green Party that refuses to build bridges with allies outside of its own confines is destined to doom -- as so many previous third-party upstarts learned. The Minnesota Greens should have gone ahead and run their own candidates for governor and the Legislature and then have joined in the grass-roots effort to keep their natural ally, Wellstone, in the U.S. Senate. They would have maintained their own identity and maybe even have built up the party by winning grateful converts among pro-Wellstone Democrats. Now, instead, they must campaign for McGaa.
When asked whether he's worried that spoiling Wellstone's reelection could backfire on the Minnesota Greens and wind up spoiling their own future, Kaller said: "The short answer is yes. It's a tough question, one we are going to have to grapple with."
Kaller is only half right. A tough question it is. But it's one that should have been grappled with thoughtfully and fully before Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa was flung into the race. The Minnesota Greens had a good chance to build a model third party. If they don't reverse their recent action, they will be opting instead for a circus.
Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to the Nation and editor-at-large for L.A. Weekly.
"This is a terrible book," reads the first line of David Brock's newest book. He's right. And it's all downhill for the next 287 pages. But it's not a complete loss. "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative" is a pretty damn good train wreck.
I read through it rather lasciviously wondering if Brock -- the now repentant former bad-boy ink-slinger of the Gingrich Revolution who smeared Anita Hill and helped invent the "Troopergate" story -- could reveal himself to have been any more cynical, calculating, craven and corrupt. No disappointment on that issue. Nor was I ever able to find any further evidence of that "conscience" he mentioned in the subtitle.
What I found instead was the rather staggering story of a little snot who as soon as he enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1981 came up with a plan to trade his soul for recognition and cash; managed to do so just about on schedule; and now -- facing middle age -- has deployed Plan B, which is to garner an equal amount of cash by confessing what a shit he was. Like he said, it's a terrible book.
Though I suppose for hardcore Bill Clinton lovers -- those soft-headed among you who actually still believe that Slick Willy was a victim, that he was caught in a "perjury trap" and that "it was only about sex" -- this is a great book. Here are all your bogeymen, all the major players of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," revealed by ex-co-conspirator Brock to be just the conniving, double-dealing, amoral Clinton haters you always knew they were.
Brock begins his narrative as a 1981 UC scrub, predictably liberal, but starting to tire of the ambiance of political correctness. When President Reagan, two years later, invades the tiny island of Grenada, Brock senses an angle. He knows very little about international politics, but that doesn't stop him from writing a flay-'em-and-hang-'em paean to the Gipper's imperialist intervention in the campus paper, the Daily Cal. Brock is subsequently reviled by most of his peers, but wins the adoration of the campus conservative clique.
"I had no deep understanding of conservative ideology," Brock writes. So deeper he plunges into the right; he hasn't found a calling so much as a niche market. From the Daily Cal, Brock's rise is meteoric. He helps found the neo-con Berkeley Journal. And at age 23, he's drafted into the granite publishing heart of the Republican right, the Moonie-backed Washington Times. Brock lays on the detail how -- as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution -- he does his part by slanting copy, fabricating facts, besmirching the reputation of his rivals, polishing his bosses' apples to score promotions, apologizing for the contras, lionizing Pinochet and dutifully keeping his gay personal politics tightly corseted in the closet, lest he offend his right-wing patrons.
"The formula came easy to me," he says in describing his ability to crank out the unfounded, partisan smear pieces demanded by his editors. Further rewards come when he's picked up -- with a fat salary -- by the tendentious and reckless American Spectator. That shop, oiled by cash from Clintonphobe Richard Mellon Scaife, dedicates itself wholly to trashing the Democrats. And Brock's first big assignment is to destroy the character of Anita Hill, which he does in a magazine hit piece followed by his first best-seller, The Real Anita Hill. Brock kind of figures she was telling the truth, but what the hell.
Ditto with the Troopergate story -- which he more or less invents. The lurid sex tales spilling from the lips of Governor Clinton's former bodyguards all seem rather fishy to Brock, but he soldiers on with that hit piece as well. And, along the way, pockets five grand in payola from a GOP partisan investor named Peter Smith. "I was a whore for the cash," Brock explains.
And the cash is raining down. His trash-jobs for the Spectator run the circulation through the roof, and Brock's salary crosses into six figures. Another half-million-dollar bonus is doled out after the Hill piece comes out. Brock, now a luminary in the "counter-intelligentsia," is spending his nights boozing with right-wing screamers Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, while showing off his new Georgetown flat and freshly acquired black Mercedes.
By the time the Gingrich Revolution sweeps to power in 1994, Brock feels secure enough to come out of the closet. (And anyway, by then, he's sussed out the shocker that the right is just riddled with other closeted queenies.) It's the "sumptuous imperial phase" of the Gingrich era, as Jim Pinkerton called it.
"My most vivid memories of the period," writes Brock, "are of glamorous socializing of a kind unknown to Washington's rumpled right-wing environs. An article in National Review noted the 'alarming discovery that conservatives may be having fun.' And to make her point, writer Jennifer Grossman described an 'intimate supper' at my home, where over a catered feast of three-pepper soup and pecan-encrusted snapper, guests took turns doing dramatic readings from Gennifer Flowers' steamy memoir, "Passion and Betrayal". . . . National Review quoted me as an expert on the new conservative nightlife: 'Losers don't have good parties. Part of what energizes the Washington social scene is being in power.'"
Who said this kid ain't smart? The fun quotient is increased by a whopping million-dollar advance for Brock's next endeavor, a book on the Dragon Lady herself, Hillary. Now, I have to make my own confession here and say that somewhere in this part of the book, Brock claims to be having some sort of crisis of conscience, but I could never really grasp it.
There's something about a couple of New Yorker pieces taking his "reporting" apart, and something about a book defending Anita Hill that shakes his view of his hit job on her. But mostly, it seems, the Gingrich wave was crashing, and it might just have been the best time to bail.
