At 12:16 p.m. Monday, the rumbling began. Across a stretch of Coney Island Avenue known as Little Pakistan, store owners began pulling down their shop gates to show their solidarity with striking immigrant workers across the country, along with their disdain for HR 4437, the draconian anti-immigrant legislation that passed the House on December 16.
More than 100 businesses from this neighborhood that borders the Midwood and Kensington sections of Brooklyn closed down for about 40 minutes. Among them were Pakistani-, Russian-, and Mexican-owned restaurants, pharmacies, barbershops, beauty parlors, travel shops, call centers, and cell phone stores, a Bangladeshi wholesale distributor, and a Muslim bookstore.
The initial plan was just to shutter their stores, but then a group of about 50 Mexicans and Central Americans who work in the neighboring Parkville section of Brooklyn marched over to protest with them.
"Si, se puede!" they chanted in unison as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis linked arms with the Latinos and whites from the neighborhood, among them the Irish American owners of a plumbing supply store on Coney Island Avenue that also closed down.
They were cheered by passing drivers and big rigs blasting their horns in support.
It wasn't the biggest demonstration on May 1. But the decision of so many South Asians here to step out of their stores was significant, since this is a community which has already experienced firsthand the impact of mass deportations.
Following 9-11, the Department of Homeland Security set up a special registration program requiring immigrants from 25 countries -- 24 of them Muslim -- to register with the FBI and immigration officials.
More than 13,000 Muslims were put into deportation proceedings. Many others left for fear of being locked up in detention centers.
"We've already taken the hit," says Mohammed Razvi, executive director of the Council Of Peoples Organization (COPO), a social service group that serves South Asians and other immigrants in the community. In Brooklyn alone, Razvi estimates some 20,000 South Asians have left since the special registration program was implemented.
"If you go though my neighborhood you see Russian stores opening up because there were vacancies. That's the demographic shift that's happened here.
"People were afraid to go to the police to report crimes or the hospitals because they were undocumented. If they pass this new legislation, that is going to affect 11 million undocumented people, what will that do?" Razvi asks. "That would be devastation for the whole country."
"They're talking 'bout us lying, but look at this," complained Army Staff Sergeant Blanco (he declined to give his first name), holding up one of the flyers a group of anarchists was distributing recently outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Brooklyn. "It says we work on commission and get paid more the more recruits we sign up. If that was true, I'd be driving a Lexus. We'd set up a tent and be out here 24-7."
Billed on NYC Indymedia as a chance to "strike at the Achilles heal of the war machine!", the small street demo drew far more cops than anarchists. But for the Army and Marine recruiters milling outside their empty offices on Flatbush Avenue, it was yet another hurdle in a job that's getting tougher by the day.
From San Francisco, where voters just passed a measure aimed at kicking recruiters out of public schools and off college campuses, to East Harlem, where about 75 people gathered to protest the opening of a new recruiting office on East 103rd Street, recruiters are finding themselves in the crosshairs of the anti-war movement.
Buoyed by falling enlistment rates, peace activists of all stripes now see draining the supply of new soldiers as a more hands on way to stop the war in Iraq.
"It's better than marching around in circles," said Brian, a dumpster-diving squatter from Brooklyn as he pressed leaflets and pamphlets on high school kids and other passersby in hopes of dissuading any potential new GIs.
In the past year, Army enlistment has fallen off target by more than 6,600 soldiers, the biggest shortfall since 1979. Recruiting for the National Guard and Army Reserves has been worse.
Among African Americans, Army enlistment has dropped by 40 percent since 2000, a fact not lost on the recruiters posted in Flatbush. "We don't have the revolving door any more," said Army staff sergeant Arrindell, a Brooklyn native who also declined to give his first name. "Before a lot of people were walking in. Now you really have to go out and hustle."
Arrindell shrugged. "Nobody in New York has anything good to say about the war," he said.
"If we continue at this pace, guess what's next: a draft," an African American sergeant sitting at the desk next to him chimed in. "What are we going to do then as a country -- are people going to Canada? Then you've actually forced the government to do that, because you've stopped the people who want to voluntarily serve by giving them a lot of flak for it. What kind of democracy would we have then?"
Talk of crisis within the ranks only heartened the anarchists demonstrating outside. "Bring it on -- I would love a draft," said Wesley Everett, a 31-year-old from Queens who helped organize the protest. "It would expose how pathetic their war agenda really is.
"People sign up for two years' service but they can be called up for eight under the stop-loss program -- so that already is a draft. Poverty is a draft," he continued, echoing a complaint by Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, who has advocated reinstating a universal draft as a means to check the Bush Administration's militarism.
As Rangel and others have argued, the U.S. would be out of Iraq already -- or might never have gone in -- if children of the middle and privileged classes were forced to serve.
Helping the Enemy?
Of course, the thought that the military could be backed into a corner like this has alarmed war supporters, who have echoed President Bush's charge that the anti-war movement is helping the enemy.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly went so far as to suggest that al Qaeda should bomb San Francisco for its relatively mild ballot proposition urging educators at public schools to discourage recruitment and provide students with info on scholarships and alternatives to the military instead.
Counter-recruitment protests have become a flashpoint in the debate over the war in Iraq, and right now the protest crowd has the momentum.
"In the past year, there's been an explosion in this kind of work across the country," says Steve Theberge, a youth organizer with the War Resisters League. "A lot of people felt really powerless after the last election. But this is something people can grab on to. You can see concrete results, and there's real power in not feeding the war machine. For a high school student to say no to the military and speak out against recruiters at their school -- or an entire community to say no to recruitment -- that's very empowering."
Last Thursday, students were out picketing and protesting at high schools and colleges across the country as part of a nationwide "Not Your Soldier" day of action called by the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition. Actions were slated in more than 30 towns and cities, including Hicksville, Long Island, where high school students staged a lunchtime walkout to demand and end to military recruitment on campus, and Washington, D.C., where area students planned to besiege Pentagon employees at rush-hour with the demand of "Stop the Assault on Youth!"
In New York City, activists worked outside of high schools including Washington Irving in Manhattan and Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. They offered forms explaining how students can opt-out of the recruiting lists compiled from enrollment data that schools are now required to turn over under the Leave No Child Behind Act. And they circulated petitions in support of the Student Privacy Act, which could bar the military from getting names and contact information for students from schools without parental consent.
On Friday, the Iraq Pledge of Resistance put out a call for "non-violent resistance" outside recruiting stations. Demonstrations were announced in 15 cities, including New York, where the War Resisters League held a funeral march from Washington Square Park to the U.S. Navy Recruiting station at 207 West 24th St Street at 7th Avenue.
While the New York event is intended as a solemn procession with mock coffins, in Eugene, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin, and Lakewood, Colorado, there are plans for sit-ins and blockades outside recruiting centers. In Pittsburgh, anarchists and other anti-war activists plan a noisy picket outside the same recruiting station where police responded with tasers, pepper spray and police dogs at a protest-turned-melee in August.
Dubbed "National Stand Down Day," Friday's protest takes its name from the "stand down" day called by Army brass in May. That's when recruiters were ordered to halt their outreach and review legal and ethical guidelines after a rash of reports of overly aggressive and abusive recruiting practices. Among the troubling incidents, recruiters in Golden, Colorado, were caught advising a 17-year-old to lie about his high school diploma and fake a drug test in order to enlist.
Stepping up Recruitment Tactics
As public support for the war withers (63 percent of Americans now disapprove of the situation in Iraq, according to the latest CNN/ Gallup/ USA Today poll) the Pentagon is upping the ante with boosted sign-up bonuses, video games, and slick ads to woo parents. Recruiters are also aggressively going after poor rural and minority youth.
Counter-recruiters say the government is closing off choices for underprivileged kids. "People see the money that would be going to education and CUNY schools for funding and scholarships so they could go to college is just going to the war," says Gloria Quinones, a mom who helped organize the demo in East Harlem. "It's like they're being backed up against the wall so they have no other options."
The House of Representatives just voted to slash student loans by more than $14 billion; if the language stays in the final budget bill, that would be the biggest cut in the history of the federal loan program. Yet the Pentagon is spending $7 billion a month to maintain the Iraq occupation.
And still recruiters are scrambling to meet their quotas. The increased pressure on young people is only provoking more resistance, anti-war activists say. "These days it's pretty hard to find anyone who supports what the military is doing," says David Tykulsker of Brooklyn Parents for Peace, which has been hosting tables outside Brooklyn high schools to inform students of their right to opt out of the Pentagon's recruitment lists.
Under the Leave No Child Behind Act, schools are required to turn over the names, phone numbers, and addresses of all students -- though students can remove their names if they request that.
Tykulsker claims that a member of the city's Panel for Educational Policy recently told him as many as half of New York City students have chosen to remove their names from the lists -- a number that if true would top the 19 percent opt-out rate recently reported in Boston.
A spokesperson with New York's Department of Education said no overall figures exist because the city is not required to keep such data.
Yet even as some students opt out of the lists that schools are mandated to provide, the Pentagon has hired a direct marketing firm to amass data on young people aged 16 to 25 -- including birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, ethnicity, religious affiliation, grade-point averages, school interests, and other info pulled from motor vehicle records, commercial data vendors, Armed Services aptitude tests, and scholarship survey forms -- possibly even medical lists.
Unlike the student lists compiled by schools, there is no opt-out form for the Pentagon's Joint Advertising and Market Research Studies (JAMRS) Recruiting Database. Last month a coalition of parents, anti-war, and privacy groups wrote to the Department of Defense demanding that the $343 million program be dismantled.
"Initially I think people were shocked at the privacy issues involved with turning over student records. Now I think people are more shocked at what the military is actually doing," Tykulsker says. "This is a military that's engaged in serious illegal acts, ranging from torture and illegal detentions to the use of chemical warfare," he adds, referring to reports that the Army used white phosphorus in the siege of Falluja. "The idea that we would be subjecting our children to this is ludicrous."
