Michelle Goldberg

What Most Americans Don't Know About Yoga

Last month, a yoga class at the University of Ottawa that was cancelled amid accusations of cultural appropriation made a quiet return to the class schedule. The controversy initially erupted in November when a yoga instructor received an email from from the school’s student union saying that her services would no longer be needed. Citing problematic legacies of “cultural genocide” and “western supremacy,” the email stated some students felt uncomfortable with how yoga was being practiced. Now the class is back with a new instructor—a South Asian instructor—who worries she was hired only because she’s Indian.

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The Problem With Idolizing Sexual Liberation

One afternoon many years ago when I was in college, I got stoned before a film class and stumbled late into the darkened lecture hall without looking at the syllabus. On screen, I was somewhat disconcerted to discover, was hardcore Japanese bondage porn. I don’t really remember the pedagogical purpose of the film, but I do recall being uncomfortable, and being deeply ashamed of my discomfort. Back then, I longed to be worldly and unflappable, and would never have admitted to anyone that I was anything besides wholly conversant with the full panoply of international erotica. After class, I hurried out with my head down, not wanting to look anyone in the eye.

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Here Comes Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' Feminist Family Values Candidate

Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement on Sunday may mark the moment that the Democrats officially became the party of family values. Throughout the late 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, conservatives were remarkably successful at pummeling Democrats as foes of ordinary parents and their children. Progressives occasionally tried to argue that families are protected by economic justice and a stronger social safety net, not abortion bans and anti-gay demagoguery, but while this happens to be true, it often failed to resonate. Too many Americans blamed feminism and the sexual revolution—and, by extension, the left—for social and economic upheavals that had left them reeling. Ozzie and Harriet’s America was always a brief, half-imaginary historical anomaly, but a lot of people longed for it, and the right was able to weaponize that longing.
 
For a long time, Democrats flailed about trying to respond. Indeed, some of Bill Clinton’s most depressing acts of triangulation—firing Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders for her remarks on masturbation, signing the Defense of Marriage Act, ending Aid to Families With Dependent Children—involved trying to conform to a Republican definition of wholesomeness.
 
Now, though, we have finally moved past that. The surprisingly moving video announcing Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency shows that Democrats have finally found an authentic version of pro-family politics. Titled “Getting Started,” it features ordinary families preparing for milestones—a woman moving so her daughter can be in a better school district for kindergarten, a couple getting ready for a baby, a stay-at-home mom about to return to work, two men engaged to be married. “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,” Clinton says.
 
The campaign announcement suggests that this will be a very different sort of Clinton campaign than we saw in 2008, one that emphasizes gender and so-called women’s issues instead of running from them. And whatever you think of Clinton, it’s a triumph of feminism—or, at least, a certain kind of feminism—that issues like family leave and childcare are about to be at the center of a presidential contest.
 
There is both historical irony and historical continuity in Hillary Clinton emerging as the standard-bearer for a family-focused progressivism. It’s ironic because throughout the 1990s, Clinton was demonized as a cookie-hating enemy of home and hearth. “When Bill and Hillary Clinton talk about family values, they are not talking about either families or values,” said Pat Robertson at the 1992 Republican National Convention. “They are talking about a radical plan to destroy the traditional family."
 
At that convention, Republicans went out of their way to laud Marilyn Quayle, the vice president’s wife, for being what the New York Times called the “Un-Hillary,” a woman who’d given up her own legal career to serve her family. “Marguerite Sullivan, Mrs. Quayle's chief of staff, was asked to draw distinctions between her boss and Mrs. Clinton,” said the Times. “’Marilyn Quayle is absolutely committed to her family,’ she replied. ‘She makes time for the children; she's always home for dinner at 7 P.M.’”
 
In reality, however, Clinton was never any sort of family-scorning radical feminist. Indeed, however chameleon-like her public persona, concern for mothers and children has been a constant of her career, from her early work with the Children's Defense Fund to her book It Takes a Village to her work in the State Department on maternal mortality. Contrary to the right’s caricature, Clinton’s feminism always had a distinctly maternalist bent.
 
And now her campaign will, too. This is a sign that her team has changed. Gone, thankfully, is the odious Mark Penn, who advised Clinton in 2008 that voters see presidents as father figures and did “not want someone who would be the first mama, especially in this kind of world.” More than that, though, it’s a sign that the country has changed. The rapid public embrace of gay marriage has turned it from a Republican wedge issue into a Democratic one, casting conservatives as the scowling enemies of loving couples who want to join the most bourgeois of all institutions. The rise of female breadwinners, and of women in the workforce more generally, has eroded the idea that “family” means a working father and a stay-at-home mother; family values thus no longer signifies retrograde social arrangements. Today, it’s more obvious than ever that it’s liberals who are fighting for women (and men) to be able to make time for their children and get home for dinner at a decent hour. It’s encouraging that Clinton is making this her banner, because it’s long been her cause.
 

The Rise of the Progressive City

As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments. 

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Why Do We Have Unsafe Abortion in the United States?

This article originally appeared in The Nation and is reprinted here with their permission.

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The GOP Is in Total Denial About America's Soaring Poverty Problems

This piece originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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Increasing Numbers of Women Face Jail Time for Wanting an Abortion

The following article first appeared in The Nation magazine. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

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The Execution of a Potentially Innocent Man Less Scandalous Than an Affair?

It's lucky for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas that he's not suspected of doing something truly shocking, like having an affair. Instead, it merely seems that he's helped cover up a homicide. Apparently that's not enough to make much of a national splash.

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Tea Party Movement Returns Christian Right to Its Racist Past

Now that popular conservatism has given itself over so avidly to racial resentment, it's curious to remember how hard the right once tried to scrub itself of the lingering taint of prejudice. Indeed, for a decade and a half the Christian right -- until recently the most powerful and visible grassroots conservative movement -- struggled mightily to escape its own bigoted history. In his 1996 book Active Faith, Ralph Reed acknowledged that Christian conservatives had been on the wrong side of the civil rights movement. "The white evangelical church carries a shameful legacy of racism and the historical baggage of indifference to the most central struggle for social justice in this century, a legacy that is only now being wiped clean by the sanctifying work of repentance and racial reconciliation," wrote Reed.

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The Growing Clout of Atheists and Non-Believers

In recent years, non-religious Americans have won a modicum of public acknowledgment. Not long ago, politicians insulted them with impunity or at best simply overlooked them. But the heightened public religious fervour of the Bush years led the country's infidels to organize as never before, turning atheist authors like Sam Harris into celebrities and opening lobbying offices in Washington, DC, just like religious interest groups do.

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Tyranny of the Christian Right

Whenever I talk about the growing power of the evangelical right with friends, they always ask the same question: What can we do? Usually I reply with a joke: Keep a bag packed and your passport current.

I don't really mean it, but my anxiety is genuine. It's one thing to have a government that shows contempt for civil liberties; America has survived such men before. It's quite another to have a mass movement -- the largest and most powerful mass movement in the nation -- rise up in opposition to the rights of its fellow citizens. The Constitution protects minorities, but that protection is not absolute; with a sufficiently sympathetic or apathetic majority, a tightly organized faction can get around it.

The mass movement I've described aims to supplant Enlightenment rationalism with what it calls the "Christian worldview." The phrase is based on the conviction that true Christianity must govern every aspect of public and private life, and that all -- government, science, history and culture -- must be understood according to the dictates of scripture. There are biblically correct positions on every issue, from gay marriage to income tax rates, and only those with the right worldview can discern them. This is Christianity as a total ideology -- I call it Christian nationalism. It's an ideology adhered to by millions of Americans, some of whom are very powerful. It's what drives a great many of the fights over religion, science, sex and pluralism now dividing communities all over the country.

I am not suggesting that religious tyranny is imminent in the United States. Our democracy is eroding and some of our rights are disappearing, but for most people, including those most opposed to the Christian nationalist agenda, life will most likely go on pretty much as normal for the foreseeable future. Thus for those who value secular society, apprehending the threat of Christian nationalism is tricky. It's like being a lobster in a pot, with the water heating up so slowly that you don't notice the moment at which it starts to kill you.

If current trends continue, we will see ever-increasing division and acrimony in our politics. That's partly because, as Christian nationalism spreads, secularism is spreading as well, while moderate Christianity is in decline. According to the City University of New York Graduate Center's comprehensive American religious identification survey, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians has actually fallen in recent years, from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001. The survey found that the largest growth, in both absolute and percentage terms, was among those who don't subscribe to any religion. Their numbers more than doubled, from 14.3 million in 1990, when they constituted 8 percent of the population, to 29.4 million in 2001, when they made up 14 percent.

"The top three 'gainers' in America's vast religious marketplace appear to be Evangelical Christians, those describing themselves as Non-Denominational Christians and those who profess no religion," the survey found. (The percentage of other religious minorities remained small, totaling less than 4 percent of the population).

This is a recipe for polarization. As Christian nationalism becomes more militant, secularists and religious minorities will mobilize in opposition, ratcheting up the hostility. Thus we're likely to see a shrinking middle ground, with both camps increasingly viewing each other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension and contempt.

In the coming years, we will probably see the curtailment of the civil rights that gay people, women and religious minorities have won in the last few decades. With two Bush appointees on the Supreme Court, abortion rights will be narrowed; if the president gets a third, it could mean the end of Roe v. Wade. Expect increasing drives to ban gay people from being adoptive or foster parents, as well as attempts to fire gay schoolteachers. Evangelical leaders are encouraging their flocks to be alert to signs of homosexuality in their kids, which will lead to a growing number of gay teenagers forced into "reparative therapy" designed to turn them straight. (Focus on the Family urges parents to consider seeking help for boys as young as five if they show a "tendency to cry easily, be less athletic, and dislike the roughhousing that other boys enjoy.")

Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade public life. In addition to the war on evolution, there will be campaigns to teach Christian nationalist history in public schools. An elective course developed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a right-wing evangelical group, is already being offered by more than 300 school districts in 36 states. The influence of Christian nationalism in public schools, colleges, courts, social services and doctors' offices will deform American life, rendering it ever more pinched, mean, and divided.

There's still a long way, though, between this damaged version of democracy and real theocracy. Tremendous crises would have to shred what's left of the American consensus before religious fascism becomes a possibility. That means that secularists and liberals shouldn't get hysterical, but they also shouldn't be complacent.

Christian nationalism is still constrained by the Constitution, the courts, and by a passionate democratic (and occasionally Democratic) opposition. It's also limited by capitalism. Many corporations are happy to see their political allies harness the rage and passion of the Christian right's foot soldiers, but the culture industry is averse to government censorship. Nor is homophobia good for business, since many companies need to both recruit qualified gay employees and market to gay customers. Biotech firms are not going to want to hire graduates without a thorough understanding of evolution, so economic pressure will militate against creationism's invading a critical mass of the public schools.

Taking the land

It would take a national disaster, or several of them, for all these bulwarks to crumble and for Christian nationalists to truly "take the land," as Michael Farris, president of the evangelical Patrick Henry College, put it. Historically, totalitarian movements have been able to seize state power only when existing authorities prove unable to deal with catastrophic challenges -- economic meltdown, security failures, military defeat -- and people lose their faith in the legitimacy of the system.

Such calamities are certainly conceivable in America -- Hurricane Katrina's aftermath offered a terrifying glimpse of how quickly order can collapse. If terrorists successfully strike again, we'd probably see significant curtailment of liberal dissenters' free speech rights, coupled with mounting right-wing belligerence, both religious and secular.

The breakdown in the system could also be subtler. Many experts have warned that America's debt is unsustainable and that economic crisis could be on the horizon. If there is a hard landing -- due to an oil shock, a burst housing bubble, a sharp decline in the value of the dollar, or some other crisis -- interest rates would shoot up, leaving many people unable to pay their floating-rate mortgages and credit card bills. Repossessions and bankruptcies would follow. The resulting anger could fuel radical populist movements of either the left or the right -- more likely the right, since it has a far stronger ideological infrastructure in place in most of America.

Military disaster may also exacerbate such disaffection. America's war in Iraq seems nearly certain to come to an ignominious end. The real victims of failure there will be Iraqi, but many Americans will feel embittered, humiliated and sympathetic to the stab-in-the-back rhetoric peddled by the right to explain how Bush's venture has gone so horribly wrong. It was the defeat in World War I, after all, that created the conditions for fascism to grow in Germany.

Perhaps America will be lucky, however, and muddle through its looming problems. In that case, Christian nationalism will continue to be a powerful and growing influence in American politics, although its expansion will happen more fitfully and gradually.

The country's demographics are on the movement's side. Megachurch culture is spreading. The exurbs where religious conservatism thrives are the fastest growing parts of America; in 2004, 97 of the country's 100 fastest-growing counties voted Republican. The disconnection of the exurbs is a large part of what makes the spread of Christian nationalism's fictitious reality possible, because there is very little to conflict with it.

A movement that constitutes its members' entire social world has a grip that's hard to break. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt put it this way: "Social atomization and extreme individualization preceded the mass movements which, much more easily and earlier than they did the sociable, non-individualistic members of the traditional parties, attracted the completely unorganized, the typical 'nonjoiners' who for individualistic reasons always had refused to recognize social links or obligations."

America's ragged divides

Those who want to fight Christian nationalism will need a long-term and multifaceted strategy. I see it as having three parts -- electoral reform to give urban areas fair representation in the federal government, grassroots organizing to help people fight Christian nationalism on the ground and a media campaign to raise public awareness about the movement's real agenda.

My ideas are not about reconciliation or healing. It would be good if a leader stepped forward who could recognize the grievances of both sides, broker some sort of truce, and mend America's ragged divides. The anxieties that underlay Christian nationalism's appeal -- fears about social breakdown, marital instability and cultural decline -- are real. They should be acknowledged and, whenever possible, addressed. But as long as the movement aims at the destruction of secular society and the political enforcement of its theology, it has to be battled, not comforted and appeased.

And while I support liberal struggles for economic justice -- higher wages, universal health care, affordable education, and retirement security -- I don't think economic populism will do much to neutralize the religious right. Cultural interests are real interests, and many drives are stronger than material ones. As Arendt pointed out, totalitarian movements have always confounded observers who try to analyze them in terms of class.

Ultimately, a fight against Christian nationalist rule has to be a fight against the anti-urban bias built into the structure of our democracy. Because each state has two senators, the 7 percent of the population that live in the 17 least-populous states control more than a third of Congress's upper house. Conservative states are also overrepresented in the Electoral College.

According to Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy, the combined populations of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alaska equal that of New York and Massachusetts, but the former states have a total of nine more votes in the Electoral College (as well as over five times the votes in the Senate). In America, conservatives literally count for more.

Liberals should work to abolish the Electoral College and to even out the composition of the Senate, perhaps by splitting some of the country's larger states.(A campaign for statehood for New York City might be a place to start.) It will be a grueling, Herculean job. With conservatives already indulging in fantasies of victimization at the hands of a maniacal Northeastern elite, it will take a monumental movement to wrest power away from them. Such a movement will come into being only when enough people in the blue states stop internalizing right-wing jeers about how out of touch they are with "real Americans" and start getting angry at being ruled by reactionaries who are out of touch with them.

After all, the heartland has no claim to moral authority. The states whose voters are most obsessed with "moral values" have the highest divorce and teen pregnancy rates. The country's highest murder rates are in the South and the lowest are in New England. The five states with the best-ranked public schools in the country -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey and Wisconsin -- are all progressive redoubts. The five states with the worst -- New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Mississippi and Louisiana -- all went for Bush.

The canard that the culture wars are a fight between "elites" versus "regular Americans" belies a profound split between different kinds of ordinary Americans, all feeling threatened by the others' baffling and alien values. Ironically, however, by buying into right-wing elite-baiting, liberals start thinking like out-of-touch elites. Rather than reflecting on what kind of policies would make their own lives better, what kind of country they want to live in, and who they want to represent them -- and then figuring out how to win others to their vision -- progressives flail about for ideas and symbols that they hope will appeal to some imaginary heartland rube. That is condescending.

Focus on the local

One way for progressives to build a movement and fight Christian nationalism at the same time is to focus on local politics. For guidance, they need only look to the Christian Coalition: It wasn't until after Bill Clinton's election exiled the evangelical right from power in Washington that the Christian Coalition really developed its nationwide electoral apparatus.

The Christian right developed a talent for crafting state laws and amendments to serve as wedge issues, rallying their base, and forcing the other side to defend seemingly extreme positions. Campaigns to require parental consent for minors' abortions, for example, get overwhelming public support and put the pro-choice movement on the defensive while giving pro-lifers valuable political experience.

Liberals can use this strategy too. They can find issues to exploit the other side's radicalism, winning a few political victories and, just as important, marginalizing Christian nationalists in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Progressives could work to pass local and state laws, by ballot initiative wherever possible, denying public funds to any organization that discriminates on the basis of religion. Because so much faith-based funding is distributed through the states, such laws could put an end to at least some of the taxpayer-funded bias practiced by the Salvation Army and other religious charities. Right now, very few people know that, thanks to Bush, a faith-based outfit can take tax dollars and then explicitly refuse to hire Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims. The issue needs far more publicity, and a political fight -- or a series of them -- would provide it. Better still, the campaign would contribute to the creation of a grassroots infrastructure -- a network of people with political experience and a commitment to pluralism.

Progressives could also work on passing laws to mandate that pharmacists fill contraceptive prescriptions. (Such legislation has already been introduced in California, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada, and West Virginia.) The commercials would practically write themselves. Imagine a harried couple talking with their doctor and deciding that they can't afford any more kids. The doctor writes a birth control prescription, the wife takes it to her pharmacist -- and he sends her away with a religious lecture. The campaign could use one of the most successful slogans that abortion rights advocates ever devised: "Who decides -- you or them?"

A new media strategy

In conjunction with local initiatives, opponents of Christian nationalism need a new media strategy. Many people realize this. Fenton Communications, the agency that handles public relations for MoveOn, recently put together the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, a MoveOn-style grassroots group devoted to raising awareness about the religious right. With nearly 3.5 million members ready to be quickly mobilized to donate money, write letters or lobby politicians on behalf of progressive causes, MoveOn is the closest thing liberals have to the Christian Coalition, but its focus tends to be on economic justice, foreign policy and the environment rather than contentious social issues. The Campaign to Defend the Constitution intends to build a similar network to counter Christian nationalism wherever it appears.

Much of what media strategists need to do simply involves public education. Americans need to learn what Christian Reconstructionism means so that they can decide whether they approve of their congressmen consorting with theocrats. They need to realize that the Republican Party has become the stronghold of men who fundamentally oppose public education because they think women should school their kids themselves. (In It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum calls public education an "aberration" and predicts that home-schooling will flourish as "one viable option among many that will open up as we eliminate the heavy hand of the village elders' top-down control of education and allow a thousand parent-nurtured flowers to bloom.")

When it comes to the public relations fight against Christian nationalism, nothing is trickier than battles concerning public religious symbolism. Fights over crèches in public squares or Christmas hymns sung by school choirs are really about which aspects of the First Amendment should prevail -- its protection of free speech or its ban on the establishment of religion. In general, I think it's best to err on the side of freedom of expression. As in most First Amendment disputes, the answer to speech (or, in this case, symbolism) that makes religious minorities feel excluded or alienated is more speech -- menorahs, Buddhas, Diwali lights, symbols celebrating America's polyglot spiritualism.

There are no neat lines, no way to suck the venom out of these issues without capitulating completely. But one obvious step civil libertarians should take is a much more vocal stance in defense of evangelicals' free speech rights when they are unfairly curtailed. Although far less common than the Christian nationalists pretend, on a few occasions lawsuit-fearing officials have gone overboard in defending church/state separation, silencing religious speech that is protected by the First Amendment. (In one 2005 incident that got tremendous play in the right-wing press, a principal in Tennessee wouldn't allow a ten-year-old student to hold a Bible study during recess.) Such infringements should be fought for reasons both principled, because Christians have the same right to free speech as everyone else, and political, because these abuses generate a backlash that ultimately harms the cause of church/state separation.

The ACLU already does this, but few hear about it, because secularists lack the right's propaganda apparatus. Liberals need to create their own echo chamber to refute these kind of distortions while loudly supporting everyone's freedom of speech. Committed Christian nationalists won't be won over, but some of their would-be sympathizers might be inoculated against the claim that progressives want to extirpate their faith, making it harder for the right to frame every political dispute as part of a war against Jesus.

The challenge, finally, is to make reality matter again. If progressives can do that, perhaps America can be saved.

Fighting fundamentalism at home

Writing just after 9/11, Salman Rushdie eviscerated those on the left who rationalized the terrorist attacks as a regrettable explosion of understandable third world rage: "The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings," he wrote. "Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex."

Christian nationalists have no problem with beardlessness, but except for that, Rushdie could have been describing them.

It makes no sense to fight religious authoritarianism abroad while letting it take over at home. The grinding, brutal war between modern and medieval values has spread chaos, fear, and misery across our poor planet. Far worse than the conflicts we're experiencing today, however, would be a world torn between competing fundamentalisms. Our side, America's side, must be the side of freedom and Enlightenment, of liberation from stale constricting dogmas. It must be the side that elevates reason above the commands of holy books and human solidarity above religious supremacism. Otherwise, God help us all.

Reprinted from Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg. Copyright © 2006 by Michelle Goldberg. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

The Powder Keg

In the fall of 2001, readers desperate to get a grip on the grotesque Afghan regime that America pledged to overthrow -- and its link to the terrorists, none of them from Afghanistan, who made a charnel house of lower Manhattan -- turned to Ahmed Rashid's authoritative "Taliban." In nearly 300 exhaustively reported pages, Rashid led readers through the maelstrom of recent Afghan history, but he also made clear that the bizarre student militia led by Mullah Omar and funded by Osama bin Laden was bred not in Afghanistan but in the madrassas of Pakistan, our chief ally in the war on terror. After last year's war, Afghanistan has become less of a threat to global security. Pakistan, though, has likely become more of one.

Right now, much of al-Qaida is probably in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country riven not just by ascendant Islamist extremism, but also by fierce communal conflicts between both religious sects and ethnic groups. Six months ago, when the country was engaged in a terrifying nuclear standoff with India, American attention turned briefly to the subcontinent, but was soon diverted by the president's lurching campaign against Iraq.

Still, anyone who wants to understand more deeply the roots of the terrorism that has convulsed the world from New York to Bali to Moscow would do far better to study Pakistan than Iraq -- especially since the former offers valuable lessons about some of what we might expect following regime change in the latter. Either of two fine new books, Owen Bennett Jones' highly detailed but occasionally skewed "Pakistan: Eye of the Storm" or Mary Anne Weaver's less exhaustive but more fascinating and authoritative "Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan," would be a good place to start.

Both do for Pakistan what Rashid did for the Taliban by offering a way for general readers to get a grip on complex political currents that seem to be leading inexorably toward crisis. Perhaps most important, both make clear that the fault lines in the country -- as in the Middle East -- aren't simply between secularists and fundamentalists, or between democracy and authoritarianism, but between Shiites and Sunnis as well as among various mutually antagonistic ethnic groups. In Pakistan's case, those groups include Pathans (known in Afghanistan as Pashtuns), Punjabis, Balocis, Sindhis and Mohajirs, all of whom, thanks largely to American policies, have lots of guns.

"The accumulation of disorder in Pakistan is such that it could well be the next Yugoslavia," writes Weaver, echoing an assessment Robert Kaplan made in the Atlantic Monthly two years ago. She quotes Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, Bush's peace envoy to the Middle East, saying, "If [Musharraf] fails in carrying out his reforms and putting Pakistan back on track, I can foresee three worst-case scenarios: The true military hard-liners will take over; the religious hard-liners will take over, and we'll see a theocracy like Iran; or Pakistan will be faced with complete chaos and fall apart." The country, awash in CIA-supplied arms from the Afghan jihad, could be called the terrorism capital of the world. Weaver points out, "As early as 1987, of 777 terrorist incidents recorded worldwide, 90 percent took place in Pakistan."

A New Yorker writer, Weaver has been covering Pakistan for 20 years, and she has gained extraordinary access inside the country -- she has had multiple interviews with Gen. Zia ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. While Jones, a former Pakistan correspondent for the BBC, aims at a more thorough history, replete with charts and graphs, Weaver's book is prismatic, relying on odd, incredibly telling details.

She's a hugely compelling writer -- parts of her book read like an airplane thriller, others like a surrealist farce. Jones has a wealth of experience in the country, but fewer well-placed sources. Both tell the suspenseful story of the 1999 military coup that brought Musharraf to power, a coup that occurred while Musharraf was stuck on a passenger airliner running out of fuel; soon-to-be deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wouldn't allow it to land. But while Jones tells it from the ground, Weaver does it through Musharraf's eyes. The former is a fuller account, the latter, a more immediate one.

There are merits to both approaches. Reading Weaver won't tell you how many submarines Pakistan has (10) or what percentage of its population isn't expected to live to age 40 (20 percent), as Jones will. There's little in Weaver's book about the succession of Bangladesh or the internal political contradictions that made its independence more or less inevitable. Jones goes into much greater detail about the building of Pakistan's atomic bomb and the possibility that the nation will become a nuclear proliferator.

Yet Weaver manages to convey the nation's emotional attachment to its nuclear power in startling images that feel visceral to the reader: "[I]n every city and town there are monuments to Pakistan's nuclear bomb," she writes. "In Quetta, Peshawar, Karachi, and Lahore towering replicas rise ... And in the capital of Islamabad a futuristic granite structure soars by day and is illuminated by night in fiery hues of orange. As I stood before it one evening and puzzled over what it meant, a Pakistani friend explained that the interior lighting was meant to impart the glow of the nuclear weapon that had exploded in the Chagai Hills."

More than a historian, Weaver is a great travel writer in the Graham Greene mode, with an eye for illustrative absurdities. She spends a whole chapter on the bizarre houbara bustard bird hunts, in which hordes of impossibly wealthy Middle Eastern royals descend on Pakistan with awesome retinues to hunt the bird -- extinct in their own lands, its flesh believed to be an aphrodisiac -- from the windows of tricked-out luxury vehicles. Her reporting here does more than point out a weird curiosity; it gives the reader an oblique, novelistic insight into Arab power in the region and the way embedded customs have been exaggerated rather than obliterated by modern technology.

Houbaras are endangered. Pakistanis aren't allowed to hunt them, and some wildlife areas are ostensibly protected. But such regulations mean little, given the gifts the sheiks can bestow on local leaders -- Weaver recalls the minister of defense of the United Arab Emirates presenting one powerful nawab with a Kalashnikov plated with 3 pounds of 24-karat gold. In Weaver's telling, the houbara has become "a pawn on the geopolitical chessboard," smoothing the relationship between Pakistan and the Arab world, resulting in even more infusions of Saudi money, and through Saudi-funded schools and mosques, strengthening militant Islam.

Jones is more doubtful than Weaver about the power of the Islamists -- perhaps too doubtful. His book attempts to defend Pakistan from some of its harsher critics, arguing, "For years now Delhi has tried to portray Pakistan as a rogue state filled with Islamic extremists hellbent on exporting terrorism. While this message has resonated neatly with Western anti-Islamic prejudices, I shall argue in this book that such a depiction of Pakistan is unfair."

He dismisses predictions of an Islamic backlash resulting from Musharraf's alliance with the U.S. against Afghanistan and writes, "Although some religious parties have participated in elections they have never done well ... There are various explanations for their lack of success, of which the most obvious is their unpopularity." Before his book was even released, events undermined this position: Islamists did better in the October elections than they ever had before and now control two of Pakistan's four provinces.