Bottom line: Brock does what he does best. He lies. Or at least he deceives his editors, to whom he has more or less promised that he will wipe out Hillary. Instead, Brock does some real reporting and comes out with a fairly balanced if totally forgettable book, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, a book that so infuriates Brock's right-wing cronies, they begin to ostracize him.
And so begins, we are told, Brock's still-unfolding transition away from the right and toward the light. Don't look for any political explanations here -- there are none. And while you can certainly get the boy out of the sleaze, you can never really get the sleaze out of the boy. This book brims with the same vitriol and ad hominem that fueled the first part of his career. Ann Coulter, Arianna Huffington and Laura Ingraham, who seemingly were silly enough at one point to care about this brat's psychic well-being, are, just to cite one example, repaid by being branded as "fag hags." Matt Drudge, who has publicly denied being gay, but who also showed some kindness to Brock, is described as an aspiring "fuck buddy."
Little wonder that when Brock changes sides, the first endearing friendship he forges is with his veritable alter ego, Sidney Blumenthal. Blumenthal, a whiz-kid scribe who started out on the left, seamlessly transitioned to the center and then right into the center of power when he joined the White House staff and became Bill Clinton's designated character assassin. I can just picture the two new amigos -- Brock and Blumenthal -- clinking their chardonnay and agreeing that, above all, "Losers don't have good parties."
In the age of Geraldo, it seems almost an anomaly that a rumpled, 56-year-old professorial British-newspaper foreign correspondent could draw a string of standing-room-only throngs to American university auditoriums. But that's exactly what the London Independent's Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk has been doing from Chicago to Los Angeles, generating an often rock star�like reception (a crowd of 900 saw him last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa!). Though he's rarely published in the United States (except for occasional short pieces in The Nation), Fisk has built a loyal following that pores over his every word via the Internet with almost cultlike devotion. Fisk, who has covered the region for 26 years, is considered by many to be simply the best and most knowledgeable correspondent currently working in the Middle East.
But Fisk also has his detractors: critics who allege that he is knee-jerk anti-American and anti-Israeli, a patsy for Yasser Arafat.
But any in-depth discussion with Fisk reveals a thoughtful man, immersed in Middle Eastern history, tempered by decades of reporting and ready to argue in ways guaranteed to rankle true believers on any side of the conflict. The L.A. Weekly's Marc Cooper interviewed Fisk on Sunday at the home of the Independent's Los Angeles correspondent.
COOPER: In your public speeches, you have been suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might turn into something as apocalyptic as the French-Algerian war of four decades ago -- a horrendous war that took well over a million lives. Are things that dark?
ROBERT FISK: I think we already have reached those depths. If you go back and read the narrative history of the Algerian war, you'll see it began with isolated acts of sabotage, a few killings of French settlers, followed invariably by large-scale retaliation by the French authorities at which point, starting in the '60s, the Algerians began a campaign against French citizens in Algiers and Oran with bombs in cinemas and discotheques, which today translates into pizzerias and nightclubs in Israel. The French government kept saying it was fighting a war on terrorism, and the French army went in and erased whole Algerian villages. Torture became institutionalized, as it has by the Israeli authorities. Collaborators were killed by Algerian fighters, just as Arafat does so brazenly now. At the end of the day, life became insupportable for both sides.
At Christmas, Ariel Sharon called French President Chirac and actually said, We are like you in Algeria, but "we will stay."
And it's quite revealing that Arafat himself keeps referring to "the peace of the brave." Whether he knows it or not, that's the phrase De Gaulle used when he found it necessary to give up Algeria.
COOPER: For those who have watched this conflict over the years, it sometimes seems confounding what Ariel Sharon is thinking strategically. If one accepts the common view that Arafat has been a reliable and often compliant partner with the Israelis, what does Sharon think he has to gain by undermining him and opening the door to the more radical groups like Hamas?
FISK: Remember that when Arafat was still regarded as a superterrorist, before he became a superstatesman -- of course he's reverting back now to superterrorist -- remember that the Israelis encouraged the Hamas to build mosques and social institutions in Gaza. Hamas and the Israelis had very close relations when the PLO was still in exile in Tunisia. I can remember being in southern Lebanon in 1993 reporting on the Hamas, and one of their militants offered me Shimon Peres' home phone number. That's how close the relations were! So let's remember that the Israelis do have direct contact with those they label even more terrorist than Arafat.
In the cowboy version of events, they both hate each other. In the real world, they maintain contact when they want to.
As to Sharon, I was speaking with [former Palestinian official] Hanan Ashrawi last week, and she made the very good point that Sharon never thinks through the ramifications of what he's going to do, beyond next week or the week after. That's what we are seeing now.
In that regard, Sharon has many parallels with Arafat. When I had the miserable task of living under Arafat's awful regime in Beirut for six years, you could see that Arafat also would get up in the morning and not have a clue as to what he would be doing three hours later.
But back to Sharon. One thing he knows is that he is opposed to the Oslo [peace] accords; he doesn't want it. He's systematically destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. It's interesting to note that the European Union is now pointing out to the Israelis that $17 million of our taxpayers' money, investment in the West Bank infrastructure as part of the American peace plan, has been bombed and smashed to pieces by the Israeli military.
COOPER: Your critics accuse you of being a mouthpiece for Arafat. But in your public talks you openly disdain Arafat, calling him -- among many other things -- a preposterous old man.
FISK: I'm more than disdainful! More than disdainful. I always regarded him during his time in Lebanon as being a very cynical and a very despotic man. Even before he got a chance to run his own state, he was running 13 different secret police forces. Torture was employed in his police stations. And so it was easy to see why the Israelis wanted to use him. He was not brought into the Oslo process, and he was not encouraged by the Americans, and his forces were not trained by the CIA so that he could lead a wonderful, new Arab state. He was brought in as a colonial governor to do what the Israelis could no longer do: to control the West Bank and Gaza.
