Michelle Chihara

Harry Potter and the Great Big Hoopla

This week a tsunami of marketing and merchandise will wash over bookstores, billboards, baseball stadiums and every possible form of media -- a tsunami by the name of Harry Potter.

On June 21, at 12:01am, the much-anticipated fifth book in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular series goes on sale. And when it does, its cover will be beamed from a billboard in Times Square while Harry Potter lookalikes hand out a million stickers and badges. The international jet set will attend a $500,000 release party in London. And all this for a book -- not for a movie, nor for anything having to do with J-Lo. But of course, Harry Potter is officially no longer simply a character in a book. He is a one-boy, multi-million dollar, international brand and media property.

The book itself has been kept under tight security, held under a strict embargo until the moment of release. Reviewers don't get copies; bookstores face harsh penalties if they disobey. The boxes of the precious tomes have been arriving at stores sealed in opaque black plastic wrap, labeled with a 1-800 number to call if the seal has been broken.

Reportedly only five people in the world have read the story, plus maybe one fork lift operator in the UK who found a couple of copies that fell off a truck. Evidently he offered pages to The Sun newspaper for £25,000. He was promptly nabbed and sentenced to 180 hours community service. That incident seems to be the lone breach. Headmaster Dumbledore would be proud. Heck, the Department of Homeland Security must be green with envy.

The tight security comes from orders on high; the author herself supposedly wanted to make sure no one spoiled the surprise for her young readers. Of course, the tactic is also a brilliant marketing ploy, like creating a line outside a club. The suspense is building. What will it matter what the critics say, once the tension breaks and everyone is awash in all things Potter?

A Critic-Proof Potion

Critics? Does anyone really read book reviews anymore? Certainly as far as sales are concerned, it may not matter much at all what's between the covers of this fifth Potter installment. The book has already turned the publishing world on its head and entered a mass market that books rarely reach. The usual book world sales tactics simply don't apply. Rowling is more famous than any other author who could possibly write her a cover blurb, and it seems safe to assume that most Harry Potter fans don't give a damn what the New York Review of Books has to say about Hogwarts. As long as Rowling hands us some reasonable facsimile of the previous four books -- Harry must be endearing, Hermione clever and Voldemort evil and defeated -- the record 8.5 million copies printed in the first run will probably find homes. Orders on Amazon.com have already topped a million. Brand loyalty is high.

No matter what goes on inside Potter's delightful world, out here in the land of the dollar, Harry Potter the brand is en route to ever more massive "mindshare," as they say. The question is, what does brand loyalty do to the imagination? Are mass market brands and creative storylines really compatible? The millions of dollars being spent on Potter marketing and merchandise are intended to create loyalty to a happy symbol of magic and innocence. Will that enormous financial pressure jibe with character development? Any criticism of the Harry Potter phenomenon is inevitably dismissed as cranky or snobbish. "At least they're reading," goes the comeback, and it's true. But what they're reading still matters, and a brand is by definition reductive and oversimplified, a single note, while a character is a melody, complex and multilayered. It would be a shame if the real world pressure to sell Cokes were to creep into Harry Potter's world, if the pressure to be a brand kept Harry from taking risks as a character.

The proof will be between the covers of "The Order of the Phoenix." Within the world of Hogwarts and without, Harry Potter is facing challenges at least as serious as his evil nemesis. First of all, as a character, the boy with floppy bangs is facing adolescence. This is no easy task for any boy, never mind a boy with a mean, unloving family and a magical school, never mind a boy whose basic approach to the world is pretty naive. More on that later. But first, as a brand, Potter may be facing what they call overexposure.

A Household Name

Executives at Warner Bros, which is gearing up for the next Harry Potter movie, don't sound worried. Diane Nelson, senior vice-president of marketing, has been quoted in the London Observer saying that Harry Potter "is a bigger property than anything else we at Warner Bros have seen." From Britain to the US to Germany to China, Harry Potter has become a household name. "It's astonishing," Nelson says smugly, "and we're nowhere near saturation point. The appetite is not a trend; it is a real evergreen property."

Millions of dollars are being wagered on the strength of that property. The publisher has already reportedly distributed some three million bumper stickers, 400,000 buttons, 50,000 window displays and 24,000 stand-up posters with countdown clocks. There are fridge magnets, magic wands and lightning-bolt temporary tattoos. The $3 or $4 million marketing campaign (which doubles the amount spent on the last campaign) includes Harry Potter Days at baseball stadiums nationwide, with scoreboard promotions and costume contests. Bookstores around the globe are being decorated to look like Diagon Alley with owl cages and spider webs, for midnight parties. After the premiere party, Rowling will be participating in a live webcast, a la Madonna, in which 4,000 children in Royal Albert Hall in London will ask questions (what will they do to get attention in the back?). The broadcast is being sponsored by Microsoft and British Telecom, which are investing $2.5 million in the production. Millions upon millions of viewers are expected to log on for a record-breaking web event.

This is not the norm for books. Book release parties usually max out at catered wine and cheese. And already, there are signs that the book alone may not be enough to carry the wave of hype. Reuters reported on June 11 that a J.P. Morgan survey found that a surprising percentage of young Harry Potter fans don't intend to buy the next book. "Based on our research, we do not believe that the release itself will be enough," said analyst Danielle Fox. "To us, the biggest surprise from our survey is the fall-off in the intent to purchase (the new book) among existing Harry Potter fans... In sum, we think heavy promotions will be crucial in making the latest Harry Potter release a success."

Well, thank goodness for the Harry Potter Baseball Days, right? Or could it be that heavy promotions and franchising simply don't make people want to read? Maybe there is such a thing as too many Playstation games and Mattel TM Potions Kits and plush collectibles and fleece throws and battery-operated vibrating brooms (seriously) and Hagrid and Norbert Magical Minis (wave the magic umbrella and Norbert moves!). Maybe once the brand exposure gets to a certain level, once the heavy promotions reach a certain weight, kids start to feel like, what do we need the book for? We'll just collect the cards and stickers and badges and get the next Invisibility Cloak from Toys R Us and wait for the movie to come out.

This fifth book is the first book to have to contend with this level of hoopla, and it remains to be seen how it will compete against its own hype. The fourth book was hyped, but the circus really started with the release of the first Harry Potter movie, that's when Warner Bros got involved and Coca-Cola signed on as official sponsor.

Inside Hogwarts

Meanwhile, inside Hogwarts, Harry Potter the character is also facing a changing world. Rowling has been hinting at various romantic undercurrents that are now coursing between the characters. "The Order of the Phoenix" will be the proving ground for the introduction of a very different kind of magic into Hogwarts. And it's not easy to mix magics.

In the magical worlds of children's books, adolescence, budding romantic feelings and the very adult chemistries that go along with such changes usually spell the end of the fun. Dorothy is not going to fall in love in Oz. It's only the kids who find their through the wardrobe into Narnia. Painted wings and giant's rings make way for other toys. There is something appealing about the idea of Hermione asking, "Are you there G-d?" but it will be a challenge to bring the complexities of adolescence to these characters.

The books are infused with Harry Potter's own wonder and naiveté. It will not be easy to introduce him to girls. We can only hope that Joanne Rowling -- newly married with a new baby and a daughter, still reeling from winning a lawsuit in the States and under enormous pressure to keep producing the books and to keep the brand strong -- will be up to it. The BBC reporter who scored the exclusive interview with the author, yet to be released, has leaked that Rowling said she wanted to break her own arm so that she wouldn't be able to write, when the pressure was on to finish this book.

But Harry has a way of overcoming the odds. A phoenix has saved him before and gives the title to the next, a bird that dies in flames and is reborn from its own ashes. Like his phoenix, Harry Potter is at a time of transformation. He will burn, one way or another, in the flames of over-hype and hormonal change. And he may well go up in smoke and join the ranks of other over-hyped British imports (remember Spice World?). But he may also emerge reborn as a more complex character who has found his place in a more complicated, less innocent world than the one he first entered. And that would even help his brand. Only a brand that summons the depth of emotion we feel for a good, integral character could survive the exposure of two more movies and the sheer overload of the Live-the-Magic-Coca-Cola-Baltimore-Orioles-Harry-Potter-everywhere campaign.

As Rowling writes of her beloved protagonist at the end of "The Goblet of Fire," "What would come, would come... and he would have to meet it."

Michelle Chihara is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.

The Somebody Mystique and the Rise of the Uppity Nobody

Once the youngest college president in the nation, the board chair of an international nonprofit corporation, an author and a professor, Robert Fuller knows what it is to be a "somebody." It's to experience the power and the respect conferred upon those with rank. But when he left his position as a college president, he also experienced the disrespect and humiliation visited on those of lower rank -- the "nobodies" of the world.

Fuller's life experience has led him to create an over-arching theory of "rankism," which he defines as "abuse and discrimination based on a power difference as signified by rank." He finds a common thread among all the familiar "isms" like sexism and racism, in that they all consist of the abuse of an existing power structure that results in inequity, injustice, or indignity.

somebodiesFuller, author of the new book, "Somebodies and Nobodies," is not advocating the elimination of rank; he fully recognizes the need for hierarchy in society. Instead, he sees an "unheralded, unnamed revolution unfolding in our midst," in which "people are becoming less willing to put up with disrespect." This "dignitarian movement" is based on equal respect for others regardless of rank. He wants to debunk the "somebody mystique" by exposing the cult of personality surrounding the rich, famous and powerful. He wants rankism named and condemned in its every incarnation, from our private lives to our public officials. He sees rankism in many of our current crises, from American Airlines and Enron to the Catholic clergy. "Somebodies and Nobodies" is his shot at doing for rankism what Betty Friedan did for feminism.

AlterNet spoke with Robert Fuller at his home in Berkeley, California.

AlterNet: You talk about eliminating rankism, but not rank. Can you give me an example of an appropriate use of rank, in contrast with an abuse of rank, preferably with the same rank in mind?

Robert Fuller: The Somalia example is a tough example of where America, as the number one ranked military power, and in defiance of many voices, went in and pulled rank and ended a genocide. We did the same thing in Kosovo a few years later. We exercised our rank and stopped two genocides in the last decade. There's an example at the global level of the use of rank, where I think not to have done anything would have been an abuse of our power.

Another kind of funny example I like to give is the chemistry professor walks into the lab and he sees two students playing with chemicals. One of them is about to pour the nitric acid over the glycerin. BOOM. End of campus. He grabs them and stops them in a way that initially seems like an abuse of rank, but actually it's the right use of his rank. He knows that those two chemicals make nitroglycerin. The students don't. His rank is earned and his use of his power is appropriate. There are many cases where rank is valid and legitimate, where not to have any creates anarchy and endless boring committee meetings. That's the tyranny of structurelessness, an odd reverse form of tyranny where the person ends up being the tyrant who has the greatest tolerance for the most boredom. So rank has its place.

On the other hand when we can get past strict rankings, in the degree to which we can get past them and cooperate in a more flexible and fluid way, with less hierarchical discipline, we gain additional economies. Additional efficiencies come from that. Resourcefulness can come. Where it really applies is Silicon Valley. By getting rid of that strict hierarchy you had a much more creative and flexible and productive research team.

What else does the society that you envision look like in day to day life? How do CEOs treat everyone else? How are they treated, once this evolution has occurred?

My answer would be, once we bring rank out of the closet like we've brought race and gender out of the closet. We're free to talk about them now, we're free to object when they're used as the basis of abuse and discrimination. You just call the boss a sexist and he apologizes humbly and tries to fix his behavior.

When you're lucky.

It's not as finished as I'm pretending and I know that, especially around race. But it's infinitely better than when I was a kid, I mean, when I was a kid if a black person protested he was lynched. Period. So we've come a long way, but not on rankism. In rankism when you protest these things, you're still fired. It's the economic equivalent of a lynching, you're basically fired. And I want to see that change. I think it can be changed within 10 years. I think we're on the verge of a dignitarian movement to overcome rankism that's going to create passions analogous to those generated in the women's movement in the '60s.

So back to the CEO, what would that look like in the workplace?

It looks like the employees feel perfectly comfortable asking the boss about the prerogatives of his rank. They say to the CEO: "What can you decide, what can't you decide? To what extent are we consulted about that? What's your salary, what are your bonuses? Are the board meetings open, so we can hear the decision process. Do we have any meaningful representation on the board?"

This is in contrast to what's happening now, for example with American Airlines. [American Airlines asked its unions to agree to deep cuts in salaries, benefits and pensions. The next day it came out that the executives had awarded themselves huge bonuses and that their pensions were protected.] It was such a betrayal of trust, it was such rankism of the senior ranks looking out only for themselves and abusing their decision-making power to decide in favor of increasing their own salaries. Can you believe it?

But isn't that why we have unions? Because we expect top management not to give their workers their due unless the workers organize collectively.

Absolutely, so that handles at least the issue of some kind of decent wages, yes, but that's all it handles. Unions represented a tremendous overcoming of rankism 100 years ago. Until then individuals all stood alone, and anyone who protested was immediately fired. But then the unions made that impossible and bargained collectively to get better wages, so unionism is itself exhibit number two of overcoming rankism. Exhibit number one is democracy. That's when we overcame civic rankism -- the king could no longer cut off your head on a whim, etc. Four-hundred years after that, even 18-year-olds can vote in this country.

It's still widely sanctioned in our society for the higher ranking to get rid of the lower ranking, for no reason other than the whim the king used to have when he chopped off your head, or the whim the white guy used to have when he didn't like the black worker. But in many many cases now, when you look into it, you discover that the only reason the lower ranking person was fired was because they protested about something. It had nothing to do with competence.

We've got to be willing to make those distinctions. There's no way to tell in advance, you have to be willing to look at it. But the presumption now is that the high ranking person is always right and that the nobody that protests is an uppity nobody. I'm mirroring the language of the uppity n-word, it's now unspeakable. Well, the uppity n-word was lynched, tortured. The uppity nobody is fired.

However, there's a shift in the wind. Who were Time magazine's persons of the year this year, do you remember?

Wasn't it the woman from Enron?

Precisely, and two other women, three women, all of whom were whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are the quintessential uppity nobodies, and they weren't fired. There's a shift in the wind now.

But isn't it difficult to organize a movement around something that's inherently relative?

Yes, well, we've done this trait-by-trait overcoming of discriminations and when it was black vs. white at least the traits were absolute, they weren't relative and they weren't mutable. Rank is relative, you can be a somebody in one setting and a nobody in another, it can be one day to the next. That's why this form of discrimination has been the most elusive to get our hands around. That's why "Somebodies and Nobodies" is a little more complicated than "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan, which it mirrors in many ways. That book was such a bombshell in this country in '63, it was like an earthquake.

Are you expecting a similar earthquake now?

No, I don't expect anything. It's all timing and all whether people are ready. But if you'd been there last night or the night before, when I did Black Oak Books in Berkeley... I had 100 people both evenings. It was the most passionate, intense discussion I've been in since the 1960s.

What are people most passionate about?

Oh, everybody brings wounds to this issue, the time they recall when they were nobodies. Sometimes it's from yesterday. And they also bring guilt because they all know they've been perpetrators of rankism, too. If you'd been present at either thing you would have felt it in the crowd, the interest. After I spoke, I asked for questions, and there was this sustained, huge ovation in the room. I was astonished, I've never had that before. They ate it up. They want to see rankism named, tackled, exposed. People are mad.

Look at two recent, egregious examples. One is the Catholic clergy. One we've hit on is Enron, where they feathered their own nests at everyone's expense, stole people's pensions. And they'll probably get off, just like all the guys who used to lynch blacks all got off. People are getting madder and madder about this, and they're blaming Bush.

On the interpersonal level, you mention the golden rule. Eliminating rankism sounds a lot like the golden rule.

I kind of discovered that as an afterthought. But you can't reduce this to the golden rule, because the golden rule is ineffectual. Everybody ignores the golden rule. If we'd honored the golden rule there would have been no slavery, there would have been no need for a civil rights movement. What you need is not only to know what you're for, which is the golden rule -- wish it were happening -- you need to know what you're against. You need to know what you won't put up with. We have to have a name for it and be willing to use the name against people who do it.

In certain other cultures you do see much greater regard for the dignity of powerless people than you do in America. Although I've been corrected on this, I'm thinking of Japan, where you see certain kind of protections of each other's dignity. But it's within a very formal context that may actually be a cover story for a lot of rankism.

You touch on this in the book, but in certain kinds of society there is less or no mobility, so rank is fixed. In those societies, the upper ranks are much nicer to lower ranks, basically because there's no threat.

Right. That's perfect.

And that's not what you're advocating by any means.

No, I'm not.

So, you're talking about teaching people to behave well even when they feel very insecure. You could probably trace numerous examples of rankism in your book to feelings of insecurity. But isn't that part of what America gives us, the opportunity to move up, but the risk that you will fall down?

Right, but in many high-tech companies, for example, rising and falling doesn't carry that same dreadful connotation. Because people know, OK, I've been made manager of this research team for three weeks, and by then we have to reach a decision about X, and afterwards it'll all be readjusted and I'll have a different place in it, so the sense of up and down and rank doesn't carry those dreadful fears anymore.

Maybe the small Northern European countries would be good examples of systems in which people are mobile but more secure, but that's partially because they know they can't get too high or too low. I don't know that America could get behind that. We're structured this way on purpose, it's the American dream -- you can get very high and you can fall very hard.

Well, this partially has to do with deconstructing the somebody mystique which Friedan did for the feminine mystique. There's an awful lot of false ideas around what it means to be a somebody and how wonderful it is and how humiliating it is to be a nobody. The language is ambiguous, but I'm using the somebody/nobody language more and more like the masculine/feminine language, in which we see that we have both the masculine and feminine sides in every person, male and female. And likewise we see that within everybody there's a nobody and a somebody, and we need to get on good terms with both those incarnations of ourselves.

For example, right now I'm being a somebody, right now I'm on book tour, I'm a somebody, I appear and I teach as it were. But actually I can hardly wait for my next nobody phase. In nobody-land I feel much more myself, I can have a new idea, I'm not just parroting myself, I'm not just saying something I've already said before. The nobody side is the learning side. The somebody side is the teacher side. Just like masculine and feminine, we need all of us to integrate both. I want to remove the stigma from the word nobody. As it's used generally now in society, nobody is the current n-word.

What does a society look like where we have accomplished this? Are there no celebrities? Are the Academy Awards out the window?

Good question. No, I enjoy the Academy Awards. I enjoy watching that stuff, see what people are wearing. I think that's a legitimate part of our society as a whole, but it has a different meaning. It's like, thank you to Nicole Kidman for sharing your beauty and your acting ability. But that doesn't mean that if I've waited in line an hour that you can come in and walk right in front of me, in a line that has nothing do with either of our professions. In that other line, we're equal. You get in line and stay there and don't expect us to ignore the law about your behavior. I think we're gonna all get good at making those distinctions. And I don't care what Madonna had for breakfast either.

Ah, but there are those people who do care.

Yeah, but they're screwed up. They've lost their sense of self, and they're not treating themselves with any regard and dignity.

You're talking about the cult of personality.

Yes, and it's sick. It's as sick in Hollywood as it was in Stalinist times and as it is now in North Korea which is just an absolutely pathologically sick and suffering society.

Well, I hope we're able to achieve a dignitarian society. You say you feel a lot of energy at your readings, that you see the beginnings of this movement. Where do you see it most?

Young people. Young people get this so quickly. Old people you have to kind of reason them into with a whole bunch of analogies, like racism, which they all went through.

Any movements you would point to, or organizations?

Voice of the Faithful is a dignitarian movement that's arising that thinks of itself as just overcoming rankism in the church, but it's actually much wider.

And another unorganized movement is what's happening in health care, where millions of people are going to see their doctor having been members of Internet-based support groups, so they come in informed about their illness. They go in knowing almost as much as their doc, but not having the experience of their doc with thousands of patients. That's happening everywhere, that's an empowering of people in overcoming the rankism of the medical profession. It still however is egregious for nurses, in terms of what they suffer and how badly they're compensated, and how the docs skim off the top just like the Enron execs.

So we have a long way to go.

We have a huge distance to go. But the book just came out ... you're in the first three weeks of it.

Michelle Chihara is a freelance writer in San Francisco and a former staff writer at AlterNet.

Michael Moore Asks Big Questions

Michael Moore is the documentary filmmaker that movie critics hate to love. The Los Angeles Times calls his new movie, "scattershot," "haphazard" and "all over the map." The New York Times accuses him of "slippery logic, tendentious grandstanding and outright demagoguery." And yet, with almost no exceptions, the critics heartily recommend "Bowling for Columbine."

If you're comparing Moore's work to a sepia-toned Ken Burns opus, it's easy to see where the criticism comes from. "Bowling for Columbine" aims for the gut, throws big ideas into the ring and doesn't really grapple with all of them. But it is gripping and powerful; it grabs you by the heartstrings and makes you laugh at your assumptions. And precisely because Moore does not pretend to answer all of the questions he raises, "Bowling for Columbine" is that rarest of beasts: A movie that makes you feel, and then makes you think.

�Bowling for Columbine� has already won a slew of awards, including a 13-minute standing ovation and the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A limited release in Los Angeles and New York resulted in sold-out theaters last weekend on both coasts, and United Artists is now planning a 700- to 900-theater release nationwide. According to Moore, that's a record-breaking number of screens for a documentary -- beating out even his famous debut documentary, "Roger & Me."

