Even before Bush won Florida, I felt sick to my stomach. On election night, my wife and I had Indian food delivered to herald the end of four years of darkness, but the food just didn't sit right. My 3-week-old son felt sick, too. He had painful gas and wailed for hours. I blamed Bush.
Once the reality of Kerry's defeat set in, I reached for the Tums. By Wednesday, the realization that we were in for four more years of reckless incompetence and messianic militarism snuffed out my appetite like Bush snuffed out critical thought in the White House.
If you're like me, you're growing weary of the election post-mortems and the what-the-hell-do-we-do-now hand wringing. All the analysis adds up to one thing: We're fucked. The damage the Bush administration will continue to inflict on international relations, the environment, abortion rights, civil rights and good-hearted people everywhere is depressing.
On Wednesday, I felt tempted to resign myself to Republican omnipotence. Resistance seemed futile. Karl Rove's armies of fear and ignorance delivered a crushing defeat to the forces of reason and tolerance. But then I started thinking. Succumbing to the Bush administration's radical agenda would only embolden them. Screw that.
Fighting the Bush administration is an uphill battle, but it's already begun. It's important to stay engaged and prepare for the battles to come. Toward that end, I'm advocating the Resistance Diet. Coupled with regular voting and exercise of your First Amendment rights, you can help the nation lose the ugly fat that clogs the White House by wisely choosing what you eat.
The Resistance Diet is predicated on the notion that eating is a political act. It goes like this. Eat locally grown food. Seek out organically produced foods and produce. Avoid corporate agriculture.
Eating locally grown food is remarkably easy. While the Bush administration's ag policy has abandoned small family farms in favor of multinational corporations like Conagra and Cargill, shopping at farmers markets helps keep growers afloat and counters the effects of a globalized, import-dependent, subsidy-addicted food economy. Plus, local food has less distance to travel, which means it requires less fuel to get to you. Reducing our oil dependence is another way to subvert the Bush agenda.
Organically and sustainably produced foods are free of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, products made by Bush-loving corporations like Dow and Monsanto. Buying these foods also expresses your concern about impacts on water quality, global warming and wildlife diversity, sentiments absent in the Bush camp. And by avoiding food produced by corporate giants like Phillip Morris and ADM, you're taking a stand against the monopolistic industrialization that has taken oven our food supply.
Individually, the Resistance Diet is a small act. but it identifies your stance against the powers that be. Collectively, it can chip away at the cruel wall Bush has erected across the globe. And it will make you healthy and strong and ready to keeping fighting for what's right.
For the past quarter century, Errol Morris has been one of America's most intriguing, innovative and, well, quite frankly, quirky documentary filmmakers. He is to nonfiction cinema what David Lynch is to fiction film and Diane Arbus is to documentary photography. With his offbeat character studies, unconventional camera angles and haunting musical scores by Philip Glass, Morris has forged one of the more unique and irreverent voices in American cinema, documentary or otherwise.
His collected oeuvre -- beginning with his iconoclastic look at pet cemeteries, "Gates of Heaven" (1978), to his spellbinding murder thriller, "The Thin Blue Line" (1988), and his unforgettable "Mr. Death" (1999), a chilling profile of a gas chamber engineer and Holocaust denier -- has forced Americans to plunge beneath the veneer of postmodern consumerism and confront their internal demons.
While 'The Thin Blue" Line directly resulted in the overturning of a first-degree murder conviction and, in and of itself, became a cultural cause célèbre, Morris' new film, "The Fog of War," takes the filmmaker into decidedly new and, what is for him, uncharted territory -- a subject as large as the history of human conflict in the 20th century and the life of one of the era's most controversial and reviled figures, Robert McNamara.
In his previous works, Morris had the luxury of introducing his audiences to stories and subjects mostly unknown to them, and as such, the films were marvelously revelatory and widely celebrated.
For those of us in our mid-40s and older, however, Robert McNamara needs no introduction. His image is indelibly etched in our collective consciousness.
As the secretary of defense under both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, McNamara was a larger-than-life figure, one of the so-called "best and the brightest" of the New Frontier. With his dark, slicked-back hair and wire-rim glasses, McNamara was one of the most recognizable figures on the nightly news for virtually all of the tumultuous '60s.
The antiwar movement in the United States, in which Morris says he participated as a student at the University of Wisconsin, thoroughly despised McNamara, his public arrogance and condescension, his seemingly emotional indifference to the horrors of Vietnam and the American assault he crafted and oversaw there. He was a numbers cruncher, an accountant with an army, dispassionate, interminably full of himself. Mac the Knife. Ice water seemed to run through his veins.
In his monumental history of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam wrote of McNamara:
He was intelligent, forceful, courageous, decent, everything, in fact, but wise...In the critical middle years [of the Vietnam War] he attached his name and reputation to the possibility and hopes for victory, caught himself more deeply in the tar baby of Vietnam, and limited himself more greatly in his future actions. It is not a particularly happy chapter in his life; he did not serve himself nor the country well; he was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.That is heavy baggage for any film to carry, and "The Fog of War," subtitled "Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," is burdened by that inescapable historical gravity.
Although constructed around only a pair of three-hour, sit-down interviews that Morris conducted with McNamara in 2001, the film, which is richly interspersed with haunting archival footage and rare, unheard audio tapes, makes for truly riveting, if troubling, cinema. The 85-year-old McNamara holds an audience in ways that cardboard Hollywood stars one-third his age never could.
"The Fog of War" opens with a classic McNamarism. As the octogenarian is getting seated for another interview session, he checks in with Morris about sound levels, then declares: "Now I remember exactly the sentence I left off on, I remember how it started. You can fix it up some way. I don't want to go back and introduce the sentence, because I know exactly what I wanted to say."
It is the McNamara of old. Didactic, always in control, asserting his intelligence and the perfect command of memory. The changes are subtle. He is clearly in the autumn of his years, slightly frailer, grayed, his hair thinned, a touch vulnerable, certainly more reflective, but he is nonetheless vital, engaged, articulate and, perhaps now, even wise. At least wiser. What's more, he's charming, almost likable.
During the course of the film, McNamara, something of an American Zelig, recounts various episodes of his life from the end of World War I right up until the present, a period that covers the second world war, his years at the Ford Motor Company and the postwar revitalization of the auto industry, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, most centrally, the Vietnam War.
He breaks down when he recalls the assassination of President Kennedy. At another point, he acknowledges that he and General Curtis LeMay, under whom he served during the World War II firebombings of Tokyo, which left 100,000 Japanese civilians dead in a single night, could be viewed as "war criminals."
He breaks down again when he recalls the impacts of the Vietnam War on his family -- his wife and three children were opposed to the war -- and he goes so far as to acknowledge that the traumas associated with his tenure as secretary may have "ultimately" even killed his wife. It is a painful and poignant moment, but McNamara feels compelled, even when stricken with grief, to footnote that moment with the disclosure that they "were some of the best years of our life" and that "all members from my family benefited" from his days in Washington.
From these interviews, it is Morris (not McNamara, it should be pointed out) who distills the 11 lessons of the film's subtitle.
Some of the lessons are more fully rendered than others. The first -- "Empathize with your enemy" -- is drawn from McNamara's experience during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In what is a somewhat distorted and self-serving rendition of events, McNamara explains with great enthusiasm that the ability of former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson to identify with the personal psychology of then-Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev ultimately prevented the Kennedy administration from crossing the brink of nuclear war.
Much has been made of Lesson No. 9 -- "Never apply military force unilaterally" -- and its relevance to the current war in Iraq. While the application of this lesson certainly cannot be lost on current world events, Morris has gone to great lengths to point out that this comment had nothing to do with Iraq or 9/11; he doesn't want to be viewed as "pandering." And McNamara has refused to speak out against the assault on Iraq -- much as he refused to speak out against the Vietnam War 35 years ago.
Other of the film's lessons are more ambiguous, even banal ("Never say never" or "Get the data"), and their application uncertain, even contradictory. Are these life lessons for us all, or only applicable to foreign policy? On this, "The Fog of War" is vague.
Morris is not blind to this ambiguity. The filmmaker acknowledges that the lessons he drew from his interview with McNamara "are somewhat more pessimistic and ironic than his lessons. I mean, they all turn back on themselves, if you like. And the 11th lesson ('You can't change human nature') even suggests the possibility that the previous 10 are meaningless."
One of McNamara's dicta that Morris does not enumerate is: "Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wished had been asked of you."
This would seem to have been McNamara's mantra during Vietnam, and one can't help thinking during the film that it remains so to this day. He is slippery to the end.
A Ford in His Past
Robert Strange McNamara (that is indeed his middle name), now 87, still vital, is a product of the Bay Area. Born in San Francisco in 1916 (his first childhood memory, as recalled in the film, is of people atop streetcars celebrating at the end of World War I), he was raised in a middle-class Oakland neighborhood and graduated from Piedmont High School during the height of the Great Depression.
His father was a sales manager for a San Francisco shoe firm and could not afford to send his bright son to Stanford, so McNamara went to Berkeley instead. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, went off to Harvard Business School, where he excelled, then came back to San Francisco and worked for Price Waterhouse, during which time he married an old college friend from Berkeley, Margaret Craig.
But the East Coast beckoned. He had made such an impression at Harvard that the business school offered him a position teaching accounting, and he became the youngest assistant professor in the school's history. He and his young family were happy at Harvard. He loved the intellectual challenges, the community of academics, the social and cultural milieu.
Then World War II changed the arc of his life. McNamara's statistical abilities were so impressive that he was brought into the Army Air Force as a captain and served as a program analyst for the war's burgeoning air campaign. He moved up quickly in the ranks and participated, in his terms, in the "mechanism" that recommended the firebombing of Japanese cities.
After the war, McNamara wanted to return to Harvard, but both he and his wife became sick with polio, and his assistant professor's salary would not cover their medical bills. He and a handful of other young Air Force "whiz kids," as they were dubbed, went off to the Ford Motor Company with plans on changing the auto industry.
The puritanistic, albeit somewhat liberal, McNamara was not a perfect fit for Detroit (he actually lived in the more academic Ann Arbor, instead). He hated waste and ostentatious consumption, and the car he developed at Ford, the Falcon, reflected his twin commitments to economy and safety.
Although somewhat restless and uncomfortable at Ford, McNamara's career was in constant ascendance. In 1960, at the age of 44, he was named president of the company, the first nonfamily member at Ford to assume the post. He was one of the highest-paid business executives in the world.
His presidency at Ford was short-lived. McNamara's reputation had made a significant impact on those advising the young, newly elected president of the United States, John Kennedy, and McNamara was summoned to Washington to serve as the nation's secretary of defense. He agreed, on the condition that he could name his entire senior staff, and so he moved to Washington, at considerable sacrifice to his family.
He had little idea how great that sacrifice would be.
Errol Morris, also of solid middle-class stock and now in his late 50s, says that he began to consider making a film about the former defense secretary after first reading McNamara's Vietnam memoir, In Retrospect, which was published in 1995 to considerable fanfare and not without controversy.
In a 40-minute phone conversation I had with him last week, Morris, a former private investigator who now makes a living -- and supports his filmmaking habit -- by producing and directing television commercials, talked about his inspiration for Fog:
There was the book and of course the phenomenon of the book," he noted. "When the book came out it was a bestseller. It was reviewed, and beyond the reviews, there were many editorials, articles, commentaries; and very quickly, the book came to be described as McNamara's 'apology'--his mea culpa. And having read the book, the book seemed to me very different in character. It wasn't an apology. It was a tortured examination of his past. That was far more interesting.McNamara churned out a second book, Argument Without End (1999), and then another, Wilson's Ghost, in 2001. It was during his book tour for Ghost that Morris first met with McNamara, in May of 2001 -- five months, as Morris is wont to point out, before 9/11 -- ostensibly in the context of promoting that book, but, as Morris notes, "The thing became something quite different."