His task was always to control his people. Not to lead his people. Not to lead a friendly state that would live next to Israel. His job was to control his people, just like all the other Arab dictators do -- usually on our behalf. Remember that the Arab states we support -- the Mubaraks of Egypt, the Gulf kingdoms, the king of Jordan -- when they do have elections, their leaders are elected by 98.7 percent of the vote. In Mubarak's case, 0.2 percent more than Saddam!
So Arafat fits perfectly into this lexicon of rule. He's confronted with the choice of either leading the Palestinian people or being the point man for the Israelis.
COOPER: So does Arafat now, for his own cynical reasons, encourage or support the suicide bombings inside Israel as the Israelis insist he does?
FISK: Arafat is a very immoral person, or maybe very amoral. A very cynical man. I remember when the Tal-al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut had to surrender to Christian forces in the very brutal Lebanese civil war. They were given permission to surrender with a cease-fire. But at the last moment, Arafat told his men to open fire on the Christian forces who were coming to accept the surrender. I think Arafat wanted more Palestinian "martyrs" in order to publicize the Palestinian position in the war. That was in 1976. Believe me that Arafat is not a changed man.
I think that if he ever actually sees a wounded child, he feels compassion like any other human being. But he's also a very cynical politician. And he knows that Sharon was elected to offer security to the Israelis. And Arafat knows that every suicide bombing, every killing, every death of a young Israeli, especially inside Israel, is proof that Sharon's promises are discredited.
On the one hand, he can condemn violence. He can be full of contrition. And in the basic human sense, he probably means it. But he also knows very well that every suicide bombing hits at the Sharon policy, and realizes how that helps him.
COOPER: Is this current phase the endgame for Arafat? Or his 10th life?
FISK: Actually, both Arafat and Sharon are in danger. Throughout Arafat's life, the more militarily weak he becomes, the stronger he becomes politically. Equally, you might say Mr. Sharon has thrown his entire military at the West Bank, but he is not achieving the security he promised. Further, one day we will have to find out what has happened in the Jenin refugee camp, with the hundreds of corpses -- some of which disappeared, some of which appear to have been secretly buried. That will further damage Sharon. So as he becomes stronger militarily, he weakens politically. Way back in 1982, Sharon said he was going to root out terror when 17,500 Arabs were slaughtered during three months in Lebanon. And here we are again.
COOPER: I heard some contradictory notions in your talks regarding the U.S. I can't tell if you are just plain sarcastic about the American role in the Middle East, or if you are merely disappointed.
FISK: I'm way past being disappointed. I am very sarcastic. And deliberately so. A week ago, I wrote in my newspaper that when Colin Powell goes to Israel and the West Bank, we shall find out who runs U.S. policy in the Middle East: The White House? Congress? Or Israel?
On an ostensibly urgent mission, Secretary of State Powell -- our favorite ex-general -- wandered and dawdled around the Mediterranean, popping off to Morocco, then off to see the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, then he went to Spain, then he went to Egypt, then he went to Jordan, and after eight days he finally washed up in Israel. On an urgent mission!
If Washington firefighters turned up that late, the city would already be in ashes. As Jenin was. It was generally hinted at on the networks, in the usual coy, cowardly sort of way, that Powell wanted to give Sharon time to finish the job, just as he got to finish the job in '82 in such a bloody way.
And now Powell arrives and we see the two sides of the glass. On the one hand, he quite rightly goes to inspect by helicopter the revolting suicide bombing in Jerusalem where six Israelis were killed and 80 wounded.
But faced with the Israelis hiding their own activities, where hundreds [of Palestinians] have been killed, Powell does not ask to go to Jenin. Why? Because the dead are Palestinians? Because they are Arabs? Because they are Muslim? Why on earth doesn't he go to Jenin?
Powell is not being evenhanded. American policy never has been. It's a totally bankrupt policy. No wonder the Europeans are saying, "For God's sake, we have to play a role in the Mideast now."
COOPER: But till now the Europeans have not acquitted themselves much more honorably in the Middle East. And their role in the Balkans was abominable.
FISK: Well, they haven't had a chance yet to make a mess of the Middle East in the way you Americans have. But yes, if you look at European foreign policy within Europe, we totally screwed up in Bosnia. We didn't have the courage of our convictions over the breakup of Yugoslavia -- that's if we had any convictions. We allowed the horror and the tragedy and the most horrible atrocities to take place in Srebenica.
We needed the Americans in Bosnia. We needed the Americans in Kosovo. We still need American support with their influence over the Republican movement in Northern Ireland to keep that peace process together.
But Europe has a much clearer understanding of the Middle East. Owing partly to much more forthright press and television coverage of the region, of what's going on. We do not hide from our readers and viewers what's happening there. Unlike the American press, we do not hide the brutality of the Israelis. And we certainly do not hide the brutality of the Palestinians.
The peoples of the Middle East -- Jews, Muslims, Christians -- are our neighbors in Europe. Not only do we have large numbers of Muslims living in Europe, but the fault line between the Muslim world and Europe runs down the Mediterranean -- in many cases through Europe itself, like in Bosnia.
And we have got to have a proper, grown-up, modern relationship with our neighbors in the Middle East. You Americans don't have to. You can play Wild West out there because they are 9,000 miles away from you, and you will never have to be neighbors. But for us, there are new priorities. America doesn't even have a real policy in the region. You say, "Well, it's up to the parties." That's what we Europeans said in Bosnia, and look what happened.
How odd. Here's a superpower with enormous leverage, if you care to use it, over the Israelis. Yet you don't do so.