Obviously, journalists aren't soothsayers, and it would be ridiculous to criticize Jones for failing to divine the future in a region known for its extreme unpredictability. Yet some of his comments early on suggest an unwillingness to take radical Islam seriously enough (which is not at all to say that he dismisses it). Writing of a Jaish e-Mohammed suicide bombing of Srinigar's Legislative Assembly building that killed 39 people, he says, "Coming so soon after the 11 September attacks it was perhaps inevitable that the operation was perceived as a terrorist one." What else could it possibly be perceived as?

Still, Jones' argument has some credibility. Fundamentalism, clearly, is only one force among many tearing at the country, and Jones makes a convincing case that ethnic nationalism is a more imminent threat. His book includes a fascinating chapter that details the conflicts between the natives of the Sindh provinces and the Mohajirs, people from what is now India, who moved there after partition in 1947.

In 1975, a Sindhi nationalist politician described Pakistan as an "accident and freak of nature." In 1987, Jones writes, when Mohajir nationalist leader Altaf Hussain "asked a rally in Hyderabad whether they would rise to defend Pakistan in the event of an attack by India they responded in the negative." Additionally, there have been independence campaigns in Bolochistan and recurrent calls for a Pathan homeland, which would encompass parts of Afghanistan. According to Jones, loyalty to the Pakistani state itself is almost nonexistent outside the army.

Indeed, both Jones and Weaver point out that government-sponsored fundamentalism has arisen partly in response to separatism, as an attempt to create a unifying counterweight. Interviewing the Baloch nationalist leader Mir Ghaus Bux Bizenjo, Weaver asks why, given Balochistan's secular history, the mullahs were making "surprising electoral gains." She writes, "He said that they had been funded, and their campaigns run, by the ISI [Pakistan's state intelligence agency]. 'The mullahs are not nationalists or anti-imperialists,' he said with a loud laugh."

That's why, as Jones says, "If the Islamic radicals are indeed about to face their 'day of reckoning' then Pakistan will need an ideology to replace Islam." This is a crucial point, and not just about Pakistan. Right now, America is demanding that Pakistan root out Islamist terrorists, and while the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to Musharraf's curbs on democracy, there's much Western condemnation of it. Yet the growing popularity of militant Islamism among Pakistan's people may mean that a campaign against it is antithetical to democracy.

The Bush administration's rhetoric often paints a world in which dictatorship, fundamentalism and ethnic hatred are on one side and democracy is on the other. Indeed, Pentagon policy on Iraq assumes, with reckless optimism, that a more democratic Iraqi government will undermine its authoritarian neighbors, resulting, somehow, in the spread of Western values in the Arab world. What the situation in Pakistan suggests is that the weakening of authoritarian military regimes opens the gates to theocrats and separatists.

This is the Catch-22 America created for itself by nurturing Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan during the Afghan jihad. Propping up authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world betrays our values and nurtures the grievances that give rise to terrorism, but in many places abandoning or undermining these regimes would empower radical Islamists or separatists. The choice may not be between democrats and dictators, but between different kinds of dictators and bloody chaos. It's a reality that contradicts every humanistic impulse most Americans have, but one that needs to be considered as our government goes charging off on its messianic campaign to remake the world.

Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.

Drug War Backlash

For the last five years, comedian-turned-drug reform crusader Randy Credico has poured every drop of his considerable energy into Mothers of the Disappeared, a group of prisoners' relatives dedicated to changing the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. But despite meetings with Gov. George Pataki, Democratic challenger Carl McCall and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, all of whom pledged their commitment to drug law reform, the Mothers were getting nowhere.

Pataki and the Democrat-controlled Assembly couldn't agree on a compromise between the governor's conservative bill and the Assembly's more sweeping reforms. Credico came to believe that Pataki wants only cosmetic changes while protecting the laws' essential punishment. "Under his plan, we'll go from having the most regressive drug laws in the country to having the most regressive drug laws in the country," Credico says.

Stalled, the issue started falling off the radar. "I thought we were dead," Credico says. But the activists have been resurrected -- and are shaking up the New York governor's race in the process.

In the last two weeks, the billionaire libertarian conservative candidate Tom Golisano, who is running on the Independence ticket, has thrown his support -- and his cash -- behind Rockefeller repeal, not just reform, something few Democrats have dared do for fear of seeming soft on crime. His anti-Rockefeller TV ads are ubiquitous in New York markets. And longtime leftist Credico is working side-by-side with Golisano strategist Roger Stone, a right-wing pit bull and Reagan campaign veteran. They share a message: "Even people who are conservatives recognize that these laws are ineffective and expensive, not to mention being racist and unfair," Stone says.

It's an odd pairing considering that Golisano initially set out to challenge Pataki from the right, bashing the governor for becoming a "liberal." He's promised tax cuts, opposes gun control and supports a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions.

But Golisano is also something of a libertarian, which explains why he agrees with Credico about New York's controversial Rockefeller laws. Under the statutes, anyone convicted of selling 2 ounces or possessing 4 ounces of cocaine or heroin, an A-1 felony, gets 15 years to life in prison. People convicted of possessing half an ounce of narcotics, or of any sale at all, can get up to 25 years in prison.

Both Pataki's bill and the Assembly bill would reduce these. But the Mothers of the Disappeared want to scrap them entirely, handing all sentencing authority back to judges, who would then weigh the factors in a case -- including variables such as lack of a criminal record -- before deciding on punishment.

Golisano agrees with them, and he's spending millions to blanket the airwaves with the message that the Rockefeller laws are cruel and counterproductive. In one advertisement airing frequently on Spanish-language stations Univision and Telemundo, Hilda Garcia says she blames Pataki for the death of her husband, Eduardo, who at age 60 was sentenced to prison for acting as a lookout during a drug deal. Eduardo Garcia had a heart condition. Denied clemency, he died in a unit for the physically disabled at age 68. The ad features pictures of their life together and shots of a forlorn old man behind bars.

In another ad running on UPN and the WB, Anthony Papa, who served 12 years for delivering an envelope of cocaine 16 years ago, says, "When I was a young man I made a mistake. It was the only time I ever got in trouble with the law. Twelve years in a 6-by-9-foot cage. These laws waste money, destroy lives and break up families. Gov. Pataki's plan to change these laws is not true reform and he knows it ... Tom Golisano's plan is true reform."

Golisano is sponsoring an equal number of ads calling for the implementation of medical marijuana laws. And on Monday, he launched a new commercial attacking Pataki for his connection to a long-festering scandal in which his administration was accused of trading parole for campaign contributions -- something that particularly enrages Credico, given the governor's refusal to free some nonviolent Rockefeller convicts like Garcia.

Anti-Rockefeller activists don't see Golisano as a spoiler or a tool -- they've become passionate advocates for him. "Let's go for broke and go for Golisano," says Papa. "We can't do any worse because Gov. Pataki and Sheldon Silver are not compromising. What's left? We've got to go with the outside shot to try to win the election."

It's no wonder Papa is so enthusiastic -- Golisano's campaign is offering a critique of the prison-industrial complex that wouldn't be out of place in the pages of Z Magazine. "Pataki has been talking about [Rockefeller reform] for two years and has never done it," says Stone. "Obviously he couldn't swing the right wing of his own party in the state Senate. All of these prisons that Mario Cuomo built upstate are in the districts of Republican state senators who have prison guards as constituents. It's a patronage issue for a lot of senators -- let's keep black and Puerto Rican people locked up because it keeps jobs for our district."

This newfound zeal for drug-law reform isn't just providing the Mothers with more exposure than they'd ever dreamed of; it's giving Golisano a big bounce. Suddenly, he's a long-shot candidate instead of an impossibility. According to an Oct. 17 SurveyUSA poll, Golisano's support was at 22 percent -- his highest ever. That's still much less than Pataki's 46 percent, but it's closing rapidly on McCall's 29 percent. And Stone is quick to point out that his candidate is polling a couple of points higher than Jesse Ventura was a few weeks before he won the Minnesota governorship.

"Pataki's got no forward momentum," Stone says. "There's only one way for him and that's down."

But Golisano seems to be pulling votes away from both Pataki and McCall. "McCall's voters are looser," says Stone. "They're clearly falling off because of his own lack of resources. But to the extent that Pataki was winning any Latin, black or Democratic votes, and he was, we're also starting to pick up some of those." Since Golisano started his anti-Rockefeller campaign two weeks ago, his Hispanic support has shot from 6 percent to 35 percent, according to the SurveyUSA poll. Neither Pataki's nor McCall's campaign returned calls for comment.

Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor who represented both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader in their legal challenges in trying to join the presidential debates, believes Golisano's got a real shot. "It's definitely within the realm of possibility," he says. "Golisano has the money to spend to get his message out. There's a lot of fluidity in public opinion these days. All of the studies show growing receptivity to candidates outside the two-party system."

Raskin believes there's a "coming libertarian upsurge in American politics," something that's reflected in widespread disenchantment with the war on drugs. "For people who step outside the two-party system, there are enormous political gains to be won by challenging drug war orthodoxy," he says.

Even if Golisano loses -- and the likelihood still is that he will -- he'll have done much to prove that taking on the drug laws can be a winning issue. "In a certain sense, it's like Nixon going to China," says Stone. "The most conservative candidate in the race just came out and said these laws are ridiculous, ineffective, unfair and expensive. At this point, even if Tom Golisano does not get elected, [his campaign] will provide the impetus to change these laws. It gives cover to a lot of others."

Raskin points out the parallels with Perot. "Looking back to Perot's '92 race, he pushed the budget deficit as a central issue, and though he lost, reduction of the budget deficit became a central plank of Clinton's first term as he worked to win over independent-minded Perot voters."

"If Golisano loses, if nothing else he has injected the drug issue into public discourse in a very dramatic way," Raskin continues. "It's definitely going to have its impact on public policy. It might take two years or five years, but we are definitely going to see it."


This article originally appeared on Salon.com and is not available for syndication.

Flag-Draped Voyeurism

These days, ground zero smells like a fairground. The acrid chemical stench that poisoned downtown Manhattan for months has dissipated, and in its place are the summertime scents of hot dogs, cotton candy, roasting nuts and shish kabob, all competing to tempt the hordes of visitors to New York's newest blockbuster tourist attraction.

According to the New York Times, 3.6 million people will visit ground zero this year. There's no longer much to look at -- the expanse where the twin towers once stood is now just a vast construction site -- but people keep coming, disgorged by tour buses that idle nearby. There are giddy high school students in foam Statue of Liberty hats, dour families squinting under visors that read "Ground Zero NYC," religious groups including, on a recent visit, a few dozen Jews for Jesus in matching fluorescent orange T-shirts, middle-aged men staring intently into their camcorders and young guys strutting topless in the summer sun. Last Saturday one woman leaned into her husband and seemed, for a moment or two, to tear up, but mostly people seemed to be enjoying themselves in the perfunctory, listless way of tourists everywhere.

A whole cottage industry has sprung on the site's perimeter, a marketplace to peddle souvenirs of the catastrophe. Besides the aforementioned visors, there are Ground Zero NYC T-shirts and baseball caps. Five-dollar snow globes of the World Trade Center with police cars or fire trucks in the foreground swirl with red, white and blue sequin stars. Stall after stall sells $9.95 "Day of Terror" commemorative books, their covers decorated with pictures of the planes smashing through the buildings. DVD montages of the disaster -- running in a constant loop on the vendors' laptops -- go for $15 to $20.

George Peres, who has been selling stuff on the street for eight years and is finding unprecedented success with 9/11 merchandise, says he sells between 10 and 20 DVDs a day, as well as around 80 books. Across the street, Orlando Hollis, who lives in Washington but comes to Manhattan to peddle his wares, says, "Some of the stuff out here, like showing planes crashing into buildings, that's offensive."

Hollis, who wears an NYPD T-shirt over fatigues, sells Osama bin Laden toilet paper. "Wiping out terrorism!" he calls to passersby. The rolls go for $6 each, with a 50-cent discount if you buy three or more. Hollis has to compete with several other toilet paper purveyors, including one nearby who advertises with a sign saying, "So he likes bombs, let's drop a few on him!" Still, he does OK, selling around 200 rolls a day.

Some people, perhaps many, visit ground zero to pay their respects, to commune with history through the sight of charred real estate, to get a sense of the enormity of what happened. Yet the atmosphere at ground zero is nearly devoid of somber reverence. It feels like just another sentimental landmark, a place for people to get their picture taken so they can tell the folks back home they were there. Amid the brightly dressed crowds, one senses that for those who didn't lose anyone, some inevitable American alchemy has transformed the attacks into entertainment.

Shortly after Sept. 11, the pioneering avant-garde electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen ignited worldwide fury by calling the attacks "the greatest work of art there is in the entire cosmos," a statement which spurred a Times of London article asking, "Is this the most hated man in contemporary arts?" He was excoriated for finding aesthetic pleasure in the murder of thousands. His statement seemed to embody the nihilism at the core of a purely aesthetic view of the world, a view which reduced all events to their reflected images and the intensity of their attendant sensations.

Such fey and distanced triviality was supposed to be incinerated by the excruciating reality of the slaughter. Remember how many critics predicted that, having seen true urban devastation, audiences would no longer glory in watching buildings and cities brightly annihilated at the movies? In a gesture toward the new sensitivity, Blockbuster started labeling terrorist-themed videos with the message, "In light of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, please note that this product contains scenes that may be considered disturbing to some viewers."

"Once upon a time, it was fun to watch unthinkable things. But everything is different now," Leonard Pitts wrote in an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 9.

It turns out that things are much less different than some had hoped. Far from shying away from images of exploding public landmarks, the public hungered for them -- according to the AP, rentals of films like "The Siege" and "Die Hard" spiked after Sept. 11. Much had been made of Hollywood's sensitive decision to delay the release of "Collateral Damage"; in deference to the new sobriety, Warner Brothers waited nearly four months after the attacks to put the movie in theaters, where it quickly became a hit. So did "The Sum of All Fears," with its spectacular nuclear erasure of Baltimore.

Nine months after Sept. 11, the American public is not sickened by violent spectacle. On the contrary, it's almost as if its appetites have been whetted.

The expectation that a gentler world would emerge from Sept. 11's ashes now seems based less on reason than on an apocalyptic vein in American culture, the hovering possibility that one huge inferno can wipe away all our sins. This theme infects not just fundamentalist Christianity -- which has been torn between mourning escalating bloodshed and delighting at the approaching rapture -- but the secular world as well. How else to explain the widely shared hope that the World Trade Center disaster would redeem a craven culture?

The towers had barely fallen when pundits starting breathlessly cataloguing the societal sins they'd taken with them -- irony, narcissism, partisanship, greed. A New York Times editorial opined, "The awful week of death and destruction that has just ended might be the invitation to create a great new generation and a finer United States," while a Sept. 22 think piece about what the attacks portended for reality TV declared that New Yorkers had been "cleansed of the era's more frivolous preoccupations." Writing in the Journal of Higher Education, Martha Bayles barely suppressed her glee, saying, "The events of that day appear to have set off a seismic, even tectonic, shift that, unlike most of the other transformations we now face, feels therapeutic. Is it possible that terrorism is curing our worst artistic ills?"

All this led the critic Ellen Willis to write in The Nation, "You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to surmise that war has a perverse appeal for the human race, nor is the attraction limited to religious fanatics committing mass murder and suicide for the greater glory of God."

The outpouring of ecstatic hope that followed 9/11 was an expression of just such perverse appeal. It was a way of channeling the taboo thrill that electrified the air after the attacks, cutting through the fog of ordinary life in a way mere movies never could. Predictions of the demise of action films were based on the flawed premise that 9/11's surfeit of sensation was altogether painful, rather than something many people couldn't bear to let go of.

Thus the falling towers were put into a kind of permanent loop after 9/11. TV retrospectives started airing while the ruins still smoked, and news outlets seized on tenuous excuses to run the graphic images just one more time, as the New York Times did in a May 26 story about those trapped in the towers during the last moments before they fell.

This isn't to criticize any specific outlet for its coverage -- after all, as New York Times deputy managing editor John Geddes said in the New Yorker, Sept. 11 was "the story we had been training all our lives for." For months afterwards, almost any other subject seemed grotesquely irrelevant. The war on terrorism is defining our era and it demands attention.

But the way the pictures of falling bodies and falling buildings are played over and over suggests a voyeuristic impulse cloaked in patriotic piety.

Compare it to the video of Daniel Pearl, which is too sickening to broadcast even once. Some would argue that the Pearl video is different because it's more personal, that the singular brutality is more easily grasped. Large numbers of casualties often become abstractions. Still, if it hurt to see the towers blow up with thousands inside, would we be compelled to watch it a thousand times?

After Sept. 11, countless commentators spoke of how cinematic the whole thing was. What no one mentioned is that "it was just like in the movies" is frequently the phrase Americans use to describe the pinnacles of experience -- a first kiss, a fairy-tale party, a trip abroad. Something that feels "like a movie" is something that has an addictive feeling of heightened reality.

Stockhausen wasn't so wrong -- in a media-glutted world, Sept. 11 couldn't help but become the ultimate reality show. So enamored were we of its rare, shocking authenticity that we replicated its image into infinity and leached it of its meaning. Of course, it still works as a rhetorical cudgel that the administration can use to suspend the Constitution and most accepted norms of international behavior, but that just underlies how hollow it's become -- it's a political device, like the Pledge of Allegiance, sanctimoniously recited on the Capitol steps.

Which brings us back to ground zero, and the visitors who treat it with the lurid, loud fascination they might accord O.J.'s old house on North Rockingham Drive.

The impulse to see places where carnage occurred is a common one. As Paul Theroux reported in his book "The Great Railway Bazaar," the South Vietnamese were planning on luring curious American travelers to famous battlegrounds while the war was still raging. Holocaust tourism is a huge phenomenon and a rite of passage for Israeli high school students. There's a gift shop at Cambodia's "killing fields."

Yet the feel of these places is simply not as empty and meaningless as the World Trade Center has become. Maybe it's because there are still bones in the killing fields, nooses hanging from trees and teeth scattered in the grass, but the presence of commerce doesn't impinge on the solemnity of the place, its aura of metaphysical horror. Only a psychopath would pose for pictures there.

And that's something that happened more than two decades ago; mere months have gone by since Sept. 11, yet already the World Trade Center site is treated like a landmark from distant history. A writer to the New York Times defended tourism at the ruins on the grounds that Americans frequently visit famous Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam.

One great, defeated hope of the days after Sept. 11 was that the magnitude of the event would trump the process that turns distinct events -- electoral scandals and Hollywood murders, wars and blow jobs -- into solipsistic circuses. Instead, the event itself has been buried under an avalanche of examination and commemoration. It's an excuse for celebrity telethons, the subject of too many books, a subplot on prime-time TV dramas.

The self-help rhetoric of healing and closure might stipulate that this is all America's way of processing and coming to terms with the attack, but from ground zero it looks a lot like our way of sucking every last morsel of scintillation from the most exciting day many have ever known. The iconography of Sept. 11 has already metastasized into cliché, and yet people want more from it. So they go to the rubble-strewn graveyard; they snap photos and buy trinkets. It's become just another place where something famous happened, and where a few dollars will get you your very own piece of the fading drama.

Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York and is a frequent contributor to AlterNet.

Celluloid Ceiling

Towering over the corner of Highland and Melrose in Hollywood last March was a billboard featuring the "Anatomically Correct Oscar." Pallid and stocky rather than sleek and golden, he stood covering his crotch next to the tag line, "He's white and male, just like the guys who win!" A project by art-world activists Guerrilla Girls and Alice Locas, a recently formed, secretive group of female filmmakers, the billboard highlighted the fact that a woman has never won the Oscar for best directing. In fact, only two have ever been nominated -- Lina Wertmüller for "Seven Beauties" in 1976 and Jane Campion for "The Piano" in 1993.

After the breakthrough best actor and actress wins by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry at this year's Academy Awards, Hollywood reveled in self-congratulation for its ostensible progressiveness. Yet just as black filmmakers remain marginalized and decent black roles remain scarce, the situation for women making movies is grim. As stickers from another Guerrilla Girls campaign proclaimed, "The U.S. Senate is more progressive than Hollywood. Female Senators: 9 percent, Female directors: 4 percent." That's according to a study undertaken at San Diego State University, and it suggests the extent to which the dreams that radiate off theater screens and into our culture are still almost exclusively the dreams of men.

At a time when film schools are graduating almost equal numbers of men and women, why is the movie business still such a closed shop? Many women from every stratum of the directing world -- established Hollywood types and shoestring independents, celebrated art-house stars and creators of light teen comedies, film school deans and movie historians -- tell remarkably similar stories of deep-rooted prejudices, baseless myths and sexual power struggles that litter the path to the director's chair with soul-wearing obstacles. "It is absolutely consistently more difficult for women from the beginning to the end," says Debra Zimmerman, executive director of the nonprofit organization Women Make Movies.

And things might just be getting worse. According to a study by Martha M. Lauzen, a San Diego State professor who studies the role of women in film and TV, women directed 7 percent of the top-grossing 100 films released in 2000. (In a sample of the top 250 films, the percentage was a little higher, at 11 percent.) Last year, that already dismal number plummeted. "We're just putting together preliminary figures for films released in 2001. The percentage [of the top 100 films] has gone way down. It looks like 4 percent, which means it's below 1992 levels."

Adds Martha Coolidge, president of the Directors Guild of America and director of such movies as "Rambling Rose" and "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," "I'm not seeing the hiring of women directors improving at all. It's a terrible testament to where the industry is going."

Contrary to expectations, things aren't much better in the indie world than in Hollywood. Using a sample of 250 films, Lauzen compared the top-grossing 50 films with the bottom-grossing 50, which tend to be indie films. "We've never found a significant difference in terms of women behind the scenes" in the bottom category, she says.

These numbers are important in understanding the problem because, as any male director will tell you, moviemaking is a brutal business for all involved. Mary Harron, director of "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho," is married to director John Walsh, who has had a far more difficult time in the business than she has. "It's very difficult for women or men if what you're doing doesn't fit into industry standards of what people expect from a movie," she says.

Famed screenwriter and director Nora Ephron, whose movies include "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," adds, "I always think every movie should begin with a logo that says, for example, 'Warner Bros. did everything in its power to keep from making this movie.'"

Nevertheless, Harron says of the situation for women directors, "It is not all OK. It really isn't. It's still much harder for women to get started." The reasons why are a complex mix of economics, sexism, the tastes of executives and even self-sabotage.

Often, the hurdles start with discouragement in film school. When Coolidge applied to New York University's film school more than 30 years ago, she says she was told that she couldn't be a director because she was a woman (though she was accepted anyway).

One would like to think things have improved a lot since then, but according to Christina Choy, chair of the graduate division of NYU's film school, the mostly male faculty there still discourages female students in unconscious ways -- largely because its members don't relate to their work.

"I remember one student who made a beautiful film," says Choy. It was a short about a woman eating lunch alone in a park and being harassed by a man. "The camera showed he was playing with his dick. The male directing teacher went nuts and said it was pornography. If it was vice versa and you saw a woman lying on a bed, having a sexual arousal, that's no longer pornography," she says.

In the hallways of San Diego State, says Lauzen, "I have heard male professors say to female students, 'Don't even think about directing or being a cinematographer. Get into producing.'"

Those who do stick it out in school face sexual tensions that keep them from penetrating the groups of funders and mentors that help young male filmmakers along. "We can't be in the boys club, and the boys club is how a lot of films get financed," says Tara Veneruso, who made the documentary "Janis Joplin Slept Here" and is now working on her first feature.

She explains, "Let's say you have a short at a film festival and it's doing well. Chances are high you'll be at a party and have an opportunity to pitch your idea over drinks. If your idea is good enough perhaps you'll get it financed." For women, though, chatting up an older man over drinks isn't construed as business -- it's seen as flirting. That, Veneruso says, is why women are "always on the outside" of the casual networks where much of the film business gets done.

Like many directors, she's quick to say that this isn't only men's fault. "A lot of time these guys have wives and girlfriends who don't like the idea of them talking to you. What happens in this whole conversation is that men think they're being blamed for excluding women, but I don't think it's as simple as that." Going out to dinner with an older financier simply isn't as straightforward for a woman as a man. "They have more reservations because of the implied nature of your conversation," she says.

Once women make contact with backers, received notions about the filmgoing audience make female-centered projects seem less lucrative. Over and over, directors say they've run up against the Hollywood assumption that girls and women aren't a sufficiently lucrative market, despite the overwhelming success of chick flicks such as "The First Wives Club," "Waiting to Exhale," "Clueless" and "Bridget Jones's Diary."

The conventional wisdom, says Coolidge, is that men make moviegoing decisions for themselves and for their girlfriends. "The audience that studios have cultivated are young men. Young men, they feel, are easy to please. They seek out action, and then they'll take girls on dates." Similarly, when Sarah Jacobson brought her do-it-yourself sexual awakening triumph "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore" to Sundance, distributors told her, "Girls don't go to the movies without their boyfriends. It's just not a viable market."

Never mind that pair-dating is virtually obsolete as a social ritual, that teen girls were the ones who turned "Titanic" into a monolith, or that, as Coolidge says, "the adult female audience is the biggest audience in the world." The industry, she says, "is run primarily by young men who understand the audience that runs out on a Friday night and sees movies that have violence or sexual exploitation in them. When you get to making a movie from a girl's point of view, they don't know what to make of it."

This is also true, arguably, of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board. "Coming Soon," Colette Burson's comedy about satisfaction-seeking high-school girls, was initially slapped with the deadly NC-17 rating despite having no nudity or violence whatsoever. At the same time, as Michelle Chihara wrote in the Boston Phoenix, Joel Schumacher's "8mm," a movie about snuff films that took place in the S/M demimonde, had no problem getting an R rating, which allows a film to play in normal multiplex theaters and be advertised in heartland daily newspapers.

Given these prejudices, it's not surprising that a study done by Women Make Movies found, according to Zimmerman, that "women who were trying to make films about women were getting the lowest amount of money" of any prospective filmmakers.

Not every woman wants to make specifically female films. Then they run into other problems. Women don't get to do blockbuster movies, and those rare exceptions, like Mimi Leder, who directed the George Clooney action spectacular "The Peacemaker," and Kathryn Bigelow, director of "K-19: The Widowmaker," simply prove the rule.

"Many, many times I've gone to a studio or producer with the idea of doing a movie that I'm passionate about and found that they can't conceive of a woman doing material that is not completely chick-centric," says Coolidge. She badly wanted to make a movie about Johnny Spain, a mixed-race member of the San Quentin Six who was too black for white society and too white for the Black Panthers, but was told it would be un-PC for a white woman to direct a film about a black man. (Few flinched when Michael Mann beat out Spike Lee for "Ali.")

According to Mira Nair, director of the acclaimed "Salaam Bombay" and the wildly successful "Monsoon Wedding," no one will come out and tell a director that she's not being considered because she's a woman, but it's easy to sense. "Once I was very keen on a political thriller," she says. "I went out to L.A. to lobby for it and I got the vibe that they were humoring me."

Harron notes that while she's happy with her career, "'American Psycho' made a huge amount of money. It did very, very well in Europe and tremendously well on video, and I think if I was a guy I would have had a lot more offers having made that film. It doesn't bother me so much because I do my own work and I have two small children, but if I was younger and single, it would be very frustrating to wonder why Darren Aronofsky [director of 'Pi' and 'Requiem for a Dream'] gets offered some huge thing and I don't."

Regardless of what type of film they make, says Lauzen, there's no evidence to suggest films by women earn less in the domestic market than films by men. "In Hollywood there's this perception that films made by women do not earn as much as films made by men, and that actually is not true," she says. "We have done the statistical analysis on box office grosses, comparing films that had women behind the scenes with others. The notion that films made by women don't earn as much just doesn't hold up."