Morris said that McNamara had second thoughts about doing the interview. "He had called me a couple of days before coming up, telling me ostensibly that he was going to cancel the interview, and he went on at some length and then at the end said, 'but I agreed to come up, so I will.' And he -- I mean this is very, very characteristic of McNamara in general -- he limited the amount of time and his commitment and, of course, that got extended."
During our conversation, Morris was polite, patient and forthright and, in an echo of his subject, allowed it to go nearly three-times longer than had been scheduled.
But one could sense that Morris was also stung and perturbed by recent criticisms of the film, particularly those launched by Fred Kaplan at MSN Slate and Eric Alterman in The Nation. He told me that he had just composed lengthy responses to both.
Kaplan's piece, called "The Evasions of Robert McNamara," challenges McNamara's accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Tonkin Gulf incident two years later. Alterman's article, titled "The Century of the 'Son of a Bitch,'" characterizes McNamara as "both a pathological liar and a comically pathetic braggart," his remarks in the film riddled with "legalistic rationalizations and whitewashing of history." He, too, cites problems with McNamara's version of the missile crisis and Vietnam.
"People are so convinced that they know the history of this man," says Morris in response to the Kaplan and Alterman criticisms, "that they can't even admit of the possibility that there may be evidence to the contrary of what they believe -- in some cases, recent evidence -- recent in the sense that it's become available recently, and that the story of Vietnam becomes a far sadder story. I think that people in general like to figure out who's to blame, as if you can pinpoint one person who's responsible for it all, you're going to be in really great shape."
That may be true, but the facts remain, to my mind at least, that McNamara's renditions of the missile crisis and Tonkin Gulf incident in "Fog" are distorted and lack proper historical context to the point of rendering them duplicitous.
Part of the problem is that Morris couldn't force words into McNamara's mouth and had limited time with his subject. But the larger part of the problem -- and this was a structural decision made by Morris -- is that there is no countervoice in the film, no sharpening stone, if you will, to rasp against McNamara's blade.
I found myself wanting to hear the voice of a Daniel Ellsberg, who worked under McNamara at Defense and who later leaked The Pentagon Papers, which, incidentally, were commissioned by McNamara (a fact inexplicably left out of the film), or a Neil Sheehan or a David Halberstam, both brilliant journalists who covered McNamara for much of the war and who have spent the ensuing years writing about it.
Such voices are never heard in "The Fog of War." So in certain respects, McNamara was given a free ride. Morris had no cinematic mechanism at his disposal to counter McNamara's version of events.
There are two other major problems I had with the film, both involving choices made by Morris. In April of 1995, after the publication of In Retrospect, McNamara was invited to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for a symposium on his book. During the questioning period, a Vietnam vet named John Hurley stepped up to the podium and addressed McNamara:
Hurley: My question for you, sir, is that at the end of 1965, 1,425 American troops were dead, 1,425. 58,191 died before it was over. My friend, my commander Burt Bunting, died in Vietnam. Allen Perot never saw Needham, Massachusetts, again. Sunny Davis didn't come home. They were torn to shreds, they were ripped apart. You ripped the soul out of the family of 58,191 families in this country, sir. And you remained silent. You said nothing. You let 30 years pass.
McNamara: So, now your question...
Hurley: My question is, sir, why did Burt Bunting die when you knew the war was a mistake...Why did you remain silent while another 57,000 U.S. troops and 4 million Vietnamese died? Why?
McNamara: You're going to have to read the book to get the answer. There's not time...
McNamara: Wait a minute! [yelling angrily] Shut up! I will. Now let me answer. You had your time; let me have mine...
Shut up! It was a chilling and unforgettable moment. I asked Morris if he had seen the footage of this encounter. He acknowledged that he had.
He chose not to use it.
I would have begun the film with that confrontation and unwound the complexities of Robert Strange McNamara from there. The dark and tortured depths of McNamara's psyche were revealed once again that day at Harvard -- not during the war, but long after, during a time when McNamara was supposedly in a mood for reflection. Telling a Vietnam vet to shut up, read the book, at a symposium about the war takes, well, a certain hubris, a certain insensitivity, that this nation still needs to confront.
It is not confronted in "The Fog of War."
The other significant issue I have with Fog results from Morris' choice of "b-roll," or cover footage, for his section on the American bombing raids in North Vietnam, the infamous Rolling Thunder campaign ordered by Johnson, with McNamara's approval, in 1965.
We see countless shots from the perspective of American warplanes, but the only time we see any of the Vietnamese victims is during a short, almost indistinguishable series of quickly edited black-and-white photos near the end of the film.
I asked Morris about this decision. He indicated that while he had footage on the impacts of the bombing from the perspective of the Vietnamese, "the movie, you know, in some sense, is from [McNamara's] perspective, and oddly enough he does not talk -- he talks about the terrible tragedy for the Vietnamese people, but he doesn't quite talk about it the same way as he talks about the firebombing [of Tokyo]...I decided not to use it. I decided to use those still photographs instead."
This editing decision, which renders the bombing raids decidedly abstract and emotionally distant, would seem to fly in the face of two of the McNamara/Morris lessons in the film -- "Empathize with your enemy" and another about "proportionality" being a guideline in war.
By not seeing the impacts of the bombing from the perspective of the enemy -- as we do in the 1975 Academy Award-winning documentary on the war, "Hearts and Minds" -- we never fully empathize with the victims of the American bombing assault that left more than a million Vietnamese dead. There is no sense of visual proportionality.
Here, Morris had the opportunity to provide a counterbalance to McNamara's technospeak, to his failure to engage some of the larger human truths about the war, but he chose otherwise. He allowed McNamara to not only claim control of his audio track, but inexplicably, his visuals as well.
What is lost, given the widespread American audience that will see "The Fog of War," is the opportunity for Americans to empathize profoundly and compassionately with the victims of their country's genocidal war. This is a cinematic tragedy of grand proportions.
At the end of the film, Morris constructs an "epilogue" with an audio interview conducted with McNamara much later than his original two sessions. Lacking an adequate denouement for the interviews conducted in 2001, McNamara pressed his subject further:
Morris: After you left the Johnson administration, why didn't you speak against the Vietnam War?
McNamara: I'm not gonna say more than I have. ...A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I'm a son of a bitch.
Morris: Do you feel in any way responsible for the war? Do you feel guilty?
McNamara: I don't want to go any further with this. It just opens up more controversy.
Morris: Is there a feeling that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't? No matter what you say?
McNamara: Yeah, that's right...and I'd rather be damned if I don't.
It's a disturbing, somewhat unsatisfying ending to the film.
Morris acknowledged the problem. "Is it a perfect movie?" he asked rhetorically. "No. Are there things that are omitted that should be in it? Yes."
Morris told me that he continues to engage and discuss matters with McNamara on a regular basis. "I like him," he said.
On the day of our conversation, he informed me that he had just spoken with McNamara and that McNamara did not like the epilogue either.
"He said something," Morris allowed, "I've heard this so recently, I haven't said anything about this to anyone but yourself...and I think it's a very powerful thing. He said to me that he's not the chief architect of the war. It's just simply wrong, but he can be faulted for not struggling enough with Johnson to stop it. And so he does fault himself."
"For whatever reason," Morris also stated, "I'm more interested in understanding him than condemning him. I don't feel any differently about the war than I did 40 years ago. I still think it's appalling. What I'm interested in is how McNamara sees himself in that history, against bits and pieces of evidence that I've strewn through the movie, whether it's memos or voice recordings."
That is, indeed, a noble gesture on Morris' part -- one not always reciprocated by his subject -- and "The Fog of War" certainly takes us toward a closer understanding of a very complex man.
Robert McNamara, unfortunately, in his inability to fully engage the ghosts of his past, remains terminally lost in his own personal fog of war.
Online Exclusive: Read the complete interview between Errol Morris and Geoffrey Dunn now.
Geoffrey Dunn is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. His latest film, Calypso Dreams, opens next month in Los Angeles.
Late last year, Shahbaz Taheri, editor of the San Jose-based Iranian-American magazine Pezhvak, learned a lesson about the United States government. When the Immigration and Naturalization Services Agency contacted him as part of its homeland security campaign to publicize a new program requiring male immigrants from selected, predominantly Muslim countries to register with the federal government, Taheri was happy to oblige them.
After all, it was in the post-9/11 spirit of halting terrorism, and so he agreed to print--as a public service-- the registration information in his magazine, not knowing that the program would result in the detention and deportation of several hundred Muslim immigrants for minor immigrant-status violations.
In fact, as the national news media relate stories of Pakistani immigrants seeking safe haven in Canada, the ill-fated policy has arguably resulted in perhaps the first post-World War II instance of ethnic groups fleeing the United States in droves to find refuge elsewhere, an ironic reversal of the country's traditional role as the destination for immigrants to avoid intimidation and persecution from unfriendly governments.
The special registrations have predictably resulted in a public outcry from immigration attorneys and advocates, who cite the selective enforcement (only certain Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries are targeted) as patently unfair.
"Many people are going to get deported who have pending petitions [for green cards]," remarks one exasperated immigration attorney. "If that was the case [uniformly], then guess what? Then they have to get rid of half the Mexicans who are here because they have pending petitions and they are waiting for their green cards. Are they really going to do that? I mean, I doubt it ... that will be political suicide."
And so, when Taheri, in good faith, translated the INS information into Farsi and published it in his magazine, the blowback, after the mass detention of Iranians nationwide (Iranians were among the first required to register), caused Taheri to rethink the value of voluntarily cooperating with the federal government. Some readers of Pezhvak, which means "echo" in Farsi, would go as far as to accuse him of being a government agent.
Today, almost three months later, the lesson is being relearned. Indeed, Taheri has helped uncover a quiet round of "consular interviews" of Iranians facing final deportation orders conducted in Arizona and Louisiana in recent months.
While Citizenship officials from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Enforcement (BCIE, formerly part of the now-defunct INS) refused to comment, some Iranian-American attorneys say they have evidence the interviews were conducted by officials representing the Islamic Republic of Iran, a startling turnabout because the United States doesn't have diplomatic relations with Iran (it was named as one of the three countries in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil") and consular interviews are by definition a voluntary process where immigrants are given access to an advocate from their native country, a situation that loses all merit when detainees have fled their native country because of oppression.
Most of those interviewed, immigration attorneys say, don't possess Iranian passports and are likely individuals who came to the United States with the sole aim of fleeing the Iranian government.
In an email circulating in an immigration-attorneys group, one attorney wrote of the consular interviews: "It is akin to the Gestapo interviewing Jews in wartime Europe to facilitate their return to Germany for persecution."
One of the people rounded up by the government after 9/11 and taken for a "consular interview" was Kouroshe Gholamshahi, a security guard from Sacramento with no criminal record, who was arrested at his home by the INS.
Before that, for the past 17 years, Gholamshahi had been residing in the United States--illegally. An Iranian of Baha'i faith who apparently feared religious persecution in his homeland, he had applied for political asylum in the United States but was rejected (his case was tried by a law student at UC-Davis) and instructed to leave the country voluntarily.
Instead, Gholamshahi opted to duck the law and remain in the United States--a move that was not considered especially risky in the past. He married an American almost five years ago and appeared perhaps on his way toward citizenship (though, because of his deportation order, the matter was complicated) before everything changed after Sept. 11.
Shahbaz Taheri became acquainted with this detainee four months ago, when a jailed and depressed Gholamshahi wrote to his magazine requesting that he send him copies to read. Soon, Gholamshahi began regularly calling Taheri collect from jail. "I'm paying almost $60 every month for the collect calls," says Taheri, who found himself almost involuntarily involved in Gholamshahi's case. As their relationship grew, Taheri alerted private Iranian-American immigration attorneys to what seemed to him as a case of needless detention.
Gholamshahi, Taheri knew, was terrified of being deported to Iran for fear of what would happen to him there. "And each time he calls," Taheri continues, "he wants some kind of assurance through me that something good is going to happen to him, and he keeps asking me, 'Mr. Taheri, what do you think? Do you think I'm going to get out of jail? And what's going to happen to me?'"