The recruiters whose job is to enlist new troops hear the dissent -- and argue they're part of protecting it. "We're so quick to voice our opinions, but why do you have the right to do that? Because of the men and women in uniform who protect our freedom," says the African American Army sergeant working the desk in Flatbush. "You might not support the reason for the war, but all of us are Americans. I've been in the Army for 18 years -- for me, this is a livelihood. This is my career."
Jumah Dossari has been imprisoned at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo for nearly four years without charges or access to his family, in nearly complete isolation. On October 15, he tried to hang himself in his cell, timing the attempt so that an outsider might see him dangling in a makeshift noose, his last message to the world. Dossari has more or less survived. (Military officials confirm that in the last few months, there have been at least 36 suicide attempts.)
While he was being revived, other prisoners at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo, who are being force-fed because they are on a hunger strike in desperation, like Dossari's, had their cases heard against "George W. Bush, et al.," in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
I have seen many stories on the hunger strikers in the national and international press; but the clearest account I know, vividly detailing what George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld keep describing as the "humane" treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, is in Judge Gladys Kessler's decision on these cases in the D.C. District Court.
The prisoners are asking for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the government to prove the legality of their being held at the U.S. naval base. There have been hunger strikes at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo before; and this most recent oneÃ¢â‚¬â€according to the petitioners' lawyersÃ¢â‚¬â€included between 131 to 210 "detainees" of the 500 in prison. The Defense Department's statistics are reluctant and changeable, so that count may be larger.
At least 20 of the "detainees" claim they are being "forcibly subjected to involuntary medical intervention via the introduction of intravenous fluids or nasocentric (nasal) tube feeding."
In her memorandum opinion, Judge Kessler quoted a declaration by Julia Tarver, the counsel for three of the petitioners. It was submitted to the court after she had visited her clients at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo from September 30 to October 2 of this year.
Julia Tarver wrote that during the forced feeding of Yousef Al Shehri, as the tubes were inserted "through [his] nose, down the throat, and into the stomach, Al Shehri was given no sedative for the procedure; instead, two soldiers restrained himÃ¢â‚¬â€one holding his chin while the other held him back by his hair and a medical staff member forcefully inserted the tube in his nose and down his throat. . . . He could not speak for two days [and] he could not sleep because of the severe pain." Judge Kessler wrote that "the procedure caused him and other detainees to vomit 'substantial amounts of blood.' "
In a different prison location, where there was a hole in the floor in which to urinate, thicker tubes were inserted into prisoners' noses; and when one was removed from Al Shehri's nose, Julia Tarver wrote (in another passage quoted by Judge Kessler), "blood came gushing out of him. He fainted, and several of the other detainees almost lost consciousness."
Further indicating that the "humane treatment" the president continually pledges is mandated in the cells at GuantÃƒÂ¡namo, Yousef Al Shehri also said, according to Julia Tarver's account, that "in front of GuantÃƒÂ¡namo physiciansÃ¢â‚¬â€including the head of the detainees hospitalÃ¢â‚¬â€the guards took NG tubes from one detainee, and with no sanitation whatsoever , re-inserted it into the nose of a different detainee." (Emphasis in original.) The passage continued: "The detainees could see the blood and stomach bile from other detainees remaining on the tubes."
Judge Kessler then wrote: "Petitioners assert that because of this needlessly cruel and painful treatment, Al Shehri 'can no longer walk.' " The judge further quoted from Tarver's account: "He lost some of his vision, and he is vomiting every day. . . . He has severe headaches and great pain in his ear. He is only able to urinate once every few days. . . . He has given his last will and testament, as he fully anticipates that he is going to die."
Some years ago, I was in Judge Gladys Kessler's courtroom and admired the crisp decisiveness of her judicial temperament. Therefore, I was not surprised that in her ruling on these cases, she noted that the government, in its response to these charges, "pointed out that thus far, 'no one has died.' "
Said Judge Kessler: "It goes without saying that this Court need not wait to issue injunctive relief until a detainee has died."
She went on: "The court concludes that Petitioners have provided sufficient facts . . . to establish that the threat of death or serious physical deterioration is real and imminent, and that Petitioners have satisfied the requirement of facing irreparable harm unless injunctive relief is granted."
Kessler's conclusion was that these prisoners have a right to challenge their detentions, as the Supreme Court ruled; and to have meaningful access to their lawyers and the Court.
Moreover, from now on, the government must inform the prisoners' lawyers "within 24 hours of the commencement of any forced feeding." And the government must provide "medical records spanning the period beginning one week prior to the date forced feeding commenced," and must also continue providing medical records, "at a minimum, on a weekly basis until forced feeding concludes."
Meanwhile, Manfred Nowak, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, has asked Donald Rumsfeld for permission to bring a team of U.N. human rights investigators to GuantÃƒÂ¡namo to interview the prisoners. Rumsfeld said they could come, but could not see the "detainees" privately. Nowak, refusing to come, said mordantly, "He said they have nothing to hide." Ah, but Rumsfeld is allowing an International Committee of the Red Cross delegation to have private meetings with the prisoners. That, said Nowak, is because Red Cross investigators cannot declare their findings publicly. The U.N. team can.
Rumsfeld says of the hunger strike that these "detainees" are merely "fasting" for brief periods in rotation with each other.
First, a rundown of the incident. During the winter, Columbia University appointed a faculty committee to investigate and file a report on a dispute that has badly roiled its campus: a heated and very public controversy over student charges of anti-Israel bias by some members of the Middle East studies faculty. The 24-page report was readied for release on April 1, but the university decided to give the Times, an old friend with which it has quietly swapped favors over the years, a one-day advantage over the competition. However, Columbia set one condition: The Times had to agree, in return for this exclusive access, not to seek comment from any "other interested parties," such as the student body and, in particular, the Jewish students who had brought the allegations. Strangely, the reporter and her immediate editors accepted the conditions. The university also offered the same deal to the independent campus newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, which smartly turned it down and published a story with comments from the protesting students.
As long as I can remember, it has been an accepted rule of journalism that, absent some extreme circumstance, such as a threat to national security, a newsperson is never to acquiesce to a source's request to do less than a full reporting job or to leave basic information out of a story. The Times' own official policy contains the following: "We do not promise sources that we will refrain from additional reporting or efforts to verify the information being reported. We do not promise sources that we will refrain from seeking comment from others on the subject of the story. (We may, however, agree to a limited delay in further inquiries--until the close of stock trading, for example.)"
The Times' latest stumble was discovered and immediately exposed by The New York Sun, a fledgling daily with a decidedly rightist, pro-Israel stance that has been waging a campaign against the Times' coverage of the campus controversy. A few days later, on April 6, the Times published an Editor's Note (reserved for significant errors), which read, in part: "Under the Times' policy on unidentified sources, writers are not permitted to forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information. In this case, editors and the writer did not recall the policy and agreed to delay additional reporting until the document had become public. ... Last Wednesday night, after the article had been published on the Times' Web site, the reporter exchanged messages with one of the students who had lodged the original complaints. The student was expecting to read the report shortly. But because of the lateness of the hour, and concern about not having response from other interested parties, the reporter did not wait for a comment for later versions, including the printed one, after the student had read the report. Without a response from the complainants, the article was incomplete; it should not have appeared in that form. The response was included in an article on Friday [the following day]."
That second-day article was full of reactions, all of them unsurprising. The student complainants called the report "insulting" because the five-member panel found only one instance of inappropriate professorial behavior in the classroom. But a couple of these students, after a meeting with Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said they were encouraged that a measure of progress had been made. Some people at Columbia found other grounds for criticism, saying that the investigation by itself would have a chilling effect on academic freedom of expression. One source familiar with the preparation of the report complained privately that the Times' first-day headline and lead paragraph had oversimplified what he regarded as a nuanced and balanced document. The headline read: "Columbia Panel Clears Professors of Anti-Semitism."
The decades-old Middle East dispute is one of those virulent tribal wars that throw up the most extreme emotional arguments; middle ground is rarely in sight. This bitter campus argument is no exception. Outside advocacy organizations on both sides have thrust themselves into the fray, making resolution even more difficult. In short, no official report on the matter would have satisfied the warring parties. The journalism ethics issue, while hardly a cause for a hanging, was nonetheless an eye-opening goof. The Times statement, in its April 6 mea culpa, that "editors and the writer did not recall the [paper's] policy" was an astonishing one. After all the hammering the nation's still-best newspaper has taken for its major screwups of the last few years, and after installing an ombudsman as a corrective and rewriting the paper's entire ethics code, is it possible that anyone on the news staff doesn't know you aren't supposed to leave stuff out of a story because a source asked you to?
One Times insider said he believed that the Columbia story may have been the education beat reporter's first encounter with such a request from a source. OK, anything is possible. But what about her immediate editors? Isn't it a part of their job to have full knowledge of the paper's code of standards and ethics? Actually, my reporting indicates that editors were the ones who caught the lapse--senior editors who called a halt when the unholy arrangement with Columbia was reported to them at the late-afternoon Page One meeting--and ordered the staff to seek broader reaction to the Columbia report. The Times did the right thing. It corrected its mistake and deserves credit for that. Finally, what about Columbia? What was its administration thinking when it insisted upon these limitations on reporting? This is a university that boasts it has the best journalism school in the country. How will it explain this ethics violation to that student body? Where is the university's mea culpa?
Here is Columbia's response; readers can decide whether it satisfies them.
In a lengthy interview, Susan Brown, director of Columbia's Office of Public Affairs, said, in part:
"We wanted the report [initially] to speak for itself without the interpretations or responses of others commenting on it . . . not through the lens of others. ... It was not a condition, it was a request. We asked them [the Times] not to contact anyone who had not yet seen the report. We wanted to protect its confidentiality.