Given the film's subject matter, its early success is already a remarkable achievement. �Bowling for Columbine� is about the root causes of violence in American culture; yet it grossed a healthy $206,000 on a limited release in its opening weekend. That bears repeating -- a documentary about gun control and crime in America is selling out. What's next, a treatise on international diplomacy sweeping the Christmas season?

But of course, the point is that Moore�s picture is not a treatise, it's not a presentation, it's not even really a single, coherent argument. Instead, Moore provokes, he searches, he even pokes fun. Regardless of what you think of the film, it seems almost impossible to leave the theater without turning to whoever is next to you and talking about it.

With war looming in Iraq and a sniper terrorizing suburban Washington DC, the film could not be more timely. Moore recognizes those events, but he's looking beyond any one news hook. "Forty people a day are shot and killed in this country," he said at a screening in San Francisco last Friday. The big question, for him, goes beyond the "geographically contained� bloodshed caused by one sniper. Why, he wants to know, is America so violent? Why do Americans shoot each other so much more than people do in other developed countries?

It can't just be the video games, because the Japanese play more of them and watch more brutally violent movies. It can't be our history of violence, because the Germans don't have as much trouble. It can't be poverty, ethnic tension or the number of guns, because the Canadians have just as many minorities, just as many unemployed and just as many guns per head. It can't be Marilyn Manson, because everybody listens to Marilyn Manson (who by the way is shown to be refreshingly articulate in the film).

One of his strongest sequences touches on the criminalization of the poor. In the movie, he tells the story of a Michigan single mother whose six-year-old son found a gun, brought it to school, and shot and killed a fellow first-grader. Moore goes where no news media dared, and looks into the particulars of the boy's life. The child was staying at his uncle's house because his mother, who was holding down two jobs, was about to be evicted. She was being bused from her own neighborhood to work in an upscale mall an hour and a half away, on state orders, as part of a welfare-to-work program. She didn't see her son take a gun to school because she had to leave home to catch the bus before he got up.

It is one of the most heartwrenching sequences in the film, second only to the video camera footage from inside Columbine High School. And it raises the question of whether the welfare-to-work program, and the tremendous stress it puts on poor families, could have contributed to the tragedy.

"I don't have all the answers," he says, noting that racism is highest on the list of problems. "I think once we attempt to deal with the racist feelings that are almost genetically encoded in us ... I think if we deal with that then things will calm down quite a bit." He thinks less racist politicians wouldn't pass such welfare-to-work laws. "Putting that mother on a bus for an hour and a half to go work in the mall to pay back whatever money she got for welfare ... that, to me, is a state-sponsored act of violence."

Some critics have blasted Moore for connecting violence at home to America's foreign policy and past history of bloodshed and aggression. Other countries have equally violent histories, a point Moore makes himself. So a pissing contest between America's violent history and that of other colonial powers seems beside the point.

It seems fair for Moore to ask whether America�s propensity for solving problems abroad with violence has some connection to the nation�s violent domestic tendencies. Moore thinks the reviewers just don't get it. "It's like they're saying, 'Guns killing kids in the U.S. -- bad. But why'd you have to bring up guns killing innocent kids in other countries?" he says.

But once our global policies are on the table, it's hard to avoid other questions; like, what about violence in poor and developing countries under the IMF's thumb? What about the drug war?

Moore's connections aren't so much tenuous as they are incomplete -- he knows he doesn't have time to do justice to the whole picture. He's tackling the big questions. And more power to him, since no one else is raising them on 700 movie screens nationwide. "I want to get people talking about what we collectively have a responsibility to do," he says.

That mission makes some of the accusations of self-promotion and demagoguery that get thrown at Moore rather ironic. It's not so much that he doesn't deserve it, but that others seem immune to the same charges. Moore ambushes Dick Clark to ask him about the plight of the first-grader with a gun (the child�s mother worked at one of Dick Clark's branded restaurants). Dick Clark gets a tax break for employing such welfare-to-work employees.

And Clark -- looking rich and slick from his career as Dick Clark and his "Dick Clark's American Bandstand" restaurants, surrounded by his entourage in a chauffeured van with tinted windows -- refuses to speak with Moore. Why doesn�t Dick Clark get any flak for his callous, self-serving behavior?

And how can Moore be accused of being a demagogue in a nation where the tone is set by a president who speaks almost exclusively in black and white terms about American families versus "evil-doers"? In the course of Moore's movie, a news clip shows George W. Bush telling the American people that one way to "show our unity" is to support his budget for the Pentagon.

Michael Moore can certainly be obnoxious. We might not put up with his behavior from someone who didn't have such brilliant comic timing or who wasn't so clearly an American son. But �Bowling for Columbine,� more so than any of his other works, makes it clear that Moore loves America and ordinary Americans, so it's easier to take it when he outs some of the darker sides of our character. He may not have all the answers. But he's the only one challenging so many of us to take a long hard look in the mirror.

"The fabric of violence in our culture is made up of lots of little threads," he says, "and I want to look at all of them, not just the ones that the evening news wants you to look at."

Naomi Klein Gets Global

“I think that we should be a lot angrier. I think there's too much politeness in our response to mass theft and mafia politics.”

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Drink Coffee? Read This

Since the arrival of the venti half-caf latte in the '90s, Americans have gotten used to the idea of the $3 (or more) cup of coffee. Designer coffee is still booming -- Starbucks Coffee company profits totaled $181 million in fiscal 2000, and the company now has 5,688 locations from Indonesia to Spain to the U.S.

But the tide of expensive lattes has not lifted all boats. North America's morning Joe sits atop a growing crisis, according to Oxfam America, which has just released a report entitled "Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup," detailing the scope of the global coffee crisis. (The full report is available here.) The farmers and workers who actually grow coffee beans in regions from South America to Vietnam are faced with the lowest prices in years, prices that do not cover their costs. Farmers are slipping into dire poverty, pulling their children out of school, unable to afford medicine and struggling to eat. Mass coffee farming practices are also destroying rainforest ecosystems.

This week, there are two major activist pushes to raise awareness and promote fair trade and organic coffee, to protect both the farmers and the environment. The two campaigns, one by Oxfam America and one spearheaded by the Organic Consumers Association, agree on the problem if not the solution. Both see an international humanitarian and environmental crisis. Both encourage consumers to demand Fair Trade certified coffee whenever they buy coffee.

The two campaigns diverge when it comes to Starbucks. Oxfam America is going after the coffee giants Kraft (Maxwell House), Procter & Gamble (Folgers), Nestlé (Nescafé) and Sara Lee (Real Coffee). The big transnationals are certainly ahead of Starbucks, as bulk buyers of beans. And they have shown a relatively complete indifference to the plight of small farmers, as coffee prices fall and corporate profit margins go up.

Oxfam, in other words, is targeting the big fish. Besides demanding better prices for the small farmers, Oxfam is demanding that the coffee giants and rich country governments help fund the destruction of at least five million bags of coffee stock, in order to help stabilize the price. They also want the companies to create a fund to help poor farmers find other ways to make a living, so that they will be less dependent on one volatile commodity.

The coffee campaign is part of Oxfam's larger Make Trade Fair campaign, an international effort to make trade more fair to poor and developing countries -- including calls for an end to agricultural subsidies in the first world and a more democratic World Trade Organization. The campaign also included a shindig on Capitol Hill, and a public service announcement co-produced by the certifying body, TransFair USA and featuring actor Martin Sheen.

"I was told that Kraft has actually agreed to one of our recommendations," says Adrienne Leicester Smith, media director at Oxfam (at press time, Kraft had not responded to inquiries). "I think it's important to remember that this is bad for business, too," Smith continued. "These very very low prices right now will correlate to very very high prices later. When it fluctuates this much, it creates instability for everybody."

Sustainable is still the buzzword. Oxfam, Starbucks and the Ford Foundation entered into a pilot program to help support small farmers using sustainable techniques in Oaxaca, Mexico in July. "Starbucks is stepping up to the plate in a lot of ways, so we don't apologize for applauding them," Smith says. She points out that Starbucks counts for less than 1 percent of the coffee market, so "we're going after the big guns, we want all organizations to be responsible corporate citizens."

But the Organic Consumers Association says Oxfam has got it all wrong, and that by giving Starbucks its support, Oxfam is helping Starbucks "greenwash" its image. The giants are relatively unabashed about their disregard for the environment and labor, says Ronnie Cummins, OCA's director. "Just look at their behavior for the past 20 or 30 years."

Starbucks, however, incorporates social and environmental responsibility into its brand and its corporate image. Chains like Starbucks, with its colorful brochures about giving back to the community and the environment, "have a customer base of people who are really concerned," says Cummins. "Before we can take on the coffee cartel and kick canned coffee of the shelves, period, we need to deal with a large and rapidly growing company that claims to be environmentally and socially responsible, and its 20 million customers who actually kind of believe that."

Starbucks talks the talk but does not walk the walk, Cummins says. "CEO Orin Smith admitted in the Chicago Tribune that less than one tenth of one percent of total sales of Starbucks was Fair Trade certified. So why have these brochures out everywhere talking about how great you are? If you didn't then maybe you wouldn't have pissed us off so much."

And fair trade coffee is just the beginning. The OCA also wants Starbucks to stop using any and all genetically modified and non-organic products, from soy lecithin and sweeteners in its pastries to milk. "For two years now, they've admitted that 80 percent of the 32 million gallons of milk comes from dairies where cows are injected with bovine growth hormone," Cummins says. "It's price; the bottom line is that tainted milk in America is a lot cheaper than organic milk."

The OCA is marshaling thousands of volunteers in 300 cities worldwide to hand out leaflets outside Starbucks between Sept. 21 and 28. Their aim is to educate Starbucks' millions of customers, so that those customers will in turn pressure the chain.

A spokeswoman for Starbucks confirmed that only 1 percent of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade, but cited the company's partnership with Oxfam and the farmers coalition in Oaxaca among other examples of Starbucks' corporate citizenship. "Fair trade is one area that addresses the livelihood of the farmers," she says. "There are a number of other things that we're doing." Long term contracts, which reduce volatility, were up from 3 percent of contracts to 31 percent, this year, and Starbucks has also created a point system intended to reward farmers who meet certain environmental and sustainable criteria. Starbucks trumpeted its good deeds in a "Corporate Social Responsibility Report" this year, available on its Web site.

All of the organizations involved in the fight for fair trade -- OCA, Global Exchange and Oxfam -- are also involved in active organizing efforts on college campuses nationwide, where students have already had some success in getting their cafeterias to serve only fair trade coffee.

Starbucks or not, coffee farmers are suffering, and both campaigns this week are aimed at helping them. "This crash has just decimated 25 million people who are dependent on the market," says Smith. "It's transcended even where we were a year ago."

For more information about the OCA Frankenbucks campaign, go to: OrganicConsumers.org

For more information about Oxfam's Make Trade Fair campaign, go to: MakeTradeFair.com

Companies like EqualExchange.com sell 100 percent Fair Trade and organic, shade-grown coffee. For a list of Fair Trade links, go to WireTap.

Michelle Chihara is a senior writer at AlterNet.

Father Figures

When Charles Ara fell in love, at the age of 39, he faced an anguished choice. As a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he had taken a vow of celibacy. But after working alongside the 28-year-old religion educator in his parish for almost three years, he felt that his vows had become impossible to live out honestly.

"I struggled with that decision," he says. "I agonized over it for about a year. It was probably very unfair to my wife-to-be, to ask her to wait while I worked through my own issues."

Ultimately, Charles Ara, who still calls himself Father, says, "I decided to add love and marriage to my priesthood."

The church did not look kindly on Ara's decision. "The pastor announced that no one could attend my wedding," Ara says. "A bishop told my parents they could not attend."

But on the day of the ceremony, at a parishioner's home, his parents were not the only faithful who made the decision to support Ara. Hundreds of uninvited parishioners showed up. On October 10, 1970, more than 300 Catholics watched as several married priests, one Orthodox priest, one Episcopalian and a group of nuns presided over the marriage of Charles Ara and Shirley Meyers. The wedding party ran out of food, what with the unexpected turnout, but the guitar music from the '60s played on.

While the church does not recognize him as such, Ara, a father of four, still considers himself a Roman Catholic priest. "It affected my faith," Ara says. "But I will always love my church, and my faith." Ara now works as a marriage and family counselor. He does seem to miss the leadership role he had as a priest, though -- he's running for Congress.

Ara is one of as many as 100,000 men worldwide who have left the Roman Catholic priesthood, many of them in order to marry. In the U.S. there are as many as 20,000 married priests (conservative estimates put the number lower; there exists no official figure). Thousands of these men have taken a certain Canonical law to heart: Once a priest, always a priest.

Despite the fact that the Church hierarchy no longer recognizes their right to officiate, they still perform weddings, baptisms, and even the occasional mass. The church may have turned its back on them, but these men still have hope for the church. They represent an organized, vocal and dedicated group at the margins of Catholic life in the United States and Europe. They may even represent the church's best hope for the future.

Moral Authority

Today's Catholic Church has been watching its moral authority erode with every damaging headline about sexual abuse by its priests. The church's veil of secrecy -- its policy of keeping victims quiet with expensive settlements and shuffling abusers quietly from parish to parish -- has exploded in its face. That known child molesters were quietly shifted around within the church throws a criminal taint onto the entire hierarchy. And the irony is not lost on married priests: While they neither harmed minors nor lied about their sexual choices, the church abandoned them, often dramatically, at the same time that it shielded sexual predators.

The scandal is bringing new, intense pressure to bear on an organization with a long history of dedicated resistance to change. But resistance may be wavering. Gallup polls show that three in four Catholics in America believe the church has been handling the scandals badly. And in June, at a conference in Dallas, Texas, the bishops' statements showed that they are more sensitive than ever to public opinion. On July 20, Voice of the Faithful, www.voiceofthefaithful.org, an influential new lay organization, is holding a conference in Boston in an attempt to galvanize further change and provide a forum for the Catholic public. The bishops will be paying attention.

"The space holds 5,000 and we are expecting to fill it," says Mike Emerton, a VOTF spokesperson. Besides supporting victims of abuse and priests of integrity, Voice of the Faithful's primary goal is to push for the laity's inclusion in church governance.

There's a lot more at stake than just arcane questions of Church governance. The laity's role is crucial: It's the central axis that connects a host of hot-button issues for Catholic America -- optional celibacy for priests, birth control and the ordination of women.

"The underpinning of all this is really a level of diametric opposition of two totally different world views about what the church is supposed to be," says Russ Ditzel, an activist for a priesthood of single and married men and women with the Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service (CORPUS). "It's a clash of the church as the people of God, and as a hierarchical, structured organization."

If the church is forced to listen to the laity, optional celibacy for Catholic priests -- which massive numbers of Catholics have supported in numerous polls and surveys -- is likely to be one of the first items on the agenda.

While optional celibacy is at best a remote possibility under the current Pope, in many ways it is one of the least controversial issues. Celibacy is not dogma, it's a rule passed in the 12th century. And the Catholic Church already has married priests -- scores of Anglican priests who were allowed to switch to Roman Catholicism, even though they were already married. Homosexuality, for example, is a much more explosive topic, despite the fact that some experts believe that as much as 30 percent of the Catholic priesthood is gay.

Priest Shortage

Added urgency comes from another unavoidable Catholic crisis: a shortage of priests. In 1975, America had 60,000 Catholic priests; by 2001 there were just over 45,000. Their numbers continue to decline at a rate of about 12 percent a decade. For individual regions, the burn rates translate into dramatic declines: In 1966 in Chicago, there were 1340 priests. That number has now dropped to 657.

The numbers in the seminaries are even more dire. While there were around 47,000 seminarians in 1965, in 1997 there were only 5,000 (according to figures cited by Chester Gillis in "Roman Catholicism in America," from the Columbia Contemporary American Religion series). Ironically, the ranks of Catholics in the United States are growing, swelling with an influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America.

To put it baldly, the American priest appears to be a dying breed. But if the Church were to welcome back its married priests, it could increase its ranks by as much as a quarter.

"The priesthood is going downhill fairly fast," says Dean Hoge, a sociologist and former priest at the Catholic University of America. "The crisis over sexual misconduct only makes things a little worse." Hoge helped conduct a 1987 study that polled Catholic undergraduate students at Catholic schools around the country. "We concluded that you would have a four-fold increase in seminarians if you had optional celibacy. It's the biggest deterrent."

"There is no shortage of priests," says Charles Ara. "They're not using the priests they already have. I get referrals from parish priests," he adds. "If for some technicality they can't do it, they don't have a problem referring people to me."

Apart and Above

Only about half of both homosexual and heterosexual priests "in good standing" with the Church are actually practicing celibacy, according to A.W. Richard Sipe, former priest and author of "Sex, Priests and Power." At any one time, according to his surveys of priests, he estimates that as much as 20 percent of priests are involved in ongoing sexual relationships with adult women.

"This sense that priests are set apart and above," Sipe says, "I think that erects a structure for duplicity. This is why many priests, who are still priests, lead double lives. They're good men, and they do good things, but they have a woman in another town, or have affairs or relationships with a man that are contrary to what they say and stand for in their official lives. And in the worst cases, some men hurt children."

Priests who marry, on the other hand, are priests who are unwilling to lie. "My experience with priests who marry is a desire for honesty," Sipe says. "They can't or won't lead a double life, they sacrifice the security of the priesthood, their employment, their livelihood, status -- all of that."

Most married priests, especially those organized into groups pressing for reform like CORPUS or Call to Action, are straightforward about who they are. Some are uncomfortable with the idea of practicing, especially with the idea of charging for services not recognized by the church. But many others are hungry for reform. Several hundred are listed online in a regional database run by a group called Celibacy Is The Issue (CITI) at "Rentapriest.com." That Web site trumpets "We married Roman Catholic Priest/couples invite you to receive the Sacraments. COME AS YOU ARE!"

CITI was founded by a laywoman named Louise Haggett, who was moved to action when she couldn't find a priest to minister to her dying mother. "Mom never saw a priest until she was practically comatose in the hospital," Haggett says. "I felt so betrayed by the church," she says. "The disciples were married men," she says. "If the Berlin wall came down, why can't celibacy be abolished?" Convinced married priests would solve the shortage, she started a one-woman campaign to restore credibility to married priests.

By her own account, Haggett has been succeeding. Hundreds of married priests across the country are performing weddings and baptisms regularly, even stepping in to give mass if the regular priest is not available. The Catholic system allows for lay people to carry out many parish duties, but only ordained priests can give the sacraments. "There are 5300 parishes without a resident pastor," says Haggett. Married priests, she says, are bound to fill those holes. "Canon 843: No priest can refuse sacramental ministry to anyone who asks," Haggett recites. "Canon 290: Once a priest, always a priest."

Not everyone agrees with Haggett's analysis, or even with her numbers. "I'm not denying it's a serious problem," says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University (CARA). "I just don't think there's a crisis."

Doing away with celibacy, Gautier says, would not solve the problem. "The seminaries would not fill up tomorrow with young men," she says. "It would have some impact but it's a larger issue." She describes the larger issue as "more of a generational thing." "Young people are not making long-term commitments to anything," Gautier says. She admits, however, that her belief is not based on any particular study, but on her perception of young people today.

But most sociologists agree that the Catholic church is facing a crisis. Eight years ago, Richard Schoener and Lawrence A. Young wrote, "At least among Christians in this country, the paucity of pastors in contrast with the steady growth in church membership is a crisis unique to Roman Catholicism." Since that book "Full Pews, Empty Altars," was published, things have only grown worse.

Days of Vatican II

CORPUS is the oldest reform group in the country, organized after the Second Vatican Council in 1974. "CORPUS is the only reform group that's been in dialogue with so many hierarchies around the world," says past president and active reformist Dr. Anthony Padovano. "They see us as the representative of married priests. CORPUS tries to speak within the church for change."

Still a prominent Catholic, Padovano fits one of the most common profiles of married Roman Catholic priests in America. He studied in Rome for six years, and was ordained in 1960, just before the Second Vatican Council. The documents issued by Vatican II marked an important sea change in Catholic attitudes. After Vatican II, priests faced their audiences; they said mass in the language of the people. Vatican II promised a more open Church, one more inclusive and responsive to the laity.

"That was the most moving gathering of God's people," Padovano remembers. "I know most Catholics don't want to go back to the kind of church we were before."

Padovano is one of many priests who were ordained in the years surrounding Vatican II, swept up in that era's hope and idealism. According to figures from the Official Catholic Registry, the years between 1965 and 1975 showed a significant uptick in the numbers of both priests and seminarians. Father Charles Ara, in Cerritos, remembers sitting 100 feet away from Martin Luther King Jr. during his "I have a dream" speech. Other married priests tell stories of being arrested, or sprayed with water hoses, during those tumultuous years.

The priesthood was a perfectly logical choice for idealistic young men in the '60s. The Catholic Church has a long history of advocating for the poor and the victimized -- from the Jesuits in the 18th century who stood up for the indigenous Indians, to Maryknoll priests who stood up for the rights of the Japanese-American community during the internment camps, to liberation theologians in the 1970s, the list goes on.

Dr. Padovano says that without a doubt, the married priests he knows come from that legion of priests inspired by Vatican II and deeply dedicated to ideals of social justice.