Then, about a month ago, Gholamshahi abruptly disappeared from the Sacramento County Jail. His court-appointed federal defender confirmed that the INS, without explanation, had transferred Gholamshahi to its detention facility in Florence, Ariz. When, after a period of silence, Gholamshahi was finally able to make a phone call, he contacted Taheri from Florence and told him that 40 to 50 other Iranians, all on final deportation orders, had been rounded up in the facility and had been interviewed by Iranian officials for the issuance of travel documents back to Iran.
Needless to say, magazine editor Taheri was amazed. An Iranian dissident himself, who, in Iran, was active in student politics, he had left the country during the time of the Shah and had earned American citizenship and is well aware of the tumultuous relationship between the two nations.
Not believing it was possible that the United States would offer the Iranian government unfettered access to detainees facing deportation back to Iran, he immediately contacted Babak Sotoodeh, president of the Los Angeles-based Alliance of Iranian-Americans. Sotoodeh, upon hearing the news, fired off an email to a lawyers listserve that had been started specifically to deal with INS special registrations.
"I sent an email to our lawyers group," Sotoodeh relates, "saying this is what's going on. It's very strange; has anybody heard a similar thing? And then I got a response that, yes, our people have been removed to Florence too, and they talked to us and said the same thing. So this is how we stumbled upon it."
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away in Dallas, Texas, immigration attorney Karen Pennington was facing a similar situation. Her client, who requests anonymity for this story because he fears for his life both in the United States and in Iran, was transferred from a county jail in the Midwest to an INS detention facility in Oakdale, La. There, Pennington says, he was only allowed to speak on the telephone with family members twice for two minutes each time.
Pennington learned that her client was being interviewed by officials from Iran for the issuance of travel documents. Horrified, Pennington immediately filed for a Temporary Restraining Order (which was later denied by a federal judge in Dallas), posted a message on an immigration-lawyers listserve and contacted the INS.
The INS, she says, told her they were anticipating chartering a flight out to deport 50 to 75 Iranians. Further, she contends, during the TRO hearing in Dallas, Paul Hunker, the federal prosecutor representing the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship, informed the judge that her client had been interviewed by Iranian officials.
'Get Rid of These People'
Back in California, Babak Sotoodeh, like Karen Pennington in Dallas, also decided to contact the federal government. He had verified to his satisfaction that interviews by Iranian officials had taken place in Arizona and Louisiana through responses he got from his lawyers groups (for instance, San Diego federal defender Jason Ser also says he had seven Iranian clients transferred to Florence) and through other measures--he had contacted the Florence Project, an immigration-rights organization in Arizona, whose lawyers, after conducting interviews with guards at the Florence detention facility, confirmed for Sotoodeh that the facility was holding Iranian detainees "from all over."
An attorney at the Florence Project says that Sotoodeh did indeed contact them, and the organization reported back that about 50 Iranians facing final deportation orders had been gathered in Florence to undergo consular interviews with Iranian officials.
Concerned, Sotoodeh placed a call to the Iranian desk of the State Department. "The guy right off the bat said, yeah, this is happening," Sotoodeh relates. "I said how can this be happening? He said, well, because INS wants to get rid of these people." Another call to Detention and Enforcement official Lisa Hoechst confirmed to Sotoodeh that the interviews were being conducted by Iranian officials.
The BCIE refused to confirm that the interviews took place.
Consular interviews, says an official from the Office of Foreign Missions, are interviews conducted by officers who have the right to visit detention centers in the prisons of the countries they operate in. The catch, though, says the official, is that consular interviews are supposed to be strictly voluntary--if the detainee does not want to speak with the consular official, no coercion is permitted (although the consular official does have the right to verify the noninterest directly from the detainee to ensure the host country itself has not coerced the detainee into the decision).
"That's a consular interview," says a frustrated Sotoodeh. "The counsel comes for my benefit to get me out of jail. Not the counsel shows up to make sure he knows that I've filed for political asylum so that he can write it down and send the information to Iran and make sure that he gets passports to me so I'm deported to Iran and put in jail or die or something. ... These are not consular interviews."
Meanwhile, from the Yuba County Jail in Yuba City, Kouroshe Gholamshahi paints a quite different picture of the consular interview he received than does the official from the Office Foreign Missions. Most importantly, Gholamshahi, who was transferred back to California after the interviews, says a BCIE official had informed the Iranian detainees in Florence that if they didn't meet with the Iranian officials, they would face criminal charges.
Gholamshahi says the Iranian official met with him for about three minutes, asked him questions about his family in Iran and his wife in the United States. Then, after examining his file, the official told him that he didn't know why the BCIE had brought Gholamshahi to him again; he had already rejected Gholamshahi's entrance to Iran three months earlier. Indeed, two other detainees, represented by San Diego federal defender Jason Ser, have already received letters from the Iranian Interest Section saying that the request for travel documents was denied.
"So how come these guys are going through these gymnastics to deport them?" Sotoodeh asks. "The reason is that these guys are political asylum seekers. These are the guys that ran away from Iran without anything. Many of them don't even have a passport. Unfortunately for the U.S. government, if they don't have a passport, they can't deport them to Iran, OK? So, some guy in the State Department or the INS came up with this brilliant idea: Well, how about you contact the Iranian people and make sure they can give them the passport? Now we have a passport; now we can deport them. That's what they're doing."
And in the end, Sotoodeh may very well have the right to be concerned. Although the BCIE isn't breaking any rules, the quiet cooperation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran raises more than a few eyebrows in the Iranian-American community (though some speculate the operation could be an intelligence-gathering attempt by American agents posing as Iranian officials--the BCIE refuses to comment).
Just last May, Amnesty International called for urgent action after publicizing two cases of Iranian asylum seekers deported from Australia. Both cases served lengthy immigration detention in Australia and, when they finally agreed to return to Iran, faced legal charges for criticizing the government. Another man, Amnesty International reports, was forcibly deported and, once in Iran, was executed.
"I'm assuming many people are here because they can't be back in their country," says Faith Nouri, an Iranian-American immigration attorney who also chairs the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System committee of the Los Angeles Bar Association. "We have a very tumultuous history and there is just no question that [Iran] has gone through a lot of changes since revolution, and it is not the same country. Right now in Iran there is no freedom so the government in fact is controlling, is mandating, the behavior for the whole country, for the population. And the people are mandated to behave in a certain way and [those that don't] are going to be basically prosecuted."
"Dae han min kuk!" (clap clap, clapclapclap)
For all I know, I could be chanting down the Spanish government. Betty, my Korean-American wife, doesn't know what the chant means either. But up on the flat-screen TV, 45,000 soccer-mad Koreans are chanting "Dae han min kuk" and cheering on the South Korean soccer team with lusty passion. The 300 or so red-clad soccer fans watching the South Korea-Spain World Cup quarterfinal game on the flat screen of this Korean market are doing it, too. Pretty soon, I've picked up the chant and am losing my voice.
I can't believe I'm here -- at 11:30pm on a Friday night in June -- but at the same time, I can't imagine being anywhere else. Korea is the first Asian team to make it this far in the World Cup. They have been playing amazing ball, knocking off tournament heavies Portugal, Poland and Italy. All of us are hoping the heart attack kids pull off another miracle. And with the support of crimson-clad "Red Devils" supporters, the soccer team has galvanized the Korean-American community while captivating the Asian American community and the soccer world.
When South Korea finally bests Spain in penalty kicks around 1:30am, the crowd erupts in hugs and tears and screams. Tumbling outside, the cars toot away, spinning exultant victory laps, their occupants waving red shirts and Korean flags. The next day, I ask my mother-in-law what "dae han min kuk" means and she replies, "Republic of Korea."
That was early in the summer, when the Korean soccer team had an amazing run -- finishing fourth after bowing out to Turkey. That was when I first noticed that a lot of my friends -- and most of the Asian American ones -- were suddenly down with soccer, staying up late to watch the games, rooting in supermarkets and driving like idiots. During the whole World Cup, I had rooted for the United States, but drew the line against the Asian teams. Even though, as soccer-playing kids, we sucked down oranges at halftime side by side with American teammates, I felt pride watching our yellow brothers excel on the world stage.
The fact is, I felt a deeper kinship with the Asian players. They resemble me -- crazy Ahn Jung-Hwan perms notwithstanding. They probably take off their shoes when they enter a home and have rice cookers on their kitchen shelves. They make the same faces I do when I screw up on the field. Am I a bad American because I feel more in common with the Asian players and root for Asian teams?
Yao Ming Dynasty
The question is fresh on my mind, especially since the United States and the Chinese national basketball teams are set to play against each other this Thursday, Aug. 22. It's the American debut of Chinese national and 2002 NBA No. 1 draft pick, the 7-foot-6-inch center from Shanghai, Yao Ming. Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown remarked about Ming, "In four years he could be one of the best players in the world."
Ben Kim is a writer, sports nut and co-founder of the Foundation of Asian American Independent Media (FAAIM). He says international sport is the one arena where it feels OK for an Asian American to root for his country of ancestry. "It has to do with America's place in the world and one's place in America," he says. "Against the backdrop of American global hegemony, everyone else is an underdog even in sports not dominated by the U.S., and it's fun to root for the underdog. And in other realms of international competition -- politics, trade, what have you -- anyone's gain at America's expense isn't something you want to root for."
Kim hints at a political undercurrent lurking in the stands and it's true. A victory against the United States is seen as payback for years of cultural and militaristic superiority. When Apolo Anton Ohno sold a foul that eliminated the South Koreans from the short-track speed-skating gold medal, the Koreans got payback during the World Cup. South Korean striker Ahn Jung-Hwan, after scoring a goal against the United States, celebrated by imitating the movements of a short-track speed skater -- a direct diss of Anton Ohno.
Elaine Kim is an author, filmmaker and professor of Asian American and comparative ethnic studies at UC-Berkeley. She loved Jung-Hwan's post-goal move and feels sport is the great equalizer for smaller nations used to living in the shadow of the U.S.
"I thought that was really cool," she says with a laugh. "It seems that the U.S. makes all the other countries in the world constantly think of their situation with 9/11. Their issues are the only important issues in the world. Their culture is the only important culture. When it gets moved aside, it's really exciting."
The June 10 U.S.-South Korea World Cup match, which ended in a tie, was much more than a soccer game for Korean Americans and Koreans abroad. It had deep emotional ties to occupation and outrage, a way to exact revenge without firing one missile.
Korea has been mad at the United States for 20 years, Elaine Kim says, pointing out a recent news item about a U.S. Army tank running over two Korean girls. The Status of Forces agreement allows crimes by the Army to be tried by U.S. Armed Forces courts, not Korean courts. Thus the person gets slapped on the wrist.
"It happens so often," Kim says. "It's the culmination of a lot of inequalities of the past. When people were rooting for Korea against the United States, there was all that history there. And for Korean-Americans who were not historically treated as equals in the U.S., it's great to root for Korea against the U.S. It would have been super if Korea won."
Asians of Change
For the less politicized -- like the 5-foot-8-inch Asian American kids at the playground who worship Vince Carter -- seeing a 7-foot-6-inch Asian brother chosen first (by the Houston Rockets) in the NBA draft is an earth-shaking event. In the case of Yao Ming, he presents a supernova of possibilities. His size and versatility has rival team scouts nervous. It's been hinted that if he's as good as he's hyped, Yao Ming could change the way contemporary basketball is played.
"I think it might open up the door for many Asian Americans who have the dream to go to the NBA," says James Ryu, editor at KoreAm Journal. "There's a perception of many Americans that Asians cannot compete in the NBA. However, I think it will still take another 10 years before you will see many Asian American players, like you see in the professional baseball league."