In the Brentwood patio of Dutton's Books last weekend, under appropriately foreboding gray skies, I gathered with friends and admirers of author A.J. "Jack" Langguth to celebrate the new paperback editions of his two masterpieces. Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, first published two decades ago, smartly tells the story of a young American nation forged in battle against a decaying empire. And Our Vietnam, winner of the Overseas Press Club Award in 2000, stands without question as the very best account of how that same America, two centuries later, ensnared itself in its own imperial hubris in Southeast Asia.
Reflecting on these volumes seems in order as the latest war news comes from the White House. Almost lost in the ongoing cable TV hyperventilation over imminent U.S. military engagement in the Philippines, or Yemen, or Iraq, is what is certainly the most decisive slide into endless war: escalated American intervention in Colombia.
This week, the Bush White House is formally asking Congress to remove all restrictions and increase U.S. military aid to Colombia. Through an initiative put in place by the Clinton Administration two years ago, the U.S. pumps more than $2 million a day into the war-torn country, providing scores of combat helicopters, shared intelligence, and hundreds of American military and private contract advisers and technicians. All this in the name of fighting drugs and deposing Colombia as the primary coca exporter in the world.
From the onset, critics of the plan feared there would be "mission creep," that the U.S. anti-narcotics battle would inevitably become a counter-insurgency war against the well-armed 35,000 leftist guerrillas who control more than a third of Colombia territory.
Those fears have now materialized. If Congress approves the White House request, more U.S. helicopters, arms, intelligence agents and military advisers will be directly engaged in what has been the interminable Colombian civil war. Given Congress' acquiescence on all things bellicose since 9/11, the Bushies have high hopes. "The administration is looking for a blank check, almost a Gulf of Tonkin resolution, allowing it to do whatever it wants in Colombia without any conditions or oversight," says Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a D.C.-based think tank. "This is well beyond what Ronald Reagan enjoyed in El Salvador, where Congress limited the number of advisors and required at least the fiction of human rights improvements."
Plunging ahead into Colombia really is akin to racing into the proverbial dark tunnel. The guerrilla war in Colombia is now completing its fourth decade. All sides in the conflict -- the Colombian state, the leftist insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries -- have become enmeshed in the drug traffic. All these "armed actors," as they are politely called in-country, have abominable human-rights records.
And what has the U.S.-drawn Plan Colombia wrought in the last two years? Only sharply increased warfare, the breakdown of peace talks that took years to put together, and not a decrease but an expansion of coca cultivation, not only in Colombia but now also spilling over into neighboring Peru.
That's why Isacson argues that increased and unrestricted U.S. military aid is a "bizarre and dangerous misreading of Colombia's complex conflict, treating the guerrillas as the main problem rather than as a symptom of far deeper social and economic problems."
This "misreading" is what frightens me. This sort of self-delusion is the strongest parallel between Vietnam and Colombia. Read through Langguth's book on Vietnam (as I did twice this past year) and it's hard to discern any clever, diabolical logic behind the U.S. war. Instead, you find an American governing elite bamboozled, bedeviled and disoriented by its own propaganda. There they are: LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, McNamara and Westmoreland, trapped inside their own bubble of deceit and unable to escape lest they puncture what had become a national cold-war mythology. As early as '68 the White House knew there could be no "victory" in Vietnam, but the carnage machine continued to crank as presidents, generals and their advisers fought on -- motivated much more by inertia, ignorance, arrogance and crass domestic political calculations than by any grand imperial design. To understand this one, throw away your V.I. Lenin and crack open some Freud.
I doubt that two or three years from now we will see 600,000 American troops in Colombia, or any B-52 carpet-bombings or any herding of Colombians into strategic hamlets. But you can bet you will see a whole lot more dead Colombians -- tens of thousands of them if the war continues in its current uptick. For 38 years Colombians have been butchering one another in the name of political causes. How a couple of billion dollars of American involvement would change any of that is beyond me.
I've seen lots of earnest speculation about what drives U.S. policy in Colombia: defense of oil pipelines, concerns for regional stability and so on. But again, I see the coming escalation as the almost inexplicable product of not very bright politicians and planners who are prisoner to their petty political agendas. "None of this makes any sense from a strategic point of view," says Isacson. "There still hasn't been any thought to the huge scale of assistance that a counter-insurgency in Colombia will require. This is not Yemen or the Philippines. Colombia is many, many times bigger and thus has 'quagmire' written all over it. And the proponents of the aid package have no clear answers to those concerns."
But, hey, when did not having any answers ever stand in the way of Washington making life-and-death policy? While Clinton cynically wrapped Plan Colombia in anti-drug rhetoric, George W. Bush is now reselling the expanded initiative as crucial to the war on terrorism. Considering the Congressional Democrats' supine posture over these last six months, it seems unlikely the White House will have to stampede them into approving the dive into Colombia. Nowadays, all Bush has to do is stand on the congressional steps and whisper "Here kitty, kitty," and the Democrats come purring out and roll over on their backs anxiously awaiting a presidential pat on their tummies.
And yet, the Colombian case is so detached from the logic of intervening in Afghanistan, or Yemen or even Iraq, this seems the perfect moment for Congress to draw the line against the Bush juggernaut and Just Say No. Read Jack Langguth's Patriots and his stirring account of the Committees of Correspondence and the confrontation at Concord and you can imagine Congress calling on those traditions and actually doing the right thing. But read the same author's history of Vietnam -- with such levels of official venality and mendacity -- and you suspect they won't.
On a balmy evening, under a sky streaked pink with the dying sun, the fiery leftist governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul set the loftiest of goals for the second annual World Social Forum, which convened here at the end of January. On the forum's opening night in this city of 1.3 million, a jubilant crowd that had been singing "Another World Is Possible"--the forum's theme song--cheered mightily in a bayside amphitheater as Olivio Dutra proclaimed a battle against what he called the "profound dehumanization and systemic banalization of civilization." He added, "We are among the millions of other people who now proclaim that humanity is not for sale."