The eventual choice to leave the priesthood, for many of these men, was a wrenching decision. "It's very difficult to leave something you love for reasons that don't make sense to you," Padovano says. "In my years of working with married priests, the harder it is for you to resign, the better your marriage is going to be. That relationship must mean an enormous amount to you, if you are willing to put on the line something that was your whole life. I never, even for a second, regretted what I did. I never questioned it, never thought what I did was wrong. But I was just... sorry, that I could not continue my work, only because I wanted to marry a woman that I loved.

"That was one of the more difficult things to try to understand, why marriage to a Catholic woman, to raise a Catholic family, would make me ineligible to practice the priesthood fully, especially when Christ chose married men to be his apostles."

Padovano and his wife Theresa married in 1974. At the time Theresa was a nun, and a graduate student in his class. "I'm still crazy about her, " he says. "She's extraordinary. Thank God I didn't miss her. It would have been sinful for me to walk away from her. I think she was really a gift."

The Afterlife

Father Joseph O'Rourke, who lives in Chicago, worked with the peace movement in the '60s and was once arrested for burning Dow Chemical files on the company's front lawn. He got into trouble with the church when he baptized a baby whose 19-year-old mother had expressed her belief in reproductive rights and family planning. The Church had refused the child baptism, but O'Rourke stepped in and performed the ceremony on the steps of the parish church. "That got me into a lot of trouble," he says. He was expelled from the Jesuit order before he chose to marry.

Says Russ Ditzel of CORPUS, "My primary reason for transitioning was the lifestyle we were required to live, it was so isolated," he says. "I found that it distanced me from the people I was supposed to be serving. That was a period of time when we were still trying to live out the expectations coming out of the Second Vatican Council."

Robert McClory, a former priest, journalism professor and author of a book about change and the Catholic Church says, "I left partly to get married, partly because of dissatisfaction with the Church on issues like birth control. I wasn't comfortable being the official proclaimer of doctrines that I couldn't in good conscience ask people to follow."

For priests like this, the desire to marry was just the final expression of larger philosophical differences.

"There's no real justification any longer for exclusive and autocratic government in the Catholic Church," says O'Rourke, 62. Father O'Rourke couches the debate as a fight for human rights against a paternalistic, patriarchal organization that is wasting its potential as an important moral leader in society.

"The Church could become the most powerful spokesperson for religious liberty," he says "for constitutional and human rights. You can find this in Catholic social thought, in its advocacy of economic as well as political rights, that we feel so strongly about."

It seems clear that these men not only represent a sheer numerical loss for the Catholic priesthood, but also a huge loss of talent, dedication and faith. While the church may not yet have recognized that loss, many lay people have.

Paul Lencioni, a 38-year-old developer for Cisco systems, was married by Father O'Rourke, and O'Rourke baptized both of his children.

It doesn't bother Lencioni that Father O'Rourke no longer has the right, within the church, to perform these sacraments. "Celibacy is a dated concept," Lencioni says. "It should be abolished."

In some paradoxical way, married priests may be doing the Catholic Church a favor. Married priests create a space that many Catholics trust, and feel is still Catholic, outside of some of the church's teachings. "We're the sheepdogs," says O'Rourke.

Lencioni articulates the kind of internal reconciliation that many Catholics have been making for years. Many of the church's teachings, especially around personal issues like birth control and divorce, have proved impossible for modern Catholics to live by.

"I think it's OK to blend different philosophies in your own faith, and sometimes we have to do that," Lencioni says. "Sometimes, when you make those reconciliations, your faith is stronger. It's that, versus being unhappy with your church and moving away from it. I don't think that, ultimately, is a positive outcome."

"When I see the church today, I see Masses that are poorly attended, I see people who are disgruntled. A lot of that has to do with the need for some more open thinking," says Lencioni.

On July 20, Voice of the Faithful will gather the faithful from across the nation in an attempt to move the Catholic Church closer to the more open vision of Vatican II, toward its potential as a church of the people. Married priests will certainly be in attendance. It remains to be seen whether they will be heard.

Losing Sleep Over Football Fever

A soccer fan I know recently turned down a date because he had to go watch the World Cup. "You are the only man," another friend commented, "who has ever chosen soccer over sex."

"No way," my friend replied. "I'm the only American man who has ever chosen soccer over sex. The rest of the world does it all the time."

Last Saturday night, a record-breaking 1.5 billion people, about one in four of the planet's population, chose the final match of this year's World Cup over all else -- over sex, over sleep. And for those of us rooting for Brazil, especially those of us lucky enough to be anywhere near a group of Brazilians with drums and flags, it paid off in spades. Brazil beat Germany 2-0, in a trademark display of Brazil's jogo bonito, the beautiful game. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians poured into the streets to celebrate. Now, we dedicated few in the U.S. can breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, we can get some shut-eye.

While the World Cup did well this year, in the States -- ESPN2 had its largest soccer audience ever -- American soccer fans still represent only a sliver of the audience that the Superbowl draws. The mania hasn't quite infected the U.S. mainstream yet. But the nutty kickoff times for the World Cup matches this year highlighted how when the symptoms take hold, they come on strong.

For U.S. fans this year, sleep deprivation was a bonding thing. U.S.A. Today called U.S. fans "scarce, but fervent."

ESPN watched its ratings for World Cup time slots double, which is significant not numerically but as a measure of dedication: those slots landed at 2:30am and 4:30am on the West Coast, others were a barely more civilized 2:30am and 7:30am on the East Coast. Coca-Cola ran an ad in which three guys scramble out of bed in the pitch dark, splash water on their faces and pull on soccer jerseys. The camera pans out to show them sitting around their TV clapping, behind the only lit window in the entire apartment building.

For soccer fans, the bags under our eyes became coffee cooler conversation, a badge to be worn with pride this Cup. "Senegal-Turkey?" "Yeah."

For some, the need for extra caffeine at the office added a bit of European cachet. Emma Taylor, a British soccer fan in New York said, "It kind of seems cooler than being into an American sport. You're an early adopter."

But for most of us, it was more than that. World Cup 2002 offered a particularly rich set of Cinderella stories, starting with African newcomers Senegal beating former European champion France. "I think as soon as I saw Senegal beat France, if there was any question that I was going to watch every game, it went out the window," said one fan. The Brazilian team started out under a cloud of pessimism and scandal, and went on to turn its star Ronaldo into a national symbol of recovery and hope. South Korea turned their coach into a national hero by making it to the semi-finals. Amidst all this, the U.S. team's unexpected trip to the quarterfinals was gravy.

Football fever is so pervasive, so fanatic, so passionate everywhere else, that once you're around it for a while, it rubs off. "I'm surrounded by internationals, people who really care," said Katie Hisert, a New York World Cup fan and graduate student at Rockefeller University, where a significant portion of the student body is international. "I didn't want to hear people talking about how great a game it was afterwards, so I couldn't miss any. It is like an addiction. I don't know why I got up to watch Turkey vs. Brazil. I was lying in bed, thinking, I could just get some sleep. But then, I was like, NO. I have to watch the game."

That unwillingness to merely videotape the game, no matter the cost to your health, became the sign of true infection here in the States. Other symptoms included: extra cups of coffee, yawning and general grumpiness. "I walked into a door," said Hisert.

But caffeine shakes be damned, true soccer fans stayed up. "I don't know," said Jay Patrikios, a designer and fellow obsessive in San Francisco. "I wanted to be there with them, I just wanted to be there as it unfolded." Patrikios now speaks of the Cup in adoring terms. "It's not like you would say, 'Oh, I can't go get my mom' if her car broke down in a crappy neighborhood. You have to go get your mom. That's the same kind of obligation I have toward the Cup," he said. "I hope my mom doesn't read this."

The handful of bars showing the matches in cities across the nation were packed with people who were willing to pay up to $20 cover, drink until 2am and then guzzle Red Bull until the game ended at 6am. World Cup bars in San Francisco turned people away for the quarterfinals, and Brazilian establishments were full to capacity hours before the 4am kickoff for the final.

Everywhere else in the world, that level of feeling is nothing new. Young football fans worldwide worship their favorite stars to the point of imitating their hairstyles, from mohawks (England's captain David Beckham) to bright dyes (the entire South Korean team) to weird triangles of hair just above the forehead (Brazil's Ronaldo). Talk to the average Brazilian, and it goes without saying that when Brazil wins, life is beautiful, and when Brazil loses, life is awful. For better or for worse, the World Cup affects the outcome of presidential elections. Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso declared a national holiday after this year's victory.

A Brazilian waitress swimming in a oversized Brazilian jersey at a busy San Francisco pizza parlor told me just before the final match that "It's worse than losing your job, your whole life, when the Brazilian team loses." She also said that while a month ago, none of her American customers said a word about her get-up, in the week before the final all her customers suddenly seemed to care about the World Cup. "I don't know if it's because the U.S. got so far, but suddenly, everyone wants to know, 'Brazil! So, what do you think about Ronaldo?'"

America has been slated to catch the fever since 1994, when we hosted the World Cup. But numerically speaking, it just hasn't happened. In 1996, Major League Soccer was established, and has been struggling to draw crowds ever since. None of the experts want to speculate anymore on whether the U.S. will ever truly get it.

So maybe the fever has really taken hold this time, maybe over the next four years we'll finally start calling "soccer" football. Or maybe we'll just have to watch all the best American players go play in Europe for the next four years. Either way, for this World Cup, we U.S. fans did our best to make up for quantity with quality and caffeine.

We were proud of our team, but I would venture that for the majority of American fans, there was some other narrative driving our sleepless nights, whether it was Senegal's upset, South Korea's neat but ardent fans, or just (in my case) nostalgia for time spent in Brazil.

Football fans love the game, its purity and simplicity, but the Cup is so much more. It's the drama and rivalry that come when the passions of so many billions of people around the world are invested in one game. "It's the Esperanto that never happened," said Patrikios.

"American sports are purely entertainment. This is a lot more to people," said Adam Wienert, a fan who works for the University of California. "The thing that I love is the fact that you can get two countries who would never speak to each other politically, and they will get 11 men to represent their countries on the field and they will kick a ball around." 

As we look back at the man-hours lost to naps at work and general haziness, think of what we may have gained -- a little more depth of passion, a slightly more international perspective. The fever is spreading. If we're lucky, in four years time, we'll all play football instead of dropping bombs.

And maybe next time the games will come during daylight.

Michelle Chihara is a senior writer at AlterNet.org.

A Dose of History

For a country fixated on the new and the now, Kevin Phillips' new book "Wealth and Democracy" is a hard dose of history, which puts today's headlines about money in politics in sobering context. From Enron and the burst Internet bubble to the war on terrorism, Phillips shows us that there is always much of the past in the present.

In his definitive account of big money and political power in America, Phillips traces the foundations of wealth in our society -- where it comes from, why and how it intersects with politics. He illustrates both the breathtaking gap that has opened up in the 21st century between rich and poor, and the dangers that gap represents for democracy. By comparing America to Holland and Britain in the past, he diagnoses the same symptoms of old age that were once exhibited by those great financial powers in their twilight.

Phillips' 1969 book, "The Emerging Republican Majority," both predicted and helped mold the rise of the Republican Party. Since then, however, Phillips has become disenchanted with the GOP. Although he's no fan of the Democrats, either.

"Because my own background is Republican, and I now know much more of GOP history on these subjects, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Republican economic policies and biases of the 1990s and early 2000s are a narrow-gauge betrayal of the legacy of the two greatest Republican presidents, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt," he writes. "But that is a debate I will leave to the elections."

AlterNet spoke with Kevin Phillips while he was in San Francisco promoting his book.

AlterNet: When you talk about the boom years in "Wealth and Democracy," you lay out umpteen prior examples of economic bubbles in the past. Was there anything particularly new or surprising about this last one?

KP: I was surprised when I got back into the issue in the late 1990s at the size of the fortunes, at the amount of wealth that had been built up. And then when I started measuring the size of the gains in wealth, the importance of the increases and the size of the bubble (which I assumed would be a bubble), it really suggested a number of historical parallels.

After the railroad bubbles in the 19th century, the major tech bubble was in the 1920s, when there was a convergence of automobiles, of motion pictures, of radio, of aviation, of electricity. Technology enables the stock market bubble, it's something that people can get into -- the whole new world, the past doesn't apply, it's a new economy and this, that and the other. It never iswholly a new economy. It never is a totally new era. There's always a lot of the past.

So there's nothing new under the sun, and yet, you were taken aback at the size of this latest bubble?

I didn't know that we were going to see a tech bubble that would take it up to a new level. If you think back, and I don't have precise numbers on the Nasdaq here, but it was 1,100 or 1,200 in 1999. It reached 4000 by the end of the year, 5000 by March or April of 2000. It's just mind blowing. And it's amazing how far down it's gone. In that sense, the decline in the Nasdaq, the percentage is almost as high as the decline in the Dow Jones between 1929 and 1932. It's a serious market crash.

What do you make of the fact that consumer confidence remains high in the face of all of this?

I think it's very unfortunate. What it probably means is that there's going to be another down leg to this economic decline.

Then this isn't the bottom?

This isn't the bottom. There's a very real chance that the major stimulus, both monetary and fiscal, that came with Greenspan's 11 rate cuts and with the spending after 9/11, has given the economy a hot shot. I think it's certainly 50/50 that we'll have another recession within six quarters from now. And if that's the case, that's the one that'll take care of the credit bubble and the real estate bubble.

That's the one that's going to get ugly, then.

In 1970, a pretty light recession started. Nixon was in the White House, and he wanted to be sure that the economy was strong by 1972 for the elections. So he had his close associate, Arthur Burns, stimulate the money supply of the Federal Reserve. That's a little bit of an overstatement, but it's true enough. By 1972 things were really ripping along again, they hadn't let the 1970-71 recession become anything serious. But by 1973, we're in another recession, because basically, you had things that hadn't worked themselves out of the system. You hadn't put the economy through the ringer and the stock market decline that was necessary. So then it came in 1973 and 1974.

The same thing happened in 1980. I think the danger is that we're going to have another significant recession underway by probably 2003 or 2004.

So that's the short-term, worst-case scenario. What about the long term? The bigger picture that you paint in the book is of the decline of an empire. What does that look like?

The long-term problem, I think, is several fold. The first is that the U.S. is what I call financialized. We're so caught up in money games and speculation and derivatives and instruments. No longer do people want to make things or transport things or grow things, they just want deals and money.

That's been a bad thing when it's happened in other great economic powers, the Dutch and the British, in particular. And that's not a good augury. The second thing is there's a pretty substantial danger of technology transfer away from the U.S. We're such an internationalized economy, there are so many people from other countries in both finance and technology. Almost half of Cisco's workforce is foreign. It's hard for me to imagine that a lot of these people at some point 10, 15 years from now aren't going to go home with a lot of expertise in a lot of cutting edge stuff, that is going to move to India or China within 25 or 30 years. That's another big caveat for the United States.

So we risk losing our financial status as a superpower, and with it, you also write about how we risk losing our sense of American exceptionalism.

Well, the problem with exceptionalism is that all these other countries, Spain in the 15th and 16th century, the Dutch, the British, they were all convinced that they were unique. We're not the first who have thought we were unique. The exceptionalism, I'm afraid, is riding for a fall.

It makes me nervous to see a president, who's not one of my favorite animals, so anxious to start a war in Iraq. Iraq is right in the middle of everything. If you're concerned about problems in India, Pakistan or Afghanistan or the Caucuses, Israel, Palestine or the Persian Gulf -- Iraq's right in the middle of all of it. Why would you pick Iraq? I understand why they don't like Saddam Hussein, and would like to take him out, but it doesn't seem like such a smart thing at the present time to start a war there.

Is this a classic example of a decadent empire's over-reach?

Well, maybe not decadent. But during the Gulf War, we had to raise some of the money from our allies. We had a budget deficit at the time, so we had to pass the hat to finance the war. That sounds sort of like the British in the two world wars. They had to borrow a lot of the money to do it. And after the two wars were over, they were a financial basket case.

If the worst-case scenario comes about -- the brain drain, the collapse of a vulnerable, financialized economy -- what happens? Who does it hurt most here?

It's hard to say. If you have a financial implosion from this, it'll hurt people who have money, they'll lose value in the stock market, big time. If you lose industry, slowly but surely it'll hurt more average people. You can have scenarios for everyone being hurt.

It's always hard to discuss all of this in the future tense, because it hasn't happened yet. The whole sense of invulnerability and triumphalism is there. The politicians say "It can't happen thus."

The British had all these discussions, and one of the conservative party leaders actually made a speech that I have in the book about how "you say the financial sector will be able to carry the load. But if the real economy isn't there, the banking and finance is going to wither." He was absolutely right. You can't shift and say it's all going to be finance, we're going to make all this money speculating and providing services, because we've got the global financial network.

It always sounds a little silly to be talking about this because people in this position, even if they don't think they're historically invulnerable, they sort of think history doesn't matter anymore. And I think a lot of Americans have been ahistorical anyway.

I know you don't like to make suggestions, but how do you get people to care about history? Is there a broader way to get people to take the longer, historical view, as an electorate?

Not as an electorate, no, I really don't think so. Most investors, 80 or 90 percent if not college grads have a fair amount of college. In that portion of the population, you should be able to assume a greater databank, so to speak. But I'm not sure even that applies. People would have said, during the bubble, "What does 1929 have to do with this? That was 70 years ago, and everything's different now." It always is different in very important ways, it's just that unfortunately human nature is still playing in the same sandbox.

You mention the politics of resentment that's building around the great and growing disparity between rich and poor, and how it might bring about reform.

I think the public has an outline, they know Enron and they know some of the names. But I have loads of charts in the book, and some of the charts have some incredible numbers. I don't believe the public has a great sense yet of how extreme all this was.

So how do we crystallize that resentment? What can we do to bring about change?

Several things that can be done. Let me give you the barebones approach, and then the slightly more elaborate approach. The barebones approach is: You really want to get more people registered. People who feel the whole process is stacked against us, you want to get them to say yeah it is stacked against us, but unless we register and vote it's going to be more stacked against us. And they have to not only vote, but get active. It's not very likely that too many people will. This has been tried so many times...

There are starting to be some signs of pressure for change in the tax system or the living wage. In my own state of Connecticut, we had some Enron deal that fell apart. It left a gap in the state framework, and they had to raise 150 million they didn't think they were going to have to raise. So the proposal was to put an income tax surcharge on incomes over $1 million a year. There were enough incomes of over a million that by putting a 2 percent surtax on them, you would have raised $160 million dollars.

Just tax Greenwich!

Yes. People are starting to say the tax burden should be moved off of the people who actually work and do something, and onto the people who are sitting around playing with all the financial stuff.

New taxes seem so politically unfeasible right now, in America. But maybe those political realities are short lived, relatively speaking?

It may be unfeasible in 2002, but I'm not sure you can say with much certitude what's feasible in 2004. Another dimension is that you can take advantage of all the indignation over corporate behavior to change the rules governing options and pension funds. It's kind of humdrum stuff, but on the other hand it's important.

One of the charts in the book shows the increase in the 10 highest compensated executives, in 1981, 1988 and 2000. In 1981, they had an average of 3.45 million dollars. By 1988 they had an average of 22 million dollars. By 2001 the top 10 highest compensated executives had an average of 155 million dollars. That was a 45-fold increase.

Now that's pretty amazing. If the average American knew that, he'd have a lot more understanding of why these people went berserk. They were just trying to do everything to get money. But you're not going to see that sort of stuff on the front pages of a major publication.

In Defense of Online Dating

Enough with the shame and the scare tactics: I'm proud to say that I have used the online personal ads. And I didn't even do it as "research" for this article.

Whenever a new dating trend pops up, articles quickly follow lauding it and condemning it. "Speed dating is wildly efficient!" "Speed dating proves superficial!"

Take online dating. What might seem like a nifty way to meet new people is now reviled in a variety of ways: as a method of leading innocent singles into horrifying situations, as the commodification of the single. Shockingly, people online are accused of presenting idealized images of themselves. Dates met on the anonymous Internet, we are warned, might not be who they say they are. They might turn out to be liars and cheaters, they might be married, or poor, or ugly or shy or zitty. The Seattle Times suggests that daters, particularly women, head to the county recorder's office to perform background checks on all dates met online (is he really a homeowner?). "Lying zitty married man stalks woman he met online!" the headlines seem to trumpet, as if this indicates something about the online personals.

I'm sorry, but while some criminals may find their prey online, the creeps of the world are not a product of Internet dating. Dating is never pretty. It's hard to find the perfect fit without trying a few on, and when it's people and not shoes, there is no way to make the process painless. Sure, we'd all prefer to live inside a romantic comedy, in a world where fate is on our side and we're destined to cross paths with The One just as the violins swell. But reality often proves messy, painful or zitty. As a veteran of online, offline, personals and non-personals dating scenes, I can assure you, messiness is common to all methods.

Full disclosure: I have long been addicted to the Nerve.com personals. When I was in an unhappy relationship, I surfed them to reassure myself that there were other options out there. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. I've even gone out on dates from the Nerve personals.

Certain aspects of online dating are indeed new. Some are helpful: As a writer, I get to find out before meeting a date what books he likes and whether or not he punctuates. One of my favorite ads read: "I don't fit many stereotypes. I'm brazen but bashful, and often excited but nervous. I love most things urban but just have to get out of the asphalt jungle sometimes." In other words, nothing earth-shattering, just wry and honest.