But those analyses don't take the foreign market into account, and Ephron says that market's importance is a crucial reason why action movies -- which many women don't want to direct, while those who do are rarely permitted to -- dominate studio output. "The movies that make the most money are aimed at a subliterate market. By which I mean not just teenage boys, but the entire Third World. The effect of the foreign market on the movies that are getting made is huge." The movies that do well in those markets, she says, "are very much like video games. They have very little dialogue and a great deal of action and explosions. They do very well, so you're always going to find people more receptive to making movies like that."

The people in Hollywood, says Ephron, "are always looking for the safest thing they can do. The safest thing a studio can do is pay $20 million to a male star who is big in Asia. If you aren't making a high-budget action movie with one of those male stars, everything you are doing gets harder and harder going down the scale, until you get down to independent filmmakers trying to make a $1 million movie about a woman."

If a director battles through and makes these most difficult of movies, often she'll face problems with distribution. Sarah Kernochan, who won her second Oscar in March for her short documentary "Thoth," said that "after seven years of tireless hustling to get it done," her cult teen comedy "All I Wanna Do" was sabotaged because Miramax bought the film but had no idea what to do with it.

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Rachael Leigh Cook and Lynn Redgrave, the movie was set in a New England boarding school whose students were fighting a proposed merger with a nearby boys academy. Though Miramax paid $3.5 million for it, the company decided to send it straight to video. Kernochan begged for permission to use her own money to open the movie in New York and Los Angeles, and emptied her savings account to pay for weeklong engagements.

"They convinced themselves that there was no way to get an audience, no way to get teenage girls into theaters," says Kernochan, a Hollywood screenwriter who also won a directing Oscar for her 1972 documentary "Marjoe." The idea was that girls "always went to see the boys' movie."

Miramax executives had a slightly different interpretation of events. "There was a difference of opinion regarding the marketability of the project," says Matthew Hiltzik, Miramax's vice president of corporate communications. Kernochan "declined to make certain changes" that Hiltzik says were needed to make the film more appealing to all audiences, not just to boys. "We respected her passion for the project and offered her the opportunity to distribute it through other means," he says. "Ultimately, the film's performance suggests there was merit to our suggestions." (It also suggests that teen films can't take off without a marketing budget and a wide release.)

Nevertheless, "All I Wanna Do" finally did make money on video. "I know by the size of my residual checks that it's done well, because I'm getting checks bigger than anything I've made off studio movies I've written," Kernochan says. Despite that, and the fact that she's won Oscars for two of the three films she's directed, Kernochan has yet to find backing for the dark comedy she wants to direct next.

In fact, after all the barriers women overcome to make a first film, many times the real struggle doesn't begin until they want to do a second one. According to an analysis by the Guerrilla Girls and Alice Locas, by last year, 56 percent of the men who'd had films in the 1996 Sundance festival had made another movie. Only 33 percent of women had.

Even though Rebecca Miller's first film "Angela" won the Filmmakers' Trophy and the cinematography award at the 1995 Sundance, it took her until last year to make her second movie, "Personal Velocity," which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year. Five years passed between Nicole Holofcener's 1996 indie hit "Walking and Talking" (which the New York Times called "a date movie so enjoyably prickly it will seem funniest if you don't have a date") and her latest, "Lovely & Amazing." There was a seven-year gap between Alison Maclean's first movie, "Crush," and her strongly praised "Jesus' Son." Maria Maggenti hasn't made another film since her lovely, influential 1995 "The Incredible Adventures of Two Girls in Love."

Partly, says Allison Anders, whose movies include "Gas Food Lodging," "Grace of My Heart" and "Things Behind the Sun," this is a result of Hollywood's fetishization of the boy wonder. "There's always going to be some boy who they're going to be five times more excited about" than any woman director, she says. "There's never been a 'girl wonder' mythology."

Thus, no matter how well received a woman's first film is, it rarely generates the kind of frothing excitement with which Hollywood greets a parade of male prodigies such as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson. "Male executives are looking for fantasy images of their younger selves," says Mary Harron, and this pertains to both the people and the films they celebrate.

At the same time, Anders says women are partly responsible for their failure to get second films done. As soon as a director makes her first movie, she says, "you have to have the next thing ready to go. I've been amazed watching people who are not ready with their scripts when they're getting a lot of attention. Preferably you should already be shooting your second one before the first one's out there. You've got to strike while the iron's hot. When 'Gas Food Lodging' was released I had already shot 'Mi Vida Loca.'"

For some reason, she says, women get caught unprepared more than men. "I don't know if women have this illusion that suddenly the doors are going to open up, but I think that women really have to be five times more conscientious about what they're going to do next. The doors are only going to open up for a second."

It's here that the issue gets complicated, because as much as some of these stories lend themselves to a straight-up feminist analysis, there are also internal barriers that keep women back. Despite her problems with Miramax, Kernochan also says her obstacles have been largely psychological (she also says that, at 54, ageism is a bigger problem for her than sexism). "In Jungian psychiatry it's called the spoiler, the voice that blames. It says, 'Of course this isn't happening for you, you're a woman, or your project isn't good enough.'"

Similarly, Alex Sichel, director of the sweet, searing 1997 riot-grrl lesbian film "All Over Me," is still workshopping material for a follow-up. She talks about feeling anxious once her work was out in the world and of struggling with writing. Women, she says, sometimes need "a different process to come out with their ideas."

And then there's that old bugaboo of successful women -- balancing work and children, which both Nair and Choy cite as their biggest hurdle. "It's difficult to raise children when you have to be on the set for six weeks," says Choy, noting that after leaving her family for a three-month shoot in Namibia, she had to face her own guilt and her husband's resentment, and she decided that "on my next project I wouldn't go so far away."

But while self-imposed limits enter into the equation, there's still a very real hierarchy of power to contend with, and it puts men on top, nonwhite men and white women somewhere below, and nonwhite women on the bottom. As Anders says about second films, "If you're not white, tack on another couple of years. It's almost like, thank you, black woman lesbian, we've heard that voice. Goodbye."

Thus despite the fact that Leslie Harris' first movie, "Just Another Girl on the IRT," got positive reviews and made a profit, 10 years later she's still trying to put together funding for her follow-up, "Royalties, Rhythm and Blues," a behind-the-scenes look at a woman working in the hip-hop industry. Though written for a multicultural cast, Harris says, "My passion is to make a three-dimensional black woman who is the lead of the film. That has been a challenge for me. I've been told -- a lot -- that black women can't carry a film."

Despite such frustrating responses, Harris evinces remarkably little bitterness. "I'm confident that I'll get it done. Hopefully things will change and the industry will be more receptive and I'll be there waiting with this great script and they'll greenlight it."

Given the massive amounts of money to be made off hip-hop culture, Harris' idea would seem salable. But one strange thing about the treatment of female directors -- and, by extension, female subjects -- is how often it defies economic logic. At the very least, one would expect Hollywood to try to exploit the female audience out of craven self-interest. As Anders says, "They should be able to market anything. This is America. They sell us everything under the fucking sun."

As the success of TV shows from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "Sex and the City" suggests, there's an enormous audience for stories revolving around interesting heroines. Women buy more novels than men. They've made hits out of the mainstream movies that truly address their concerns.

But the movie industry is a dream factory, and the resistance to women in it seems based, in part, on the subterranean longings of the men who run it. "Whoever is putting up the money -- as much as they might want to be eclectic and varied in their thinking, their taste and experience and subconscious desires come into it," says Nancy Savoca, whose films include "Dogfight," "Household Saints" and "24 Hour Woman." "If you look at the movies, they're all the fantasy of a studio executive who's making the decision to greenlight a movie. It's about whether you've caught his imagination. His imagination says a middle-aged man having a problem with his wife, that seems really good. His imagination says a woman should look a certain way, and there's your A-list actresses."

Ephron disputes this idea, noting the ascendance of women studio executives like Columbia head Amy Pascal and Universal chair Stacey Snider. "Ten years ago almost every studio was run by men, and if you were interested in doing a movie about a woman it was very hard to find someone with power who even understood what you were talking about," she says. That's no longer true. "I don't think you can blame the men who run the industry anymore. There are too many women running the industry."

Some in Hollywood, though, say that the women who've scaled the studio hierarchy have done so by adopting retrograde ideas. "One thing we have to remember is they've grown up in the boys' network. They've been acculturated to believe that a commercial film is a male film," says Linda Seger, a script consultant and the author of "When Women Called the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film." "Some of this is really unconscious. This is a very practical business. These women are working 12, 15, 16 hours a day. They haven't been taking classes on feminist theory."

In fact, many directors say the number of women studio heads only adds to their disappointment with the current situation. After all, in the early '90s, few anticipated the current stagnation. Back then, as some women were moving into positions of power in Hollywood, others were garnering praise in the burgeoning indie world, a scene that was electric but still obscure enough that the profit motive hadn't occluded all other values.

"Nancy Savoca and I came along at a brilliant time," says Anders. "People weren't expecting to make huge amounts of money, so you could do very personal, character-driven work and you could set up your next project based on the fact that you got into some prestigious festivals. Now it's much harder."

That's because in the last decade the indie scene has undergone massive consolidation, merging with the studio system to form what many call Indiewood. Once executives realized there were big profits to be made, films unlikely to yield immediate high grosses went by the wayside. "The minute 'Pulp Fiction' had that awesome opening weekend we were fucked," says Anders. Adds Savoca, "The indie movie is dead. If you scratch the surface of independent film financiers, they just want to be studio people. All people want is the runaway hit."

"Even at Sundance, a film that's considered small now is not really small," says Harris. "It has well-known actors or actresses. 'Monster's Ball' is considered a small film. Now, if you want a wide distribution you have to get talent that the studio feels will bring in box office." Films that don't bring in box office results immediately tend to get booted from theaters before they can build word of mouth.

To address this, Veneruso and Katie Lanegran run "The First Weekenders Group," an e-mail list encouraging its 1,600 members to see women's films as soon as they open. When it comes to independent films, such audience-building measures will likely be more effective than badgering industry bigwigs. Businessmen may never defer to the call for equality, but they can be convinced by the possibility of profits.

The First Weekenders Group is but one encouraging recent development. The very existence of Alice Locas, which aims to do for the film business what the Guerrilla Girls did for the art world, is another. When the Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985, according to pseudonymous member Kathe Kollwitz, the art world looked a lot like the film industry does today, with only a tiny fraction of women showing at major galleries. Today, the proportions are nearly equal. Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism was this year's Sundance, where women swept the top prizes. In addition to Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity," there was "Daughter From Danang," co-directed by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize, and Patricia Cardoso's "Real Women Have Curves," which took the Dramatic Audience Award.

So it's obvious, at least, that women can make great movies. What's less clear is just how many more they need to make before their stories stop being dismissed as irrelevant, their talents as narrow and their audience as nonexistent.

Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.

Reforming Rockefeller Drug Laws

White-haired, patrician, well-dressed, John Dunne is a former Republican state senator who sponsored New York's draconian drug laws almost 30 years ago. So it's a bit of a shock to see him starring in a television commercial with Mary Mortimore, an ailing African-American grandmother from upstate New York whose son is in jail for selling cocaine. But these days, the two are on the same mission: to convince New York to reform its so-called Rockefeller drug laws, named after the governor who presided over their passage in 1973, laws that have destroyed the family of one and weighed on the conscience of the other.

"I haven't seen my son in 10 years," Mortimore tells the camera. She's a lovely, fine-boned woman with desolate eyes and a choked voice. She recently had a stroke. "In 1992 he was convicted of a low-level drug offense and sent to prison. 15 to 30 years on a low-level drug offense. That's more time than they give convicted murderers and sex offenders."

Then Dunne appears. "In 1973, I sponsored the Rockefeller drug laws, which have been a well-documented failure," he says solemnly. Dunne goes on to urge Gov. George Pataki to ease the laws and redirect resources from prison to rehabilitation.

No one is sure exactly what Pataki will do, but it's clear he's having to listen to Dunne and Mortimer. They're part of a growing grass-roots movement to reform New York's drug laws, which are among the nation's harshest. In New York state, first-time, nonviolent drug offenders routinely receive higher sentences than rapists and murderers. Robert Chambers, the so-called preppie murderer, was given five to 15 years for killing Jennifer Levin in 1988. Joel Steinberg, who beat his 6-year-old daughter Lisa to death in 1987, was sentenced to eight to 25 years. Yet last year Darryl Best, a 46-year-old father of four with no criminal history, was locked up in maximum security for 15 years to life after he signed for a Fed-Ex package delivered to his uncle's house that turned out to contain cocaine.

That's not because the judge was a monster. At Best's sentencing hearing, Judge Michael Gross said the punishment was "clearly out of line for the offense that Mr. Best committed."

But he had no choice. Under the Rockefeller drug laws, passed at the height of public panic over drugs and street crime, anyone convicted of selling 2 ounces or possessing 4 ounces of cocaine or heroin, an A-1 felony, has to serve at least 15 years in prison before being eligible for parole. People convicted of possessing half an ounce of narcotics, or of any sale at all -- B felonies -- can get up to 25 years in prison.

There are roughly 21,000 people now serving drug sentences in New York state prisons, constituting about a third of the state's inmate population. Though studies show that most drug users and drug sellers are white, 94 percent of New York's drug inmates are black and Latino.

"Noelle Bush forges a prescription and goes to rehab," says Teresa Aviles, a 54-year-old Bronx police clerk whose son, Isidro, died of an untreated, undiagnosed illness after serving eight years of a 27-year federal prison term. "If that was my daughter, she would have gotten a mandatory five-year sentence."

Federal mandatory minimums are separate from the Rockefeller laws, but Aviles has joined the crusade against New York's statutes out of a need to give some meaning to her eldest's death. "Everybody knows there's a double standard of justice," she says. "It's not black-and-white, it's dollars and cents."

Now, for the first time in three decades, almost everyone involved in New York politics -- except, crucially, the powerful District Attorneys Association and a few upstate senators -- seems to be coming around to Aviles' view. Even Pataki calls 15-to-life sentences "egregious." He's in negotiations with the Democrat-controlled State Assembly, which supports broader reform than Pataki does, and the two sides claim to be moving closer to an agreement. "It is something everybody thinks ought to be done," says Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Chauncey Parker, Pataki's director of criminal justice, says that drug-law reform is the governor's "No. 1 priority for criminal justice."

And, of course, there's Dunne, who is now working for repeal side by side with the relatives of people his legislation has put away.

Those relatives are getting more numerous, more powerful and more savvy. Perhaps the most important grass-roots reform group is the Mothers of the Disappeared, a coalition of drug inmates' family members. The core of the group is about 25 women, including Wanda Best, Darryl Best's wife of 22 years; Regina Stevens, whose wheelchair-bound son was granted clemency partly through the Mothers' lobbying; and Elaine Bartlett, a former inmate who was sentenced under the Rockefeller laws and whose husband, Nathan Brooks, is 19 years into a 25-to-life sentence. Bartlett and Brooks have never spent a night together as man and wife; they had their judge marry them right before they were sentenced so they could stay connected.

Working with them are Anthony Papa, an intense 46-year-old paralegal who earned three degrees and became a noted painter while serving a sentence of 15 years to life for making a drug delivery, and Randy Credico, an abrasive 47-year-old former stand-up comic whose manic energy has given the movement much of its momentum.

Thanks largely to the Mothers of the Disappeared group, New York is closer to reform than it's ever been, but advocates for change aren't celebrating yet. There's some optimism in the air, but the sad possibility remains that despite the near-unanimous sentiment that it's futile to keep thousands of nonviolent people imprisoned, they might remain hostage to politics.

Activists say that if change doesn't come before November, it might not come at all. Right now, Pataki is searching for black and Latino support in the upcoming election, and Rockefeller reform is a hot-button issue in those communities. After the fall, the Mothers group fears, it will be easy for politicians to forget all about their families.

John Dunne is not given to melodrama. But his involvement with the anti-Rockefeller movement is clearly a mission of redemption. "I've got certainly a sense of guilt here. I'm trying to correct it," he says.

Dunne became aware of the disastrous effects of mandatory minimums while working for the first President George Bush. As assistant attorney general for civil rights, he was responsible for investigating rights violations in federal prisons. He saw those prisons filling up with nonviolent offenders because of the same sort of mandatory sentencing rules he'd pushed through in New York. That was never his intention, he says; he'd meant the Rockefeller laws to be used against kingpins.

On returning to Albany, he started working to undo his own legislation, organizing the Campaign for Effective Criminal Justice, a group of judges, politicians, lawyers, business leaders and clergy. The campaign's mission statement says New York's drug laws "deprive children of their parents, waste enormous human and financial resources, and fail to address effectively the addiction that underlies most drug offenses."

Dunne's presence lends credibility to the movement to undo Rockefeller. But the mothers, wives and sisters of inmates are its heart and soul. Beginning on Mother's Day 1998, small groups started gathering for weekly vigils in front of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, carrying pictures of the men they'd lost. They took the name Mothers of the Disappeared from the Argentinian organization that protested state terror in the 1970s.

Slowly, their stories made it into the local media, and politicians took notice. Regina Stevens, whose son Terrence Stevens was serving 15 years to life for cocaine possession and is almost wholly paralyzed by muscular dystrophy, went to the rallies faithfully. In December 2000, after the New York Times ran a story about Terrence, Pataki pardoned him.

Lately, the Mothers of the Disappeared have been taking meetings with everyone who matters in New York -- Gov. Pataki, Assembly Speaker Silver, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. "The thing I most want to see happen is to see you reunited with your families," Pataki told them at an Albany meeting on June 12.

Perhaps, but the situation is still tentative. After all, Pataki said he wanted to reform the drug laws in his State of the State address in January 2001, yet since then nothing has changed. The last legislative session ended without an agreement between the Assembly and the governor. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says that while the two sides have moved closer together, there's a chance they'll fail to reach a compromise.

Given how high the stakes are, the mothers have taken an amazing gamble. At the Albany meeting in June, Pataki told them that if they supported his bill, he could have their loved ones out "in a matter of days." Pataki's carefully crafted bill would have shortened mandatory minimums for A-1 felons. Their sentences are so unjust they -- and their relatives -- have become the poster children for the reform movement. Darryl Best, for example, is said to be a devoted father who never missed his daughters' parent-teacher conferences or basketball games, but his youngest, now 13, will be 28 before he has a chance of getting out. But of all the people doing time in New York on drug charges, only about 590 of them are A-1s, so Pataki's bill wouldn't have remedied the plight of thousands of other prisoners.

Almost all of the women at the meeting were relatives of A-1 felons. Parker told them they'd have their relatives back by the Fourth of July if only they'd pressure the Assembly to pass it.

They said no.

Instead, the group told Pataki, they wanted to see thousands of prisoners freed, to get rid of mandatory minimums, to streamline the process for resentencing, and to expand drug-treatment options. They didn't want to divide what's become the most vital civil rights movement in decades.

At a July 25 press conference in Albany, the mothers joined with Dunne in announcing their position on the governor's bill and unveiling the new TV commercial. Dunne says he's awed by "the courage of these women" in turning the deal down. Turning to Wanda Best and Elaine Bartlett, he said, "It gives me great pride to be identified with you."

The Mothers of the Disappeared began with one middle-aged white man recovering from a coke binge in a Florida hotel room. Randy Credico had been working on an HBO special with a well-known comic, and when they finished, they went on a bender. He checked himself into a room near Tampa to relax and detox for a few weeks. "I watched a lot of C-Span and read a lot of books."

It was on C-Span that he saw Anthony Papa debating someone from the American Correctional Association. Papa had become an anti-Rockefeller activist after getting out of prison, and Credico knew right away he wanted to work with him. Back in New York, he tracked Papa down and took him out for drinks, and they dreamed up Mothers of the Disappeared.

"Unfortunately there's not enough people who give a shit about blacks in prison," says Credico, who is now the project director at the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. "No one's ready to lose any sleep over it. But mothers -- everyone's got a mother. You see these old, tired women whose kids have been in prison for a long period of time, it's really difficult not to care."

Credico isn't a large man, but he takes up a lot of space. He has dark hair and a fondness for martinis, and he manages to keep up a string of invective against racism in the justice system even when his mouth is plugged with a cigar. An old-school leftist, he claims he was blackballed from TV after he referred to Reagan-era U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick as "Eva Braun" while doing stand-up on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

He says it was difficult but necessary to reject the governor's offer. "[Pataki] has got to go much further," he says. "It was a very cynical undertaking."

They'd worked too hard, he says, to give up without pushing for sweeping change. "To get a really shitty deal after all this violence against poor people by the law enforcement establishment, to get a small tinkering, to replace the firing squad with lethal injection, is that reform?" he asks.

Some people thought it was enough. Doreen LaMarca, whose brother Michael has been locked up for 17 years, says, "Sometimes you hold out too long, you get nothing. I can't understand why these people aren't jumping at this. It baffles me. I look at them and think, 'Bring your loved one home.' I think it's great that they want to help everybody. Randy wants to help the world. I'll just take that little piece that's going to bring my brother home."

That the rest of the group didn't feel the same is testament not just to their own resolve, but to their faith in Credico. Driving up to Albany for the July press conference, Wanda Best talks with him about the risks of turning Pataki down. She admits she's scared.

"I'm just afraid someone will say 'F' the mothers," she tells Credico, who is driving too fast and alternating between cigars and cigarettes. Darryl Best is nine months into his sentence, and under the governor's bill, he wouldn't be eligible for release for at least five years. But that's a lot better than 15, and the Bests have already lost one gamble, turning down a plea bargain that could have had Darryl out in a year.

Credico will hear none of it. "Do you want to get your husband out?" he booms.

Pointing to Elaine Bartlett, he says, "Do you want her husband to get out? Do you want to use the power that you have?"

Best, a small, demure 51-year-old, smiles sweetly and says, "I'll follow you to the death, Randy."

The women believe in Credico because his gift for combining P.R. with street action is responsible for propelling the movement as far as it's gone. As Papa says, a few years ago it would have been a "political death" for a candidate to advocate freeing felons from prison in an election year. "We put a human face on the issue and showed all these people rotting away because of these draconian laws," he says. "We changed public opinion so politicians were not afraid anymore to get involved."

"Six years ago, I was sitting in a 6-by-9 cage in Sing Sing," Papa says. "All the sudden here I am in front of the governor asking him to please change these laws."

Like Credico, Papa knows the power of a media-friendly story to influence politicians.

Sixteen years ago, he ran a radio installation shop in the Bronx. He had a wife and a daughter and was short of cash, and a bowling partner offered him $500 to deliver an envelope of cocaine.

The bowling partner was a police informant. "He had three sales indictments, and the police told him the more people you get, the less time you'll get." He got Papa, who got 15 years to life.

In Sing Sing, Papa earned a paralegal degree from Bronx Community College, a bachelor's degree in behavioral science from Mercy College and a master's degree from the New York Theological Seminary. What really saved him, though, was his painting. His despairing portraits of captivity -- some two-dimension and allegorical, like Diego Rivera, others roiling and impressionistic, like Francis Bacon -- caught the attention of the artist Mike Kelley, who included Papa's agonizingly bleak self-portrait "15 Years to Life" in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

Capitalizing on the publicity, Papa wrote his own press releases and sent them to local reporters. After five or six months, a piece about Papa appeared in a Westchester County paper. More followed, and as his story spread, so did calls for his release. In 1997, Pataki granted him clemency. "I painted my way out of prison," he says.

As soon as he was released, he began working to repeal the laws that put him away. He's become such a constant political presence that he and Credico now joke that Pataki probably wishes he could lock him back up.

As the son of an ex-convict, it was easy for Credico to relate to Papa. His father did eight years for safecracking during the Depression, before Credico was born, and imbued him with a deep sense of the horror of prison. "I got his mindset from it," he says. "I know how fucked up Tony [Papa] is from those 12 years of being hoisted into a dangerous environment away from his family."

That knowledge was the key to creating Mothers of the Disappeared. It helped him sweet-talk the women he met waiting at the bus stop for transport to the upstate prisons that house drug offenders. Slowly, he convinced them to join him in taking to the streets. His outrage at what they've been through is palpable in the clench of his jaw and the exasperation in his voice.

Credico's commitment is all-consuming. His girlfriend recently dumped him because of his single-minded obsession with changing the Rockefeller laws. Aviles calls him an "unsung hero. Sometimes he's hard to take, but if anything positive ever does happen, it will because of Randy."

The love is clearly mutual; while Credico barks and screams at most people, he's gruffly deferential to the Mothers.

"Randy saved my life," says Wanda Best from the backseat of Credico's Albany-bound rental car. When Credico tries to shush her, she tells him, "Randy, the truth will set you free."

"It's not going to set me free of this hangover," he shoots back, a cigar butt between his lips.

Maniacally switching between radio stations, he keeps up a soliloquy about the iniquities of the governor's bill and the need for across-the-board retroactive sentencing reductions. "Unless that's in, we're not supporting either bill," he says. "We ain't anyone's patsies."

While Pataki's bill would lower minimum sentences, it would be up to inmates to apply for resentencing, and judges could deny it. It applies to far fewer inmates than the Assembly bill does, and gives judges less authority to refer new defendants into treatment.

At the June meeting, Pataki tried to convince the Mothers to accept partial change now and more reform later, telling them to prod the Assembly to "pass the A-1 law and have hundreds of people out in a matter of days." But they were persuaded otherwise by Silver, who insists, "If [Pataki] was successful in just doing the limited A-1 bill, he would have the sound bite he was looking for to say he reformed the Rockefeller law, and there would never be further reform."

Both sides are playing politics with the Mothers. Pataki told them, "I really wonder if the Assembly wants reform. They'd rather have this as an issue where you're out there picketing instead of being home with your families."

Besides, says Pataki, "We are running out of the ability to go much further." After all, the New York District Attorneys Association and some conservative state senators oppose all but the most minimum sentencing reform. Craig Miller, spokesman for state Sen. Dale Volker, accuses anti-Rockefeller activists of "advocating a true jail break from New York state prisons."

"Any time you put a drug dealer back on the streets of New York state, the possibly of that person committing another crime is there," he says.

The district attorneys, meanwhile, admit they like the Rockefeller laws because the threat of long sentences helps them extract plea bargains and recruit informants. "It would be disingenuous to say otherwise," says James Vargason, president of the District Attorneys Association. But there's also a sharp ideological divide -- D.A.s simply don't see drug dealers and drug couriers, petty or not, as victims.

"Drug dealing is a violent business, and anybody who has been arrested, prosecuted and convicted for drug dealing is there of their own volition," Vargason says. "I'm feeling pretty good as a prosecutor when I remove somebody from the streets who is threat to you or your loved ones. Drug dealing poses that threat."

That's why Vargason's group, which already believes the governor's bill goes too far, is going to fight further concessions.

They're helped by the fact that Credico, in his sympathy for the imprisoned, occasionally overlooks the fact that some of the people he champions are not exactly innocents. As Chauncey Parker points out, the son Mary Mortimore talks about in the commercial might be imprisoned for a low-level offense, but he's been arrested over 30 times -- once with four loaded guns -- and convicted four times for drugs and assault.

Credico appears irritated when Parker brings this up, saying, "He was an addict most of his life. These were low-level things. It's not unusual for black people to get arrested 40 or 50 times. The cops routinely lie and routinely target people."

Papa laughs at Credico's attempt at damage control, saying that Credico was stunned and furious when Parker confronted him with Hilts' rap sheet. "You should have seen the look on his face," Papa says.

But while they laugh at the debacle, Papa believes the revelation was part of a Republican campaign to block reform. The politics, he says, are getting uglier by the day. "I blame all the politicians. The two sides hate each other," he says. "It's amazing to come so close and see them just spinning their wheels while another year goes by."