Before that day comes, Yao Ming will have to endure a couple of years being viewed as a pricey novelty -- similar to what Seattle Mariner superstar Ichiro Suzuki and Los Angeles Dodger pitching ace Hideo Nomo both experienced during their rookie seasons. A period of adjustment is followed quickly by high expectations from fans, countrymen, teammates and the swarm of foreign media.
And like Ichiro and Nomo, Yao Ming's rookie season will bring a lot of Asian Americans to the game, boosting attendance and exposure of the NBA. Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, on a DVD about the 2001 influx of Japanese baseball players called "Rising Sons," acknowledged the link between the spike of Asian faces in the seats and his star right fielder.
"He puts people in the stands, no question," Piniella says about Ichiro. "San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, we've drawn more Asian people to our baseball games. When you put more people in the ballpark, it's good for baseball and that's exactly what he's done."
The hopes of a country and its expatriates rest firmly on the tall shoulders of Yao Ming. It goes back to representation. Pro sport is showing some progress in Asian role models. Soccer has the South Korean team, baseball has Ichiro and Nomo and others, golf has Se Ri Pak and Tiger Woods, basketball has Wang Zhizhi and now, Yao Ming.
He could be a bust, the Asian version of Shawn Bradley or Michael Olowokandi. He'll probably get dunked on -- there's a rumored pot going around the NBA for the first person to dunk on Yao Ming. But if Ming lays a Spalding facial on Shaq, the shock waves will be felt far and wide, from Beijing to the Bronx.
"I'm worried about the Chinese chucker -- he's going to get knocked around in the paint," says Ben Kim. "But I invite him to shock me."
Todd Inoue is music editor of Metro Silicon Valley.
Recently, cyber house-pet owners got miffed enough at Care2.com for allowing just anyone to vote down their pets in an online beauty contest that they started an Internet petition at the Petition Site. More than 300 people signed the petition to pressure the company to lighten up on the animals.
"We, the undersigned, are unhappy with the number rating system for the pretty pets and wish to see a different and more friendly system in place," the petition stated. Its author suggested that troublemakers were abusing the site's public accessibility to vote down people's pets.
"Some people rate all pets a 1-and-lower score intentionally for their amusement. This has created conflict and more anger," complained petition author Kim Grimes in a related chatroom posting earlier this year. But despite the petition's popularity, Care2 hasn't changed its rating system.
Color of Money
Meet the Petition Site's mastermind, the very personable Randy Paynter. In a photo on his office wall, Paynter sticks out like any American tourist would, posing fully dressed with a bunch of nearly naked fellas from New Guinea. The picture commemorates the trip he took to Indonesia a few years back. He went there with the mission to find a piece of the natural world that he could turn profitable.
Paynter's nebulous grail included anything he could commercially manipulate without blatantly exploiting the indigenous people or the land, he said. He didn't find it there.
Following his trip, Paynter, a clean-cut, Boy Scout-looking man with strikingly blue eyes, went to business school. He emerged wielding a better idea of where to find his cash cow. Right here.
The U.S. of A., Paynter found, is rich with people who want to feel like they're chipping in for the environment and other good stuff. They just don't know how to take that first altruistic step.
With the Petition Site, Paynter's for-profit petition host service, he makes activism easy.
The Petition Site allows individuals and groups to set up petitions -- existing topics include stopping goat vivisection (a petition that confusingly targets the National Anti-Vivisection Society) and saving Taiwan's abandoned dogs. These petitions are different from the chain-letter ones emailed directly to people. After enough people stumble across a petition, and the campaign reaches its signature goal, the petition is sent to its target by either its sponsor or Paynter's crew, he says. The Petition Site can fax, mail or email it. The company can send the signed petition all at once or in spurts.
The Petition Site isn't unique. i-charity www.i-charity.net and e.thePeople are just a couple of the like sites also readily available on the Web. These sites' online petitions often target Congress or a department within government complaining about or advising on environmental and other sorts of issues. Some target individuals or businesses.
Internet surfers looking for Sea World, for example, might stumble upon the petition that reads, "Sea World needs larger killer whale tank." It only takes a few seconds to enter a name, email address, city and state, and click on "Add my signature!" And you get a nice note back thanking you "for signing: Sea World Needs Larger Killer Whale Tank." A few taps and clicks, and bam!, you've signed a petition. You're an activist.
The petition sites brag about their ability to revolutionize activism. (It's true that activism has needed a boost over the last several years, according to a 1995 article published by the American Political Science Association reporting a huge three-decade decline in political participation.) The site i-charity, for instance, claims to be "the best tool on the Internet" because it "appeals to people's psychology and allows you to collect more signatures than you would collect otherwise."
Signing and posting petitions on Paynter's site is free. The company makes its money from nonprofit do-gooder groups who hire it to advertise their campaigns to the 2 million people on its mailing list.
On-clickers have the option of "option in" to receive a host of newsletters from these agencies. Sometimes, the newsletter is already checked, so a petition signer would actually have to uncheck it or "opt out" to avoid receiving it. Additional revenue comes from selling enviro-friendly products and providing the occasional tech support on the side. Paynter declined to say how much the company takes in. He said, with 22 employees, his company breaks even.
The company donates 10 percent of its profits to charity, Paynter notes, thus, perhaps avoiding any ideological conflict inherent in trying to save the planet for a fee. That problem solved, Paynter says the real trick is making specific, perhaps radical, causes accessible to regular Joes and Jolenes.
"The biggest challenge in working with environmental organizations is not alienating the mainstream," Paynter says. The site is geared toward "light greens," he says. Those are people who generally don't dress up as giant endangered turtles and block world trade conventions at the risk of arrest and tear-gassing, but who are soft on certain causes.
The question is, what depth does this mouse-clicking sort of activism actually have? If the web as protest battleground stands apart in its power to attract lazy people, then perhaps when it comes to activists, more isn't better -- at least not in terms of accomplishing change through freedom of expression.
"Light greens, sounds like the undecided voter, the middle-of-the-road voter. That's who everybody wants," says Tom Price, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who focuses on political and technological interaction.
For petition peddlers, herding these undirected citizens is a point of pride. "The typical e.thePeople user is not disproportionately politically active," the petition site states on its webpage attempting to debunk "five myths of online activism."
"Thirty-six percent of those surveyed identified e.thePeople as their only method of communication with government officials," brags the site.
So, who are these people everybody wants so badly to back their causes? Lluisa Baques lent the most recent signature to i-charity's petition to "stop the media from glorifying murderers." Baques listed Japan for an address and provided a revealing web link along with a signature.
"Scientists from another planet created all life on Earth using DNA," imparts Baques' link. It goes on to describe the real E.T. "The extraterrestrial was about four feet in height, had long dark hair, olive skin and exuded harmony and humour."
Of course, online petition signers aren't always nuts. But the nature of distributing petitions on the web seems to invite problematic signatures (rather than entirely appropriate ones). Anyone can sign the ongoing "Wolf awareness week recognition" petition on Care2's site. But since it targets Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, the people who signed on from California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia may not mean much to Ohio's governor or sway his final decision whether or not to acknowledge wolf week, Oct. 14-21.
Paynter says the Petition Site has had some successes. He lists one popular petition by sea-creature avenger group Oceana as proof. The petition targeted the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in an effort to protect endangered sea turtles from getting trapped in fishing nets not meant for turtles.
"We found that people were very responsive," said Oceana webmaster Cheryl Contee. The Petition Site helped Oceana stir up 7,500 signatures for their turtle petition. "It's a way that people can easily show that they care about something without a lot of effort," she said.
The problem with low-effort campaigns is that they are the exact opposite of what government officials look for in constituent feedback. In fact, in the case of the sea turtles, NOAA denies making any policy changes based directly on Oceana's petition campaign. "If we're receiving the same letter over and over again," said one of the fisheries department's head honchos Dr. Rebecca Lent, "it's not providing any new information."
In general, the Internet's power to rev up political interest among Americans has earned mixed reviews. Two years ago, C/Net online news reported in a Tech Trends blurb that "given the lack of interest, we have to say that bringing national politics online has been, so far, a spectacular failure."
On the other hand, "use of government Web sites is one of the fastest growing online activities," according to Congress Online Newsletter's April 2002 issue. The newsletter cites a recent Pew study showing that 62 percent of web surfers (42 million and 15 percent of Americans) have used government sites. Apparently, going directly to a government site is more effective than trying to access the government through a third party.
According to political consultants and congressional aides, congressmembers embrace a hierarchy of public-opinion formats. For constituents, that means it matters how -- not just if -- you tell your reps what you think. Politicians want to see that their constituents put effort into getting their opinions across. They want to hear a personal story, see something in handwriting or shake a hand
Howard Gantman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's communications director, says any online petition "does get addressed." But a personal letter is "more meaningful" than a mass-produced one. "Some of the mass campaigns are triggered by groups to stress their one issue," Gantman says, rather than the various concerns of individuals.
"Emails that do not target members of Congress are a waste of cyberspace," says Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit nonpartisan Washington, D.C., group that counsels Congress on communicating with the public. "It's a little bit of a deception on the part of these sites when they say they're targeting the 107th Congress."
Fitch says he helps congressmembers set up filters that screen out mail not pertaining specifically to their jurisdiction, thus rendering generally addressed mail, email or faxes useless.
Ultimately, the fact that the pretty pets petition hasn't amounted to much in the way of results might be especially annoying for Grimes. Not just because it would take an already annoyed person to create a petition about her pet. But because Care2, the target of her petition, is the group that runs the Petition Site -- the web forum where Grimes created her petition hoping to make an impact on the company that gave her that very tool.
Allie Gottlieb is a staff writer at Metro, where this article originally appeared.
Ever since John Lennon and Yoko Ono led a raucous crowd of flower-toting, peasant-bloused hippies in a pot-hazy chorus of "Give Peace a Chance," it seems to have been a pop axiom: When the United States goes to war, the musicians begin calling for peace.
Opposing war hasn't always been a popular position, but it has created some great music. During the Vietnam era, songs like Edwin Starr's "War," Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower," Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" and "Wars of Armageddon," Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam," Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixing to Die Rag," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" turned defiance into a raging, soaring, brave and melancholic gestures of community.
Even our allegedly apathetic post-Lennonist generation has extended the tradition. When Bush Senior sent troops to Kuwait in 1991, rappers Ice Cube and Paris trained their verbal guns on the White House in "I Wanna Kill Sam" and "Bush Killa," while Bad Religion and Noam Chomsky split a 7-inch into a no-war-for-oil seminar. Antiwar music has become a time-honored balance to "bomb 'em all and let God sort 'em out" fervor. So why, since Sept. 11, have we heard so little new music protesting Bush Junior's war on evil?
Artists who were once outspoken peaceniks seem to have lost their certainty, or even switched their position. For years, U2 led crowds in chants of "No more war!" during their concerts. But during their surrealistic Super Bowl half-time performance this past January, they offered deep ambivalence -- a stark display of the names of Sept. 11 victims set to "Beautiful Day."
Neil Young's "Ohio" memorialized Kent State University's murdered antiwar protesters of 1970; his "Cortez the Killer" condemned imperialism. Now we find him on his post-Sept. 11 cut, "Let's Roll," singing, "Let's roll for freedom; let's roll for love, going after Satan on the wings of a dove."
Young wrote the song to honor the heroes of Flight 93, who subdued their hijackers and paid the ultimate price. But if you believe "Let's Roll" -- with its Bush-reduced ideas of "evil" and "Satan" -- is a cry for peace, you've probably already cleaned out your bomb shelter and reviewed your duck-and-cover manual.
As Leslie Nuchow, a Brooklyn-based folk singer who has been touring the country, says, "Speaking on or singing anything that's critical of this country at this time is more difficult than it was a year ago."
We've seen dozens of acts quietly bury their edgier songs. We've seen radio playlists rewritten so as not to "offend listeners." And we've seen Republican officials and the entertainment industry -- long divided over "traditional values" issues such as violent content and parental advisory stickering -- bury the hatchet. White House Senior Adviser Karl Rove has been meeting regularly with entertainment industry officials to discuss how they can help the war on terrorism.
