Saturday, June 16, 2007

Can He Crush Hillary?

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 17, 2007


The busty brunette wriggles around in her pink bikini beside a picture of Barack Obama frolicking in the Hawaiian surf. She continues undulating in red underwear emblazoned with the word “Obama.” And, next to a picture of the senator in a suit, she stands proudly, wearing her own dark suit and a political-helpmate smile.

“Does Barack Obama’s wife have something to worry about?” John Gibson teased on Fox News.

Michelle doesn’t have to worry about “Obama Girl,” the model Amber Lee Ettinger, who stars in the music video sweeping the Web, in which she lip-syncs a song called “I Got a Crush on Obama.” The sultry-catchy lyrics include “You’re into border security/let’s break this border between you and me/universal health care reform/it makes me warm.”

But Obama may have to worry about Obama Girl. For one thing, Amber — whose résumé boasts that she was a “featured cage dancer” in the movie “Uptown Girls” — isn’t even sure she’s going to vote for her video dreamboy. “We’ll see,” she told ABC’s Jake Tapper. “Maybe.”

And for another, Obama has been trying to beef up his image for months — including writing a platitudinous manifesto in the new Foreign Affairs — but the buzz is still about his beefcake side. The Democrat who’s so afraid of looking like a pretty boy is once more drawing attention for his more superficial charms.

When I stopped in a Ralph Lauren shop the other day, the sales staff had just sent off some clothes for an Obama photo shoot for a GQ cover.

At his first news conference after he announced last February, Obama chastised reporters for writing about how good he looked in a swimsuit, and he defended hiring oppo-researchers, saying that it was “essential to democracy” to compare and contrast the candidates on the issues.

So why would his aides send two sneering memos about the Clintons’ finances to reporters this week, on a not-for-attribution condition?

That’s not sleazy so much as stupid.

First of all, they didn’t need to do anything. Other Democratic campaigns were already pelting reporters with e-mail pointing out the possible juicy conflicts in the Clinton filings.

If the Obama Boys were determined to whack the Clintons on greed, they should have done so openly. Their clumsy attempt at cloak-and-dagger was bound to fail.

A reporter gave their “classified” memos to the Clinton camp, and the Clinton camp gleefully spread them around to other reporters.

The Obama Boys’ inept leaking was compounded by over-the-top writing. They angered Indian-Americans, who accused them of stereotyping, and the campaign had to apologize. Under a flippant headline referring to “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab),” one memo reported that Bill Clinton collected $300,000 for two speeches from Cisco in 2006 and Hillary accepted almost $60,000 in contributions from Cisco employees, even though the company was outsourcing jobs to India.

The critique also stressed how rich Bill Clinton has grown from his friendship with the California supermarket mogul Ron Burkle. Ron lets his pal Bill fly on his plane and brought him into his Yucaipa fund, which, the Obama memo tut-tuts, has investments in astrological software and the distribution of Playboy.

One question I’d like to ask the Leo who would be First Lad: When you rake in $10 million a year from speeches, do you really need that $150,000 for speaking to the Boys and Girls Club of L.A.?

Hillaryland was panting for an opportunity to paint Obama as a hypocrite for saying he was different and above it all, while acting the same. And its best ally in undermining Obama is Obama, who hoists his pedestal so high he’s bound to fall off. He seems more intent on proving he’s pure than proving he’s tough.

The Clintons act high-minded and do-gooding, while employing a staff of hit men. Obama is tangled in contradictions of high and low, saint and killer, while Hillary moves like a shark.

“She’d lean over and bite his ear off if that’s what it takes,” says Charlie Cook, the political analyst. “The question is, will he do what it takes to win? This is a guy who did not have to deal with a single negative ad being run against him in the primary and general campaigns for the Senate. It was almost an immaculate conception.”

Obama is too busy modeling to make this point, but the Clinton financial disclosures raise a big question: Do we want the country run again by a couple who get so easily wrapped around the fingers of anyone who is rich? As long as a guy was willing to give them millions, would it matter if his name were Al Capone?

A Boycott Built on Bias

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 17, 2007

Two weeks ago I took part in commencement for this year’s doctoral candidates at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The ceremony was held in the amphitheater on Mount Scopus, which faces out onto the Dead Sea and the Mountains of Moab. The setting sun framed the graduate students in a reddish-orange glow against a spectacular biblical backdrop.

