Saturday, April 21, 2007

Iraq Is the Ultimate Aphrodisiac

The New York Times
April 22, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH has skipped the funerals of the troops he sent to Iraq. He took his sweet time to get to Katrina-devastated New Orleans. But last week he raced to Virginia Tech with an alacrity not seen since he hustled from Crawford to Washington to sign a bill interfering in Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life medical care. Mr. Bush assumes the role of mourner in chief on a selective basis, and, as usual with the decider, the decisive factor is politics. Let Walter Reed erupt in scandal, and he’ll take six weeks to show his face — and on a Friday at that, to hide the story in the Saturday papers. The heinous slaughter in Blacksburg, Va., by contrast, was a rare opportunity for him to ostentatiously feel the pain of families whose suffering cannot be blamed on the administration.

But he couldn’t inspire the kind of public acclaim that followed his post-9/11 visit to ground zero or the political comeback that buoyed his predecessor after Oklahoma City. The cancer on the Bush White House, Iraq, is now spreading too fast. The president had barely returned to Washington when the empty hope of the “surge” was hideously mocked by a one-day Baghdad civilian death toll more than five times that of Blacksburg’s. McClatchy Newspapers reported that the death rate for American troops over the past six months was at its all-time high for this war.

At home, the president is also hobbled by the Iraq cancer’s metastasis — the twin implosions of Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz. Technically, both men have been pilloried for sins unrelated to the war. The attorney general has repeatedly been caught changing his story about the extent of his involvement in purging eight federal prosecutors. The Financial Times caught the former deputy secretary of defense turned World Bank president privately dictating the extravagant terms of a State Department sinecure for a crony (a k a romantic partner) that showers her with more take-home pay than Condoleezza Rice.

Yet each man’s latest infractions, however serious, are mere misdemeanors next to their roles in the Iraq war. What’s being lost in the Beltway uproar is the extent to which the lying, cronyism and arrogance showcased by the current scandals are of a piece with the lying, cronyism and arrogance that led to all the military funerals that Mr. Bush dares not attend. Having slept through the fraudulent selling of the war, Washington is still having trouble confronting the big picture of the Bush White House. Its dense web of deceit is the deliberate product of its amoral culture, not a haphazard potpourri of individual blunders.

Mr. Gonzales’s politicizing of the Justice Department is a mere bagatelle next to his role as White House counsel in 2002, when he helped shape the administration’s legal argument to justify torture. That paved the way for Abu Ghraib, the episode that destroyed America’s image and gave terrorists a moral victory. But his efforts to sabotage national security didn’t end there. In a front-page exposé lost in the Imus avalanche two Sundays ago, The Washington Post uncovered Mr. Gonzales’s reckless role in vetting the nomination of Bernard Kerik as secretary of homeland security in December 2004.

Mr. Kerik, you may recall, withdrew from consideration for that cabinet post after a week of embarrassing headlines. Back then, the White House ducked any culpability for the mess by attributing it to a single legal issue, a supposedly undocumented nanny, and by pinning it on a single, nonadministration scapegoat, Mr. Kerik’s longtime patron, Rudy Giuliani. The president’s spokesman at the time, Scott McClellan, told reporters that the White House had had “no reason to believe” that Mr. Kerik lied during his vetting process and that it would be inaccurate to say that process had been rushed.

THANKS to John Solomon and Peter Baker of The Post, we now know that Mr. McClellan’s spin was no more accurate than his exoneration of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby in the Wilson leak case. The Kerik vetting process was indeed rushed — by Mr. Gonzales — and the administration had every reason to believe that it was turning over homeland security to a liar. Mr. Gonzales was privy from the get-go to a Kerik dossier ablaze with red flags pointing to “questionable financial deals, an ethics violation, allegations of mismanagement and a top deputy prosecuted for corruption,” not to mention a “friendship with a businessman who was linked to organized crime.” Yet Mr. Gonzales and the president persisted in shoving Mr. Kerik into the top job of an already troubled federal department encompassing 22 agencies, 180,000 employees and the very safety of America in the post-9/11 era.

Mr. Kerik may soon face federal charges, and at a most inopportune time for the Giuliani presidential campaign. But it’s as a paradigm of the Bush White House’s waging of the Iraq war that the Kerik case is most telling. The crucial point to remember is this: Even had there been no alleged improprieties in the former police chief’s New York résumé, there still would have been his public record in Iraq to disqualify him from any administration job.

The year before Mr. Kerik’s nomination to the cabinet, he was dispatched by the president to take charge of training the Iraqi police — and completely failed at that mission. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran recounts in his invaluable chronicle of Green Zone shenanigans, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” Mr. Kerik slept all day and held only two staff meetings, one upon arrival and one for the benefit of a Times reporter doing a profile. Rather than train Iraqi police, Mr. Kerik gave upbeat McCain-esque appraisals of the dandy shopping in Baghdad’s markets.

Had Mr. Kerik actually helped stand up an Iraqi police force instead of hastening its descent into a haven for sectarian death squads, there might not now be extended tours for American troops in an open-ended escalation of the war. But in the White House’s priorities, rebuilding Iraq came in a poor third to cronyism and domestic politics. Mr. Kerik’s P.R. usefulness as a symbol of 9/11 was particularly irresistible to an administration that has exploited the carnage of 9/11 in ways both grandiose (to gin up the Iraq invasion) and tacky (in 2004 campaign ads).

Mr. Kerik was an exploiter of 9/11 in his own right: he had commandeered an apartment assigned to ground zero police and rescue workers to carry out his extramarital tryst with the publisher Judith Regan. The sex angle of Mr. Wolfowitz’s scandal is a comparable symptom of the hubris that warped the judgment of those in power after 9/11. Not only did he help secure Shaha Riza her over-the-top raise in 2005, but as The Times reported, he also helped get her a junket to Iraq when he was riding high at the Pentagon in 2003. No one seems to know what she actually accomplished there, but the bill was paid by a Defense Department contractor that has since come under official scrutiny for its noncompetitive contracts and poor performance. So it went with the entire Iraq fiasco.

You don’t have to be a cynic to ask if the White House’s practice of bestowing better jobs on those who bungled the war might be a form of hush money. Mr. Wolfowitz was promoted to the World Bank despite a Pentagon record that included (in part) his prewar hyping of bogus intelligence about W.M.D. and a nonexistent 9/11-Saddam connection; his assurance to the world that Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for reconstruction; and his public humiliation of Gen. Eric Shinseki after the general dared tell Congress (correctly) that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to secure Iraq after the invasion. Once the war began, Mr. Wolfowitz cited national security to bar businesses from noncoalition countries (like Germany) from competing for major contracts in Iraq. That helped ensure the disastrous monopoly of Halliburton and other White House-connected companies, including the one that employed Ms. Riza.

Had Iraqi reconstruction, like the training of Iraqi police, not been betrayed by politics and cronyism, the Iraq story might have a different ending. But maybe not all that different. The cancer on the Bush White House connects and contaminates all its organs. It’s no surprise that one United States attorney fired without plausible cause by the Gonzales Justice Department, Carol Lam, was in hot pursuit of defense contractors with administration connections. Or that another crony brought by Mr. Wolfowitz to the World Bank was caught asking the Air Force secretary to secure a job for her brother at a defense contractor while she was overseeing aspects of the Air Force budget at the White House. A government with values this sleazy couldn’t possibly win a war.

Like the C.I.A. leak case, each new scandal is filling in a different piece of the elaborate White House scheme to cover up the lies that took us into Iraq and the failures that keep us mired there. As the cover-up unravels and Congress steps up its confrontation over the war’s endgame, our desperate president is reverting to his old fear-mongering habit of invoking 9/11 incessantly in every speech. The more we learn, the more it’s clear that he’s the one with reason to be afraid.

The 21st-Century Slave Trade

The New York Times
April 22, 2007


Anyone who thinks that the word “slavery” is hyperbole when used to describe human trafficking today should meet Meena Khatun. She not only endured the unbearable, but has also shown that a slave trader’s greed sometimes is no match for a mother’s love.

Human trafficking is the big emerging human rights issue for the 21st century, but it’s an awful term, a convoluted euphemism. As Meena’s story underscores, the real issue is slavery.

Meena was kidnapped from her village in north India by a trafficker and eventually locked up in a 13-girl brothel in the town of Katihar. When she was perhaps 11 or 12 — she remembers only that it was well before she had begun to menstruate — the slaver locked her in a room with a white-haired customer who had bought her virginity. She cried and fought, so the mother and two sons who owned the brothel taught Meena a lesson.

“They beat me mercilessly, with a belt, sticks and iron rods,” Meena recalled. Still, Meena resisted customers, despite fresh beatings and threats to cut her in pieces.

Finally, the brothel owners forced her to drink alcohol until she was drunk. When she passed out, they gave her to a customer.

When she woke up, Meena finally accepted her fate as a prostitute. “I thought, ‘Now I am ruined,’ ” she remembered, “so I gave in.”

Meena thus joined the ranks of some 10 million children prostituted around the world — more are in India than in any other country. The brothels of India are the slave plantations of the 21st century.

Every night, Meena was forced to have sex with 10 to 25 customers. Meena’s owners also wanted to breed her, as is common in Indian brothels. One purpose is to have boys to be laborers and girls to be prostitutes, and a second is to have hostages to force the mother to cooperate.