"As you said [when I told her the gist of the Voice article], this is a volcanic and polarizing issue. ... We all learn from experiences that there are unintended consequences. The intentions were perfectly honorable. No one was thinking of the journalism issue [at the time]."
More than once in the interview, Brown said that, in hindsight, "we would have done it differently."
The crime scene out front didn't cool Hot 97's "blazing hip hop and R&B" last week – or mute the station's intense coverage of the on-air beef between 50 Cent and the Game that ended in bloodshed on its sidewalk. Sure, morning host Miss Jones initially promised not to exploit the Feb. 28 shooting. But before noon on March 1, her broadcast crew was telling us "how it all began."
First, we heard the tape of Game's earlier appearance with host Funkmaster Flex, in which he disavowed any beefs with some of 50 Cent's top rivals. That meant, Jones told listeners, that "[Game] was never friends with 50." Then there was the audio of 50 Cent on Flex's show the day of the shooting, boasting that "every record [Game]'s selling is based on me being on his record with him," and announcing that Game was no longer a member of 50's G-Unit crew. Finally, listeners heard the call from Jadakiss to Hot 97 host DJ Clue right after midnight on March 1. "Who is he?" Jadakiss is heard saying of 50. Somewhere amid those clips was the confrontation on Hudson Street between backers of "Half a Dollar" and Game that sent one guy to the hospital.
It wasn't the first time the station had been in the background of a violent hip-hop incident. Last week, a federal perjury case opened against rapper Lil' Kim related to a February 2001 shooting near Hot 97. In 2003, Funkmaster Flex pled guilty to a harassment charge resulting from an altercation in September 2002 with rival DJ Steph Lova. And in September 2003, 50 Cent was fired upon in New Jersey in an incident that might have been triggered by his appearance hours earlier on Hot.
Well, it's a violent world, right? So someone shot a guy in a high-rent district of Manhattan last week, "so what?" rap impresario Russell Simmons tells the Voice. "There was a shooting in Brooklyn last night," and that's not big news, he says. Game was shot before, but the gunplay didn't make headlines then.
True. But those other shootings did not involve the entourages of young millionaires or result from on-air disses broadcast to millions on federally regulated, corporate-owned radio. While not excusing the triggermen in each case, some hip-hop heavyweights say the corporate ownership deserves blame for hyping hip-hop beefs, some of which turn bloody, and all of which undercut the true power of the music.
"They just throw it out there and they fester it," says hip-hop legend Chuck D. "They're just trying to get ears." Hence the airtime Hot 97 has devoted to the dispute between Benzino and Eminem, or Jay-Z versus Nas, and now 50 dissing Game – to name a few. Critics of Hot 97 who held a rally in frigid Union Square Park last Friday are part of a burgeoning opposition to corporate control of hip-hop radio. After all, these beefs don't just get aired to the five boroughs: Around the country last week, Hot 97's material was getting play, according to DJ and hip-hop journalist Mr. Davey D from Los Angeles. "Now people all over the world, radio stations out here are playing the clip of 50 and Game," he tells the Voice. "So their brand is out there."
Hot 97's brand was already out there. Its owner, Emmis Communications, calls it "the premier hip-hop radio station in America," and pegs its market revenue at $808.2 million. Emmis is an Indianapolis-based firm that owns a handful of small magazines, TV stations in several cities, and radio licenses in a few more. The firm's reputation is apparently good enough that "socially-responsible" investment funds, like the California Public Employees Retirement System and Domini Social Investments, hold thousands of shares.
Owners like Emmis and Clear Channel are the corporate muscle beneath hip-hop's skin; their hip-hop stations are notably dubbed "urban radio," which Chuck D says is "a perfect term because it actually escapes the notion of black ownership." The term first originated when black stations wanted to bring in white advertising, says hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang. Now, he says, it's been donned by white stations "using black music and culture to get street cred and in turn to drive the rest of the music industry."
Hip-hop is an industry – whatever personal stuff was rolled into last week's shooting, the disputes cannot be separated from the money that makes the music possible. "Now artists are companies, they're not just individuals," says Davey D. "Fat Joe's success or failure impacts a whole lot of people who are associated with the brand." So when you get dissed on air, you've got to respond.
"Radio and the media in that aspect can play a really, really irresponsible role in terms of blowing out these beefs to a whole other level," says Chang. "Everybody makes money off of that: The magazine makes money off of that, the radio station makes money off of that, and the rapper makes money off of that."
Alex Dudley, a spokesperson for Hot 97, denies that the station exploits hip-hop rivalries, telling the Voice, "The beefs are no question a large part of the music as you can understand by picking up an album. So when an artist comes to talk about his album it naturally comes up."
Since the disputes are part of the lyrical form of gangsta rap, are the beefs, in fact, genuine? Despite rumors circulating for weeks about a tiff between 50 Cent and Game, 50 only brought the issue into the open the week of his new album's release.
Simmons rejects the idea that the disputes are a marketing ploy. "This is the mind-set," he says. "If they were two hustlers – and they are – and they have a beef – which they do – and that beef got interfered with, this is how they'd handle it." Todd Lynn, the comedian who was fired from Hot 97 over a song that used a racial slur and mocked tsunami victims, calls the station management "jackasses," but insists, "I honestly don't believe that they have anything to do with creating these beefs," or with hyping them.
Regardless of where the beefs start or if they are real, DJs are the ones who decide the kind of play they get. And it's not a painless choice. "I don't think any on-air personality starts the beef. I think artists make that decision all by themselves," says MTV VJ and syndicated Wake Up Show host Sway. But once a beef breaks out, Sway says, "You put the radio personality in a catch-22 because I don't think anyone wants to amplify that – or to some people, glamorize that – but if you don't the man across the street might."
So DJs are under big pressure to talk about these beefs. But, adds Sway, "how you talk about it and how you deal with it is important." The DJs could warn listeners that the beef might be just a record-selling ploy – not deadly serious. Or they could talk about more important beefs, like the Iraq war or police brutality. Too often, however, they obsess over the stress between the stars. "They laugh about it, but these are people's lives," says Rosa Clemente, a member of a coalition organizing protests against Hot 97 after the station aired the offensive song about tsunami victims. "This is very serious, what's happening, and it's very sad that Hot 97 will do anything for ratings at this point."
Hot 97 isn't the only station that plays the game. In an interview with 50 Cent on Feb. 28 before the rapper appeared on Hot 97, Power 105's Ed Lover promised at the start to talk about the "negative energy" in 50's life. "We have to," Lover said. Asked why the station had to discuss rap grudges, Power 105.1 program director Michael Saunders said in a statement, "As media professionals we have to ask artists questions about disputes. However, we try to downplay rivalries as much as possible because we are aware of our role in the hip-hop community. We realize the importance of not putting any fuel in the fire that might ignite individuals who surround the artists on a daily basis."
But during his interview, Lover devoted several minutes of airtime to 50's feuds with Fat Joe, Jadakiss, and Nas. He wanted 50 to reveal "what's your beef with each one of them individually." Then another several minutes were spent on the dispute with Game. At one point, Lover asked, "So where does he stand with G-Unit?" to which 50 answered, "He's not in my camp." At the end of the show, Young Buck called in, offering to "take care of" Game. 50 declined.
It isn't news that sensational news sells. There was proof in the coverage of the Hot 97 shooting itself: The Daily News decorated the top of its March 2 cover with bullet holes and the headline "Rap Wars," and the next day a Post story was slugged "Fan day KO'd by gritty 'Fitty' bang-bang." Nor is it earth-shattering analysis that corporate control has, according to some fans, tainted a form of entertainment. The distinction is that in this case, the media conglomerate template is being laid over a subgenre of music – gangsta rap – that often celebrates bloodshed.
"It's not like the guys in the corporation really know who the Game is or give a fuck about 50 Cent. There'll be another," says Sway. "Whatever records by whatever artists work the best." And when a dispute between rappers erupts, Sway says, "it's not about Hot 97 or [L.A. station] Power 106. It's not about any radio station in particular. It's just about radio in general. If you're going to be on the air, you're going to have to be ready to compete at all times."
Hot 97 spokesman Dudley says blaming the station lets the triggerman off the hook. But radio's impact can be destructive. Davey D recalls that when local stations in San Francisco divided up the market into black and Latino audiences, high school fans almost resorted to violence to pledge their allegiance. Political commentary, once at hip hop's heart, has disappeared. And Simmons tells the Voice that he believes "that Biggie and Tupac's deaths were fueled by the media," although he blames the media at large, not just a few radio stations.
"I can't judge the radio station for having the dialogue that the kids are interested in," he says. The trick is to teach the listeners there is a better way, he says. Sometimes radio stations have done that – banning artists who get violent, brokering truces among rival stars. Hot 97 itself has shown restraint at times: stopping Nas from doing a mock lynching at Summer Jam, banning Capone from its air after the 2001 shooting outside the station. But other times, Simmons says, the people in charge of media outlets "don't say these things and can't teach these things because they don't necessarily know it. A lot of times we have these people in charge and their job is to exploit." That's true, he notes, of all industry.
Friday's rally against Hot 97 attracted only a few hundred people. But Chang sees the Union Square gathering as part of a "popular kind of uprising against what we're getting on urban radio" that has broken out in San Francisco, Atlanta, and elsewhere. And while earlier crusades against rap radio were led by people who disliked the music, this one is run by people who love hip hop but feel it has been polluted by cash. Rejecting the charge that Hot 97 has failed to reflect its community's values, Dudley points to the station's long-standing ranking as No. 1 among 18- to 34-year-olds. "I think that's a pretty accurate reflection of the community we serve," he says.
Oddly enough, those same market forces are also the best weapon for reform. The outrage over the "Tsunami Song" spurred real action by Emmis only after Hot 97 began losing sponsors. "That is their lifeline," the rapper Immortal Technique told the Voice by e-mail. "Threaten that and they will listen."