Another wrote that he was looking for "fearless Bad-ass Nymphettes who worship at the temple of Betty Page, who regularly converse with the Muses, who think about drinking and drink about thinking." Clever, no? (Although, I'm not sure I fit the Betty Page req.)

The process of finding dates online can, it's true, feel accelerated. Instead of wondering whether he'll call you within the next few days, you're wondering whether he'll write you an email within the next few minutes. And it's easier, when looking for dates online, to line up three dates in a week. And yes, one of those three will probably be what we under-30 types call a player -- a guy whose ad you'll see posted in three or four different incarnations in the few days before you actually meet him. Online, at least you can track his handywork. The second guy will be a nice guy you're just not attracted to. Online, at least you can email him to say you're sorry. One of the guys will be someone eminently crushable. And if he doesn't call, it'll smart pretty much the same as if you had met him offline.

The truth is, online and off, bad dates happen. There's no point in trying to blame the set-up. My very worst date of all time began, right off the bat, with this scintillating bit of dialogue:

Him: So, I hear you're a feminist.
Me: Oh, really?
Him: Yeah. Are you?
Me: Well, I suppose I hold certain beliefs. Equal pay for equal work, that kind of thing.
Him: Oh. Well, that's OK, I guess. But you know, when I get married, my wife's going to stay put and I'm going to bring home the bacon.

Only through the online personals could I have ended up with such a neanderthal, right? Some uncontrolled environment where he looked good in the picture and wrote clever emails without revealing his true, boorish colors?

Wrong. The guy was the roommate of a friend, in that most controlled of environments, my old college campus. A classmate; a friend of a friend; and he was still a creep.

Now, if this were an article about the horrors of blind dating on college campuses, this anecdote would lead directly to a series of quotes like this one, from an article on precisely that subject in a college paper in Texas: "'It totally sucked,' said Dan Olson, advertising junior. 'I went on a blind date a year ago, and even though I was kind of shy about it, the girl turned out to be a total psycho. She ended up stalking me for a couple of months.'" "Scary seems to be a running trend in modern tales of blind dates," the writer concludes. A couple of bad anecdotes and we're back to trusting fate? Has everyone forgotten that most dates are bad?

For some reason, the inevitable pitfalls of dating are magnified into revolting new developments as soon as they are associated with anything intentional, like the personals. When the new-fangled online personals first arrived, the favored bogeyman was that one might find a geeky computer programmer on the other end of all those snappy emails. Then geeks got chic (and rich), and that didn't seem so bad anymore. The scare tactics became more nuanced. Now, they play on fear of the medium, or fear of our fallen consumerist times. The New York Times sniffs, "With few of the scruples older Americans have about putting their photographs and personal description of the Web, this younger wave has found itself free to take advantage of what the Internet does best: matching supply and demand at lightning speed."

The Times cites a certain Mr. Tjong who went on over 70 dates with women from the Nerve.com personals and slept with a bunch of them. It cites a sociologist who intones gravely about the "renegotiation of intimacy." According to the Times, "Where traditionally personals in newspapers and magazines were seen as last-ditch attempts by the desperate, Americans younger than 30 are using the online services more casually -- simply to make friends or to date outside their established circles. Some ambitious -- or just manic -- men and women play the services as if they were video games or eBays-for-daters, where the goal is not so much acquiring the goods as simply playing to win."

Heavens, manic daters!

To Salon.com, online personals are evidence of the shameless commodificiation of dating, in which people are turning themselves into their own personal brands. Heather Havrilesky writes on Salon, "In keeping with recent advertising trends, today's online singles market themselves not by highlighting their best traits, but by creating an imaginary self that's impressively snarky and carefree."

OK, but when we meet people at parties or through friends, what does Havrilesky think we do, exactly? Project an earnest, authentic self, completely snark-free and honest?

Some of the attention to the online personals comes simply because just as everyone else goes broke online, online personals sites are doing fairly well. Turns out that a dating service with instant messaging and photos is something that millions of people are actually willing to pay for. And understandably, it draws suspicion when businesses profit off of our need for love. But the fact is that this supposedly dangerous dating method is also proving relatively successful in the realm of emotion. The articles about happy couples who met online have been published in just-under-equal numbers as the scare pieces. I have no less than three friends who are either married or engaged as a result of their online searches.

Truly, the only way that navigating the madness online is different from other means is that you can get that punctuation question out of the way first. Online personals may seem to distill dating down to some kind of streamlined, hyper-processed transaction. But it only becomes manic or commodified if you approach it that way. Nerve.com and its ilk did not create manic daters. Manic daters have been around since the first alcoholic drink was served.

For my part, I can't imagine summoning the energy to post more than one ad. I salute the players who do. And where Havrilesky seems to see a bunch of aspiring copywriters and "merchants at a street market," I see nothing new under the sun.

Has it ever been easy to meet people in a new city? Is there anything new about people trying to puff their feathers and "sell themselves" when it comes to dating? We've been calling it the "meatmarket" for a long time, now.

Personally, I find that the grass is always greener. When I'm not single, I long for the buzz of dates, new crushes; the excitement; and I imagine myself posting numerous ads with ever-more-alluring photos. When I'm single, dating of any kind strikes me as exhausting and either guilt-inducing or damaging to the amour-propre.

In the end, most of us are not stalkers, and most of us are not players. Most of us are just bumbling through, trying to figure out what the hell we said wrong, or how the hell our date got that impression, and why, whenever we are heartsick or lonely, we feel the masochistic need to re-watch movies like "When Harry Met Sally" and "Shakespeare in Love."

As anyone who's gone through the process knows, there are no formulas. Married people often like to recommend the particular way they themselves got together. I like hearing my married friends' stories.

But recent married-person recomendations include: "You see, we were both living with other people, and we had an affair!" "We started smooching in the hallway at work!" and "We broke up twice before it stuck!" One of the most successful relationships I have had was with a man I met in a bar in a foreign country. I heard him speaking English and asked him where he was from.

These are hardly "good" ways to meet people. Most people who have had affairs, smooched co-workers or taken home strange men from foreign bars will have horror stories to tell. But in all of these cases, it just happened to work out. Romance, almost by definition, is the one time when the highly unadvisable move actually pans out.

My married and engaged friends who met on Jdate or Match.com should, therefore, stop blushing or laughing nervously when they tell people that they met online. As with all other dating stories, they should simply start theirs with, "We got crazy lucky."

Michelle Chihara is a senior writer at AlterNet.org.

Discussing the Politics of Child Sexuality

When Professor Harris Mirkin, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, published an article entitled "The Pattern of Sexual Politics: Feminism, Homosexuality, and Pedophilia," in the Journal of Homosexuality, in 1999, it received little attention. Then came the Catholic Church scandals and the hubbub over the book "Harmful to Minors" by Judith Levine. Mirkin suddenly found himself in the middle of a storm of controversy. He has since been featured everywhere from the New York Times to the New Yorker magazine to NPR. Amidst all the spin and scandal, Mirkin is rapidly gaining a reputation as a proponent of pedophilia � a charge that Mirkin dismisses as a gross mischaracterization of his work (Mirkin also agrees that priests or teachers who touch children in a sexual way are abusing their authority. He does not condone rape). Mirkin spoke with AlterNet about how his ideas have been distorted, and how the "moralists" have commandeered the public debate and rendered it anemic.

ALTERNET: Did you expect this kind of publicity?

No. I mean, the article was published years ago, it was written years ago, in 1997, and published in 1999. The reason it came up was partly because of Judith Levine's book. A lot of these very conservative groups said that that book shouldn't have been published at all because it said children were sexual. In that whole thing, my article came up. My article had been on the Internet; the same groups had been writing about it there and didn't like it. When it was just on the Internet, no one paid any attention. Then it came to the attention of some newspapers, and then the constitutents of one of the representatives in Missouri's lower house raised the issue on the floor� Then they fined the University $100,000 and everyone heard about the article.

ALT: How much of the attention you're receiving comes as a result of the crisis in the Catholic Church?

I think that the whole issue about defining children's sexuality has been around -- it's certainly been discussed and attacked on the Internet. Levine's book got so much publicity partly because of the Catholic church crisis. It's standard really. The book was attacked before it came out. [Conservative groups] were saying the university shouldn't publish it before anyone had even read it. The argument of this whole group is that this is an undisccussable, unanalyzable, un-talk-about-able topic. Any discussion of the topic will serve to legimitize pedophilia or whatever bugaboo they have in mind.

The approach is essentially biblical. We know the answer, we know that it's bad, and any discussion is to move away from the right answer. The argument that they want to forbid discussion is from� Jeremiah, Ezekiel. The other position is: We don't know the right answer. We can discuss issues, put them in context, and the correct answer may emerge. The thing that they're really opposed to is discussion, which is similar to the position on terrorism that comes from Ashcroft, for example. To discuss the issue is to give aid and comfort to the enemy.

ALT: In an article in the New Yorker, the author took you to task for "intending to be subsversive."

That was a joke. I said that to the New York Times reporter� I forget what she had said. But the article intended to be subversive in the sense that Socrates was subversive. I teach political philosophy, I cause people to question the things that are "true." In that sense, I meant to be subversive, to lead to questioning. Because I question the whole cultural construct of childhood, adulthood and sexuality. That's sort of what I was looking at. In that sense, I was saying that these constructs aren't absolute, but change from culture to culture and from time to time. If you believe they are absolutes, then I'm interested in subverting the absolutes. So in that sense, I meant to be subversive.

It really wasn't an article about pedophilia. I was looking at the political reaction to crises in which the other side was viewed as immoral. I thought that particular kind of conflict was limited to sexual topics, but I now include terrorism. With feminism and homosexuality, for example, feminists and homosexuals were viewed as immoral, as undercutting the American moral code, undercutting the American family, as dangerous, beyond the pale of reasonable discussion.

At one time, you couldn't discuss these issues in movies, plays or in print. Feminists would be ridiculed, and homosexual stuff was explicity forbidden. That was the first stage of all of these political conflicts. The political discussions are the second stage. The big fight is in that first stage, to prevent discussion. The second stage is the one in which the discussion takes place, they analyze issues. I brought in pedophilia as a current example of what, by the time I was writing, was a historical issue. By the time I was writing, people were discussing homosexuality and feminism was widely discussed. But pedophilia was still in that stage where no discussion is possible.

ALT: So, your intention was never to pass judgement yourself on how society should view pedophilia?

The New Yorker said I was equating homosexuality and pedophilia. But the political system has made that equation, treating it the same way it treated homosexuality in the 40s and 50s.

If you look at feminism, it argued that gender isn't biological but social. The roles of male and female vary from culture to culture and time to time, even though they feel natural. Most people think that whatever gender role happens to be around is the natural gender role. Homosexuality, and the gay movement, basically questioned the construction of sexuality. We tend to think that sex is biological, but we see this huge variation from culture to culture of what's considered appealing. So it is a social construction. There is a whole argument that the notion of childhood and adulthood, which we now consider a natural division, is a social and cultural construction.

The notion of the child as a separate and really totally separate stage stars in the 1800s, and the notion of the innocent child starts around 1890. The notion of a teenager is an even newer kind of thing. If the creation of this very innocent, non-sexual child was a social construction, we should see where it came from and why it came up. How did we come up with this notion of the innocent and pure child? At the same time, we have a lot more sexual freedom for adults. Children became seen as less and less sexual. We were making that category larger and larger, and at the same time making adults more and more sexual, especially in the sexual representation of adults.

ALT: It's as if the world of sexuality became more and more dangerous for adults, so it had to become safer and safer for kids.

But it's not really dangerous for adults. There are many images of gay couples, now. There are images of people having sex in museums. MTV and its like are very sexually explicit from what TV used to be. It's an expanded notion of adult sexuality. It's an incessant topic on talk shows. Let me be clear: Raping kids has always been viewed as bad. But now, teachers are told not to hug kids because it's considered too close to molesting them. We've expanded the whole area we think of as sexual, but as far as kids are concerned, it's more and more forbidden. And I was really talking about teenagers, in this whole thing.

ALT: Really? That's not mentioned in most of the press about you.

Yes, I was talking about sexual experiences when you're 11, 12 or 13. People like to ignore that. And there's a gender difference, too. I find almost all men had a dream when they were a kid of being seduced by an older person, a dream, a fantasy � wouldn't it be cool. In a lot of ways, that's a pedophile dream if you turn it from the other way. And nobody talks about that. Down in the South they used to bring boys in to a prostitute when they reached puberty. It's not like, in the culture, the whole idea of sex and teens is totally absent. If we look at it, we have two pictures of kids. One is the innocent child who'll be corrupted by any version of sex, who's totally unable to give permission, who's passive. But also, flip the page, and we have the image teenagers and young kids totally out of control, not listening to adults, driven purely by hormones and driven by sex. There are two conflicting images, and so that interests me.

In a lot of ways, we talk incessantly about sex with kids, it's just put in the negative. As long as we say, "Isn't this terrible?" we can describe the most horribler things. I don't give many interviews, but I gave one to a conservative talk show host who came up with scenarios I had never thought of. I don't sit around thinking these things up. But he was asking me, "What happens if someone puts a cigar in your 12-year old daughter's vagina?" I guess he thought that was OK if he put it in negative terms. This is a culture that talks about these things, as long as it's bad.

ALT: Do you know what the ideal social construct would be for children's sexuality?

No, I'm not a politician, I'm a professor. I wanted to question this stuff, bring up the question of the whole idea of social construction. I was pushing the idea � how far can you push the idea? We know childhood is a social construct, what do you do with that? I mean I suppose if I had a normative element to this thing, it would be that relationship where somebody is hurt is a bad relationship. Rape is a bad relationship. Anything not consensual is a bad relationship.

After that, what do we mean by sex? What do we mean by harmful? What do we mean by consensual? Some people say that kids can't consent, and I'm working on that now, I'm looking at that. There's no disagreement that kids can dissent. If they don't want to do their chores, they can make it very clear that they don't want to. So there can certainly register degress of "I don't want to do this," or "This is painful."

I've gotten a lot of letters since all of this started, and most are supportive. Most of them say, "I was involved in some kind of relationship when I was a kid," and then they vary. Some say, "it wasn't particularly good for me," some say it was very positive. Some say, "thank you for giving me some kind of vocabulary to talk about this." You see, it's a forbidden thing, so they couldn't explore what happened except in this framework that said it was the most horrible thing that could possibly happen. What if it wasn't?

Even if you take the Catholic church, the thing that precipitated a lot of this, it might have been better if there had been much more talk allowed about what was going on. If there was more open discussion, kids might have been much more aware of what was happening to them. They might have been more able to talk to their parents. A lot of this current scene, with the suits saying, "this is terrible stuff but we couldn't talk about it," � with more open discussion a lot of that would have been avoided.

ALT: Judith Levine writes about the possibility that sexual relationships between young people and adults may not always be such a bad thing. Have you explored that argument?

That argument is in the literature. Bruce Rind wrote a statistical article showing that for some people it's very harmful, but for some people it's remembered as very beneficial, and for most people, it's something that happened along the way. There's a whole discussion of it at ipce.org

What's interesting is that sexual behavior is not that different now than in the 1960s, what's changed is the public dialogue. In the 60s, Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, the list goes on -- they defended the idea of an erotic society rather than an economic society. The shorthand was "love, not war," but there was a real discussion about the issues. Now what's happened is not that behavior is so different, but that the public discussion of the the issues simply doesn't take place. It's gone over completely to the moralists, as I would call them, who express horror at anything sexual� There's no real discussion, it's very anemic.

The idea that children are sexual beings is not new. Dr. Spock said that. Freud said it. It's not a brand new idea, but no one is saying that anymore. There are academic studies, but they aren't making it out into the main culture. No politicians, or even public intellectuals, if you will, are talking about issues. I was really just arguing that we should be talking about these issues.

But you know, one effect of their attempt to stop the discussion is that all of a sudden, everyone is talking about these issues. In a way, this is the first discussion of these issues that we've had in a long time.

Michelle Chihara is senior writer at AlterNet. She can be reached at michelle@alternet.org.

Enron Kitsch Rakes in Big Bucks on eBay

In the fall, we saw a sudden rush for everything Osama. Bin Laden novelties, from urinal cakes to dart boards to golf balls, sold like hot cakes. But now, in keeping with the ever-more-damning headlines, Enron is fast surpassing "Where's Osama's been Hidin'?" as a theme of the week for memorabilia.

Big money is being spent on gear from the belly of the beast. At the eBay auction site, more than 1300 Enron items are being auctioned at any one time, and they run the logo-emblazoned gamut. Items recently for sale included Enron Suede Executive Coasters, Enron golf balls, Enron squoosh balls with the "Ask Why?" Enron logo, Enron Sterling Silver Tiffany Key Rings, Enron lead crystal paperweights and Enron teddy bears.

The best-selling items on eBay are the ones with jaw-dropping ironic value, like a bound volume of Enron's "Code of Ethics," or the paperweight engraved with Enron's four core values: Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence. One high seller, at $315.00, came with this blurb from the seller, "Check out this Enron Smoking Gun! 'Energy Derivatives: Advanced Structures & Marketing.'"

Enron gidgets may not be ready for Sotheby's, but a $315.00 tchatchka is already worth signficantly more than Enron's stock (last valued in cents, not dollars). Some artistically-minded folk have already gone the gallery route. Last week, Reuters reported that a local gallery in downtown Houston was exhibiting Enron "tombstones" -- another word for the feel-good corporate trophies produced to commemorate a big deal -- with appropriately biting curation.

In addition to real Enron paraphenalia, mocked up trinkets like Enron toilet targets are starting to sell on the Web. Of course, when entrepreneurs smell a trend, the first thingy to be churned out is always the old stand-by: the T-Shirt. The easy to silkscreen answer to souvenir-mania is already being produced in force by everyone from Enron ex-employees to young California entrepreneurs.

So far, the leader in the emerging Enron-tee industry is John Allario, a former Enron employee who runs LaydOff.com -- a name that spoofs former Enron chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay.

"Business is pretty damn good," says Allario. "We've sold over 600 shirts, I'm working 15 hours a day to keep up with everything." His site, he says, is getting upwards of 10,000 hits a week. And he's being inundated with free press, from a Fox News Live appearance to numerous CNN spots to a couple dozen articles (including this one).

"Active Angry Wear," as Allario calls it, tends to sport an "I got Lay'd by Enron" logo on the front, and ironic commentary on the back, like a play on the popular Master Card commercials:

Loss of job
Watching 401(k) disappear
Losses on company stock options
Ten years hard time for guilty executives

LaydOff.com even includes a shirt for those suffering from the K-Mart bankruptcy. (For more T-shirts and sites for ex-Enron employees, also try Enronx.com.)

While first aimed at ex-Enron workers who wanted to express their feelings, Allario says the shirts are starting to reach a wider market. "It's morphing into more a cult thing," he says. "Everybody hears about this damn Enron, and it's kind of like ... OJ. You want OJ on your shirt. It's cocktail party conversation. Enron brings out every business issue that's bad with America."

For others just getting into the Enron T-shirt game, Enron's appeal is proving to be nationwide. "My business partner's mother is a teacher in California. Obviously, her state pension fund had a lot of Enron holdings, and it really affected her," says Chris Haig, the 22-year-old co-founder of Pimp Daddy Shirts, a new boutique clothing maker out to provide an alternative to Nike, Gap and "big business philosophy." Pimp Daddy's Enron shirt replaces the word "Enron" in Enron's now famous original logo with the word "evil." They say they have customers from both coasts buying 20-30 shirts a week, including a large number of senior level personnel in big companies, investment bankers, and even a group of orders from Reliant Energy in Houston, an Enron rival.

"We chose 'evil' because we thought it was the best word to tie up the whole scenario," Haig says. And it doesn't look bad on the originally Enron logo, either. As one independent Web designer put it, "Whoever designed the Enron logo is so, so bummed."

Indeed, the "crooked E" now seems almost eerily fit for tweaking and teasing. One Web site and newsletter called Viridian Design launched a contest for an Enron logo re-design. The winner is a 57-year-old retired government worker in Florida who says he's gotten wrapped up in following the scandal ever since he realized that state's retirement fund was invested in the company. "Look what the Enron scandal has so far," says Jim Vandewalker, "big money, death ... there's no sex yet, but it's gotta be in there somewhere." Vandewalker's new logo "has all the colors running out, just like the juice running out of Enron."

So far, the enraged re-designs and angry schlock have focused on the Enron logo. But as the scandal unfolds, if I were Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling or Andrew Fastow, I'd be guarding my trash and keeping an eye out for voodoo dolls.

Michelle Chihara is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet.org.

Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Enron

In a nation where more than half of all households are invested in the stock market, the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history of the United States should put the fear of God in us. Primarily, it seems to have fueled fears about our retirements.

America is surprisingly unmoved by the Enron meltdown, according to pollsters at Gallup. "Even before the Enron crisis moved to the nation's front pages," Gallup tells us, "Americans had relatively low opinions of the honesty and ethics of business executives, did not have a great deal of confidence in business as an institution, and felt that business already has too much influence in society."

America trusts no one, except maybe its firefighters. America just wants to retire in peace and security. Or so they tell us over at Gallup.

Granted, in a match between firefighters and corporate leaders, only a fool would put money on the integrity of the execs. But the Enron scandal deserves our outrage. It serves as an indictment of our entire financial and political system. It can and should be a catalyst for change.