So Meena soon became pregnant. The resulting baby girl, Naina, was taken from Meena after birth, as was a son, Vivek, who was born a year later.

The two children were raised mostly apart from Meena. Meena alerted the police to her children’s captivity (the police were uninterested), so her owners decided to kill her.

At that, Meena fled to a town several hours away and eventually married a pharmacist who protected her. Every few months, Meena would go back to the brothel and beg for her children.

She was never allowed inside, and the children were told that their mother had died. Still, Naina and Vivek regularly heard their mother’s shouts and pleas and occasionally caught glimpses of her. Other enslaved girls told them that she was indeed their mother.

When Naina turned about 12, the brothel owners prepared to sell her as well. At that Vivek, who was being forced to do the brothel’s laundry, protested vigorously. The owners beat Vivek, an extremely bright boy who was never allowed to go to school, but he continued to plead that his big sister not be sold. Finally, he escaped to search for his mother, in hopes that she could do something. Eventually, they found each other.

They received help from a terrific anti-trafficking organization called Apne Aap (, run by a former journalist named Ruchira Gupta. Ms. Gupta covered trafficking and was so horrified by what she found that she quit her job and devoted her life to fighting the brothel owners.

Ms. Gupta agitated for a police raid (apparently the first such raid on behalf of a trafficked mother ever in the state of Bihar) that rescued Naina last month. The girl, who is now about 13, is still recovering in a hospital from severe beatings and internal injuries.

The brothel is still operating, and the police have not arrested the main traffickers. But the brothel owners are threatening to kill Meena, her children and the Apne Aap staff, because they are potential witnesses in a criminal case against the traffickers. One Apne Aap staff member was stabbed a few days ago.

But whatever happens to Meena or Vivek, they are in the vanguard of a new global abolitionist movement. (Video of them and the brothels can be found on my blog,

This is an issue crying out for world leaders — and community groups — to seize and run with. President Bush has pressed the issue more than his predecessors, but he could do much more. If a little boy like Vivek can stand up to modern slavers, why can’t world leaders do the same?

Postures in Public, Facts in the Womb

The New York Times
April 22, 2007

In the beginning there is the wonder of life, and at the end there are the curlicues of nonsense adults have constructed while arguing about it. In the beginning is the fetus and the mother, and at the end there are the adults who have spent the past decades fighting about abortion, and who have been altered by their own hatreds, evasions and rivalries.

In the beginning there is the womb and the creature inside. It is creating 2.5 million nerve cells in the brain every minute, and will have well over 100 billion by the time it is born. By the end of the third month, the fetus will have begun making steplike movements. Shortly thereafter its taste buds begin to work, and it can tell whether the amniotic fluid is sweet or garlicky, depending on what its mother had for lunch.

By 17 weeks, the fetus can feel its own body and will begin making facial expressions. At about six months, it can open its eyes, and if you hold a bright light to its mother’s abdomen it will startle and move away.

By the third trimester, the fetus seems to begin dreaming, or at least making the same eye movements that adults make when they dream.

It is hearing and making sense of what it hears. Through a series of ingenious experiments, scientists have determined that fetuses attune to the pitch and tone of their parents’ voices. They can distinguish their own language from other languages. If their mothers read “The Cat in the Hat” to them over a period of weeks, they can remember the tonal patterns of that story and distinguish them from the patterns of some other story.

By this stage, the fetus has a personality. If it is unusually active now, it will probably be unusually active after birth. If it has trouble sleeping now, it will have the same trouble after birth.

It is not only the product of uniform chemical processes; it is responding to its own distinct environment. If its mother is stressed, it will feel stress.

It has those traits all human beings share — a talent for orienting itself in space and for learning language. And it has traits distinct to itself. It already has a tendency to be introverted or extroverted, neurotic or calm, temperamentally happy or temperamentally morose. Nothing that happens later in life will fundamentally reverse these prenatal qualities.

In short, when you focus on the fetus, you see a process of emerging life that begins with small biological clumps and culminates by the third trimester with a creature who is not significantly different from a living baby. And the obvious mystery is: When in this continuous process does human life begin?

And yet when you look at the abortion debate that grows from this mystery, you find that over the years, adults have built these vast layers of argument and counterargument, and the core issue is buried far down below.

The Carhart case, which the Supreme Court decided last week, is prompted by revulsion over the practice of killing late-term fetuses. Yet for reasons having to do with political tactics, the law that was upheld wouldn’t even prevent a single late-term abortion. It would forbid doctors from crushing the skull of the fetus, but would permit them to poison and dismember it. Furthermore, the reasoning Justice Anthony Kennedy used to uphold the law — about mothers who may come to regret their abortions — is not only bizarre, but far removed from the original revulsion that prompted the whole issue.

Meanwhile, when you look at the statements of the abortion rights forces, you find they can’t even look this matter in the face. Read the statements by the Democratic presidential candidates. Read the protests from Planned Parenthood and Naral. They can’t even bring themselves to mention the word “fetus.” They are terrified of having an honest discussion about human life, so they have built this lofty etiquette of evasion that treats abortion as the moral equivalent of a tonsillectomy.

If we could get this issue away from the abortion professionals and their orthodoxies, we could reach a sensible solution: abortion would be legal, with parental consent for minors, during the first four or five months, and illegal except in extremely rare circumstances afterward. Instead we get what we saw last week. A law that doesn’t address the core issue, a court decision so tangled in jurisprudence as to be impermeable to the outside world, and howling protests by people who can’t face the central concern.

In Turnabout, Infant Deaths Climb in South

The New York Times
April 22, 2007

HOLLANDALE, Miss. — For decades, Mississippi and neighboring states with large black populations and expanses of enduring poverty made steady progress in reducing infant death. But, in what health experts call an ominous portent, progress has stalled and in recent years the death rate has risen in Mississippi and several other states.

The setbacks have raised questions about the impact of cuts in welfare and Medicaid and of poor access to doctors, and, many doctors say, the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and hypertension among potential mothers, some of whom tip the scales here at 300 to 400 pounds.

“I don’t think the rise is a fluke, and it’s a disturbing trend, not only in Mississippi but throughout the Southeast,” said Dr. Christina Glick, a neonatologist in Jackson, Miss., and past president of the National Perinatal Association.

To the shock of Mississippi officials, who in 2004 had seen the infant mortality rate — defined as deaths by the age of 1 year per thousand live births — fall to 9.7, the rate jumped sharply in 2005, to 11.4. The national average in 2003, the last year for which data have been compiled, was 6.9. Smaller rises also occurred in 2005 in Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. Louisiana and South Carolina saw rises in 2004 and have not yet reported on 2005.

Whether the rises continue or not, federal officials say, rates have stagnated in the Deep South at levels well above the national average.

Most striking, here and throughout the country, is the large racial disparity. In Mississippi, infant deaths among blacks rose to 17 per thousand births in 2005 from 14.2 per thousand in 2004, while those among whites rose to 6.6 per thousand from 6.1. (The national average in 2003 was 5.7 for whites and 14.0 for blacks.)

The overall jump in Mississippi meant that 65 more babies died in 2005 than in the previous year, for a total of 481.

The toll is visible in Hollandale, a tired town in the impoverished Delta region of northwest Mississippi.

Jamekia Brown, 22 and two months pregnant with her third child, lives next to the black people’s cemetery in the part of town called No Name, where multiple generations crowd into cheap clapboard houses and trailers.

So it took only a minute to walk to the graves of Ms. Brown’s first two children, marked with temporary metal signs because she cannot afford tombstones.

Her son, who was born with deformities in 2002, died in her arms a few months later, after surgery. Her daughter was stillborn the next year. Nearby is another green marker, for a son of Ms. Brown’s cousin who died at four months, apparently of pneumonia.

The main causes of infant death in poor Southern regions included premature and low-weight births; Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is linked to parental smoking and unsafe sleeping positions as well as unknown causes; congenital defects; and, among poor black teenage mothers in particular, deaths from accidents and disease.

Dr. William Langston, an obstetrician at the Mississippi Department of Health, said in a telephone interview that officials could not yet explain the sudden increase and were investigating. Dr. Langston said the state was working to extend prenatal care and was experimenting with new outreach programs. But, he added, “programs take money, and Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation.”

Doctors who treat poor women say they are not surprised by the reversal.

“I think the rise is real, and it’s going to get worse,” said Dr. Bouldin Marley, an obstetrician at a private clinic in Clarksdale since 1979. “The mothers in general, black or white, are not as healthy,” Dr. Marley said, calling obesity and its complications a main culprit.

Obesity makes it more difficult to do diagnostic tests like ultrasounds and can lead to hypertension and diabetes, which can cause the fetus to be undernourished, he said.

Another major problem, Dr. Marley said, is that some women arrive in labor having had little or no prenatal care. “I don’t think there’s a lack of providers or facilities,” he said. “Some women just don’t have the get up and go.”

But social workers say that the motivation of poor women is not so simply described, and it can be affected by cuts in social programs and a dearth of transportation as well as low self esteem.

“If you didn’t have a car and had to go 60 miles to see a doctor, would you go very often?” said Ramona Beardain, director of Delta Health Partners. The group runs a federally financed program, Healthy Start, that sends social workers and nurses to counsel pregnant teenagers and new mothers in seven counties of the Delta. “If they’re in school they miss the day; if they’re working they don’t get paid,” Ms. Beardain said.