Indeed, Hot's DJs themselves hint at a thirst for something better. The morning after last week's shooting, before they dug into the beef between 50 and Game, the crew at Hot 97 was actually on the same page as their critics. Their talk was about newspapers' failing to put Jamie Foxx, winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, on their covers. One of Miss Jones' on-air colleagues was skeptical that people of color could unify to fight that sort of thing – they paid too much attention to distractions like the "unfortunate incident" the night before. "Yeah, but can't we mobilize for other issues?" Jones asked. Her colleague replied, "I wish."
Waging war isn't about fun and games. Or is it? A visit to one of the world's biggest conventions for military training technology reveals that today's armed forces are taking cues from video games, theme parks and Hollywood. Find out how the Pentagon is funding the future of new media at Orlando, Florida's I/ITSEC: the Defense Department's own Disney World.
In one corner of a football-field-sized convention floor crammed with display booths, representatives from VirTra Systems stand at the entranceway to their company's tent. Different videotaped military and security training scenarios play inside, unfolding within a virtual environment formed by a series of interactive projections. A rep walks to the center of the near-circle of giant video images, clutching a realistic-looking laser pistol, as one of the narratives begins: An al Qaeda terrorist has taken an American engineer hostage, and the rep needs to shoot the bearded baddie down. The rep's laser pistol fires loudly, but misses the mark, hitting instead a pack of explosives strapped to the terrorist's chest. The walls glow with a virtual blast – the mechanized floor, in fact, vibrates like an enormous video game controller – and the scenario ends; the whole event has taken less than two and a half seconds. The other rep turns to the conventioneers clustered around the tent's opening. "This is what our military and law enforcement have to deal with on a daily basis," he says.
"Now, you can also use this to enhance the experience," the VirTra rep continues, fastening a thick, black device around his waist. The "threat-fire belt," he explains, issues an electric shock to the trainee if he or she is hit by the imaginary bullet of a virtual assailant, who might appear anywhere on the semicircular screen. "If you get hit in the back, trust me, you'll remember it. This one will bring you to your knees. The whole idea is to fight through the pain, and keep on going, just the way that you've been trained."
VirTra was one of hundreds of private contractors and military agencies showing off the latest in media-based training systems last December at I/ITSEC, the cumbersomely named annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. I/ITSEC exists to bring together the different military branches, related government agencies, private contractors and academia to showcase new and future developments in simulation-based training – military lingo for the technology-enhanced, serious-minded make-believe that provides the cornerstone of modern preparation for battle. When I/ITSEC began three decades ago, simulation training meant mechanical airplane cockpit mock-ups with blinking electronic lights, or live playacted war games of the Red vs. Blue variety. Such antique practices have now merged with the cutting edge of science and entertainment. Today, attendees are more likely to engage with something along the lines of VirTra's immersive virtual theater: the souped-up, grown-up cousins of video games, tailor-made to teach the new-media generation how to fight America's war on terror.
At first glance, the convention floor seems like a dotcom-era throwback. Elaborately decorated walk-through displays pack the enormous hall, each stuffed with monitors, flyers and logo-printed giveaway trinkets. Some bear familiar names – Saab, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics. Soundtracks to corporate videos bleed into one another, punctuated by newscaster-cool voice-overs, corny synths, and adrenaline-pumping guitar riffs. Many representatives wear matching team outfits: One group mingles in white lab coats, another in Red Sox jerseys. A smiling female booth staffer offers ice cream in exchange for dropping a business card in a fishbowl, as a polo-shirted man silently creeps by on a Segway scooter.
But this is 2004, not 2000, so the business at hand is fighting war and defending the homeland. Suits are as plentiful as desert camo; some displays are swathed in army green netting. Near the floor's entrance, a giant plasma screen shows a pilot's-eye view of a bombing run over a computer-generated desert landscape, where digital explosions blossom to the tune of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." A company called Dynamic Animation Systems shows off its urban-combat-themed marksmanship trainer prototype in six shooting-gallery-style stalls equipped with video projectors. In each stall, men in suits or uniforms pick up laser rifles and blast away at CGI'd insurgents, who jump out from behind cars and rubble in a digital mock-up of an Iraqi city, complete with fading posters of Saddam Hussein on the sides of buildings. To the casual observer, the trainer seems indistinguishable from the latest Iraq-themed game for PlayStation or Xbox. A woman in jeans and a pink shirt grabs a gun and starts picking off hooded villains with ruthless precision. "Oh man, she is cold!" laughs a soldier standing behind her. A few paces away, a grinning man who could be Dick Cheney's stunt double – fiftyish, balding, dark-blue suit and tie – perches atop a mock armored vehicle inside another dome of video projections, machine-gunning down computer-generated terrorists as the barren, sand-colored landscape rolls around him. Smoke pours from his mounted gun, and real metal shells fall onto the carpeted floor.
To a blue-state civilian outsider, the scene at first seems surreal – or, perhaps, all too real: the ultimate convergence of digital entertainment and the war on terror, a vision worthy of Paul Verhoeven, with blockbuster production budgets to match. As much as 16 percent of the current U.S. defense spending goes toward training, and the dollar amount has escalated sharply since 9/11. In 2000, about $3 billion was spent by the Department of Defense on the MS&T (modeling, simulation, and training) sector; now the figure is closer to $6 billion, thanks to increased demand from both domestic security and conflicts abroad. According to Orlando's National Center for Simulation, a nonprofit industry organization, over $1 billion is spent in Florida alone.
By all accounts, the U.S. armed forces devote far more time, money, and research to soldier training than any other military in the world, creating a nexus of academic, corporate, and military interests collaboratively devoted to pushing new-media technologies forward. Thus the conference's Orlando location: University of Central Florida professor Christopher Stapleton, on hand at I/ITSEC with his school's Media Convergence Laboratory, argues that "central Florida is the world capital of experiential entertainment." The area boasts not only long-standing military training centers and significant investment from the Department of Defense, but also the aerospace and theme park industries.
Michael Macedonia, the affable young chief scientist and technology officer of PEO STRI, the army's Orlando-based office for simulation and training, stresses that the large-scale shoot-'em-ups on display at I/ITSEC are definitely not just big-boy's toys. "First of all," he says, "the object is not to entertain you, but to train you." He continues, "The reality is, if you really look at some of these things, they would actually be quite boring to your average game player," noting that many simulations are created to train for mundane skills, like machine maintenance. Such high-tech training, Macedonia explains, is part of the new military's post-Vietnam paradigm. Before 1970, he says, the U.S. Army "trained through blood. Technology for training was considered expensive. People were cheap."
Macedonia brings up the case of Full Spectrum Warrior, a much publicized video game developed by the army with the help of a commercial gaming company. A popular, gamer-friendly version was released for Xbox in the summer of 2004 to critical acclaim and healthy sales. A related but different form is currently used as a tactical trainer within the military. "If you play the army version – which is the only one that the army endorses, by the way – it's actually very realistic, but it's really hard. People complain that they get killed in five minutes, and can't figure it out. Well, that's because we're trying to get as realistic as possible. It's about training, and so it's about making it hard."
Not that fun does not have its place. Spc. Samuel England, a fresh-faced 19-year-old stationed at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., came to I/ITSEC to showcase the Engagement Skills Trainer 2000. England appears in the trainer's video as an actor. "Making it was actually pretty fun, just like, I guess, any sort of Hollywood-style thing," he says, grinning. At I/ITSEC, he and two other soldiers shot at the EST2000 video screen with mock rifles, trying to take down images of actors playing Iraqi insurgents. England explains that "the Iraqis are actually paid people from Titan," a major military contracting firm. "They actually get Iraqi civilians, ex-Iraqi police, and Iraqi military, and they move over to the States. They act in the films, and they work at NTC." (Although Titan would not return calls to confirm their role in casting actors for the EST 2000, representatives at the NTC said that if such a video were produced at NTC, then their on-site Iraqi employees would likely be involved.)
At the display for America's Army – the globally popular online game developed as an army recruitment tool – local teenagers scrambled to play with the America's Army Vehicle Convoy Trainer, which looks like an armed, wheel-less Humvee placed in front of an oversize video game screen depicting yet another virtual Iraq filled with digital insurgents. Though available for free on the army's recruitment site since July 4, 2002, America's Army is now being retooled into a training device as well, not only for the military but potentially for other agencies like the Secret Service. "Fun is central," says Col. Casey Wardynski, originator and director of the America's Army project. "A 'fun' training system means keeping soldiers engaged voluntarily. This situation makes for better training, and can even extend the training day into the barracks, where soldiers could continue to train in their off time."
Already, americasarmy.com touts that America's Army's Government Applications and Future Applications development teams will feed tidbits of new innovations back into the free game, to whet the appetites of its devoted online following. Preliminary materials tout the project as a good "return on investment" for a game that initially cost $7.5 million to develop. "The country is at war and to the extent that America's Army can play a larger role, it should," says Wardynski. "We know there is no silver bullet for homeland security. In this case America's Army can serve two purposes for one taxpayer investment – communicate with young adults about soldiering and provide Americans with skills to address immediate consequences in a first-responder situation."
The fusion of playtime with wartime seems perfectly natural to the folks at I/ITSEC. Many of the participating companies play both sides of the fence, to some extent: VirTra Systems makes both immersive-training devices and theme park attractions, though the former have overtaken the latter in the past four years. "Education, entertainment, training – they're all the same thing," argues Stapleton, who himself comes from a background developing technology for Broadway and theme parks. "They're all in the same business of making memories for a lifetime. When you get down to that, it's not really about the technology – even though it gives us more capabilities – it's about the impact it has on us."