It was in these pages, on the eve of the WSF, that Paris-based activist and author Susan George laid down a daunting challenge to that snaking, sometimes seething, ill-defined thing generally called the "antiglobalization" movement. In a world where official leadership fails to address the most basic of injustices and inequalities, George pondered whether the citizens of the globe were willing to "accept the risk of being serious." Governor Dutra's words seemed to confirm that this gathering of 50,000 people--three times more than last year, when the WSF was born as an alternative to the corporate World Economic Forum--was ready to offer up a resounding "yes."
The world may or may not have changed forever after September 11. But the movement was certainly at a turning point that demanded sober introspection. It had proved it could build giant puppets and wreak creative civil disobedience in one capital after another. It could attract the media's gaze as well as the loyalty of a new generation of college activists. It could begin to build once unthinkable bridges between hardhats and tree-huggers. It could force powerful international agencies like the World Trade Organization to rework their rhetoric and public posturing. But after the shattering events of the past six months, with the political topography radically reworked under its feet, it was clear the movement must now collectively think in long-term, strategic and politically effective ways. "September 11 was the cutting edge of the offensive against us," said Filipino economist Walden Bello. But, he noted, referring to the demise of one of the world's most enthusiastic corporate proponents of globalization and the collapse of a country that was only recently hailed as a model of one-size-fits-all global economic policies, "history is cunning and inscrutable. And she has handed us two boons: Enron and Argentina."
Against that backdrop, the thousands attending the WSF went about a week's business of debate and discussion with the earnestness of a gigantic study group cramming for finals. Organized primarily by Europeans and Latin Americans, it was subsidized with $1.5 million from local leftist city and state administrations. The intellectual menu was staggering, and refreshingly free of the wearisome, process-obsessed infighting that often marks events organized by the American left. Instead, from 8 in the morning until late into the night, delegates, guests and the plain curious from around the world jammed hundreds of seminars, conferences, workshops and panel discussions focused on such fare as "The Production of Wealth and Social Reproduction," "Access to Wealth and Sustainable Development," "Civil Society and the Public Arena" and "Political Power and Ethics in a New Society."
If you didn't want to join the 3,000 admirers who overflowed an auditorium to hear Noam Chomsky, you could go next door and listen to Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, or visit with Sashi Sail from the women's movement of India, or attend a panel on trade chaired by South Africa's Dot Keet, or ponder the words of Suwit Watnoo from the Thai "Forum of the Poor." At one point, Chomsky was inspired to compare this gathering to those convoked by workers' movements a century ago. "Porto Alegre," he said, "offers the real possibility of building a new international."
No Blueprints, Please: Just 'Deglobalization'
Perhaps Professor Chomsky, understandably, got a bit carried away on the high emotional tide. Fortunately, no manifestoes, marching orders or instant recipes for a New Society issued forth from the WSF. Instead, the focus was on what Emilio Taddei of the Buenos Aires-based Latin American Council on Social Sciences said were the five main areas of concern facing the movement: "Strategies to confront international financial agencies, imposing controls on international capital, the relationship between politics and civil society, the tactics of protest and international solidarity." From the week of reflection and debate a consensus seemed to emerge as to how and where to move the fight forward after the setback of September 11:
§ Redefine the Movement. There was general agreement that the time had come to reposition the movement in affirmative terms--moving from a stance of exposing and protesting to proposing alternatives and solutions. "We are labeled as anti, anti, anti," said Public Citizen's Lori Wallach. "We need to change that perception. It's they who are anti. We are a movement for democracy. For equity. For the environment. For health. They are for a failed status quo." She joked, "You can see I've got who we are down to about fifty words. Now we've got to get it down to bumper-sticker size."
There was also recognition that after the bloody confrontations in Genoa, and certainly after the World Trade Center attacks, the movement could no longer afford any ambiguity about its stance on violence. "Too often we get dragged into a swamp debating what is euphemistically called 'diversity of tactics,'" said one European environmentalist. "Now we need to speak up and say clearly that violence, as a political tactic, just doesn't work either in the United States or in Europe."
§ Escalate the Fight Against the World Trade Organization: "Shrink It or Sink It." There was wide agreement that the ministerial meeting of the WTO last fall in Qatar was a clear setback for the poorer countries of the global South, notwithstanding some rhetorical genuflections toward issues of equity by the richer countries. "We have to strip the image of the WTO," said Martin Khor, founder of the Third World Network. "And given that the WTO is becoming the most powerful multilateral organization in the world, there's an added urgency to the task." The still-tenuous new trade round launched at the Qatar meeting aims to expand WTO authority radically into even more areas of global commerce and culture. At a minimum, the WTO and its power have to shrink.
One key part of this fight, Khor argued, is for the movement to make clear that the WTO isn't unfair just because it is for free trade. "It's not that simple," he said. "The WTO is about free trade and protectionism at the same time. It's about a double standard that continues to protect rich countries against products that poor countries are good at exporting." Tackling the WTO, argued Canadian Tony Clark of the Polaris Institute, means campaigns ranging from what he called "reformist" strategies of suing multinationals and imposing codes of conduct on them to "radical strategies that question the right of existence of corporations."
§ Block the Free Trade Area of the Americas. At least in the Western Hemisphere, the frontlines of the fight will be against the White House push to approve the thirty-four-country FTAA--a proposal that its critics call "NAFTA on Steroids." "The FTAA is no less than a coup de grâce to Latin America's development and environmental protection," said economist Miosotis Rivas Peña of the Dominican Republic. There's crackling energy around this issue, and it sparked during the forum. "We will fight [the FTAA] every possible way, and we will defeat it," vowed Luiz Ignacio "Lula" Da Silva, Brazil's most important opposition politician. As head of the left-of-center Workers Party, which already governs large parts of Brazil, "Lula" is currently topping the polls in this fall's presidential election. The FTAA "isn't really a free-trade pact," Lula said. "Rather, it's a policy of annexation of Latin America by the United States."