Poverty has climbed in Mississippi in recent years, and things are tougher in other ways for poor women, with cuts in cash welfare and changes in the medical safety net.

In 2004, Gov. Haley Barbour came to office promising not to raise taxes and to cut Medicaid. Face-to-face meetings were required for annual re-enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP, the children’s health insurance program; locations and hours for enrollment changed, and documentation requirements became more stringent.

As a result, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years. According to the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program in Jackson, some eligible pregnant women were deterred by the new procedures from enrolling.

One former Medicaid official, Maria Morris, who resigned last year as head of an office that informed the public about eligibility, said that under the Barbour administration, her program was severely curtailed.

“The philosophy was to reduce the rolls and our activities were contrary to that policy,” she said.

Mississippi’s Medicaid director, Dr. Robert L. Robinson, said in a written response that suggesting any correlation between the decline in Medicaid enrollment and infant mortality was “pure conjecture.”

Dr. Robinson said that the new procedures eliminated unqualified recipients. With 95 enrollment sites available, he said, no one should have had difficulty signing up.

As to Ms. Morris’s charge that information efforts had been curbed, Dr. Robinson said that because of the frequent turnover of Medicaid directors — he is the sixth since 2000 — “our unified outreach program was interrupted.” He said it has now resumed.

The state Health Department has cut back its system of clinics, in part because of budget shortfalls and a shortage of nurses. Some clinics that used to be open several days a week are now open once a week and some offer no prenatal care.

The department has also suffered management turmoil and reductions in field staff, problems so severe that the state Legislature recently voted to replace the director.

Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, said: “When you see drops in the welfare rolls, when you see drops in Medicaid and children’s insurance, you see a recipe for disaster. Somebody’s not eating, somebody’s not going to the doctor and unborn children suffer.”

Visits with pregnant women and mothers in several Delta towns suggest that many poverty-related factors — including public policies, personal behaviors and health conditions — may contribute to infant deaths.

Krystal Allen, a cousin of Jamekia Brown’s, was 17 when she had her first baby. When he was 4 months old, she said, he developed breathing problems. Ms. Allen took the child to an emergency room, where he was put on a vaporizer and given an antibiotic and a prescription and they were sent home, where they slept for a few hours.

“When I woke up I thought he was sleeping, and I was getting ready for church,” Ms. Allen said. “But he was dead.”

Now 21, a mother of two with a third on the way, Ms. Allen lives in a sparsely furnished house in Hollandale with her unemployed boyfriend and his mother. Her children live with her parents.

Ms. Allen greeted visitors with breakfast in hand: a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bag of chips.

Janice Johnson, a social worker with Delta Health Partners, urged her to eat more healthily. “I’m going to change my diet one day,” Ms. Allen replied.

She had been to a doctor for one visit but had to sign up for Medicaid to get continued care. That required a 36-mile trip to an office in Greenville.

“Can’t you go this Friday?” Ms. Johnson asked.

“Well, if my mom is going to Greenville,” Ms. Allen replied, “and if she has gas in the car.”

As for Ms. Brown, having lost two babies and suffering from thyroid disease and hypertension, her latest pregnancy is considered high risk. Ms. Johnson has helped arrange for intensive medical monitoring.

Eunice Brown, 21, another of Ms. Johnson’s clients, was fortunate nothing went wrong with her first pregnancy. She was afraid to tell her mother. In the eighth month of her pregnancy, she went to the hospital with a stomach ache and delivered a healthy baby.

“I was 15 and I didn’t think prenatal care mattered that much,” she said in the one-bedroom home she shares with her mother, her three children and two nieces her mother is tending. Ms. Brown, who was three months’ pregnant with her fourth child, said she would apply for Medicaid “when I get the transportation.” The family has lived mainly off her welfare checks and her intermittent work, in elderly day care, which led her welfare check to be reduced from $194 a month to $26 a month. A father “sometimes helps with money,” she said.

In the past 10 years, the infant mortality rate for blacks in most of the Delta has averaged about 14 per thousand in some counties and more than 20 per thousand in others. But just to the south of Hollandale, Sharkey County, one of the poorest, has had a startlingly different record. From 1991 through 2005, the rate for blacks hovered at around 5 per thousand.

State officials say the county’s population is too small — it registers only 100 births a year — to be statistically significant. But many experts feel it is no coincidence that a steep drop in infant deaths followed the start of an intensive home-visiting system run by the Cary Christian Center, using local mothers as counselors.

“If this is a fluke it’s a 15-year fluke,” said Dr. Glick, the neonatologist.

The program, which is paid for with private money, buses nearly all pregnant blacks in Sharkey and a small neighboring county to pre- and postnatal classes.

Irma Johnson, who has worked for the Cary Center for 14 years, was a soothing presence as she visited Erica Moore, a 24-year-old with young twins. With Vaseline, warm water, a toothbrush and soft murmurs, she showed her how to combat cradle cap, a scaly buildup on the scalp.

But personal attention cannot always change ingrained attitudes.

Barbara Williams, another veteran counselor of the Cary center, made an unannounced visit to a cluster of trailers in Anguilla occupied by the extended Jackson family.

“I’ve been following this family for 18 years, and they’re in a bad cycle,” Ms. Williams said, noting that three generations of women had dropped out of high school.

As Ms. Williams entered one crowded trailer a young woman tried to hide, then stood defiantly. The woman, Victoria Jackson, 22, already has three small children and was five months pregnant.

No, she said, she has not signed up for Medicaid and she has not seen a doctor, and she brushed aside offers of help.

Ms. Williams, visibly upset, said later, “Victoria never gives a reason why she doesn’t see a doctor. I guess she thinks she’s gotten away with it three times already.”

COMMENT: Help put an end to the stingy rotten-to-the-core AmeriKKKornpone Jerk Ethic once & for all. SUPPORT UNIVERSAL COMPREHENSIVE HEALTHCARE!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia

By Peter Daniels
21 April 2007

Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia, near the end of its six-month run at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater in New York City, is an unusual theatrical event. The aim of these three plays—Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage—is nothing less than to depict the rise and early struggles of the Russian intelligentsia. This very small stratum, drawn largely from the most privileged layers of the population, was to play a seminal role in Russian and world history.

The Coast of Utopia spans the years from 1833 to 1868. It follows the lives of six friends, all born in the second decade of the nineteenth century, some of whom met at Moscow University in the 1830s and all of whom became prominent representatives of the “Generation of the 1840s,” the newly radicalized intellectuals who launched the struggle against the Tsarist autocracy that was to end some seven decades later in the Russian Revolution.

The six include Michael Bakunin, born into a wealthy landowning family, later a founder of the anarchist movement and bitter enemy of Marx within the First International; Nicholas Stankevich, the leader of the students’ philosophy circle at the university who first introduced his friends to the intoxicating theories of Hegel, Fichte and Schelling and died of tuberculosis in 1840; Vissarion Belinsky, who won fame as a literary critic and a courageous crusader against Tsarism, the Orthodox Church and Great Russian chauvinism, and also died prematurely, in 1848; Ivan Turgenev, who later gained international fame as a playwright and novelist and occupied a distinctly more moderate position than most of this group of radical intellectuals; and finally, the famous writer and thinker Alexander Herzen, along with his poet friend Nicholas Ogarev.

It is Herzen, the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, who is the central figure of The Coast of Utopia and whose life inspired Stoppard to write the trilogy. It is Stoppard’s view of Herzen’s role, however, that introduces a false and tendentious note into the work, one that seriously compromises its aim to be a significant play of ideas.

Alexander Herzen was born in 1812, shortly before the occupation of Moscow by Napoleon. Along with his friend Ogarev, he took an oath to fight the autocracy while still a teenager, in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Decembrist revolt of 1825. By the mid-1830s, Herzen had already fallen afoul of the authorities for harboring subversive thoughts, and was sent into exile for five years.

Famous for From the Other Shore, essays he wrote in the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, and for his autobiography My Past and Thoughts, Herzen spent the last 23 years of his life in exile from his native land. In the 1850s, in Britain, he launched the Free Russian Press and achieved his greatest influence as the publisher and editor of Kolokol (The Bell), the opposition Russian-language paper that was successfully smuggled into the country and carried out a campaign of political exposures that laid the basis for new revolutionary opposition movements.

There is much to admire in The Coast of Utopia. To those who know little about the period it deals with, this lively nine hours of theater may seem like a worthy introduction. The critical reaction has been mostly favorable, but one has the feeling that most reviewers were somewhat awestruck by its ambitious scope, and not equipped to comment on Stoppard’s grasp of history.

In the production at Lincoln Center, 44 actors perform more than 70 different roles. The plays have been performed in repertory on different evenings, but also consecutively at several “marathon” weekend performances beginning with Part I at 11 a.m. and ending, after intermissions and breaks, nearly 12 hours later. Credit must go to this production, led by director Jack O’Brien, for making many of the ideas, characters and great events that punctuate the action both intelligible and vivid.

A revolving stage at the Beaumont Theater, effective incidental music, the imaginative use of scrims to convey movement in time and space as well as the interior life of some of the characters, inventive sets and lightning scene changes—all play an important role. The cast, including Billy Crudup as Belinsky, Jason Butler Harner as Turgenev, Ethan Hawke as Bakunin and Brian F. O’Bryne as Herzen, as well as a number of actors, including Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Amy Irving and Martha Plimpton, in multiple roles, is generally up to the difficult challenge of portraying these little-known historical figures.

