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The New Abolitionists

In 1999, the hell-raising conservative Christian populist Linda Smith left Congress and disappeared from public life. It was like a whirlwind suddenly stopping in midstorm. Hailing from Vancouver, Wash., Smith had improbably made it to the House of Representatives two terms before as a write-in candidate. Once there, she became nationally known as one of a new breed of Republican women leaders crusading for traditional values and helping Newt Gingrich put a female face on his tax-cutting, welfare-reforming agenda. The New Republic once profiled her in a story titled "Invasion of the Church Ladies." But Smith was more interesting than that. Much to her own party's chagrin, she was also an early and strident champion of campaign finance reform, a role that gave her some crossover appeal in her 1998 bid for Patty Murray's Senate seat, which she nonetheless lost.

Last year, Smith resurfaced. She was now, of all things, working with young girls and women who had been forced, or "trafficked," into prostitution in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. She had founded a nonprofit organization that was setting up homes for these women, called Shared Hope International. And she was a leading organizer of an international conference on trafficking held last February under the auspices of the State Department in Washington, D.C. She brought several previously trafficked girls from India with her for press interviews then, and took one of them to Disney World.

From shaking up congressional politics to providing social services, from campaign finance reform to Asian prostitution, it seemed a puzzling, if virtuous, transformation. In her Vancouver office one day in June, surrounded by a few old brassy political posters and many more tranquil pictures of her wearing saris and surrounded by girls in India, the 54-year-old Smith explains what happened this way: During her last year in Congress, she got a call from a man who had visited missions in India affiliated with the Assembly of God Church, to which Smith belonged for many years. Through the missions' work with prostitutes, he had seen "little girls in cages," and he wanted Smith to know about it.

"I thought it was a bit much," Smith recalls, "but I couldn't sleep. So I called my staff and told them, 'I have to see it.'" Within days, she flew to India, where a representative from the Assembly of God organization Teen Challenge took her into the red-light district. "It was one girl, one day," who changed her life, she says. The girl was about 11 years old, and for some reason, she hugged Smith. "She felt so frail in my arms. I can feel her today." She reminded Smith of the girls she knew from Sunday school, of her own granddaughter. She felt an unaccustomed wave of emotion. "It was so different for me. I'm pretty cut-and-dry." As she looked down at the girl, she asked herself, "What do I believe?" and answered, "I believe you are made by God." Right there and then, she made a resolution: "Today I'm going to act on my faith." She returned to her hotel and immediately started fund-raising for homes she wanted to build for these girls.

There's a mythic quality to her story, the way she dropped everything and found revelation in a single moment. It's easier to understand, though, if you take into account the changing currents around her. Smith's redirection reflects that of the religious right as a whole. Looking past the divisive social issues that ignited the movement for much of the '80s and '90s, conservative evangelicals have turned their attention to international human rights, forging new and unlikely allies along the way. One of the biggest issues to seize their imagination is that of human trafficking.

The archetypal case – a young girl, tricked into leaving her impoverished homeland by the promise of a respectable job, then brutally held captive, raped, and forced into prostitution – strikes deep moral chords. Making common cause with feminists also fired up about the issue, evangelicals are largely responsible for turning the issue into a top priority of the U.S. government.

Leading the government's charge is former three-term Republican Congressman John Miller of Seattle. Although Jewish, Miller's convictions and record on human rights – he opposed granting most-favored-nation status to China despite Boeing's ardent lobbying for it and labored against Soviet control of Eastern European countries – helped to make him the pick of evangelicals working on the issue to take over the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. President George W. Bush appointed him to the post in December 2002 and this June empowered him with the title ambassador at large. Miller has used his authority to make sure the issue is a top priority of governments around the world as well. His energy and bipartisanship have generated enormous goodwill among groups on both the right and the left. An inspiring spokesperson for the cause, Miller brands human trafficking "modern-day slavery" and calls it "the emerging human rights issue of the 21st century."

It is being treated as such by the press as well as nonprofit groups and government agencies. Thousands of stories have been written on the subject in the last year, including a cover story in The New York Times Magazine under the headline "The Girls Next Door," stressing that trafficking is all around us, even in the "normal, middle-class surroundings" of Main Street, U.S.A.

There's only one catch. There's widespread confusion about what exactly trafficking is and how big a problem it might be. Consider this: Washington state has its own anti-trafficking task force – the first in the country – charged by the Legislature to study the scope of the problem locally. In June, the task force, run out of the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy in the Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development, released a 92-page report. Congratulating the state for "leading the country in taking collaborative action against human trafficking," the report asserts that "Washington possesses many of the underlying conditions that support trafficking of persons," such as its border status. Midway through the report, however, it notes the number of cases brought under a year-and-a-half-old state trafficking law: zero.

The Christian Right: The Next Generation

"It just jumped off the pages of the newspaper." Richard Cizik, the influential vice president for government affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, is talking about how human trafficking became a cause for crusade. He remembers reading a piece about the trafficking of women in Eastern Europe, where the harsh economic realities following the collapse of Communism made many vulnerable to false promises. "If we truly stood for human rights for all, surely the trafficking of young girls and boys for the purposes of human slavery could not go unchallenged." Cizik helped put together a coalition of groups across the religious and political spectrum to work the issue. Gloria Steinem sent a representative to meetings. So did the B'nai B'rith. The coalition succeeded in passing federal anti-trafficking legislation in 2000 that created Miller's office.

The coalition did not come about by accident. It was part of a deliberate strategy to move away from the unyielding methods of formative leaders like Jerry Falwell. "Second-generation leaders – people my age – saw the initiatives of the 1980s crash and burn and decided we had to do things differently," the 52-year-old Cizik explains. If evangelicals wanted to accomplish anything, they would have to build coalitions with people they previously considered opponents, on issues they could agree on. Not only did they form alliances with feminists on human trafficking, Cizik says, evangelicals worked with Jews, Catholics, and Buddhists on passing the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, monitoring religious persecution around the world; with the Congressional Black Caucus on bringing about the Sudan Peace Act of 2002; with the American Civil Liberties Union on pushing through last year's Prison Rape Elimination Act; and with gay people on securing more international AIDS funding.

Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., Cizik sounds practically giddy as he considers the victories won. He notes that some evangelicals take issue with the notice they are getting for their global activism, insisting that it is nothing new. "The difference is this," he tells them. "We have been internationally involved for 100 years, but we have never been successful before on Capitol Hill." Cizik recognizes that having a born-again Christian in the presidential office hasn't hurt.

If leaders like Cizik set a new alliance-building course for the evangelical movement, the topics that rose to the top of the agenda came more from the grass roots, according to Allen Hertzke, director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the forthcoming book Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Hertzke maintains that the dramatic growth of evangelical churches around the world has led "American evangelicals to an awareness of the plight of their brothers and sisters" in impoverished, often repressive societies.

The religious viewpoint of evangelicals has not been irrelevant in the way they have perceived that plight. It is a reason that human trafficking, more than almost any issue they have worked on, has stood out as an urgent matter. "In some ways, I think having a moral view has actually helped the community see the issue more clearly," Hertzke ruminates. "Trafficking was in a kind of netherworld," he says. It wasn't the kind of human rights issue traditionally addressed by secular groups like Amnesty International, which focused on government abuses of citizens. Hertzke believes that evangelicals saw past that because they came with the understanding that "this is not the way children of God were meant to live."

Out of all the ungodly miseries of the world, though, why did evangelicals pick human trafficking as their clarion call? For one, the notion of modern-day slavery resounded with them, reminding them of the leading role evangelicals like the British parliamentarian William Wilberforce played in the abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. Then there is the sexual side of the issue. "It certainly fits with an evangelical concern for sexual integrity," says Ron Sider, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Evangelicals for Social Action, which challenges his peers to work for economic and racial justice. By sexual integrity, he means that "sex is to be reserved for a marriage relationship where there is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman" – a tenet clearly abridged by prostitution.

The fact that prostitution was being forced upon people, that even children were being held as "sex slaves," seemed all the more horrible but also fit into their world view. "This is just another example of depraved moral behavior," says Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University government professor who writes about the Christian right. "The world is a sinful place." Human trafficking resonates with many Christians in the same way that recovered memories of satanic sex rings did in the '80s and '90s, and the way white slavery did at the turn of the century – phenomena, incidentally, that were hailed as endemic until they were scrutinized more closely.

In some respects, the evangelical worldview is similar to that of certain strains of feminism, which also see the world as full of evil – perpetrated by men on women, with sex a primary means of exploitation and abuse. Hence, Equality Now, a New York organization that works on international women's rights and has Gloria Steinem on its advisory board, is enthusiastically working with religious groups on trafficking. The famous feminist University of Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon, also affiliated with Equality Now, and whose fervent antipornography views have put her in alignment with the Christian right before, is deeply involved with the cause.

Sex, however, is only one side of human trafficking, which encompasses all forms of coerced labor. The biggest case brought by the U.S. Justice Department, revealed in 2001, concerns a garment factory in American Samoa, where, according to the department, more than 250 Vietnamese and Chinese nationals were forced to work in a guarded compound "through extreme food deprivation, beatings, and physical restraint." When one victim objected, she had her eye gouged out with a jagged pipe. Trafficking victims are also forced to work as domestic servants, on fishing boats, on cocoa plantations, and elsewhere.

There has developed a thinly veiled fault line in the anti-trafficking world, with the evangelical-feminist alliance on one side and, on the other, the kind of liberal, do-gooding groups that traditionally toil in international causes like famine relief and family planning. To the liberal groups, it seems as if the evangelical- feminist bloc, which has the Bush administration's ear, has placed an undue emphasis on sex trafficking. While defenders respond that such is the most common form of trafficking, statistics that back that up are controversial, and critics argue that the emphasis on prostitution is for ideological reasons. "The general public gets confused," says Christina Arnold, founder of an organization called Project Hope International (no relation to Linda Smith's group), which is starting the first shelter on the East Coast for trafficking victims. "All they hear about is prostitution. ... It's gotten to the point where other organizations are having to mount re-education campaigns."

Good Deeds and a Brand-New Power Base

Certainly, Linda Smith has focused on the sexual side of trafficking. The $1.8 million State Department conference she lobbied for and helped host last year went by the heading "Pathbreaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking." Similar to other like-minded activists, she has harnessed the trafficking issue to fight against prostitution in general, even where it's legal. "I encourage the administration to consider countries with legalized or tolerated prostitution as having laws that are insufficient to eliminate trafficking," she said in testimony at a congressional subcommittee hearing on trafficking in 2002. "Tolerated prostitution," she argued, "provides cover for the traffickers," a line of reasoning that has become the official position of the Bush administration. It does not penalize countries for maintaining legalized prostitution, as it might through its new policy of sanctioning nations considered to be inadequately fighting trafficking. It does, however, withhold funding from nongovernmental groups that are judged to "promote" prostitution.