In another year, it may be too late. Deborah Small, director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit drug-law reform group funded by George Soros, fears that if reform doesn't come before November, it won't come at all. Pataki's pledge to reform the drug laws has become a major campaign issue, especially in the minority neighborhoods that most drug inmates come from. The issue is especially critical in the Latino community, where the Drug Policy Alliance has been running Spanish language ads. Right now, Pataki has an interest in appealing to that growing constituency; he seems to have written off blacks.

After the election, the issue, activists fear, will be moot, and Pataki will be more concerned with wooing the law-and-order types in the upper Republican echelons who might advance his career.

"George [Pataki] is a decent guy and I think he wants to see something happen, but some of the advisors around him are stonewalling," Dunne says. "The D.A.s put the fear of God into legislators that if they support reform they'll be viewed as soft on drugs and soft on crime, and nobody wants to get hit with that tag line."

He's still optimistic about the "good faith negotiating" going on right now, but others are bracing for disappointment.

"It's like 'Ishtar.' You spend three years making it and it comes out to be a shitty movie," says Credico. "It's the same feeling here." Aviles adds that while people keeping saying that change is nearly here, "That's what they've been saying since I met Randy in 1998. Seeing is believing."

"My son got a death sentence and I got life in prison," she continues. "I pray that in my lifetime change comes, but I won't be surprised if it doesn't."

Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.

Fundamentally Unsound

The most popular novel in America right now is one in which the world is tyrannized by the former secretary general of the U.N., who operates from Iraq, and his global force of storm troopers, called "peacekeepers." Revered rabbis evangelize for Christ, repenting Israel's "specific national sin" of "[r]ejecting the messiahship of Jesus." Much of the world is deceived by a false prophet, part of the inner circle of the Antichrist, who seems a lot like the pope -- he's a Catholic cardinal, "all robed and hatted and vested in velvet and piping."

"The Remnant," which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, is the 10th entry in Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's phenomenally popular "Left Behind" series, a Tom Clancy-meets-Revelation saga of the Rapture, the Tribulation and, presumably, the eventual return of Jesus. Last year's "Desecration," the ninth volume of a projected 14, was 2001's bestselling hardcover novel. There is probably very little overlap between Salon's readership and the audience for apocalyptic Christian fiction, but these books and their massive success deserve attention if only for what they tell us about the core beliefs of a great many people in this country, people whose views shape the way America behaves in the world.

After all, Tim LaHaye isn't merely a fringe figure like Hal Lindsey, the former king of the genre, whose 1970 Christian end-times book "The Late Great Planet Earth" was the bestseller of that decade. The former co-chairman of Jack Kemp's presidential campaign, LaHaye was a member of the original board of directors of the Moral Majority and an organizer of the Council for National Policy, which ABCNews.com has called "the most powerful conservative organization in America you've never heard of" and whose membership has included John Ashcroft, Tommy Thompson and Oliver North. George W. Bush is still refusing to release a tape of a speech he gave to the group in 1999.

The point isn't that all these leaders are part of some kind of right-wing Illuminati. It's simply that the seemingly wacky ideology promulgated in the Left Behind books is one that important people in America are quite comfortable with. The Left Behind series provides a narrative and a theological rationale for a whole host of perplexing conservative policies, from the White House's craven decision to cut off aid to the United Nations Family Planning Fund to America's surreally casual mobilization for an invasion of Baghdad -- a city that is, in the Left Behind books, Satan's headquarters.

Political attitudes and actions that make no practical or moral sense to secularists become comprehensible when viewed through Christian pop culture's eschatological looking glass. At a time when America is flagrantly flouting international law, spurning the U.N. and tacitly supporting the land grabs of Israeli maximalists, surely it's significant that the most popular fiction in the country creates a gripping narrative that pits American Christians against a conspiracy of Satan-worshipping, abortion-promoting, gun-controlling globalists -- all of it revolving around the sovereignty of Israel.

Israel is the key to the theology that dominates Left Behind (as well as much of American evangelical Christianity). In the religion, as in the series, the rapture is kicked off by a military attack on the country, which survives almost unscathed (though the first Left Behind, written before the current intifada, had Russian aggressors rather than Arabs). Indeed, the chain of events that lead to the return of Christ depends on the existence of a Holy Land that is under catastrophic assault. No wonder the born-again lobby is obsessed with Israeli self-defense, but opposed to any peace plan.

Those Israeli settlements in the West Bank that add so much kindling to the conflagration in the Middle East are often "adopted" and funded by American evangelical churches whose members are devouring a novel that depicts Jews reclaiming Palestinian land, moving Al-Aqsa Mosque out of Jerusalem and rebuilding the second temple on the Dome of the Rock. The chosen people are suddenly the darlings of the religious right, while a bestseller promotes the idea that Jews will soon convert to Christianity -- and atone for their centuries of stubbornness -- en masse.

Of course, it's not that every reader of the more than 50 million Left Behind books sold so far is an end-times fundamentalist any more than every Eminem fan is a homophobe. Nor are the books guaranteed to change their audiences' views on American foreign policy -- the relationship between culture and politics is never that simple. But the stories people tell themselves about the world necessarily shape the way they act in it, and right now, this is the story that's captivating America.

On one level, the attraction of the Left Behind books isn't that much different from that of, say, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The plotting is brisk and the characterizations Manichean. People disappear and things blow up. Revelation is, after all, supremely creepy, which is why it gets so much play in horror flicks from "Rosemary's Baby" to "End of Days."

The opening sequence of the first Left Behind book is gripping and cinematic. Rayford Steele, an unhappily married commercial pilot, is flying to London and contemplating an affair with a stewardess, when, handing the controls over to his co-pilot and walking into the cabin, he finds her hysterical. People throughout the plane have disappeared, their clothes left in neat piles on their seats.

"This was no joke, no trick, no dream," Jenkins and LaHaye write. "Something was terribly wrong, and there was no place to run."

Returning to America, Steele finds a world in chaos. All real Christians -- as opposed to mere churchgoers -- as well as children and fetuses out of wombs have vanished. Planes flown by believers have crashed, along with cars driven by the faithful. The media struggles to make sense of it, but Rayford, whose marital troubles were caused by his wife's newfound religious passion, knows what happened. His wife had told him that Christians would be raptured up to heaven in preparation for the rise of the Antichrist, his nefarious seven-year reign and the Second Coming of Jesus.

The Left Behind books chronicle those seven years -- known to Christians as the Tribulation -- as a ragtag group of new believers form the "Tribulation Force" to thwart the murderous plans of Nicolae Carpathia, the U.N.-leader-cum-prince-of-darkness (often just called "the evil one," Osama bin Laden-style). Carpathia's rise is engineered by a cabal of bankers. He's supported by Israeli liberals enthralled by his devious promises of peace, and a Democratic American president sells out the country to Carpathia's one-world government. Meanwhile, the Tribulation Force finds a spiritual leader in Tsion Ben-Judah, a rabbi and former Israeli statesman who realizes the error of his Jewish ways and becomes a guerrilla media evangelist.

It's bizarre that more attention hasn't been paid to the series' open hostility to the Jewish religion, if not the Jewish people. Imagine if, say, James Carville wrote a novel in which a band of heroic gay socialists defeated a voracious army of slack-jawed Bible-quoting Republicans to turn the world into a gigantic French-speaking free-love commune. He'd be crucified on the talk shows, and all kinds of sinister motives would be impugned to the Democratic Party.

That a Republican player can create a blockbuster media empire out of analogous extremism suggests two seemingly contradictory things. First, Christian paranoia has become so mainstream that few see fit to remark on it anymore. Second, while the novels' popularity has received lots of media attention, their actual content is utterly off the radar of the kind of people who write about books. Nobody, it seems -- except, of course, for the series' millions of fans -- is reading Left Behind.

The Left Behind books actually play on that sense of being unfairly ignored, reveling in the moment when smug agnostics, insufficiently zealous Christians and, most of all, Jews realize how terribly wrong they were. As Gersholm Gorenberg wrote of the books in his "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount," "Christianity's ancient, anxious amazement that the people who know the Old Testament best don't accept that it leads to Jesus (don't, in fact, accept that it is Old Testament) is at last disarmed."

Cannily, the authors make their protagonists disbelievers who are disdainful of fundamentalism. That means that doubters can relate to them and are thus drawn into their dawning religious consciousness, while believers get the satisfaction of seeing the heroes come around to their point of view. By having even minor characters recount their conversions, Jenkins and LaHaye make sure that each volume has moments when readers can enjoy a bit of high-minded revenge against mocking urbanites.

The writers take a special pleasure in the self-abnegation of supposedly sophisticated media types. In "The Remnant," a British reporter makes an appearance solely to explain her salvation. "All I can say is that the enemy has a stronghold over the mind until one surrenders to God," she says. "I was a pragmatist, proud, a journalist. I wanted control over my own destiny. Things had to be proved to me." Now born-again, she tells Steele that she's mystified by her former "lunacy."

Seeing the self-defeating delusions of erstwhile elites exposed may be the greatest pleasure the Left Behind books offer their readers.

The plotting alone certainly isn't enough to sustain attention in "The Remnant." That wasn't true of the first book -- theology aside, the setup of the original Left Behind makes for a strangely compelling thriller. The stage is the whole world gone mad, and the story roils with international intrigue. Jenkins and LaHaye are very good at turning esoteric biblical augury into real-world scenarios, and they get the action going before they start inserting too many sermons into the mix.

So simple fascination with a good story might have accounted for the book's initial success -- after all, audiences don't necessarily endorse the politics behind every action adventure they devour.

But by the time "The Remnant" starts, the suspense has pretty much died, because the story has the ultimate deus ex machina. Whenever things look grim for our heroes, when the enemy is closing in and there's nowhere to run, they're saved at the last minute by ... God. At the beginning of "The Remnant," Ben-Judah is encamped, Moses-like, with a million followers in the Jordanian desert. Carpathia's forces unleash a devastating bombing raid, but thanks to God, the resulting "massive sea of raging flames" leaves the so-called Judah-ites untouched. God can also be relied upon to speed up computer searches and drop plenty of nourishing manna on his blockaded flock. In the wittiest scene in "The Remnant," God is literally a co-pilot, sending an angel to help fly a plane during a tense getaway.

There's not much drama in the repeated victories of an omnipotent being, but that's not the only thing that makes "The Remnant" sluggish. In order to stretch out the series for so long, Jenkins and LaHaye have larded it with tedious subplots and countless techno-geek scenes in which a crafty Christian hacker named Chang sabotages Carpathia's plans or creates false identities for his comrades. About a third of "The Remnant" concerns the rescue of a Tribulation Force pilot named George Sebastian from Greece. The action mostly involves the characters driving around, splitting up, reconnoitering and then trying to find each other.

The Remnant has very little in the way of climactic good vs. evil showdowns. While there is a bit of supernatural deviltry (masses of vipers attack believers lured from Ben-Judah's protection by agents of the False Prophet) and some martyrdom (though not of any main characters), most of the story follows members of the Tribulation Force jetting around the globe running various errands. The nuclear annihilation of Chicago rates just a few lines, while the cellphone codes the Force uses to communicate gets several pages.

Left Behind cloaks itself in the conventions of ordinary airport thrillers, but it does far more than just provide a Christian alternative to decadent mainstream entertainment. It creates a Christian theory of everything, one that slates current events into a master narrative in which the world is destroyed and then remade to evangelical specifications. It's an alternate universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn't share their beliefs -- especially liberals and Jews.

There's nothing wrong with that. Everyone is entitled to their fantasies. But LaHaye and Jenkins are at pains to show that the Left Behind books are meant as more than fiction. They write on the Left Behind Web site, "While it is true that in the broad spectrum of Protestant Christianity there are multiple views of the end-times scenario, the pre-millennialist theology found in the Left Behind Series is the prominent view among evangelical Christians, including their leading seminaries such as Talbot Seminary, Trinity Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary."

So the rest of us can ignore Left Behind, or chuckle at its over-the-top Christian kitsch. We should keep in mind, though, that for some of the most powerful people in the world, this stuff isn't melodrama. It's prophecy.

Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.

Can Moby Save Pop?

Many of the reasons this is currently Moby's moment have little to do with the music on his new album, "18."

There was a vacancy in the hip new thing department, and Moby, fresh from the sales triumph of "Play," was a decent if awkward fit. The media's newly rapturous embrace of the bald, bespectacled electronic music veteran -- he's recently been on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, Spin, Wired and Entertainment Weekly (next to David Bowie) and was profiled on CNN -- suggests just how little else is going on in the mainstream music world.

Teen pop is going into merciful decline, above-ground hip-hop is being smothered by its own bling-bling clichés and the hysterical condemnations of Bill O'Reilly simply aren't enough to convince anyone that there's any oppositional energy left in the short-attention-span theater of rap-rock. The field is wide open.

So now, with nearly every scrap of vitality leached from the dance music scene that Moby helped pioneer, he's getting his quarter-hour of public veneration. It's not that he doesn't deserve it; despite the reflexive dismissal of too-cool dance music purists, Moby is simply better at what he does than the hordes of hipsters working in the same vein. Many of the tracks on "18" are very good. A few are sublime. "At Least We Tried," a heart-splitting ballad of failed love with caressing vocals by Freedom Bremner, is the loveliest song I've heard this year. The advance acclaim for "18" isn't undeserved (at least not entirely), it's just weirdly late, as if journalists had discovered punk in 1984.

Yet at the same time, part of the reason electronic music is currently so anemic is because its defining ideas have already been absorbed into the larger culture, finally making it ripe, after more than a decade, for the genre's first true crossover artist. Electronic beats and loops are now thoroughly integrated into MTV-land, from the Neptunes' dirty rhythms on Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" to the high-tech effects by Sly and Robbie and William Orbit on No Doubt's "Rock Steady." In that sense, Moby is less an ambassador for an alien genre than a member of a club whose rules he helped create.

Along with hip-hop, electronic music elevated the producer to artist status. At the same time, as hip-hop and electronic artists collaborated, traded cameos and remixed each other's songs, they broke down rigid models of pop authorship. Pop stars could no longer be divided into bands and soloists. Instead, they floated about, joining together for an album, a song or a moment in a song. The idea that a track like "Harbour," on "18," could be sung by Sinéad O'Connor but credited to Moby is no longer strange. Vocalists on "18" include Angie Stone, MC Lyte and the Shining Light Gospel Choir, but it's clearly a Moby record. (Still, it's not surprising that the relatively weak "We Are All Made of Stars," on which Moby himself sings like a proper pop star, was the first single).

Partly, the attention being lavished on "18" is a response to the media's failure to anticipate the tidal success of Moby's last record, 1999's "Play," which surprised everyone by selling more than 9 million copies. By combining old field recordings of roughly incandescent African-American spirituals with crystalline electronic production, Moby brilliantly updated the house music formula of recycled diva vocals and disco beats.

Beyond that, "Play" radically changed the way music is marketed. As Gerald Marzorati reported in the New York Times, every song on "Play" was licensed to a commercial, TV show or movie at least once. By insinuating itself into the very fabric of the culture rather than blazing forth into the public eye, the music became ubiquitous in a whole new way, as did Moby. He's always been interested in soundtracks. "Go," his first hit, looped music from "Twin Peaks," and he took a crack at the James Bond theme for 1997's "Tomorrow Never Dies." His 1997 record "I Like to Score" was a combination of music he made for films like "Scream" and "The Saint" and soundtrack-derived songs like "Go." Suddenly, with "Play," he'd created what sometimes seemed like the soundtrack to the entire world. As amazing as the repercussions of "Play" were, Moby has said that he's never aspired to do anything new. On "18," he doesn't. Instead, "18" distills the most influential down-tempo electronic music of the '90s into a record as smooth as beach glass. Some songs recall early Massive Attack, while others channel Air and Beth Orton's collaborations with William Orbit. The celestial strings and aquatic pings on the title song are pure Craig Armstrong, while the gospel loops of "In My Heart" and "One of These Mornings" could have been on Moby's own "Play." "18" is an alchemy of soul and new wave, with elements of hip-hop and disco. Conceptually, there's nothing novel here, which is why on the surface Moby's sudden ascendance into the limelight seems random.

Like "Play," "18" is distinctive without being original, in that it represents the final transformation of an underground sound into pure pop. "Play's" ubiquitous "Porcelain" -- featured in the film "The Beach," Nordstrom ads and several TV shows -- took the dreamy cascades of groups like Hooverphonic and polished them to a high gloss. Like Massive Attack and Stars, Moby's music contains myriad currents of darkness, but it's darkness of a significantly different, more marketable kind.

Instead of Massive Attack's struggling weariness on songs like "Protection" and the gut-churning dread of tracks like "Sly" and "Angel," Moby's blackness is pristinely romantic. It makes despair seem beautiful and noble rather than creepy. While you listen to it, the world takes on a sepia Sunday cast. "Sleep Alone" was originally a song about a couple dying together; in the wake of Sept. 11, he changed the lyrics to make the meaning more elusive, but the pain in it is still of the most rarefied and delicious kind.

That's not meant pejoratively. It is certainly true that Moby has done more than anyone else to lift electronic music out of the underground. But that underground had long since stopped being a vital or interesting place. If "18" is more accessible and lustrous than the vast majority of electronic music, that's partly because Moby is oriented toward the mainstream, and partly because he's an impeccable producer. Electronic music is so easy to make that it drastically lowered the bar for anyone who wanted to call themselves a musician; the resulting homemade simplicity defined the aesthetic but also limited it. Moby is a genuine pop composer who happens to work electronically. He's slicker than most of his peers, but he's also more talented.

At least, he's talented as a producer. Fame has ruined him in one way: He now insists on singing. Moby's voice is a thin, brittle thing. It doesn't even come close to the kind of ugly beauty of a Stephin Merritt or a Leonard Cohen, who somehow sing amazingly without being amazing singers.

The last time Moby sang this much was on his disastrously received 1996 rock record, "Animal Rights." This time, he takes the lead vocal on four songs, and while they're processed enough to be enjoyable, the tracks where other people sing are so superior that it's hard not to be disappointed whenever his voice appears. He's like Quentin Tarantino, who can't act yet insists on casting himself in otherwise good movies.

Yet just as Tarantino couldn't spoil "Pulp Fiction," Moby's croaking doesn't ruin "18." The record is familiar territory for anyone who's been listening to electronic music for a while, but then again, the fetish for musical novelty (as opposed to musical skill) is what fueled the underground's manic trend cycles and ultimately exhausted the genre. People can blather about selling out and cashing in, but just as Tarantino, however annoying he may be, remains an exponential improvement over, say, Jerry Bruckheimer, Moby's music beats almost everything that's on the radio. This album will probably be the soundtrack of the next "18" months. That that's a pleasant prospect is the most important thing about it.

Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.Originally published on Salon.com. Reprinted with permission.

Flexing the Power of the Press

Kristina Borjesson never expected to write an exposé of the business she'd devoted her life to. A 20-year veteran of mainstream journalism, she was a successful insider who produced for the country's most well-regarded news shows, including Frontline and 60 Minutes. Working with industry stars including Dan Rather, she'd won one Emmy and had been nominated for others. She said she imagined spending the rest of her life "going around the world, doing the stories, doing documentaries, having a great time and putting out important information."

As she writes in her book "Into the Buzzsaw", "Trust me, never in a million years did I ever imagine that I'd find myself in my current position as some kind of rebel trying to take on America's journalism establishment. I was reared a member of Haiti's Morally Repugnant Elite‚ and educated, for the most part, in private institutions, including Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Not a thing in my frankly elitist background prepared me for this experience."

The experience she's talking about is her excommunication from mainstream journalism for digging too deep on the TWA 800 story, which she'd been assigned to research for CBS. Like the other reporters whose stories she collected in "Into the Buzzsaw," she essentially lost her job for doing it too well.

In Borjesson's case, doing her job meant challenging the government assertion that TWA 800 crashed due to a mechanical malfunction. During her investigation, she found increasingly compelling evidence that the plane had been hit by a missile and that there were military maneuvers happening in its vicinity that were later covered up.

Collaborating with other reporters including The Press Enterprise's David Hendrix, she collected proof of official lies. Scientific tests showed that a residue found inside the cabin had the same ingredients, in the same proportions, as rocket fuel (the National Transportation Safety Board said it was glue). The FBI claimed that traces of explosives found in the cabin resulted from a spill during a bomb-sniffing exercise on the plane, but Hendrix and Borjesson later proved that the exercise had taken place on a different aircraft. The two had documents that were smuggled out of the hangar where the official investigation was taking place, including "a copy of the downed plane's debris field that undercut assertions that the center wing tank was the site of the initiating event‚ that caused the plane the explode." They had dozens of eye-witness interviews disputing the government's story, and experts who said the witnesses' descriptions were consistent with a missile.

Borjesson, who had pushed to present her information on CBS, was fired from the network, as was Paul Ragonese, the law enforcement consultant she had worked with. Astonishingly, Ragonese was replaced by James Kallstrom, the very FBI agent who had consistently tried to thwart Borjesson.

"When I was tromping around the halls of CBS saying, "Why aren't we covering this?'" I had no idea why they didn't want to do a story, because I had received all these documents from a senior investigator inside Calverton [airplane hangar]," she says. But her information was contradicted by "official sources," and, as she says, "the buzzsaw was getting ready to hack me up."

Almost overnight, she became a journalistic pariah -- something that also happened to other reporters whose stories appear in Into the Buzzsaw. Had she known what was to come of her zeal, she says, "I don't know if I would have had the courage to do it. I was just doing my job."

Although initially lots of publications had reported on the possibility that TWA 800 was hit by a missile, after a few months of furious spin by the FBI, Pentagon and NTSB, journalists who refused to dismiss this theory were themselves dismissed as conspiracy kooks. Kallstrom told the AP, "The real facts are glossed over by the likes of [Oliver] Stone and others who spend their life bottom-feeding in those small, dark crevices of doubt and hypocrisy."

After years on the inside, it was both shocking and galvanizing for Borjesson to find herself marginalized in this way. "It causes a shift in paradigm for you. It really rocked my world and changed my reality forever," she says.

Her book examines how such marginalization happens. One important element is other reporters, who often gang up on dissenters like her and Gary Webb, whose exposé about the CIA's role in the crack epidemic was denounced in The New York Times, The LA Times and Washington Post.

Borjesson suggests that reporters who act as arbiters of official truth are driven by defensiveness.

"It's a self-preservation thing, I think. When you decide not to pitch a story because you know that it could cause you trouble and damage your career because it's so controversial, in a way you realize that you have decided not to fully engage in your mission as a public servant, which is what most good journalists consider themselves to be. Deep down you realize that you're chickening out, and it's a hard thing to face. When somebody does take the risk and comes under fire, I think these reporters have mixed feelings. One is, 'See, I was right, if you do this you blow yourself up.' Then there's the other side -- you realize somebody was braver than you are and better than you are and went out there and did it anyway. There's a certain kind of jealously and resentment there."

According to investigative journalist David Hendrix, who collaborated with Borjesson on the TWA investigation and contributed a chapter to Into The Buzzsaw, "Any media organization, once they decide that this is what the picture really looks like, there's almost a commitment to shoot down whatever might come along saying the picture actually looks different." Instead of investigating new developments, Hendrix says, most journalists hold tenaciously to their version of reality.

When someone like Gary Webb appears, he says, powerful journalists are likely to say, "'How can that be? We don't have information about that.' They're asking you to explain the story instead of having them explain." Thus for a dissident journalist to be taken seriously, he has to account for his competitors' failures.

At the same time, Borjesson says that mainstream journalists rarely act with overt cynicism.

"Most of them actually believe they're doing the best possible job given the fact that they're working at a big powerful network. To be a correspondent or producer at a network news organization is a position of enormous power. When you make a phone call to somebody as a producer from any of the networks, you can literally hear the voice on the other end standing up and saluting. There is a tendency to naturally feel affiliated with other figures of power. These are the people who run the world, run the big institutions, and since they hold that much power, they hold your attention. What they say is what you're going to report without question."

Besides, those who challenge the powerful are likely to be denied access in the future, and a journalist without access to top people is at a huge professional disadvantage. Michael Levine, a DEA agent turned drug war critic and best-selling author who now works with Borjesson, recalls "icing out" a CBS executive who challenged the authenticity of a major DEA raid. "He had no access and it hurt his career," says Levine. More often than not, the threat was enough to make news organizations compliant. "Quite frankly, when I was a DEA officer, I was astonished at how easy it was for our public affairs people to put out anything they wanted," Levine says.

But parroting the official line isn't journalism -- at best, says Hendrix, it turns reporters into "spokesmen for the spokesmen, and that's not the media's responsibility. We the United States public need to know when United States officials are lying to us. If it's not important if they're lying to us, we should crumple up all our newspapers and have the biggest bonfire in the world."

Of course, Hendrix still has a burning faith in journalism's mission. So does Borjesson, who now produces and co-hosts the Expert Witness Radio Show on New York City's WBAI with Levine, who describes her as "so good and so smart and so driven to just tell the story, she actually makes me work a lot harder." The two of them focus on stories about official malfeasance, looking into subjects including the CIA's funding of Osama bin Laden, malpractice in the FBI crime lab and the myriad depredations of the drug war.

Financially, says Borjesson, "my career has taken a nosedive," and she no longer gets to travel around the world making high-profile documentaries. Yet she says her career has also been "transformed" by her radical new perspective. Despite what she said about doubting that she'd have the courage to pursue the TWA story had she known the consequences, she insists she has not a single regret.

"I have a clear conscience," she says. "I did what I felt was the right thing."

Michelle Goldberg is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.

Debate Grows Over Use of Sexual Assault Photo

There was nothing photographer Mike Urban could do except snap.

A staff photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Urban was in downtown Seattle's Pioneer Square covering the 2001 Mardi Gras celebration, which had erupted into rioting that would leave one man dead.

From his perch on a fire escape, he saw a group of young men start up the typical Mardi Gras chant demanding that a woman bare her breasts. She refused and they attacked. In an incident that, according to the newspaper, echoed several others that night, her clothes were ripped off and she was groped by dozens of hands before escaping. Urban caught it all on film.

Until recently, none of the pictures Urban took of the assault had been published. Like most newspapers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a policy against naming rape and sexual assault victims, and, as executive editor Ken Bunting said, "If the intent in not publishing the name of a rape victim is not to subject her to further trauma and humiliation, certainly publishing her likeness, her partially unclad body, is taking it several steps too far." Instead, the paper turned the photos over to the police and ran a front-page story that described the attacks without printing details that might identify the victims.

Poynter Institute Omits Picture from Web Site

But last month, one of Urban's pictures won first place in the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism contest in the domestic news-newspaper category. The contest's winning photographs have been published on the association's Web site and will appear on CD-ROM and in a book. The picture of the assaulted woman, splayed out like a sacrifice, hands grabbing her breasts and genitals, is among them.

Though her face is digitally distorted so she can't be easily recognized, the photographers association's decision to release the picture has spurred controversy, pitting journalism's duty to disseminate the truth against the privacy rights of a violated woman.

The Poynter Institute, the Florida journalism school where the contest was judged, decided to leave the picture off its Web site, where all the other contest winners are displayed. Bunting said, "We are gratified that the Poynter Institute chose not to publish it. We thought it was inappropriate in March 2001 and I still think it's inappropriate for publication."

Aly Colon, a member of the Ethics Faculty at Poynter, opposed publishing the photo because of the "additional harm you may be causing this individual, seeing herself again in this experience, being forced to relive it." In Colon's view, the picture doesn't serve a compelling enough journalistic purpose to justify potentially hurting the woman in it. The newspaper's description of what happened to this young woman was fairly complete and graphic, he said, and therefore the community knew that this occurred. "If there had been no other description or if there had been a counter-argument that this didn't happen at all, that might offer an argument for publishing it because without it, people will not know the truth."