The technologies that shape our culture have always been pushed forward by war: Cell phones, transistors, video games, and even the digital computer itself all emerged from wartime research. In the long term then, Orlando may be shaping our collective futures more than Hollywood or Silicon Valley. "The entertainment industry is not looking at the real science and art beyond the obvious reactive, thumb-twitching experience that has some kind of titillation to it," Stapleton continues. "That's why I transferred from the entertainment industry to working with military research, because military are the people who are asking the tough questions, and the deep questions that will matter 20, 30 years from now. The military are actually the visionaries of experiential media."
For 51 years, a family in upstate New York has closely guarded one of the most explosive, and unusual, secrets any family could have: Its late patriarch, Dow B. Hover, was New York State's executioner. Hover held the job in the 1950s and 1960s and was the last man in the state to activate the electric chair. He left behind evidence of his workletters from Sing Sing's wardenhidden in a filing cabinet in his house.
Hover, who lived in Germantown and worked as a deputy sheriff for Columbia County, took extreme precautions to ensure no newspaper would ever reveal his identity. On the nights he drove to Sing Sing to carry out an execution, he employed a novel strategy in order to elude pesky reporters: He changed the license plates on his car before he even left his garage.
Hover worked in the infamous Sing Sing death house, where 614 people perished between 1891 and 1963more people than at any other prison in the nation during that time. New York's last execution took place almost 42 years ago, yet the debate over the death penalty continues. Last summer, the Court of Appeals ruled that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional, and now the public debate has grown even louder. Just in the last week, the state assembly convened two public hearings, in Albany and Manhattan, on the future of New York's death penalty.
Maintaining public support for the death penalty has long depended on keeping the act of killing prisoners shrouded in secrecyno television cameras, no interviews with the execution team, no revealing of the executioner's identity. Conversations about the death penalty often remain abstract, focused on issues like "justice" and "deterrence." Rarely do they focus on how the death penalty affects those most intimately involved, transforming everyday people into professional killers. The voices and stories of the people who carry out executions are almost never heard.
Dow B. Hover had two children, both of whom are now in their 70s and still live in Germantown. They have not paid much attention to the political debate swirling around the death penalty. In fact, neither likes to think much about the issue at all. But on a recent Saturday, Hover's children finally decided to discuss their family's secret. They spoke to the Voice about their father, his execution work, and his own life's end.
On Aug. 5, 1953, a headline in The New York Times declared: "State Executioner Quits." At the time, the executioner's name was well-known. Joseph P. Francel had held the job for 14 years; his name regularly appeared in the media. Just two months earlier, he'd pulled the switch that sent 2,000 volts of electricity into the bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The married couple, convicted of conspiring to steal atomic secrets for the Soviets, were the most famous of the 137 people Francel executed.
Dow B. Hover, 52, replaced Francel, securing the job through his contacts at the Columbia County sheriff's office. Like his five predecessors, Hover was a trained electrician. Now, in addition to his work as a deputy sheriff, Hover would earn $150 every time he put on a suit, made the 160-mile round-trip to Sing Sing, and pulled the switch for the electric chair. (Adjusted for inflation, this $150 payment is equivalent to about $1,000 today.) Hover would also receive gas money, usually eight cents per mile. Soon, typed one-page letters from Wilfred L. Denno, Sing Sing's warden, began arriving at his home, notifying him of every scheduled execution.
One of the first people Hover was hired to execute was 40-year-old Gerhard Puff. In 1952, Puff traveled from Kansas City to Manhattan with his 17-year-old wife, Annie Laurie. By then, Puff's rÃ©sumÃ© as a bank robber had already earned him a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Shortly after Puff and his wife arrived at the Congress Hotel on West 69th Street, FBI agents flooded the lobby. The agents were waiting for Puff to emerge from an elevator. Instead, Puff snuck down the stairs, then approached one of the agents and shot the man, killing him.
Puff's execution was scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 12, 1954, at 11 p.m., the usual appointed time for executions. That night, Hover left his Germantown home at 6:30 and arrived at Sing Sing at 9:30, according to travel records he kept. In the meantime, guards had already brought Puff his last meal: fried chicken, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, asparagus tips, salad, and strawberry shortcake. Shortly before 11, two guards led Puff down a 20-foot corridor to the electric chair and ordered him to sit. They fastened five leather straps across his body. A mask was placed over his face and electrodes were attached to his leg and head.
Standing in an alcove adjacent to the death room, facing a switchboard, Hover could see Puff. It was his duty to lower the lever, but not for so long that the body began to cook. Not so long that the reporters and other witnesses seated out front could smell burning flesh. Some men required more shocks than others, and there was a certain skill involved in making sure that Puff was electrocuted just long enough to kill him. At 11:08 p.m., a doctor pressed a stethoscope over Puff's heart and declared him dead.
By 11:30, Hover was back in his car, heading north. This time he appears to have sped more quickly along Route 9G. According to Hover's travel log, he pulled into his driveway at 1:30 a.m.
|A news article Hover clipped about his work. Clippings courtesy of Gladys Bohnsack.|
A few days later, Hover received a letter from Sing Sing's warden with two checks"one in the amount of $150.00 and the other in the amount of $12.80 covering your services at this institution in the case of Gerhard A. Puff." The language in these letters was always the sameexceedingly formal and intentionally cryptic.
By the time Hover began his work at Sing Sing, both of his children were fully grown and out of the house. Gladys Bohnsack, then 28, had attended Albany Business College and lived with her husband in town. Dow C. Hover, 23, was off fighting in the Korean War. The children did not get the chance to weigh in on whether they thought their father should be an executioner; by the time they learned about the job, he had already accepted it.
All the children knew was that their parents had consulted with their minister. As Gladys recalls, "My mother had a problem with it when he was offered the job, because she knew morally it wasn't right: You're not supposed to kill people. ... She went to our minister to find out ... I don't know what the conversation was, [but] the minister must've said it was all right to do it, that he wasn't going to go to hell because of it."
Everyone in Germantown knew the Hovers. There is a Hover Avenue in town, and Dow B. Hover had grown up on the street, in a family of fruit farmers. He married at 20, and he and his wife, Nellie, became regulars at the Dutch Reform Church. In the late 1930s, he started raising mice in the family's cellar and launched Dow B. Hover Laboratory Animals. After he sold the company in 1952, it became Taconic Farms, which today is one of the world's largest providers of lab mice and rats.
Hover's name regularly appeared in the local paper, including in 1961, when he helped rescue two people from the Hudson River after their sailboat capsized. But his role as executioner was hidden. With very few exceptions, nobody in Germantown knew.
The name of Gerhard Puff or anyone else he had executed never came up at the dinner table in the Hover home, at least not when the children visited. Hover didn't talk about his long, lonely drives to Sing Sing and back. He didn't talk about what it was like to see a teenager strapped into the electric chair (which happened twice in 1954, once in 1955, and twice in 1956). He didn't describe how he felt about killing three people in a single night (which occurred in 1955). He never mentioned the smell of burning flesh, the hissing of electrodes, the scent of singed hair, the sparks circling the prisoner's head. Nor did he express any doubts about whether the people he executed truly deserved to die.
During the years of Hover's tenure, 44 people died in Sing Sing's death house, ranging from nine in 1954 to zero in 1962. That year, Hover did oversee two executions in another state: New Jersey. It had become common practice for Sing Sing's executioner to freelance elsewhere; Hover's expertise was in demand. On the night of Aug. 15, 1963, the man seated in Sing Sing's electric chair was 34-year-old Eddie Lee Mays of Harlem, who had been convicted of murdering a woman with a pistol while robbing a tavern on Fifth Avenue. Hover didn't know it at the time, but this execution would be the last one in New York State.
Hover's children thought their father's work at Sing Sing hadn't changed him much. Despite having to write frequent letters to the warden about execution dates, he still typed with just one or two fingers. He still lived with their mother in a two-story Cape Cod-style house on Maple Avenue. And he still sat down at the kitchen table every day at precisely 5 p.m., knife and fork in hand, waiting for her to serve him dinner. There was one way Hover had changed, however: He seemed to have migraine headaches all the time.
"I'd go visit them and Dad would be on the couch with one of his headaches," Gladys says. "Sometimes he'd get up, have his breakfast, and go lie on the couch, and get up and have lunch and then go lie on the couch. They were severe for a long time." Dow adds: "He used to take medicine, but nothing seemed to work. It just went on for years and years. It seemed like he had headaches all the time."
For at least eight years after the Eddie Lee Mays execution, mail from Sing Sing continued to arrive. The letters concerned upcoming executions; each one of them was stayed or else canceled because the governor commuted the inmate's sentence to life in prison. In April 1971, Hover received a letter from the superintendent of Green Haven prison in Dutchess County: "This is to inform you ... that the electric chair was moved from Sing Sing to this facility last summer. We have, at the present time, three (3) inmates presently awaiting execution. ... I have been advised by Sing Sing that you have rendered a service in previous executions. Will you please inform me if you are still available."
By now Hover was 70 years old. He wrote back the next morning, punching out yet another letter with two fingers on his typewriter. "I am available if needed," he wrote. Hover never did get to perform his "service" at Green Haven. The following year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the way the death penalty had been enforced was unconstitutional.
The term executioner stress describes the toll that carrying out the death penalty takes on those closest to the process. The term appears in Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell. In this 2000 book, former execution team members report suffering numerous psychological symptoms: nightmares, emotional numbness, depression. A former executioner from Mississippi likens his work to "being in a car wreck that's going on forever."
The history of New York's own executioners is equally grim. John Hulbert, the state's third executioner, had the job from 1913 to 1926. One night, right before Hulbert was about to pull the switch on two men, he collapsed. Revived by Sing Sing's doctor, Hulbert finished the job, then spent a week in the prison hospital.
Hulbert oversaw 140 executions before he abruptly quit in January 1926. "His health has been rather poor and he disliked the all-night ride he had to take from Auburn to Sing Sing and back," the state's superintendent of prisons told The New York Times. Hulbert himself said, "I got tired of killing people." Three years later, Hulbert, then 59, ended his own life in the cellar of his house in Auburn. His son found him crumpled on the floor by the furnace, a .38-caliber revolver by his side.