The fact that Smith (along with three other groups, two of them faith-based, that make up the War Against Trafficking Alliance) co-hosted the State Department conference and testified before Congress is a testament to how religious groups have finally made it on Capitol Hill. There is a nexus of connections surrounding the Bush administration of which Smith is a part. She and Attorney General John Ashcroft have had a friendly relationship since her days in Congress. They both belonged to Assembly of God congregations and would see each other at functions for visiting church leaders. "I saw him right after he was sworn in," Smith recalls. She used the moment to talk about trafficking. Smith also counts John Miller as a friend. The two met years ago after Miller wrote an op-ed piece praising Smith's stance on campaign finance reform. They socialize. "We're both single in D.C.," Smith says, "so we have dinner." (Both have spouses living in Washington state.)

Smith's access and standing as a former congresswoman have undoubtedly helped her build her organization. She received $930,000 in federal funding over the last two fiscal years. Shared Hope's total annual revenue last year was almost $1.7 million, including private donations and foundation grants. The former congresswoman didn't exactly run off to become a humble, self-sacrificing Mother Teresa (if that's how you see the soon-to-be saint). Worthy as her work may be, Smith has discovered in it a new power base: a sprawling, well-funded, influential organization riding one of the hottest issues in the world.

Not that you'd be able to tell that from her office. It lies in a modest, nondescript building in a leafy neighborhood of Vancouver. Past a small reception area are winding corridors that lead farther than you might imagine. Smith, who travels almost constantly, meets me on a rare day that she is there. She has stayed in town a few days longer than expected because she picked up a bug the week before during a fact-finding mission to the Czech Republic. The next day, she plans to fly to Washington, D.C., for the release of the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which comes out of Miller's office. The report is to incorporate Smith's documentation of trafficking cases in Australia, where she worked with a local women's group that has been challenging the government's contention that it doesn't have a problem. A few days after that, she's on to Johannesburg, where the War Against Trafficking Alliance is joining with the South African government in putting on a follow-up conference to the one held in D.C. last year. The alliance has received federal funding to put on six such conferences around the world.

Despite the bug, Smith looks cool and collected in a black jumper and sandals, her short brown hair streaked with highlights. She has an aloof manner, accentuated by a somewhat regal timbre to her voice. But she's intense. She begins talking about subjects as if she were in the middle of a conversation, seeming to pick up threads of thought that come into her head, and which she would like me to know. Within minutes, she mentions a "partner" who's a Muslim. She's referring to Mohamed Mattar, co-director of the Protection Project, a research institute based at Johns Hopkins University that is the only secular group in the War Against Trafficking Alliance. She also repeatedly alludes to the personal financial commitment she and her husband, Vern, have made to the cause, adding a money-conscious note to her generosity. They threw a lavish wedding in January for a woman named Ganga, the same one she took to Disney World, now living in a Shared Hope facility in India. "I don't know if Ganga even realizes . . . ," she says of the expense. "We gave her a full Indian wedding for 500 people."

In Nepal, they're also raising another young girl, named Mannisha, whose mother was a prostitute. Although they have not adopted her, they're paying for her education and living expenses. "That's our baby," she says, pointing to a picture on the back wall of a girl about 8 or 9 years old in a pink dress, smiling broadly, holding what Smith says is the first doll she ever had.

Smith seems genuinely wrapped up in her mission. She talks for hours about trafficking routes and destination points and which group of organized crime is doing what to which nationality of girls. Moldovan girls brought to the Dominican Republic, Thai girls to South Africa, Nepalese girls to India. India, the place she got into this work, is her touchstone. She relates how she met young women who were forced into prostitution in order to repay money that had been given their parents, a classic tale. "They were trying to preserve their dignity even though they were given no more than a day off for the birth of a baby," she says. She bemoans the plight in general of girls in India. "A nonperson is a nonperson," she says of the prevailing attitude. Her response: "These girls can do anything they want."

Her greatest contribution is the way she is trying to help them do so. A number of anti-trafficking groups "rescue" women into the void, with no home for them to go to other than nasty government facilities and no plan for what they might do next. In Mother Jones late last year, Maggie Jones wrote about one rescue in Thailand orchestrated by the International Justice Mission, a religious-based group aligned with Smith in the War Against Trafficking Alliance. Feeding information to police, IJM succeeded in shutting a brothel down, but many of the girls had in one month's time "run away from being saved," according to Jones.

Smith, in contrast, is building homes for trafficking victims, offering them educational and vocational options and sticking with them for the long haul. Michele Clark, the other co-director of the Protection Project, says that Smith understands that "you can't just say, 'Here's a bed for 30 days; go back into the same world from which you were trafficked.' She understands that it can take years for a woman to recover."

Outside Mumbai in India, Smith partnered with Teen Challenge to develop a 72-acre facility known as the Village of Hope. There's a mango orchard on it, and Smith says she's looking at putting a mango processing plant there to make the facility self-sustaining. Smith funded the facility's start-up, while Teen Challenge runs it day to day, a partnership model that she uses on all her projects. In Fiji, she and a local group have established another facility with a bakery. In South Africa this summer, Smith dedicated a renovated farmhouse where she wants to put another bakery as well as a toilet paper factory. While residents would have an opportunity to learn job skills from such enterprises, Smith says she also makes sure they get a basic education and, in some cases, pays for them to go to college. She appears to spend atypically large amounts on individual cases. "We have $10,000 on one girl," she says.

Yet it's curiously hard to pin Smith down on details of her operations. Asked how many people live in the Village of Hope outside Mumbai, she shrugs dismissively and says, "I don't know." It has a capacity for 300 to 500, she had told me, but is not at capacity. She never quite comes up with a figure for how many homes she has opened in all, despite being asked repeatedly, finally saying it's hard to calculate because some have closed while others have opened. Going through them one by one, it emerges that there are at least 10 facilities in six countries. "We intend to not have press coverage," she says at one point, indicating that the dangerous, illicit nature of what she is up against mandates a need for secrecy. So, in some cases, do her methods. "If we identify a child" in a brothel, she says, "we will have her physically removed." Asked how, she responds, "I'm not going to go there."

Obviously savvy to sensitivities around proselytizing, she is wary of talking too much about the religious aspect of her work. Smith's spiritual life has evolved. About 18 months ago, she left her Assembly of God congregation to attend a multi-denominational church that ministers to those coming off the streets and out of prison. But religion is still a central part of her life. In a promotional video about her homes that she plays for me, she says to the camera about those she is helping, "When they find there's a God, one God, that loves them – it changes them." When I ask her about it, she says that workers at the homes "are not trying to convert somebody to a religion," though they are open about the fact that "they're there because of what they believe."

Donald Wilkerson, the executive director of Global Teen Challenge, based in Virginia, is more up-front about the religious nature of the Village of Hope, which his organization oversees on a daily basis. "It's clearly a Christian program," he says, one that entails a regimen of religious instruction and daily prayers. Many of the women that come to the village learn about the facility through a church Teen Challenge has set up near Mumbai's red-light district.

While there might be some specific reasons for Smith to be vague, there's an amorphousness that lingers over the entire trafficking field.

Is All Prostitution 'Sex Slavery'?

Leigh Winchell, head of the regional office of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, sits in his high-up downtown Seattle office overlooking Puget Sound. ICE, as it is known, is charged with conducting trafficking investigations domestically. Winchell recently popped up in newspaper coverage of a June prostitution bust in Bellevue. Two of the alleged prostitutes were illegal immigrants from China. Winchell told the Seattle Times reporter writing about the case: "Human trafficking in the sex trade is alive and vibrant, particularly in the Northwest." Yet the Bellevue police, who helped conduct the raid, say they do not believe the women were being held against their will. When I ask Winchell about that, he tells me that he did not intend to suggest that this was a trafficking case. "Any comments I made in regard to the Bellevue case were more global in nature."

A tall, burly former cop, Winchell affirms that he has made trafficking a top priority, both because of directives from top brass and because of his judgment of the local landscape. "My agents tell me that about half of the women smuggled across the Pacific Northwest border are going into the sex trade." I wonder aloud whether they're being trafficked or going willingly. He acknowledges that some may be willing, but says: "All they have to do is be brought into the U.S. for purposes of the sex trade, as I currently understand it."

"But doesn't trafficking require some measure of force or deceit?" I ask.

He falters and reaches for some papers on the subject from a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security. "I have to research it. I believe just the fact that they are being smuggled alone falls into the area of fraud."

A few minutes later, he returns to the subject. "Where do you draw the line between smuggling and human trafficking? A person is smuggled in and put to work in the orchards. Are they being held against their will? They may have come here with a debt to pay and knowingly did that. So were they forced or coerced? I don't know."

It says something about the non-intuitive nature of what this crime is that the man responsible for investigating it here has to check his papers in order to grasp it. His confusion is understandable. There are varying definitions. The United Nations definition has three essential elements: some kind of transportation of an individual, some form of coercion or deception, and the ultimate result of one person "having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation." As this year's federal trafficking report notes, "many nations misunderstand this definition, overlooking internal trafficking or characterizing any irregular migration as trafficking." The differing U.S. definition "does not require that a trafficking victim be physically transported from one location to another," as the report states. But it does require "force, fraud, or coercion," unless the victim is a minor. To complicate things further, Washington state has its own definition, which is so loose as to include exploitative mail-order bride situations as a form of trafficking.

In fact, a number of evangelicals and feminists fighting trafficking consider virtually all prostitution, whether forced or not, a form of trafficking. "In reality, there is no distinction between them," says feminist scholar MacKinnon of prostitution and trafficking. She refers to the "inherent exploitation of the buying and selling of people for sex, which is what prostitution is – paying for sexual abuse, typically paying a third party [a pimp] to sexually abuse someone else."

It's an argument that Miller is sympathetic to. "Yes, people can be voluntarily in prostitution," says the trafficking czar. But, he says, "the more usual situation is that there is coercion or force or threats or psychological pressure." He points to research published this January in the Journal of Trauma Practice, worked on by University of Washington psychologist Ann Cotton among others, who interviewed current and former prostitutes around the world. Many had been raped or abused in their past. Eighty-nine percent said they wanted to leave prostitution. "I don't know of any other occupation where 89 percent of people want to escape," Miller says.

There is an argument to make that people who go into prostitution do not truly do so of their own free will but have been driven by economic desperation and abusive circumstances. But does that make them, literally, slaves? What about sweatshop workers? Poorly paid janitors? They're not as demeaned as prostitutes, but surely they're dying to leave their profession, too. One gets the impression when Miller talks about the "emerging human rights issue of the 21st century" that we are dealing with a new, shocking crime. It seems an odd label for prostitution, the oldest crime in the book.

Part of the problem in understanding trafficking is that there are a lot of assumptions made from afar about the ostensible victims, argues Joanna Busza, a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Nobody's bothered to ask them how they got there and if they're exploited," she says. She and two fellow researchers spent time in Mali and Cambodia interviewing people that had been identified by local nongovernmental organizations as trafficking victims. They published their findings this June in the British Medical Journal. Of 1,000 young people identified in Mali, many of whom had returned from working on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast, "only four could be classified as having been deceived, exploited, or not paid at all for their labor." Talking to Vietnamese prostitutes in Cambodia, just six of 100 women "reported having been 'tricked' into sex work or betrayed by an intermediary." Many of the women, however, were working under a "debt bondage" system, paying back loans made to them or their families, and were unhappy with their sometimes violent working conditions.