It's true the Enron scandal is mind-boggling and complicated. Kenneth Lay, the former chairman and CEO of Enron (and former buddy of President Bush), said that all those partnerships and inflated profits were too hard for him to understand; in August, Lay said it was all "way over my head." Lay has a kind, grandfatherly reputation, which he seems to be trying to resurrect. But he understood enough to make off with $200 million dollars in just under three years. Maybe he should have spent less time in his five -- yes, five -- ski houses in Aspen, Colorado, and more time boning up on the company he was supposedly running.

We could, of course, wait for the inevitable Hollywood epic to tackle Enron's collapse and to digest its lessons for us -- to tar the villains and to lionize those few who tried to blow the whistle. But before Miramax or HBO gets to it, even the most financially uneducated layperson can understand enough about Enron to see that change is necessary.

The problems brought to light by Enron color both the public and private sector. In a country that takes its world-class transparency and accountability for granted, our private safeguards failed us shamefully. The analysts, investment bankers, accountants, and conventional bankers all stood to profit from buying into Enron, so they opted not to call it out on its lies. As long as people were buying into the bottom of the pyramid, everyone who might have spoken out preferred cashing out at the top. The business press, for the most part, was too fawning and wrapped up in the game to look at the hard facts or to take note when the initial alarms were sounded.

In the public sector, politicians and government regulators were too indebted to the private sector to oversee it. The problems cut across party lines. Politicians from both parties took money from Enron: 212 of the 248 members of congress investigating the affair, to be precise. Clinton's administration was not exempt. Enron was generous with the government, and Enron got what it wanted from the government, in a startling number of cases.

What follows is an imaginary conversation, intended as a kind of primer -- not only ten things you might want to know about Enron, but ten things that bear repeating about Enron. Enron's collapse is symptomatic of a deep-seated disease. All of our retirements are at stake.

What the hell happened?

Enron traded energy, at first. It was good at trading energy. It created an online commodities market for energy, which basically meant it created a marketplace where people could buy and sell energy. Enron also produced energy. Its commodities market was a big change from the rule of state-regulated monopolies. Trading energy was a fine business idea, possibly even a groundbreaking one. It was not, as Enron had us believing for a while, the be-all end-all of corporate creativity.

The people at Enron were smart, but not as smart as they thought they were. They tried to trade it all: energy, "weather derivatives," broadband Internet access, water, news, you name it. They failed. They lost, according to Newsweek's estimates, $2 billion on broadband, $2 billion on water investments, $2 billion on a Brazilian utility and $1 billion on an electricity plant in India.

In order to hide their debt, Enron engaged in "aggressive accounting." They created partnerships with nominally independent companies. Those companies were headed by Enron execs, and backed, ultimately, by Enron stock. But Enron did not count their "partners"' debt as its own. This is called "off-balance-sheet" accounting. Enron also found fancy ways to count loans from banks as "profit."

Isn't that illegal?

That's the multibillion-dollar question.

No less than 10 congressional committees, the Justice Department, the FBI, a host of investigators for civil suits and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) are all looking into whether Enron and/or its accounting and consulting firm, Arthur Andersen, broke the law.

Another emerging issue centers on Enron and Western energy markets. A lot of the market figures aren't public, but the evidence suggests that Enron controlled a huge portion of the California energy market, among others. When you control the supply of a vital commodity like energy, you can manipulate the price. Only slightly simplified, the story goes something like this: Enron lobbies to deregulate market. Market deregulates. Enron gains control of market. Prices are suddenly very high. Enron reaps huge profits. California Governor Gray Davis and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) have asked federal regulators to investigate whether Enron engaged in price manipulation.

Did Enron fix California's energy prices? Did Enron deliberately mislead investors? Did they deliberately hide debt and mislead their shareholders? Did they base their profits on estimates they knew were inflated? Does unloading your own stock, while you urge or force your employees to buy or keep it, qualify as illegal insider trading? We shall see.

Don't the accountants who let them get away with this have to answer for something?

Andersen signed off on Enron's books for years. Andersen also helped Enron structure its deals and accepted cushy consultancy fees, all the while acting as an "external auditor" checking Enron's books.

That's not illegal, per se. Most of the so-called Big Five accounting companies have similar conflicts of interest.

The former head of the SEC, Arthur Levitt, thought those conflicts were so glaringly inappropriate that he tried to outlaw them two years ago. His efforts at reform were defeated by vigorous opposition from the industry, which loosed hordes of lobbyists onto Capitol Hill. Congress responded by pressuring Levitt against reform.

Levitt now has Congress' attention, and is in high demand. Andersen looks stupid, and is losing clients. But the rules weren't changed then and are still the same now, so it will be hard to prove that Andersen broke the rules.

Come on, someone involved in this mess must have done something illegal.

At Arthur Andersen, some employees have been shredding documents. If Andersen executives shredded documents after they were informed of the SEC's investigations, then they broke the law. (According to accounting sources, Andersen's claims that shredding client documents is customary are suspect. In accounting, the norm is to keep comprehensive, exhaustive records.)

First off, the government is investigating Andersen's destruction of documents. Destruction of evidence may be easier to prove than the charges that may come later, against both Enron and Andersen. If the government can build an airtight case around shredding, then they can use shredding charges as leverage. An Andersen executive threatened with prosecution over shredding paper can be offered a plea bargain, for example, in exchange for testimony in the more complex fraud case.

Great, so some poor schmoe at Andersen will take the fall for shredding papers, and no one else will be held accountable.

That's one possible scenario, but a lot is riding on the public's reaction.

Bush made his first efforts to distance himself from the scandal after a Jan. 26 CBS news poll reported that 6 out of 10 Americans think the administration is hiding something about Enron. Especially during big scandals, politicians are sensitive to the public's reaction, that is, the public without the funds to buy political access. The Enron scandal is just beginning. If the public stays tuned, and expresses its disgust, politicians will be forced to begin the clean up of our system.

What finally happened to bring it all crashing down?

On Oct. 16, Enron held a conference call to go over its third quarter. The failure of many of its investments and the debt from its "partnerships" could no longer be swept under the accounting rug. Former CEO Jeff Skilling's sudden departure had attracted additional scrutiny. Enron's chorus of cheerleaders could no longer ignore the sucking sound that had finally become audible, to the tune of a $1.2 billion drop in net worth. The pyramid began to crumble, the house of cards began to tumble, the dam burst -- choose your metaphor.

Another important factor: Enron had changed. Over time, Enron sank more and more money into risky financial betting, and evolved from an energy company into what the Los Angeles Times called a "massive trading operation in derivatives, which are financial contracts that can entail significant risk." A massive derivatives trading company is a very different animal from something like, say, CalPine, an energy company that also does some trading. The derivatives beast entails a whole new world of risk.

Derivatives allow investors to bet, in effect, on fluctuations in everything from the water supply to energy prices to the weather. Wendy Gramm, the wife of Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) chaired the Commodity Futures Trading Commission until 1993. While there, she helped make sure that Enron's brand of derivatives trading would be free of government oversight. Weeks after she left that committee, she was offered a lucrative position on Enron's board. Enron was free to calculate its profits as it saw fit, while betting on the weather.

Other spectacular bankruptcies linked to derivatives trading include Orange County in 1994, Barings Bank in 1995 and Long-Term Capital Management in 2000.

In the end, who got screwed?

Enron's employees, clearly, were hurt the most. As many as 12,000 of them lost their life savings or their entire pension. They were forced to keep a certain percentage of their 401(k)s in Enron stock, and encouraged to invest solely in Enron. In the last few months, just as the share price was tumbling, Enron management switched pension plans and froze employee accounts. Employees watched in horror, their hands tied, as the stock lost most of its value. Illegal? Employees are suing, and intend to find out.

Who else got screwed?

Thousands of American investors have lost money on Enron stock, individually and through outfits like the Osprey Trust, an Enron entity that financed some of the company's sketchy partnerships and investments abroad. Over 50 mutual funds and insurance companies invested $2.4 billion dollars in the trust, which then lost most of its value.

And don't forget investors and power plant workers in Brazil and India. Enron's reach is broad.

Oddly, even Kmart employees can claim Enron victim status: Kmart's bankruptcy may have been precipitated in part by the Enron collapse (the collapse raised the price of a type of insurance called surety bonds).

Didn't anyone notice this mess while it was being created?

Yes! A few, brave souls even tried to do something. Sherron Watkins, an Enron executive, sent an anonymous letter to Kenneth Lay last August, in which she wrote, "Dear Mr. Lay, Has Enron become a risky place to work? For those of us who didn't get rich over the last few years, can we afford to stay?"

Cliff Baxter, the 43-year-old former Enron exec who allegedly committed suicide, also complained (he also killed hiimself only two days after telling an un-named friend who spoke to the New York Times that he might need a bodyguard). One Enron insider even hired an independent New York law firm to look at Enron's practices (the law firm, Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, made the not-so-surprising recommendation that Enron "halt" its partnership deals).

A handful of reporters and analysts are now finding themselves in the spotlight due to skepticism they expressed anywhere from a few months to a year ago, back when no one would listen.

So no one listened when a few independent thinkers did sound the alarm. That's depressing. I think I'll just go diversify my portfolio to protect my retirement.

If we don't do something about the Enrons of the world, we put all of our portfolios at risk.

It isn't only true believers who lost money on Enron, supposedly conservative investors sank millions into Enron stocks and funds. And they continue to sink money -- including, possibly, parts of your retirement -- into other existing Enron-esque companies.

Enron was never alone in its ways. The CEO of Global Crossing Unlimited, the largest telecommunications company ever to go belly up, is walking away with over $700 million from his bankrupted company, while the shareholders weep. Global Crossing's accounting firm is Arthur Andersen.

The share price of a Bermuda-based, Beverly-Hills-run conglomerate called Tyco is dropping after word got out that it practices "aggressive accounting." Tyco's two top execs swore their faith in the company, saying they rarely if ever sold their own stock in it. They neglected to mention the $100 million they had already cashed out. Sound familiar?

Since none of our current safeguards worked, the public should demand better safeguards. The corporate raiders are, by in large, making a killing at everyone else's expense (even if Kenneth Lay does have to sell his ski houses). Wall Street isn't likely to stand up and demand greater accountability and systemic change. It's going to have to be the public.

Will there at least be a Hollywood blockbuster?

Undoubtedly! Stay tuned for AlterNet's upcoming feature, "How Would You Cast 'All The President's Texas Cronies,' the Enron Saga?"

Michelle Chihara is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet.org.

The Poster Boy of Guerilla Media

Jonah Peretti has already had his 15 minutes of fame. Last year, he ordered a pair of customizable Nikes online. He asked Nike to stitch the word "sweatshop" into them. Nike refused. Peretti and Nike exchanged a series of emails, which ended with Peretti's message: "I have decided to order the shoes with a different iD, but I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?"

The series of emails between Peretti and Nike became an overnight email sensation. Peretti had sent the text of the exchange to a only few close friends. Through the power of the Internet, he became a minor celebrity.

Now, Peretti and his sister, stand-up comic and performer Chelsea Peretti, have had another lightning-quick, word-of-mouth success. It's called Rejection Line, and it's a phone number in Manhattan as well as a Web site at RejectionLine.com. "Operators are Standing By!" the site trumpets, "Someone won't leave you alone? Give them 'your' number: 212-479-7990, the official New York Rejection Line! The rejection line team takes care of the rest, providing premium rejection services -- completely free of charge!"

The Rejection Line is a real phone number, complete with a message of rejection, and subsequent options to listen to "a comfort specialist," "a sad poem," or just "cling to unrealistic hope." It has gotten attention from everyone from the morning DJs at Z100 to Esquire magazine. AlterNet spoke with Peretti about his success, the power of technology, social networks, viral marketing and the trouble with the Left.

JONAH PERETTI: I promise this will be Authentic and Soundbite Free.

ALTERNET: That was already a soundbite.

JP: Right. Chelsea and I are actually trying to write a humorous piece about Rejection Line for All Things Considered on NPR, and it's hard not to write like an ad, when you're writing about your own project.

Do you have an overall philosophy?

JP: Yes. Chelsea is a performer and stand-up comic, so she sees this project more in those terms. But I'm really interested in social networks and media, and I'm interested in Rejection Line almost purely from that perspective. I like that it's funny, and I try to contribute to the humor. But there is a philosophy.

You know, none of the other press so far has made the connection between Rejection Line and the Nike email. The Rejection Line is getting pretty much just fluff pieces about it. A couple writers at the New York Times wanted to write different pieces, but their editors didn't want them to. Nothing ever showed up there.

So how does Rejection Line connect to the Nike emails?

JP: I was amazed that something I sent out to a dozen friends ended up going to a million people. It wasn't planned. I started getting emails saying, "Why are you sending this to me?" and they were from total strangers. I sent it to my close friends and, at the peak of the phenomenon, I was getting emails from New Zealand and Australia and all over the world, depending on what time of day it was in what time zone. How is it that something I sent to a few friends, that I didn't actively promote, or even put on a listserv, did that? How does that happen? I became intellectually fascinated by that.

Where were you at that point?

JP: I was at the MIT Media Lab in Boston, where those types of issues were being discussed, and there was a lot of research on related topics. It's very broad and interdisciplinary work, but for example, there's work about understanding meme -- self-replicating ideas, or self-replicating information. That's one area. Another rich area is social networks theory. Stanley Milgram is sort of the founder of that field, from Yale University in the '70s. He was doing experiments that led to the concept of six degrees of separation. He called the paper the "Small World Problem."

Milgram did an experiment where he got a whole bunch of letters together and gave them to people in the Midwest. He said, those letters should ultimately go to a stockbroker who lives in Boston. If you know him, just send him the letter. If you don't know him, send it to someone you think is more likely to know him.

So, basically, a bunch of people in the Midwest, none of whom knew the stockbroker, sent these letters to a friend in Boston, to someone who was a stockbroker, to someone close to Boston -- whatever metric they could think of. It took a little less than six steps for most of the letters to get to him. That's the concept of six degrees of separation, you're only six steps from everyone in the world.

In a way, that didn't matter that much until recently, because the Internet puts technical networks over the social networks. Before, Milgram had to use this specialized experiment in the mail. Now, with things like email forwards, in a couple of days you jump right through those six degrees. Social networks research becomes a way to think about new media.

And this brought you to Rejection Line?

JP: I started getting interested in that and, for me, the main thing about Rejection Line was that it was a way of doing another social experiment about how things spread.

Chelsea and I thought it was really funny to explicitly automate the process of rejecting someone. In New York, you outsource everything, there's someone who does your laundry, you order take out, any inconvenience in life, you outsource it. So why not outsource the unpleasant task of rejecting people? Plus, it was kind of a commentary on the bar and pickup scene.

So what did you learn with this social experiment?

JP: Rejection Line is most successful as a phone line. We can handle 10 calls simultaneously, and it's almost always busy. The problem is that we can handle hundreds of people simultaneously visiting the Web site, but not the phone line.

It's a lesson about how scalable the Internet is for viral media, because everyone is using their own technology to spread it. Even the hosting for a Web site is cheap, that's pretty scalable. A phone line is a whole other level of expense, when you're trying to provide access to a large number of people.

What else have you learned?

JP: It's been interesting to see the way the press hears about the project. I just followed the same rules that I did with the Nike email: I would only tell my friends about the Rejection Line. I never pitched it to people, I just told personal friends. It went from that to a couple hundred thousand people calling the line, and about 60,000 visiting the Web site.

Even reporters who hear about it always hear about it from a close friend, because it's spreading by going through social networks. On Fox 5's 10 o'clock news, the reporter interviewing us was this pretty TV reporter girl, super smiley, whose sister is an actress. Her sister had emailed it to her.

So, you don't have me calling you up and asking you to do a story, your close friend emailed you saying, "Oh there's this funny thing."

True [disclosure: Peretti, the above-mentioned close friend and I all went to the same high school. My friend emailed me about "Jonah's latest stunt."]

What does it all mean?

JP: It shows how a bunch of personal relationships lead to mass or print media. People think of media as this monolithic thing that chooses to cover one thing or another. But really, it's people who make media, and they hear stories from friends of theirs. Social networks tie into the way mass media works.

The subplot is I'm trying to demonstrate that the Internet hasn't become totally corporate. Individuals with very little money can still reach millions of people.

Well, you can, at least. What's the secret to your magic touch?

JP: I have a whole series of ideas I want to try. So far, these two have worked. Have I learned the secrets of doing something like this? If I produce something else, will it spread the same way? In that sense, part of the reason I did [Rejection Line] was to see if I abstracted the right principles from my earlier experience. I don't think I?ll always have success.

If you do, you're going to have marketing companies beating down your door. Would you like that?

JP: I'm teaching a course at Eyebeam [Eyebeam.org, a new media arts organization] with Parsons [School of Design] on these topics. Possibly some of my students will do that kind of work. But I'm interested in non-commercial art, in social experiments and art-type projects. But it's not inconceivable. If one of my projects were making money, I wouldn't be averse to it. If someone wanted to buy the Rejection Line, I would sell it, for money for other projects.

Literary agents have already approached us about doing a comedy/relationship/dating book. Chelsea would write that, not me. She just wants the opportunity to do creative work, to support herself doing comedy, writing and performing. That's her best case scenario. I'm starting to feel like I want to do another project.

What might be different?

JP: After the Nike thing, I got a little bit annoyed with some of the reactions to it. I'm interested in promoting the democratic potential of the Internet, but I don't want to be a political guru or a spokesperson for a rigid ideology. I get nervous around people who are too sure that they're right.

The goal of my projects is to demonstrate how the Internet can be used by individuals without corporate support. My teaching and writing is geared towards explaining the dynamics of media to help other people become producers of creative media that reaches a large audience.

Michelle Chihara is an editor and staff writer at AlterNet.

The Silence on Terrorism

Everyone professes to love free speech -- the president of the University of Texas calls it the "bedrock of American liberty," the American Council for Trustees and Alumni supports it, the mayor of Modesto defends it, the president of the University of South Florida -- they are all committed to free speech.

Just not on their dime, not on their campus, not in their backyard. Not when it disrupts or upsets. Everone is all for free speech, but a closer look at a number of recent cases suggests that when right-wing pundits stir up controversy -- which, it's important to mention, they have every right to do -- people in power, from city councils to boards of trustees, are responding by silencing the troublemakers. And a troublemaker, these days, is anyone who dares to criticize any aspect of the war on terrorism as waged by the Bush administration.

In Sacramento, California, a speaker is booed off the stage at a graduation ceremony because she urged citizens to protect their rights to free speech and a fair trial.

In Modesto, California, the city withdraws its funding for a speech by Danny Glover because of comments he made against the death penalty and criticizing Bush.

In Austin, Texas, the president of the university responds to comments from one of his faculty by calling the professor "a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy" in the Houston Chronicle.

In Washington, D.C., the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization founded by second lady Lynne Cheney, publishes a report calling professors the "weak link" in America's response to the terrorist attacks because their positions are "distinctly equivocal and divided." (Cheney, who once served as the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is now a fellow at the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. She is quoted in the report, but said she was not involved in its production.)

In Florida, a professor is fired at a meeting of a board of trustees. The professor is not given the chance to defend himself. The board of trustees was not selected from the academic community, instead, most of the trustees were appointed by Governor Jeb Bush. The university president stated that the professor lost his job because of the "disruption" that the University had to endure, because of the "manner in which a professor exercise[d] his right to express political and social views."

The president of the University of South Florida, Judy Genshaft, along with University of Texas president Larry Faulkner, Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino, Anne Neal at the ACTA, and University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft have all paid lip service to free speech. But none of them have actually come out in public and disagreed with the substance of what Professor Sami Al-Arian or Robert Jensen or Danny Glover or anyone else has to say.

The common role of conservative right-wing talk shows in these incidents is noteworthy. Conservative columnist David Horowitz did the groundwork for the ACTA's report, many of the quotes in the report were cited to his and other conservative publications. The ACTA's report in turn brought increased attention to the comments of professor Robert Jensen. Jensen wrote an article for the Common Dreams Web site arguing that America, too, is guilty of violence against civilians, entitled "Stop the Insanity Here, U.S. just as guilty of commiting its own violent acts." He was then called a fool by the president of his institution.

Bill O'Reilly, Fox TV's right-wing talk show host, brought civil engineering professor Al-Arian onto his show on September 26. The professor said in a press release that producers lured him onto the show under false premises. Once Al-Arian was on the show, O'Reilly badgered Al-Arian and insinuated that Al-Arian is a terrorist.

Al-Arian, an out-spoken critic of U.S. policy in Israel, has, in fact, been investigated by the FBI. One of Al-Arian's former colleagues did turn up as a terrorist, though other allegations against former colleagues of Al-Arian's have not been proven. The FBI never found any evidence of wrong-doing by Al-Arian, and he has never been accused of any crime.

Nevertheless, the O'Reilly show prompted death threats against him. Upon firing him, the university's letter to Al-Arian, according to Florida newspapers, cited the death threats against Al-Arian as security concerns -- part of the reason for his dismissal.

At Princeton university, famous actor and activist Danny Glover gave a speech at an anti-death penalty forum. During the question and answer session, a student asked Danny Glover if he would support the death penalty for Osama bin Laden. Glover replied that no, he didn't support the death penalty under any circumstance. Right-wing talk shows stirred up further controversy, and soon Danny Glover found the city of Modesto backing out of a Martin Luther King day speaking engagement.