The result? Not unlike the network news, there's been what a media wonk might call a narrowing of content choice. Think eagle- and flag-adorned anthologies of patriotic music, prefab benefit shows screaming CONSUMER EVENT, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and Paul McCartney's "Freedom." Perhaps this may all be good for the record business, no small thing for an industry that found itself shrinking by 3 percent -- about $300 million in revenues -- last year. But it's hardly the stuff of great art.
A Twisted Sense Of God
Where are the alternative voices? Let's start with hip-hop, the most socially important music of our time and, until recently, the most successful. Hip-hop's sales led the plunge last year -- by 20 percent, according to Def Jam founder and rap industry leader Russell Simmons.
And so did its vision. While Congress debated the Patriot Act and air strikes left Afghan cities in ruins and untold innocents dead, Jay-Z and Nas declared their own dirty little war for the pockets (if not exactly the minds) of the younger generation.
Jay-Z's dis of Nas, "The Takeover," was based on a sample from the Doors' "Five to One," an anti-Vietnam War song released during 1968's long hot summer whose title supposedly alluded to a demographic menace: five times as many people under the age of 21 as over.
Here's Jim Morrison's original: "The old get old/ And the young get stronger/ May take a week/ And it may take longer/ They got the guns/ But we got the numbers/ Gonna win, yeah/ We're taking over!" Here's J-Hova's slice: "Gonna win, yeah!" Released on Sept. 11, his album, The Blueprint, sold 465,000 copies.
Nas came back with Stillmatic, an album seemingly conceived from a marketing blueprint. Over a decade ago, Nas debuted during the height of hip-hop's social consciousness. To appease these aging fans, he included songs on Stillmatic like the decidedly non-flag-waving "My Country" and "Rule," which bravely ask Bush Junior and the secret bunker crew to "call a truce, world peace, stop acting like savages". But kids love that shit-talking, so there's "Ether," dissing "Gay-Z and Cock-a-Fella Records." Guess which of these songs gets the most rewinds?
In fact, many musicians are commenting on the war, they just aren't being heard. On a new album for Fine Arts Militia called We Are Gathered Here ... , Public Enemy's Chuck D has set scathing spoken-word "lectures" to rockish beats by Brian Hardgroove. Chuck takes apart the war-mobilization effort and condemns the arrogance of the president's foreign policy on "A Twisted Sense of God." But while the song will be available as an MP3 on his website -- slamjamz.com -- the album has found no distributor yet.
He says, "You got five corporations that control retail. You got four who are the record labels. Then you got three radio outlets who own all the stations. You got two television networks that will actually let us get some of this across. And you got one video outlet. I call it 5-4-3-2-1. Boom!"
When the World Ends
Message music is being pinched off by an increasingly monopolized media industry suddenly eager to please the White House. At least two of the nation's largest radio networks -- Clear Channel and Citadel Communications -- removed songs from the air in the wake of the attacks. Songs like Drowning Pool's "Bodies" and John Lennon's "Imagine" were confined to MP3 sites and mix tapes. And while pressure to maintain "blacklists" has eased recently, the détente between Capitol Hill, New York and Hollywood -- unseen since World War II -- has tangible consequences.
Bay area artist Michael Franti and Spearhead were invited last November to play The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn. Franti obliged with a new song, "Bomb Da World." Yet the song's chorus -- "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace" -- was apparently too much for the show's producers. Months later, and only after a Billboard magazine article exposed the story, the clip finally aired.
"It's funny," Franti says. "In the past, I'd hear some folksingers singing folksongs or 'Give Peace a Chance' and think, God, this is really corny. But then you realize, in a time of war, it's a really radical message."
Little wonder that artists have quietly censored themselves. The Strokes pulled a song called "New York Cops" from their album, and Dave Matthews decided not to release "When the World Ends" as a single. It's easier to do an industry-sponsored benefit or to simply shut up and go along, than to fight for a message and find it pigeonholed.
As monopolies segment music into narrower and narrower genre markets to be exploited, protest music becomes the square peg. Perhaps the question isn't only whether protest music can survive the war but whether protest music can also survive niche-marketing.
Take KRS-One's new album, Spiritual Minded. In part a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, the album reconciles Christian spirituality with a radical notion of diversity -- putting together Bronx beats, Cantopop, biblical chapter and verse, and the words "peace" and "As-Salaam Alaikum" in the same song.
"We live in a Christian nation," he says. "I can only give the public that which it can digest. So I put this album out. The door swings open. Christians are like, 'Yeah, wow, KRS! He finally came over.' Now I'm over. Now let's talk."
But if this is his most subtle effort yet to promote a message of peace and unity, it is still a record that needs to be marketed. So while Spiritual Minded has been a dud in the hip-hop world, it topped the less lucrative Gospel charts earlier this year.
Even indie labels no longer provide an alternative, says Joel Schalit, the Bay Area-based editor of Punk Planet and a member of dub-funk band Elders of Zion. Schalit's new book, Jerusalem Calling (Akashic Books), features a chapter that indicts the indie-punk scene, a movement which began as a highly charged reaction to Reaganism and major labels and ended up a calcifying, apolitical, "petit bourgeois" feeder-system for the same majors.
"I think our generation has started to move in the direction of formulating its own distinct progressive political positions, but in many respects, I think that the trauma that was Sept. 11 has thus far stopped them from doing anything new," he says. "There haven't been people rushing out to print 7-inch singles attacking American foreign policy like there was during the Gulf War."
He adds, "A lot of label owners, especially on the independent level, are very concerned that promoting ideology is not the same as promoting art."
If that sounds reasonable at first glance, consider the question that Bay Area anti-prison activist and Freedom Fighter Music co-producer Ying-Sun Ho asks in reference to rap: "You don't think a song that talks about nothing but how much your jewelry shines has a political content to it?"
Acts like Jay-Z are seen as artists with universal appeal, while niche-marketing lumps together acts that have little in common. The subcategory of "conscious rappers," for instance, has been used to sell Levi's jeans and Gap clothing to college-educated, disposable-income-spending hip-hop fans. In this logic, it's not the rappers' message that brings the audience together, it's what their audience wears that brings the rappers together.
Part of the recent wave of "conscious rap" acts promoted by major labels, Dead Prez disdains the entire category. Positivity isn't politics, rapper M-1 argues. Hip-hop has not yet produced much antiwar music because a lot of "conscious rappers" were never clear about their political positions in the first place, he believes, and Sept. 11 revealed their basic lack of depth.
"There's a lifestyle that goes with not being aligned with the politics of U.S. imperialism. It's not just a one-day protest," he says, while working in Brooklyn on Walk Like a Warrior, the follow-up to Let's Get Free. "We're in a new period. A lot of people are not seeing what has to be and are looking at it from just a red, white and blue angle."
Hard Rain Gonna Fall
But perhaps, in this connected world, we also possess accelerated expectations. History shows that radical ideas don't take hold overnight. World War II's hit parade featured sentimental escapism like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and sugary patriotism like the Andrews' Sisters "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
During the '50s, a progressive folk movement emerged, but it wasn't until Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez revived folk amid the early-'60s ferment of student organizing that ideas of disarmament and racial justice began to take root.
As Craig Werner, professor of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America (Plume, 1999), tells me, "The foundation of the anti-Vietnam War music was in the folk revival. It was almost as if there were an antiwar movement that was in place that was doing the groundwork. They'd been writing those kinds of songs for years when Vietnam came around."
Werner dates the emergence of anti-Vietnam War music to ex-folkie Barry McGuire's 1966 hit "Eve of Destruction," a song that faced widespread censorship. "I was growing up in Colorado Springs, which is a military town. The week that 'Eve of Destruction' came out, it broke onto the Top 20 charts on the local station at No. 1. And then was never heard again."
That moment is not near in these early days of the war on evil. In the long run, Nas' "My Country" and "Rule," with their laser focus on cause and effect, or Outkast's anti-recessionary global humanism on "The Whole World" may prove to be more prophetic.
For now, confusion and flux and omnidirectional rage carry the day. Bay Area rapper Paris recently addressed the second Bush in "What Would You Do," a track on his upcoming Sonic Jihad album "Now ask yourself who's the one with the most to gain/Before 911 motherfuckas couldn't stand his name/Now even niggas waiving flags like they lost they mind/Everybody got opinions but don't know the time." Ghostface Killah seems to have captured the moment on Wu-Tang Clan's "Rules." Addressing Osama bin Laden directly about the attacks on New York, he raps, "No disrespect, that's where I rest my head/ I understand you gotta rest yours, too." But since bin Laden has brought the bombs -- "Nigga, my people's dead!" -- it's officially on: "Mister Bush, sit down! We're in charge of the war."
Still, musicians must do what they do, and the story is not yet over. Folkie Leslie Nuchow believes in music's ability to transform the people who listen to it, and she doesn't waste a lot of time worrying about who will distribute it. Recently, she recorded the mesmerizing "An Eye for an Eye (Will Leave the Whole World Blind)." Accompanied only by piano, she elaborates on Gandhi's famous line mostly in a tortured whisper. It's only available through her website slammusic.com.
Nuchow -- who likes to point out that our national anthem "glorifies war" but has agreed to sing for U.N. troops stationed in Kosovo later this year -- believes music is not merely a product, it's a process. After watching the Twin Towers collapse from her Brooklyn building, she spent that evening agonizing over what to do next. "I kept on saying to myself, what could my political action be?" Then she realized, "I'm a musician. Ri-i-i-ight. Let me do music!"
She went to demonstrations and gatherings, and handed out fliers inviting people to come and sing the next morning. About 50 people showed up. They walked through the streets singing "This Little Light of Mine," "America the Beautiful" and "Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)."
"We walked as close to ground zero as we could get, and we sang for the firefighters," she says. "We sang for the rescue workers and the firefighters. We went up to the hospitals, and we sang for the doctors, and we sang for the volunteers. And then -- this was the hardest -- we went to sing for the families who were trying to find out what happened to their loved ones."
Nuchow recalls that the music did exactly what it was supposed to do. "People wept. Other people came and joined us," she says. "And to me, that's action. That's making a statement through music, using music as a healing force."
And for now, perhaps, that's more than enough.
Jeff Chang writes for numerous publications, including Colorlines, the Source and Wiretapmag.org.
I had a friend who once got down on her stomach and rolled around on the floor at a nightclub in order to demonstrate the playing style of Van Connor of the Screaming Trees. The guy she was showing waited until she got up and then said, "Goodbye, embarrassing woman!" As he backed away from her, a sheepish grin appeared on his ugly mug.
You know that kind of laughter that hurts your middle and brings tears to your eyes? I laughed like that the rest of that night, but I was laughing at him, not her. I guess I took the phrase "Goodbye, embarrassing woman" as a compliment -- which may be why I, seemingly alone among critics, am a fan of Alanis Morissette.
Morissette has been mocked for her confessional lyrics since the day she released her hugely successful debut album, Jagged Little Pill, in 1995, but I think that such mockery is actually a secret tribute to her talent and sincerity. Morissette isn't afraid to write mawkish songs about her bad relationships, revealing (and possibly reveling in) her own mistakes, rolling mentally on the floor like my friend. She isn't afraid to look like an idiot. That may be embarrassing, but it's also honest in a field like rock & roll, which hardly knows honesty when it sees it, and makes fun of it when it does.
Morissette's latest, Under Rug Swept, is as embarrassing as anything she's ever written, and that's saying a lot. The opening track alone -- "21 Things I Want in a Lover" -- scans exactly like the Alanis Morissette Lyric Generator Internet site (www.brunching.com/toys/toy-alanislyrics.html), even using six plural nouns to describe the subject sentence, but that doesn't make it a bad song or this a bad album. Under Rug Swept is that rarest of items, a well-produced hard-rock album by a woman who sings and writes her own music. How embarrassing -- not.