Before I describe the ceremony, though, I have to note that it coincided with the news that Britain’s University and College Union had called on its members to consider a boycott of Israeli universities, accusing them of being complicit in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Anyway, as the Hebrew U. doctoral candidates each had their names called out and rose to receive their diplomas from the university’s leadership, I followed along in the program. The Israeli names rolled by: “Moshe Nahmany, Irit Nowik, Yuval Ofir. But then every so often I heard an Arab name, like Nuha Hijazi or Rifat Azam or Taleb Mokari.

Since the program listed everyone’s degrees and advisers, I looked them up. Rifat got his doctorate in law. His thesis was about “International Taxation of Electronic Commerce.” His adviser was “Prof. D. Gliksberg.” Nuha got her doctorate in biochemistry. Her adviser was “Prof. R. Gabizon.” Taleb had an asterisk by his name. So I looked at the bottom of the page. It said: “Summa Cum Laude.” His chemistry thesis was about “Semiconductor-Metal Interfaces,” and his adviser was “Prof. U. Banin.”

These were Israeli Arab doctoral students — many of them women and one of whom accepted her degree wearing a tight veil over her head. Funny — she could receive her degree wearing a veil from the Hebrew University, but could not do so in France, where the veil is banned in public schools. Arab families cheered unabashedly when their sons and daughters received their Hebrew U. Ph.D. diplomas, just like the Jewish parents.

How crazy is this, I thought. Israel’s premier university is giving Ph.D.’s to Arab students, two of whom were from East Jerusalem — i.e. the occupied territories — supervised by Jewish Israeli professors, all while some far-left British academics are calling for a boycott of Israeli universities.

I tell this story to underscore the obvious : that the reality here is so much more morally complex than the outside meddlers present it. Have no doubt, I have long opposed Israel’s post-1967 settlements. They have squandered billions and degraded the Israeli Army by making it an army of occupation to protect the settlers and their roads. And that web of settlements and roads has carved up the West Bank in an ugly and brutal manner — much uglier than Israel’s friends abroad ever admit. Indeed, their silence, particularly American Jewish leaders, enabled the settlement lunacy.

But you’d have to be a blind, deaf and dumb visitor to Israel today not to see that the vast majority of Israelis recognize this historic mistake, and they not only approved Ariel Sharon’s unilateral uprooting of Israeli settlements in Gaza to help remedy it, but elected Ehud Olmert precisely to do the same in the West Bank. The fact that it is not happening now is hardly Israel’s fault alone. The Palestinians are in turmoil.

So to single out Israeli universities alone for a punitive boycott is rank anti-Semitism. Let’s see, Syria is being investigated by the United Nations for murdering Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Syrian agents are suspected of killing the finest freedom-loving Lebanese journalists, Gibran Tueni and Samir Kassir. But none of that moves the far left to call for a boycott of Syrian universities. Why? Sudan is engaged in genocide in Darfur. Why no boycott of Sudan? Why?

If the far-left academics driving this boycott actually cared about Palestinians they would call on every British university to accept 20 Palestinian students on full scholarships to help them with what they need most — building the skills to run a modern state and economy. And they would call on every British university to dispatch visiting professors to every Palestinian university to help upgrade their academic offerings. And they would challenge every Israeli university that already offers Ph.D.’s to Israeli Arabs to do even more. And they would challenge every Arab university the same way.

That’s what people who actually care about Palestinians would do. But just singling out Israeli universities for a boycott, in the face of all the other madness in the Middle East — that’s what anti-Semites would do.

Scooter’s Sopranos Go to the Mattresses

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 17, 2007

AS a weary nation awaited the fade-out of "The Sopranos" last Sunday, the widow of the actual Mafia don John Gotti visited his tomb in Queens to observe the fifth anniversary of his death. Victoria Gotti was not pleased to find reporters lying in wait.

"It's disgusting that people are still obsessed with Gotti and the mob," she told The Daily News. "They should be obsessed with that mob in Washington. They have 3,000 deaths on their hands." She demanded to know if the president and vice president have relatives on the front lines. "Every time I watch the news and I hear of another death," she said, "it sickens me."

Far be it from me to cross any member of the Gotti family, but there's nothing wrong with being obsessed with both mobs. Now that the approval rating for the entire Washington franchise, the president and Congress alike, has plummeted into the 20s, we need any distraction we can get; the Mafia is a welcome nostalgic escape from a gridlocked government at home and epic violence abroad.