These cases, taken as a whole, are frightening for two reasons: first, because of the number of instances where those in power not only failed to defend the minority opinion's right to be heard, but also act against those who dare to voice those opinions. Second, they're distressing because what is missing in all of these cases is actual debate. In the current climate, what is being debated is not the validity of dissenting opinions, but whether dissenting opinions have the right to be heard. Attorney General John Ashcroft set the first example of favoring inflammatory controversy versus true debate, when he stood before Congress to defend his agenda. He didn't defend its specifics, nor did he respond to most of the questions raised by Congress. Instead, he attacked those who would question him, accusing them of "aiding the terrorists."

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni made the same kind of insinuations -- that if you're not with us, you're with the enemy -- in their report, entitled "Defending Civilization." The report called professors the "weak link" in America's response to the terrorist attacks. That lanugage parrots the language used by the House Un-American Activies Committee, McCarthyism's organized body in the House of Representatives, which used the same label for one of the scientists they pursued. Then, in Ashcroftian language, the ACTA wrote, "We learn from history that when a nation's intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give aid and comfort to its adversaries." The report cited university fora and teach-ins as evidence that these professors were not willing to defend their civilization.

In defense of the report, Anne Neal, the report's author says, "It's noteworthy that mainstream public reaction was fairly uniform, but the academic community was divided in its reaction. It was often equivocal, it sometimes blamed America first."

Neal denies that her criticism of the academy's "equivocal" reaction in face of public uniformity goes against free speech. "No one is seeking any unanimity in thought," she says. Instead, students should be taught more history of the United States and Western civilization. Asked whether she was implying that by learning more history, students would be less "equivocal," she replied that "there is no implication." The point of history, she said, was for "students to make up their own mind, and have critical thinking. And I mean that in the broad context, not necessarily negative thinking but critical thinking."

Neal's report was taken to task in the press, the subject of critical articles in the New York Times, The Boston Globe and a number of other major outlets. Its heavy-hitting political allies are holding "Defending Civilzation" well at arms length. Cheney herself denied having read the report in the New York Times, and Senator Joe Lieberman has issued a letter expressing his disagreement with the report. He is listed as a founder of the ACTA on their Web site, but his spokesman says, "that's a mischaracterization."

But the ACTA is a well-funded organization, with ties to places like the University of South Florida, where Al-Arian was just fired. And the ACTA's report also brought increased attention to journalism professor Robert Jensen's comments, which led to the university president calling him a "fountain of undiluted foolishness." The president sets the example for debate on campus in his position as the head of the institution. He paid homage to the first amendment, but then engaged in an ad hominem attack on Jensen. Never, as Jensen himself points out, did president Faulkner engage with Jensen's opinions, never did he offer something along the lines of, "In the spirit of democratic engagement, I would like to offer my critique of Jensen's argument..."

Instead, the president's led his campus by attacking a professor's character without responding in any way to the substance of his arguments.

On most of the college campuses cited in the ACTA's report, professors say that their institutions have supported their right to express themselves. An email petition is even circulating on college campuses bidding professors to email the ACTA and demand to be included in the list. Professor Erin Carlston at UNC Chapel Hill writes, "I can fervently affirm that I am every bit as treasonous as [my colleagues on the list]." Carlston ends by affirming her dedication to reasoned debate and independent thinking, and asks, "please include me on any future blacklists you choose to publish."

But where is the reasoned debate that Carlston longs for? While most of the college campuses report having speakers both supporting and criticizing the Bush administrations' policies, what seems to be lacking is an engaged discussion, a give and take, between the two sides.

"A student came to me and said she wanted to organize a public forum on civil liberties. I said, fine, I'd be happy to do it," says Jensen. "She got the state director of the ACLU to agree to speak. But she had to cancel the event. 'I can't find anybody to speak on the other side,' she told me. I said, 'You can't find anyone who supports Bush and Ashcroft?' And she said she could find people who have the other view, but they wouldn't debate. If you're part of the majority, then why debate in public if you're already winning? It's why the leading presidential candidate doesn't want to debate the second place guy. You've got not much to gain and a lot to lose."

"You can't have a healthy democracy if you don't have ongoing and spirited public dialogue," Jensen continues. "What passes for public dialogue -- TV talk-shows and radio shows -- that isn't dialogue, it's show biz."

In Modesto, California, the mayor of the city, much like Faulkner or Anne Neal, affirms that "This has nothing to do with censorship." He insists that Danny Glover had simply proved too expensive for the city. He says he "didn't know" why the Modesto city college had withdrawn its offer to host the event, or why the Modesto Bee had repeatedly reported that the city had withdrawn its support for Glover. He admitted that as recently as last year, MLK speakers have received both city funding and spoken in city-owned venues, but offered no explanation. Nor did he offer any explanation for why previous MLK speakers, as recently as last year, had spoken in city-owned venues and received city funding.

But the city official who spoke to the Modesto Bee did explain himself. He said he thought the controversy surrounding some of Glover's comments would "overshadow the celebration of Martin Luther King." In other words, once Glover was tainted with a whiff of non-support, a trace of controversy, then he immediately lost city funding.

The committee that invited Glover was quick to respond by pointing out that Dr. King himself was an eminently controversial figure in his time. But no one is arguing with them. Instead, Glover is trying to fight the free-floating taint of being "pro-terrorist," while angry letters to the editor in New Jersey call for him to be sent "back to Afghanistan," as they have for anyone else who has dared to criticize our administration and its policies.

Perhaps the most disturbing case, however, is Al-Arian's. He is a controversial figure. But until an FBI probe or some other legal organization returns with proof and/or actual charges against him, then he is guilty only of unpopular speech and guilt by association. Guilt by association was McCarthyism 's strong suit.

Al-Arian is not talking to the press on the advice of his lawyers, who are not confirming or denying that he may sue. But he has been silenced by his university. And once again, whatever his unpopular opinions may be, the debate now revolves around their very right to be expressed -- not on their relative worth.

In a statement published on the Web, some of the University of Florida and University of South Florida faculty wrote this in support of Al-Arian: "Professor Sami Al-Arian says unpopular things in public, and he and USF now face demands for his resignation or dismissal, and even threats of violence... By the principles upon which this Nation was founded, each person has the right to speak -- indeed is encouraged to sepak -- as an individual. And a scholar has a greater obligation to be honest than to be agreeable. Therefore, while we have varied opinions on what Professor Al-Arian says, we defend his right to speak. We believe that only out of a debate that includes all voices will the truth come forth."

But in the debate that is making it out of the universities and into the public sphere, we are arguing about whether a tenured professor should be fired for "security concerns" raised by the criminal threats made against him. We are arguing about whether professors who participate in teach-ins are a "weak link."

In Sacramento, when a group of people at a commencement ceremony disagreed with the speaker, they didn't stand and walk out in protest (as students did at UC Berkeley two years ago when they wanted to protest against Madeleine Albright's speech). They silenced the publisher of the Sacramento Bee, Janis Besler Heaphy. We are now arguing about whether a commencement speaker has the right to speak her mind. The press grossly mischaraterized Danny Glover's statements as a plea for Osama Bin Laden's life instead of an unqualified stand against the death penalty. Now the debate centers on how and if his speech will proceed.

Of course, not everyone will agree with Danny Glover, or with Janis Besler Heaphy, or Professor Sami Al-Arian. But calling someone "un-American," or firing him, is the semantic equivalent of booing him off the stage. It does not constitute debate. It certainly does not constitute that debate which we so desperately need, a debate that includes all voices.

Verbal Weapon

On Dec 28, one of the most surprising ways to take a political stand this holiday season will come to a theater near you -- a movie called The Royal Tennebaums. Remarkable otherwise as a wry family comedy by the director of "Rushmore," it features Danny Glover in a supporting role as a slick accountant. Glover is in the headlines these days for comments he made during a speech at an anti-death-penalty forum, comments that have right-wing talk show hosts calling for a boycott of his movies because he's "un-American." So, in an indirect way, seeing The Royal Tennenbaums could be $8.50 spent in defense of free speech.

On November 16, the Associated Press reported that Glover had "called on the United States government to spare the life of Osama bin Laden, even if he is found guilty of being involved in terrorist acts." Since then, a storm of controversy has been building around Mel Gibson's one-time partner in Lethal Weapon.

Glover made the comments in question during a speech at Princeton university on November 15, at an anti-death-penatly forum sponsored by the local chapter of Amnesty International. He spoke out against the death penalty in America (contrary to what the AP's report seems to imply, he did not specifically urge the United States to spare bin Laden. Instead, he simply emphasized that he was categorically against the death penalty, regardless of the circumstances or the crime.)

Those comments and others, when reported in the New Jersey Trentonian, sparked angry letters to the editor calling for Glover to be sent to Afghanistan. University newspapers reported that talk shows called Glover "un-American," "un-patriotic," and "dangerous."

Glover's other comments included: "This week, President Bush implemented a military tribunal which will make it easier for us to execute (people). This clearly is a slippery slope. We must stand vigilant against Bush in these times," and "When we fear, we clamp down on those who do not think like us or who do not look like us."

Besides providing fodder for talk shows, Glover may have lost a chunk of change and the support of the Modesto, California City Council. Glover was scheduled to speak on Martin Luther King day at the Modesto Junior College. The Modesto Bee reported that the city withdrew its sponsorship of the event following the controversy, prompting the local junior college to withdraw its offer to host the event.

Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino denied that the city was in any way participating in censorship, saying that the issue was Mr. Glover's asking price. "As long as the [city's] money doesn't go to his speaking fee, well, he can speak at the MLK event, we're not going to throw him out of the building," the mayor said. However, the mayor also said that in the past, the city of Modesto has paid speakers for Martin Luther King day, including Martin Luther King's daughter. Yolanda King is an outspoken activist for peace and human rights.

The MLK planning committee in Modesto, however -- the committee that originally issued the invitation -- is standing behind the famous actor. "Martin Luther King was kind of controversial, himself," notes Sam Tyson, a long-time member of the Modesto Peace-Life Center, which houses the MLK committee. The event will now be held at a local church.

Michelle Chihara is a staff writer for AlterNet.org.

Latte Liberals Dropping Their SUVs After 9/11

Sport utility vehicle sales are reaching record highs. With 21 million already on the road, projected sales this year will top 3.5 million. The Detroit auto makers are luring customers with flag-waving ads and zero percent APR financing plans, and the hard sell seems to be paying off.

Except for that pesky SUV guilt. With all eyes on the Middle East and Central Asia, many Americans have been reminded of our unsustainable dependence on foreign oil. In an act of guilty patriotism, some of them -- namely, some liberals -- are finally swapping their gas-guzzling behemoths and replacing their SUVs with eco-friendly cars.

"It's gone," says Christina Allen, vice president of politics at Working Assets, a progressive phone service and media company. "It was a 1999 Ford Explorer. I wanted to sell it before Sept. 11, but then, afterwards, it was just too much. I felt I was contributing to all of the problems we had, with oil imports, and everything."

Allen isn't alone. "SUVs, jeeps, anything that's guzzling gas, they're trading them in," says Mike Azcona of Dirito Brothers Volkswagen, which claims to be the second largest Volkswagen dealer in the country. According to their sales reports, Azcona says, "We've had roughly the same number of trade-ins [in the past 90 days, as last year], but we've had almost triple the amount of jeeps, double the amount of Explorers, about 50 percent more 4Runners..."

And while many light truck dealers say they haven't noticed a lot of SUVs coming in for trades, some do say the season has been slow. "It's been a dramatic slowdown," says Joseph Johnson, manager at a Ford dealership in Northern California. "We usually do 25 to 30 a month, and we've only sold 5 or 6 since last month."

At the head of this SUV-free charge is author Arianna "automotive fashionista" Huffington, with a recent column that rallies readers to "Support Our Troops, Dump That SUV" (she actually made the oft-quoted fashionista comment by saying she doesn't consider herself a trendy auto buyer). Reminding us that "SUVs consume over 6 miles per gallon more than a family station wagon," Huffington says:

"We can't go on consuming 25 percent of the world's oil while being only 5 percent of the global population. At least not if we want to get serious about putting the screws to any number of oil-rich and terrorist-friendly nations.... As well as giving up our SUVs -- or, even better, switching to hybrid gas-and-electric cars that currently get up to 64 mpg -- we can all make simple adjustments to wean our country from the foreign oil teat, even if our leaders are too dazed by the energy and auto industry lobbies to guide us."

Amen, sister Huffington.

Sentiments like these have finally prompted people like Working Assets' Allen to sell their guzzlers. But what was Allen, a progressive working for a progressive company, doing with an SUV in the first place? "When I bought it, it was sort of a safety issue," she says. "Definitely not based on a safety-test-related thing," she clarifies, "but as a single parent, driving that car, there was a certain sense of security, for some reason."

But the guilt eventually got her. "The ostentatiousness of it started getting to me," Allen confesses. "The irony was that driving it made me feel less secure -- how in-your-face it was. I wanted to be less profligate in how I lived my life."

The replacement was clear, for the reformed SUV-owner. "I bought a Volkswagen."

Of course, SUV guilt and fashionista pleas aside, SUVs still make up almost half of American car sales. The SUV Lovers (sorry) Owners Association is gaining press coverage and members (at www.suvoa.com), led by a charismatic South Korean vet. Ask your local truck dealer, and he'll probably deny any decline in SUV sales.

So maybe it's not a full-fledged, down-with-SUVs rebellion, just yet. But at least the tremors of guilt on the radar signify some progress in the image war, in the semiotic fight against the SUV. Because the struggle over the SUV is not one of facts, or even of principle. It is a war of symbols, of cool vs. fuel-efficient, of feeling tough vs. actually being safe, of bling-bling vs. the environment. We know that their center of gravity is ridiculously high, that they roll over faster than you can say "down, boy," that their bumpers ram straight into the passenger compartments of other cars during collisions. But secretly, in our darkest heart of hearts, we have always known that me-big-truck-crush-other-vehicles was part of the SUV appeal.

SUVs make the soccer mom feel tough and the working stiff feel active. For over a decade years now, that appeal has trumped activists and environmentalists alike -- from lone-gun activists to NPR's Car Talk and the Sierra Club -- in their efforts to educate us. That's because everyone already gets that the SUV is a gas-guzzling, smog-emitting, inefficient, expensive, hazardous, uber-yuppie icon. Everyone wants one anyway.

SUVs are "symbols of high social status in the city and suburbs" and "oversized phallic symbols," notes a representative of Harm Stryker, a "collective of autonomous direct action activists." And Stryker says improvement is slow.

"People are probably selling off their big trucks and luxury sedans for mini-vans and station wagons not because they fear global warming or care for their neighboring drivers, but because they fear that their insurance premiums and miles per gallon will cost too much during an expected recession," writes Harm Stryker via email. "As time passes and people realize that the U.S. economy is not in as much jeopardy as they thought, the spending will increase."

So far, it's true that while the sticker campaigns have proven provocative, it's hard to point to any hard results (beyond providing fodder for the angry SUV-rights brigade). Dubious of any improvement, Stryker says that while their own sticker campaigns may have prompted prospective buyers to reconsider, they don't seem to have prompted most owners to sell, yet.

The Sierra Club, savvily, now targets the manufacturer, not the too-cool-to-touch SUV itself. While they repeat that "SUVs used to be used to haul bails of hay, they're now used to haul lattes from Starbucks." As spokesperson Alex Vietch reminds us, ultimately the Sierra Club blames the maker. "It's down to the Big 3 automakers to make cleaner SUVs so people will choose them over SUVs that cost a fortune at the gas pump," Vietch says.

Seems the Sierra Club doesn't want to touch on the sensitive subject of SUV guilt. It would be dangerous, of course, to make the huge SUV-owning constituency feel too bad. They might stop donating.

But all hope is not lost, even when progress is slow. Station wagons -- the very symbols of vehicular uncool -- are managing a slight comeback, led by former SUV-drivers. They now come complete with fancy new names like "five-doors" and "Multi-Activity Vehicles." Meanwhile, sales for the Prius, Toyota's hybrid fuel and electric car, have not gone down with the price of gas. "Right around Sept. 11 and a little before, when there was a huge hit in gas prices, we saw a slight slow-down in 4-wheel drive sales," says Martin Chan, a hybrid sales manager for Toyota. "People were leaning toward fuel-efficient cars, and with the economy going downhill, people's budgets got tighter. People want to spend a little less money."

Chan links continued interest in the Prius to the war, even when it has nothing to do with politics or environmental guilt. "With the war and all that, people aren't sure where gas prices are going to go," Chan says. So, at this point, there's a 4-month wait for the thing.

Sometimes economics are all that matters. "I never really felt guilty," says Dave, a 26-year-old Jeep Wrangler owner trying to sell. "I mostly got it because I could take the top off and go off-roading, and I never really did either." So when Dave hit hard economic times, "it just wasn't worth it anymore."

But for progressive types, if there is no SUV justification, there is self-flagellation. "I'm probably one of the few SUV owners who's actually used 4-wheel drive on a regular basis," says Sophie, a 30 year old IT marketing professional and owner of a '91 Pathfinder. "I'm active enough, I haul enough stuff around to warrant a big car." But since she moved back to the United States from Australia, Sophie says her surfing, climbing and camping have dropped off. "I don't tend to do that here," she says. Now, as soon as she finds time, Sophie is planning on selling.

Another Bay Area SUV seller is even harder on himself. "Seriously, I was being retarded when I bought the car," says Stan (not his real name), who is now eager to unload his Land Rover Discovery SE. "I never liked the car. It guzzles a lot of gas. I feel guilty, I feel like a dickhead driving it. I was in love when I bought it. I just wasn't thinking."

Stan wasn't in love with the car. He was in love with a woman who convinced him that the car would come in handy. "She thought it was awesome," Stan says. And he insists the two did use it for outdoor purposes. But then she broke his heart, his social conscience re-awakened, and now he's desperate to sell.

"Now I'm sharing a super-efficient Volkswagen with two other people in my building," Stan says. He's not in the market for a Prius, because "All these specialty vehicles have stipulations attached," he says, "and it's ugly. It's like your mom's car." Despite having purchased the SUV, Stan says, he has principled reasons for letting it go. "My reasons were political from the very beginning."

The compunction-ridden are among us. But it's hard to know if the trend has finally peaked, or if we have to ride out an arms race of mine-is-bigger until we're all driving monster monster monster trucks on the freeway. Is zero percent APR financing a death throe or just another effective last-ditch marketing ploy?

The SUV's death knell has been sounded before, after all. Critics in the press sounded it when gas prices went up, when Nissan's and Ford's sales slid, when Porsche announced the 2002 launch of the Cayenne -- a name "understood worldwide as synonymous for spiciness, adventure, and joie de vivre," the press release states. Surely, the image of a huge, red, Cayenne pepper on wheels had to signal the trend's moribund decadence?

We can only hope. "Dump the SUV," writes SUV-free Huffington. "I hope it's going to be some sort of movement," says the SUV-free Allen. Could it be a nascent rallying cry? Rise up on the tarmacs, ye SUV owners! Say ten Hail Marys and sell, sell, sell!

Tough Love

I'm a patriot -- always have been, always will be. My patriotism isn't new, and it isn't nice. But it's deep. It doesn't translate easily into bumper stickers. That doesn't diminish its strength.

I inherited my love of country from my parents, particularly from my father. He was born in this country, the son of a Japanese immigrant, in 1932. Following President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 in 1942, he and his entire family were placed in an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. He was shipped there at age 10. He left two and a half years later, a year before the war ended.

The camps were a gross violation of America's Constitution. The U.S. government has since apologized to Japanese Americans and offered $20,000 per survivor, in reparation for property and livelihood lost during the internments. The money, generous though it was, works out to less than 10 cents on the dollar of what Japanese Americans lost.

But despite it all, my Japanese-American forefathers passed down no resentment toward this country, no sense of bitterness about one of the U.S. government's gravest mistakes. Instead, I inherited an immigrant's gratitude for America's freedom and an immigrant's appreciation of just how fragile that freedom can be. Patriotism, as I grew up understanding it, means constant vigilance.

If we've learned anything from history, it's that during times of crisis we most need to keep watch over our government's actions.

On Sept. 11, I watched the twin towers crumble in realtime on cable TV, while standing in a hotel in Quito, Ecuador. Desperate to get to New York (I was scheduled to fly on Sept. 13), traumatized, grieving, I couldn't stand to hear criticisms of America for a few days. At one point, I ran into an American in a bookstore in Quito who asked me if I had been watching CNN. I began reeling off the latest headlines. And this young American woman responded by complaining about U.S. television coverage. She seemed to be saying that Americans shouldn't take so much television news at face value. "I wish Americans would just think more," she said.

I turned and walked away. For once in my life, I just couldn't listen to anything critical of America or Americans. If there was ever a piece of news to be taken at face value, I felt, it was the stark, inescapable image of the twin towers falling.

My reaction, at that moment, was understandable. On Sept. 13, the missing count was still rising and the planes were still unable to fly to New York. I was grieving, and not yet ready to take a step back and critique the media coverage.