The production and actors can do only so much, however. There is the problem of the plays themselves. To put it mildly, the material is very uneven. Stoppard too often skates along the surface of events and the lives of his characters, rather than probing more deeply. He has set himself an enormous task, but that does not mean that superficiality, distortion and misrepresentation should simply pass unchallenged.

A dizzying pace is set from the outset of Act I of Voyage, which begins with the introduction of most of the wealthy and somewhat eccentric Bakunin family, including Michael, his parents and his four sisters. Before long, others appear and display how a section of Russia’s privileged youth became “infected” by Western ideas, especially the doctrines of Hegel. “The inner life is more real, more complete than what we call reality,” declares Stankevich, as he spouts abbreviated versions of the ideas of Kant, Fichte and Hegel.

Soon Belinsky enters, and reference is made to his expulsion from university for writing a play against serfdom. The towering role of Pushkin is discussed, and his death is briefly dramatized offstage.

In Part II of the trilogy, the characters discuss Belinsky’s famous letter to Gogol, with its denunciation of the older writer’s embrace of Tsarist reaction. In the course of the repartee within Herzen’s circle, one character, in an allusion to the extraordinary and in some ways unique role of the radical nineteenth century intellectuals in the Tsarist Empire, explains that “intelligentsia” is itself a Russian word. Herzen and the others discuss the failure of the 1848 Revolutions, the period of darkest reaction in Russia between 1848 and 1855, and the years of growing hopes for reform following the death of Nicholas I in 1855.

The defeat of the European-wide uprisings of 1848, taking place shortly after Herzen was finally given permission to leave Russia, was a major turning point in his life. Embittered by the exposure of the hollowness of the democratic pretensions of the bourgeoisie, he also became deeply skeptical. What Lenin later referred to as his “spiritual shipwreck” also found its parallel in personal tragedy. His marriage was shaken by his wife Natalie’s affair with radical German poet Georg Herwegh. This was soon followed by the death at sea of his mother and his son, and then the death of his wife herself only months later, in 1852.

After the death of the latter, Herzen made his way to England without clear plans for the future. Within a few years, however, he had launched the Free Russian Press and later The Bell. The successes of The Bell are accompanied by new conflicts, gathering clouds that would eventually erupt, many decades later, in revolutionary upheaval. A new generation of revolutionary intellectuals, whose leaders include Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov, attack Herzen for his increasing gradualism and appeals for reform. All of this finds somewhat sketchy depiction in Salvage, Part III of the trilogy. Noteworthy is an imagined meeting in London between Herzen and Chernyshevsky.

Many of the dialogues take on something of the character of monologues, giving the various historical figures the opportunity to present their ideas. Despite obvious weaknesses, the “monologues” succeed at least part of the time in presenting the grand sweep of events and of philosophical and political debate.

One critic, claiming to speak for many who did not want to admit they found the plays rough going, called Utopia “a bore,” and sarcastically declared that it would not have surprised him if final exams had been handed out at its conclusion.

The suggestion that great and even complicated ideas are not really compatible with theater must be rejected. In fact, The Coast of Utopia suffers from quite the opposite problem. The playwright cannot resist various efforts to “enliven” the history. He pays much attention to Herzen’s domestic life, but tends to place it on the same level as the political conditions that undoubtedly contributed heavily to his personal crises. There is also some misplaced slapstick and scatology, especially in Part I.

There are affecting moments, dialogue that captures some of the intensity, urgency and conflict in the life of the revolutionary intellectual, some of its camaraderie and collective pleasure and suffering. More often, however, as in Stoppard’s work overall, the impression left is that of cleverness, not depth.

Stoppard wants to make sure the audience knows that Belinsky was meek and awkward, for instance. This towering figure therefore becomes a shy, tongue-tied stumblebum who trips and falls in several scenes for presumably easy laughs. Will the audience be inspired by all of this to read Belinsky and Herzen, or will it go home snickering about their tangled family affairs or personal idiosyncrasies? It’s a close call.

Let us see how closely Stoppard’s depiction of Belinsky and Herzen corresponds to their actual history.

Isaiah Berlin quotes the Slavophile Aksakov (who is also one of the 70 characters in The Coast of Utopia) as follows: “The name of Belinsky is known to every thinking young man, to everyone who is hungry for a breath of fresh air in the reeking bog of provincial life There is not a country schoolmaster who does not know—and know by heart—Belinsky’s letter to Gogol. If you want to find honest people, people who care about the poor and the oppressed, an honest doctor, an honest lawyer not afraid of a fight, you will find them among Belinsky’s followers....” Reading Stoppard’s text, it would be impossible to understand why Belinsky had such influence.

Trotsky, the co-leader of the Russian Revolution, described Belinsky and his role in Literature and Revolution, which he wrote in 1923, on the eve of the launching of the Left Opposition and the struggle against Stalinism. Writing about one of the left artistic groups and its misguided conception of “proletarian literature,” Trotsky explains that “The historic role of the Belinskys was to open up a breathing hole into social life by means of literature. Literary criticism took the place of politics and was a preparation for it.... But Belinsky was not a literary critic; he was a socially-minded leader of his epoch. And if Vissarion Belinsky could be transported alive into our times, he probably would be...a member of the Politbureau.” None of this comes through in Stoppard’s version either. In fact, considering Trotsky’s portrait of the man, it is interesting to note that Stoppard writes, in discussing his writing of the plays, that “reading Belinsky was not much fun.”

It is Herzen, even more than Belinsky, who dominates the plays, and his role has been oversimplified and presented in a one-sided way. And Marx, kept very much in the background, is treated with ignorance and contempt.

The divisions between Marx and Herzen were undeniable, but Stoppard chooses to deal with them by silencing Marx for the most part, and distorting his role beyond recognition.

There are several scenes in Shipwreck and then Salvage where the founder of the modern socialist movement makes brief appearances. The man who by 1848 had already written The Communist Manifesto, not to mention The Poverty of Philosophy and The German Ideology, is portrayed as a virtual buffoon. He asks Turgenev whether the phrase “the ghost of Communism” in the Manifesto is “funny.” “I don’t want it to sound as if Communism is dead,” he says. This is Marx as comic relief, not as a serious historical figure.

Even more egregiously, Stoppard presents Marx as virtually indistinguishable from his mortal philosophical and political enemy Bakunin. This is summed up crudely in the issue of the Lincoln Center Theater Review issued in conjunction with the production, in an article by John Rockwell, the New York Times dance critic. Rockwell, clearly expressing his enthusiasm for Stoppard’s version of this history, writes that Marx “crops up in The Coast of Utopia as a most unsympathetic character, cold and dismissive, [wanting] to destroy and then worry about what might be done next.... Bakunin is the willful, destructive force that subverts Herzen’s liberal aspirations. He is the fount from which flowed Marx.” (!)

It’s difficult to take this sort of preposterous slander seriously. Stoppard’s effort to depict the Generation of the 1840s is deeply if not fatally flawed by this ignorant identification of Marx with Bakunin, revolution with nihilism, and Marx’s scientific socialism with its utopian precursors.

It must be said that Stoppard cannot help himself—his hostility for Marx is so overwhelming. However, this is not only a political weakness, it is an artistic limitation. A greater writer would not have stacked the deck against Marx so absurdly. First, he would have gone out of his way to give some of the best lines to the character he disliked the most, for “tactical reasons,” so to speak; second, he would have had the ability to put himself psychologically in the shoes of even someone he despised.

Stoppard has spelled out the genesis of The Coast of Utopia and his political motives in writing it. In an interview in the abovementioned Lincoln Center Theater Review, he explains that one book was more decisive than any other in his writing of the plays—Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers.

It is Berlin’s view of Herzen that Stoppard seeks to bring to a wider audience. The playwright wants to emphasize only one thing—the futility and danger of revolutionary ideas. Thus he explains, “Herzen and Isaiah [Berlin] would have joined forces against Bolshevism, there’s no doubt of that....”

Shipwreck and Salvage are dominated by the image of Herzen articulating the worldview of the disillusioned skeptic, a world-weary humanist and liberal who warns above all of the folly of revolutionary dreams and of revolutionary struggle.

In Shipwreck, Herzen, speaking after the death of his child, expresses his despair at trying to change the world: “His life was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child.... It’s only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade ourselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding our destination. We note the haphazard chaos of history by the day, by the hour, but there is something wrong with the picture. Where is the unity, the meaning, of nature’s highest creation? Surely those millions of little streams of accident and willfulness have their correction in the vast underground river which, without a doubt, is carrying us to the place where we’re expected! But there is no such place, that’s why it’s called utopia. The death of a child has no more meaning than the death of armies, of nations. Was the child happy while he lived? That is the proper question, the only question. If we can’t arrange our own happiness, it’s a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us.”

And he repeats this thought at the very end of the trilogy: “But history has no culmination! There is always as much in front as behind. There is no libretto.... A distant end is not an end but a trap. The end we work for must be closer, the labourer’s wage, the pleasure in the work done, the summer lightning of personal happiness....”

The disillusionment articulated here was a very powerful part of Herzen’s life. Stoppard’s portrayal of him simply as a disillusioned skeptic, however, is extremely one-sided. A look at an article written by Lenin 95 years ago, on the occasion of the centenary of Herzen’s birth, sheds light on this subject.