But unlikely moral arbiter that Mrs. Gotti may be, she does have a point. As the Iraq war careens toward a denouement as black, unresolved and terrifying as David Chase's inspired "Sopranos" finale, the mob in the capital deserves at least equal attention. John Gotti, the last don, is dead. Mr. Chase's series is over. But the deaths on the nightly news are coming as fast as ever.

True, the Washington mob isn't as sexy as the Gotti or Soprano clans, but there is now a gripping nonfiction dramatization of its machinations available gratis on the Internet, no HBO subscription required. For this we can thank U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who presided over the Scooter Libby trial. Judge Walton's greatest move was not the 30-month sentence he gave Mr. Libby, a fall guy for higher-ups (and certain to be pardoned to protect their secrets). It was instead the judge's decision to make public the testimonials written to the court by members of the Washington establishment pleading that a criminal convicted on four felony counts be set free.

Mr. Libby's lawyers argued that these letters should remain locked away on the hilarious grounds that they might be "discussed, even mocked, by bloggers." And apparently many of the correspondents assumed that their missives would remain private, just like all other documents pertaining to Mr. Libby's former boss, Dick Cheney. The result is very little self-censorship among the authors and an epistolary gold mine for readers.

Among those contributing to the 373 pages of what calls "Scooter Libby Love Letters" are self-identified liberals and Democrats, a few journalists (including a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine) and a goodly sample of those who presided over the Iraq catastrophe or cheered it on. This is a documentary snapshot of the elite Washington mob of our time.

Like the scripts for "The Sopranos," the letters are not without mordant laughs. Henry Kissinger writes a perfunctory two paragraphs, of which the one about Mr. Libby rather than himself seems an afterthought. James Carville co-signs a letter by Mary Matalin tediously detailing Mr. Libby's devotion to organizing trick-or-treat festivities for administration children spending a post-9/11 Halloween at an "undisclosed location." One correspondent writes in astonishment that Mr. Libby once helped "a neighbor who is a staunch Democrat" dig his car out of the snow, and another is in awe that Mr. Libby would "personally buy his son a gift rather than passing the task on to his wife." Many praise Mr. Libby's novel, "The Apprentice," apparently on the principle that an overwritten slab of published fiction might legitimize the short stories he fabricated freelance for a grand jury.

But what makes these letters rise above inanity is the portrait they provide of a wartime capital cut adrift from moral bearings. As the political historian Rick Perlstein has written, one of the recurrent themes of these pleas for mercy is that Mr. Libby perjured himself "only because he was so busy protecting us from Armageddon." Has there ever been a government leader convicted of a crime — and I don't mean only Americans — who didn't see himself as saving the world from the enemy?

The Libby supporters never acknowledge the undisputed fact that their hero, a lawyer by profession, leaked classified information about a covert C.I.A. officer. And that he did so not accidentally but to try to silence an administration critic who called attention to the White House's prewar lies about W.M.D. intelligence. And that he compounded the original lies by lying repeatedly to investigators pursuing an inquiry that without his interference might have nailed others now known to have also leaked Valerie Wilson's identity (Richard Armitage, Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer).

Much has been said about the hypocrisy of those on the right, champions both of Bill Clinton's impeachment and of unflinching immigration enforcement, who call for legal amnesty in Mr. Libby's case. To thicken their exquisite bind, these selective sticklers for strict justice have been foiled in their usual drill of attacking the judge in the case as "liberal." Judge Walton was initially appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan and was elevated to his present job by the current President Bush; he was assigned as well to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by the Bush-appointed chief justice, John Roberts. Such credentials notwithstanding, Judge Walton told the court on Thursday that he was alarmed by new correspondence and phone calls from the Libby mob since the sentencing "wishing bad things" on him and his family.

In Washington, however, hypocrisy is a perennial crime in both parties; if all the city's hypocrites were put in jail, there would be no one left to run the government. What is more striking about the Libby love letters is how nearly all of them ignore the reality that the crime of lying under oath is at the heart of the case. That issue simply isn't on these letter writers' radar screen; the criminal act of perjury isn't addressed (unless it's ascribed to memory loss because Mr. Libby was so darn busy saving the world). Given that Mr. Libby expressed no contrition in court after being convicted, you'd think some of his defenders might step into that moral vacuum to speak for him. But there's been so much lying surrounding this war from the start that everyone is inured to it by now. In Washington, lying no longer registers as an offense against the rule of law.