But my reaction -- a need to grieve first and analyze later -- wasn't patriotism, and my compatriot was tactless, not un-patriotic. One of the most obvious perks of living in the U.S. is that you are always allowed to trash it. Even when people around you get offended, patriotism must always involve passionate and constructive critiques of the U.S. By speaking out against policies or trends I disagree with, I'm trying to hold the U.S. to the highest standards of excellence, to everything that I believe it stands for.

We live with a level of transparency and accountability in this country that we sometimes take for granted. But that transparency takes upkeep, that accountability means nothing if we don't actively hold our officials accountable. We have so much to be thankful for. Take it for granted, and we might watch it disappear.

Now, in the mainstream media, any difference of opinion on how we should wage the war on terrorism is being set up as a straw man in opposition to patriotism. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times glibly wrote that the public finds all voices questioning America's war in Afghanistan "loopy and treasonous." Time magazine reports that "for the eternal skeptics, whose views were defined by Vietnam and its aftermath, the new patriotism represents a kind of homecoming."

For most Americans, however, patriotism doesn't mean blind acceptance, and it's not a release from post-Vietnam, or any other brand, of skepticism. Most Americans can recognize the absurdity and atrocity of various U.S. policies, past and present, at the same time that we recognize that the United States has come closer to creating a just and equal society than any other nation in the history of the world.

I say that despite a host of other nations that might challenge that claim. But they have small, relatively homogenous states. The U.S. created a tide that raised the standard of living for millions upon millions of people. It has absorbed wave after wave of immigrants, from every ethnicity and country in the world. That doesn't mean that each new wave hasn't had to fight for equal access to the American dream -- they have. But given the challenges we've faced, we've come closer to the free and open ideal than anyone else. We only get closer to that ideal through the patriotic efforts of reformers, activists and critics of all stripes. And we can only take pride in how far we've come if we understand that the fight isn't over.

It took a long time for Japanese-American activists to obtain redress for the camps. But in the 1980s, the Supreme Court finally ruled the internment camps unconstitutional. In 1982, President Reagan's Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians published the following conclusion: "Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity. The broad historical causes ... were race prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership." The American government apologized, and paid reparations to living internees.

Who, then, were the patriots in 1942? The people who said nothing as their neighbors lost their lives' work, who bought their fishing boats for a pittance because they knew the Japanese Americans had no choice? Or the handful of Americans, many of them Jesuits and Quakers, who spoke out against the order and for the Constitution?

My issei grandfather came to this country when he was 14 years old, in search of the American dream (issei is the Japanese word for the first to arrive in America, nisei means the first generation born here). He spoke no English and had an 8th grade education. He worked on the railroads, and then in hotels, until he finally saved enough money to open his own general store. In 1941, he'd been living in the U.S. for 24 years as a legal immigrant, but was prevented by race-based laws from obtaining citizenship. He was a father of four.

The day after Pearl Harbor, my grandfather was taken into custody as a "dangerous alien." The primary allegations against him were membership in a Japanese fencing association (he taught kendo, the martial art where you fight with sticks) and a friendship with a former Japanese Navy officer. My grandmother was left by herself to round up her kids, pack up and abandon the store and their house, and take only a suitcase per person to Minidoka. My grandfather wasn't paroled and allowed to rejoin his family there until 1943.

But my family remained staunchly American. In the camp, my father tells me, "We celebrated all the usual American holidays, such as Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving. We listened to the radio and heard all the pop songs (that you know so well). Saw American movies when we could. We played American sports -- football, baseball. In short, camp was not a breeding ground for turning us into citizens of Japan."

My uncle tells me that my grandmother dressed up my youngest uncle, only 4 at the time, in a tiny general's uniform. "The amused issei women referred to him as 'Ma Ca Sa,'" my uncle says, "for General McArthur -- who was leading the U.S. campaign against the Japanese."

"There was the feeling in the camp that we would all be representatives someday of Japanese Americans," my father says. At the end of the war, when other families were hesitant to return to American society, my grandfather was one of the first to take his family out of Minidoka. Many Japanese were wary of a society that had rejected them, and (legitimately, in some cases) worried about hate crimes. Not my grandfather. "I suspect that he thought we should leave because he believed that his children would be better off in the outside world," my father says.

The family landed in Spokane, Washington. "We were the only Japanese family in the parish," my father says. "I don't know how I might have turned out if I had been shunned by everyone in my class as an enemy, but as it turned out, the kids were great. I was accepted as a classmate by everyone. I played on the football team for two years, I went camping with my classmates, and in general had great times there. I even went to dances. The nuns treated me as they did every other student. In such a milieu, it is no wonder that I felt I was an American."

Score one for Spokane, and for all-American acceptance.

Before and after the injustice of the camps, the U.S. managed to do enough right not to alienate the Japanese-American community. Despite racist laws preventing Asian resident aliens from gaining citizenship, despite laws forbidding Asian legal aliens to own land, the American system provided enough opportunity to allow hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans to make a life for themselves before the camps. After the war, despite everything the Japanese-Americans had lost, and how far they had been betrayed, Japanese-Americans loved this country enough to want to re-integrate themselves. And American society proved open and tolerant enough to allow that to happen.

During the war, many Japanese-Americans proved willing to go to any length to prove their loyalty to this country. When the American army came calling, 10,000 Japanese Americans volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Many of them volunteered from inside the camps. The 442nd went on to become the most decorated combat unit in U.S. military history. More than 800 of them died in one mission to save a stranded Texas battalion of 221 soldiers. They became known as the "Purple Heart Battalion." (The Purple Heart is a medal of honor awarded to those wounded or killed in the line of duty.).

My father, who was only 10 years old at Minidoka, has always been proud of the 442nd.

Immigrants now make up a sizable portion of the waves of recruits showing up at Army offices across America. Some are hard up for a job, or are trying to speed the process of becoming a citizen (the wait drops two years for members of the military). Many of them, like the men of the 442nd, probably feel they have something to prove. Most are patriots. Like converts to a new religion, immigrants are often the most zealous believers in the American way. They cherish America's opportunities and liberties because they have firsthand experience with the alternatives.

We have even more to cherish today than in the days of the 442nd. Many battles have been won against racism and for civil rights. There will be no internment camps for Arab Americans. It's been heartening to see Japanese American organizations around the country throw their support behind the Arab-American community, organizing town meetings and talks. For every hate crime we hear about in the papers, we hear another story about people doing their best to make their Arab or Sikh or Muslim neighbors feel at ease. Lone American nut-jobs have thrown Molotov cocktails at gas stations owned or run by Arab Americans, and in response, scores of American neighbors have turned out with flowers and cakes and support.

But if we let down our guard, if we don't do everything in our power to keep our government in line, if we allow today's FBI and CIA to run roughshod over immigrants' and everyone else's civil liberties, then we cannot call ourselves patriots. The President (and I reserve the right to continue ragging on him) tells us the terrorists hate our freedom. So the patriotic thing to do is make sure America maintains those freedoms. The government made some of the same arguments for Executive Order 9066 that they are making now for the U.S.A. Patriot Act, and for the detention of over a thousand immigrants. The patriotic thing to do, here, is to keep a close watch over the detention process, and to make sure no one's constitutional rights are trampled.

American patriotism means loyalty to American rights, to a beautiful set of principles, a brilliant constitution and a messy reality. Maybe being patriotic for the French, say, can mean pride in French food and wine, in French high culture, in the way French women pout. I've always been tempted to try and identify with other more cohesive, more homogenous cultures. But I'm not French, nor am I Japanese, and I can't locate national pride in my blood. I'm American, and American patriotism lives in the head and heart.

My Japanese grandfather is a myth to me. I never knew him and my family doesn't often speak of him and all that they went through. I imagine that he would probably find me strangely foreign -- weird clothes, weird music. Plus, I'm Jewish. My grandparents on my mother's side were Jewish, born in this country but of Eastern European descent. When my parents announced their engagement, my Jewish grandparents were shocked and upset (primarily because my father is a goy). But they came around. I was raised celebrating both Passover and Christmas, the child of a union unlikely to have happened anywhere else. I know that everything I am, everything I have, everything I may have accomplished, is based on the road my forefathers paved, both Jewish and Japanese. My grandparents all loved America, and while I claim both of their Old Worlds as influences on my own, I can only understand myself as an American.

On Sept. 11, my generation's age of innocence ended. But even if my patriotism is renewed, it's no different. I criticized my country before Sept. 11, and I'll keep carping until I feel that America is not in any danger of forgetting what she stands for.

Because if I don't, I would be letting down my grandparents, my father and everyone who ever fought or died for liberty and the American way of life.

Michelle Chihara is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

When Harry Met Selling

Harry In Harry Potter's world, the Express train to Hogwarts wizardry school leaves from platform 9 3/4 -- a platform that exists invisibly between platforms 9 and 10 at Kings Cross Station. To find it, you have to rush headlong at a wrought iron barrier and trust that you'll pop out onto 9 and 3/4. In other words, you have to close your eyes for a moment, ignore our messy Muggle world, and believe in Harry's.

"Muggle" means normal, or without wizard blood, without magic. This week, Harry Potter's magical world meets Muggle reality. On November 16, the wave of Pottermania crests with the release of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and the Lego sets hit K-marts everywhere. To the corporate colossus behind the film, Friday is the true dawning of the age of Harry Potter.

We all knew this was coming, those of us who have grown to love Harry Potter through the printed word alone. I read the first two Harry Potter novels back-to-back on a 14-hour plane ride, in those innocent days when author J.K. Rowling had captured millions of imaginations, but no corporate sponsorships. The books gave me a taste of that childhood sense of possibility and wonder, something I needed a reminder of at the time. But as we steel ourselves for the movie and merchandising mania, will any of us still remember how to get to Platform 9 3/4 by ourselves, without the brand-name gimmicks?

Ironically, Harry Potter fans have been promised a movie faithful to the books, tasteful merchandise, and a kinder, gentler, multi-million dollar marketing campaign. The conglomerate behind the little magician with the lightning-shaped scar is trying to tread lightly. AOL Time Warner knows how much fans love J.K. Rowling's creation. They know that Harry is the goose that lays the golden egg -- to the tune, they're hoping, of $2 billion projected revenue, in everything from box office returns to product tie-ins. So they have held back, riding the tide of Harry-love, in a "less is more," $30-40 million marketing campaign. The idea is not to drown Harry Potter fans with too much gaudy hype.

So what does a $40 million, "less is more" campaign look like, in the real world? The number of licensees on Harry Potter merchandise is comparatively small -- a mere 85 licensees, versus 150 for Batman, often cited as a comparable "event movie." Press about the movie has been under tight control -- very few interviews with actors, a tightly controlled set of images released from the movie. Coca-Cola is the only official sponsor.

Rowling and Coca-Cola are both taking every opportunity to tout Coca-Cola's $18 million literacy campaign for kindergarten through third-graders. It's a nice thought, isn't it? The marketing for a movie, which will inevitably replace a book in the imagination of millions, sponsors a literacy campaign? Kind of like tobacco taxes sponsoring rehab programs.
All publicity campaigns aimed at kids have an added pressure, paradoxically, to appear as if they're not interested in profiting off their customers -- as if they were spending all the millions purely out of a love of youth and Harry.

All publicity campaigns aimed at kids have an added pressure, paradoxically, to appear as if they're not interested in profiting off their customers -- as if they were spending all the millions purely out of a love of youth and Harry. "Authenticity, that's what they all want," says Tom Frank, editor of independent magazine The Baffler and long-time critic of corporate and advertising excess. "The idea is to make it seem like some sort of authentic experience, not a sold-out commercial thing. There can't be any perception of commercialization or sell-out."

Harry Potter has fans of all ages, and as Frank points out, some of them will see through this anti-marketing marketing campaign. But his biggest fans are quite young. "It always seems so monstrous when ads are aimed at children," says Frank, "because their critical faculties aren't as well developped ... But this has happened so many times before, we might be used to it by now."

In this case, the only reason studio executives can claim any measure of marketing reserve is that Harry Potter has already spawned a self-perpetuating universe of Harry Mania. Spin-off books already range from "What's a Christian to do with Harry Potter?" to biographies of Rowling, from Harry Potter numerology to how a young boy named Ben Buchanan overcame dyslexia, published a book, and wrote a trivial pursuit game, all somehow thanks to Harry Potter.

And who needs a marketing budget, when Harry already has the Web? From auctions to fan-fiction, Harry Potter has an online world usually generated only by cult science fiction. Harry's life on the Internet ranges from the wholesome -- like the quite thorough Harry Potter Lexicon, at www.i2k.com/~svderark/lexicon -- to the X-rated. A pornographic fan fiction chain email has already criss-crossed the nation (a fan called only C-ko described Harry and his enemy Draco getting ... carried away). Rumor has it that the new corporate folk want to clamp down on the more erotically inclined Harry Potter fans online. But surely they'll never be so foolish as to threaten the vast, self-perpetuating viral marketing machine that is their online fan culture.

Questionably tasteful Web sites are only the beginning of the Harry's troubles. With fame comes controversy, and Harry Potter has already seen his share. Is he a shill for Christian parables? Or an anti-Christian Satan worshipper? Feminist? Anti-Feminist? All of these accusations have hit the tabloids.

Harry's first real whiff of scandal came from an author named N.K. Stouffer, in the guise of a plagiarism suit. Stouffer says Rowling stole the name "Potter" and the word "Muggles" from her series of childrens books. In Stouffer's world, "Muggles" are humans, too -- but they are mutated nuclear holocaust survivors. (Does Stouffer also claim credit for the disheartening idea of using her first two initials so that young male readers wouldn't be turned off?) Stouffer's suit, filed in New York by a lawyer who has since dropped her, won't be decided for months -- the original hearing was scheduled for September 11 but, obviously, has been postponed.
No matter how subtle the hype, in order to "Live The Magic," you now have to buy a Coke.

In schools and libraries, Harry Potter has been battling book-banning efforts since it hit the stands. As a children's author, you know you've arrived when the religious right goes after you, and J.K. Rowling is no exception. From Santa Fe, Texas to Chatham, Kent in the UK, the Christian right has tried to ban Harry for polluting young minds with paganism, Satanism, fantasy worlds, and other sinful propaganda. Harry Potter is part of the "manipulative consensus process," that the "international program for multicultural education" is inflicting on children worldwide, according to one Web site.

These kinds of attacks are as old as Judy Blume's "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret," and are to be expected. But now that Coke has signed on as AOL Time Warner global partner, the attacks are coming from the other side.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has launched a nice-looking "Save Harry!" campaign, (www.saveharry.com) where it petitions J.K. Rowling to give up her millions from the Coca-Cola licensing deal. The publishers of the Nutrition Action Health newsletter point to health risks posed by too much sugar, including obesity, and lack of calcium when Coke replaces milk. "Save Harry" has nutrition experts on its side (although this campaign is also supported by the less-than-objective dairy industry). Their rallying cry? Harry Potter should not be associated with Coca-Cola because it produces "Liquid Candy!"

There's a certain irony, here. Not that Harry encourages under-nourishment in the Third World. But the hero and his friends regularly binge out on Drooble's Best Blowing Gum and Chocolate Frogs. Using "liquid candy" as an insult in the name of Harry Potter lacks a certain grasp of nuance.

But "Save Harry" is appealing because it's hard to swallow having the entire Harry Potter universe up for sale. No matter how subtle the hype, in order to "Live The Magic," you now have to buy a Coke. The talking portrait of the fat lady will be on sale as a Fat Lady Talking Portrait alarm clock, boxed and shrink-wrapped next to a Snapes Potion Class ($39.95). And just as the movie will replace the images we all had in heads, the $9.94 version of the Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Bean will replace the fictional beans. I bet they don't even include a tripe flavor.

Real actors will now edge out the characters we had in our mind's eye. And this film is only the beginning. There are seven books in Rowling's original vision, and a tentative plan for seven corresponding movies. The leading young actors have signed on for the second. Already concerned about how his stars might age, the movie's director, Chris Columbus, told Time magazine, "If they suddenly discover cheeseburgers, I don't know what I'm gonna do."
"In the end, watching Harry Potter go from beloved novel to "event movie" is like watching your favorite underground band hit the mainstream -- of course they're selling, but it hurts to watch them go."

A lot can happen in seven years. Coke has promised to spare us the image of Harry drinking the soda. But who knows what the future holds? Let's just hope we don't ever have to see Hermione looking Calista Flockhart skinny, or hear Harry give an "I got clean thanks to my fans" speech.

In the end, watching Harry Potter go from beloved novel to "event movie" is like watching your favorite underground punk band hit the mainstream -- of course they're selling, but it hurts to watch them go. It hurts, but it's hard not to root for single-mom-turned-millionaire Rowling and her floppy-haired, underdog-turned-hero Harry. And the pressure is on to stop grouching and help boost a sagging Christmas retail season.

So as we all troop off to see the gorgeous visuals -- the rich sparkling detail that only $125 million can buy -- let's pause to mourn the loss of Peeves the naughty ghost (he didn't make the cut in the movie), our imaginary Bertie Bott's beans, and the last piece of Harry's innocence.

Michelle Chihara is a staff writer at AlterNet.org.

Check out these stories from the WireTap Archives:
Peace, Love, and Marketing by Amos Kenigsberg, Mother Jones.

Commercial Invaders: ZapME Goes Under by Olivia Greer, WireTap


I recently heard about a bachelorette party where the women got together and watched Father of the Bride. A bachelorette party. Think about that. Watching Father of the Bride at a party that's ostensibly a kiss-off to single life is like watching a video on alternating current as a last hurrah before the electric chair.

A couple of weeks ago I flew to Miami for a friend's bachelorette weekend, and I've been puzzling over the nature of the bachelorette party ever since. Like other things adapted without much thought from the days of the unquestioned double standard, it seems confused.

The male counterpart is much simpler. Guys planning a bachelor party can fall back on the time-honored strategy of getting plastered, or its more elaborate variant: getting plastered at a strip club.

Bachelorettes have no time-honored strategy. At a loss for exactly how to make things risqué without making them dangerous, bridesmaids have single-handedly created a market for penis-shaped party favors: They buy penis-shaped chocolates, penis-shaped pasta, penis party blowers, and penis party straws. They make the bride wear a veil edged with penis lights.

Guys don't do this. They interact with real women, even if the breasts involved are fake.

Both genders feel obliged to perform acts of supreme sex-related silliness before they get married. But often, it seems, there's a perilous gap between a bride's comfort level and her friends' ideas of sex-related silliness. This sets the stage for bachelorette disasters.

A friend of mine we'll call Helen attended a bachelorette party in a swanky hotel room a few months ago. The bride's close friends were there. So were two female cousins of the groom. The bride said later that the cousins' presence made her self-conscious.

"We got her some lingerie, and everyone started saying, 'Put it on! Put it on!' " Helen says. "I mean, it was just a camisole and panties, and fishnets. We said, 'If you put it on, we'll strip!'

"And we did. The cousins did. But then we had a fake tattoo for her, and we made her get down on her hands and knees and put it on her ass." Helen sighs. "I guess she didn't like that."

The next morning, the bride told the groom, in tears, that she felt sexually harassed. By her own bridesmaids. This is heartbreaking, but who can blame any of the parties involved? Helen was just trying to whip up the ideal bachelorette party -- something lively and titillating. It was all among women, she figured, and she herself could take the tattoo and then some. But she misjudged the bride's personal boundaries. She feels terrible. The bride feels terrible. Everyone feels terrible. All in the name of penis-shaped fun.

Back in the day, the raucous pre-wedding bender was for gentlemen only -- the last skirt chase without consequence, a crass and trashy tradition. Women, on the other hand, weren't supposed to have been doing anything that they'd miss once they married.

Post-post-feminist-backlash, the bachelorette party can't decide whether it wants to follow in those trashy footsteps, or whether the "ette" means that the whole tenor of the event should be different. It's as if we feel obliged to compete with the men but aren't so sure we actually want a last night of freedom on guys' terms.

At the outset of the bachelorette party I just attended in South Beach, my engaged friend warned us that she might "lash out" if things got too embarrassing. I appreciated the warning, but I had no idea how to react. If we made her ask for a condom from a guy's wallet, would that be too much? What about kissing a guy with the same name as the groom? What about just asking that guy with the pecs to come dance with us?

Never having been in this situation before, and hoping to avoid charges of sexual harassment, I pretty much gave up. We bought her a flaming shot at a restaurant. But when even the cigar was ruled out (she said it would make her feel sick), we more or less left it at a tiara and a boa.

Guys, I'm convinced, do not worry about navigating such emotional land mines. A boys-will-be-boys stag party might stretch a guy's comfort zone, but the behavior demanded of women at bachelorette parties can fall way outside the norm. Even the bravest among us still rarely make the first move, never mind asking a guy if he's carrying birth control.

In Miami, the delicate balance of real fun versus forced fun, of embarrassing versus humiliating, was mind-boggling. Without South Beach's abundant alcohol and silicone-and-sun-hardened bodies, we would have been at a complete loss. The evening was not without its highlights, but they were only vaguely related to the fact that one of us was in a princess costume and carrying a stuffed penis.

At the other end of the spectrum from the bachelorette party's identity crisis is the bridal shower. The shower -- tea, linens, maybe a naughty nightie -- was once the ladylike (and only) counterpart to the groom's stag party. Now, schizophrenically, bachelorettes try to do both.