“Herzen came from a landlord, aristocratic milieu,” wrote Lenin. “He left Russia in 1847; he had not seen the revolutionary people and could have no faith in it.”

“The whole of liberal Russia is paying homage to [Herzen],” Lenin continued in his 1912 article, “studiously evading, however, the serious questions of socialism, and taking pains to conceal that which distinguished Herzen the revolutionary from a liberal....” (emphasis in original).

Herzen’s “ ‘socialism’ was one of the countless forms and varieties of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois socialism of the period of 1848, which were dealt their death-blow in the June days of that year,” Lenin continued. “In point of fact, it was not socialism at all, but so many sentimental phrases, benevolent visions.... Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep skepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism....”

Herzen vacillated between democracy, whose logic was socialism based upon the emerging working class movement, and liberalism, which defended bourgeois property relations against the working class. Lenin adds, however, “It must be said in fairness to Herzen that, much as he vacillated between democracy and liberalism, the democrat in him gained the upper hand nonetheless.”

This is why Herzen defended the Polish insurrection against Tsarist rule in 1863. “The whole of ‘educated society’ turned its back on Kolokol (The Bell),” writes Lenin. “Herzen was not dismayed. He went on championing the freedom of Poland and lashing the suppressors, the butchers, the hangmen in the service of Alexander II.”

Herzen represented the very beginnings of a revolutionary process. “At first it was nobles and landlords, the Decembrists and Herzen,” Lenin wrote. “These revolutionaries formed but a narrow group. They were very far removed from the people. But their effort was not in vain. The Decembrists awakened Herzen. Herzen began the work of revolutionary agitation.”

Lenin scorns the liberals “who magnify Herzen’s weak points and say nothing about his strong points.” This sounds very much like Mr. Stoppard today, the Czech-born playwright and writer whose social and political outlook is based on the identification of socialism with its Stalinist perversion.

It is interesting that in several interviews and articles on The Coast of Utopia Stoppard manages to avoid any comment on Lenin’s article. Nor does he acknowledge that the very title of the second part of the trilogy, Shipwreck, comes from this article. All that he can manage is the misleading statement that, “in the fullness of time, [Herzen] received a casual endorsement from Lenin....” As the above passages indicate, Lenin’s article was neither casual nor an “endorsement,” but rather a serious evaluation.

A recent article in The New Yorker magazine notes Lenin’s views and takes a much more objective approach than Stoppard. Keith Gessen writes in his article, “The Revolutionary”: “Alexander Herzen, the most noble, humane, passionate and touching figure of the Russian nineteenth century, gets dusted off every fifty years or so, when liberalism feels that it is in crisis.” Herzen’s contradictory outlook “makes it difficult to say what, exactly, Herzen was for. Berlin solved the problem by turning him into the ultimate skeptic of history and progress.... This is a Herzen of perpetual negation and disillusionment, a Cold War Herzen, a British Herzen, and, for the most part, this is Stoppard’s Herzen, too.”

Gessen concludes his article with a comment that indirectly demonstrates that it is Lenin, not Stoppard, who depicts Herzen more truthfully. Herzen, explains Gessen, “was never a liberal.” In 1870, weeks before his death, he was in Paris when the streets were filled with protest. “History is being decided here,” he wrote excitedly to Ogarev. In those final weeks of his life, Herzen “was seen going from meeting to meeting, like a young revolutionary.”

What then is the sum, the balance sheet of The Coast of Utopia, more than 150 years after the events it depicts? The Cold War is over, but the eruption of American imperialist militarism, in Iraq and elsewhere, is propelling a new generation of young people and intellectuals into political struggle and throwing liberalism into deeper crisis. Stoppard seeks above all to warn them against fighting to change the world. The depiction of a “Cold War Herzen” fits in with what has been called the post-Soviet school of falsification, the repetition of the claim that Marxism is identical to Stalinism.

Stoppard is not simply the sum of his Cold War liberalism, however. The Coast of Utopia is more than a hack job. It tries to get something across about life, society and struggle, but Stoppard is crippled by his own outlook. The hostility to revolution, and the Russian Revolution in particular, overshadows everything. He has selectively chosen the history to make a polemic, often against the spirit and letter of the figures themselves. His considerable talents—the ability to draw quick portraits, to suggest relationships and emotions, are for the most part ill used. The messiness of the lives is contrived; it is part of the argument that the only meaning in life is to live for the moment and perhaps to make one’s garden grow. Despite its interest and positive qualities, the play is being firmly pulled along by ideological concerns that undermine its artistic strengths and its integrity.

Running With Scissors

The New York Times
April 21, 2007


Whether or not the country is ready to elect a woman president or a black president, it’s definitely not ready for a metrosexual in chief.

In presidential politics, it’s all but impossible to put the man into manicure. Be sensitive, but not soft. Effete is never effective. Not much has changed since George H. W. Bush drove his New Hampshire campaign off the road by requesting “a splash” more coffee at a truck stop.

John Kerry sank himself by windsurfing in spandex and ordering a cheese steak in Philly with Swiss instead of Cheez Whiz.

We haven’t reached the point where we can handle a green-tea-soy-latte-drinking, self-tanning-sea-salt-mango-body-wrapping, Norah-Jones-listening, yoga-toning chief executive.

Bill Clinton sometimes flirted with metrosexuality, with Zegna ties, Christophe haircuts, Donna Karan suits and keen anima, but the heterosexual beat out the metrosexual.

Americans have revered such homely leaders as Abe Lincoln. They seem open to balding pates like Rudy’s and flattops like Jon Tester’s. They don’t want self-confidence to look like self-love.

John Edwards has reminded us that even — or especially — in the age of appearances, you must not appear to care too much about appearances.

When you spend more on a couple of haircuts than Burundi’s per capita G.D.P. , it looks so vain it makes Paul Wolfowitz’s ablutions spitting on his comb look like rugged individualism.

Following his star turn primping his hair for two minutes on a YouTube video to the tune of “I Feel Pretty,” Mr. Edwards this week had to pay back the $800 charged to his campaign for two shearings at Torrenueva Hair Designs in Beverly Hills. He seems intent on proving that he is a Breck Girl — and a Material Boy.

He did not pony up for the pricey bills from Designworks Salon in Dubuque, Iowa, or the Pink Sapphire spa in Manchester, which offers services for men that include the “Touch of Youth” facial, as well as trips “into the intriguing world of makeup.” The Edwards campaign calls makeup a legitimate expense.

Speaking of roots, my dad, a police detective who was in charge of Senate security, got haircuts at the Senate barbershop for 50 cents. He cut my three brothers’ hair and did the same for anyone else in the neighborhood who wanted a free clip job. Even now, Mr. Edwards could get his hair cut at the Senate barbershop for $21 or the Chapel Hill Barber Shop near his campaign headquarters for $16.

So it’s hard for me to understand how a guy could spend $400 without getting Bergdorf Blonde highlights. (The tabloids claim that Brad and Jen used to get matching streaks.) And don’t campaign donors get snippy about sponsoring tonsorial treats?

Someone who aspires to talk credibly about the two Americas can’t lavish on his locks what working families may spend on electricity in a year. You can’t sell earnestness while indulging in decadence.

Mr. Edwards, the son of a mill worker, moved from a $5.2 million, six-bedroom Federal mansion in Georgetown to a 28,000-square-foot behemoth in North Carolina with a basketball court, a squash court, two stages and a swimming pool.

His 25-year-old daughter, Cate, a former editorial assistant for Vanity Fair, co-founded Urbanista, an online Rolodex that dispenses advice for “hip” girls in Manhattan, offering to be a “bestie” (a best friend) and answer questions like “Where should I go to get my Marc Jacobs shoes reheeled?” and “Does anyone know the best place to get a really great haircut?” One salon the site recommends is Warren-Tricomi, where Edward Tricomi says haircuts range from $121 to $300.

The cost of grooming hair is peanuts compared with the cost of grooming an image. Hillary is paying a fortune to try to buy the secrets of likability. Her financial reports for the first three months of 2007 show debts to consulting firms of $447,000.

John McCain, who’s supposed to be giving it to us straight, has a jaw-dropping herd of consultants to tell him how to do that. Dubbed “the 2007 Full Employment Act for Campaign Consultants,” the McCain crew spent $645,000 on fund-raising consultants in the first quarter and $400,000 on political consultants in key states (four in South Carolina alone). His top political adviser, John Weaver, got more than $60,000 in just three months.

Obviously, there’s a lot of waste in political campaigns. But you don’t have to be as flinty as Mitt Romney — who has made his staff triple up at cheap hotels — to know there’s something special about throwing away money on vanity.

All the haircuts in the world may not save John Edwards from a blowout.

Why Darwinism Isn’t Depressing

The New York Times
April 21, 2007

Scientists have discovered that love is truth.

Granted, no scientist has put it quite like that. In fact, when scientists talk about love — the neurochemistry, the evolutionary origins — they make it sound unlovely.

More broadly, our growing grasp of the biology behind our thoughts and feelings has some people downhearted. One commentator recently acknowledged the ascendancy of the Darwinian paradigm with a sigh: “Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself.”

Cheer up! Despair is a plausible response to news that our loftiest feelings boil down to genetic self-interest, but genetic self-interest actually turns out to be our salvation. The selfishness of our genes gave us the illuminating power of love and put us on the path to a kind of transcendence.