But the press photographer's group insists that the disturbing picture contributes to awareness of sexual violence, thus meriting their unusual decision to give a journalism award to an unpublished photo and to risk upsetting the woman in it, should she ever see it. After all, the brutal image does more than just capture an isolated event. In addition to the other Mardi Gras attacks, the rowdy, leering men pawing at a stripped woman recall similar assaults at Woodstock 1999 and at the 2000 Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan.

To view the photo--warning, it is disturbing--please go to nppa.org.

Picture Symbolizes Frightening Trends

The picture "symbolizes some very frightening trends in our society," said Cheryl Hatch, a Seattle Associated Press photographer who was one of the contest's judges.

Hatch has worked with sexual abuse victims, and at first she was against publishing the picture. "If I was going to err, I was going to err on the side of the woman," she said. "I didn't want to do anything that would subject this woman to more degradation, exploitation, traumatization."

Yet like the other judges, she finally decided that the picture captured something words couldn't. The sight of an ordinary, clean-cut crowd descending into viciousness speaks "about the level of violence in our society and how it's a very thin line between civility and brutality, between calm and riot," she said.

Besides, she added, people tend to dismiss charges of sexual abuse at events like Mardi Gras that are known for public lasciviousness. "People would say, 'Oh, Mardi Gras, people go there to lift up their tops.'" Urban's image, she felt, made the horror of what happened explicit. After discussing the issue with a relative who had been sexually assaulted, she decided that publishing the picture with the woman's face hidden was a fair compromise.

Hatch said the judges' unanimous decision to publish the picture with the woman's face digitally obscured came after days of intense debate. One thing they discussed was what they saw as news organizations' double standard for pictures of foreigners and of Americans. Nick Ut's photo of a naked girl fleeing napalm in Vietnam has been widely reproduced, as have countless shots of starving, half-clothed Africans. According to Hatch, contest judge Horacio Villalobos, director of photography at Diario Popular in Buenos Aires, pointed out that American papers "run pictures all the time of people from other countries suffering and being abused and exploited. We publish pictures from abroad showing people's faces without regard to the issues debated in that room."

Yet according to Bunting, "It's a bogus comparison. It strikes me as an academic discussion that has no validity in the real world. We consider the story a picture will tell and the impact it will have on our audience. You can't look at a picture from 25 years ago and compare it to something that happened a year ago in Seattle."

As for the impact the photograph will have on the woman in it, no one knows. She has not come forward or been identified, nor any of her attackers charged. She might not have any idea of the controversy brewing over her image.

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The New Republic Online, Utne Reader, Time Out New York, San Francisco Bay Guardian and other newspapers nationwide.

18 Tales of Media Censorship

Between them, the authors of the incendiary new book "Into the Buzzsaw," out this month from Prometheus, have won nearly every award journalism has to give -- a Pulitzer, several Emmys, a Peabody, a prize from Investigative Reporters and Editor, an Edward R. Murrorw and several accolades from the Society of Professional Journalists. One is veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a best-selling author, another is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

And most of them are considered, at best, marginal by the mainstream media. At worst, they've been deemed incompetent and crazy for having the audacity to uncover evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by government agencies and corporate octopi.

Edited by ex-CBS producer Kristina Borjesson, "Into the Buzzsaw" is a collection of essays, mostly by serious journalists excommunicated from the media establishment for tackling subjects like the CIA's role in drug smuggling, lies perpetuated by the investigators of TWA flight 800, POWs rotting in Vietnam, a Korean war massacre, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Bush's election, bovine growth hormone's dangers and a host of other unpopular issues.

Borjesson describes "the buzzsaw" as "what can rip through you when you try to investigate or expose anything this country's large institutions -- be they corporate or government -- want to keep under wraps. The system fights back with official lies, disinformation, and stonewalling. Your phone starts acting funny. Strange people call you at strange hours to give you strange information. The FBI calls you. Your car is broken into and the thief takes your computer and your reporter's notebook and leaves everything else behind ... The sense of fear and paranoia is, at times, overwhelming."

The majority of the eighteen pieces in Borjesson's book are about hard-working mainstream journalists, dedicated to the ideals of their profession, who stumble into the buzzsaw and have their careers and reputations eviscerated. Though the subjects and personalities involved are wildly diverse, the stories echo each other in disturbing ways. Journalists are sent by their bosses to do their jobs -- in the case of Borjesson, to investigate the crash of TWA Fight 800 as a producer for CBS news. Sometimes what they find is impolitic, other times it brings threats of corporate lawsuits. Suddenly, editors kill the story, or demand changes. In some instances, like that of TV reporter Jane Akre, who was investigating the use of Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone, reporters are ordered to insert outright lies in their pieces or face firing. Other times, like with Gerard Colby's book about the Du Pont family and Gary Webb's San Jose Mercury News series about the CIA's role in the crack epidemic, the bosses are spooked after the fact and withdraw their support from work already published, hanging reporters out to dry.

In the aftermath of Enron, plenty of journalists came forward to publicly wring their hands about the press's failure to catch the story before it destroyed the life savings of thousands. Since then, though, there's been little sign of renewed vigilance towards malfeasance at other companies, even though many have written that Enron's business practices weren't particularly unusual. Without addressing Enron directly, "Into the Buzzsaw" makes it pretty clear why this is by showing how journalists who took on companies like Monsanto and Du Pont were abandoned by their own editors and publishers and embroiled in lawsuits.

When they speak out, buzzsaw victims are usually treated as paranoid conspiracy theorists. Competing outlets valiantly defend the status quo -- The New York Times, The Washington Post and the LA Times launched concurrent attacks on Gary Webb's series, eventually derailing his career and causing his paper to print a retraction (though not of any specific facts mentioned in the story). Writing of this episode in is book "Whiteout," Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair said, "From the savage assaults on Webb by other members of his profession, those unfamiliar with the series might have assumed that Webb had made a series of wild and unsubstantiated charges, long on dramatic speculation and short of specific data or sourcing. In fact, Webb's series was succinct and narrowly focused."

Borjesson was subject to similar attempts at character assassination by her former peers. After Borjesson was fired from CBS, she was asked to develop a pilot for a new investigative series to be overseen by Oliver Stone. She gathered over thirty eyewitnesses who disputed the official government story, but before production even started, other journalists started sneering at the project. Newsweek called Stone the "latest conspiracy crank to delve into the mysterious crash." Time Magazine chimed in with an article headlined "The Conspiracy Channel?" The New York Times dismissed Borjesson's reporting simply because government agencies denied its truth (never mind they were the very agencies Borjesson was investigating).

There's something of an X-Files feel to a lot of these stories, though not in the way that condescending guardians of official truth think. Rather, their surreal feeling comes from the first-person experiences of people finding the institutions they've served all their lives suddenly turning on them. As Borjesson writes, "Walk into the buzzsaw and you'll cut right to this layer of reality. You will feel a deep sense of loss and betrayal. A shocking shift in paradigm. Anyone who hasn't experienced it will call you crazy. Those who don't know the truth, or are covering it up, will call you a conspiracy nut."

In fact, that's just what a lot of these writers have been called. Once a journalist has been tossed out of the inner circle, anything they write can be smeared as sour grapes or mere ranting. The media has already branded them unreliable, so their charges are extremely unlikely to be taken seriously.

A similar thing happens to other progressive media critics. It's not that the media isn't interested in media stories -- see the blanket coverage of Tina Brown's foibles at Talk. It's just that few are interested in critiques that challenge the very essence of journalists' romantic dreams of themselves as Robert Redford playing Bob Woodward in "All the Presidents Men." Right-wingers like "Bias" author Bernard Goldberg tend to get much more attention, perhaps because their insights don't threaten most journalists' cherished self-conceptions.

While most alternative press readers are familiar with Noam Chomsky's scrupulous documentation of the way government lies become the media's conventional wisdom and with Robert McChesney (who wrote Buzzsaw's conclusion) and Mark Crispin Millers' analysis of corporate consolidation, they are routinely written off by those policing the perimeters of acceptable debate. They hardly ever appear in major newspapers or on network TV. While not quibbling with their facts, most media people tar them as alarmists or unrealistic utopians.

Indeed, some of the writers in Buzzsaw say that, before their own experiences, they were among the scoffers. Webb writes, "If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me ... I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite?"

But, like most of the contributors to "Into the Buzzsaw," he did his job too well and the powers that be hurled him onto the other side of the looking glass. "And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been," he writes. "The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job ... The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."

The routine maginalizing of media critics is one reason "Into the Buzzsaw" is so important. It might be possible to discredit one erstwhile insider, but to argue that more than a dozen veterans of organizations like CBS News, CNN, The AP, The BBC and The San Jose Mercury News are all crazy in exactly the same way would be to engage in conspiracy-mongering more far-fetched than anything these authors are accused of. And while plenty of lefty writers have excoriated media monopolies, rarely has the precise way that corporate ownership and intimidation warp newsroom values been made quite so explicit. The value of these testimonies is largely in their minute accumulation of detail (which occasionally makes for tedious reading but enhances credibility). Borjesson is especially systematic, laying out every meeting, every conversation, every contradiction in government statements.

Some contributors aren't quite so convincing. The book as a whole would have been stronger without April Oliver's self-serving piece about her involvement in CNN's Tailwind debacle and subsequent firing. She doesn't bother to refute the charges made against her or defend the finer points of her work, which makes her essay seem like a self-serving screed. But that's just one weak spot in an otherwise appallingly convincing book, a book that suggests that the truth about our media-military-industrial complex might go beyond even our paranoid imaginings.

Beyond the specifics of each story, "Into the Buzzsaw" is about how the elite sector of the media to bestows the imprimatur of truth on its own interpretations of the world. In the current landscape, of course, these same outlets largely take it upon themselves to determine which books should be deemed serious. It will be interesting to see if "Into the Buzzsaw" gets any play in the outlets it exposes.

Don't count on it.

Michelle Goldberg is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.

The New Jew Is Who?

The Yiddish word galut means exile, and for thousands of years it defined the Jewish experience.

Jewish identity has historically been rooted in a sense of otherness, if not outright oppression. In America, at the very moment Jews started moving en masse into the middle class and dominating the intelligentsia, the holocaust reminded them that their survival was a mere accident of geography, that their freedom was and perhaps always would be precarious. As Irving Howe wrote in "World of Our Fathers," his monumental study of Jewish immigrants to the US, "Haunted by the demons of modern history, most of the immigrants and many of their children kept a fear, somewhere in their minds, that anti-Semitism might again become a serious problem in America."

As Jews assimilated into the American middle class, it was negatives that held them together: lingering anxiety about anti-Semitism, speechlessness before the horror of the holocaust, alienation from the gentile mainstream.

Yet if the idea of galut is central to Jewish identity, what happens while the exile ends? For a new generation of Jews, it no longer makes sense to define themselves by the hostility of the goyim. Younger American Jews have largely grown up unscathed by prejudice. No neighborhood, university or profession is closed to them.

"I think anti-Semitism is still an issue to a lot of people, but it was the motivating factor of many Jewish people's identity for the last fifty or a hundred years," says Jennifer Bleyer, founder and editor of the freshly-launched magazine Heeb: The New Jew Review. "It kind of gave them a reason to be. Especially in this country, where Jews have enjoyed an incredible upward class drift over the past fifty years, and have become virtually entirely assimilated into the mainstream upper-middle class and upper-class culture, very little of that paranoia about anti-Semitism is warranted."

In other words, anti-Semitism defined Jews externally. Now that it has receded in America, young Jews are looking around and wondering what it means to be Jewish if being Jewish no longer means being persecuted.

Clearly, it's about more than religion. Jewishness is an amalgam of ethnic, cultural and spiritual identity. After all, there's no such thing as a Christian atheist or a Muslim Buddhist, but you can scorn the idea of god or join a Himalayan monastery and still be Jewish.

So if a Jew can be anything, what is a Jew? That question, with all the historical tensions and progress it contains, is animating what some are calling the new Jewish renaissance. Even as orthodoxy flourishes in America, a new leftist Jewish movement, or a confluence of new movements, is swelling on both coasts. A group of audacious activists are, in the words of one writer, "heating up the core of Judaism."

You can see it in Heeb, which speaks to hip, urban Jews and seems to reinvent Lower East Side Yiddishkeit culture for the hip-hop era, with its Jewfro pictorial and profile of "The Last Yiddish MC." It's in books like Lisa Schiffman's "Generation J", a 1999 memoir of a pork-eating, intermarrying agnostic's search for Jewish identity, and in the anthologies like the recent "Yentl's Revenge" and the forthcoming "Joining the Sisterhood," both about young Jewish feminists.

It's in Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which fought the racial profiling of Arabs in the wake of 9/11, and in centers like Makor, a new Manhattan community center that features Yoga classes, jazz performances and presentations like "Jews, Muslims and Interfaith Utopia."

The new sensibility is reflected in the boldness of "Mirroring Evil," the hugely controversial exhibit set to open this Spring in Manhattan's Jewish Museum. Instead of predictably focusing on concentration camp victims, "Mirroring Evil" takes a look at the Nazis themselves, using techniques of irony and pastiche that spurn the hushed reverence usually accorded the Holocaust. In mainstream Jewish culture, the Holocaust is regarded as almost metaphysically unique and incomparable. But the artists in Mirroring Evil, like other newer Jewish thinkers, tend to see it as part of a whole century of brutality, one that we're all culpable for.

Rather than focus on the persecution of the Jews, younger Jews feel a responsibility towards groups that are, at the moment, far more discriminated against. "We're just not the underdog in American society right now," says Dina Pinsky, a 29-year-old doctoral student writing a dissertation called Personal Identities and Political Lives: Jewish Identity Among American Second Wave Feminists. "I'd feel guilty if I spent too much time focusing on anti-Semitism and not looking at people who are disadvantaged in this country because of their class and their race."

This refocusing of attention requires young thinkers and artists to slough off the pieties and anxieties of their elders. "A lot of people today are rebelling against the Jewish establishment," says Danya Ruttenberg, editor of the new anthology "Yentl's Revenge" "Part of it is that in the Jewish establishment, to make a hideously sweeping generalization, there's still a lot of talk of vicitimhood. Many of the structures of institutional Judaism were set up when they really were out to get us."

Bleyer concurs. "I'm very critical of the Jewish community harping on this fear of anti-Semitism," she says, "because it has diverted them from focusing on real issues of social and economic justice that affect everybody."

Of course, none of this is to say that anti-Semitism no longer exists in America. The Anti-Defamation League scrupulously documents neo-Nazi Web sites and anti-Semitic attitudes, and plenty of young Jewish writers recall Jew-bashing in their schools. Generation J author Schiffman notes the rumors circulating in the wake of September 11 that Jews had been warned to stay home and that the bombing was an Israeli plot. "I began to think if public opinion starts turning against Jews again, it will be much harder to continue with this Jewish cultural renaissance that's been going on," she said.

Yet if a lot of people still don't like Jews, very few of them are in a position to hold anyone back. As a child growing up in suburban Detroit, writer Ophira Edut was teased about being Jewish, but the teasers were people with less education and fewer options than she had. "If you think about anti-Semitism as racism towards Jews, it's a little bit tricky, because we're not without power in the world as we have been many times throughout history," she says. "Yeah, there are ignorant fools and maybe they are brewing up explosives in their tool sheds, but I don't feel threatened by them on a daily basis. I don't go to sleep in fear that some guy is going to roll up in a four by four and put a pipe bomb in my Manhattan apartment."

Distance from anti-Semitism, both historical and geographic, has bred the impish heresy that dominates new Jewish culture. Jewish renaissance writers have reclaimed epithets like "hebe" (Heeb changed the word's spelling for design reasons) and "kike" much as gay activists have adopted "queer." They've embraced ideas about Jewish power too sensitive for their elders to utter -- Ruttenberg notes that, according to an essay called "Jews, Money and Social Responsibility," one third of the multimillionaires in America are Jews, while Heeb's Web site says, "We are doing our best to locate those vestiges of the tribe who are said to control the media, the government, Hollywood and international finance, and convince them to support this endeavor."

Their parents' paranoia has become the stuff of comedy. See Tim Sommer's mordant, hysterical "Under The Twisted Crust" in the debut issue of Heeb, a faux-expose of the embedded Nazi symbolism in a new Pizza Hut product. "The Twisted Crust Pizza is the primary feature in a recent Pizza Hut advertising blitzkrieg, a public relations assault executed with a mixture of the cruel efficiency of the Waffen SS and the Golem-worthy scorched-earth strategy of Stalin's Red Army," he writes. Sommer proceeds to draw our attention to the disturbing parallels between the words "Twisted Crust" and the German word for Swastika, "Hakenkreuz," which literally means "Twisted Cross." Sommer decodes it all for us, "Twisted Crust = twisted cross = chewy and tasty little swastika = the bad ol' days weren't really that bad."

Not surprisingly, this sort of thing doesn't amuse parts of the Jewish establishment. "Some people have been livid and others just disgusted," says Bleyer about the older Jewish community's response to the title Heeb. Sure, some old-school Jews are delighted by the resurgence of Jewish identification among the young -- J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, has called Heeb "delightful," and The Joshua Venture, an organization partly funded by Steven Spielberg which aids Jewish entrepreneurs, gave Bleyer $60,000 to start her magazine. But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Jewish watchdog group The Anti-Defamation League, has publicly excoriated Heeb.

"It's counterproductive, silly, infantile and insensitive" to try and get attention by "using an epithet that is insensitive to Jews," he says. He's also complained that "Mirroring Evil" is a "slap in the face" to Holocaust survivors like himself, one that he says is especially repellent coming from a Jewish institution. "I expect a certain level of sensitivity, understanding, reverence from the Jewish museum," he says.

But this only underlies the fact that for younger American Jews -- particularly urban Jews -- their conflict is less with gentile society than with the Jewish old guard. "There is definitely alarmism," Edut says about old-school Jewish watchdog groups. A contributor to "Yentl's Revenge" and a consultant for Heeb, Edut also maintains the Web site Ophira.com, which is full of saucy slogans like "The Jewess is Loose!" While she has gotten a "couple of freaky neo-nazi emails," she has also received missives from "angry rabbis calling me a self-hating Jew."

While neither message really threatened her, she saw the rabbi's responses as emblematic of a suffocating strain in traditional Judaism. "The fact that my site was irreverent in any way meant that I wasn't having the proper respect for the culture," she says. "I went to a Yeshiva for kindergarten and part of first grade. They teach you a lot of fear. They taught us to fear the outside world. A lot of Jews, they don't want to lose Judaism, but they don't want it to be so boring and stifling of expression and individuality. It can be so joyless."

Joy is perhaps the cornerstone of the attempt to craft new Jewish selves. Because anti-Semitism no longer imposes an identity on them, young Jews today have the immense luxury of self-definition. Awash in options unknown to immigrant ancestors, liberated from the garish grasping of the suburbs, they're able to make a Jewish culture that borrows from the past -- the raucous anarchism of the Lower East Side, the creative lunacy of Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg, the traditional Jewish passion for social justice and civil rights -- that are newly relevant and totally contemporary.

Judaism is no longer inseparable from notions of being lost, rootless, adrift. Jews are finally at home, and not only in Israel. "My music editor went to Israel a few times when he was young and he really wanted to feel some intense connection there, but he just didn't feel it," says Bleyer. "He feels more connected when he's walking around the streets of the Lower East Side. This is the promised land. Here it is."

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelancer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Industry Standard, Shift, Speak, the National Post and newspapers nationwide.

When the Babes Beat Up the Boys

Hoping to score a few publicity points in what seems to be the worst magazine market in the history of humankind, the neanderthal rag Maxim is teaming up with bimbo bible Cosmopolitan to declare the war of the sexes over.

The truce was Maxim's idea, and no wonder -- after all, the caricatured men they pander to are regularly getting their asses kicked all over the culture, from Janet Jackson videos to art house films like "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" and "The Business of Strangers." Online, it's easy to see the enduring affection for Valerie Solanis, shooter of Andy Warhol and author of the SCUM Manifesto, which declared, "To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he's a machine, a walking dildo ... The male is, by his very nature, a leech, an emotional parasite and, therefore, not ethically entitled to live, as no one has the right to live at someone else's expense." The Manifesto is reproduced on a dozen websites in several languages by adorers who agree with the San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist who wrote last year, "I may not follow in her footsteps, but I definitely light a candle for her on occasion, as do many women. She may be a wacky somewhat addled saint, but she's a bit of a saint to me."

Clearly, a rapprochement about toilet seat covers won't go far towards dampening such anger. Before any gender truce is possible, we need to figure out why so many women are so enraged, and why the image of a frenzied female attacking a callow guy has become such a media staple.

It all started innocently enough, with cute, courageous post-feminist icons like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Powerpuff Girls, Tomb Raider's Laura Croft and Charlie's Angels. These were girls on the side of good, able to get along with the nice guys who came their way but unafraid to take on villains of either gender. Buffy never used her awesome strength against men who were merely caddish -- she saved it for homicidal monsters.

Of course, for many women who know the sharp, desolate fear of walking home on empty streets late at night, it's viscerally satisfying to watch Buffy demolish the (usually) male demons lurking in dark alleys. Yet creator Joss Whedon never casts the fights as explicit sex wars. In one episode last year, she gets her heart trampled by a campus player, but viewers hoping that Buffy would give him a kung-fu comeuppance would have been disappointed. Instead, later in the season, she saved his life.

Lately, though, girl power has gone awry. Now, men are being punished not for violence, but for betraying promises they may never have made. Take the recent Janet Jackson video for "Son of a Gun," where, backed by a posse of stone-faced glamazons, Miss Jackson uses telekinetic powers to lay waste to a hapless guy while a sample from Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" loops ominously.

Then there's Pink's 2001 video "You Make Me Sick," in which the scarlet-haired singer rams her motorcycle through the plate-glass wall of an apartment belonging to the man who did her wrong.

In mainstream movies, there's Cameron Diaz trying to kill both herself and Tom Cruise because he dissed her after a one-night stand. On the indie circuit there's Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles assaulting and degrading a corporate headhunter for his supposed sexual offenses -- or just his potential to commit them.

This new wave of violence against men is no longer about empowered heroines protecting the world from metaphorical rapists and pillagers. This is about raw, crazy, Fatal Attraction-style vengeance. But in this era of the swinging single girl, of hook ups and friendly fucks and Sex and the City, what exactly are women getting revenge for?

Despite what the right wing says, these fictional females don't represent the castrating succubae unleashed by feminism. Rather, they represent the rage and betrayal born from a very bad deal that post-feminists struck with Maxim-like men.

In the mid-90s, it suddenly became very fashionable for feminists to loudly proclaim their love of sex. The term do-me feminism was coined by Esquire, Maxim's predecessor, to describe figures like Katie Roiphe, Susie Bright and other strong, aggressive chicks who went out of their way to knock down the straw woman of old-school feminist prudery. An explosion of randy female sex columnists followed, people like Details Anka and The New York Press's Amy Sohn. They made clear that they wanted to come, not to commit.

Thus one of the key archetypes of the 90s was born -- the power-slut in designer heels, savvy, horny as hell and on the prowl. "Where does it say that women can't act like men?" asked Fox's iconic Ally McBeal. Candace Bushnell, whose Sex and the City column was the basis of the hit show, put it this way: "If you're a successful single woman in this city, you have two choices: You can beat your head against the wall trying to find a relationship, or you can say 'screw it' and just go out and have sex like a man."

But shouldn't the point of a feminist sexual revolution have been to make it ok -- to make it fabulous -- to have sex like women, whatever that might mean? What Bushnell was talking about wasn't freedom, it was capitulation -- agreeing to men's terms in order to pre-empt disappointment. Women weren't challenging the old idea of seduction as a contest between predator and prey -- they were just demanding to play a new role.

Thus in many stories, sex became a weird dance between two hostile parties warily circling each other like characters in a millennial "Dangerous Liaisons." Consider this scene from Jennifer Egan's brilliant new novel "Look At Me," in which the narrator Charlotte brings a casual pickup home. "I was not like most women," she assures us. "For me, the sexual act had nothing to do with love, or rarely ... I didn't worry much about my own performance; as I saw it, any man who succeeded at picking me up with so little effort, with no strings attached and without having to pay for it, should consider himself to be having an extremely good day." So far, she's the epitome of libidinous cool, but the sensualist facade falls apart in the next few paragraphs. "Paul seemed pretty starved himself, and the whole thing was over quickly," Egan writes. "And it was only as he rose from the bed, his body illuminated by the colored lights of the city, that I caught the glint of calculation behind his eyes, a cold, blank set to his face. His shadow self, and not a nice one."

There's no sense of triumph at the end of this scene (as there might have been if it had been written from Paul's perspective), just a sour sort of emptiness and percolating hate. "Look At Me" also contains a scene that, if the gender roles were reversed, would be a pretty unambiguous case of rape, and another that recalls Cameron Diaz's suicidal/homicidal dash in "Vanilla Sky.'

In "Look At Me," Charlotte's emotionless sexual voracity quickly exposes itself as a defense mechanism. A similar neediness often shows beneath post-feminist do-me bravado. Women declare their desire for boy toys, but they seem to long for old-fashioned chivalry. In Katie Roiphe's 1997 "The Independent Woman (and Other Lies)," she admitted to pining for a man who would take care of her. In Amy Sohn's first novel, which seemed like a fictionalized memoir, the sex-columnist narrator invents her skanky exploits while secretly hoping to land a mensch. In "Kate and Leopold," this season's only romantic comedy, Manhattanite Meg Ryan is won over by the anachronistic courtesy of a time-traveling Victorian Duke. In pop culture, women dream of gentlemen while insisting they don't want any more than the most callous womanizer is offering.

The drama being played out in movies, videos, music and books is rooted in this schizophrenia and the inchoate anger that results from it. Thus on MTV female singers declare their sexual libertinism and then turn around and beat men to a pulp for being unfaithful. Janet Jackson celebrates nasty boys in one song and punishes them in another. Pink is a self-actualized diva on songs like "Most Girls," singing, "I never cared too much for love/ It was all a bunch of mush that I just did not want/ Paid was the issue of the day/ If a girlfriend's got some game/ Couldn't be more fly, gettin paid was everything." But songs like "You Make Me Sick" and "There You Go" are loud, enflamed tracks about avenging unfaithfulness. One song on her 2000 album "Can't Take Me Home" is aptly titled "Split Personality."

In "The Business of Strangers," Julia Stiles is cast as a caricature post-feminist, replete with tattoos and a porn habit. She uses her sexual allure to dominate and humiliate the businessmen around her -- much to the initial delight of middle-age corporate striver Stockard Channing. But in the end Stiles' character is no heroine, nor is she righting any specific wrongs. Her anger is rooted in the ability of men in general to hurt women. "Like every man, he knows he has the potential to do what he shouldn't do," she says at one point. The particular man she chooses to torment is just a symbol of his sex.

As Susan Faludi pointed out in her book "Stiffed," men who abuse women usually do so out of a sense of powerlessness rather than a feeling of striding dominance. The same can be said of women who lash out blindly at men. Characters like Buffy and Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are empowering because they take on the superhero mantle for themselves. That's a very different thing than adopting the prerogative of the abuser.

It's not that women don't have a lot to be livid about. The fact that the image of women attacking men doesn't have the same impact as men terrorizing women is testament to a continued power imbalance. But most of this Lorena Bobbitish behavior doesn't have much to do with achieving equal rights. Rather, it's about frustration in a brutal sexual marketplace.

And it's not good for anyone. After all, who seems like the stronger woman -- Pink on her kamikaze bike, steely Janet Jackson knocking a man on the floor in a parking garage, or the round, soulful, self-assured Angie Stone singing "Brotha," her ode to good black men? Stone projects an easy, glowing confidence, transcending the victim/victor mode for a kind of understated sensual solidarity. Fury may be a potent weapon in ripping old structures apart, but to build anything new and satisfying, there's got to be love.