Busza's study has tapped into a reassessment some are making within the anti-trafficking movement about the scope of the problem. "The situation has been exaggerated; that seems to be the reality we're learning," says Ann Jordan, the director of a trafficking program run by the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington, D.C., who has worked on the issue since living in China 15 years ago. Jordan, who works with a network of service providers nationwide, notes that the feds keep changing the statistics regarding the number of people trafficked into the U.S. At one time, they said there were 50,000 trafficking victims here, then 18,000 to 20,000 and now, according to the latest State Department report, 14,500 to 17,500.

"I only know that all our partner NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are busy with clients all the time," Jordan says. "But they have nowhere near that number. Either we have tens of thousands of people in the U.S. sitting in slavery or their numbers are off. I don't know." According to Ashcroft's report on trafficking to Congress this May, the federal government had identified just 450 trafficking victims domestically in the 2003 fiscal year who were eligible to receive certain benefits, including the newly created "T" visa. In King County, the Refugee Women's Alliance received a grant of approximately a quarter million dollars to lead a "trafficking response team" that would provide services to victims. It has handled only about 10 cases in more than a year.

"A lot of the stats are, if not made up, then certainly the basis for which they are derived is never given," says David Feingold, who coordinates regional trafficking projects for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Bangkok. Speaking by phone from there, he says that a lot of the estimates come from nongovernmental organizations that have no training in research. His agency has put together an illuminating database of the many and wildly varying trafficking statistics, cited along with their sources (accessible online at www.unescobkk.org). The worldwide trafficking estimates vary from 700,000 victims (in the range of the current State Department figure) to 200 million.

"It's very embarrassing," Miller admits of the statistical fluctuations. Within the federal government, he says, the varying numbers reflect the increasingly intensive research effort.

The Victims Are Real, But How Many Are There?

Like Jimmy Carter and George Mitchell, Miller has achieved new renown in his post-political life. "I've been around government for 25, 30 years, and I've never seen a guy as admired by people on both sides of the aisle," says Michael Horowitz, a prominent neoconservative affiliated with the Hudson Institute. Having left Congress in 1993 to spend more time with his then 4-year-old son, the 66-year-old Miller was chairing the Discovery Institute, a conservative Seattle think tank, and teaching English literature at the Northwest Yeshiva High School on Mercer Island when the president tapped him to take charge of the national trafficking office. Since doing so, he has brought a new level of forcefulness to an office that previously kept beneath the radar.

"My role has been to elevate the issue," he says, speaking by phone during a vacation trip to Lake Chelan, "to make sure that our embassies and the State Department and other agencies take this very seriously, that they know that this is not just some throwaway part of American policy." Miller has been willing to put pressure even on allies of the U.S., including Japan, which in this June's trafficking report was put on a "watch list" of problem countries. If those countries fall to Tier 3, the lowest grading of countries evaluated in the report according to their anti-trafficking efforts, then they risk losing American aid and funding for cultural exchanges. Last year, a Tier 3 rating so spooked Kazakhstan that its foreign minister went on national television and gave a 30-minute address railing against the scourge of trafficking.

Miller has met victims himself. He says one of the first was a woman in the Netherlands. She had been living in the Czech Republic in a failing marriage when a friend suggested she could make money waiting tables in Amsterdam. Leaving a 2-year-old daughter behind, she crossed the border with someone who turned out to be a trafficker, who handed her over to another in Amsterdam who took her to the red-light district. "You will work here," Miller says the trafficker told her. When she said she wouldn't, the trafficker replied, "Yes you will, if you want your 2-year-old daughter to live."

There are enough stories like hers, some far more brutal, to serve as a reminder that trafficking is not a chimera. But as for how pervasive it is, Miller maintains that it's impossible to know. "Victims don't stand in line and raise their hands to be counted," he likes to say in his booming, jovial voice. He minimizes the importance of exact quantification. "All of us involved in the issue know enough firsthand to know that the problem is huge." Pressed on the point, he points to 8,000 trafficking prosecutions worldwide in 2003. "The typical trafficker is involved with 20, 100, 500 victims," he says. "If you just take those into account, you're clearly in the hundreds of thousands."

But the difference between 20 victims per trafficker and 500 is the difference between 160,000 and 4 million victims – sizably different levels of magnitude. The difference is not academic. It's essential to determining what should be done about the problem – if you can pin down exactly what the problem is – and how many resources should be put into it. The federal government spent $91 million fighting trafficking in the last fiscal year, much of that money going to nonprofit groups and government agencies around the world that accordingly have a vested interest in trumpeting the problem and are refocusing their energies around it. "Trafficking is big business not just for traffickers but also for the international development community," write Busza and her co-authors in their piece scrutinizing the prevailing wisdom on Malian and Cambodian trafficking. The trafficking task force in our own cash-strapped state recommends that a new funding pool be set up to tackle the issue. Miller's office uses current trafficking estimates, broken down according to country, to pressure governments around the world to pass new anti-trafficking laws and spend money on the problem – or risk facing sanctions.

The disconnect between the rhetoric on trafficking and the actual number of documented cases, nowhere more evident than in Washington state, does more than raise questions about the resources spent. It presents a credibility problem that takes away from the horror of the real cases out there.

Some in the anti-trafficking field consider it heresy to suggest that the issue has been hyped. But the Human Rights Law Group's Ann Jordan takes a more sanguine view. If the numbers are smaller, she reasons, we probably can have more success in solving the problem.

Mental Marijuana

Smoking marijuana, the federal government constantly reminds us, is dangerous in every way. It impairs cognitive functioning, makes you high, and, because it's smoked, is a demon in a bong hit – and so on.

A counterargument is that pot has helped thousands of cancer and AIDS patients, for example, contend with side effects of their illnesses and treatments. There is also evidence that marijuana works for some psychiatric disorders as well, principally depression and bipolar disorder. Among some people, pot is jokingly referred to as "green Prozac."

The problem is you can't legally take a toke for psychiatric diagnoses.

"I think cannabis has a lot of potential in the treatment of mental illness," says Lester Grinspoon, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the Harvard School of Medicine. He says that it can be an effective treatment for bipolar disorder and depression. Like any medicine, he cautions, it won't work for everyone. Grinspoon has, over the last three decades, been one of the few psychiatrists willing to speak publicly on mental marijuana.

Most of the evidence to support use of pot as medicine is anecdotal; i.e., it seems to help AIDS and cancer patients contend with their diseases and handle the nausea they often experience from treatment, so there must be something to it. Many people also report that it provides a quick lift from the bowels of depression.

My own anecdotal, ahem, experience is that pot does indeed boost my mood from the badlands of depression and lower me from the Mount Everests of mania. I have no idea why or how, nor do I especially care – I'm one of those people who find Prozac and its progeny to be barely effective and with enough nasty side effects to outweigh the benefits. But I'll never tell that to the Drug Enforcement Administration or drug czar John Walters.

Instead, I'll let the Israeli army speak for me. Two weeks ago, it announced that it would provide, on an experimental basis, medical marijuana to troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, another mental illness. Good enough for an army, good enough for me.

But in states with medical marijuana laws, each attempt to get depression or bipolar disorder added to the list of ailments for which the kine can be oh-so-kind has been shot down.

For example, four years ago, the Washington Medical Quality Assurance Commission was petitioned to add mental illness to its list of approved uses of medical marijuana. The commission denied the request. It argued that there was no lock-solid scientific evidence that weed worked for mental illness. The odd thing is that it had approved pot for treatment of Alzheimer's, Krohn's disease, chronic pain, and wasting syndrome based upon – you guessed it – anecdotal evidence.

The feds would like to keep any evidence that reefer is an Rx anecdotal – no peer-reviewed, double-blind studies here – as it bolsters their case that there's no scientific proof that pot works for anything except getting people high. It's the evil weed.

As proof, the DEA touts the following from a 1999 scientific report: It states that " . . . there is little future in smoked marijuana as a medically approved medication."

The report was prepared by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), part of the independent National Academies of Science. Interestingly, the feds lifted that quote from deep in the report. But perhaps more telling is that only one sentence later, the report says: "The personal medical use of smoked marijuana – regardless of whether or not it is approved – to treat certain symptoms is reason enough to advocate clinical trials to assess the degree to which the symptoms or course of diseases are affected."

The IOM backed that up with several strong recommendations that medical marijuana should be thoroughly studied – you know, like scientists study every other treatment under the sun.

To date, that hasn't happened.

"Who is going to get approval from an institutional review board to break the law?" asks Grinspoon. Researchers must have their studies cleared by such boards before they can do experiments with humans. He likens the situation to that of lithium. Its efficacy for treating mental illness was found by accident in the 1940s by an Australian scientist. The evidence was anecdotal. It wasn't until the late 1950s that the feds allowed it to be used in this country, despite the fact that it was saving lives on the other side of the globe.

That's not to say that marijuana is the new lithium or an all-conquering antidepressant. This is not an argument for 40 grams to freedom. Most psych meds work quite well for an estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of patients. It's the remaining 30 percent to 40 percent who are in a sketchier situation. If the approved meds don't work at all or barely work their alleged magic, where are you supposed to turn?

Psychiatrists usually prescribe another med such as Lexapro, a new antidepressant that's all the rage these days. Personally, I found that marijuana had a positive effect quite by accident, especially when dealing with short-lived psychoses. Medications for that typically take hours or days to work – and when you are in that state, you aren't interested in anything but relief by any means necessary, stat.

So let's assume that weed works for a minority of the mentally ill. Doctors usually come back with the assertion that pot has too many side effects, such as respiratory ailments, to even consider its use. I wonder what universe they live in. Long-term use of psych meds themselves carries a host of side effects, which have been poorly evaluated in long-term studies – kidney and liver damage chief among them, along with nausea, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, sleep interference, and hair loss. And they talk about the side effects of marijuana? By comparison, pot's side effects are almost minimal. So, I'll take that medical marijuana any day – I'd simply like to do it legally.

A Spoiler on the Right?

It's weird to hear people describe your politics, especially if you're at all difficult to categorize. Over the years, I've had people introduce me as conservative, liberal, and libertarian. They're all partly right. In my midteens in the late 1960s, I looked around for a political movement to join, something more sustaining than anti-Vietnam War marches. I was raised a Dan Evans Republican, supported Bobby Kennedy for president, shook hands with both Richard Nixon and Henning Blomen, the Socialist Labor Party candidate for president in 1968. I searched vainly for a home with both the Republicans and Democrats.

In the early 1970s, I read an article in The New York Times Magazine about the "New Right," student activists who rejected the socialism of the New Left and embraced the principles of civil liberties and the free market. I was intrigued, especially since they were adamantly opposed to the draft. It was around that time the Libertarian Party was formed, and I soon had a chance to check them out. In 1972, as a student newspaper reporter, I attended a Libertarian meeting in a back room at Ozzie's on Lower Queen Anne. The few attendees sat in a small dark cave at a big round table talking endlessly about Ayn Rand and the virtues of selfishness. They seemed obsessed with the joys of the Darwinian jungle, though none of them looked like winning specimens in that race to self- reliance. The men were like Lenny in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"; the women like Dr. Evil's mistress, Frau Farbissina. If this were an Agatha Christie novel, I'd have been rooting for the killer.