Conventionally girlish behavior is inevitable, it seems, as my friends enter the wedding zone. Planning glazes their eyes and gives them a whole new vocabulary; women I know have gone from mocking Martha Stewart's "Living" to trying to avoid spilling sun block on the "Good Things" section. Beach conversation in Miami touched on bouquets (pansies and ranunculus?), shoes (silver strappy sandals?), and colors (Nicole Miller's mocha or pewter?), not to mention carats, diamonds, settings, and engagement stories.

To those of us outside the wedding zone, this was something of a surprise. We were supposed to be celebrating single-girldom -- right? -- living it up before the noose tightened, not color-coordinating the gallows. But the fact is, the bulk of the wedding planning still falls to the bride, and she needs a venue to talk about it. It's fun, but of a different kind.

Maybe it's not surprising that there's no perfect way to plan what's basically a throwback to a different set of mores. But somewhere there's got to be room for a poignant farewell to the single life that came before, without an implicit denigration of the married life to come. A little symbolic farewell, a little hoopla at the close of one chapter in your life, is a tradition worth keeping.

The point is not that it's a person's last night of fun. My friend who's getting married is marrying an incredibly fun guy. The point is that you're leaving the meat market behind, for good. For most of us, especially women, the meat market will not be sorely missed. But it does have its moments, and they usually involve mild indiscretions or slightly drunken chemistry with a stranger on a crowded dance floor. We should raise a glass in honor of the times when such nonsense panned out, and to expurgate all the times it didn't.

The bottom line: If tomorrow were my last night on earth as a single woman, I would, in fact, round up my best female friends for a night on the town. I wouldn't mind finding out exactly which guys in the bar were carrying condoms. And I'd sure as hell go back to South Beach. But I wouldn't go anywhere near penis party straws.I recently heard about a bachelorette party where the women got together and watched Father of the Bride. A bachelorette party. Think about that. Watching Father of the Bride at a party that's ostensibly a kiss-off to single life is like watching a video on alternating current as a last hurrah before the electric chair.

A couple of weeks ago I flew to Miami for a friend's bachelorette weekend, and I've been puzzling over the nature of the bachelorette party ever since. Like other things adapted without much thought from the days of the unquestioned double standard, it seems confused.

The male counterpart is much simpler. Guys planning a bachelor party can fall back on the time-honored strategy of getting plastered, or its more elaborate variant: getting plastered at a strip club.

Bachelorettes have no time-honored strategy. At a loss for exactly how to make things risqué without making them dangerous, bridesmaids have single-handedly created a market for penis-shaped party favors: they buy penis-shaped chocolates, penis-shaped pasta, penis party blowers, and penis party straws. They make the bride wear a veil edged with penis lights.

Guys don't do this. They interact with real women, even if the breasts involved are fake.

Both genders feel obliged to perform acts of supreme sex-related silliness before they get married. But often, it seems, there's a perilous gap between a bride's comfort level and her friends' ideas of sex-related silliness. This sets the stage for bachelorette disasters.

A friend of mine we'll call Helen attended a bachelorette party in a swanky hotel room a few months ago. The bride's close friends were there. So were two female cousins of the groom. The bride said later that the cousins' presence made her self-conscious.

"We got her some lingerie, and everyone started saying, 'Put it on! Put it on!' " Helen says. "I mean, it was just a camisole and panties, and fishnets. We said, 'If you put it on, we'll strip!'

"And we did. The cousins did. But then we had a fake tattoo for her, and we made her get down on her hands and knees and put it on her ass." Helen sighs. "I guess she didn't like that."

The next morning, the bride told the groom, in tears, that she felt sexually harassed. By her own bridesmaids. This is heartbreaking, but who can blame any of the parties involved? Helen was just trying to whip up the ideal bachelorette party -- something lively and titillating. It was all among women, she figured, and she herself could take the tattoo and then some. But she misjudged the bride's personal boundaries. She feels terrible. The bride feels terrible. Everyone feels terrible. All in the name of penis-shaped fun.

Back in the day, the raucous pre-wedding bender was for gentlemen only -- the last skirt chase without consequence, a crass and trashy tradition. Women, on the other hand, weren't supposed to have been doing anything that they'd miss once they married.

Post-post-feminist-backlash, the bachelorette party can't decide whether it wants to follow in those trashy footsteps, or whether the "ette" means that the whole tenor of the event should be different. It's as if we feel obliged to compete with the men but aren't so sure we actually want a last night of freedom on guys' terms.

At the outset of the bachelorette party I just attended in South Beach, my engaged friend warned us that she might "lash out" if things got too embarrassing. I appreciated the warning, but I had no idea how to react. If we made her ask for a condom from a guy's wallet, would that be too much? What about kissing a guy with the same name as the groom? What about just asking that guy with the pecs to come dance with us?

Never having been in this situation before, and hoping to avoid charges of sexual harassment, I pretty much gave up. We bought her a flaming shot at a restaurant. But when even the cigar was ruled out (she said it would make her feel sick), we more or less left it at a tiara and a boa.

Guys, I'm convinced, do not worry about navigating such emotional land mines. A boys-will-be-boys stag party might stretch a guy's comfort zone, but the behavior demanded of women at bachelorette parties can fall way outside the norm. Even the bravest among us still rarely make the first move, never mind asking a guy if he's carrying birth control.

In Miami, the delicate balance of real fun versus forced fun, of embarrassing versus humiliating, was mind-boggling. Without South Beach's abundant alcohol and silicone-and-sun-hardened bodies, we would have been at a complete loss. The evening was not without its highlights, but they were only vaguely related to the fact that one of us was in a princess costume and carrying a stuffed penis.

At the other end of the spectrum from the bachelorette party's identity crisis is the bridal shower. The shower -- tea, linens, maybe a naughty nightie -- was once the ladylike (and only) counterpart to the groom's stag party. Now, schizophrenically, bachelorettes try to do both.

Conventionally girlish behavior is inevitable, it seems, as my friends enter the wedding zone. Planning glazes their eyes and gives them a whole new vocabulary; women I know have gone from mocking Martha Stewart Living to trying to avoid spilling sun block on the "Good Things" section. Beach conversation in Miami touched on bouquets (pansies and ranunculus?), shoes (silver strappy sandals?), and colors (Nicole Miller's mocha or pewter?), not to mention carats, diamonds, settings, and engagement stories.

To those of us outside the wedding zone, this was something of a surprise. We were supposed to be celebrating single-girldom -- right? -- living it up before the noose tightened, not color-coordinating the gallows. But the fact is, the bulk of the wedding planning still falls to the bride, and she needs a venue to talk about it. It's fun, but of a different kind.

Maybe it's not surprising that there's no perfect way to plan what's basically a throwback to a different set of mores. But somewhere there's got to be room for a poignant farewell to the single life that came before, without an implicit denigration of the married life to come. A little symbolic farewell, a little hoopla at the close of one chapter in your life, is a tradition worth keeping.

The point is not that it's a person's last night of fun. My friend who's getting married is marrying an incredibly fun guy. The point is that you're leaving the meat market behind, for good. For most of us, especially women, the meat market will not be sorely missed. But it does have its moments, and they usually involve mild indiscretions or slightly drunken chemistry with a stranger on a crowded dance floor. We should raise a glass in honor of the times when such nonsense panned out, and to expurgate all the times it didn't.

The bottom line: if tomorrow were my last night on earth as a single woman, I would, in fact, round up my best female friends for a night on the town. I wouldn't mind finding out exactly which guys in the bar were carrying condoms. And I'd sure as hell go back to South Beach. But I wouldn't go anywhere near penis party straws.

Something About Lucy

Some gentlemen prefer blondes. Some prefer brunettes. And then there are those gentlemen who seem to prefer Asians. I don't know what blondes say when they get together, but when we Asian-American women gossip among ourselves, we use a certain phrase for the white guys who prefer us. We say they've got "yellow fever."It's a pretty loaded phrase, and a dangerous one to toss around outside the family. But these days it's been on a lot of people's minds. Maybe you've noticed: in movies and on TV, Asian girlfriends are popping up everywhere.The past couple of years have seen the romance heat up between mainstream pop culture and all things Asian. The trend extends from the world of haute couture -- Devon Aoki, last spring's face of Chanel -- to the schoolyards full of Pokemon cards. It can be seen in the popularity of Memoirs of a Geisha and Snow Falling on Cedars; it can be seen in the phenomena of Madonna in a kimono, the Wu-Tang Clan, hair chopsticks, Mortal Kombat, and mandarin collars. "It's been really heavy in the last three years," says Eric Nakamura, the editor of Giant Robot, a Los Angeles-based magazine dedicated to Asian pop culture.But what really stands out, to a lot of Asian-Americans, is the headway being made by Asian actresses. The most famous of these is Lucy Liu, who plays the fierce, straight-talking lawyer Ling Woo on Ally McBeal. Female Asian characters have also been appearing (and reappearing) on Friends and Beverly Hills 90210, not to mention after-school specials and action series. Ming-Na (formerly Ming-Na Wen) went from The Single Guy back to a regular role on ER. A couple of weeks ago, an other-dimensional Asian temptress went after Angel the vampire, Buffy's ex, on Angel. In movies, we've had China Chow starring opposite Marky Mark in The Big Hit, and Michelle Yeoh as a kick-ass Bond girl. In the upcoming film version of Charlie's Angels, the third Angel is none other than Lucy Liu. Tia Carrere is still out there, somewhere.None of these women is exactly Julia Roberts yet, but some of them are getting closer. For advocates concerned about the dearth of Asian-American faces in pop culture, that means progress -- right? Well, maybe. All these new names are being fit into the same old patterns. The characters they play tend to fall neatly into the two best-known slots of Asian female stereotype: the Dragon Lady and the Lotus Blossom; the oversexed femme fatale and the blushing ingenue. And none of them is ever matched up with an Asian man.Community leaders are not shy about linking the pop-culture landscape, with its stereotyped Asian women and invisible Asian men, to the Asian-American reality in this country. If Asian women are seen as exotic and erotic, is it any surprise that white men want to date them? And if Asian men are seen not at all -- or, on the rare occasions when they do appear, are portrayed as weak or geeky -- is it any surprise that white women don't? (See "Tinted Love," right.)Public perception of Asian-Americans has become a particularly pressing issue given the pre-trial incarceration of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born American citizen suspected of espionage, which cast a pall over Chinese New Year celebrations. Asian-Americans have rallied around Lee in response to what activists say has been unjust racial profiling.Whether Asian stereotypes assume villainy or bashful innocence, impotence or command of sex secrets, inscrutability or just plain nerdiness, one harmful assumption lies beneath them all: that Asian eyes bespeak an Asian heart. The Asian-American community is bedeviled by Ling Woo. The Ally McBeal lawyer is smart, sexy, and insolent. She's candid to the point of being tactless, but doggedly loyal to her best friend, Nell. She's unpredictable: at first she doesn't even seem to be a lawyer, but next thing you know she's joined Ally's firm. She refrains from sleeping with her boyfriend, but then she kisses Ally. Turns out she owns a mud-wrestling joint.Ling is a quirky character, but she still seems suspiciously like a Dragon Lady. She exudes erotic danger. She gives her boyfriend "hair jobs" with her long black mane. She holds off on sex, but for a tantalizing reason: once men sleep with her, Ling says, they get can never get enough."Is she a Dragon Lady? It's a fine line. People take it both ways," says Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, a watchdog group that tracks Asian-Americans in the media. "It's not a perfect character. But there was this episode last season that was very telling, where they showed that she really did have a heart. She's defending a boy dying of cancer . . . . When he dies in the end, Ally McBeal is all broken up about it. Ling Woo says, 'Get over it, you knew he was dying. It's no big surprise.' Then, as she's walking out of the hospital, you see that she's breaking apart. By the time she gets to the ground level she's bawling like a child. Despite her gruff exterior, she's really hiding a very sensitive person."In the long run," says Aoki, "that's all we ask: to have some balance in the way that we're portrayed."Like most of the characters on the show, Ling Woo is basically a stereotype with enough twists to deflect criticism. And her positive aspects are real. Ling is dispassionate in the face of Ally's neuroses, ostensibly smart (at least she doesn't believe in unicorns), and tough. The most common defense of Ling, in fact, is that she shatters the countervailing stereotype of Asian women, the Lotus Blossom. (Not sure what a Lotus Blossom looks like? Think Madame Butterfly, offing herself over the loss of a white man.)Other media activists -- to use a co-opted Asian expression -- are a lot less Zen about Ling. "Like most Asian-American women, I'm upset by her," says Helen Liu, media consultant for the Asian American Resource Workshop, in Boston. "[Ling Woo] is the '90s version of all the old stereotypes wrapped up in one. She's a Suzie Wong, she has sex secrets . . . . People say, 'It's okay if she has this kind of weird and kinky side because she's also a powerful and central character.' But you have to look at what people are really being drawn to. They're not being drawn to the fact that she's powerful or central. They're drawn to her because of her stereotypical qualities."If this generation of people, this audience, believes that we've made a lot of social progress . . . then why isn't that reflected in our social and political reality? Look at the problems that are occurring. We still have this particular issue, Wen Ho Lee. He's not a female, but look at the way he's being persecuted."It may seem like a stretch to draw a straight line from Ling Woo to Wen Ho Lee. But in a country where a generation of Japanese-Americans still remember being imprisoned for their race during World War II, Asian-Americans are dogged by the notion that their ethnicity makes them suspect citizens. (If you think this is a dead issue, check out recent articles on http://www.wenholee.org, or go back and read the coverage of the White House "Chinagate" fundraising scandal, in which reporters made little effort to distinguish between Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans.)Meanwhile, Lucy Liu herself is getting fed up with being called upon to represent both her ancestral country and her community. The actress was shooting a movie and unavailable for an interview, but she told USA Today last month: "Just because I'm Asian doesn't mean that I know all about the history, the culture, the religion. I'm just as clueless as you. I love this role on Ally, and I defend this role, but people forget: sometimes you take roles because you've got bills to pay."A lot of Asians have wanted to give me awards and have me come and speak, but I turn them down," she added. "I feel like, 'Hey, give me a little while. I haven't done anything to earn this yet. Don't just give me an award because I'm the only person that's well known right now who's Asian.' "It's true, Liu didn't ask to be the Jackie Robinson of Asian stardom. But someone has to break the barriers. This year Liu has been cast in Charlie's Angels, a big-budget Hollywood star vehicle. The first two Angels to be cast were the movie's blondes, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. Much speculation followed as to who the third angel would be.Aoki says: "Their first choice was black. You have one 'ethnic' person and they think that makes everything diverse." Still, he's glad Liu got the part; the job is a coup for an Asian-American actress. "I'm glad she's one of them," he says. "But her boyfriend [in the movie] is Matt LeBlanc, from Friends, so there you go again. Why not pair her with an Asian guy?" But Hollywood simply never pairs Asian-American women with Asian-American men. In fact, the Asian-babe explosion is made all the more noticeable by the glaring lack of Asian leading men -- or at least leading men who do not karate-chop bad guys.Newsweek recently made a case for the idea that the media are "redefining their image of Asian-American men." But outside of fashion and advertising -- where the image of Asian-Americans does seem to be changing -- the only Asian-American leading man Newsweek could come up with was Rick Yune, a Korean-American who quit his job as a Wall Street trader to act. His current vehicle is Snow Falling on Cedars, in which he plays a Japanese-American soldier and farmer who is on trial for murder. The only other Asian male stars that Newsweek or anyone else can name are Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat, both action stars from Hong Kong. Martial-arts and action stars with accents are nothing to complain about, but they hardly qualify as a "redefinition" of Asian-American men in media.Yune alone is that rarest of beings: an all-American Asian male hottie in the public eye. But Snow Falling on Cedars is his first big break; his star is still dwarfed by Lucy Liu's. "I think that media image-makers are always more comfortable with Asian females than Asian men," says Aoki. "Seventy percent of TV shows in prime time are written by white males, and 80 percent of motion pictures."It's a common complaint: if one were to learn about our world solely through television, one would think it was populated primarily by pale rich people with perfect hair. All minorities are underrepresented on TV. The percentage of television characters who are Asian is less than half the percentage of Asians in the general American population -- in 1998, about two percent of characters versus four percent of the population. The situation is slightly worse for Latinos, and considerably better for African-Americans, who accounted for 12.3 percent of TV characters and 12.6 percent of the population in '98. But according to the 1998 casting-data report of the Screen Actors Guild, one thing was true for Asian-Americans that was true for no other ethnic group: the female characters outnumbered the male.Nineteen ninety-eight also saw the launch of the first TV show with Asian leads ever to be signed for a second season: Sammo Hung's Martial Law on CBS. The "Martial" in that name is no coincidence: as martial arts continue to rise in popularity, kung-fu fighting increasingly represents a kind of Asian back door to the American popular consciousness. But Asian martial-arts experts in TV and film are usually more caricatures than characters; as a professor from the University of San Francisco put it in Newsweek, Jackie Chan is a "funny martial artist, but are you going to sleep with him?"Outside of roundhouse kicking, the underlying dynamics of the situation seem to go something like this: Asian people are inherently foreign, but Asian women are exotic sex objects, which gives them a shot at being starlets. Asian men, on the other hand, are geeky and weak, except when they have a lot of money, in which case they're foreign businessmen trying to make up for being geeky and weak by being sneaky and villainous. Geeky and sneaky are both major disqualifiers when it comes to serious male stardom. That's certainly a bit of a simplification, and not everyone sees the glass as being half-empty. Speaking from her home in Manhattan, cultural commentator Phoebe Eng is sanguine about the situation. The author of Warrior Lessons, a memoir and essay on Asian-American women's personal empowerment, Eng says that although it's gradual, she has seen meaningful change in the perception of Asian-American men and women."Jackie Chan brings humanity and humor to his roles, and that's good," she says. "But he's still a karate-chop character, and they're still cartoon characters in a way." She'd like to see more guys who aren't doing roundhouse kicks, which is why she's pleased about Rick Yune. "He is just one of many Asian-American men who are really turning around that whole emasculated-Asian-man stereotype," Eng says. "He's a very good-looking guy."There are so many [Asian-American] people populating ads in all of these fashion magazines. Look through an issue of Vogue or GQ. Asian-American men are seen as a very vigorous buying audience," she adds.Her choice of examples is telling. When it comes to representing this "model minority," Madison Avenue is a big step ahead of Hollywood. Asian guys are much easier to find in ads and in fashion spreads than in sit-coms or screenplays. "It's the money imperative," says marketing consultant Wanla Cheng, who helps companies target Asian buyers. Advertisers, she says, "can no longer ignore the Asian population. Even though we're fairly small, we're the most affluent. We're the fastest-growing market in terms of percentage growth."Anecdotally, or given a sort of visual poll, I've noticed more and more Asians in ads, in print and TV," Cheng says. She says no organization tracks these numbers regularly, but a 1997 study in the Journal of Advertising found that Asians -- both male and female -- were actually overrepresented compared to their proportion of the population, appearing in 8.4 percent of print and television ads. At that time, the purchasing power of the Asian-American market was $125 billion, with Asian-American households boasting a median income of $44,460 -- 19 percent above the national average. In 1999, Asian-Pacific-Americans (the full term used to describe people with roots in Asia and the Pacific Islands) had an estimated buying power of $229 billion, and that buying power was growing faster than any other ethnic group's, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.The 1997 study in the Journal of Advertising also found that Asian-Americans were "more likely to be given token representation" -- that is, to be relegated to the background when they did show up -- than other minority groups. They were also almost exclusively portrayed working. A brief scan of today's television ads suggests that there is a new Asian stereotype emerging: the Techie Hipster. A new stereotype isn't usually much better than an old stereotype, but maybe by the time the Internet turns profitable, the thrall of the New will have changed our image not only of CEOs (younger) and work attire (more likely to include earrings) but also of the worker himself (ethnic!).On television, a medium organized entirely around getting us to watch commercials, it wouldn't be surprising if a shift in ad portrayals heralded a shift in who we see on the shows. Phoebe Eng thinks the time is ripe for someone to try another All-American Girl, a failed 1993 sit-com that starred Margaret Cho. (Cho herself has capitalized on the experience by incorporating it into her one-woman show, which she recently performed in Boston.) Martial Law -- yes, a kung-fu action show -- was signed for a second season. Half- or part-Asian-American stars, such as Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Tilly, have already translated slightly exotic good looks into mainstream success as sex symbols for all races, with almost no mention of their ethnicity.They may be the wave of the future. When Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson looks toward America in 2050 -- especially toward California, home of the entertainment industry -- he envisions an almost entirely miscegenational population dominated by a Eurasian upper-middle class. Perhaps racial categories themselves will blur into meaninglessness before we manage to break down all our damaging racial associations.But until then, though we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Consider the current big movie addressing the Asian-American experience, Snow Falling on Cedars. Ethan Hawke's love interest is a Japanese-American teenager who grew up in a small town in Washington state. In the movie she's played by Youki Kudoh, a Japanese national who speaks with a subtle but distinctly Japanese accent. An accent? It would have seemed bizarre if the character had been, say, an American-born white kid and the actress spoke with a German accent, but no one outside the Asian-American community balked at the casting. And this is a movie (an otherwise pretty good movie) that's basically about the Japanese-Americans' internment during World War II; about the injustice of the assumption that Japanese eyes meant Japanese loyalties.But hey, Charlie's Angels is coming out this spring. Maybe it will make Lucy Liu famous enough to land her that first, elusive non-ethnic-specific starring role. And then maybe we can all sit back and call it progress.

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