Granted, the album is as confessional as all get out. "Hands Clean" is as catchy as "You Oughta Know" and just as titillating. Morissette sings from the perspective of an older man having an affair with a much younger employee. "I might want to marry you one day if you'd watch that weight and keep a firm body," sings the man, with Alanis chiming in (presumably as herself on the chorus), "Ooh, this could be messy, and, ooh, I don't seem to mind." It's an odd form of narrative, but it makes its point: the male outlook sounds sickening in anyone's mouth, male or female. And if Alanis is writing autobiographically, she's more to be pitied than vilified.
As that song indicates, Morissette's grammar and syntax can be a little confusing. It's as if she's translating everything from the French, especially when she goes negative. ("Do you not play dirty when engaged in competition?" she sings at one point and, worse, "Are you not addicted?" rather than the more straightforward "Are you an addict?") But since when has smooth syntax been a big part of rock & roll brilliancy?
"Dear Momma's boy," she sings on the next track, "I know you've had your butt licked by your mother / I know you've enjoyed all that attention from her / and every woman graced with your presence after." The syntax is horrible, but Morissette writes like people think and talk, and she writes about the things we think and talk about. The fact that those things tend to be shallow and petty is more of a comment on our brains than on her songwriting skill.
Incidentally, even when I don't agree with her portentous take on men, I like her production sound, her sweeping vocals and the courageous way she beats up on her old boyfriends. But there's another reason I like Alanis Morissette, and it has nothing to do with music. It is merely that, alone among million-selling female artists we hear on the radio, she is the only one who doesn't do it with her looks. She isn't pretty, and she doesn't dress provocatively. She may be an embarrassing woman in verse, but she's got a certain amount of physical dignity, and that, in my opinion, is more important than being seen and not heard.
Gina Arnold writes frequently for the Metro Silicon Valley, where this article originally appeared.
After putting the finishing touches on his economics homework, "Justin," a college senior, picks up the phone and dials a familiar number. "Are you playin'?" he asks.
Justin dresses quickly in the dark, careful not to wake his roommate, and splashes his face with cold water. Thirty minutes later, a cigarette dangles between two fingers, and a computer screen glows in the dark of his friend's dorm room.
Justin paces behind his friend's desk. A fan pushes the stale air around the room as Justin and his pal plot their next move. They draw their cards, and the garish letters of ParadisePoker.com flash underneath the full house on the screen. They've won this hand, but the $20,000 Justin has poured into his gambling habit taints the victory.
But while Justin seems in over his head, for him and many other college students, it could be even worse. Problem gamblers between the ages of 18 and 25 lose an average of $30,000 each year and rack up $20,000 to $25,000 in credit card debt, according to the California Council on Problem Gambling. In a health advisory issued by the American Psychiatric Association early this year, 10 percent to 15 percent of young people reported having experienced one or more significant problems relating to gambling.
Still, people don't want to face the problem. Many university conduct codes neglect to mention gambling at all. Credit cards enable students without extra cash to gamble even after accumulating debt, and the Internet beckons with numerous online gambling sites.
"People who are young are characteristically risky with drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling," says Christine Reilly, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School's Division on Addiction, "and are at a higher risk of these behaviors developing into addictions."
A high-profile sports betting scandal at Northwestern University that drew national attention in 1998 prompted the National Association of School Personnel Administrators (NASPA) to conduct a study on the prevalence and impact of college gambling. The results of the study, which surveyed students at seven universities, are still being compiled, but NASPA researcher Ken Winters, Ph.D., says young people are attracted to the thrill of betting. According to Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, college students consider gambling more acceptable than drinking.
College senior Jeff Marinacci doesn't regard gambling as a problem. On a January trip to Reno, Nevada, he arrived at the tables with a few hundred dollars. But he and three companions won big -- $6,500 by the end of the weekend.
"Every time I go [gambling]," Marinacci says, "I think I'm going to win."
But while Marinacci doesn't seem concerned about developing an addiction, experts on addiction are. A study conducted by Clayton Neighbors, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, identified about 15 percent of college students as at least at risk for gambling problems. This number is much larger than the general population's, which Neighbors says runs between 3 percent and 5 percent.
Once these students develop a problem, half will become compulsive, according to Tom Tucker, director of the California Council on Problem Gambling: "Students are doomed to be the next generation of problem gamblers without prevention education at the college level."
Researcher Durand Jacobs, a clinical professor of medicine at Loma Linda University, says lack of exciting entertainment contributes to the number of students who try gambling. "Young males seek excitement from pervasive boredom," Jacobs says. "Gambling is like an upper drug, such as cocaine. It produces abnormal arousal levels."
In fact, a study published by a team of researchers in the journal Neuron found that gambling affects the brain in the same way as cocaine. According to the study, the areas of the brain stimulated by the anticipation and experience of gambling are similar to those stimulated by euphoria-inducing drugs.
This seems even more true for men. There are nine males with gambling disorders for every female, according to Dr. Kim Bullock of the Stanford University School of Medicine. Bullock, who studies impulse-control problems, says gambling disorders in men parallel compulsive shopping disorders in women.
Bullock attributes the low recovery rates for gambling disorders partly to genes that predispose people to risk-taking and depression. Gambling addicts may bet to fill an emotional void caused by underlying depression.
Filling that void has become vastly easier for college students, as the Internet can turn any dorm room into a gambling opportunity. With more than 1,400 Internet casinos just a click away, college students can use the high-speed web connections to place bets on anything from the Super Bowl to Yahtzee.
Currently, all online casinos are based in offshore locations like the Caribbean, Australia and the United Kingdom. In a matter of minutes, users can download software or log onto a server to access casino games. Operators make the sites as user-friendly as possible, accepting credit cards, debit cards, personal checks or wire transfers. The sites mimic the look and feel of Las Vegas with sounds of chips stacking and slots ringing, effervescent colors and simulated card tables.
Harvard researcher Christine Reilly says because young people are the group most comfortable using the Internet, online gambling is especially a problem for them.
"The Internet is quick and easy and offers instant gratification," she explains. "It leaves you very little time to think. You just act without noting the drawbacks."
The drawbacks seem to have been lost on Nevada lawmakers, who voted to approve online gambling in June 2000. The bill, after a 17-4 state Senate vote, went to Gov. Kenny Guinn, who signed it June 14.
On the other hand, the Justice Department says Internet gambling is still illegal in the United States, and last February, Republican Rep. James Leach of Iowa sponsored a bill called the Internet Gambling Funding Prohibition Act to prohibit the use of bank instruments for unlawful Internet gambling.
"Particularly vulnerable are young people," says Leach, former chairman of the House Banking Committee, "who are members of the most literate computer generation."
The Financial Services Committee, under the chairmanship of Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), held hearings until the bill was passed Oct. 31 with a vote of 34-18. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, which has until March 29 to act on it, or the bill will go to the House floor.
Similarly, a bill titled the Combating Illegal Gambling Reform and Modernization Act was sponsored by Republican Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia on the first of November to expand and modernize the prohibition against interstate gambling. It, too, sits in the Judiciary Committee with Rep. Leach's bill. No update has been given on when it might reach the House floor. Since both bills are similar, they may be combined before going to the House.
Credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard are actively lobbying against new legislation like Leach's bill and New York Democratic Rep. John La Falce's Internet Gambling Payments Prohibition Act, which contain provisions that prohibit the use of electronic fund transfers and, most importantly, credit cards. (MasterCard representatives did not wish to comment on the issue.)
What's in Your Wallet?
With graduation just a few days away, senior "Mitchell" spends his nights at the bar and his days hanging out, just like many of his classmates. However, unlike his peers, "Mitchell" is shouldering a $10,000 debt, most of which he attributes to gambling.
"Mitchell" recalls a December trip to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, with fraternity brother Jeff Kopaceck. Plans for a relaxing weekend changed as "Mitchell" bolted for the casino the second he and Jeff parked the car.
"I was like, 'I can't hold back,'" he remembers.
After a few hours at the tables, "Mitchell" and Kopaceck were up $400. Red Bull and vodka fueled increasingly aggressive betting. Yellow $10 chips thrown on double-down hands were replaced by black $100 chips. "Mitchell" and Kopaceck were beyond drunk -- they were drunk enough to believe they could beat the game.
"It's the alcohol, man," Kopaceck says. "If there were no drinking in casinos, people would lose nothing."
"Mitchell" recalls filling out credit card applications he received in the mail during his freshman year. Those two credit cards, which now carry a combined balance of around $10,000, have seen their share of casino ATMs. They've also enabled "Mitchell" to gamble the way he likes: big.
Forty percent to 60 percent of cash wagered in casinos is withdrawn from ATMs, either from personal accounts or as cash advances from credit cards, according to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report. Credit card companies are not required to report amounts borrowed for gambling.
On a spring-break trip to Las Vegas, "Mitchell" called his credit card company to request a $1,000 extension. After making him wait a few minutes for approval, they granted it to him, along with another $500 two hours later.
"It is easier to gamble for college students now, as credit cards are so easily accessible," Reilly says. "Companies are very aggressive toward college students with their marketing strategies."
Arul Chinnappan, a recent graduate, never gambled until he received an email: "Congratulations Arul, you won $100!" Out of curiosity, he clicked on the gambling site and began playing blackjack. After an hour, $230 of his money was gone. The next day, his email account showed 10 letters from online casinos offering money to play and six emails from credit card companies. After three months, Chinnappan owed credit card companies $12,000.
"Do college students have the money to be gambling with?" asks Tom Tucker of the California Council on Problem Gambling. "No. But if they have credit cards they do."
There was a time when "Brian" was afraid to answer the phone when it rang. He knew it was his girlfriend, knew she was calling about their dinner plans, but he also knew he needed to save money to pay the credit card bills in front of him, which added up to about $8,000 -- all from one bad month gambling.
"Once you sit down in the chair and look at the cards, there is only one thing on the gambler's mind," Brian says. "And that is to win more."
But Brian didn't win, and quickly found himself thousands in the hole and unable to stop. It was only when his father confronted him about his habit that he was able gain control.
"He told me to either quit gambling or quit him," Brian says. "Knowing how hard my father worked in his life, I knew gambling was the last thing he would permit his son to do."
But for most compulsive gamblers, it takes more than a lecture from dad to put an end to such a serious problem. The gap between numbers of college-aged pathological gamblers and those who seek treatment is sizable. Approximately 5 percent of college students are compulsive gamblers, according to a meta-analysis study conducted at Harvard in 1997. But the Helpline Report for the California Council on Problem Gambling found that only 10 percent of all callers were between the ages of 21 and 25. Reilly says this indicates that college students often don't seek treatment.
"The numbers are still relevant, because we still continue to keep feeding estimates from other prevalent studies," Reilly says. "We continue to keep updating and haven't seen any noticeable differences in the numbers."
Sandy, who asked her last name be withheld, became a compulsive gambler while working in card rooms for 10 years. Today, she is a public relations manager for Gambler's Anonymous, which experts consider the most effective treatment. She says she "went back and forth with my addiction until I was finally able to follow the program. Not everyone can do it.
"It's an unbelievable addiction. You lose your home and your family. You want to die."
Ed Looney of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey cautions that compulsive gambling, like most addictions, is an impulse disorder that can be treated only when the addict is willing to make lifestyle adjustments.
"It's so developed that you need to change yourself," Looney says, "And if you don't, relapse is a reality. Most people who come to self-help groups will relapse."
Looney, also a recovering gambling addict, says facing reality is the hardest step for compulsive gamblers to take. But most college-aged gamblers don't seem ready to take that step. Jeff Marinacci still believes he can win every time he bets. While Brian "quit" after the threat from his father, he still wouldn't say he's completely done gambling.
And when Justin has enough time, he makes the 30-minute drive to a local card room instead of betting on the Internet. He slips into lightweight Polo khakis, dress shoes and a short-sleeved shirt -- he likes to keep his arms free. He travels light, carrying only his cell phone and Chapstick: the weight of coins or keys is distracting.