I decided that day that this was a party I would never join.

A lot of libertarians feel that way. They're not exactly the joining type, most being focused on leave-me-alone-ism. Millions of votes are cast for Libertarian candidates, but there are only some 25,000 card- carrying, dues-paying party members. One is Michael Badnarik, 50, a former computer programmer from Austin, Texas, who is the party's 2004 candidate for president. He came by the Seattle Weekly offices to chat on Monday, Aug. 16.

Badnarik describes organizing Libertarians as herding cats or nailing Jell-O. He says there are approximately 150,000 self-identified Libertarians in the country. In 2000, Libertarian Party candidates garnered more than 3 million votes nationwide. He was quoted in one newspaper saying about his core constituency, "It's not being a Libertarian that makes them independent and cantankerous. It's being independent and cantankerous that makes them libertarian." He should know. He didn't get his party's nomination until the third ballot, and even then, Badnarik admits, he won because he was everyone's second choice.

But he's an articulate standard-bearer with a mission: to convince voters that they don't have to pick the lesser of two evils every time out. His goal isn't to win the election, obviously, but to steer the party on a course to become a factor in the election. In polarized Red-Blue America, the tiny percentages that third-party candidates command can be crucial. In short, Badnarik wants to prove that two can play Ralph Nader's game.

He argues that he's neither left nor right but a "second dimension" that adds something new to the political mix. Libertarians believe in the free market, slashing taxes, cutting government spending and regulation, and defending civil liberties. This plays to both the right and left, depending on where you focus. Badnarik can emphasize parts of the party's platform that will be music to both Red and Blue ears. In North Carolina, he can emphasize law and order and gun rights (Libertarians are strong Second Amendment supporters). When asked about the death penalty by the Wilmington, N.C., Star News, he sounded like a promoter of vigilante justice when he replied, "In my opinion, the best place to initiate the death penalty is at 2 a.m. at the ATM when someone comes up to take your money." In San Francisco or Seattle, he can emphasize his opposition to the drug war, rail against banning gay marriage, promise to bring the troops home from Iraq immediately, and pledge to rescind the Patriot Act. In our discussion, he bashed Bush more than Kerry. It's not that he's inconsistent or pandering – it's just that the Libertarian philosophy cuts the pie in a wholly different way.

How do the Libertarians become a factor? By affecting the outcome of the election. While Nader is widely blamed for tipping the 2000 election to Bush (or the Supreme Court that appointed him), the Libertarian impact might also have been felt closer to home. Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton blames Libertarian candidate Jeff Jared for his defeat that year by Democrat Maria Cantwell, saying he siphoned off critical conservative votes in an election that was settled by about 2,500 votes. (Ironically, Nader has also tried to claim credit for getting Cantwell elected.) Polls have indicated that both Republicans and Democrats vote for Libertarians, but the party seems to draw more from the GOP. Badnarik says he's polling at 5 percent in New Mexico, a key swing state, and 1 percent to 1.5 percent in four key upper Midwestern states, pulling enough Republican and independent voters from Bush to make a tiny – but possibly critical – difference.

If he can be blamed for the outcome either way, it will be a successful year for the Libertarians and Badnarik – especially since polls also show that 80 percent of the American people have never heard of the Libertarian Party (see their booth at Hempfest). They might live to be reviled by Republicans – as Nader is by many Democrats. That will be a sign that at last, they matter.

Your Brain on Frappuccino

The U.S. government allocates many billions of dollars a year to the "War on Drugs," but it spends hardly a penny on the most insidious, most omnipresent psychoactive drug of all. I refer, of course, to caffeine (C8H10N4O2), the little alkaloid that made Starbucks' Howard Schultz a billionaire.

Drug? Indubitably: Even before it became endemic in the human diet through use in candy bars and soft drinks, doctors prescribed caffeine as a decongestant and mild painkiller; users discovered its efficacy as an appetite suppressant on their own. But it would be just another minor entry in the pharmacopeia were it not for another aspect: its powerful impact as a stimulant.

That's where the psychoactive aspect of caffeine kicks in. Unlike most small organic molecules, caffeine slips through cell walls as if they weren't there. An hour after your cuppa, caffeine can be found in every cell in your body, including those of the nervous system; even the famed "blood-brain barrier" is impotent against its stealth attacks.

After more than a century of concentrated study, scientists are still not entirely sure what happens when caffeine hits the brain. The current best guess is that it plugs into receptors in cells that modulate "excitability," the propensity of neurons to fire, sending messages to other nerve circuits in the brain. Caffeine fits these receptors well enough to prevent their proper trigger (adenosine) from plugging in, but not well enough to mimic the downstream calming effect of adenosine. Result: The brain remains in a state of higher excitability, alertness, and clarity, not to mention irritability, than it would maintain without caffeine's intrusion.

So far, so good; everybody recognizes the energizing jolt a good cup of coffee delivers. (The size of the jolt depends on the mode of delivery: An espresso contains about a fifth of a gram of the stuff, drip coffee only half as much.) The trouble is that most of us users don't stop with one cup, and the spread of fancied-up ways of absorbing your jolt – lattes, Frappuccinos, and the like – has made it perilously easy to saturate the system with a drug that, its agreeable stimulation apart, is pretty hard on the nervous system.

Some people can't even handle that one espresso without experiencing feelings of anxiety. When the dosage rises above 600 milligrams (only about three shots' worth), a majority of imbibers experience side effects like nervousness and irritability; many also experience higher blood pressure without realizing it.

Even if your system is highly tolerant to caffeine, a gram a day can cause irregular heartbeat and ringing in the ears, not to mention insomnia, outbursts of temper, and heightened distractibility. Ten grams of it and you're dead. Granted, it's almost impossible to absorb 10 grams of caffeine by the usual methods, but it's still a little worrisome that the difference between a useful dose and a deadly one is a mere matter of 50 to one.

Another worrisome aspect of caffeine is that many of its users develop a tolerance to its effects – in others words, you start with a single short and eventually only a triple grande will do. This happens with most drugs that interfere with normal neurotransmitter pathways, which are linked in intricate loops of potentiation and feedback.

When we block adenosine from its target receptors, the nervous system tries to restore its balance by producing more adenosine to compete with the caffeine that's blocking it, so over time it takes more caffeine to overcome the additional adenosine's calming, soporific effect. No two people exhibit exactly the same pattern of tolerances, so there's no way to establish a "safe" dose except through trial and error, leaving plenty of room for the insomnia, heart flutters, and sour stomach that result from an "overdose."

Is caffeine a drug of abuse? Americans think of themselves as mighty coffee drinkers, but in fact they swallow less than half as much per capita (around one espresso's worth) as the Swedes or the Brits, who, counting tea and chocolate consumption along with coffee, are the current world champions, putting away nearly half a gram of caffeine a day on average.

On average – that's the problem with stats like these. There are a lot of people who don't drink coffee or tea at all, and averages don't help to discern how caffeine use differs by age, class, and income group. The most upsetting fact about caffeine is that there is virtually no good information about the impact of caffeine use on children and adolescents, who, thanks to soft drinks and chocolate-packed candies have become a major segment of the caffeine market. Kids' nervous systems are not completely developed until late adolescence, and nobody knows what effect on the final product a dozen-plus years of steady infusion of a powerful alkaloid stimulant may have.

On balance, Howard Schultz may be America's biggest pusher for adults, but one of these days it may turn out that Coke and Pepsi have a lot more to answer for.

The Tarantino Britannica

What a difference five months don’t make. Cineastes were all waiting to see what would become of the Gordian gamble Miramax took by splitting Quentin Tarantino’s chopsocky epic into two parts. Sure, the first was a self-indulgent film-geek letdown, but the second, we were led to believe, would provide the payoff. Chat-room buzz had it that the final showdown between Uma Thurman and David Carradine would take place on this side of the ocean, a little closer to QT’s Pulp Fiction vernacular, a lot farther from subtitled samurai screams. Vol. 2 was supposed to be less foreign, less coded to the director’s pot-hazed, screening-room Proustian riffing, less driven by action, and more sustained by dialogue.

Well, now we can call Harvey Weinstein’s bluff (and understand why he was bluffing and stalling). There is no payoff to Kill Bill Vol. 2. It’s more of the same, only more so: Tarantino the pedant drones on, drowning out Tarantino the writer of ace dialogue. The entire movie seems composed from a blackboard—like Jack Black’s manic music-history lesson in School of Rock. Given carte blanche by studio, stars, and his adoring public, the reclusive writer-director has pulled a Wachowski on us and, after a somewhat audacious start in Vol. 1, has proceeded directly to the familiar “What was that all about?” sensation of The Matrix Revolutions. Where’s the Architect when you need him?

Vol. 2 begins with a funny B-movie prelude in which Thurman—still known as the Bride, though her true name is later revealed— reiterates her vow of revenge. Like we’d forgotten. (If you have: She’s pledged to exact a mortal penalty from her former boyfriend, who shot her in the head, sending her into a four-year coma.) It’s cheesy in a way that’s outside the usual Tarantino pantheon of cheese. With cheapo black-and-white rear-screen projection, Thurman is like some Lana Turner figure in a Charles Busch send-up. (There’s always been something rangy and mannish about Thurman, but that’s a different subject.) Then the movie begins properly, in color, as marked-for-death brothers Budd (Michael Madson) and Bill (Carradine) commiserate in Barstow, Calif., where Budd makes like a trailer-park Camus: “I don’t dodge guilt, and I don’t Jew out of paying my comeuppance. We deserve to die.”

From there, Vol. 2 offers no drama, just execution. And references—more film and TV entries from the Tarantino Britannica. With Carradine, you’ve got Kung Fu (complete with flute, God help us). With eyepatched-assassin Daryl Hannah, you’ve got They Call Her One Eye. With the final showdown down Mexico way, you’ve got late-career Peckinpah, with straight tequila, scarred whores, and sage pimps.

Vol. 2 ultimately becomes trivial by sheer weight of its trivia. Vol. 1 established that Tarantino wanted to craft a genre-hopping homage to all his childhood obsessions—on screens large and small. (I’m giving nothing away to say that the happy end here includes a kid watching TV.) On the DVD for Vol. 1 (also released this week in a synergistic frenzy of hype), Tarantino explains, “That’s what the whole movie is about—it’s fusion.” Cold fusion is more like it. Ennio Morricone and ’70s funk, yakuza and cowboys, the Shaw Brothers and Brian De Palma . . . where does this hybrid chain of references end? At a kind of chopsocky melodrama finale, with swords crossed between parents, both demanding sole custody of their child. (QT, let’s recall, was raised by his mother.) Vol. 1 established that the Bride gave birth in a coma after she was shot—four years later, there’s got to be an adorable little girl, right? Here, it’s like Tarantino has switched channels from Sonny Chiba’s Shadow Warriors to a daytime soap. And all that winking won’t get the sap out of your eye.