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelancer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Industry Standard, Shift, Speak, the National Post and newspapers nationwide.

The Recession Chic Lie

When hipsters find themselves without lots of money, it's only natural that poverty be deemed hip. And it has -- witness the recent flood of articles about formerly craven yuppies re-evaluating their lives and deciding that wealth doesn't matter, the pronouncements that conspicuous consumption is out and cocooning in, the 180-degree turnabout of a workaholic culture that's suddenly awake to the joys of empty afternoons.

"Why Its Chic to Be Cheap" proclaims the cover of December's "Details."

"A Time for Reflection and Perfecting the Chicken Fricassee," announces an article in the Oct. 7 New York Times.

An article in the Dec. 28 San Francisco Chronicle introduces Brian Chechoway, a 27-old corporate guy who lost his $95,000 a year job but found self-actualization as a club DJ. "Unemployment has its rewards," the article said. "'I partied my ass off,' he admitted. 'It was very liberating, not having to wake up for work.'"

The sentiment is echoed by an unemployed art director quoted in New York Magazine saying, "I feel the possibility of it being much better. I won't have to work my butt off. I don't need to dress to impress anyone. I'll be able to take advantage of galleries and concerts ... And I won't have to get on that damned subway every morning."

Ah, freedom! Liberation from the straightjacketing schedules of the boom years, from the siren temptations of filthy lucre! Bohemia, it seems, is back.

For people who lamented the demise of boho ideal in the 1990s (and the corporate perversion of its memory), this sudden resurrection is welcome. Surely it's a good thing if talking fervently through the night becomes more popular than coding maniacally till dawn. If chatter about stock options and IPOs vanishes from art openings and theater lobbies, if $800 boots begin to seem grotesque instead of insouciant, if work assumes its place as a part of life instead of the absolute aim of existence, of course that's all to the best.

The coffee house has resumed its rightful place before the boardroom as the scintillating center of twentysomething culture. The Dec. 23 New York Times reports on the new jobless demimonde, "A stream of customers lined up for lattes and bagels. Men with rumpled hair flipped through magazines, and young women in yoga pants and sneakers caught up over coffee, some sitting at tables by the fireplace, others on the benches outside." The story goes on to explain this "midweek tea party" -- "With the economy in recession, and 97,600 jobs lost in New York City in October and November alone, a peculiar kind of café society has emerged, at least in one thin substratum of the suddenly unemployed -- college educated young people without dependents, and whose only previous association with hard times was a grandmother who reused tinfoil because that's what she did during World War II."

Alternatives to rabid careerism are socially acceptable again, and that's very nice. But as the articles pile up, as talk of the new simplicity becomes a locust-like drone (and subscriptions to Simplicity Magazine spike along with Soldier of Fortune), all these sanguine tales of slackerdom start seeming like a smoke screen. The thing is, those who welcome joblessness for the chance it gives them to reassess their lives are a very thin substratum indeed, and the disproportionate play they're getting in the news gives an increasingly distorted picture of what it really means to see your income disappear. In the mainstream media, unemployment has mutated into a hot new trend. Welcome to the world's first lifestyle recession.

That's not to say that the big papers haven't been covering ordinary people's pain. Two weeks ago the Associated Press offered a good piece on out-of-work East Chicago Steelworkers, the Washington Post ran an excellent story in December called "Unions Step Up Their Services After Layoffs," and the New York Times' Louis Uchitelle has made a consistent effort to include a wide variety of workers in his reporting on the recession. But such journalism is dwarfed by mountains of copy about the recession's impact on fashion, leisure and the meaning of life, a tide of stories whose utter detachment from the circumstances of most people's lives can only be called surreal. "In Rough Times, the Rich Go Yachting," ran on the front page of the New York Times Business Section last Thursday.

Indeed, if your only source of information about the outside world were mainstream newspapers and magazines, you'd think the biggest issue raised by mounting unemployment was its likely effect on the cachet of status brands. Forget bosses and unions -- it seems that the most crucial standoff these days is between what Details calls the "new sobriety" and the old indulgence. It's economics reduced to aesthetics.

The New York Times Magazine gave over its Dec. 2 cover to a Lynn Hirschberg exploration of Gucci's new search for relevance, a story entitled "Luxury In Hard Times." On Nov. 17, the Washington Post gave us, "Burst Baubles: Judith Leiber Bags Define Luxury. But in 9-11's Wake, Is Luxury Out of Fashion?" (The story about $2000 purses concluded, "One could argue that at a time of consumer uncertainty, the luxury tag is more of a burden than a lure. Luxuries, after all, are unnecessary. But perhaps stability and tradition are even more essential now.") The Dec. 16 Times offered a 2,500-word feature about Neiman Marcus called "Luxury's Old Guard, Battered by New Realities." Two days later, there was "Prada: Luxury Brand With World-Class Anxiety."

But as the Nov. 4 Times assures us, not all indulgence is taking a hit -- splurging on Manolos may be out, but other ways of flaunting wealth are in. "Comfort Shopping, Premium Pricing," is a puff piece about Tommy Hilfiger's estranged wife, a seller of "$540 cashmere bunting bags for babies" and $5,000 toy giraffes. A consultant explains that people are spending more on their kids -- "they've recognized that our children are important because we may not come home tomorrow." Carpe diem. Seize your Amex.

When recession chic first blossomed at the end of 2000, focusing on the trivial tribulations and epiphanies of laid-off dot-commers made sense -- they made up a large number of the newly out-of-work, and the rapid deflation of the culture of excess they created was a real story. Back then, it was hard to be bothered when the now-defunct Industry Standard chirped that "The recent wave of layoffs is the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself -- or just goof off," because most of that magazine's readers probably agreed.

By now, though, the recession has spread far beyond technology and media, hitting factory and service workers particularly hard -- according to the AFL-CIO, there were 287,000 layoffs in manufacturing between Sept. 12 and Nov. 19 last year -- and more than 135,000 people in hospitality and tourism lost their jobs.

Real poverty -- as opposed to temporary slumming -- is surging. A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of 27 cities found requests for emergency food assistance up an average of 23 percent this year. Homelessness is soaring all around the country -- according to the Times, its at "record levels" in big cites, up 25 percent from last year in Kansas City, 22 percent in Chicago and 20 percent in Denver. There was a shameful 55 percent rise in the number of people living on the streets in San Francisco.

In such a climate, prattling about the pleasures of endless free time has a Marie Antionettish ring. So far, though, the newly homeless haven't merited the same kind of humanizing feature stories as the jobless-and-loving-it crowd, the type of pieces that give shape and texture to their subjects. The poor, as always, are just numbers, without reporters following them around, asking how they're feeling about their long vacations.

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelancer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Industry Standard, Shift, Speak, the National Post and newspapers nationwide.

Feminism for Sale

You know her, the millennial urban liberated career chick. At least, you've seen her reflections -- in Bridget Jones well-meaning ditzy neurosis, in Sex in the City's mix of hard-edged libidinous glam and jazz-tinged wistfullness, in truckloads of randy female sex columnists and insouciant girl-power zines like Bust and Maxi. In the year 2000, after decades of wrangling with the myth of the ugly, hirsute, ball-busting women's libber, the culture has finally seemed to reconcile beauty and power, fun and feminism.

Like so many other cease-fires in our society, this one was negotiated largely in the marketplace. This new, shopping-and-fucking feminism is so ubiquitous right now in part because it jibes precisely with the message of consumer society, that freedom means more -- hotter sex, better food, ever-multiplying pairs of Manolo Blahniks shoes, drawers full of Betsey Johnson skirts, Kate Spade bags and MAC lipsticks.

It's easy-to-swallow feminism, feminism that encourages you to pamper yourself and get rid of guilt and waltz through life like Audrey Hepburn in "How to Steal a Million." Built on affirmations -- "You go, girl! Work it!" -- it doesn't make you feel bad about your vanity, as 70s feminism sometimes did, or hypocritical if you watch porn or wear glitter eyeshadow and miniskirts. It admits that consumer culture is often pleasurable and rewarding.

"I love clothes, I love the way they make me feel, I love makeup," says Janelle Brown, a senior technology writer at Salon who co-founded the online feminist zine Maxi. "I also don't let anyone step on me. I hold my own. There are things that I do that are stereotypically feminine, and there are things that I do that are completely unstereotypically feminine. I write about fashion and I write about geek stuff. I think that's what all women should be looking to do -- finding a balance between consumerism and feminism and recognizing that it's really hard to reject the basis of America. Fuck, we're based on capitalism. It's very hard to reject everything that that stands for and still live in America, so why not understand what it all means and figure out where your personal place in it is, without having to be one thing or the other?"

Thus Maxi combines articles about sexual harassment and updates on Norplant litigation with odes to hair products. In a piece about Vain, makers of Dirty Boy Dirty Girl hair goo and 2nd Day Shampoo "for marginally clean hair," Maxi editor Rosemary Pepper writes, "A little vanity goes a long way. Why not embrace your products, take a fashion risk, get out and have some fun with your looks? Don't get carried away, of course -- Narcissism is bad; it implies tunnel-vision and you may face evil mythical consequences. But on the other hand, a little vanity is good; it implies an appreciation of one's own image and lends a certain respect to viewers."

Many middle-class girls, no matter how serious or ambitious, can relate to this, which is what makes it so enticing. Go ahead, it seems to say, indulge yourself, treat yourself right. After all, we have a whole culture that tortures women with guilt; the last thing we need is a feminism that condemns our pleasures. "Unlike our feminist foremothers, who claimed that makeup was the opiate of the misses, we're positively prochoice when it comes to matters of feminine display," writes Debbie Stoller in "The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order," a compendium of Bust articles published last year (which, full disclosure, contains a piece by me.) "We're well aware, thank you very much, of the beauty myth that's working to keep women obscene and not heard, but we just don't think that transvestites should have all the fun. We love our lipstick, have a passion for polish, and, basically, adore this armor that we call 'fashion.' To us, it's fun, it's feminine, and, in the particular way we flaunt it, it's *definitely* feminist."

Who'd want to argue with this, to come out against beauty and adornment? Making feminism sexy has been a PR coup. Yet pieces like this one also second the culture at large, which is always urging us towards splurging, condemning thrift in the name of instant gratification. When consumerism is integrated into feminism, it dilutes one of our last bulwarks against full-bore materialism. The new, user-friendly feminism is delightful to partake of because it's always more enjoyable to go with the flow and revel in the world we have instead of yearning for the one we don't. Sadly, though, it makes it harder and harder to transcend the status quo, to resist the heady, pacifying pull of acquisition. Let yourself go, buy it, make yourself feel better -- the message is coming from all quarters now.

Feminism's latest incarnation is in many ways a direct reaction to its last one. The book that spurred the second wave of feminism, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," was a critique of a suffocating society that gave women little to do except shop. "One suddenly sees why manipulators cater to sexual hunger in their attempt to sell products which are not even remotely sexual," Friedan wrote. "As long as women's needs for achievement and identity can be channeled into this search for sexual status, she is easy prey for any product which presumably promises her that status -- a status that cannot be achieved by effort or achievement of her own. And since that endless search for status as a desirable sexual object is seldom satisfied in reality for most American housewives (who at best can only try to *look* like Elizabeth Taylor), it is very easily translated into a search for status through the possession of objects."

Consumerism created a tidy prison for women, and the 70s feminists wanted to bust out. "Friedan's 'Feminine Mystique' was a diagnosis of mass culture, pop psychology, women's magazines and advertising," says Susan Faludi, author of 1992's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." Friedan's book, she says, threw down the gauntlet before commercialism, "saying women are upset in this era because the commercial culture is trying to tell them that they should find meaning and happiness in the goods they buy, and that's a crock. Huge numbers of women responded to that." Some of the most popular, resonant feminist actions of the 60s and 70s -- like the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant and the sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal -- were direct challenges to consumerism. "On a very deep level, to re-embrace the commercial culture is to betray the agenda of the modern women's movement," says Faludi.

The thing is, by the 90s many younger women felt that the women's movement had betrayed them. Seventies feminism was perceived -- however unfairly -- as frowning dourly on makeup, romance and shopping, all real pleasures in many women's lives. In 1993 Naomi Wolf published "Fire with Fire," which castigated what she called "victim" feminists and urged a new power feminism that embraced beauty, sex and men, proclaiming "male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom." In a similar vein, Katie Roiphe indicted campus women's studies departments for inciting anti-sex hysteria. "The feminists around me created their own rigid orthodoxy," Roiphe wrote in her notorious 1994 book about date-rape hysteria, "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism." "In this era of Just Say No and No Means No, we don't have many words for embracing experience. Now instead of liberation and libido, the emphasis is on trauma and disease. Now the idea of random encounters, of joyful, loveless sex, raises eyebrows. The possibility of adventure is clouded by the specter of illness. It's a difficult backdrop for conducting one's youth."

This feeling that the women's movement had grown stagnant and puritanical spawned a new strain of feminism, one that surveyed at all the sex and pleasure that can be eked out of our world and said, resoundingly, yes, yes, yes! "YES" was the title of Tad Friend's infamous 1994 Esquire article on "do me" feminism, a piece which, however shot through with snide prurience and wishful thinking, captured the new hedonistic vibe in the movement. Bust praised now-defunct Sassy Magazine for understanding that "being independent is a cool thing, that girls make great friends, that boys are only part of the story, that the way you look doesn't matter all that much and that beauty comes in many shapes and colors, that you buy clothes because it's fun to buy things you like, fun to listen to music that floats your boat, excellent super fun to say yes to cute boys, yes to wild car rides, and yes to life." "Yes is a '90s thing" is the headline of a story from the online zine Maxi's Power Issue.

If this relatively new, amorphous but deliriously affirmative movement has a house organ, it's Bust, a zine founded in 1992 by Debbie Stoller and Marcelle Karp. Full of images of campy 50s pin-up girls and downtown rocker chicks and stories about strong, brilliant women alongside first-person narratives both humorous and heart-rending, Bust feels like the coolest slumber party in the world. While old-school feminism rejected the trappings of traditional femininity, Bust celebrates them as the totems of girl culture, arguing that they have been unfairly devalued by the patriarchy. The writers are grateful and admiring of what second wave feminists accomplished, but now, says Karp, "We're saying stop taking our fun away from us, stop taking away our candy and our toys and stop making us feel guilty about liking Barbie dolls and liking stilettos."

In certain ways, this ethos was born with the riot grrls, who reclaimed and revalued the detritus of female childhood -- barrettes, frilly dresses, pigtails -- all while letting loose torrents of hot, long-simmering rage. Bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear used punk to express what Carol Gilligan argued in her 1993 book "In a Different Voice" -- that American girls started out strong and confident, only to have their self-esteem eviscerated by overwhelming sexist pressures in adolescence. The audacious, pre-lapsarian girls Gilligan idealized became icons to a new generation of feminists. "Gilligan's study touched a nerve because it felt so right, making public something women had always known but had never quite been able to put their fingers on: that we had all been devilish little imps as children, who had clipped our own wings to fit into the portrait of a lady that was expected of us as adults," Stoller wrote in the Bust book.

The solidarity of girlhood friendships became a new model for feminist bonding, updating the older idea of consciousness-raising sessions. "For women of the Third Wave a good dinner party (or any gathering of women) is just as likely to be a place to see politics at work as is a rally," write Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in their recent book about new-school feminism, "Manifesta." They continue, "This need to get together for girl talk begins over soggy Tater Tots in the grade-school cafeteria, continues through endless confabs on the phone or on the sports team during high school, and is grabbed throughout adulthood in book clubs or beauty parlors, while lifting weights at the gym or running through Target or at work." Similar but more frivolous notions seeped into the mainstream as the Oxygen Network -- the women's Internet and cable channel -- hosted a talk show called "Pajama Party" where everyone wore nighties.

The underlying idea, that girl is good, is powerful. Women's magazines were quick to see that a version of feminism that celebrates the joys of shopping and primping is highly marketable. Jane Pratt, hailed as a girlie goddess for helming Sassy, launched Jane, with mixed feminism-lite, a highly confessional, colloquial voice, lots of sex articles and endless lists of things to buy. Then, this year, came Lucky, also headed by a Sassy alumna, Kim France. Billing itself as "the first magazine devoted exclusively, singularly, and fabulously to shopping," Lucky is where the girlie ethos reaches its absurd apogee. The almost article-free magazine presents itself as a fun, childlike refuge for the hardworking, liberated career woman. "I'd like you to think of *Lucky* as your personal shopping playground, overseen by that one friend who knows exactly which jeans are the most butt flattering; who will push you to try a color you're a little afraid of, or embrace a trend that seems just a bit too *too* for you to pull off," France writes in one editor's letter. The language is identical to much of that in Bust and Maxi -- "Embrace your products!" "Give us back our toys!" Inside the magazine is a page of prettily colored stickers to mark coveted items inside. A few say "Maybe?," but most, of course, scream, "Yes!"

Perhaps it's unfair to hold a consumer magazine out as evidence of an ideological failure. After all, it was certainly ridiculous when Time magazine juxtaposed a flighty TV character, Ally McBeal, with feminist pioneers like Susan B. Anthony to spuriously argue that feminism was withering. "Lucky is a catalogue under the guise of a magazine, an opportunity for Conde Nast employees to get lots of free stuff and do well with their advertisers," says Karp. "Lucky doesn't care about any kind of feminism."

This is true. But when Lucky uses the airy rhetoric of some new-school feminism, it's not just cynical appropriation. In many ways, Lucky's message and Maxi's message mesh, which is why France can frame it as a rejuvenating, girlie diversion from the battle for justice. As she says in an editors letter in Lucky's first issue, "[O]n days that are like most days in my life so far -- days when I don't settle the conflict in Kosovo, win the lottery, or establish a system of economic and social opportunity that creates true equality for all -- I'm willing to settle for the very real joy that there is to be had in finding the perfect kitten-heel pump."

Lucky addresses an archtypical women that's been constructed throughout the 90s, an image molded in the crucible of do-me, girlie and power feminism, re-appropriation and playful, self-conscious infantalization. This woman is horny, impetuous, tempestuous, sharp-witted, giggly and supremely self-indulgent. She's easy to relate to, reveling in contradictions and taking her pleasure where she can find it. She's also the ideal consumer.

Not all feminists see a problem with this. Speaking about Prada's new astronomically expensive lip gloss, Brown says, "We have to examine why we should be rejecting the $30 lip gloss. The really cynical reason is that someone's selling us something we don't need for too much money. A different side of that is that I buy that lip gloss and put it on and it makes me feel good. It's a different kind of therapy that a lot of women have felt guilty about because of feminism."

Lisa Miya-Jervis, Ms. Magazine contributor and editor of the zine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, argues that it's not feminism that's made women feel guilty, but the mainstream's demonization of feminism. "To say that feminists can be sexy and wear makeup is in some sense part of the backlash against feminism. Feminists have always been sexy and worn makeup," she says. "It's all well and good to say, 'I'm a feminist and I can wear lipstick, and consumption is fun.' But I think that to say that consumption itself is a feminist act can be pretty problematic. Saying that me wearing this lipstick is feminist because I'm proving that feminists can wear lipstick is just not that helpful." Just because women now have more economic power than ever before, she says, "why should we be using it to buy trinkets?"

Faludi is somewhat baffled that younger feminists blame her generation for inducing guilt. "This idea of, 'lets re-empower ourselves by asserting that feminists don't have to feel guilty for wearing lipstick,' misses the point. Feminism was never about telling women they shouldn't wear lipstick. It was about women thinking for themselves," she says.

When younger feminists paint their embrace of fashion as a brave defiance of the old guard, they're attacking straw women, Faludi insists. "There's this notable strain of resentment and anger towards the older generation of feminists, towards the mothers, and I'm not sure it's as simple as, 'the older feminists are denying us the right to be beautiful,'" she says. "It seems to me it's a much more internalized struggle that these women are projecting out onto an older generation. It's not clear to me what the older feminists did that was so terrible that incurred their distress."

Yet the distress, she believes, is genuine. Beneath the flaunting of supposedly taboo girlie things, Faludi suggests, is something sad and forlorn, a sense of "Why did you mothers abandon us in a world where you can't function without a certain level of display, in a world where everything seems to be about appearances and your physical marketability and your glamour?" The deeper problem, Faludi says, is that women feel shopping "is supposed to be the prime experience in the culture I live in, and it's really empty and meaningless and I feel really lost. When you feel really lost and adrift it's only natural, especially if you're young, to say what happened to these older women who were supposed to pass down some kind of legacy or beacon to help me figure out how to be an adult?"

What Faludi hints at is the fact that buying expensive clothes and designer makeup rarely amounts to anything as simple as having fun. In her book "Fear of Falling," Barbara Erenreich described the deflation following the elation of spending. She was writing about suburban household goods, but it's equally true of beauty products. "Anyone who believed that his or her life would be qualitatively transformed by a walnut television console or wall-to-wall carpeting, as the advertisements insisted, would have to confront the failure of these objects every day. They were the dead residue of ambition, hope, effort, hardened into lame, unloving objects." Acquiescing to consumer culture is politically troubling -- as Faludi says, there's a whiff of "I got mine, fuck you" about it. Beyond that, though, it also leaves out those who are fundamentally disaffected by an unprecedentedly materialistic world, women who aren't about to wear hemp sacks and head to the Michigan Womyn's festival but who also feel suckered instead of satisfied after a shopping trip. For many, consumer culture is a place of desperation as much as reinvention, as anyone knows who's ever found themselves in a nauseous, hypnotic, self-loathing frenzy under the fluorescent glare of department store lights

The celebration of girlieness is nice up to a point, but eventually cute and petulant just becomes pathetic, and credit card debt turns into a crippling burden instead of a sign of adorable irresponsibility. The answer isn't to stop caring about how one looks or to declare fashion off-limits to feminists. As "Manifesta's" Jennifer Baumgardner says, the consumerist critique is often overwhelmingly aimed at women, so that "if a feminist has anything remotely hip about her, she must be totally consumerist. Feminists get judged on that level so highly, just as we get judged on everything more severely."

At the same time, it would be nice if there was a strong, cool, feminist message out there to stand against the current of consumption. One that says sure, buying those $300 boots might be fun, but for that price you could get a roundtrip ticket to Paris and have an adventure that would make you a cooler person that purchases ever could. For that matter, you could donate money to a battered women's shelter and change someone's life, which is at least as uplifting as retail therapy. Such a voice won't get the kind of play in the mainstream media that Naomi Wolf or Sex in the City does, but it needs to be louder just the same. Instead of the endlessly echoing "Yes!," we need a feminist movement that can look at materialism and say, to quote Bjork, "There's more to life than this."

Food Porn

In films, books and magazines of the past two decades, a forbidden pleasure has been brazenly unveiled. It has been lushly, lovingly photographed, help up either as the antidote to stultifying societies, the source of sensual liberation, or as a passion so terrifying that it annihilates our dignity and reduces our egos to quivering plasma.

I'm not talking about sex -- that's old news. No, the newest source of pop-culture fascination and bawdy celebration is food. In the age of The Zone diet, celebrity wasting syndrome and 24 Hour Fitness, all kinds of media now fancy themselves daring for reveling in the joys of eating and the force of appetite. This month brings us Chocolat, the latest in a long line of food porn, food romance and food confessionals that includes films like Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate and Big Night, books like Isabel's Allende's Aphrodite and Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything, and magazines like Bon Appetite and Savuer.

Lasse Hallstrom's new film Chocolat is a fable about the power of food and pleasure to overcome a small town's puritanical prudery. Juliette Binoche plays Vianne, an exuberant free spirit who wafts into a French village with her young daughter and opens a chocolate shop (during Lent, no less). This outrages the town's fastidious mayor, who vows to drive her out of business and accuses her of being in league with the devil. His pieties are no match for Vianne's confections, though. A cup of her pepper-spiked hot chocolate is enough to awaken the zesty hedonist in her cranky and bitter landlady, while her rose creams spur a broken, abused wife towards blooming emancipation. Romances are born and feuds are resolved. Throughout are luscious, tantalizing shots of swirling pots of melted chocolate, moist cake and earthy crushed cocoa.

Chocolat seems directly inspired by Babette's Feast, a 1987 Danish film about the transcendent power of a gourmet French meal. In that movie, a Parisian woman exiled in a tiny, harsh Danish village wins the lottery and asks her employers, two sweet, timid, pious old maids, for permission to give them one real French dinner for a village celebration. They acquiesce but soon panic, fearing perdition for allowing such flagrant indulgence. Together the townspeople vow to eat the food without noticing it, keeping their thoughts turned heavenward.

Babatte's Feast is a far better film than Chocolat in part because it respects even its most sanctimonious characters, and it doesn't conceive victory as overturning their age-old beliefs. Instead, as the townspeople consume Babette's turtle soup and fine champagne, a glow settles over them and their spirituality is heightened and expanded. Gourmet food here is almost like Ecstasy -- whatever you're doing, it makes it better.

Nevertheless, like Chocolat, the best parts of Babette's Feast are its lingering shots of food being prepared, served and savored. The camera caresses trays of truffle-stuffed quail resting in golden puffed pastry, ruby goblets of red wine and inky caviar. After the relentlessly drab, austere images that dominate the beginning of the film, these shots are their own kind of feast.

What's interesting about these films, as well as Big Night and the scads of food memoirs that line bookstores, is why there's so much drama in simply admitting to the intense pleasures of taste.

On one level, of course, all these delicacies are intended as a metaphor for sex or as a symbol of female sensuality versus male rationality. That's the theme of Allende's 1998 book Aphrodite, a musing on eating and eroticism in which she writes, "The most intense carnal pleasure, enjoyed at leisure in a clandestine, rumpled bed, a perfect combination of caresses, laughter and intellectual games, has the taste of a baguette, prosciutto, French cheese, and Rhine wine."

Chocolat certainly attempts to give its food a similarly sexual cast. An old woman confesses to her priest about eating chocolate, "I thought just one little taste...it tortures you with pleasure." Vianne flusters the mayor by offering him a white chocolate tipped "Venus's Nipple." When he finally attacks the chocolate shop, the first thing he destroys is a chocolate Venus de Milo, which he angrily knifes.

But this explanation doesn't fully explain the recent fetishization of food. After all, in our sex-saturated age, carnality hardly needs to be sublimated. What little sex there is in Chocolat isn't treated with anything approaching the drooling reverence implicit in shots of Vianne's treats. Food here isn't just a symbol. The mayor is finally undone when, in the midst of his rampage, a speck of chocolate touches his lip, sparking an epic gorge that leaves him chocolate-smeared and unconscious overnight in Vianne's shop window. Yet the mayor is never otherwise depicted as a lecher -- even after his ostensible liberation, he's still chaste and proper in a burgeoning courtship. Food is his temptation and his salvation. Sex is almost beside the point.

Similarly, in Aphrodite, the descriptions of sex lack the rhapsodic passion of Allende's writing about food. A chapter grandly called "The Orgy" is about what to serve at a bacchanal, not what to do at one. "What would I serve at my orgy? If I had unlimited resources, I would offer the guests platters with raw and cooked shellfish, meat, game birds, and cold fish, salads, sweets, and fruits -- especially grapes, which always appear in films about the Roman empire." It's almost as if the sex is just an alibi for all this food talk, since these days it's far more socially acceptable to be obsessed with fornication than with dinner.