Eight hours later, he returns home, unable to fall asleep. He replays each move he made that night, wondering what the outcome would have been had he played his cards differently. And although he knows he is at risk for developing a gambling problem, at this point he feels he can control it.
"I worry about if I'll be able to stop this," he says. "My parents voice concerns all the time. My mom hates that I play; every time she gives me money, she asks, 'Is this for gambling?' But I'm in college, and I have so few responsibilities. I have the next 45 years of my life to work everyday."
The cereal aisle inside Albertson's on Capitol Expressway is a scary place. Down on the lower shelves -- the ones that are eye-level to a 5-year-old -- a vampire with slicked-back hair peers out over a bowl of chocolate pebbles. A few boxes to the left, a sugar-smacked bear flings spoonfuls of slop. And in between, a crazed rabbit is frozen in a hyperactive gaze.
Up on the top shelf, though, the cereal speaks to the adults. Brands boast about high fiber! One box pictures trim-looking adults jogging along the rim of a lake. Even Grape Nuts asks potential consumers to "Discover the Energy."
And among these top-shelf breakfasts-in-a-box, one stands out. The box is gently swathed in strokes of baby blue and soft yellow. Near the top of the box, the silhouette of a woman's body raises her arms heavenward, in victory. It looks like a dream. Its name is Harmony.
I reach for it. On the back of the box a middle-aged woman wearing a cable-knit sweater stands on a seashore and, again, she is raising her arms above her head. To some, like me, she is indicating a field goal has been scored. To others, she is celebrating her empowerment.
On the back of the box, in dramatic italics, the ingredients -- soy, folic acid, calcium -- are accounted for, along with the cereal's philosophy: Meeting the nutritional needs of women is what Harmony cereal is all about.
I say what-the-hey and toss it in the cart. A few steps later I notice a new cereal from the New Organics Co. They sell a generic-looking type of frosted flakes that are, according to the box, "Organically Certified." The top of the box suggests it will feed more than just my stomach -- "Mind. Body. Spirit." Jeez, I say. Mind, body and spirit? I toss it in next to the Harmony.
Now that I'm aware of the spiritual movement taking place inside Albertson's, I'm curious to see how many products will deliver me down the path to solace. Over in the tissue aisle, Puffs sells dispensers that contain "inspiration." Dexatrim, the appetite suppressant, offers "Dexatrim Natural in Green Tea Formula." The box shows two leaves swirling into a ball to form what looks like the yin-yang symbol.
On the deodorant rack, Secret is selling a new sweat-stopper called Genuine. Genuine allows you to "carry peace within your being. [Because] With grace, you accept what you have become." Another Secret deodorant, named Optimism, offers its own locution for living: "There isn't time for trivial things to bring down your refreshing energy -- Optimism will suit your life."
To drink, Tazo Tea, "The Reincarnation of Tea," claims, "Tea enlightenment: Tazo premium teas and herbal infusions, blended with artistry bordering on magical, will soothe your soul." And Dixie Cups now sells "Expressions Cups," disposable cups that offer words of wisdom. Reads one, "The eyes are the windows to the soul."
I'm looking for it now and I see it everywhere. I come across Depends, the diaper for those who've lost bladder control, and I see it has two new shelf competitors: Serenity and Poise. Serenity keeps you dry, but Poise allows you "The freedom to be yourself."
So what I want to know is, with Harmony in my cart and Poise in my hand, who stuck their Zen in my peanut butter?
Take Us Om
Professor Rajeev Batra, of the University of Michigan, knows who's responsible for all of this. He's co-authored four books on advertising and is considered a guru when it comes to tracking advertising fads and branding techniques. While Batra says he isn't aware of any hard data that proves spirituality-laced products are blazing a path to higher profits, his own observations have noticed a warm 'n' fuzzy shift in advertising today. He suspects, not surprisingly, that that demographic gorilla named baby boomers -- some 70 million people between the ages of 40 and 60 -- is guiding this long, hard look into the mirror. Batra says any shift in mainstream advertising copy can be attributed to a shift in the collective conscious of the average baby boomer.
"What's going on in their lives, and in their heads and in their hearts, is what Madison Avenue plays to," Batra says. "research suggests as we get older we become less concerned with the success of our careers and begin thinking in terms of the success of our spirituality."
And oh, how spirituality has become successful these days.
According to a poll taken by the 2-year-old Spirituality and Health Magazine, more people now consider themselves "spiritual" as opposed to "religious." In short, saying one is religious, the poll indicates, gives people the heebie-jeebies, while defining one- self as "spiritual" evokes a sort of vast worldliness. Being spiritual is taking a walk in the woods on weekends and rolling out the sticky mat at lunchtime; being religious means going to a church, getting on your knees and praying to a statue.
Yoga, as it turns out, is experiencing a wild and well-reported-on resurgence in popularity -- for immediate proof one need only look to the new Monday night Yoga Night at the downtown nightclub The Usual. Where Professor Batra would cite the yoga boom as an excellent example of the spiritually deprived baby boomers looking for a few answers just before the gig of life ends, Time magazine suggested earlier this year that our hectic high-tech exterior has driven us humans inside, seeking an inner silence.
"In this modern maelstrom, yoga's tendency to stasis and silence seems at first insane, then inspired," the magazine reported. "The notion of bodies at rest becoming souls at peace is reactionary, radical and liberating. If it cures nagging backache, swell. But isn't it bliss just to sit this one out, to freeze-frame the frenzy, to say no to all that and om to what may be beyond it, or within ourselves?"
In response to the popularity of yoga, Madison Avenue was quick to hear the chant of cash registers ringing. In just the past few months, according to Advertising Age, brands such as Nike and DaimlerChrysler Jeep have featured their product users practicing yoga -- and the ads didn't appear in Yoga Journal, a publishing juggernaut currently enjoying massive popularity and sky-high ad rates. A new Oil of Olay television commercial focuses on a mother stretching out on a yoga mat while feeding her baby. The product helps Mom enjoy a "complete life."
Readers of the current issue of Men's Journal may have noticed a full-page Saks Fifth Avenue ad which pictures a male CEO-type sitting on top of his desk, folded up in a lotus position.
The ad was a good one. As a captain of industry, the CEO was obviously drained from competing in the cutthroat capitalist world. And here he sat, able to meditate away into a place of inner comfort, while wearing Saks Fifth Avenue clothes.
In Oakland, Burt Alper, 32, is a strategy director and founding partner of Catchword, a national firm that creates names for products. Alper was born and raised in Berkeley, the self-proclaimed son of Bobos -- short for the Bohemian Bourgeoisie -- and picked up his MBA at Harvard Business School.
Alper's staff is beefed up with linguists who can turn a phrase on a dime and get a dollar in return. Catchword named products like the Spalding Infusion basketball, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Dreamery Ice Cream and, recently, the Oasis health bar for women.
Two years ago, Clif Bar had released the Luna Bar for women, and Alper's company was quickly hired by rival Balance Bar to name a competitor. Alper and his crew chewed on the new product, interviewed its makers and took it through the weeks-long naming process. The team wanted to steer clear of giving it an overly feminine moniker, yet still convey "serenity and relaxation."
"It had to be for the woman who was healthy, energy-conscious, somewhat spiritual in a Zen sort of way," Alper says. "It's for the woman who is a multitasker, a woman who could bring home the bacon and bake it, too. It needed to give that lift, like a cup of coffee, but without the negative connotation associated with caffeine. And the word oasis symbolized that safe-haven for her. It said, 'Even though your world could be crazy all around you, this could give you that pickup -- but on a natural theme." (Since Oasis arrived on the market, another brand, named Essentials, entered the female sports-bar genre.)
Alper agrees that brands and advertising campaigns are moving toward an inner-self ethos, but he sees it mostly in the New Agey Bay Area, compared to outside markets.
Still, Alper adds, he's hearing frequent requests from even his technology clients to give their products more melodic names. After a decade of Ciscos and Compaqs, it was time to put the Buddha in the Machine.
One tech company that came to Catchword offered a service that tracked where specific web users traveled on the Internet. Through interviews with company executives, Alper and his colleagues learned that the company offered something "other people couldn't see." Since the product multitasked and wasn't just a one-task pony, the name had to reflect its broad capacity.
After several index searches and creative meetings, a colleague told the story of the Asian custom of reading tea leaves. According to Alper, the custom calls for an elder to dry out tea leaves, sprinkle them to the ground and, depending on the way they fall, read the future.
Since the client's technology looked into the future, sort of, and the customer asked for anything but technical, Alper's team suggested the name Tea Leaf Technology. Approval from the client was instantaneous. "It doesn't sound like a technology company," Alper says, "and that was important to them."
Alper says that it's common for popular advertising fads and their products to endure a backlash. Starbucks, Nike and Apple Computers all suffered from becoming too cool for their own good. In one era, sugar-heavy cereals could be coveted, then undergo a death-by-calcium. I asked him if he foresaw a market response against the Zen-in-cereal, and Alper chirped up with a better idea.
"Instead of a backlash, maybe the next generation will ask for cereal infused with echinacea? Or ginseng?"
In Harmony's Way
Only 40 percent of Americans went to a place of worship last year, but just about everybody ate something. And most likely it was a brand item that they felt an emotional connection to.
So, do Americans really believe in spirituality? Probably not. Do they believe in cereal? You betcha.
But as products that are geared toward our mind and body start jumping from the shelves of Whole Foods and into the Albertson's on Capitol Expressway, they've still got a long way to go before they gain broad mainstream acceptance.
Megan Nightingale, assistant marketing director for Harmony, says the driving force of the product was always meeting women's nutritional needs, just like it said on the box, and also meeting women's needs "on a day-to-day basis." Harmony was "years and years in the making" and was munched on by hundreds of focus groups before it hit the market in January. Nothing inside or outside the box hasn't been scrutinized more than a thousand times.
I asked Nightingale if Harmony was developed specifically to tap into the spirituality vibe. She took a few seconds to ponder the question.
"I don't know that Harmony was designed to speak to spirituality specifically," she said slowly. "But it does acknowledge today's women and where they're at -- and certainly a part of what is important to women today is spirituality."
As I scribbled down this quote, a pause fell between us and I could hear Nightingale rethink what she had just said. She perked up. "But I want to make it dead clear that we did not design Harmony as a spiritual cereal per se."
That said, General Mills is working hard to make sure Harmony lands in a lot of shopping carts, regardless of why.
Earlier this year, as the official story of Harmony goes, a woman in Santa Monica named Marsh Engle mourned the passing of her mother. At the funeral Engle was taken aback by how many people commented on her mother's compassion and personal strength. "But I'm not sure she ever saw that in herself," Engle now says.
Motivated and inspired, Engle set out to create "Amazing Woman's Day," a national day where women could just "stop to recognize how wonderful they actually are."
As Engle planned it, she envisioned meeting places inside shopping malls in 10 cities across the country where women could converge, listen to motivational speakers and participate in seminars.
Though Engle had more passion than proceeds, she says she went to General Mills and gave them the chance to sponsor the event. In the end, General Mills underwrote the entire nationwide event at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In return, Harmony set up booths for promoting the cereal and attached its name to everything in sight.
One such item was the "Harmony Wisdom Wall," which asked women to write inspirational messages. As General Mills put it on the promotional website, the Harmony Wisdom Wall was a collection of musings, "'food for thought' from women to women." Each city had a piece of the wall and, after the day was over, the 10 pieces were flown to Dallas and connected to make one big wall of inspiration. For each message posted, Harmony pledged to donate $1 toward a local women's charity.
By Engle's account, the day was a booming success, thanks largely to General Mills. A lot of cereal was shared and presumably eaten, and afterward Engle didn't have to return to her old job as a promotional marketer for the entertainment industry. Instead, General Mills continued its support, which has allowed Engle to work year-round on her project.