There is no unifying artistic vision or Pulp Fiction moral to this collage; it creates nothing more than a succession of pointillist nodes and nods. Tarantino’s like the guy who keeps you up all night playing forgotten B-sides from his endless collection of 45s. He’s a serial thinker who’s lost all sight of structure (which at least Elmore Leonard supplied for him in Jackie Brown). He can only recapitulate all his old faves and influences, with no means of tying them together other than to say, “Look what these things mean to me!” In a sweet shut-in’s way, he means to be generous with us, but the results in Vol. 2 are long-winded, lax, and tediously digressive.

Vol. 1 at least offered some stylish action and music, but Vol. 2’s dominant impressions are of Hannah prattling on about milligrams of snake venom; Carradine opining about Superman; plus an overlong flashback to the Bride’s exhaustive training at a martial-arts temple run by a beard-stroking super-geezer with eyebrows like two albino sparrows.

As a rule, I don’t like to review the audience, but in this case it was pretty telling. At the preview I attended two weeks ago, there was full-on sweaty, smelly, fan-boy excitement before the curtain. Once the lights dimmed, however, I couldn’t believe how few laughs I heard over 135 minutes, how little oohing and aahing. Even the geeks seemed as bored as I was. If Tarantino can’t please these guys, he needs to reconsider his whole record-skipping aesthetic. Maybe he should choose just one genre to goof on (like Mel Brooks or Charles Busch), or treat all his bent homages with less respect and more irreverence (like the Zucker brothers).

The mood at the preview wasn’t, “This is great!” It was more like, “I think I understood that reference correctly.”

Whose Doom? Mydoom

By late Tuesday, Jan. 27, experts estimated that 20 percent of the world's e-mail traffic was attributable to the virulent worm known as Mydoom, or Norvag -- the latest Internet scourge to send panicked corporate tech managers to the Symantec and McAfee Web sites for virus-protection updates. This monster virus is spam on steroids. Attached to a seemingly innocent e-mail, Mydoom copies itself to the computer of whoever happens to be curious enough to open its attached file, e-mails itself all over again, then awaits instructions -- perhaps, like SoBig and other previous worms, to use the invaded PC as a conduit for future spam. Computer-security experts say this is a battlefield-changing tactic in the spam war. "I'm really starting to believe that as much as 75 percent of spam is coming from our own machines," says Lawrence Baldwin, a computer-security expert who runs MyNetWatchman.com. That's right, most spam is actually being circulated by us through our innocent-looking home PCs.

"A lot of Microsoft software is so unsecure that spammers are now writing viruses that infect home computers and turn them into spam sources," says Laura Atkins, president of the Spamcon Foundation. "That's probably the biggest source of spam on the Net right now." The new marriage of computer viruses and spam is the most dangerous threat to the Internet in the coming year, contends MessageLabs, a leading anti-spam outfit based in Minneapolis.

The means by which spammers commandeer home PCs is complicated and continues to evolve, but essentially a piece of "malware," like Mydoom, is delivered to your machine, either by e-mail or more directly, which then enables the spammer to relay masses of spam through your living room and suck up your bandwidth, hiding behind your computer's unique Internet Protocol (IP) address. "You'll see [the same] e-mail coming from a hundred computers all at once all over the Internet," says Julian Haight, founder of Spamcop.net, which monitors Net traffic. Meanwhile, the unwitting computer owner might not notice anything besides a sluggish Internet connection. Joe Stewart, of computer security firm LURHQ, puts the number of PCs "hijacked for spam" at "probably well into the millions by now."

And what accounts for the ease with which wily spammers prey on PCs?

Of course, it's the many cracks in Windows software. "Unfortunately, Microsoft has had literally hundreds of security vulnerabilities in the last few years," says Baldwin. "If you haven't applied all your security patches and you put a Microsoft system directly onto the Internet," without a firewall, "you can be pretty much guaranteed it will be infected, probably in under five minutes."

Late last year, users of Microsoft's Hotmail service awoke to something they'd never experienced: no spam. Microsoft's free, Web-based e-mail service has long been an infamous hotbed of spam. Thanks to such spammer strategies as "dictionary attacks" -- in which the spammer sends out thousands of messages using random combinations of letters in front of the @hotmail.com address -- new Hotmail users could see spam landing in their inboxes even before they'd sent out their first message. People who used Hotmail only sparingly might still receive a couple dozen pieces of spam each day. But all that changed when Microsoft introduced SmartScreen Spam Filtering Technology. Some users have found that incoming spam, for the moment at least, has shrunk to near zero. "Anecdotally, Microsoft has been consistently hearing from customers and testers that SmartScreen tools are blocking upwards of 80 to 95 percent of their spam," according to the company.

Microsoft's filter employs methods similar to those of other anti-spam systems currently in use: The software scans incoming messages for keywords and other characteristics that the system "learns" are typical of spam and segregates them. Microsoft says its proprietary system is better than those of competitors because it "learns" from such a huge inventory of Hotmail spam and because it combines a bunch of spam-targeting technologies. (Personally, I've never had a single spam at my two-year-old Yahoo! account.)

The introduction of SmartScreen is recognition by the company of how serious an inconvenience spam has become, because with spam, as with so many other things, Microsoft has lagged behind competitors, allowing them to make the first moves before the company finally decided to weigh in with massive resources and a high-profile campaign (often prescribing, of course, a software upgrade). Where EarthLink and America Online started suing spammers in the late 1990s, says Atkins of the Spamcon Foundation, Microsoft only recently began going after them aggressively, filing several suits last summer and then, last fall, teaming up with New York's dogged attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, to sue a bunch of big guns.

Without doubt, the gloves are off and the microphones are on. Bill Gates used his closely watched annual address at the industry confab known as Comdex to declare war on spam and has recently written guest columns, such as "Why I Hate Spam" in The Wall Street Journal and "A Spam Free Future" in the The Washington Post.

Microsoft is trying to integrate anti-spam technology into its core products, adding the SmartScreen filter, for instance, to the 2003 version of Outlook, the widely used e-mail and calendar program that's part of Microsoft's Office suite. Of course, "innovations" aren't always welcomed when they come from a monopoly: After Microsoft announced it was integrating the spam filter into its own software, some in the industry fretted that the Redmond giant was going to put all the other companies that make spam filters out of business. Microsoft says its system is designed to work in tandem with third-party systems, not replace them.

But while Microsoft has been taking some strong, visible steps to prosecute spammers and shoot down spam before it soils the inboxes of its customers, it has been quieter and, some contend, less responsive on the issue that many spam watchers believe is now central to the problem: the role of virus-infected, Microsoft-run desktop computers as the primary conduit for spam.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the role of Microsoft software in the spam infrastructure has gone unmentioned in the spam speeches and guest columns by Gates. Typically, he promotes the federal CAN-SPAM legislation (now passed by Congress and signed by President Bush), lauds Microsoft's new filter technology, and advises e-mail users not to reply to spam or click on those unknown file attachments. But he has avoided mentioning the security flaws in his company's products and the spam epidemic in the same breath. Microsoft's voluminous Web site, while addressing both spam and computer infections at length, never links the two problems.

In a speech last spring, Microsoft exec Ryan Hamlin, who oversees the company's anti-spam group, acknowledged, "We feel like solving the inbound problem," diverting spam from customer inboxes, "is a much greater issue right now than solving the outbound problem" of preventing spam from being sent in the first place. The one could lead to the other, according to Gates, who, writing recently in The Washington Post, said, "Our goal is to develop filters that are so effective that spamming becomes increasingly futile and ultimately unprofitable." But spam experts aren't so sanguine. "Filtering is a losing proposition," argues Spamcon's Atkins. "We can never make filters faster than the spammers can come up with ways to best them."

Spam fighters acknowledge that as the dominant operating system, Microsoft Windows is a big, fat target for unrelenting adversaries. Says Atkins: "We can argue about whether Microsoft is responsible for the fact that its users have not kept their security up to date or installed a hardware firewall that costs $59 at CompUSA." (Indeed, Microsoft recently launched a "Protect Your PC" campaign directed at home users.) But, Atkins notes, "Shipping secure software would help."

"On the bright side," says Joe Stewart of LURHQ, "it looks like Microsoft is making an effort to solve some of the core problems that make Windows so easy to infect. It may, however, be already too late."

Stewart, it should be noted, was speaking before last week's Mydoom outbreak. Meaning "too late" is right now.

Acid Evangelist

One night in the 1950s, Malcolm Cowley, the Stanford writing teacher who made William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey famous, declined his student Kesey's offer of a cup of green hallucinogenic Kool-Aid from a punch bowl billowing sinister clouds of dry-ice smoke. "It looks like the sort of punch that Satan would serve," observed Cowley, who drank Kesey's grandma's Arkansas bootleg whiskey instead. In Robert Stone's novel Dog Soldiers, the character based on Kesey is "Doctor Dope," a self-sacrificing guru whose followers think he is God.

So what was Kesey, devil or deity? Conservatives decry his flabbergastingly irresponsible acid evangelism; when he died two years ago, eulogists stressed his saintly side. Now that his celebrated bus, Further, has long since literally conveyed him to the grave, it's a better time to put Kesey to the moral acid test: He belongs to the ages, not his mourners, and this winter marks his literary last stand.

Two new books are almost certainly the final volumes to whip up the patchouli twister of his prose: Kesey's Jail Journal, composed during his six-month 1967 pot-bust hitch in San Mateo County Jail, and Spit in the Ocean: All About Kesey, distinguished writer and old Kesey chum Ed McClanahan's collection of the Prankster Pope's own witty encyclicals, touching letters to friends, and rare interviews and essays from 1968 to 2001, plus reminiscences from Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gus Van Sant, Bill Walton, Paul Krassner, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurtry.

When Kesey forsook literature in 1964 to become a man of letters -- LSD -- did he blow it? Or did he ignite a refining fire that still burns bright at the heart of every rave in America? Did drugs make him, or undo him? Was Cowley right to believe it would've been better had Kesey just said no to the Bus, shackled himself to his typewriter, batted out more books, and steered clear of public acts of shameless shaman magic?

The Humiliation of Creation

"Being shackled to anything, even a typewriter, just wasn't in Ken's nature," McClanahan opines. "The stage and magic, on the other hand, were very much in his nature."

The Jail Journal proves McClanahan's point. Even in actual shackles, Kesey defiantly kept conducting symphonies of trouble with his magic wand. Originally titled Cut the Motherfuckers Loose, the book portrays one cut-loose motherfucker. The psychedelectable Day-Glo pen drawings of convicts and fantasias, idylls and race riots showcase his little-known visual imagination, a style that recalls by turns Peter Max, William Blake, Fillmore rock posters' unruly wraparound lettering, the transgressive collages of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton, and Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange.

The very possession of pens and paper was forbidden Kesey -- he was sure to use them to stab back at authority. So he was unwise to scribble this book on the sly and smuggle it out as contraband concealed in porn mags whose pages he stuck together to discourage guards from inspecting them. He let visitors prankishly slip him "four STP tabs couple of psilocybin pills and five good old Owsley purples!" Under the guards' noses, he took a mind-blown skinny-dip in the prison pool -- "without taking the mandatory shower." Crazily, he stashed this diary of crimes in progress inside a hollowed-out book in a fellow inmate's cell. One day a deputy asked him point-blank if he was loaded. Pin-pupilled on opium, Kesey said, "Allow me to make one thing clear before we continue our conversation... I'll lie to you."