Instead the letter writers repeat tirelessly that Mr. Libby is a victim, suffering "permanent damage" to his reputation, family and career in the typical judgment of Kenneth Adelman, the foreign-policy thinker who predicted a "cakewalk" for America in Iraq. There's a whole lot of projection going on, because to judge from these letters, those who drummed up this war think of themselves as victims too. In his letter, the disgraced Paul Wolfowitz sees his friend's case as an excuse to deflect his own culpability for the fiasco. He writes that "during the spring and summer of 2003, when some others were envisioning a prolonged American occupation," Mr. Libby "was a strong advocate for a more rapid build-up of the Iraqi Army and a more rapid transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis, points on which history will prove him to have been prescient."

History will prove no such thing; a "rapid" buildup of the Iraqi Army was and is a mirage, and the neocons' chosen leader for an instant sovereign Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi, had no political following. But Mr. Wolfowitz's real point is to pin his own catastrophic blundering on L. Paul Bremer, the neocons' chosen scapegoat for a policy that was doomed with or without Mr. Bremer's incompetent execution of the American occupation.

Of all the Libby worshipers, the one most mocked in the blogosphere and beyond is Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American academic and war proponent who fantasized that a liberated Iraq would have a (positive) "contagion effect" on the region and that Americans would be greeted "in Baghdad and Basra with kites and boom boxes." (I guess it all depends on your definition of "boom boxes.") In an open letter to President Bush for The Wall Street Journal op-ed page on June 8, he embroidered his initial letter to Judge Walton, likening Mr. Libby to a "fallen soldier" in the Iraq war. In Mr. Ajami's view, Tim Russert (whose testimony contradicted Mr. Libby's) and the American system of justice are untrustworthy, and "the 'covertness' of Mrs. Wilson was never convincingly and fully established." (The C.I.A. confirmed her covert status in court documents filed in May.)

Mr. Ajami notes, accurately, that the trial was "about the Iraq war and its legitimacy" — an argument that could also be mustered by defenders of Alger Hiss who felt his perjury trial was about the cold war. But it's even more revealing that the only "casualty of a war" Mr. Ajami's conscience prompts him to mention is Mr. Libby, a figurative casualty rather than a literal one.

No wonder Victoria Gotti denigrated "that mob in Washington." When the godfathers of this war speak of never leaving "a fallen comrade" on the battlefield in Iraq, as Mr. Ajami writes of Mr. Libby, they are speaking first and foremost of one another. The soldiers still making the ultimate sacrifice for this gang's hubristic folly will just have to fend for themselves.

"I Got a Crush...On Obama" By Obama Girl

SiCKO Movie -- Michael Moore Wants to Hear From You

Can a Vision Save All of Africa?

Talking Business
The New York Times
June 16, 2007

It was “Malaria in Africa Week” here in New York. Not officially, of course. But by coincidence, two big malaria-related events took place that were by turns moving, inspiring and invigorating.

To attend one or both was to come away thinking that maybe the business community was finally getting serious about eradicating malaria, which kills more than a million people a year, most of them African children under the age of 5. But when you look more closely at the problem, you’re left wondering whether such a goal can ever be attained. At least, that’s what I was left wondering.

On Monday, two related organizations, Millennium Promise, co-founded in 2005 by the well-known Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, and Malaria No More, a spinoff started last December, held their first fund-raising dinner. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame spoke and sang, as did John Legend. Peter A. Chernin, the president of the News Corporation and a co-founder of Malaria No More, received a standing ovation for his malaria work. Daniel Vasella, the chief executive of Novartis, received an award; last year, Novartis lost $50 million selling, below cost, tens of millions of doses of its highly effective malaria drug to the developing world. Mr. Sachs gave a rousing, almost euphoric speech, insisting that the end of poverty and disease in Africa was within our grasp. The dinner raised an astonishing $2.7 million.

Then, on Wednesday, another nonprofit, the Global Business Coalition on H.I.V./AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, held its big fund-raising dinner. This is a group that exists solely to marshal corporate support for work in controlling and reducing the three diseases. Speakers included the actor Jamie Foxx, the former United Nations ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, and Richard Branson, the chief executive of the Virgin Group. The keynote address was delivered by Bill Clinton, who dazzled the gathering with his message of hope. The coalition raised over $2 million that night.

In the space of two days, around $5 million was raised to combat disease in Africa. Much of that money was earmarked for malaria.