Much of the leadership in the fight against the FTAA is expected to come from Brazil, which has the biggest economy in Latin America and the ninth-largest in the world. Many Brazilians see their country as the prime target for the corporatist agenda behind the FTAA. Multinational interests covet not only the resource-rich Amazon but also potentially profitable targets for privatization in a country that still maintains a heavy state presence in its economy.
In December the Bush Administration won a one-vote majority in the House on "trade promotion authority" for fast-track negotiations on the FTAA. It will still have to pass the Senate and then go back to both houses for reconciliation votes, where opponents think they have a good chance of killing it. In Porto Alegre, plans were floated to call for a series of national plebiscites on the trade pact--giving ordinary citizens a voice in the debate. Wallach said, "Our best weapon is the 'Dracula strategy'--exposing the details of the pact to the light of public scrutiny."
The primary line of attack on the FTAA will be the extraordinary powers it grants to private corporations, allowing them to sue national governments that take any measure that could impinge on profits. The model used in drafting this aspect of the FTAA is the notorious Chapter 11 provision of NAFTA [see William Greider, "How the Right Is Using Trade Law to Overturn American Democracy," October 15, 2001], which has allowed a US company to sue Mexico for attempting to block toxic dumping and a Canadian company to sue the United States because of California's clean-water standards. The international campaign against the FTAA was formally jump-started here last week with a march of 25,000 organized by the World Social Forum and the Brazilian Central Trade Union Confederation, CUT.
§ Propose a New World Financial Architecture. The International Forum on Globalization, which groups together a number of prominent anticorporate campaigners and strategists, used the occasion of the WSF to release an advance summary of a report on alternatives to corporate globalization that will be published soon. Economist Bello, a member of the report's drafting committee, outlined a post-cold war vision that seeks a third way between the two failed models of the twentieth century. "There is no blueprint," he said. "We've had two blueprint disasters in the past fifty years: centralized socialism and corporate capitalism. We need something different."
Bello proposes that we think not in terms of withdrawing from the international economy but rather of a process of "deglobalization." This would mean reorientation of local economies toward domestic and not foreign markets; significant land and income redistribution; policies de-emphasizing growth and maximizing equity; and implementation of a strategy that subordinates markets to social justice. "Which likewise means we also have to rethink the role of the state," said Professor Alberto Arroyo, a trade studies expert from Mexico's National Autonomous University. "When we are talking about a new and strengthened role for the state, we have to be talking about a new kind of state--one subject to real democratic controls by civil society." Otherwise, he said, what results is a failed model of centralized, bureaucratic socialism. Other thinkers argue for the so-called Tobin tax, which would impose a levy on international financial transactions to finance global development. And some call for a full-scale global Marshall Plan.
Any of this requires a new system of global financial governance that would supplant agencies like the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. "When it comes to these international institutions," Bello said, "it's not a matter of replacing neoliberal principles with social democratic ones. Rather it's about decommissioning, neutering and disempowering these organizations while revitalizing regional pacts and UN groups, and constructing new institutions that would devolve production and trade decisions to national economies that would have the space to pursue diverse development strategies and not be bound to one centralized model."
Bringing It All Back Home
At last year's WSF there was a constant buzz about the conspicuous absence of US delegates--there was only a sprinkling of US attendees. But this year's event drew more than 400 stateside representatives, making the US delegation the fifth-largest. The AFL-CIO sent a small but high-level group headed by federation executive vice president Linda Chavez Thompson. And president John Sweeney electrified the crowd at the opening-night celebration with a live satellite video greeting from the New York City street protests against the World Economic Forum.
Labor-backed Jobs With Justice (JWJ), working with other Washington-based groups, put together a "New Voices" delegation of about forty frontline community activists, ranging from members of a Communications Workers local in Massachusetts to Southwestern environmentalists, immigrant textile workers and Florida healthcare organizers. "Up to now I haven't been involved in the antiglobalization campaigns," said an ebullient Tracy Yassini, development director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has fought effectively for a living wage and union rights. "But coming out of this forum, now I feel I have an obligation to get linked up."
Overall, the Americans kept a low profile in the forum, deferring to the Europeans and Latin Americans, who were recognized as being vastly more experienced in building oppositional social and political movements. But they were treated with respect: Superstar attention was lavished on Chomsky, and Americans Lori Wallach from Public Citizen and Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies were on headliner panels.
There seemed to be a general notion among the Americans present that they were at a decisive moment: that in the post-Seattle rush, the movement's tactics had started running way ahead of its strategy, that protest was supplanting politics and that it was time to re-evaluate. "Seattle brought us visibility," said one organizer. "But it also brought so many people at once into the movement that our goals got muddied. Leadership got weakened and dispersed. We've actually lost much of the initiative in the past year and a half." The next stage, suggest some delegates, is to dig in. "It's ever clearer that this can't be a movement of hops from one summit to another," said JWJ executive director Fred Azcarate. "It's going to be a very long haul."
It would be disingenuous to deny that the US movement faces serious roadblocks. The blue-green coalition has frayed, and tension between much of organized labor and the rest of the movement is real. "The biggest problem inside the Seattle coalition isn't the war," said one key US activist. "The problem is around those who want to use violence. The post-9/11 labor movement doesn't want its rank and file to see its leaders in street demonstrations that turn violent. Labor is simply no longer on board for any ambiguity." Bad blood is also brewing around the Bush Administration's energy policy. The Teamsters, Mine Workers and building-trades unions support the White House on proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (as does the AFL-CIO in a more nominal way); nowadays their reps won't sit in some meetings with the Sierra Club, which opposes expanded drilling.