The Jail Journal may not be strictly factual, but it's an authentically exuberant, sardonic slice of the Summer of Love behind bars; Spit in the Ocean is more poignant and retrospective, a fond, funerary Festschrift of Stony Age scholarship. Both show that Kesey wasn't about partying in the modern, mindless sense. He believed his kind of questing partying might save the world, one soul at a time -- or hey! Maybe everyone at once, if he could only get his magic act together. Like the Acid Test, the Journal is an attempt to fuse all sensations and artistic means into one ecstatic new form of expression in which (as the Kesey character says in Dog Soldiers) "there was absolutely no difference between thought and action."

In the Spit book, Robert Stone (who is penning his own memoir about "Doctor Dope") says that Kesey was out to transcend the whole business of making books: "I think he believed that he could somehow invent a spiritual technology, somewhere between Silva mind control and the transistor, that would spare all the humiliating labor that went into the creating of art."

Cannibalized By the Merry Prankster

Like virtually every literary experiment, Kesey's was largely a failure. The Journal succeeds in seizing a moment or three, but it's utterly inferior to his first forbidden text, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, done during his 1950s stint working at the VA hospital near Stanford. As he notes in the Journal, the jail scene was very like the VA hospital; he composed under similar circumstances, sketching patients on his employer's time, "jumping every time I heard a lock rattle and stuffing the pages out of sight in the wastepaper basket."

Despite being frightened by the military nurse who ran the place, he defied authority and inevitably got fired. He transmogrified her into Big Nurse, the personification of tyranny, and the VA patients into the novel's vivid characters.

By trying to fuse thought and action and bypass traditional art, he accomplishes nothing comparable in the Journal. Cuckoo attained greatness thanks to a lucky combination of inspiration and perspiration -- visions and many, many revisions paring the experience down to a pure parable as simple as a pop tune or a nursery rhyme. In the Journal, and too often after, Kesey tried to get by on visions alone. Though he wrote some lovely pieces later in life -- his elegy for John Lennon, his tribute to the Pendleton Roundup with co-writer Ken Babbs -- the sustained masterpieces that sprang from his LSD days were written by others: Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Stone's National Book Award winner Dog Soldiers, which is in part a debate about Kesey's legacy. In Stone's book, the Kesey character's apostate apostle calls his ambitious acid crusade "a flash" -- the slang term for an LSD trip, which he considers a meaningless cultural flash in the pan. "It was our responsibility," retorts the Kesey character. "We should've stayed with that flash forever."

Why didn't Kesey nab that award with his own work? He stayed with that flash forever -- lived the high life. "He let the Merry Prankster persona swallow everything else, let it take over and cannibalize his role as a writer," says David O. Weddle, who covered Kesey for Rolling Stone. "His life is a cautionary, perhaps even tragic, tale of the cost of celebrity and catastrophe of success for American artists. But in classic tragedy, the fall from grace throws into relief the magnificence of the hero's achievements." Kesey might argue that taking the plunge was his achievement. "Ken had a little joke," writes Stone, "a little jingle on himself. He said, 'Of offering more than what I can deliver, I have a bad habit, it's true./But I have to offer more than what I can deliver, to be able to deliver what I do.'"

Kesey had bad drug habits, but they were complicatedly and not entirely bad -- in some ways inspiring his creativity, but ultimately stifling it. He began as about the most abstemious major American writer this side of Pearl S. Buck. "He drank on his wedding night when he was a sophomore in college," says Kesey scholar and friend Bennett Huffman, "and then he hadn't had a drink [until] he moved to California [as a grad student]."

Eight peyote buttons gave Kesey the skeleton key to Cuckoo. The novel hadn't been jelling when written in the third person, but that fateful cacti encounter supplied him with the hallucinatory opening-scene reverie of the novel's half-mad first-person narrator. Cowley convinced Kesey to trim back the overwritten passages, helping to save him from the "first thought, best thought" folly that ruined Kerouac, whom Cowley thought "was corrupted by the notion that every word that fell from his lips was more or less sacred." Kesey was always more skeptical and self-critical than peers like Allen Ginsberg and the jaunty fraud and admanlike hack Tim Leary. At least Kesey never OD'd on ego.

He wrote his second masterpiece under the overwhelming influence of Faulkner and amphetamines. "Ken was taking speed for 30 hours a block when he wrote Notion," says Huffman. "He'd stay up for a day and a half just doing nothing but writing nonstop and then sleep for 12 hours and then do it again." Just as Absalom, Absalom! is both powered and muddled by Faulkner's end-stage alcoholism, Sometimes a Great Notion shrieks and grinds with speedy confusion. When Kesey writes, "Come look: the hysterical crashing of the Wakonda Agua River," the hysterical river in question is his own stream of consciousness. Then came the Bus and the Acid Tests, which swept away his concentration with a hysteria theretofore unprecedented.

Kesey complained in later years that getting older deprived him of the mental powers to write another book as complex as Notion. "He always attributed it to aging, but that wasn't it, because a lot of people write great stuff late in life," says Jeff Forester, a co-author of Caverns, the 1990 novel Kesey composed with his University of Oregon writing students, and a forthcoming memoir of that experience, Writing Under the Influence. "It was a lifestyle thing. A novel is such a long, complicated thing that you can't smoke pot and keep it all sitting in your head." On speed, writing Notion, says Huffman, "When Kesey woke up 12 hours later he could remember the work that he'd done before, so he could carry on, where if you're writing on pot, you can't remember."

Mounting An Insurrection

"You wished that he would get serious," says Huffman. "We knew that if he could just, um, break a leg or something, throw his back out, something that could keep him indoors alone at his desk, he would write another great novel, but he never broke his leg. He had a stroke in '97, and by '99 he's touring with the Bus in Great Britain. Back at the same old Kesey moving carnival show rather than sitting down and writing the next serious novel."

Forester says writing a novel with Kesey was serious fun, anyhow. "I mean, the class was a party. Being around Kesey was a constant party." The first day of class, Kesey assigned Forester to roll joints for the seminar; one student sparked up and passed out. "Fell to the ground -- out cold. One student says, 'Omigosh, is he OK? We should call someone!' Ken just stepped over the body and handed me the joint and just kept talking. Ken said, 'Aw, he'll be OK.'" A couple of minutes later, he was. "The first class, you pass out -- how cool was that?" says Forester.

The Caverns pot party both was and wasn't cool for Kesey's career. It generated scant literary buzz, but did get him back in the habit of sitting down and writing, twice a week. Sailor Song and the other autumnal books that Caverns freed him up to write can't match his first two, but they have their fans. "There are those fleeting moments of startling imagery, or well-observed events that gleam like the shards of a once-great but now shattered talent," says Weddle. "Unfortunately, too much of the book is dominated by that glib, self-consciously clever, alliteration-happy voice of Kesey's later years. He was aware of the problem."

Literary vice wasn't his main problem. Ominously, Caverns made Kesey revert to old notions of composing. "At the end when we were kinda getting to crunch time," says Forester, "it seemed like Ken was in the office 24/7, and there was this little vial that was stashed in a corner cabinet that had some, I think it was like grain alcohol or something that had some speed in it. Just a couple of drops of that in your drink or your coffee, and it was days, you know, and we just kinda churned through this thing and it really affected his health. By the end of the class he ended up in the Mayo Clinic."

In the end, acid had nothing to do with Kesey's fate. His liver failed, thanks to cancer following hepatitis C, which also killed Kesey's pals Ginsberg and Steve "Zonker" Lambrecht, who inspired Doonesbury's Zonker. Most people get hepatitis C from promiscuous sex (not Kesey's thing) or needles. Kesey's Jail Journal talks about his injections of speed. But his ultimate enemy was alcohol. "That's the horrible truth, that Ken drank himself to death," says Forester. "Even after he found out he had hepatitis C, he kept drinking. He had diabetes but he kept drinking, and he just wasn't gonna stop. Weddle once asked him, 'Did drugs ruin you?' He said, 'No, I know what's done me harm, and it's not LSD or marijuana, it's too many vodka martinis.' So he was self-aware, unlike most addicts." Like Carrie Fisher, he sought mind expansion and pain reduction only to wind up with pain expansion and mind reduction. Weddle, the biographer of Sam Peckinpah, compares Kesey to that cinematic genius that also self-destructed on drugs and booze. "At his funeral, Peckinpah's close friend Robert Culp said, 'Let's not obsess over all the movies he never got to make. Let's instead rejoice over the fact that there is a Wild Bunch at all. That he managed to get it made is a miracle, given the odds against it.'" McClanahan insists that Kesey smuggled plenty of miracles past his demons. "I mean, 11 books, including two indisputably great ones, ain't bad -- for the record, I think the jail book ranks a close third."

In the end, it's crucial to consider Kesey's work in terms of its influence on people, because he was essentially social, a performer who could not long endure the solitary writer's life. No doubt the reality-scrambling potations he touted did harm to some, but his imagination could also rescramble reality for the better. One Oregon mental patient reportedly lost his Billy Bibbit-like crippling stutter as a result of the inspirational effect of working on the Cuckoo's Nest film. Paul McCartney says Magical Mystery Tour was inspired by Kesey. His entire life can be seen as the most influential bus ride since Rosa Parks'.

In Spit in the Ocean, Krassner relates how he and Kesey very nearly died by falling in the ocean in 1971: They climbed into a tunnel carved into a cliff during World War II (so lookouts could scan the ocean for enemy ships), found a "meek little mouse" in the tunnel, and blew hashish smoke into its face until the mouse reared up and squeaked in protest. "This display of mouse assertiveness startled us, and we almost fell off the cliff." What a perfect death! Better than John Lennon's near death during Sgt. Pepper, when he took a handful of aspirin that turned out to be acid and came within inches of walking off Abbey Road's rooftop, exclaiming, "Look at the stars!" Kesey looked at the people instead; he inhaled in order to exhale insurrectionary orders, rallying the suburban mice of the Earth to rise up and roar in rebellion.

Tim Appelo writes for the Seattle Weekly.

Cops Against the Drug War

They were two white guys cruising through the black part of Patterson, N.J., back in the 1970s. One was an undercover police officer named Jack Cole, the other an informant known as Fast Eddy. Posing as heroin buyers, they ran into trouble with three thugs who tried to rip them off and who slashed Fast Eddy's hand with a knife before being chased off.

Luckily, Cole recalls, a Good Samaritan came out into the road. He was a young black man who was going to college to get out of the ghetto. He said he didn't approve of drugs but felt bad about the white guys getting roughed up in the neighborhood. He went into his house to get bandages for Fast Eddy and then, since Cole continued to pretend like he needed a fix, brought them to a supplier who wouldn't take advantage of them.

Back at the precinct, Cole felt he had no choice but to include the Good Samaritan's name in his report. The Good Samaritan was duly charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin, a charge that carried the same penalty as distribution: up to seven years in jail. Cole was at the station when the Good Samaritan was brought in. He looked Cole in the eye and said, "Man, I was trying to be your friend."