For proof, see Henry Jaglom's 1990 film Eating, which is like the Boys and the Band of food movies. A hysterical wallow through middle class women's starvation, shameful bingeing, food guilt and eating disorders, it's the other side of films like Chocolat, and it demonstrates why so many artists feel the need to defiantly assert their appetites. Eating is both so scathing honest and screechingly melodramatic about many women's anguished relationship to food that it's hard to figure out whether it's empathetic or subtly misogynist. Set at a multigenerational, all-female birthday party in Southern California, its full of women hiding in corners and bathrooms to shovel cake in their faces, scenes and confessions of bulimia, angry rants and despairing laments about dieting and the eternal pull of the refrigerator door.

Nor is this the only film that dwells on eating and hunger as perversity. There's Peter Greenaway's 1989 The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, a gaudy Grand Guignol largely set in a restaurant and culminating in a scene where a villain is forced at gunpoint to eat a dead man trussed and roasted like a pig -- revenge for the villain's cruelty and his insatiable gluttony. In Seven, a gourmand is forced by a serial killer to eat himself to death. And the film version of American Psycho dwells endlessly on the absurd meticulousness and hollow innovations of nouvelle cuisine, evidence of the stylized emptiness of all protagonist Patrick Batemen's pleasures.

Just as sexual liberation would be meaningless without sexual shame, so films like Chocolat wouldn't make any sense without the deep sense of ambivalence about the way we eat that's dramatized by these movies. Images of Babette's perfectly browned birds or Vianne's pots of melted chocolate wouldn't be so resonant if such foods weren't forbidden or fraught with guilt. Food porn, like the regular kind, may reveal a culture's lusts, but it's also a key to its repressions.

The Way to Ex-Gay

Twenty-one-year-old Kyle Friesen is gay and doesn't want to be. A handsome former hairdresser from Winnipeg, Canada with a goatee, hipster sideburns and dark, gelled, tousled hair, he doesn't look much different than any of the insouciantly out-of-the-closet young men one sees strutting through San Francisco's Castro district or New York's Chelsea. He favors dark jeans or cargo pants with big, chunky boots, and he's adorned with five piercings -- a ring in his eyebrow and inner left ear, a hoop in each lobe and a stud in his upper right ear. He hates camping and loves fashion -- his favorite magazine is InStyle -- and dancing. But he's put all that aside this year, instead devoting his whole soul to one excruciatingly difficult goal. He's trying to become straight.

That's why in January, having made up his mind to change his sexual orientation, he moved into an apartment complex in San Rafael, California -- about 45 miles south of San Francisco -- along with twenty other men attempting to "walk out of" homosexuality. All were part of a one-year live-in program called New Hope run by Frank Worthen, one of the founders of the ex-gay movement, and his wife Anita. Among those who entered with Kyle were a singer who used to tour with Jerry Falwell's choir, a recent Yale theology graduate and an articulate 23-year-old former actor who had a full-scale Messiah-complex nervous breakdown while studying in Jerusalem. As of August, 18 of the original 21 who entered with Kyle remained.

Kyle had blamed much of his homosexuality on his desperation of acceptance. Now New Hope's residents and staff -- all of whom have been through the program -- have become like a family to him. As soon as he arrived, he said, "I felt good. It's been amazingly affirming from my peers as well as from the older men that are there. I'm a people person, so it's nice to be able to come home from work to a group of a people." He'd been isolated at home, insecure and miserable about his inability to relate to others boys. At New Hope, he got to feel like he was one of the guys. The men at New Hope eat dinner together every night -- they take turns cooking. They go on outings -- to baseball games, trips to San Francisco's Fisherman's Warf, retreats in Yosemite National Park. They take volleyball lessons from an ex-gay coach. They watch movies together and have long, intense talks. If nothing else, the program certainly seems like a temporary cure for loneliness.

Although the ex-gay movement -- a network of individuals and groups dedicated to overcoming homosexuality -- is dominated by men in their 30s and 40s, there are a significant number of people in their late teens and twenties joining it. Kyle is the youngest person at New Hope, but there are also two 23-year-olds and another 21-year-old moving in in September. At Exodus 2000, a conference all the New Hope men attended in August that brought over 1,000 ex-gays and their families to San Diego, kids with bleach jobs and baggy jeans who wouldn't have looked out of place at Limp Bizkit show milled about. Many wore T-shirts advertising Christian rock bands or proclaiming attitudinal slogans like "Satan is a Punk." It was hard to turn around without meeting someone like twenty-year-old Gary Fletcher, whose mother drove him to San Diego from the small town of Fontana, California. Gary recalled a night months ago when he was dismissively dropped off on a street in West Hollywood by a married man who he'd just slept with. He said he lied down on the pavement, sobbing and saying, "Jesus, either you take my homosexuality away from me or I'm going to take my life away from you." The conference, said Gary, was the happiest five days of his life, the first time he ever felt truly relaxed and at home.

For Kyle, the experience was similar. "The Exodus conference was, like, the first time in my life I've hung around guys my age who are dealing with this, 'cause all my friends back home are straight," he enthused. For young Christians struggling with their homosexuality, the ex-gay movement offers the same kind of instant community that homosocial centers like The Castro in San Francisco do for other gay kids. And because many of the problems that the ex-gay movement insists are endemic to gay life -- problems like loneliness, alienation and low-self esteem -- are also common to young people generally, the movement seems to offer its yearning believers a solution to all life's ills.

From the moment he became aware of his attractions to men, Kyle wished they would go away. When, at 16, he came out to his friends, it was not at all triumphal. "When I told my friends, I wasn't like, 'I'm here, I'm queer.' It was more, 'I'm having these feelings and I don't know what to do. I want to change. I don't want to be this way.'" Still, he had a secret boyfriend for five years, from 13 to 17 -- a boy who stayed in the closet and recently married. At 18, Kyle said he started going to gay clubs with his straight girlfriends and doing "all kinds" of drugs. But he felt guilty and sinful. "Do gay people go to hell? I don't know," he said. But that uncertainty is itself terrifying. Besides, he said, without God as he conceives him in his life, "I can't be fulfilled." He believes he can't be gay and whole.

New Hope's live-in program, one of at least four residential ex-gay ministries for men in the country (the others are in Tennessee, Kentucky and Kansas), is run as an intensive rehab and costs eight hundred dollars a month. Founder Frank Worthen aims to impart "both a Christian religious view of things and also a bit of reparative therapy," he says -- although neither he nor anyone on the program's staff has any psychological training. "It's a psychological program that gives you the understanding of how homosexuality began in the first place from deficits in your life that have to be filled before you can emerge out of that lifestyle."

In ex-gay ideology, homosexuality is a form of "sexual brokenness" that results from early depravations. Usually it's attributed to the absence of a loving father, except when the homosexual in question had a loving father, in which case its blamed on peer rejection, an overbearing mother, sexual molestation or whatever factors fit (Kyle, for example, has an excellent relationship with his father). "Usually homosexuality is what they call a father replacement search. It's to find a loving, approving male that will affirm you," Worthen says. Like almost everyone in the ex-gay subculture, he believes that gay relationships simply can't work, a view he bases on his own experiences and those of the men who come to him. All his relationships were "very bad," he says. "Anonymous sex is about all that's there, really. Most of the times when you get into a relationship you get burned. They can't meet your needs."

The complex where New Hope residents occupy five apartments is a low, boxy building a few blocks from the brewpubs and California-cuisine restaurants of San Rafael's tiny downtown. The doors face away from the street, and long balcony filled with leafy plants and cacti stretches in front of them. Except for the bedrooms, which are private, New Hope's 18 residents can come and go among the apartments as they please. The units are large and light-filled, decorated in mauves, grays and beiges. There's a lovely grandfather clock in one of the living rooms, and hanging plants throughout. Wind chimes sound faintly outside. Walls are adorned with posters of howling coyotes and paintings of desert scenes. Were it not for the huge tapestry of the Pieta in one room or the framed bible quotations scattered everywhere, the dwellings would look like upscale Santa Fe hotel rooms.

There are bunk beds in the bedroom Kyle shares with a shy man in his early 30s, a room wallpapered with letters Kyle's received from his friends and family, as well as old photographs, one showing him as a bleached blond. His small CD collection is filled with Christian analogues of mainstream pop -- there's an album by a group called Out of Eden, who Kyle describes as a Christian Destiny's Child, and a few from The World Wide Message Tribe, who make Christian techno. Looking at them, he says he misses going out dancing. "There was a time when my friend and I would go to this club and just dance the whole night," he says. "Sometimes I just dance in my room."

One August evening it was Kyle's turn to cook. He was given $30 to buy food, and because he's graduated to Phase 3 of New Hope's program, he was allowed to go shopping at Safeway alone. He returned with canned corn, mashed potatoes, ham steaks, turkey ham steaks, and gravy (the bible's ban on pork, apparently, isn't taken quite as literally as other prohibitions). As he prepared dinner, residents home from work milled around on the balcony or lounged on couches inside the apartments. Most were startlingly friendly. Before eating, they all held hands and Kyle led a prayer, politely thanking God for my presence. Then they took their seats around a large oval table and bade me to serve myself first.

A jovial, flush-faced man with sun-creased skin sitting at the far end of the table turned to me and said, "You realize that this is a process and you're just seeing the beginning." In response, I asked everyone where they saw themselves in ten years. "In ten years I'll be sitting at the dinner table with my wife and kids," responded a chubby man with wire-rim glasses. Pointing to the man next to him, he added, "I'll be waiting to go to his wedding." To which the other man responded with a distinctly queeny inflection, "Oh puh-lease, I'll be married *way* before you." The chubby man rolled his eyes and told me, "We're very competitive."

New Hope participants are expected to work full-time jobs in the surrounding community, but they all have to be home by 5:30 p.m. Kyle, who can't legally work in the U.S., does administrative support in the New Hope office, which covers half his rent. His parents pay for everything else. Evenings and weekends at New Hope are devoted to what members like to call "healing," through classes, support group meetings, multifarious readings and lots and lots of prayer. Tuesday evenings, there's a house meeting, after which everyone breaks into groups of six to recount their weeks. Monday and Thursday evenings, they gather for "praise and worship" in a spacious room with a piano in one corner. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, they attend classes from 8 p.m. until 9:30 or 10, mostly taught by Worthen -- in August, they were studying a Christian self-help book called "Telling Yourself the Truth." Friday nights, the residents take turn helping Worthen run his drop-in support group. Wednesdays, they play volleyball. Saturdays, they clean, and Sundays, of course, they go to church.

Three times a year, they have what House Leader Howard Hervey calls "straight men interviews," in which heterosexual guys, often recruited from the church, come to the classes to answer questions about what it's like to be, well, straight. For example, explains Hervey, someone might ask the visitor, "When you see a good-looking guy, what do you feel?" "He might say, 'I want to be his friend,'" Hervey says, which helps the residents understand that responding to attractive people is normal, and that they're not so different from other men.

Of course, it would seem that putting twenty-one men gay men, all struggling to repress their desires, in a group home together is a recipe for catastrophe. And indeed, says Hervey, "There have been instances where there's been a lot of unhealthy bonding." But since New Hope conceives homosexuality as a never-fulfilled quest for acceptance and positive male affirmation, learning to connect to other men in a non-sexual way is considered essential. "It's a calculated risk," he says of the living situation. "What we've tried to do is make the house a safe place to relate. We need to be able to work through a lot of our brokenness and learn to relate to other men before those other men will accept us. We need to learn to deal with our emotional dependence issues, our immaturity, our victim mentality."

If an attraction does develop between two guys at New Hope, says Hervey, the program has a response called "Putting them on Level." "They're not allowed to be in the same room together alone," he says. "If we go out they're not allowed to ride in the same car together. If we're sitting at the table they have to sit on the same side so there's no direct eye contact. And then the whole house holds them accountable."

Worthen says, "We want them to experience everything they're going to experience within the year they're with us, so we can work it through in the group. It all gets talked about. It's all brought to the group. They get expelled from the program if they hide anything. Everything -- feelings, actions, everything has to be brought to the group."

New Hope doesn't actually promise to make participants straight. "There are a spectrum of results," says Worthen, a 71-year-old-man with big, rheumy blue eyes, a bulbous nose and a turned down mouth who looks quite stern except when he breaks into a warm, crinkly-eyed smile. "It's very easy to stop your behavior, but what you are then is a celibate homosexual. You're not heterosexual. There are degrees of change. Some people do make it all the way to heterosexuality, family and children -- we have lots and lots of little babies that are here because of Exodus."

Yet he admits that fully 50 percent of the people who come to his ministry return to homosexuality. The workbook that he wrote for participants in the live-in program says, "Our primary goal is not to make heterosexuals out of homosexual people. God alone determines whether a former homosexual person is to marry and rear a family, or if he (or she) is to remain celibate, serving the Lord with his whole heart."

Thus those who succeed in giving up homosexuality often face a rather lonely life. Five years after completing the program, forty-four-year-old Hervey says he's no longer attracted to men. He adds, though, that he's also not attracted to women. And two years ago, he had to step down from his first stint as house leader after he had a "sexual fall" with another man. Hervey has a leathery face and blue eyes under a lined forehead. His brown hair is cut in a mullet, and he wears squareish glasses and a tan T-shirt with a picture of bloody nails on it that says, "Not by Nails, By His Love." He doesn't get paid to work at New Hope -- he runs the maintenance operation at a nearby plastic injection molding company, a step down from his old job as a civilian contractor doing engineering work on Navy jets. But while he will likely never again be part of a couple, he says he's never been more at peace than he is living at New Hope. He quotes the bible, "You have been bought with a price," which means, he says, "I'm a slave." "The bible teaches you're either serving God or serving the devil," he says in a deep, even monotone. "You're a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness."

If you're an educated liberal, you might be sneering by now. You may have even seen the movie "But I'm a Cheerleader," with RuPaul and Natasha Lyonne, which broadly satirized ex-gay camps for teenagers (which, by the way, don't exist). Try to imagine, though, what you would do if your passions conflicted so totally with your most unshakable gut beliefs that you truly felt following your libido would lead you to perdition. Leviticus 18:22 says, "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination." Kyle, like most of the residents at New Hope, takes that line literally. His parents are deacons in their church, and he was raised an evangelical Christian. His religion is as deep in him as his sexual orientation. His conflict is unresolvable.

We've all heard the statistics about depression among gay kids -- according to a study reported in the AMA Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, "Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or not sure youth report a significantly increased frequency of suicide attempts. Sexual orientation has an independent association with suicide attempts for males." Growing up gay isn't easy for anyone, and plenty of gay teenagers wish they could just be "normal." The gay community tells Kyle that he was born gay, that it's an unalterable part of him. It's the last thing he wants to hear. "The pro-gay movement is so pushy," he complains. "It's like, 'You're gay, accept it, love it.' They don't give people a choice." The ex-gay movement offers Kyle at least the illusion of options. Frank Worthen's ministry tells him he can have a life like his parents and married sisters back home in Winnipeg -- that he can have a wife, children and the place in the world that he dreams of for himself.

And that's what Kyle wants -- not celibacy, but family. His dreams of marriage are one reason why "I'm committed to this whole change. Because its hard -- I'll tell you its hard," he says definitely. "That's the bottom line. This has definitely been the hardest year of my life. There are times when I hate my life."

Kyle is too self-aware to expect that he'll magically become straight when his time in the program runs out this winter. "I don't think I'll ever lust after girls," he says. "Lust-wise, I think it will always be guys. Just like any sin, Satan's going to bring temptation. As you continue your relationship with God, you learn to fight those temptations. I believe it will almost get to the point where it's like I don't have these feelings."

But he insists he can feel himself changing. "I've already noticed the difference. With my straight girlfriends, I'm not necessarily completely physically turned on by them, but once I get to know them at a deeper level I become physically attracted to some of them. It's like whoa, there's something more here."

There are four phases to New Hope's program. During the first, residents aren't allowed to leave the grounds without two other people. In the second, they can go out with one other person. When they reach the third phase, they can do basic chores like shopping alone, and in the fourth phase they can come and go largely as they please, as long as they sign out. Throughout, there's a curfew -- 10:30 p.m. during the week and between 11 and 12 on weekends, depending on which phase the resident is in. Like Kyle, most of the residents are in Phase 3. Some, though, have been kept in phase 2 for breaking the rules -- Dave, 23, was held back after he called phone sex lines twice and then confessed to the group.

Residents are allowed to watch two movies on the house VCR during the weekends, provided they're rated G, PG or PG-13. They need special permission to go to R-rated movies in theaters. "They might let you go see something like "Saving Private Ryan," something that's violence oriented. Anything with sex they say no," Kyle explains. They're not permitted to use the Internet or visit bookstores. Sarcastic, campy humor is verboten. Instructs one of the workbooks, "Watch that your conversation does not show the old lifestyle in an intriguing way, as there may be some men in the program that have not engaged in actual gay sex acts. It is our goal to bring people out of the gay mind-set rather than to reinforce the gay mind-set."

Kyle, though, was never really in the "gay mind-set," whatever that is. Before he came to New Hope, he didn't have any openly gay friends. Now he speaks authoritatively of "the gay lifestyle," which he's learned about largely from the older men in the program and at conferences like Exodus, where orators seem to compete with each other in telling of the wretched degradation they wallowed in before Jesus appeared in their lives. One of Exodus's most visible spokespeople is John Paulk, a former male prostitute and drag queen who went through New Hope and is now a father married to an ex-lesbian. He works at the conservative organization Focus on the Family. Another speaker at the Exodus conference was Bob Van Domelen, a former high school music teacher who molested male students for fifteen years, eventually serving three years in prison. Today, Van Domelen runs an ex-gay ministry in Wisconsin and helps Exodus with its rhetorical attempt to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia.

So it's little surprise that Kyle sees gay life as a vampiric netherworld. "There's not very many ex-gay young people because of the way the gay lifestyle is set up," he said. "[Gays] thrive off young people. Young people are *it*, and somebody from a really rejected background can go to a gay bar or to a gay community and they are loved and accepted. Then, by the time they're 35 or 40, they're kind of old and used and the gay community is like, OK, we're done with you. That's when they feel, 'I don't want anything to do with this lifestyle anymore,' and then they come here."

That capsule narrative is a staple of ex-gay ideology, one put forward perhaps most forcefully by Frank Worthen himself. Born in San Jose, California, Worthen lived as a gay man for 25 years -- he was actually a pioneer in the gay rights movement. But as he got into his forties, he says, he was alone and hideously depressed. There were bars in San Francisco that wouldn't admit men his age. The only sex he could get was the sex he could pay for. Some of his friends had killed themselves.

So in 1973, when an employee at one of the import stores he owned started evangelizing to him, he was ripe for change. He became a born-again Christian and left what almost everyone in the ex-gay movement scornfully calls "the lifestyle." Six months later, wanting to reach back to his old community, he took out an ad in a San Francisco sex paper announcing a support group for men who wanted to get away from their homosexuality. "The first year, sixty people answered my ad and all said they wanted out. Many of them were suicidal," he recalls.

Then Worthen's pastor wrote one of the first Christian books about homosexuality called "The Third Sex." Soon, he says, "people began to arrive on our doorstep with their luggage and say, "My church doesn't understand me, the people in my town reject me and you seem to be the only people who understand what I'm going through.' We didn't know what to do with the people initially, and finally we developed community houses for them so they could live in our church community. That was the beginning of our residential program."

In 1975, Worthen heard of a similar group in Southern California. The next year, the two groups held a conference, and twelve ministries attended. They banded together under the name Exodus. Now Exodus has one hundred ministries in 35 states in the U.S., ten ministries in seven countries in Europe, seven in Australia and New Zealand and one each in the Philippines, Japan and Singapore. In addition, there's an ex-gay group for Jews called Jonah and one for Catholics called Courage.

Today, Worthen lives with his wife, Anita, who got involved with Exodus because she was devastated after her son Tony told her he was gay. Tony is still gay, but he's close to both Frank and Anita -- in fact, he and his boyfriend live in an apartment owned by Frank in the same complex as New Hope's residents. Amazingly, when Tony's old lover George was dying of AIDS, it was Anita who nursed him through his last months, even though she blamed him for infecting her own beloved boy. Whatever one thinks of the Worthens' teachings, they truly mean well -- neither are hate-mongers. They speak affectionately of the men in the program as "our guys," and genuinely believe that they're helping them. They're convinced that homosexuality is sickness and sin, and it's their mission to free people from it.

The problem with helping people Kyle's age, says Worthen, is that they haven't experienced the so-called horrors of gay life firsthand. "We have difficulty with the young people because they haven't had enough experience, and they still think it can work. They may think, 'I've just had the wrong partners.'" And, indeed, Kyle confesses that, at moments, "I still have thoughts that I could have a boyfriend, that it could still work for me."

That's why Hervey encourages New Hope's younger residents to learn about gay life from the older ones. "I've known a lot of gay couples - men specifically, with women it's different -- but I have never met a monogamous gay male couple. Ever," Hervey insists. "They've always fooled around on the side. And I just tell them it doesn't work. It. Doesn't. Work." Nevertheless, Hervey himself was in a relationship for eleven years before he left his lover to join New Hope. Three years later, his lover followed him into the program. Today, they both live there, which in a perverse way seems evidence of an enduring gay romance.

Still, the message that real gay love is a delusion has gotten through to Kyle. He talks about a 36-year-old friend from Exodus who was actively gay for 12 years, saying, "He knows there's nothing there. There's no option of going back. There's nothing to go back to. He hates it. I'm learning from that guy's mistakes. I'm hearing other testimonies saying how horrible it was, and I'm learning from that. A lot of these men have wasted decades of their lives, and now they're in the same place I am. I have my whole life ahead of me."

Whether he's moving towards a workable truth or away from any hope for happiness is impossible to say. There are legions of mainstream therapists and ex-ex-gays arrayed against New Hope and groups like it. John Evans, a former colleague of Worthen's turned vociferous critic, has said, "They're destroying people's lives." Jack Drescher M.D., The chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues Committee, calls ex-gay therapy "an abuse of therapeutic authority" and says, "There's clearly a lot of anecdotal evidence of people who've been through these treatments and feel that they have been hurt by them." Yet for Christians like Kyle, God trumps science. The question is whether Kyle's God can also trump sex.

Author William Vollman Shares Vision

William Vollmann gave me a bullet. It was hand-made, with a black pattern etched beautifully on it through some kind of oxidation process. That he'd have spare ammunition lying about didn't surprise me, but that he'd give a sweet little present to a visiting reporter did. One expects Vollmann, swashbuckling whoredog, war correspondent, quixotic freedom fighter, gun aficionado and fiction prodigy, to be gruff and imperious. After all, this is the man who, at 22, journeyed to Afghanistan in an attempt to join the fight against the Soviet occupation, who trekked into the Burmese jungle to meet one of the world's largest heroin producers and who, on a magazine assignment, kidnapped a child prostitute from Thailand and enrolled her in boarding school. His novels and short stories tend to dwell unflinchingly on the subterranean -- he writes of whores, skinheads, junkies, terrorists, fetishists. Especially whores.

Yet in person, the man who makes Hunter S. Thompson look like Adam Gopnick comes off, at first, like any other suburban dad. Now 40, he lives with his wife, a radiation oncologist, in a big brick house light-filled house in Sacramento with hardwood floors covered in Middle Eastern carpets. Framed dust jackets from his dozen or so books line one wall, and there's a small jungle gym in the backyard for his young daughter. Bearded and dressed in a faded jeans, a milk chocolate brown shirt and white sneakers, he's welcoming and genial. Out of all the many writers I've interviewed, he's probably the only one who, after giving long, considered answers, looks at me and asks "what do you think?"

None of this is to say that Vollmann's settled into middle-class complacency. He continues to report from the most brutal corners of the world, and his obsession with what the culture calls sin hasn't diminished at all. While he's also working on a series of books about the European conquest of the Americas and has recently finished a 4000 page manuscript about the ethics and justifications of violence, his art still gets much of its ballast from the intersection of sex and commerce. In his paintings -- he's an enormously talented visual artist -- lurid, hungry images of working girls recur incessantly. He has stacks of gorgeously done platinum printed photographs of the weathered women who work in Sacramento's Oak Park. He also makes block-printed, elaborately designed art books in editions of ten or twenty. One of them, a faux-children's story called "Convict Bird" has a steel, padlocked cover that needs to be opened with a key. Dedicated to Veronica Compton #276077, it begins, "Because so many children go about their play in ignorance of the true nature of the world, I have designed this little book for them, in sincere hopes that it will remedy this deficiency." An attached bookmark is made of a lock of black whore's hair affixed to a chain.

Finally, there's his new novel, a searing epic of almost 800 pages called The Royal Family. It's the kind of book that leaves reviewers grasping for adjectives, since words like stunning have been bled dry from overuse. The Royal Family follows down and out San Francisco private eye Henry Tyler on his search for the queen of the prostitutes, a search driven, in part, by his anguish following the suicide of his sister in law, who he was in love with. Fevered, obscene and surreal, The Royal Family envelops you, sucking you into its strange moral universe. Party, it's the tale of a failed utopia, as the whores briefly find succor in solidarity with their queen. But its also a parable about consumption -- through John, Tyler's arrogant yuppie brother, Vollmann connects the voracious appetites of the underworld and those of the boardroom. The book resonates with questions about whether one loves people or what they symbolize. Most of all, its an engrossing story with a profundity that slyly creeps up on you while you're being blithely entertained.

Q: I read that when you were preparing to write The Royal Family, you hired whores to improvise some of the characters.

A: BBC radio was doing a little profile on me and how I work. When the reporter came to San Francisco, I was just starting to think about the Royal Family, and I thought it would be sort of interesting to see what people on the street felt about the idea of a queen of the prostitutes. As long as it was BBC's money, I thought why not audition them? So I got set up in a hotel with the reporter in the closet with his microphone and me on the bed with a bunch of beer and wine coolers, whatever the girls wanted, and then my friend Ken would just run out and grab them and bring them up. I asked them, 'If you were the queen of the prostitutes, what would you do?' And it was really interesting and kind of fun. Everybody had a different fantasy. Some of them just thought it meant they were really sexy. This one girl said 'Oh, I'm the queen of the whores cause I can suck a baseball bat through thirty feet of garden hose.'

Q: You gave the character Chocolate that line.

A: That's right. Then there were a lot of them who were very loving and generous, and the way they interpreted the role was they would be nurturing and take care of all the girls and give them whatever drugs they were addicted to. And I started imagining my queen of the prostitutes in that light. Then a couple of them, either because they were naturally mean or because they'd had a really hard time, just loved the idea of using power to be cruel. So then I started thinking about Domino, and decided there had to be a good queen and a bad queen. Then I thought about it a little more and thought well, Domino's not really bad. She does a lot of bad things, but in some ways she's my favorite character. I feel a lot of pity for her. She means well, she wants to trust people and love people but she can't.

That audition helped me. Then I got a couple of those prostitutes together and paid them to act some stuff out. I rented the 441 club for a night, and got six or seven of them just to see what they would do. They had a great time and I enjoyed it too. It was a little bit stilted -- they had never done it before, and they were kind of overplaying to the audience, but I got a few good lines out of it.

Q: Who was the audience?

A: Just some of my friends, whoever wanted to come.

Q: Have you worked like that before?

A: No, that was the first time.

Q: I've read others interviews with you where people ask about your attraction to prostitutes and you seem kind of blasé, saying that having sex with whores is great and that you really enjoy it. At the same time, in this book and others your characters seem to be searching for an illusory kind of salvation in among these women -- there's obviously much more to it than fun. Why do you keep coming back to prostitutes over and over again in your writing?