The state's best-known executioner was Hulbert's successor, Robert G. Elliott. From 1926 to 1939, Elliott oversaw 387 executions in six states. He had been New York's executioner for less than a year when his identity became public; a reporter followed him home from Sing Sing to Queens. Angry letters began filling his mailbox. Somebody firebombed his house. In 1939, he wrote Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner, which concludes: "I hope that the day is not far distant when legal slaying, whether by electrocution, hanging, lethal gas, or any other method is outlawed throughout the United States."
New York's executioners played a pivotal role in the state, enabling New Yorkers to support the death penalty without ever having to do the killing themselves. Each executioner came to embody the public's conflicted attitudes; people were alternately fascinated with and repelled by them. Decade after decade, New York's death penalty turned ordinary men into professional killers, and despite the ritualized aspects of the work, it took a tremendous personal toll.
While Hover's predecessors all became fairly well-known, Hover did not. However, his name did appear in Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House, which was published in 2000. The author, Scott Christianson, obtained access to 153 inmate case files from Sing Sing. The book features black-and-white mug shots, copies of telegrams, last-supper menus, letters from inmates, and some of the warden's correspondence, including one letter mentioning Hover's name.
Last year, Gladys Bohnsack, Hover's daughter, got her first ever call from a reporter. Staffers at Sound Portraitsa nonprofit that produces radio documentarieshad seen Hover's name in Condemned, and an intern, Brett Myers, tracked her down. Gladys, now 78, told Myers she'd been expecting to hear from the media for decades. "I was so surprised no one found him," she said.
She moved into her father's house 15 years ago and had recently discovered a file in the basement that contained letters from the 1960s between her father and Warden Denno. She sent the file to Myers, who later shared it with the Voice. For decades, the letters had been in a metal filing cabinet, buried amid all sorts of other paperwork her father had left behind: assorted bills, his marriage certificate, operating instructions for various appliances, manila files labeled "Fishing Reels," "CB Radio," and "Retirement." There were also folders filled with yellowed newspaper stories he'd saved about the death penalty. In a few cases, these stories were about the same men he had executed.
On a recent Saturday, several other execution-related files turned up, labeled "New Jersey," "Massachusetts," and "Connecticut." Unbeknownst to Gladys, all three states had asked her father to work for them. He'd agreed, but in the end only New Jersey needed him. Unlike Elliott, Hover did not write a memoir. Nor did he leave a diary. The only documents he left behind are those in his home and a few letters hidden in prisoner files from Sing Sing's death house, which are now housed at the New York State Archives in Albany.
Most of what's known about Hover's work as an executioner is stored in the memories of his children. His son, Dow, 73, lives across town from Gladys, in a second-floor apartment on Main Street, above a former gas station. While Gladys still worksshe has been Germantown's tax collector for the last 20 yearsDow is too sick to hold a job. A former electrician, he suffers from Huntington's disease. He spends his mornings watching The Price Is Right and waiting for his lunch to arrive from Meals on Wheels.
Seated in his living room on a recent afternoon, Dow shared what he could remember about his father's decision to become an executioner. "He got paid pretty good," Dow says. "I'm sure that had something to do with it." The way Dow tells the story, his father was conflicted about his work. "He felt bad about it," Dow says. "He'd go see a minister and straighten himself out." Did he think his father's struggle with migraines was related to his work as an executioner? "I'm sure it was," he says.
Gladys disagrees. About the Sing Sing job, she says, "He enjoyed doing it." She describes her father as cold and unemotional. "You know how some fathers hold your hand?" she says. "I don't remember that we ever held hands or told each [other] that we loved each other. He just wasn't that kind of person." Taking a job in which he had to execute people "wouldn't have been an issue for him."
She adds: "I don't think he was emotional about it, but how can you know what someone feels inside?"
In recent years, the death penalty in New York State has seemed increasingly abstract, more a political slogan than an actual occurrence. Although Gov. George Pataki reinstated the death penalty in 1995, nobody has been executed in New York State since 1963. Among some politicians, the death penalty remains a favorite issue. A few weeks ago, in his State of the State speech, Pataki credited the death penalty with helping lower crime rates. He has vowed to bring it back, and the debate over its future continues to roil the state.
If Pataki signs another death penalty bill, and if New York does have an execution, of course he and the state's legislators will not be the ones carrying it out. They are not the ones who will be strapping the condemned prisoner to a gurney, rolling him into the execution chamber, preparing the syringes, searching for a vein to stick an I.V. in, starting the flow of the lethal drugs, eyeing the cardiac monitor, and unbuckling the straps once the prisoner is dead.
The machinery used to execute prisoners has changed, but the ritual is fairly similar. If the death penalty returns to New York, the last person who carried out an execution here will not be around to give pointers. Dow B. Hover died in 1990, at the age of 89, five years after his wife died. According to his death certificate, the manner of death was "undetermined circumstances." The story his family tells seems more conclusive.
On June 1, 1990, in the middle of the afternoon, Gladys' son, Jack, stopped by the house to check on him. "Granddad!" he shouted, as he entered the breezeway. No answer. Jack heard the hum of a car's engine. He twisted the handle of the door leading to the garage and discovered that the garage was full of exhaust.
Dow B. Hover sat in the front seat of his Plymouth, the driver's window rolled down, his arms folded across his chest. At first, Jack yanked at the garage door, trying to pull it open, before remembering that he needed to push a button. It was already too late; Hover's skin was cold to the touch. Here, in the same garage where he had once changed his license plates before driving off to Sing Sing, it appears that the state's last executioner ended one more life: his own.
While George W. Bush is being inaugurated in Washington, D.C., this Thursday, the annual Sundance Film Festival will kick off in Park City, Utah. The two events may seem unrelated, but as we saw in 2004, American politics and independent cinema go hand in hand.
Of course, indie powerhouses The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 represent the most partisan products of the contentious last 12 months, but as we enter Bush's second term, the country's extreme rightward turn could ignite the type of movie renaissance not seen since eight years of nuclear proliferation, HIV discrimination and materialist greed helped produce the American independent film movement of the late '80s and early '90s. If the careers of Todd Haynes, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh were all launched during the Reagan-Bush regime, imagine what's possible over the next four years.
"You see a lot of strong filmmakers working this year, and I find that an encouraging sign," says Alexander Payne, director of this year's top critics pick, Sideways. "And combined with our worsening political situation and the effect that will have on our culture, I think we may see a change for the better in our cinema."
An ardent fan of the '70s American New Wave, Payne would like to recapture that moment when the film industry embraced more personal, human dramas reflective of American life. "At a time when, as a society, we don't really know who we are or what we're doing, that's a useful time for cinema to be a mirror," he says. "It's like when Tony Curtis catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror in The Boston Strangler and triggers that change from one of his personalities to the other. We need that, too."
Payne is more hopeful than most. "I haven't yet seen cultural repression," he says. "It's not like Germany in the '30s where the big jackboot is coming down on degenerate art." Still, many in the film industry feel deeply disturbed by the censorship-inducing "moral values" mandate and believe a backlash is imminent.
"It's clear to me from the projects I'm looking at that there will be a cultural response to the impending, much more deepened conservatism of the next few years," says Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a producer on Gregg Araki's upcoming Mysterious Skin.
But what exactly will make up this response? Levy-Hinte says it won't be "necessarily a film that's a direct rant against Bush," but rather "an exploration of estrangement, alienation, personal responsibility, and the questioning of oppressive and authoritarian characters and attitudes."
Todd Solondz's latest, Palindromes, already presents a blunt challenge to conservative mores, both in subject matter (the abortion debate) and in style (multiple actors across age and gender play the same character). But Solondz says he never intended the film (opening this spring) to so acutely capture the blue/red divide. "Certainly the film's subject matter is inherently charged, but it takes an administration like ours to ignite it into something much more troubling," he explains. "I've always felt Bush winning a second term would make for better material for filmmakers to work with. It's all just too rich – like living in a real live Kubrick movie."
But Christine Vachon, the New Queer Cinema pioneer who produced Todd Haynes' Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon, doesn't see the same urgency today that existed in the early '90s when she and filmmakers like Haynes and Kalin participated in ACT UP and Gran Fury protests while they were making movies. "I hope that there are filmmakers out there who are where I was 15 years ago, and they are trying to tell their stories in a way that is countercultural," she says, "but I don't know who they are and I haven't come across them yet."
"But on the face of it," continues Vachon, more hopefully, "there have been some cool movies recently and people are going to see them." Speaking of Kinsey, for example, Bill Condon's biopic about the infamous sex researcher, Vachon says, "The take on the material was much fresher than I thought it would be."
Vachon's current projects also tackle aesthetically and politically fertile ground: Todd Haynes' I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan ("It's a radical reworking of a traditional biopic," she says); Douglas McGrath's Every Word Is True, a look at Truman Capote's days researching In Cold Blood; and Mary Harron's The Ballad of Bettie Page, about the sex pinup and devout Christian, which has been in the works since the mid '90s.
Vachon can thank financier HBO Films for helping to bring Bettie Page's story to American audiences. Shot largely in the commercially risky format of black-and-white, Bettie Page provides further evidence of HBO's reputation as a haven for experimental and political work. Whether it's Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Mike Nichols' Angels in America, or the Harvey Pekar Sundance hit American Splendor, produced by New York indie stalwart Ted Hope, HBO is trying to make movies that "embrace the complex," says HBO Films president Colin Callender, a Brit who got his start in the '80s during the "height of Thatcherite England," he says, when there "was a whole slew of filmmaking that was informed by that political climate."
While Callender denies any direct parallels with his work at HBO, he holds up Angels in America as a prime example of a contemporary film that explores the way people's lives are "affected, impacted, and impinged by the social, political, economic, and cultural pressures that come to bear on them."