Before hiking to the peak, let’s pause for some sobering concessions. Yes, love is physically mediated, a product of biochemistry. (Why this would surprise anyone familiar with alcohol and coffee is something that has long baffled scientists.) And, yes, the biochemistry was built by natural selection. Like it or not, we are survival machines.

But survival machines are unfairly maligned. The name suggests, well, machines devoted to their survival. In truth, though, natural selection builds machines devoted ultimately to the survival of their genes, not themselves.

Hence love. A love-impelled grandparent sacrifices her life to save a child’s life. Too bad for the grandparent, but mission accomplished for the love genes: they’ve kept copies of themselves alive in a vibrant vehicle that was otherwise doomed, and all they’ve lost is a vehicle that, frankly, didn’t have the world’s most auspicious odometer anyway. Love of offspring (and siblings) is your genes’ way of getting you to serve their agenda.

Feel manipulated? Don’t worry — we get the last laugh.

Genes are just dopey little particles, devoid of consciousness. We, in contrast, can perceive the world. And how! Thanks to love, we see beyond our selves and into the selves around us.

A thought experiment: Suppose you are a parent and you (a) watch someone else’s toddler misbehave and then (b) watch your own toddler do the same. Your predicted reactions, respectively, are: (a) “What a brat!” and (b) “That’s what happens when she skips her nap.”

Now (b) is often a correct explanation, whereas (a) — the “brat” reaction — isn’t even an explanation. Thus does love lead to truth. So, too, when a parent sees her child show off and senses that the grandstanding is grounded in insecurity. That’s an often valid explanation — unlike, say, “My neighbor’s kid is such a showoff”— and brings insight into human nature.

Yes, yes, love can warp your perception, too. Still, there is an apprehension of the other — an empathetic understanding — that is at least humanly possible, and it would never have gotten off the ground had love not emerged on this planet as a direct result of Darwinian logic.

Some people, on hearing this, remain stubbornly ungrateful. They hate the arbitrariness of it all. You mean I love my child just because she’s got my genes? So my “appreciation” of her “specialness” is an illusion?

Exactly! If you’d married someone else, there would be a different child you considered special — and if you then spotted the child that is now yours on the street, you’d consider her a brat. (And, frankly ... but I digress.)

O.K., so your child isn’t special. This doesn’t have to mean she’s not worthy of your love. It could mean instead that other people’s kids are worthy of your love. But it has to mean one or the other. And — especially given that love can bring truth — isn’t it better to expand love’s scope than to narrow it?

I’m a realist. I don’t expect you to get all mushy about the kid next door. But if you carry into your everyday encounters an awareness that empathetic understanding makes sense, that’s progress.

Transcending the arbitrary narrowness of our empathy isn’t guaranteed by nature. (Why do you think they call it transcendence?) But nature has given us the tools — not just the empathy, but the brains to figure out how evolution works, and thus to see that the narrowness is arbitrary.

So evolution has led to something outside itself — to the brink of a larger, more widely illuminating love, maybe even to a glimpse of moral truth. What’s not to like?

Robert Wright, author of “The Moral Animal,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site



Kurt Vonnegut on the socialists who fought for workers

Celebrating socialism in the U.S.

November 2, 2001 Page 8

KURT VONNEGUT is one of America’s best-known novelists, with half a century of writings and close to 20 books to his name.

He’s also earned a reputation as an opponent of war and injustice, both in his literature and as a public speaker who has participated in movements for change.

In October, Vonnegut was given the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library–and used the opportunity of his speech to discuss Sandburg’s commitment to socialism.

Sandburg’s poetry and essays can be found in many grade-school literary anthologies, but few people learn that he got his start as a writer as a labor and socialist journalist.

For example, in the early decades of the 20th century, Sandburg wrote regularly for the International Socialist Review, an ancestor of Socialist Worker’s sister magazine of the same name.

His fiery articles took on the greed and corruption of big business, government repression and–in his commentaries on the famous evangelist Billy Sunday, for example–the way that religion was used by the powers that be to prop up their rule.

Here, with permission, Socialist Worker prints Vonnegut’s acceptance speech.

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WE ARE America’s Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in an ocean, I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.

I thank you for this honor, although it is a reminder that I am not nearly the passionate and effective artist Carl Sandburg was. And we are surely grateful for his fog, which came in on little cat feet.

But tonight seems an apt occasion as well for celebrating what he and other American socialists did during the first half of the past century, with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.

That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen. I speak, of course, of Carl Sandburg of Illinois and Abraham Lincoln, of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois. Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like ourselves.

Hooray for our team!

I know upper-class graduates of Yale University who can’t talk or write worth a nickel.

"Socialism" is no more an evil word than "Christianity." Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women and children are created equal, and shalt not starve.

Adolf Hitler, incidentally, was a two-fer. He named his party the National Socialists, the Nazis. Hitler also had crosses painted on his tanks and airplanes. The swastika wasn’t a pagan symbol, as so many people believe. It was a working person’s Christian cross, made of axes, of tools.

About Stalin’s shuttered churches, and those in China today: Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx’s statement that that "religion is the opium of the people." Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective painkillers anyone could take. Marx himself had taken them. He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him. He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress. It was a casual truism, not a dictum.

When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet. Whom do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then: Karl Marx or the United States of America?

Stalin was happy to take Marx’s truism as a decree, and Chinese tyrants as well, since it seemingly empowered them to put preachers out of business who might speak ill of them or their goals.

The statement has also entitled many in this country to say that socialists are anti-religion, are anti-God, and therefore absolutely loathsome.

I never met Carl Sandburg, and wish I had. I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such a national treasure. I did get to know one socialist of his generation, who was Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis. After graduating from Harvard he went to work as a coal miner, urging his working-class brothers to organize, in order to get better pay and safer working conditions. He also led protesters at the execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927.

We met in Indianapolis after the end of World War Two, and he had become an official in the CIO. There had been some sort of dust-up on a picket line, and he had just testified about it in court. The judge had interrupted the proceedings to ask Powers Hapgood why, with all his social and economic and educational advantages, he had chosen to lead such a life. And Powers Hapgood replied, "Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir."

Another of our freshwater ancestors was Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana. A former locomotive fireman, Eugene Debs ran for president of the United States four times, the fourth time in 1920, when he was in prison. He said, "As long as there is a lower class, I’m in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there’s a soul in prison, I am not free."

Some platform. A paraphrase of the beatitudes.

And again: Hooray for our team.

And our own beloved Carl Sandburg had this to say about the fire-belching evangelist Bill Sunday:

"You come along–tearing your shirt–yelling about Jesus. I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus? Jesus had a way of talking soft, and everybody except a few bankers and higher ups among the con men of Jerusalem like to have Jesus around because he never made any fake passes, and he helped the sick and gave people hope.

"You come along calling us all damn fools–so fierce the froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips–always blabbering we’re all going to hell straight off, and you know all about it. I’ve read Jesus’ words. I know what he said. You don’t throw any scare into me. I’ve got your number. I know how much you know about Jesus.

"You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the worms have eaten ’em. You tell $6 a week department store girls all they need is Jesus. You take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at 40 years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.

"You tell poor people they don’t need any more money on pay day. And even if it’s fierce to be out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that all right, all right. All they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.

"Jesus played it different. The bankers and corporation lawyers of Jerusalem got their murderers to go after Jesus because Jesus wouldn’t play their game. I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion."

Hooray for our team.

And I now take advantage of your hospitality by declaring myself a child of the Chicago Renaissance, powerfully humanized not only by Carl Sandburg, but by Edgar Lee Masters and Jane Addams and Louis Sullivan and Lake Michigan, and on and on.

And I propose a toast to an individual who wasn’t an artist or working stiff of any description. She wasn’t even a human being. Ladies and gentlemen of Chicago, I give you Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

And I thank you for your attention.

The Plot Against Medicare

The New York Times
April 20, 2007

The plot against Social Security failed: President Bush’s attempt to privatize the system crashed and burned when the public realized what he was up to. But the plot against Medicare is faring better: the stealth privatization embedded in the Medicare Modernization Act, which Congress literally passed in the dead of night back in 2003, is proceeding apace.

Worse yet, the forces behind privatization not only continue to have the G.O.P. in their pocket, but they have also been finding useful idiots within the newly powerful Democratic coalition. And it’s not just politicians with an eye on campaign contributions. There’s no nice way to say it: the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens have become patsies for the insurance industry.

To appreciate what’s going on, you need to know what has been happening to Medicare in the last few years.

The 2003 Medicare legislation created Part D, the drug benefit for seniors — but unlike the rest of Medicare, Part D isn’t provided directly by the government. Instead, you can get it only through a private drug plan, provided by an insurance company. At the same time, the bill sharply increased payments to Medicare Advantage plans, which also funnel Medicare funds through insurance companies.

As a result, Medicare — originally a system in which the government paid people’s medical bills — is becoming, instead, a system in which the government pays the insurance industry to provide coverage. And a lot of the money never makes it to the people Medicare is supposed to help.

In the case of the drug benefit, the private drug plans add an extra, costly layer of bureaucracy. Worse yet, they have much less ability to bargain for lower drug prices than government programs like Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration. Reasonable estimates suggest that if Congress had eliminated the middlemen, it could have created a much better drug plan — one without the notorious “doughnut hole,” the gap in coverage once your annual expenses exceed $2,400 per year — at no higher cost.