"So yeah, that got to me," Cole says now, his voice seeming to break and going quiet. Speaking by phone from Boston, the 64-year-old Cole is explaining why he ultimately turned against the war on drugs. He says he came to realize that he liked many of the people he was turning in -- liked them better than some of the people he was working for -- and that his betrayal of them, rather than drugs, was what destroyed their lives.

"You can get over an addiction, but you can never get over a conviction," he likes to say.

Now retired after a 26-year career with the New Jersey State Police, Cole is leading a new group of current and former law-enforcement officials who are similarly disillusioned with the war on drugs. Called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, this nationwide organization takes as its premise that the war on drugs is, as Cole puts it, "a total and abject failure."

"After three decades of fueling the U.S. war on drugs with half a trillion tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies, illicit drugs are easier to get, cheaper, and more potent than they were 30 years ago," reads a LEAP statement. More heretical still, considering the source, the group advocates legalization of all drugs. That, it says, is the only way drugs can really become "controlled substances," subject to the kind of age and safety regulations that are imposed on alcohol and tobacco.

Cole, LEAP's executive director, says the year-old organization has between 400 and 500 members. Modeled on Vietnam Veterans Against the War, with what it hopes is the same kind of credibility, the group includes not just police officers but judges, federal agents, and prosecutors and parole, probation, and corrections officers. Because of the possible professional sanctions posed by coming out against the drug war, LEAP takes care to say that membership can be kept confidential.

The emergence of LEAP seems like confirmation of a profound cultural shift away from the zero-tolerance, throw-the-book-at-them drug policy that has long been at the center of our criminal justice system. Roger Goodman, director of a Seattle-based bar association project studying drug policy, puts it this way: "The news story is not that the war on drugs has failed, it's who's saying it now." When cops are joining in, you know that the movement for drug-law reform is becoming mainstream. Says Goodman, "It's not like it's a front for fringy, pony-tailed pot smokers."

The bar association project, done in conjunction with other professional organizations including the state medical and pharmaceutical associations, has generated a huge amount of involvement and served as a model for similar studies around the country. It issued a report in 2001 that portrayed the war on drugs as misguided -- saying we need to shift from a focus on criminal justice to one on public health -- and is now discussing how to do that. With the bar behind it, the state Legislature last year shortened prison terms for drug users and low-level dealers and prescribed mandatory treatment for them.

Cole is a particularly persuasive spokesperson. He worked in narcotics enforcement for 14 of his 26 years on the force. While he rose to a level that enabled him to direct a three-year investigation of a Colombia cocaine-trafficking ring, his revelations about his work on the street are the most damning. Joining the drug war at its inception in the early '70s, Cole says his bosses were clear about how they wanted cops to generate the arrests that would justify massive new funding in law enforcement: "lie a lot."

Drugs actually weren't much of a problem in the early days, Cole says, but he and his colleagues made it look like they were by claiming that users were dealers, a label applied, say, to a young person collecting drugs for a group of friends. Cole and other cops also lied about the quantity of drugs they found in someone's house. "What we did is we looked around for what we could call a cutting agent -- lactose, quinine, baby powder, almost anything," Cole says. Then the cops mixed together the drugs and the "cutting agent" and turned the mixture into state labs, which called a substance a drug no matter the proportion of that drug that was in it. Voilà: One ounce of cocaine became 4 pounds.

Eventually, Cole says, cops didn't have to exaggerate the drug problem anymore; it was bad enough on its own. Yet he and others in LEAP argue that the prohibition on drugs, like the one on alcohol decades ago, has made matters worse by creating an underground industry ruled by organized criminals.

"Eighty-five percent of the crime associated with drugs is not associated with people using drugs. It has to do with the marketplace," says Peter Christ, a former police officer in New York state who originated the idea of LEAP. Turf wars, smuggling, violent bill collection -- all are typical drug-related crimes that are not the result of being high. Moreover, LEAP argues, the illegality of drugs has inflated their value to a point where addicts have to steal to get their fix. "If we put 50-gallon drums out on every street corner in America filled with drugs, we wouldn't have the problems we have today," Christ says.

At the same time, LEAP argues that the prohibition has kept society from regulating drugs in a way that keeps them out of the hands of children, for whom it's easier to buy cocaine than it is to buy beer. As in the alcohol industry, LEAP says, legalization would also allow the government to license and monitor businesses that sell drugs and to set product standards that would prevent most overdoses. Says Christ, "When you go to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels, you don't have to wonder if there's a quart of antifreeze in it or rat poison." Legalization would further allow the government to tax this billion-dollar industry and use the proceeds for drug treatment programs.

Cole goes one step further and suggests that the government ought to distribute free maintenance doses of drugs to those who want them, thereby taking the profit motive out of the business.

"Would greater availability lead to more addiction?" wonders Washington state Sen. Adam Kline, a sponsor of the drug-law reform bill that reduced local sentences. That's the big question around LEAP's proposals. LEAP and others point to Switzerland, where government-run clinics distribute free heroin to addicts while offering treatment -- and addiction appears to have gone down.

But whatever the alternative to the current system, it's noteworthy enough that many of those who are supposed to be upholding it have had enough. Says LEAP member and police officer Jonathan Wender, "I'm tired of putting myself in harm's way for a losing cause."

Nina Shapiro is a senior editor at Seattle Weekly.

Can the Rich Be Good?

At a Westin Hotel banquet table a few weeks ago in downtown Seattle, Portland millionaire JoAnn Wiser leans over her steak dinner and recalls getting steamed at Charles Schwab, the brokerage titan. She had read an article about how he had used his influence with President George W. Bush to win support for the idea of eliminating taxes on corporate dividends. "I have investments with Charles Schwab, and I totally disagree with that!" Wiser exclaims in her effusive manner.

With inherited wealth from her father, a family farmer who struck it big in year-round agriculture in Southern California, Wiser figured out that she could save $17,000 a year on the dividend scheme. Big deal, she thought. "It wouldn't stimulate the economy at all, because I buy what I want already, right?"

Anyway, it doesn't make sense to her that, in the middle of a serious budget crisis, the federal government would talk about easing the tax burden of people who aren't even working for their money, at least not the money that comes from dividends. "If anything," she says, "we should be raising taxes on dividends."

A lone voice in the conservative, self-interested wilderness of the rich? Not entirely. On this Friday evening, Wiser is surrounded by wealthy folks who think similarly. The occasion is the annual meeting of a Boston-based group called Responsible Wealth, whose 700 members belong in the top 5 percent of wealth nationally and whose mission is to close the economic divide that it says has created a "second Gilded Age." After a round of applause for the waitstaff and an MC's mention of how the Westin was picked because it's a union hotel, Bill Gates Sr. delivers a keynote address on the subject about which he has been stumping across the country: his opposition to repealing the estate tax.

Listening to Gates are a number of millionaires who have been spending their time trying to figure out how, to put it simply, to be good. Some, like those in Responsible Wealth, are challenging the conventional notion of what their political line should be. Others have carved a new identity around giving away money, making Seattle in particular one hub of a movement that has been dubbed "New Philanthropy." Paul Schervish, a Boston College sociologist who is perhaps the nation's pre-eminent researcher on wealth, calls these new philanthropists "hyperagents" or "initiating entrepreneurs." Unmoved by the prospect of simply writing a check, they are people who take a hands-on approach with their giving and sometimes use it to establish whole new directions or causes.

As the concept of class war once again rears its head, with liberals saying Bushites are waging war on the poor and conservatives saying liberals are demonizing the rich, this current crop of do-gooders is mixing it all up. To some extent, they rail against the rich and powerful while being the rich and powerful. It is an irony not lost on them.

They are, in fact, a self-conscious lot. It's hard to imagine the Gilded Age's robber barons in the middle of an earnest conference on how to use their wealth responsibly. As the age of affluence meets the New Age, doing good is not just a value, it is a means toward self-actualization.

Gates Joins the Rabble-Rousers

Responsible Wealth grew out of a broader group in Boston working on the economic divide called United for Fair Economy. In the mid-'90s, that group's co-founder, Chuck Collins, was holding what he calls "economic literacy" workshops on the growing disparity between the rich and the poor when he noticed an odd phenomenon. "We had people coming to us afterwards saying, 'I'm a retired CEO of a division of Kodak,' or, 'I'm in the top 5 percent of income, and -- don't tell anyone -- I support your view.'"

"That's interesting," thought Collins, a descendant of the Oscar Mayer family who gave away a $300,000 trust fund 17 years ago when he was 26. "What would it be like to organize some of these individuals to speak out?"

Since he helped form Responsible Wealth in 1997, it has attracted a range of people, from the superwealthy like multibillionaires George Soros and Ted Turner to the run-of-the-mill affluent. It doesn't take as much as you might think to break into the top 5 percent -- just $164,000 a year in income or $650,000 in assets.

The group has chugged along promoting the meat-and-potatoes issues of economic justice: tax reform that asks the rich to step up to the plate, corporate responsibility that includes livable wages and an end to excessive executive compensation, and exposure of the influence of money on politics.

In 2000, adopting the organization's practice of filing shareholder resolutions to embarrass corporations and generate debate, local organizer Lois Canright filed one with Microsoft requesting a report on its political contributions. The resolution failed, which was expected.

What wasn't expected was that the father of Microsoft's chieftain would find common cause with these rabble-rousers. Collins likes to recall that when he got a message saying that Bill Gates had contacted the office wanting to help in the campaign for preserving the estate tax, he thought it was a joke. He soon found it really was Bill Gates -- Senior. And that jaw-dropping name, combined with the 78-year-old Gates' willingness to work the advocacy circuit at a breakneck pace, has of late given a lot more visibility to Responsible Wealth and momentum to its campaign on the estate tax. (In 2001, Congress passed an odd bill that reduces the tax to zero by 2010 but reinstates it the following year in its original form, making its future still very much an open question. Last month as the nation prepared for war, senators slipped an amendment into the yet-to-be-approved federal budget that would accelerate the temporary repeal by one year, which would make it effective in 2009.)

First, Gates brought some of his power-player friends to the table, like Paul Newman and Warren Buffet, to speak out in favor of the estate tax. Then he co-authored a book with Collins, released a few months ago, called "Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes." He downplays his role, saying Collins did most of the work, but his co-author insists Gates is being gracious. They sent drafts back and forth to each other by e-mail, and Gates wrote at least one chapter himself, according to Collins. After the book came out, Gates and Collins hit the road for a book tour of a most unusual sort: Rather than concentrating on bookstores, they spoke everywhere from Rotary Clubs to universities to churches.

What's it Worth to be an American?

If all of this seems like a turn in direction for a man who has followed mostly traditional career and civic paths -- practicing law as a partner at Preston Gates & Ellis, serving as a University of Washington Regent and a national board member of the United Way -- he betrays no hint of it. Asked if he is comfortable in this new circle of activists, he replies flatly: "I'm comfortable being identified with people who agree with me."