Some Teamster/turtle channels remain open. And in spite of the differences, work proceeds on several common projects. Public Citizen's Wallach is confident that coming out of Porto Alegre, and with the nonlabor part of the movement better focused, the coalition will be reinforced. "We have too much in common not to keep working together," she said.
Civil Society or Civil Disobedience?
One of the more spirited talks given during the week came from Naomi Klein, the Canadian who wrote No Logo, which has become a primer for many young activists. Denouncing the prevailing official wisdom that a just society is no longer possible, Klein brought her audience to its feet when she said she had grown weary of the week's focus on building civil society. Enough already with being polite and civil. "The alternative to a world without possibility," Klein proclaimed, "is not civil society--but civil disobedience."
As a sort of pep talk to activists, Klein's speech was flawless. But as political strategy, it seemed to be contradicted by the central message that emerged from the week. Indeed, perhaps the greatest value of an event like the World Social Forum is the perspective it offers--one that counsels a decidedly more patient view. Thousands of activists from hundreds of organizations from dozens of countries have come together to realize that this is not a single or, for that matter, a new movement. It's rather a convergence of many and varied movements that have--at times--only one thing in common: repudiation of a system that puts profit before people. The only other point of unity is an acute awareness that while alternatives and solutions are imperative, any temptation toward easy answers collapsed along with the Berlin wall.
It was enough to look out at the city and state around us--both governed by the Workers Party, a uniquely Brazilian concoction that is equal parts social democratic, Marxist, Christian and nationalist--to understand the very long and uncertain road ahead. Born from the militant Metal Workers Union twenty-two years ago during the darkest days of the military dictatorship, the party eventually emerged from the underground, weathered storms of repression and persecution, and today not only governs the surrounding state of Rio Grande but also, a thousand miles to the north, presides over South America's biggest city, São Paulo, with a population of more than 11 million. Party leader Lula--a former metalworker--currently leads presidential election polls.
Here in Porto Alegre, the Workers Party celebrates its thirteenth year in City Hall. It's a party that is fully committed to the same principles of global justice that defined the WSF. Budgets have been democratized under its rule. City services have been greatly improved. Clean natural-gas buses roam the streets. The local security forces are taught "social policing"--mediation and negotiation before repression. But under Workers Party administration, injustice has not been repealed. Exploitation has not been abolished. Multinational corporations have not been banned from Porto Alegre--nor could they be, unless the city seceded from the world. And, in other parts of Brazil, Workers Party mayors are still being assassinated by right-wing death squads. So here is the Workers Party, eons ahead of any similar political formation in the United States and yet an equally incalculable distance from the goal of a new society--of "another world."
Perhaps the forum's most poignant moments came during its culminating evening session, when, after a long day of panel-hopping, maybe 3,500 people overflowed a huge auditorium to hear a "personal testimony" from radical Brazilian economist Maria da Conceicao Tavares. For more than an hour, the crusty, gravel-voiced, charmingly profane 72-year-old university professor and former Workers Party congresswoman, who at one time or another had just about every member of Brazil's current political elite as a student, moved the crowd from reverent silence to tears and finally cheers.
Using her own life experience as primary evidence, she counseled the long and patient view and warned against any expectation that the powerful would crumble if protesters merely stamped their feet loud enough. Describing her childhood in Portugal marked by the inflow of defeated Spanish Republican refugees, her adolescence spent in the shadow of Portuguese fascism and the horror of World War II, her immigration to Brazil only to face the imposition of two decades of military dictatorship and now the past fifteen years of building a leftist party within an unstable democracy while hoping to elect Lula to the presidency in October, she said: "Maybe when you are 20 years old you can believe in revolution, socialism and even the resurrection of the flesh. But have no illusions; the struggle is permanent. I have fought for fifty years and I will continue fighting until I die. That is all I know how to do. And I hope you will join me."
Marc Cooper has written for various publications, including Playboy and Rolling Stone to the Sunday magazines of the Los Angeles Times and The Times of London.
After eight years of countenancing welfare repeal, stagnant social spending, commercial logging in national forests, a forced mass march into managed health care, 10 million more without health insurance, and a doubling of the number of Americans behind bars, Democratic liberals finally found something to get outraged over: Ralph Nader.
A week after this bizarre election, I am blue in the face from arguing that Al Gore's predicament is exclusively his own fault. I find it curious that Democrats have dispatched Jesse Jackson and an army of Democratic National Committee lawyers to Florida to crusade for the sanctity of each individual ballot while, at the same time, continuing to demonize Nader supporters for voting their consciences. My only personal regret is that I had but one ballot to cast for Ralph.
Meanwhile, the roasting of Nader continues unabated. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney went as far as to call Nader's campaign "reprehensible." So regardless of who eventually triumphs in the Florida micro-count, it seems inevitable that the ugly breach opened this season between Naderites and Democratic "progressives" is bound to be a factor in the next phase of domestic oppositional politics.
This, then, is a good moment to try and sum up what was won by the Green campaign, where it goes from here, and what is to be done about the Big Split.
First the good news: The Nader campaign was able to present a reform, anti-corporate agenda to a couple of hundred thousand Americans. Yes, the Greens fell two points short of the 5 percent total they needed for federal matching funds, but a full 2.5 million voters did respond to Nader's radical call. And Nader must be credited for engaging unknown numbers of otherwise cynical young activists and newly minted voters.
Before the vote, Green parties had ballot access in 24 states. After the vote, that number may go as high as 40. Further, there are now dozens, perhaps scores, of congressional and legislative districts coast to coast in which the newly emerged Green margin will loom as the swing vote -- forcing Democrats to accommodate and negotiate. This is only positive. The hysterical moanings that the Greens will now run against and spoil the chances for such stalwart liberal Democrats as Minnesota's Sen. Paul Wellstone or Wisconsin's Sen. Russell Feingold can be discounted. Green strategists know that campaigns in those districts would be nothing short of suicide.