If HBO is willing to take on risky work, will Hollywood follow suit? It may have to. With soaring budgets and diminishing attendance, the studios saw a 6.2 percent drop in box office in 2004, according to Variety. And just as a failing Hollywood system in the '60s produced risquÃ© films for the counterculture like The Graduate and Easy Rider to save their shirts, this year's indie blockbusters kept a sagging Hollywood in the black: Passion and Fahrenheit helped push overall ticket sales up $48 million over the previous year.
Even within Tinseltown, the studios continue to take note of offbeat hits such as Napoleon Dynamite (which made over $44 million at the box office) and pour money into their "art house" divisions to spur the acquisition and production of more idiosyncratic work. While director David O. Russell (I * Huckabees) admits, "I don't think Warner Bros. would make Three Kings today," he says, "my bet is that Warner will funnel everything over to [their specialty arm] Warner Independent. I think there are going to be studio divisions that are happy to make movies for the blue states. That's a lot of people."
Also, ironically, Bush policies may help fuel indie production more directly: A provision in last fall's $136 billion corporate tax-cut bill allows independent producers to write off the costs of films budgeted between $1 million and $15 million, as long as 75 percent of the budget is spent in the United States.
And yet, on the other hand, the consolidation and corporate takeover of artistic production could leave fewer places for truly groundbreaking work to emerge. And under the Bush administration, conglomeration is sure to be exacerbated; as Variety's Peter Bart writes, "Say bye-bye to meaningful media ownership caps."
"You have to think about the situation on the ground, and the situation on the ground is very different than it was before," says producer-screenwriter and Columbia professor James Schamus, who executive-produced 1991's Poison and now co-runs Focus Features, a division of Universal Pictures. According to Schamus, the cultural trends that allowed for the early-'90s American indie revolution – the 1980s' popularization of semiotics and pornography, and a network of B-movie filmmaking – have been replaced by film schools, film festivals, and the Indiewood industry to which he belongs. "And I think that's a taller order," he says. "To get a political film out there through that thicket is difficult."
"The one place you've got a shot," continues Schamus, "is internet culture and open source culture. That's the thing to track." Schamus, like many in the industry, points to Jonathan Caouette's no-budget digital scrapbook Tarnation as evidence of a new type of innovative indie cinema, perhaps a contemporary parallel to the post-structuralist hipness of Haynes' Poison. "You're seeing a lot of work dealing with found images and personal narratives," explains Schamus. "But you're not seeing a lot of that coming out of film school."
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte agrees. "So much of the way people have expressed their dissent about the current politics is via the internet and sending around pieces of media that are very direct, very pointed, and the gloves are completely off, because you're not restrained in any way," he says. "For me, that's really wonderful, and I can see that begin to infiltrate and inform filmmaking as it's conventionally known."
Whether a Bush II cinematic renaissance arises out of technology-based grassroots movements or from within the studio system itself, Callender places the onus on today's culture creators. "What is an independent movie?" he asks. "Is it about the artist as agent provocateur or the artist as apologist for the status quo?"
At 77, Dr. Harry S. Jonas can still pinpoint the exact moment when he understood the importance of making abortion legal. The year was 1952 and he was an eager, young obstetrics-gynecology intern in Independence, Miss.. The specialty promised exciting pregnancies and bouncing babies, but his very first patient entered the hospital extremely sick. A mother of 12 children, she had triedunsuccessfullyto induce an abortion. "She came into the hospital with her intestines hanging out her vagina," recalls Jonas. "Then she died."
For Mildred Hanson, the belief that abortion laws had to change came more gradually, even after she first learned about the danger of illegal abortions as a girl in rural Wisconsin. In 1935, when Hanson was 11, a woman on a neighboring farm died at home after having an illegal abortion. Hanson remembers her mother going next door to help the ailing woman, holding her while she died. The widower was left with six children, two of them in diapers.
By the time she finished her medical training in 1959, Hanson was seeing many patients with complications from illegal abortions. Some had gone to illegal practitioners. Others attempted the procedure themselves using rubber tubes, knitting needles, or potassium permanganatea corrosive substance that could end a pregnancy but all too often only caused bleeding, ulcers and burns. And of course there were the wire hangers. Hanson eventually developed a reputation for being among a minority who would treat these women. She tended to their infections, bleedings, and wounds for almost two decades. And by the time abortions became legal, Hanson knew she would perform them.
Eugene Glick's first experience with illegal abortion was personal. His wife, who was then his girlfriend, was 19 when she got pregnant in 1951. Neither was ready to have a babyshe wanted to finish college and he was planning on going to medical school. They thought they were lucky to find an OB-GYN willing to perform the procedure illegally, but "he didn't even sterilize the instruments," as Glick remembers. Glick's wife got a serious infection and wound up needing major surgery.
When he got to medical school, Glick noticed his teachers willfully ignored the consequences of illegal abortions. "They didn't want it to even appear that they knew what to do," he remembers. But Glick couldn't overlook the desperationand began finding ways to perform abortions even before they were legal. His hospital had an abortion committee, which would approve the procedure if a doctor determined that a pregnancy threatened a woman's physical or mental health. "We all knew which psychiatrist to send them to," says Glick. "All of us sort of bent the rules." Eventually, in 1977, after delivering 5,000 babies as an obstetrician, Glick started performing abortions full-time.
If their paths toward providing abortions were different, Hanson, Glick and Jonas have a few things in common. Like many other doctors committed to choice, they witnessed the devastating consequences of illegal abortions firsthand. This week, the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision establishing the constitutional right to end a pregnancy, will occur just two days after our anti-abortion president celebrates his inauguration. With several Supreme Court appointments potentially at stake, it's worth remembering what those pioneering physicians learned through treating thousands of women who'd had unsafe abortions: Outlawing the procedure doesn't make it go away.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Abortions were common well before New York decriminalized them in 1970 and Roe made them legal in the rest of the country in 1973. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, which does research on reproductive issues, reports that in 1930 almost 2,700 women died from illegal abortionsand that's just the number who had abortion recorded as their official cause of death. Almost one in 10 low-income women in New York City reported having attempted to end a pregnancy with an illegal abortion, according to one study done in the 1960s. In 1962 alone, almost 1,600 women were treated for incomplete illegal abortions in at Harlem Hospital. And there's plenty of current evidence showing the danger of outlawing the procedure. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 80,000 women around the world still die each year of complications from illegal abortion.
Roe v. Wade quickly cleared up this country's illegal-abortion mess, almost overnight. Deaths from botched abortions slowed dramatically. The number of women admitted for unexplained miscarriages dropped precipitously. And doctors could finally spare their patients the dangers of untrained, illegal practitioners or self-inflicted injuries without risking jail time or their medical licenses.
Yet some physicians, especially younger ones, don't seem to grasp the grim situation women faced before 1973. "Doctors who weren't practicing before Roe don't fully understand about the kind of degradation and death that really resulted from illegal abortion," says Wendy Chavkin, chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, and a professor of OB-GYN and public health at Columbia University. "As a result, they're more likely to be vulnerable to the attacks on abortion and decide that performing them is too much trouble. What they don't know is that, without legal abortions, their patients will suffer, die, or have drastically reduced life options."
The fading of collective memory helps explain why the number of doctors willing to perform the procedure is falling. There were only 1,819 abortion providers in 2000, down 11 percent from the 2,042 abortion providers in 1996, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And these days, as legal restrictions on abortion mount, most doctors who do abortions are over 65. Rather than performing the procedures in their offices or in hospitals, they've been forced to do them in freestanding clinics, where they and their patients are exposed to violence and harassment.
Hanson, who lived through darker times, has noticed the shift. "To perform an abortion in a hospital is harder today than it was before Roe," says Hanson.
"Before 1973, I had no trouble scheduling them. You just had to find two doctors to sign the form," she says, referring to the paperwork declaring that a pregnancy threatened a woman's mental health. "Now if you want to do an abortion in a Minnesota hospital, you have trouble finding an anesthetist and a circulating nurse who will do it. There's more anti-abortion sentiment." Nevertheless, Hanson still performs abortions at 81 because of "personal commitment," as she puts it.
In New York, William Rashbaum, a 78-year-old obstetrician and gynecologist, also continues to work well past what many think of as retirement age. As with other veteran abortion doctors, Rashbaum's career has spanned many eras. He saw "gobs and gobs" of women with complications from illegal abortions during his training in New York City in the 1950s. Then Rashbaum went on to provide medical advice and backup to illegal abortionists before Roe. (One, in New Jersey, sent a limousine containing a pale, bleeding patient and the piece of her intestine he had accidentally cut off to Rashbaum's office.) And after abortions became legal, he provided them. Now as his practice winds down, Rashbaum worries that the right to safe, legal abortion is slipping away. "You'd be crazy not to worry," says the white-haired physician. "Abortion has always had a stigma. And now, instead of things getting better, they're getting worse."
You might wonder – were you someone unfamiliar with or in denial about the ways of the Karl Rove Mafia – how George W. Bush could blunder into nominating someone as attorney general so obviously implicated in the most legally questionable and morally indefensible practices of his administration. You might wonder, too, how the administration seemed to be caught unawares by the bottomless pit of scandal in the past of its initial nominee for Homeland Security secretary.
Or you could realize that such nominations were not blunders, but intentional: that they were made not in spite of Alberto Gonzales' and Bernard Kerik's unsuitability for high office but precisely because of them. Keeping embarrassing facts on file about confederates is the best way to grip them into loyalty like a vise.
It would seem an incredible notion to contemplate, until you examine who it was Bush chose to replace Kerik once his nomination fell through: Michael Chertoff, who as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division engineered the plan to preventively detain immigrants of Arab descent after 9/11. In 2003, the Justice Department's own inspector general warned that the program raises serious legal liability questions, and Justice Department officials apparently recommended that Chertoff hire a lawyer. Now he's been promoted. Sopranos fans will recognize the maneuver: Taking someone with skeletons in his closet close to your breast is just like Tony's embrace of the apparently upstanding suburban New Jersey sporting goods dealer with the secret gambling addiction, specifically to have someone to pick clean when the necessity arose.