The towering, bespectacled Gates is a no-bullshit kind of guy. You can imagine him as the tough law professor played by John Houseman in The Paper Chase. With the manner of someone who doesn't need to be liked, he tersely says what he thinks and smiles when he feels like it, which isn't necessarily that often. "Are you about done? Because I'm about done," he says 45 minutes or so into an interview. The setting is the Eastlake offices of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a place of gorgeous hardwoods and geometric designs that Gates presides over as co-chair, concentrating his efforts on local giving.

But he is warm and downright inspiring at a recent talk for law students. There Gates addresses a fascinating theme of his book on the estate tax, one that takes it from an esoteric subject to one central to the philosophy behind the founding of this country. While the tax in 2001 was an astoundingly steep 55 percent for the portions of estates worth more than $3 million (the new law reduces the top rate to 45 percent by 2009), Gates and Collins argue that it arises out of a very American opposition to European-style aristocracies. If wealth is transferred unobstructed from one generation to the next, it stays in the hands of select families.

Anti-estate-tax champions argue that inherited wealth preserves family businesses as well as family money. They say that to meet the steep tax, calculated according to estates' assets as well as cash, heirs sometimes have to liquidate their parents' businesses.

Gates and his allies, however, are unmoved. They counter that such liquidation is rare and, regardless, there is nothing sacrosanct about family businesses, some of which are worth millions or billions.

Standing before the law-school students, Gates relates that he feels large-scale inherited wealth to be simply undemocratic, though it exists in this country even with the estate tax on the books. "We have done a very good job of creating a society that has political equality," he says. "But we have utterly failed, in my judgment, at creating a society in which we have equal economic opportunity.

"You're not going to get to the point where everybody starts off exactly equal," he continues, "but it seems to me, we should strive for that."

Yet his is essentially a patriotic message. The United States, he believes, has enabled people to become astonishingly rich through huge investments in the public realm through schools, libraries, scientific research, and the like. No doubt because of his son, he pointedly mentions the Internet as one of the government's creations. He calls it "immoral" for the wealthy not to recognize the contributions of society. And comparing such investments in wealth creation to those in a place like Ethiopia, he ends his talk by asking: "The question is, what is it worth to be an American?"

Except perhaps for the explicit patriotism, it's a message similar to what lefty activists have been saying for years. So why does it somehow seem more remarkable, more moving when Gates says it? Is it, one can't help but wonder, because he's such a rich and powerful guy? And if so, isn't that just what he and his political allies are fighting?

Mike Lapham, co-director of Responsible Wealth, doesn't deny it. "Right or wrong, in this country, when wealthy people speak, people tend to listen. We're aware we're taking advantage of that."

They are also grabbing attention by playing off stereotypes about rich people's politics -- stereotypes that some argue are incorrect. While conventional wisdom holds that the rich lust after more and more tax cuts, state Republican Party leader Chris Vance asserts that they are often the folks who are least interested in their tax bill. "People that rich don't need a tax cut," he says. "The people who support tax cuts are those living paycheck to paycheck."

Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor, echoed the sentiment in a column a couple of years ago where he mocked what he called the "plutocrat cavalry" riding in on "private Gulfstream jets" to defend the estate tax.

Indeed, claims Vance, "The superwealthy are almost culturally inclined to be liberals." Removed from the concerns of day-to-day survival, they focus on "abstract" issues, like the environment, that liberals champion, according to Vance. The movement leftward by the rich, he believes, is the "biggest change in American politics that no one has noticed."

Back at the Westin Hotel banquet, Gates draws attention to his wealth and deflects from it at the same time by riffing off a quote from J. Paul Getty. The oil billionaire is said to have once supplied three ways to become fabulously rich: One, get up early; two, work hard all day; three, find oil. "Try this," Gates tells the crowd: "One, get up early; two, work hard all day; three, have a stupendously successful son."

Geeks for Good

There's a similar point that Andy Himes is trying to make when he says he doesn't feel responsible for becoming a millionaire. "There are lots of people smarter than me or better looking than me, but they don't have money," says the former Web team manager for Microsoft.

His story is at once familiar and unique. Like many of today's unexpected millionaires, he essentially won the lottery by virtue of where he happened to work. But he comes from a background that most of his ilk don't share. He grew up in the backwoods of Tennessee, the scion of a fire-breathing, evangelical, and deeply conservative family. His grandfather was John R. Rice, one of the founders of modern Christian fundamentalism who started the newspaper Sword of the Lord. At his funeral, the Rev. Jerry Falwell gave the featured address.

"My granddaddy had six daughters," says Himes. "They all grew up and married six preachers. Most of their children became preachers." Himes diverged.

Now a youthful-looking 52, Himes is of the generation that directly confronted the Vietnam War. He turned against it, and when he went off to the University of Wisconsin, became so influenced by left-wing circles that he dropped out to go back to the South as a full-time activist. In Alabama, he worked for the Selma Project, an organization that provided assistance to civil rights groups.

Eventually he moved to Seattle and got into the field of technical writing and editing. But he still was far from rich. In 1992, when he had $500 in the bank and a kid looking toward college, he decided to accept a job at Microsoft, a place he previously thought of as "a big nasty company." He left six years later. "It was the first time in my life I felt I had any resources," he says.

Harking back to his activist past, he wanted to use his newfound wealth for social change. He began by writing checks to organizations he admired, like the homeless advocacy organization Real Change. Soon, he turned toward a more systematic approach by starting a nonprofit called Project Alchemy, which provides highly discounted technological assistance to grassroots groups. Besides Real Change, some of his clients have included the immigrant-rights group Hate Free Zone, the North Idaho AIDS Coalition, and the Spanish-language Radio Cadena in Eastern Washington.

You could say he belongs to a phalanx of folks who sometimes call themselves "geeks for good," rich techies who now ply their trade for altruistic reasons, though he shies away from the term. It sounds too narrow to him. Yet, indicative of the way new philanthropists think about what they do, he looks to his former job at Microsoft as a model for his new pursuit.

"At Microsoft, my job was to make huge things happen with small resources," he says. Though it sounds strange to talk about small resources at one of the world's richest companies, Himes says such was the case in his role of helping to start the Microsoft Developer Network, an international bevy of people who build products using Microsoft platforms like Windows. There were maybe 50 people on his Microsoft team, Himes says. "And yet our job was to make millions of people successful." Part of his team's big-bang-for-the-buck solution was to create Microsoft's first Web site to communicate with developers.

For how to translate this lesson into philanthropy, Himes looks to his former boss at Microsoft. "I would argue that Bill Gates' philosophy as a philanthropist is very similar to his philosophy as a capitalist. He's spending a little bit of money to focus the world's attention on key systemic problems." The $25.6 billion Gates has pumped into his foundation isn't exactly a little bit of money, but Himes says it is a drop in the bucket relative to the global health problems that are its central mission. "He's not just giving money to help sick people get well. He's giving money to wipe out disease." Himes argues it's the kind of transformative philanthropy that Andrew Carnegie practiced when he helped build libraries across America.

Helping the 'Bedroom' NonProfits

In much the same way, Paul Brainerd, whom you might call one of the founding fathers of New Philanthropy, talks about striving for the "biggest impact" with the money he gives away. That's why, says the 55-year-old, he largely avoided traditional boards and mainstream organizations after making about $120 million by merging his desktop publishing company, Aldus, with Adobe Systems in 1995. The symphony, the university, even the Sierra Club -- they were doing just fine without him, he felt. "The small groups, often with two or three people working out of a bedroom, those were the ones that always appealed to me," he says. He gives grants to such groups through the Brainerd Foundation, which he founded in 1995 to focus on environmental causes.

Even more interesting is an organization he helped launch to draw his techno-rich peers into philanthropy. "It seemed to me there was a vacuum of leadership," Brainerd says. Social Venture Partners's novel approach is to give not only money but time and expertise. Its 265 members, who donate at least $5,500 apiece, do for schools and nonprofits what they have always done in the business world, things like financial management, marketing, strategic planning, and, of course, technology assessment.

The idea has had tremendous appeal. Since it started in 1997, Social Venture Partners has spawned 20 copycat groups throughout the U.S. and a handful of others internationally. And yet, as executive director Paul Shoemaker acknowledges, the approach runs the risk of hubris, premised as it is on the assumption that wealthy folks have crucial contributions to make beyond their money. Indeed, Shoemaker says that not that long ago, some people with "big mouths" damaged the reputation of groups like his by "going around talking about how they were going to save the nonprofit world."

"Not every group has a place for guys who used to work at Microsoft," allows Alan Rabinowitz, a longtime philanthropist and retired economist who is one of the nontechie members of SVP.

Some organizations, however, welcome such help eagerly. Greg Tuke, strategic advisor and former executive director of Powerful Schools, says that he has hosted two dozen SVP volunteers over the last five years. "Almost to a person, they have come with the philosophy of, 'Yes, I have some skills, but I want to learn from the organization, too.'" He has used them to tutor kids as well as to look at the big picture of how the organization works.

Worthy work, it would seem. So, for that matter, is the work done by Himes, who is also an SVP member but reserves the bulk of his hands-on activities for his nonprofit Project Alchemy. Tim Harris of Real Change says that before Himes came along, the homeless advocacy organization didn't have networked computers or even networked phones.

Thinking about the details of what these philanthropists do, though, you might question whether it is as revolutionary as they sometimes make it out to be. Writing in Philanthropy magazine, author Martin Morse Wooster calls the roster of schools, tutoring programs, and early education organizations supported by Social Venture Partners "strikingly conventional causes." The Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox adds that he wishes that groups like SVP nurtured more radical organizations like his, ones that in his words are fighting for "structural change."

That, of course, is precisely the goal of Himes and his Project Alchemy, which does fund edgier groups. But does his work for Real Change, for example, truly qualify as transformative? Or has SVP's effort at Powerful Schools produced dramatic new directions or results? One would have to say no, not yet. SVP's Shoemaker concedes as much about his organization generally when he says that its work to date has largely been "good, not great," which is the conclusion of a just-completed internal assessment. Shoemaker is now hoping to take the organization to the next level, in part by looking harder at what its beneficiaries truly need.

The benefactors, though, seem satisfied with what they're getting from it. The payoffs for this generation of philanthropists are different. Uninterested in advertising their wealth, the new philanthropists are less interested in getting their names on buildings than in a kind of self-fulfillment they didn't get by making money.

"What I think is that this is a huge opportunity," says Himes, explaining why his philanthropy is motivated by excitement rather than guilt. "If you give out of a sense of guilt and obligation, then you're relieved when it's over," he says. Now that he thinks of himself as a philanthropist, he doesn't want his giving to come to an end, even if he currently has to give away smaller amounts because of the stock market plunge. "If you think about my ability to contribute -- that's what makes me fully human."

Political do-gooders have a similar perspective. "I realized this had given me an opportunity," echoes Responsible Wealth organizer Lois Canright, talking about the sudden wealth that came to her when she inherited her family's valuable real estate. "I could pay myself to do this important economic justice work and not have to worry about whether people could pay me or not."

As with so much else in life, then, it's actually easier to be good when you're rich. If only every millionaire saw it that way.

Nina Shapiro is a senior editor of Seattle Weekly.

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