The challenge for Nader now is how to most effectively use the network he has assembled into the sort of "watchdog party" that he promised in the final days of the campaign. He's got a funding base of 75,000 campaign donors and a database of thousands of volunteers and organizers. He's got several hundred new campus-based groups that supported him. And with either Gore or Bush in the White House, Nader will have a juicy menu of issues before him, ranging from campaign finance reform to media reform to fair trade.
The bad news is that the obstacles in Nader's path are formidable. The biggest problem is probably the Green Party itself -- which is actually multiple decentralized parties scattered throughout the states. Some of its newer incarnations, such as in Texas, show promising signs of broad outreach. But too many of the Green enclaves are insular, marginal echo chambers for a progressive-to-radical fringe.
I have spent a lot of time reporting among the Greens and I always come away with equal amounts of admiration and horror: admiration for the serious and thoughtful activists among their ranks, and stone cold horror for the collection of wingnuts and goofballs all around them. The menu of litmus tests for becoming a Green -- ranging from a marked counterculturalism to a sympathy for vegan cuisine -- is currently too demanding and too narrow to be viable and effective.
What America needs is not a small party to the left of the Democrats, but a big party that goes around and over both the Democrats and the Republicans. A party whose emphasis is on what we have in common in the fight against a corporate-dominated system rather than on what divides us. I am not arguing for the suppression of radical or identity-based politics. But in a winner-take-all political system it makes absolutely no sense to invest in a third party unless you want to build it into a majoritarian party. Leftists, so often obsessed with their personal political purity, are going to have to learn that the art of politics is in combining forces and building coalitions, not purging the infidels.
Building a broad-based alternative electoral front means checking your personal agenda at the front door and coming together on perhaps three or four basic issues that resonate from the left into the radical center. It is no accident that Nader -- even as he speaks today of accepting the role of "leader" in the new movement he is trying to fashion -- has not made any plans to actually join the Green Party.
That reticence is the clearest indication that Nader would favor a cleansing transformation of the Green infrastructure. And that is perhaps his most serious challenge. He will be bumping up against not only the loopier party regulars, but also against every leftist sect with its sights now set on "penetrating" the Greens. (With the collapse of the Reform Party, how long can it be before Lenora Fulani discovers her Green-ness?)
The other challenge before the Naderites is the very real rift that has opened up with progressive Democrats. There's an emerging line inside the AFL-CIO that Nader is now persona non grata and that, thanks to him, the tenuous one-year-old Seattle Coalition is now over. There's a history of low-level tension between Nader and some of the AFL brass. And the outcome of Campaign 2000 has given the most anti-Nader minority of the Federation a disproportionately loud voice in the postelection debate.
The word in DC, meanwhile, is that not only some unions but also some key environmental NGOs are rethinking their working alliance with Nader-founded groups like Public Citizen (whose Global Trade Watch subsidiary played perhaps the key strategic role in making Seattle happen). It's a bum rap, because whatever one thinks of Nader's presidential run, organizations like Public Citizen had nothing to do with it. Indeed, none of Public Citizen's staff even took leave to work on Nader's campaign.
Just how or if this breach gets healed will haunt the left in the months to come. For whatever remains of the blue-green coalition, it will face its next crucial test this coming spring, no matter who is inaugurated. Either administration is expected to come out of the box asking once again for "fast-track" authority to negotiate an expanded version of NAFTA. The battle will be joined.
There will be two major venues in which this battle will be waged: Capitol Hill and the streets. If there will ever be a moment when we need a united rather than a divided blue-green front it will be then. With only a one-vote Republican majority in the Senate, the focus of this next globalization skirmish will be for the first time in the upper house. In the street, plans are afoot to rock an April conference on the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec with simultaneous demonstrations reaching from Santiago to San Diego and beyond.
But if the Seattle coalition crumbles, both of these objectives could become long shots. Teamsters and Turtles, Labor Democrats and Naderite Greens must find some way to once again come together on this front.
Neither side of the blue-green alliance can go it alone. On the labor side, the recriminations and rhetoric must be tamped down and there must be a halt to the scapegoating of the only presidential candidate who unflinchingly championed the full union agenda. There's plenty of blame to go around for Gore's weakness; labor must assume its quota. If the AFL had not given its absurdly early endorsement to Gore way back in October 1999, it might have been able to eventually nudge the Democratic candidate far enough to the left to have made the Green option less attractive to voters.
Labor has been building up its own anti-globalization organizing infrastructure, and there are some in the Federation who believe they can move forward while severing their links with the Green component. They are wrong. The future of the movement -- the young, tireless college radicals -- are attracted into the fight not by labor but by the greenish NGOs. And when it comes to going to the Hill and slugging it out on the most crucial issues to labor -- from NAFTA to the WTO -- there are no more effective, reliable, and tenacious advocates and fighters than those like Lori Wallach, leader of Nader's Global Trade Watch.
On the other side, the Greens also better catch their breath before plowing ahead. It's great that Nader got two million-plus votes -- but that is still only a tiny fraction of the electorate. It's also true that in the closing days of the campaign we saw the emergence of a "Labor for Nader" group. While heartening, that is also a very small piece of organized labor.
From the anti-IMF demos last spring in Washington to this past summer's Republican and Democratic convention protests, we saw a progressive weakening of the street movement coming out of Seattle. By the time it hit LA in mid-August it had become so unfocussed that it bordered on self-caricature. All three of those episodes had something in common: Labor had not been brought on board. Indeed, in Los Angeles, the bulk of labor sat inside the Staples Center with the DNC and the young people in the streets found themselves in opposition.
Once this mess gets settled in Florida, let's get on with our real work.