Forcing a guy who knows he's dirty but knows his bosses are dirtier to sweat out a congressional hearing is a perfect way to test his loyalty. It's also a great way to test Congress's mettle – to probe just how atrophied the opposition party's willingness to oppose has become. What's more, once you've got them through the ordeal, you've stockpiled one more scapegoat to toss into the fire in case Congress ever gets hot on the trail of the higher-ups who issued the orders. And it establishes a record for a future defense: Once Congress has confirmed a Gonzales or a Chertoff, how can it then turn around and call the things done by a Gonzales or a Chertoff unlawful?
Then there's the implicit dare, which frames the issue in the administration's favor whether they "win" or "lose" the proximate fight: Go ahead, Democrats, make our day. Vote against them. Then we can show you up as the obstructionists to America's national security you are.
The administration may even have made plans for when the bottom drops out – for when the inevitable indictable offenses see the light of day. That's where Alberto Gonzales, White House Ã¼ber-loyalist, comes in. Formally, any investigation of a federal criminal offense is conducted by the Justice Department, and no indictment can go forward without Gonzales' say-so. Under the old set of rules, we might have been able to count on political pressure to force the appointment of a special prosecutor, as occurred in the investigation of the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to the media. But that's exactly the set of rules this gang has set its sights on upending.
Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, welcome to the Next Four Years: to George Walker Bush's revolutionary second term, where nothing is done by accident, and no sin can be too brazen.
"For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win ... "
That phrase is a gun, and it's smoking. Written by Karl Rove deputy Peter Wehner in a leaked memo, it establishes as intention what administration officials have heretofore been most eager to cover up. What the Republican Party failed to do 60 years ago is to stop any federal program of guaranteed old-age insurance from existing. Social Security established a principle unacceptable to many Republicans: that government economic programs help people, and can become wildly popular. Now, however, Wehner writes, "We have it within our grasp to move away from dependency on government. ... We can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of our country."
The smoking gun isn't pointed just at your grandmother.
When Americans have at a minimum almost a third of their retirement contribution in corporate investments – we now send 6.2 percent of our income to Social Security, and Bush's plan would have us putting four of those 6.2 points into the stock market – we will all be part of, in the apparently benign coinage of Republican propagandist Grover Norquist, the "investor class."
Blogger Nick Stoller describes the consequences thus:
When someone like Eliot Spitzer uncovers a major corporate scandal, a Republican will be able to say, 'He's attacking your retirement fund.'
When the employees of a company try to unionize, a Republican will be able to say, 'They are attacking your retirement fund.' " (He will also be able to say they are attacking their own retirement fund.)
When a community refuses to let a Wal-Mart build in their neighborhood, a Republican will be able to say, 'They're attacking your retirement fund.'Environmental regulations will be framed as an attack on your retirement fund. Liability law, too. Corporate taxes, certainly. Maybe even, someday, child labor laws (that's the brazenness: Conservatives never shy from putting forth agendas that seemed unimaginable a year ago). People will presume it is in their interest for the companies in which they hold a temporary position to goose their stock no matter the long-term cost to the corporation, to our institutions, to society as a whole – no matter the long-term cost for all the other classes we belong to, as consumers, as workers, as citizens. All but a tiny group of big-ticket investors would benefit far more on a net basis, as they do now, from the maintenance of a strong welfare state. No matter: The propaganda may prove irresistible.
Breaking Social Security is central to passing Bush's "tax reforms," which will remove taxes on investment income and shift the tax burden to wage earners who can't afford to save any money – thereby creating newly outraged tax-hating constituencies bent on decimating government's legitimacy yet further. Absent unrelenting Democratic resistance, in fact, the next four years will establish the leverage to fulfill another of Grover Norquist's coinages: to get the federal government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
That's just how the Bushies do things: They plan. Every action is calculated to set in motion a cascade of consequences, to change the world. Take "No Child Left Behind," the education "reform" so brilliantly named you can't be against it without betraying some perverse desire to, well, leave children behind. It is a stone hustle, meant to lay the groundwork to destroy the entire American public school system.
Look at it this way. You've heard of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the one that produces those anguished news reports every four years about all the countries American schoolchildren lag behind in basic skills. But according to the TIMSS, if Minnesota were a country, it would have the second-best science scores and the seventh best in math. By No Child Left Behind's statutorily required benchmarks of "Adequate Yearly Progress," however, only 42 percent of Minnesota fourth-graders were proficient in math. And NCLB's test targets increase every year. So by one estimate, in 2014, some 80 percent of the schools in Minnesota's world-class education system will be rated "failures."
The benchmarks are insane, you see. If one group within a school out of the 37 categories NCLB measures "fails," the entire school does. Which means, according to the president of the American Educational Research Association, 12th graders should be proficient in math in exactly 166 years.
Which serves the administration's purpose admirably. Failure, glorious failure: In Chicago, the city must now offer 200,000 students the chance to move out of "failed" schools – but there are only 500 spaces in which to place them elsewhere. So now the public school system must be destroyed.
It's only politics. It was the first George Bush who tried to initiate the privatization of American education but failed; in 2000, Michigan and California pro-voucher ballot initiatives lost by at least two to one. But that was back when 43 percent of American parents gave their children's schools a grade of "A" or "B." By 2004, that number was cut in half. "The tests mandated by NCLB had ripped back the curtain and exposed a major national problem," explains Phyllis Schlafly – even, apparently, in noble Minnesota.
The money has already begun changing hands. "Classroom methods long believed to work are tossed out in favor of those that a few selected groups have tested and approved," The Nation recently reported in a story buried – it's hard to get people to pay attention – on the magazine's web site. Bush's multibillion-dollar reading grants, the weekly found, are doled out by "a panel that includes many people with ties to various commercial curriculums."
Public education "is an ossified government monopoly," explains conservative intellectual Chester Finn. So it is time to drown it in the bathtub.
The fantasy of total control has emerged as central to the Bush administration imagination. It comes out in the unguarded utterances: the aide who blurts to a New York Times reporter that he was just one more sad-sack member of the "reality-based community." ("That's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.") The president demanding during the Iraq debate to congressional leaders, "Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to debate it with you." A White House aide, to a congregation of Pentecostal ministers, the "current government is engaged in cultural, economic, and social struggle on every level."
It shows up in the tautological narcissism of Bush's National Security Strategy document, which actually uses the phrase "the best defense is a good offense," and artfully constructs a vision in which whatever the United States does to preserve its interest is always already "peaceful," even when it requires war, is always already "democratic," even when it requires installing governments by fiat, is always already selfless, even as it establishes only two categories of states, those who cooperate and those who do not, in a situation of crisis defined unilaterally and whose time horizon stretches to infinity.
"In the new world we have entered," it avers, "the only path to peace and security is the path of action." The manifesto takes on ominous overtones when read alongside the famous post-9/11 draft Pentagon report that establishes a royalist conception of "sweeping" executive power as the only way to keep us safe: because "national security decisions require the unity in purpose and energy in action to characterize the presidency rather than Congress."
"Unity in Purpose, Energy in Action" – more than one commentator has noted its resemblance to slogans of fascist movements throughout history.
And of course out of fantasies of perfect control have always sprung the world's greatest human catastrophes. There will always be things even the most energetic executive cannot come even close to controlling. Conservatives used to warn us about the dangers of such utopianism – of the unintended consequences of hubristic attempts to "socially engineer" brave new worlds conjured in the heads of liberal intellectuals. Now Americans are once again learning that lesson, but the perpetrators are ... conservatives.
And their utopia, heaven help them, is Iraq.
What comes next there? For the subject who fantasizes total control, chaos is only an injunction to more radically confident maneuvers that enlarge the struggle for control. As always, the parallel is Vietnam. "The administration's reluctance to recognize the Iraqi resistance as largely homegrown pushes it to exaggerate the role of foreign terrorists, to blame anti-American feeling on meddlers from abroad," which spells expansion of the conflict into Syria and Iran, according to Thomas Powers in The New York Review of Books. A "radical map change," he convincingly speculates, this American encirclement of the world's productive oil resources could unify all our present allies against us in a conflict that "might last fifty years."
The next four years? Anticipate another possible terrorist attack, certainly. Tommy Thompson, leaving his post as secretary of Health and Human Services, used his newfound freedom to wonder aloud why his bosses hadn't done anything to prevent an attack on "our food supply, because it's so easy to do." The EPA said an attack on any of 123 chemical plants would threaten over a million people – then the Department of Homeland Security took over the job, changed the measurements, and found that only two would do that. The chemical industry gives a hell of a lot of money to the Republicans.
Although the wholesale collapse of the American economy would be worse. Nikita Khrushchev used to call the divided city of Berlin, because of its military strategic value, "the testicles of the West," which he only need squeeze to make America scream. Now the testicles of the U.S. are the billions of dollars of American currency held in reserve by countries that do not necessarily wish us well, like China – in effect, it's the money we borrow to keep our economy afloat. China is one of those countries that would likely object to our encirclement of the world's petroleum supplies. Soon enough, China's oil demand will approach our own. If Beijing chooses to call in its loans to us and make the dollar a worthless currency, sensible folks might be looking for someone to impeach. Would Bush's kept Congress be able to do the job?
At that pass, reflects John Dean, Richard Nixon's legal counsel, who served time for Watergate, "only the attorney general can select a special counsel to prosecute." Which takes us back to the beginning, and last week's hearings. "As attorney general," Dean says, "Gonzales can resist any and all efforts to prosecute high officials of the Bush administration, absent photographs of Dick Cheney choking Condi Rice and dangling her off the Memorial Bridge for messing with his policies."
Welcome to the eve of destruction.