Meanwhile, those Medicare Advantage plans cost taxpayers 12 percent more per recipient than standard Medicare. In the next five years that subsidy will cost more than $50 billion — about what it would cost to provide all children in America with health insurance. Some of that $50 billion will be passed on to seniors in extra benefits, but a lot of it will go to overhead, marketing expenses and profits.

With the Democratic victory last fall, you might have expected these things to change. But the political news over the last few days has been grim.

First, the Senate failed to end debate on a bill — in effect, killing it — that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate over drug prices. The bill was too weak to have allowed Medicare to get large discounts. Still, it would at least have established the principle of using government bargaining power to get a better deal. But in spite of overwhelming public support for price negotiation, 42 senators, all Republicans, voted no on allowing the bill to go forward.

If we can’t even establish the principle of negotiation, a true repair of the damage done in 2003 — which would require having Medicare offer seniors the option of getting their drug coverage directly, without involving the insurance companies — seems politically far out of reach.

At the same time, attempts to rein in those Medicare Advantage payments seem to be running aground. Everyone knew that reducing payments would be politically tough. What comes as a bitter surprise is the fact that minority advocacy groups are now part of the problem, with both the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens sending letters to Congressional leaders opposing plans to scale back the subsidy.

What seems to have happened is that both groups have been taken in by insurance industry disinformation, which falsely claims that minorities benefit disproportionately from this subsidy. It’s a claim that has been thoroughly debunked in a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — but apparently the truth isn’t getting through.

Public opinion is strongly in favor of universal health care, and for good reason: fear of losing health insurance has become a constant anxiety of the middle class. Yet even as we talk about guaranteeing insurance to all, privatization is undermining Medicare — and people who should know better are aiding and abetting the process.

Gonzales v. Gonzales

The New York Times
April 20, 2007

If Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had gone to the Senate yesterday to convince the world that he ought to be fired, it’s hard to imagine how he could have done a better job, short of simply admitting the obvious: that the firing of eight United States attorneys was a partisan purge.

Mr. Gonzales came across as a dull-witted apparatchik incapable of running one of the most important departments in the executive branch.

He had no trouble remembering complaints from his bosses and Republican lawmakers about federal prosecutors who were not playing ball with the Republican Party’s efforts to drum up election fraud charges against Democratic politicians and Democratic voters. But he had no idea whether any of the 93 United States attorneys working for him — let alone the ones he fired — were doing a good job prosecuting real crimes.

He delegated responsibility for purging their ranks to an inexperienced and incompetent assistant who, if that’s possible, was even more of a plodding apparatchik. Mr. Gonzales failed to create the most rudimentary standards for judging the prosecutors’ work, except for political fealty. And when it came time to explain his inept decision making to the public, he gave a false account that was instantly and repeatedly contradicted by sworn testimony.

Even the most loyal Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee found it impossible to throw Mr. Gonzales a lifeline. The best Orrin Hatch of Utah could do was to mutter that “I think that you’ll agree that this was poorly handled” and to suggest that Mr. Gonzales should just be forgiven. Senator Sam Brownback led Mr. Gonzales through the names of the fired attorneys, evidently hoping he would offer cogent reasons for their dismissal.

Some of his answers were merely laughable. Mr. Gonzales said one prosecutor deserved to be fired because he wrote a letter that annoyed the deputy attorney general. Another prosecutor had the gall to ask Mr. Gonzales to reconsider a decision to seek the death penalty. (Mr. Gonzales, of course, is famous for never reconsidering a death penalty case, no matter how powerful the arguments are.)

Mr. Gonzales criticized other fired prosecutors for “poor management,” for losing the confidence of career prosecutors and for “not having total control of the office.” With those criticisms, Mr. Gonzales was really describing his own record: he has been a poor manager who has had no control over his department and has lost the confidence of his professional staff and all Americans.

Mr. Gonzales was even unable to say who compiled the list of federal attorneys slated for firing. The man he appointed to conduct the purge, Kyle Sampson, said he had not created the list. The former head of the office that supervises the federal prosecutors, Michael Battle, said he didn’t do it, as did William Mercer, the acting associate attorney general.

Mr. Gonzales said he did not know why the eight had been on the list when it was given to him, that it had not been accompanied by any written analysis and that he had just assumed it reflected a consensus of the senior leaders of his department. At one point, Mr. Gonzales even claimed that he could not remember how the Justice Department had come to submit an amendment to the Patriot Act that allowed him to fire United States attorneys and replace them without Senate confirmation. The Senate voted to revoke that power after the current scandal broke.

At the end of the day, we were left wondering why the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer would paint himself as a bumbling fool. Perhaps it’s because the alternative is that he is not telling the truth. There is strong evidence that this purge was directed from the White House, and that Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s top political adviser, and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, were deeply involved.

Yesterday, Mr. Gonzales admitted that he had not been surprised by five of the names on the list because he had heard complaints about them — from Republican senators and Mr. Rove.

In another telling moment, Mr. Gonzales was asked when he had lost confidence in David Iglesias, who was fired as federal prosecutor in New Mexico. His answer was an inadvertent slip of truth.

“Mr. Iglesias lost the confidence of Senator Domenici, as I recall, in the fall of 2005,” Mr. Gonzales said. It was Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, of course, who made a wildly inappropriate phone call to Mr. Iglesias in 2006, not 2005, to ask whether charges would be filed before the election in a corruption inquiry focused on Democrats. When Mr. Iglesias said he did not think so, Mr. Domenici hung up and complained to the White House. Shortly after, Mr. Iglesias’s name was added to the firing list.

We don’t yet know whether Mr. Gonzales is merely so incompetent that he should be fired immediately, or whether he is covering something up.

But if we believe the testimony that neither he nor any other senior Justice Department official was calling the shots on the purge, then the public needs to know who was. That is why the Judiciary Committee must stick to its insistence that Mr. Rove, Ms. Miers and other White House officials testify in public and under oath and that all documents be turned over to Congress, including e-mail messages by Mr. Rove that the Republican Party has yet to produce.

‘Patient’ Capital for an Africa That Can’t Wait

The New York Times
April 20, 2007

Last week, I was touring northern Tanzania when our car passed the small town of Karatu and we suddenly came upon an open field splashed with colors so bright and varied it looked from afar as if someone had painted a 30-color rainbow on the landscape.

As we got closer, I discovered that it was Karatu’s huge clothing market. Merchants had laid out blankets piled with multicolored shirts, pants and dresses, much of it used clothing from Europe, and were hawking their goods.

This was not Nordstrom. A man with a tape measure dangling from his back pocket and a megaphone in his hand was shouting: “A thousand shillings for these trousers. It’s like giving them away.” Men and women, themselves dressed in brightly colored native Tanzanian garments, sifted through the mounds of clothing, holding shirts or slacks up against their bodies to see if they fit.

Scenes like this remind you that Africa is neither all tragedy nor all renaissance. It is a diverse continent that’s struggling to find its way in the global economy and has both of these extremes, but is much more in a middle place that looks like that field in Karatu: a wild, unregulated, informal, individual brand of capitalism, which we need to channel into formal companies that can grow and scale up, even with corrupt governance.

Africa needs many things, but most of all it needs capitalists who can start and run legal companies. More Bill Gateses, fewer foundations. People grow out of poverty when they create small businesses that employ their neighbors. Nothing else lasts.

Whenever you read about capital flowing into Africa, though, it tends to be from big lenders like the World Bank, which have very strict criteria and work on big projects, or from microfinanciers, giving out $50 to a woman to buy a sewing machine. Microfinance has a role, but many people don’t want the pressure of being an entrepreneur. They want the stability and prosperity of a job created by capitalist risk takers and innovators. See India.

In some ways what Africa needs most today is more “patient” capital to spur its would-be capitalists. Patient capital has all the discipline of venture capital — demanding a return, and therefore rigor in how it is deployed — but expecting a return that is more in the 5 to 10 percent range, rather than the 35 percent that venture capitalists look for, and with a longer payback period.

A good example of what happens when you combine patient capital, talent and innovation in Africa is the Kenyan company Advanced Bio-Extracts (ABE), headed by Patrick Henfrey. He and his partners put together a fascinating group of both white and black African farmers and scientists to build the first company in Africa to cultivate the green leafy plant artemisia, often called sweet wormwood, and transform it into pharmaceutical grade artemisinin — a botanical extract that is the key ingredient in a new generation of low-cost, effective malaria treatments commonly known as artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). Malaria still kills nearly one million people in Africa every year, more than H.I.V.-AIDS.

From its factory outside Nairobi, ABE is not only processing the feedstock for the drug, but has also contracted with 7,000 farmers, most with small farms, to grow artemisia in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The crop gives farmers four times the financial yield of corn.

“We are commercializing a product that had never been commercialized,” Mr. Henfrey said. To make it possible, though, the founders had to not only scrape together all their own money, but had to find investors, like the Swiss drug giant Novartis and the nonprofit venture capital investor, Acumen Fund, based in the U.S., to put up patient risk capital. (Banks demanded collateral that ABE did not have.)

“Those little windows of support make these things happen,” Mr. Henfrey said. “We could not have done it otherwise.”

Nthenya Mule, Acumen’s Kenya country director, commented to me that the stereotype of Africa is that it is hopeless and just waiting around for the West to come to its rescue. In reality, she added, “there are positive things happening in Africa, but they are not happening overnight, and some are happening quietly. ABE is exemplary. You will not see it as front-page news, but in 18 months they set up a factory with 160 people interfacing with 7,000 farmers and supplying one of the major pharma companies in the world.