When I asked Engle if she ate Harmony (despite the cereal's high mineral content, 60 percent of the recommended daily allowance [RDA] of calcium and 50 percent of the RDA of iron, each serving contains 13 grams of sugar) she gave an enthusiastic yes. "Their cereal is a wonderful cereal with a lot of good ingredients for women." She went on to say the cereal was "well received" and that "energetically the cereal is what we're all about."
After learning of Engle's background in marketing, my inner reporter sensed Engle might have been brought in by General Mills to push their cereal. Engle told me her mother died in 2001, which would have been just weeks before Amazing Woman's Day took place -- a quick turnaround to organize a national party. With some reservation, I asked her again if General Mills hadn't planned the whole thing and come up with her story, and she insisted that she was motivated only by her mother's death to create the day of womanly recognition. General Mills, it turned out, just happened to be the right product at the right time.
"Now I'm working on it full time," she said. "They're [Harmony] working with us again and you'll see us next year."
Garden of Eatin'
This year the best place to find the food that appeals to the soul, outside of Whole Foods and Wild Oats -- two large stores known in the organic food industry as the "Super Naturals" -- will be inside Albertson's, the first mainstream grocery store to carry products from the ever-expanding New Organics Co. It's no fluke. The company was founded in 1997 by two grocery store executives who had one thing in mind: "To bring organic foods to the mainstream," says Anthony Zolezzi, President.
And it's certainly a good time to be an organic food company treading in the mainstream. According to the Organic Foods Association, consumption of their synthetic-free products has grown 20 percent every year for the past 11 years and retail sales of organics in 2001 are projected at $9.3 billion; by 2005, sales are expected to reach nearly $20 billion.
The New Organics Co., for its part, offers pastas, corns, cereals, mustard, condiments and a new line of children's foods -- all of them made from products with minimal pesticide residue, Zolezzi says. And, since Zolezzi's company was the first to reach the masses outside the Super Naturals, it's also the first to get a whiff of within-the-industry criticism.
The push into the middle ground has angered some longtime organic-foodies who complain that the "industrialization" of organics will only lead to the oft-feared "organic Twinkie" and compromise the principles of eating healthy, all in the name of earning the coveted "Certified Organic" seal. Players like the New Organics Co. that tout a product for the "Mind/Body/Spirit" are viewed as the greedy uncle who stole the secret family recipe, watered it down and sold it to the masses. Mind. Body. Profit.
Zolezzi says his company hasn't heard of any backlash from the smaller organic companies since the New Organics Co. arrived, yet he accepts the market tension that exists.
"There's always going to be some people in any industry who are unhappy," he says. "But we haven't heard anything like that. Look, the bottom line is that everyone has the same goals. Everyone wants a safer planet, a cleaner earth and healthier food. Doesn't matter how it happens, who profits or how it gets to market -- just as long as we all meet those goals."
A few sunday mornings ago, I slumbered into the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Almaden Expressway near Highway 85, looking to meet a goal of my own. I needed coffee. I made a beeline for the Starbucks Cafe in the back. Fuzzy-headed and groggy and far, far away from any locally owned coffee store, I took my place at the back of a single-file line, behind 10 other caffeine junkies.
Now, there is no denying that Starbucks has become the decal for mainstream. A man wearing Gap khakis, a Gap shirt and Nike running shoes stood in front of me. And there was another guy dressed just like him a few dudes in front of him.
In my grumpy haze, I wondered why more people weren't working behind the counter. It was Sunday morning, good God.
As I waited, I looked to the right of the cashier's stand and noticed a large yellow poster advertising a new Starbucks product: "Zen Dream Tea." Next to the cash register, in point-of-purchase placing, were a few boxes of the new Zen Dream Tea.
I studied the new product as the line moved forward. If I drink the tea, I'll have Zen, yeah? I'll have dreams? I'll have Zen dreams? What the hell is a Zen dream, anyway? And can it be purchased?
I was curious enough to try.
"I'll have one large Zen Dream Tea, please."
Jean Renfro Anspaugh and her friends called him Big Mike. At 6-feet-4-inches, Big Mike was a mountain of a man who topped 400 pounds. Big Mike's wife was an active, physically fit woman, and Jean speculates that this may have given him an added incentive to lose weight. So, in the fall of 1995 at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in North Carolina, Big Mike, who had an enlarged heart, underwent a gastric surgery. And then, to the astonishment of his wife and his friends, Big Mike lost consciousness on the operating room table and never woke up. Big Mike, a husband and father of two, was dead at 35 years old.
It wasn't the first time a surgery to correct obesity had taken a toll on Jean's circle of family and friends. In 1987, Jean's overweight aunt, Beverly Grant, told no one except her husband she was planning a gastric bypass operation at a hospital in Kansas City, Mo. She told relatives that she was merely going in for a "procedure," neglecting to mention that surgeons would be removing a portion of her intestine in an attempt to curtail her weight. On the operating room table, Beverly's lungs filled up with liquid and she died. She was 42.
Now Jean, 47, who moved from Sacramento to Durham, N.C., to lose weight on the "Rice Diet" -- a precursor to exclusionary food diets like Atkins -- is contemplating the newest and most popular form of gastric bypass surgery to date: laparoscopic Roux-en-Y. The two deaths and the experience of another friend who had the surgery, fell sick afterward and underwent 11 hernia operations -- hernias being a common side effect of surgery -- are considerations, but not necessarily deterrents.
"Isn't that weird?" Jean says. "I sold everything I owned to come to Durham to lose weight ... [I think] If I came this far, I can take that other step."
Her motivation for wanting a Roux-en-Y (pronounced ROO-en-why), named after the Swiss surgeon Cesar Roux and the Y-shape incision made from bypassing the stomach to the small intestine, is simple.
"Women my age have been dieting and mostly failing at it all of our lives," says Jean, author of the book Fat Like Us, which chronicles the personal stories of perpetual dieters. "We don't want to live the remainder of our lives fat."
The weight-obsessed American public seems to have spoken: 24 percent of women and 17 percent of men say that they would reduce their life span by three years to be thinner, as reported in Archives of Dermatology.
"Life is so much better when you're thinner," Jean says. "Nothing aches, everything fits, doctors aren't yelling at you. The sun is shining on you."
According to the American Society of Bariatric Surgery (ASBS), 45,000 chased the sun this year by electing gastric bypass surgery, up from the 25,000 who went for it in 1995. Also known as "stomach stapling," the surgery involves stapling a portion of a patient's stomach, and then rerouting the smaller part, or pouch, to the intestines, so patients cannot overeat. The pouch, about the size of an egg, can hold about half a cup, or one to five ounces of food, compared to the 50 to 80 ounces of an unstapled stomach. But it is not a cure. Because of the limited food intake, those who undergo the surgery must eat tiny portions for the rest of their lives, and are banned forever from favorite foods like red meat, milk or sweets. Should patients cave in to such forbidden indulgences, they may feel faint, nauseous, sweaty and experience instant diarrhea -- all symptoms of a post-bypass condition known as "dumping."
It can get far, far worse. According to the National Institutes of Health, which in 1991 created the criteria for weight loss surgery patients, one-third of gastric surgery patients develop gallstones, or clumps of cholesterol and other matter that form in the gallbladder. Ten to 20 percent of weight-loss operations require follow-up operations to correct serious complications like abdominal hernias, as well as stretched stomachs and staple line breakage. Others suffer from pneumonia, infection, hair loss, blood clots (embolus), frequent vomiting, diarrhea and nutritional deficiencies because food consumption is restricted.
In the worst scenario, patients may regain all their presurgery weight or die, either on the operating room table, or from complications following surgery. The ASBS reports that three to five people out of 1,000 who undergo gastric bypasses die. But Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination (CSWD) claims that doctors aren't honestly reporting cases where their patients die as a result of the surgery.
"We've run into some situations where the death certificate [was changed] to say someone 'died from obesity,'" Berg says. "Doctors are hush-hush about this. They learn from their mistakes, but also the public never finds out about them."
And that's part of the problem. Most gastric bypass patients don't know that the surgeons performing gastric bypasses do not take any specific "boards" or examinations testing their knowledge and skills of the actual surgery.
"Almost every surgeon does a different operation," noted Paul Ernsberger, an obesity researcher at Case Western Reserve University, in a published commentary in response to a reporter's request for his opinion on weight loss surgeries. "If the surgery was so wonderful, why are all the surgeons experimenting with different techniques?"
Many doctors are acutely aware of the risks to patients and carefully study a patient's profile before performing the operation, like Dr. Pamela Foster, a clinical assistant professor of surgery at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center for Bariatric Surgery. To ensure that she has the ideal surgical candidate, Foster sticks to a patient's Body Mass Index (BMI), which measures a patient's weight to height ratio and determines their obesity. A surgery candidate must have a BMI of 40 or above. Foster also considers the gravity of their co-morbidities, or conditions resulting from severe obesity, such as diabetes, sleep apnea and high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. She also requires patients to lose excess weight prior to the surgery so that the surgery is less risky for the patient, and is adamant about monitoring a patient post-surgery. Dr. Foster says she has never had a Roux-en-Y gastric-bypass patient die.
"Most of my patients work and have families and lives and interests," Foster says. "We have to make sure that they make it to the other side. I worry because it's such a difficult operation."
However, there are few long-term studies conducted on the outcome of gastric bypass patients, and some clinics and hospitals provide surgery patients with insufficient or no follow-up care, says Berg of the CSWD.
Because the surgery is so expensive -- it costs anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 -- and because most insurance providers don't cover the surgery (they classify the operation as cosmetic rather than medically necessary), would-be patients dole out their own cash.
"It's becoming more consumer-driven," says Dr. Greg Adams, a general surgeon at Valley Medical Center in San Jose.
Adams refuses to do gastric bypasses because he "doesn't want to perform psychic surgery." He insists on gastric bypass only as a means to improve someone's health but not self-image.
"I think it's a plan of controlled starvation," he says.
For those trying in vain to lose weight by exhausting food diets and modes of exercise, it's a plan whose perceived benefits outweigh the risks. But much of the marketing campaign is led by the wrong people, Berg says. Current bypass idol, Carnie Wilson, daughter of Beach Boy Brian Wilson and former songbird for the '90s pop trio Wilson Phillips, recently trumpeted her 150-pound weight loss and new size 6 frame on the covers of People and US Weekly. The dangerous message to the yo-yo dieters of the world is this: live or die, risky or not -- if Carnie can, so can I.
But new lives rarely carry with them a 100 percent guarantee. During his homerun derby, San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds dedicated home run no. 68 to Franklin Bradley, 37, a close friend and bodyguard, who died unexpectedly from routine stomach surgery. It turned out to be a gastric bypass operation.
Karrie Colette, a San Jose resident, talks about her life in two eras: pre-gastric bypass surgery and post-gastric bypass surgery. Presurgery Karrie was 353 pounds -- always hungry, never satisfied, tired and overheated. Her once favorite McDonald's lunch menu: quarter-pounder, two Big Macs, SuperSized chocolate shake and large fries. Her genes automatically rubber-stamped her as overweight; her father, mother and older sister were all built that way.
Then Karrie developed a condition known as Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), which induced a gagging reflex, forcing Karrie to vomit all her meals. A friend who had the gastric bypass told her surgery might be the best option. So after researching the details, Karrie began imagining a fat-free life. On Aug. 16, 1999, at Alvarado Hospital Medical Center -- where Carnie Wilson had her surgery only a week before -- she got it. In two years, Karrie has lost 150 pounds.
Jean, on the other hand, is still thinking about her gastric bypass. She has plenty of questions for her potential attending surgeon at Duke University Hospital.
"I don't know if I'll ever go through with it," Jean says. "I'm leaving my options open. Everyone I've talked to [who has had the surgery] said they'd do it in a heartbeat."
Karrie doesn't hesitate. She's slimmer, she survived, and now, she's added years to her life span because she isn't obese anymore.
"Would I do it again?" Karrie asks. "In a heartbeat. In a heartbeat."