A: I guess there are lots of things that I'm searching for. I first got involved with prostitutes in my early twenties because the woman I was going to marry decided she didn't love me, and I was very, very lonely. I tried for a couple of years to find another girlfriend and I couldn't. I must have been very unattractive, probably because I was depressed, and depressed people can be a drag to be around. Finally I went to a call girl, and actually I felt so uncomfortable and embarrassed with her that I couldn't even have an orgasm, but after she had left I just felt so happy because finally somebody had let me put my arms around her and lie next to her in a bed. Even though she wasn't particularly nice and didn't like me and just wanted money, she really helped me so much, it was like a kind of therapy. And later when I got into a relationship and I didn't need that, I kept seeking prostitutes out as friends and as people that I could help and as people who could help me by teaching me things. They know so much, they've seen so much and they've felt so much, its like talking to a really old, grizzled war correspondent or police officer or maybe some monk whose been meditating all his life. Often they don't even know how much they know. And what they know sometimes destroys them. They learn some awful things because people can be very mean to them. People do bad things to them, and once I started thinking about that, I thought maybe they are even more elevated and exalted than I imagined. Some of them are almost like saints.

Q: Exalted through suffering?

A: Well, because it's their business to take these awful experiences and put up with these awful people and with things that no one else would put up with. If a psychiatrist is doing a good thing and all he or she has to do is listen to someone say, 'I want to kill myself' or 'I want to kill my husband' or whatever, than to have somebody who is maybe really mean and cruel and gives you diseases and stabs you and burns you, and you live that and accept it, it doesn't necessarily make you better, but it makes you worthy of a lot of respect in my opinion. I respect them so much. And so I started thinking about the queen as somebody who was really, really special.

Q: The idea of the holy whore goes way back.

A: It sure does.

Q: There seems to be a tension in a lot of what you write over the idea of victimization. You've said that you don't believe prostitutes are necessarily exploited. But at the same time, in your fiction there are a lot of rescue fantasies about these women.

A: Does that bother you?

Q: No. I just wonder what you're rescuing them from if they're not being exploited.

A: For one thing, there is a distinction between me and my characters. My characters sometimes do things that I wouldn't do or they do them in more extreme ways. But I guess if I see, for instance, a child prostitute who is trapped, I will feel terrible. One time I did kidnap a child prostitute. That was a very fulfilling experience to be able to go and help somebody. But a lot of people don't want to be rescued and maybe don't need to be rescued.

I've been photographing and making platinum prints of some of the prostitutes in Oak Park, which is about a seven or eight minute drive from here. I'm trying to follow the same women over ten years. I'm now in the fourth year of photographing them, and I've got to know them pretty well and some of them have really, really terrible lives, but I don't feel that there's anything that I or anyone can do for most of them. For a person's life to change, he has to feel not only that his life is bad, but also that he wants to give up whatever makes it bad. In America, I believe that 99 percent of us are responsible for our actions and should be held responsible for our actions. So if somebody decides to be a prostitute for whatever reason and that person is an adult, I have to feel that that's a choice that that person has made.

Q: But you don't mean they deserve what they get.

A: No. What I mean is that just because someone is a prostitute, I don't want to say that she's exploited. And if bad things happen to that person and the person doesn't want to change, its not a question of the person deserving those things, but I would say we have to stand aside and hope that that person will either decide that she can live with them, or else that she wants to change her situation, in which case she can get some help. So much of the harm that has been done in this world has been done by missionary types who think that some aspect of a culture is really awful and that for peoples' own good we have to change it. I object to the people who call female circumcision female genital mutilation. That's what they want to call it, and they're convinced that it's a hundred percent bad and it should be eradicated no matter what anyone says. It might be true, it might not be true, but I think that sort of thinking is very, very dangerous. The people who see a prostitute and say, 'Poor girl, I wonder who put her into this situation, and those awful men who take advantage of her should all go to jail,' I don't think that that's true.

Q: But you've written that a lot of American prostitutes have incest or other horrible abuse in their pasts.

A: It's terrible, isn't it? But you know, I've had some sad things in my past, and that doesn't mean that I'm not responsible for the decisions that I make. I've been thinking about this a lot because I'm a gun owner, and I'm pretty sure that by the time my little girl is my age, handguns are going to be, in practice, banned in this country. When you look at the issue of guns, there are two visions you can have. One thing you can say is, and this is what I believe, that the second amendment is really wonderful. Unlike in other countries, our country trusts us to have guns. It's in our constitution -- we have the right to defend ourselves against others, or even against our own government if it becomes a bad government, and I think that's amazing and wonderful. If that's the case, if I allowed to have a gun and I ever misuse that gun, then I deserve some serious punishment. If I take my gun and shoot the next door neighbors or rob a bank, I should be put in jail for the rest of my life or maybe killed. That's what I believe.

The other way to look at guns is that we should cut people as much slack as we possibly can and try to be kind, and that if someone makes a mistake, then that person should not be held completely responsible and we should try and help that person and protect him from the consequences of his mistake.

Q: And you don't believe that?

A: I don't believe that. Because if that is the case, then the best thing to do to prevent these mistakes from being made is not to let people have guns.

Q: But in the chapter from The Royal Family about bail, you seem outraged over the callous coldness of justice.

A: It's terrible.

Q: So how do those two ideas reconcile themselves?

A: I don't think there's any way to really be very fair or very happy when you think about this stuff. If you look at it honestly, no matter what position you take, its very, very painful and it's cruel and unfair to somebody. I feel tremendously sad for people who can't make bail. I think it's a very corrupt system, and I wish that we could set aside some kind of money to pay skip tracers so that we could let these poor people out and give them the same rights as the rich people.

And obviously I don't think that women should be going to jail in the first place for street prostitution. But if somebody like my character Domino were going to jail because she had brutally slashed somebody's face with a razor, I would feel terrible for Domino and I would really pity her, but I would still think that she should go to jail and be punished. If I could refashion our justice system, what I would do is take all first time offenders and maybe all second time offenders and give them an immense amount of counseling and give them all kinds of options and be helpful and tender and give them every possible chance to understand that they had made a terrible mistake and that that mistake could still be rectified. And then give them another chance. And then, if they kept doing these things, I would be inclined to be punitive.

Q: When you were nine, your six-year-old sister drowned while you were supposed to be watching her. In his family, Henry Tyler a black sheep -- writing about him, you repeatedly use the symbol of the mark of Cain. How much of that is transposed from your experience in your family after what happened with your sister?

A: I tend to think that my parents are disappointed in me and angry at me, and maybe they're not, or maybe they're less so than I think, or maybe they've forgiven me after all these years, but it's very difficult for me to talk to them about it. I guess the difference between Henry and me is that Henry has just started out as kind of a small time loser, and the sin that he commits is to fall in love with his brother's wife, but even before that, he was just not the favorite in his family. Maybe that's one of the reasons he can identify so well with these street prostitutes.

Q: Repeatedly in your writing there are characters who dive into underworlds initially as observers like journalists or detectives, and then get swept up in them far too deeply to ever return to their old lives. Is that something you fear for yourself or feel you've narrowly escaped?

A: Well, you never do really escape that stuff. I've been very lucky because I've been able to limit and control my exposure. I feel very lucky that I'm able to live right here. I never know what the future will bring, but I hope that I will be able to live here for a long time and die in a nice place like this, but you do get emotionally and intellectually damaged a little bit. I don't mind it, actually. I prefer the cost of that kind of knowledge to not having that knowledge and being smug and ignorant. Ignorant people can cause a lot of damage, and in a way they're not full human beings. They haven't experienced everything there is to experience.

Q: But what keeps drawing you back over and over again, now that you have so much experience of atrocity?

A: I want to understand people and I want to do good. There were a lot of reasons that were bringing me to the war zones. I was working on a long essay about violence*

Q: What ever happened to that?

A: So far I haven't found a publisher, but I got an agent last year and she thinks she might have found somebody, so I'm hopeful. It's about 4,000 pages, and it's devoted to the question of when is violence justified. Some of my Spin and Gear trips were to investigate it -- I would write the long version and then they would abridge it and publish the short version.

I've also thought that when people are in extreme situations, somehow their innate character, their essence is X-rayed by the blinding rays of horror. Under extreme circumstances people can be more selfish or more noble or more everything.

Now I've learned a little bit and I'm interested in trying to get practical, and to see what I can learn that can make a difference, because I have not made a difference in my life for other people. I've done a couple isolated things that I'm proud of, but I would like to make a big difference for a lot of people. It's going to take me years and years to figure out what exactly I can and should do and how to do it.

Q: One thing that makes you really different as a journalist is the way you get involved with your subjects. Do you have a problem with the whole pose of journalistic objectivity?

A: Yeah, I think that's really wrong because, first of all, in the case of journalists there is always some agenda, especially if you go to any sort of conflict. If you take a side you have an agenda, and if you don't take a side then you're implying that one side is no worse than the other, which is also often not true. When I was first starting to go to Bosnia, I believed what everyone else was saying at that time, that the Serbs were so terrible and so on and so forth, and it's obvious that they have done a lot of awful things. But what became clearer was that all these journalists I met just wrote off the Serbs as war criminals. I'd be in Belgrade and these Americans and Western Europeans were so rude and obnoxious, and everything the Serbs would say they would try and pick apart. Then some Croatian or Muslim would come along with an atrocity story and they'd write it all down and believe every word. And yet they probably believed they were being objective.

But if someone were to come along and say well, I will be objective and so for every story that a Croat tells me about something bad that a Serb did, I will get a Serbian story about something a Croat did. And that's not fair either, because the Serbs have done more bad things than others. I would say the biggest problem now with journalism is that people are required to sum things up in such a tiny little space, so there's only room for black and white.

Q: In 1994, you were driving to Sarajevo with two friends and they were killed -- you've said either by snipers or by a mine. Did that change your attitude towards going to war zones? Are you more afraid now?

A: No. It happened very quickly, and even if it hadn't the thing to remember is that we had the choice. We decided to go there, and so we have to take the consequences. Of course I will always grieve for my friends. It was really sad what happened, but they might as well have been killed in a traffic accident or something like that. In a way, their deaths are less sad than the deaths of the people who were stuck there. That's how I feel about it.

My biggest fear is of being tortured. I don't want to be tortured. But if I were to be killed quickly -- my friends died in a lot of pain by they died quickly -- it's probably not so bad.

Q: So you're not afraid of death.

A: No. What's the point? We all have to die.

Q: Still, most people are.

A: Yeah, that's right. Everybody is probably afraid of certain aspects of death. I feel bad when I look in the mirror year by year and see a little bit more gray in my hair, and I notice that I can't work as hard or as long as I used to without getting tired. That gives me a sinking feeling. But everything that we have in life is only lent to us and we have to pay it all back at the end, so what can you do?

Q: You're pretty open about indulging in things that other people would consider vices. And yet even more than sex or drugs, the one thing that so many people lust after is fame, and you seem totally impervious to it.

A: Yeah, I'm pretty indifferent to it. The only thing I want, really, is for the books to sell well enough or for the journalism to do well enough financially so I can keep doing what I want. So far I've been able to do what I want, but it's an unstable career. The magazines could get tired of me, and then I'd be in trouble. But each year is a victory, that's all we can say. Otherwise, the only reason to be idolized I guess would be to get girls. I got lots of girls for a while and that was so wonderful for me and it made me really happy, and now I just like being left alone and being able to do what I want.

Q: I read where you said early in your writing career you started hiring prostitutes because it was an easy way to spend a lot of time with women and to get inside women's heads. How much do you think you've learned about them?

A: One thing I've learned is how difficult it is. I've learned a lot about prostitutes and there's a significant improvement from the prostitute characters in, say, Whores for Gloria, who were often based on specific women or were composites of specific women, to the prostitutes in The Royal Family, who I was pretty much able to make up completely.

Q: Has that knowledge translated to creating other female characters, like John's girlfriend Celia?

A: I have some experience with the Celias, but only a reader could tell me which of my characters are successful and which ones aren't. If I wanted to create someone like some of Henry Tyler's mother's friends, I can do it a little bit, but just because I've spent time with prostitutes doesn't mean I can create those characters. The more I meet different kinds of people the more I realize how many kinds of people there are, and it's sort of a lifelong thing to go after one world and the next world and the next world until you have a gigantic palette of things you can draw on.

Q: In certain ways Celia's longings are pretty parallel to the prostitute Strawberry's longings.

A: See, what I think, and I hope that it's not too didactic or irritating in the book, is that we live in such a horribly materialistic, consumer driven world, that what Strawberry wants or what the johns want when they're looking for Strawberry is not that different from what Celia wants when she's shopping for plates.

It's one of the things that really torments me, because I see so many people in America wasting their lives on very unimportant things, going to movies all the time, rushing to stores to buy something new that's not that different from the old thing, and meanwhile people are starving to death in other parts of the world. These people who just consume all the time don't seem to know that much about themselves or other people and I feel really sorry for them in the same way that I feel really sorry for some of these prostitutes. But at least these street prostitutes sometimes have a certain knowledge and self knowledge as a result of all the things they've been through.

Q: There's an aphorism that to understand everything is to forgive everything. I thought of that reading about the pedophile Dan Smooth in The Royal Family, because he's a sympathetic character, certainly more sympathetic than John. This leads to a question that I think applies to your journalism, too -- at what point does relativism and empathy run up against the need to form moral judgements?

A: First of all, journalists and novelists have different obligations than other people. Lets say that Hitler had escaped justice and he were hiding in Argentina somewhere, and I had a chance to interview Hitler with the understanding that I wouldn't reveal his hiding place. I would do it, and I would try to give him a certain amount of respect as a person because he would be letting me into his life, trusting me and trying to open himself up so that I could understand him. If I just said, 'Hitler's a monster," period, we know that, that's not really advancing the cause of knowledge.

And if I were writing about Hitler as a novelist, as I did about Dan Smooth, the biggest mistake I could make would be to just show him as a monster, because then he wouldn't come to life. Obviously most of the people who knew Hitler didn't think he was a monster, they thought he was the greatest. Otherwise he wouldn't have been able to do what he did. The most boring writing in the entire world is this socialist realist stuff where the good communist peasant always wins out over the bad landlord who is corrupt and disgusting in every single way. I've never met people like that. If you start thinking that that's how the bad people are, you're not going to recognize them.

Q: Does getting inside someone's head cause you to forgive what they do?

A: Well, the novelist should be at least as generous as God, because the novelist is God to his characters. So the novelist has to forgive them. I made Dan Smooth what he is, so for me to create his character and then not extend any sympathy or forgiveness to him would be very unjust on my part.

If there were such a person as Dan Smooth and I found out he was one of my neighbors, if he invited me over for a beer I'd go and sit with him and I'd be curious about his life. I'd try and understand what he thought about the things he'd done and what his moral system was. It would just be so interesting for me. I'd probably watch my daughter around him a little bit, and if I ever caught him planning to do anything to any kid I'd turn him in. It seems like a pretty simple, common sense thing. Its not like I'd say, 'He's a convicted child molester so I have to judge him and I'm not ever going to talk to him.' I think that's always a mistake. Because not only would I be isolating myself and not learning something from an interesting person, but also by isolating him, I would be strengthening his temptation to be evil, in my opinion.

Q: You've shot heroin and smoked crack without getting addicted to either. Do you think drug addiction is something that simply results from taking drugs, or do you think it's an expression of an instinct for self-annihilation?

A: I think that there might be a biochemical predisposition to addiction, and I also think that addicts can be seekers. Maybe my obsession with certain kinds of things in my writing and drawing is just my own peculiar expression of the same tendency that someone shows in obsessively hunting for crack, for instance. And maybe if you obsessively hunt for anything and you throw your body and soul into it, maybe that's what you were put on earth to do, and you might reach some amazing fulfilling place, even if you can't explain it to other people. If I were, say, a 50-year-old street prostitute selling ten minutes in my vagina and the one thing that I looked forward to every day was shooting myself up with speedball, the fact that I was willing to risk getting AIDS and to endure all this filth and danger and discomfort shows my devotion to the god of speedball.

Q: So you think there is enlightenment to be found in drug addiction?

A: Yes. And I don't want to romanticize addiction. I wouldn't recommend it to anybody. But I think that if it is the central part of your life and you're sacrificing everything for it, why not make it into something special?

Q: Have you found any enlightenment in your own drug taking?

A: I've had some powerful drug experiences. There's one story in my book The Atlas about one of those experiences, a mushroom trip that I went on after my friends were killed Sarajevo where I felt that I was talking with God and asking God why my friends had been killed. I didn't get any kind of answer, but I felt that God was listening to me, and maybe someday I will get an answer.

Q: So you believe in God.

A: Yes I do. I didn't used to, but now I do. It doesn't matter whether there's a God or not, but it's a nice thing to believe. When I was in the backseat of that car in Bosnia and my friends were lying dead in the front and I was waiting for the next thing to happen, I was really frightened, but I thought if there is a God I could either beg for my life or I could say thank you for all my life so far, and I just felt like saying thank you. It gave me a lot of comfort. If I had begged for my life I would have felt dependent, but the fact that I was able to say, 'It's been really interesting and wonderful in a lot of ways so far,' it made me feel better about whatever was going to happen next.

Fear and Gloating

Despite the increasingly absurd pronouncements of capitalism's Candides at glossies like Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0 and Red Herring, the numbers of new-economy apostates are swelling. They're the disgruntled masses of dotcom disbelievers salivating over each slide of the NASDAQ, grinning with gleeful Shadenfreude every time layoffs are reported at a high-tech startup. Though obscured by the 23-year-olds piloting Lexus SUVs, a brisk trade in multimillion-dollar real estate and the still-thick haze of irrational exuberance, the new naysayers are forming a rapidly growing presence online, where a group of websites are channeling their anxiety and bile into venomous but oddly vibrant communities. They're the dotcom deathwatchers, and their swelling numbers suggest that a backlash is brewing against the Internet economy. As the dotcom layoffs mount -- a recent New York Times article counts more than 2,000 -- so do the ranks of the disillusioned.

There are three major websites devoted to jeering the demise of sick and dying dotcoms and providing a forum for venting against slave-driving startups, ludicrous business models and betrayed promises of stock-option riches. The oldest is NetSlaves.com, a website and mailing list founded at the end of 1998 that has seen its membership increase by 25 percent in the last month. Then there's the self-explanatory dotcomfailures.com (its slogan is "kick 'em while they're down"), which tracks online layoffs and shutdowns. Founded four weeks ago by 25-year-old Ryan Nitz, the site includes a convenient "Lackey Calculator," which allows users to compute how much money they've lost if they work more than 40 hours a week or they took a salary cut to work at a startup -- and how much their options need to be worth in order to break even. Nitz says he gets between 15,000 and 20,000 hits a day, and his newsletter goes out to 1,200 people.

Finally there's FuckedCompany.com, the most ingenious site of all. With a logo designed to look like that of Fast Company, the bible of Tom Peters acolytes, Fucked Company allows users to choose five companies they expect to suffer setbacks, winning points for various degrees of failure. There are also news items and lively bulletin boards. Since 24-year-old Philip Kaplan started it a month ago as a joke intended to amuse a half-dozen friends, Fucked Company has had a growth rate most websites would die for -- according to its founder, there are currently 80,000 people playing and there have been a million page views. The response has been so phenomenal, Kaplan says, that 30 or 40 companies have offered to donate prizes in order to get exposure on the site. Starting on July 1,those who pick the worst companies can win gift certificates and possibly even vacations -- something that will come in especially handy for all those layoff victims. Those who post juicy news to the site will get their own reward -- stock from, well, fucked companies.

A wide range of motivation draws players to Fucked Company. Almost all are connected to the tech industry, but while some want to see the whole dotcom pyramid scheme tumble, others simply enjoy watching the most ridiculous startups flame out. Kaplan, 24, is clearly in the latter camp -- in fact, he says that he hopes all the attention Fucked Company has been getting will be good PR for PK Interactive, the web shop that he runs.

"I'm not rooting for the whole thing to implode," says Kaplan. "I just think the really silly ideas have to go." Indeed, some of the Fucked Company favorites read like bad jokes. "Flake.com was a portal for breakfast cereal. I don't think you heard me. FLAKE.COM WAS A PORTAL FOR BREAKFAST CEREAL," reads one of Kaplan's news items. "I like breakfast cereal like the next guy, but sites like these make me so angry -- not to mention VCs who support crap like this. 'I'm discouraged, and I'm essentially broke,' says the founder." How can one not gloat?

At the same time, the site has become a kind of support group for those who worked at the Flake.coms of the world. "The most feedback I get from the site is from people who were laid off from the companies I list," Kaplan says. "I've gotten as many as 100 emails that say, 'I was laid off and I don't know what to do, but I came to your site and saw that it happened to 20 other companies on the same day.' It makes them feel like they're not alone. Somebody recently emailed me and said they know I'm not making any money from the site, but I should be because of all the money that this person has saved in therapy."

Then, of course, there are those who were never invited to the party to begin with, many because they didn't fit into the youth culture of startups. Over and over on Fucked Company's bulletin boards, workers in their 30s and 40s express rage at the arrogant kids who assumed that older people couldn't grasp the infant industry. The dotcom industry's ageism is one reason why 38-year-old Linda Laubenheimer is finding such satisfaction in the current rash of startup failures. "Thirty-eight is young, except in the valley," she says. "In the valley I'm over the hill, and I really resent it. I won't be considering myself middle-aged until I'm 45, and being treated like I'm a dinosaur is offensive."

A regular on both Fucked Company and NetSlaves, Laubenheimer currently works as a release engineer for a software company. But though she's involved in a thriving industry, Laubenheimer herself hasn't benefited much, because she's been stuck in temp work, without stability or benefits. "Contract or temporary labor is a whole underclass of people that the valley sort of uses up and spits out," she says caustically.

Its not just ageism that Laubenheimer feels has worked against her. Since her early 30s, she's been partly paralyzed on her right side. Her disability doesn't interfere with her performance, she insists, but she believes young people are especially uncomfortable with her handicap. "There's a very strange reaction by younger people in interviews when they realize, 'Oh my God, this could happen to me,' " she says. "They can't deal with the fact that I can't run up the stairs."

So even as she worries about being laid off from her current gig, she finds solace in uniting with her fellow naysayers online. "It's fun to say, 'I told you so,' " she says. "When some guy in a BMW cuts you off on the freeway, you can just smile knowing the dotcom he works for is going to go under."

She continues, "Fucked Company is sort of like the phenomenon that makes people slow down and look at a car wreck to see how many bodies are on the ground and say, 'Hey, I'm not one of them yet.' It's the feeling that you get when people are lording something over you and then you see them a few years later and they're in the dumps. The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

While there's an obvious acridity animating these websites, there's also a direct and very positive challenge to the workaholic values that dominate the culture of the Valley. Recently, when ABPNews.com laid off all its employees and 70 percent of them volunteered to work for free while the company searched for funding, many in the media treated the story as an inspirational tale of loyalty and camaraderie. Those on NetSlaves and Fucked Company, though, point out the sickness of the situation. Bill Lessard, one of the founders of NetSlaves, says that what's happening at ABPNews.com is a kind of office Stockholm syndrome that shows how much work has come to supercede everything else in American life.

"That's what's going on in our society these days as a whole," he says. "Turn on one of the major networks any given night of the week. Chances are you're going to see a sitcom about people at a job. Twenty years ago, you had shows about families. Now job is the family. And the Internet industry is like what's going on in the rest of the economy on crack."

For the past few years, there has been both intense social and professional pressure to accept 80-hour workweeks. Now, says Lessard, many of those who are turning to websites like his are realizing that they've been exploited. "That's why there's all this rage coming out, rage not just at their employers but at themselves for having been so foolish," he says.

This new sense of wariness about the dotcom world seems to be having an effect on people's employment choices. John Rosica, owner of the Silicon Valley employee recruitment firm MRI, says he can see the bubble deflating. "Candidates are looking more carefully at companies before they quit their current jobs, asking themselves, 'Do they have a legitimate business? Are they going to be around next week?' "

He anticipates lots of bitterness among those lured to dotcoms by promises of stock-option wealth only to see their companies fizzle. "I can only imagine some of these people who came out here and bought houses with these options. I'm sure there are people who live just at or slightly outside their means. If things shrink a little bit, they're going to be in a world of hurt," he says. At least thanks to FuckedCompany.com, NetSlaves.com and dotcomfailures.com, they'll have company in their misery.

An Island Fortress of Internet Privacy

The handful of crypto activists living in the world's smallest country is prepared for a blockade. Driven by a passion for Internet privacy, they've brought enough food, water and fuel for a year and moved to Sealand, a 25-yard-long steel and concrete former World War II fortress six miles from the English coast. In 1967, an eccentric former British major named Roy Bates declared Sealand a sovereign territory, eventually issuing his own stamps, flag and currency. Forty-four years later, Bates, now the crown prince of Sealand, has leased his island to a group of techno-libertarians and their start-up, a data sanctuary called HavenCo which promises cyber security and which may affront many of the world's major nations.

If it sounds like sci-fi, it kind of is -- Neal Stephenson imagined a similar scenario in his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon. But HavenCo, which launched this summer, is entirely for real. Colocation, HavenCo's business, may sound dull, but the enterprise raises deep questions about national sovereignty in a world of global regulations, about goverments' power to police the net and about who gets to set privacy standards in a borderless world.

Headed by 32-year-old American Sean Hastings, HavenCo sells server space to privacy-minded individuals who want their online dealings safe from government regulations and searches. As the HavenCo website says, "Sealand has no laws governing data traffic, and the terms of HavenCo's agreement with Sealand provide that none shall ever be enacted."

Of course, many world powers are unlikely to be pleased about a business dedicated to subverting their regulatory authority. In fact, at a cybercrime conference in Paris this spring, French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement argued for an international treaty outlawing enterprises exactly liking HavenCo, saying, "The idea is to produce a global text so there cannot be 'digital havens' or 'Internet havens' where anyone planning some shady business could find the facilities to do it." Though HavenCo's sovereignty was affirmed in a 1968 British court decision, it will be hard for the tiny territory to stand up to the world's superpowers.

Still, 78-year-old Prince Roy is indignant at the idea that his rule might be threatened. "Does America worry about repercussions internationally?" he asked. Meanwhile, Hastings is sanguine. "This type of business is the future of the world and it's extremely mobile -- it can go where regulation is most favorable. The risks involved with HavenCo aren't that much greater than any startup company."

Then again, Hastings tends towards optimism. Besides his ardent libertarianism, he also subscribes to transhumanism, the belief that medical technology can ultimately help us beat that "genetically inherited" disease called death.

But Hastings can't be dismissed as just a code-addled dreamer. He and his wife, Jo, HavenCo's Chief Marketing Officer, have practical experience in offshore Internet enterprises. Together, they spent a year working on the British West Indies island of Anguilla. She specialized in setting up Internet casinos, while he worked on an e-cash system called Saxas with Vince Cate, who gave up his U.S. citizenship to protest American cryptography laws (he currently carries a Mozambique passport). While Saxas eventually fell apart, the experience prepared Hastings for HavenCo. The idea for the company was born in 1998, when Hastings met the "cypherpunks" who would become his partners at the Financial Cryptography Conference held on Anguilla.

While Hastings is enthusiastic about the benefits of working with tiny governments, he may be about to run into one of the obstacles inherent in them -- laws that are subject to a ruler's whim. While HavenCo is meant to be a libertarian oasis, banning only child porn, spam and hacking, Prince Bates seems to have different ideas. "There will be no pornography, nothing improper, or illegal or unpleasant," the royal said emphatically. "We don't want to break law in any country or any place in any way." And if HavenCo's founders disagree? "I happen to be the sovereign, so I am the ultimate judge of everything," the prince declared. "There will be no disagreement."

Hastings stresses that his clients' data will be secure even if his relationship with the prince sours. Besides, he says, HavenCo has signed a contract with the prince to lease Sealand until the end of the year, after which it has the option to purchase the place and write a new, "very libertarian" constitution. Still, admits Hastings, "one must be aware that this contract is only valid in Sealand."

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