“Those stories need to be talked about. It is critical to see things in action. A pothole in the road does not require a workshop. Fill it. We need a new kind of drug — let’s go out and make it instead of let’s talk about it for the hundredth time.”

COMMENT: Still the same old Friedman. When he’s not touting the blessings of militarist interventionism for the good of the natives in such places like Iraq (from which he eventually has to back off) he returns to his “golden straightjacket” spiel, megaphoning the dominant ideas of the transnational Masterclass and how only Crapitalism via neocolonialist investments (aka political-economic control and exploitation of human, vegetable and mineral resources) can save the underdeveloped world. For whom? Incredible. TO HELL WITH COMMERCE!


Thursday, April 19, 2007

US Supreme Court rules in favor of abortion restrictions

By Joe Kay
19 April 2007

In a highly significant decision released Wednesday morning, the US Supreme Court for the first time upheld a law banning certain types of abortion. The ruling sets the stage for further legal restrictions on abortion rights throughout the country. It represents a further attack on democratic rights and the separation of church and state.

Reversing previous court precedents and employing shoddy legal reasoning, the court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. That Act, basing itself on false medical conclusions and not including an exception for safeguarding the health of the pregnant woman, mandates fines and jail times of up to two years for doctors performing a type of abortion known as intact dilation and evacuation (intact D&E) or dilation and extraction (D&X). The procedure, which involves the partial extraction of the fetus before it is aborted, is employed rarely and usually only under extraordinary conditions involving the health of the mother or deformations to the fetus.

The 5-4 vote on the court overturns the decisions of three district courts and three appellate courts, which all found the act unconstitutional. The decision combined two cases before the court, Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion, and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Thomas and Scalia added a separate opinion repeating their view that the court’s entire previous abortion jurisprudence, including the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, “has no basis in the Constitution.”

A sharp dissenting opinion was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens. In an unusual step, Ginsburg read her dissent out loud before the court. The dissent concludes with the warning, “In candor, the Act, and the Court’s defense of it, cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this Court,” the right to an abortion.

The decision is a victory for Christian conservatives, who see it as a first step in the drive to overturn the Roe decision itself. Representative John Boehner, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, responded by saying that the ruling “sets the stage for further progress in the fight to ensure our nation’s laws respect the sanctity of unborn human life.” President Bush also praised the ruling, saying that it upholds the ability of Congress to pass laws “reflecting the compassion and humanity of America”—i.e., the religious prejudices of Christian fundamentalists.

The ruling follows Bush’s appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts in September 2005 and Justice Samuel Alito in January 2006, who have shifted the court significantly to the right on a number of issues, including presidential powers, corporate regulation, and the separation of church and state.

The Democratic Party played an important role in facilitating both nominations. In the case of Roberts, the Senate voted overwhelmingly (78-22) to confirm the nomination, while in the case of Alito, Democrats refused to mount a serious filibuster attempt, even though this was at the time the only way the nomination could be blocked. The Senate voted 72-25 to close debate on Alito’s nomination.

The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act itself passed with significant Democratic Party support, sailing through the Senate in a 64-33 vote and the House in a 281-142 vote. The Democratic Party has no serious commitment to democratic rights, including the right to an abortion, and the Supreme Court decision is only the final product of a lengthy period of Democratic Party prostration.

A major legal shift

The Supreme Court ruling is significant in a number of respects. Most directly, it represents a repudiation of a 2000 decision in Stenberg v. Carhart, in which the Supreme Court overturned a Nebraska law banning intact D&E. Its legal reasoning also undermines the court’s decision in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, which placed definite restrictions on any legislation regulating abortion rights.

“Today’s decision is alarming,” Ginsburg wrote in the dissent. “It refuses to take Casey and Stenberg seriously. It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).... And, for the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health.”

Wednesday’s ruling overturns the requirement, expressly stated in Casey, that any law regulating abortion procedures “contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health.” This requirement applied only “after fetal viability”—i.e., after the fetus could live on its own. In cases “before viability,” a woman had an unrestricted right to an abortion “without undue interference from the State.”

In conflict with the decision in Casey, the majority ruled that there is “uncertainty” within the medical community as to whether or not the intact D&E procedure is sometimes necessary for health reasons as opposed to other methods. The ruling makes the extraordinary statement, “Medical uncertainty does not foreclose the exercise of legislative powers in the abortion context any more than it does in other contexts.”

In other words, because there is supposedly some uncertainty as to whether intact D&E is sometimes necessary for health reasons, Congress has the power to ban it altogether. In making this claim, the Court deliberately obscures the distinction between “after viability” and “before viability,” upholding the ban on the procedure in all cases.

The dissent notes that in the 2000 Stenberg case, the Court ruled that the health exceptions in Casey “cannot...require unanimity of medical opinion. Doctors often differ in their estimation of comparative health risks and appropriate treatment.” In overturning the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the lower courts ruled that where there is any uncertainty on this question, the law must err on the side of granting rights to the woman to have the procedure performed. In any case, these lower courts found, medical evidence indicated that the health concerns were legitimate.

In fact, the “uncertainty” about whether or not the procedure is sometime necessary for health reasons is entirely manufactured by abortion opponents. Included in the 2003 Act is a statement by the Congress that “there is no credible medical evidence that partial-birth abortions are safe or are safer than other abortion procedures.” As the dissent notes, however, this claim is manifestly false, as are other statements of fact included in the 2003 Act.

“The congressional record,” the dissent writes, “includes letters from numerous individual physicians stating that pregnant women’s health would be jeopardized under the Act, as well as statements from nine professional associations, including ACOG, the American Public Health Association, and the California Medical Association, attesting that intact D&E carries meaningful safety advantages over other methods.”

The procedure is particularly important for women with certain medical conditions such as uterine scarring, bleeding disorders, heart disease or immune problems, because there is a lower danger of damaging the uterus than other methods. It is also used when the fetus suffers from extreme birth abnormalities, such as severe inflammation of the head.

All of this is dismissed by the majority. The dissent writes that “despite the District Courts’ appraisal of the weight of the evidence, and in undisguised conflict with Stenberg, the Court asserts that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act can survive ‘when...medical uncertainty persists.’ This assertion is bewildering. Not only does it defy the Court’s longstanding precedent affirming the necessity of a health exception, with no carve-out for circumstances of medical uncertainty; it give short shrift to the records before us, carefully canvassed by the District Courts.”

In justifying its decision, the majority made the additional extraordinary claim that opponents of the law “have not demonstrated that the Act would be unconstitutional in a large fraction of relevant cases.” The Court suggests that it would be willing to reconsider the constitutionality of the law if specific cases were brought before it—presumably by women who had their health endangered because the method was proscribed.

This reasoning is in flagrant violation of prior court rulings. By not including an exception to safeguard the health of the pregnant woman, the law violates the constitutional rights of all those women who may require the procedure.

The dissent notes that in demanding abortion-rights advocates argue specific instances where the procedure is necessary, the Court is endangering the lives and health of women. “Even if courts were able to carve-out exceptions through piecemeal litigation for ‘discrete and well-defined instances’ women whose circumstances have not been anticipated by prior litigation could well be left unprotected,” the defense notes. “In treating these women, physicians would risk criminal prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment if they exercise their best judgment as to the safest medical procedure for their patients.”

Behind the pseudo-legal reasoning applied by the majority are fundamentally religious conceptions that aim ultimately at outlawing abortion altogether. The majority speaks of the state’s “legitimate, substantial interests in preserving and promoting fetal life.” It acknowledges that there are “moral concerns” involved, and that “Congress could...conclude that the type of abortion proscribed by the Act requires specific regulation because it implicates additional ethical and moral concerns that justify a special prohibition.”

Such “moral concerns” could be invoked to eventually overturn Roe. The dissent notes, “The Court’s hostility to the right Roe and Casey secured is not concealed. Throughout, the opinion refers to obstetrician-gynecologists and surgeons who perform abortions not by the titles of their medical specialties, but by the pejorative label ‘abortion doctors.’ A fetus is described as an ‘unborn child,’ and as a ‘baby;’... And, most troubling, Casey’s principles, confirming the continuing vitality of ‘the essential holding of Roe,’ are merely ‘assume[d]’ for the moment, rather than ‘retained’ or ‘reaffirmed.’ ”

Finally, there are fundamental constitutional issues at stake, in addition to the right to an abortion, involving the separation of powers. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was passed in direct response to the 2000 decision in Stenberg overturning a similar state law. The Act contains clearly fraudulent statements and defies the constitutional rights of women. Several district courts recognized this and declared the Act unconstitutional.

In upholding the Act, the Court is sanctioning a congressional reversal of constitutional rights. As the dissent notes, “Although Congress’s findings could not withstand the crucible of trial, the Court defers to the legislative override of our Constitution-based rulings. A decision so at odds with our jurisprudence should not have staying power....”

There is every reason to believe that similar reasoning will be used to overturn other democratic rights previously upheld by the Supreme Court.

See Also:

An act of social cruelty: South Dakota bars abortions for victims of rape and incest [4 March 2006]

Anti-abortion fanatic Eric Rudolph pleads guilty to terrorist bombings [16 April 2005]

Bush signs "Unborn Victims of Violence Act": legislation targets abortion rights [9 April 2004]

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