In the West, and especially in corporate America, malaria has become the disease du jour. I don’t mean that cynically; it’s just a fact. Because malaria has largely been eradicated in the developed world, we in the West have ignored the fact that it has continued to ravage Africa, particularly its children. But then the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began to focus on it, and the United Nations made it one of the lynchpins in its calls to end third world poverty. Last year, the White House held a malaria summit meeting. Exxon Mobil, Pepsi, Chevron, JPMorgan, KPMG and many others, including most of the big pharmaceutical companies, are engaged in the fight against malaria in Africa. The current issue of Vanity Fair, “guest edited” by Bono, is devoted to Africa and has plenty of references to malaria. Included is a lengthy profile of the passionate, charismatic 52-year-old Mr. Sachs. “Messianic,” the article called him.

More than anything else — more even than the path-breaking work of the Gates Foundation — it has been Mr. Sachs’s ability to sell his vision that has caused wealthy philanthropists and large corporations to get behind the causes of eradicating malaria and ending poverty in Africa. He’s the reason George Soros gave $50 million to Millennium Promise, and why the organization has been able to raise over $100 million in its short life.

But that same vision, which is inexorably linked to malaria, but is much larger than that, has caused some mainstream economists to say that while Mr. Sachs means well, he is peddling a dream that will always be just that: a dream. “I think he is improving the lives of many people,” said Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University (and a contributor to The New York Times). “But what he is doing is much oversold.” Mr. Cowen does not believe that Mr. Sachs’s work in Africa will endure.

The question that confronts us this morning is, Who is going to turn out to be right?

Jeff Sachs has zero patience for his critics. He makes it clear in interviews that he feels he knows better than any armchair economist what will work in Africa because “I’m out here doing things in the trenches, with a long track record.”

“I’ve seen a lot of things on the ground that have changed my view both of how to do economics and what the important issues are,” he told me. “I realized early on that I couldn’t understand the problems I was interested in without engagement, because the world is more complicated than a theoretical model.”

Mr. Sachs has always believed in engaging with the world. As a young economist, he advised the governments of Bolivia, which was struggling with hyperinflation, and Poland, which was trying to transform itself into a market economy, advocating a harsh form of economic medicine that was called shock therapy. By the time he was 35, Mr. Sachs was probably the most famous economist in the world.

After a troubled stint working with the government of Russia, Mr. Sachs moved on to the United Nations, where he advised Kofi Annan on the problems of third world poverty. He orchestrated a huge report on poverty, which led to something called the Millennium Development Goals. And then, having helped formulate the goals, he decided to try to make them a reality. Thus was born Millennium Promise.

Although Mr. Sachs insists that he has always been consistent in his approach — “I try to design strategies appropriate to the circumstances,” he said — most other people think his Africa strategy is radically different from anything he’s done before. Mainly, he says he believes that the West needs to spend huge sums of money to control disease, improve farming, create better schools and build infrastructure in Africa. And if that can be done, he believes, economic growth, and all the good things that flow from it, will become Africa’s lot at last.

Though he is a prodigious fund-raiser, even Jeffrey Sachs can’t wave his magic wand and gather the hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to build all the roads and schools and farms and hospitals that Africa so desperately needs. So what he has done instead is to pick poor rural villages — he’s up to 79 by now — in countries with relatively stable governments, and find corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals who will adopt them to the tune of $300,000 a year for five years.

There is no question that the efforts of Millennium Promise are making a difference in those villages. The schools are drastically better, and thanks to a new lunch program, with the grain provided by the village’s own farmers, students are eating better. Each village is given bed nets coated with insecticide, which are the best way to prevent malaria, and a Novartis medicine, Coartem, which has to be taken within a day or so of malarial symptoms. Cases of malaria have dropped significantly. Mr. Sachs’s agronomists at the Earth Institute, which he runs at Columbia, create seed that can adapt to the village’s usually arid soil, and they give all the farmers fertilizer. Sure enough, the crop yield has increased, in many cases, by four to five times.

That is what Mr. Cowen means when he says that Mr. Sachs is improving people’s lives. Plainly, he is. But those efforts, laudable though they are, will not eradicate malaria or reduce African poverty in any serious way. The real question is how to turn Mr. Sachs’s efforts into more than just a pilot program that temporarily helps a bunch of villages. How will it transform all of Africa?

Ultimately, Millennium Promise is hoping that the governments of these countries will pick up where the Fortune 500 companies leave off. But given Africa’s history, that is one serious leap of faith. “He doesn’t have a coherent theory by which his model can scale up,” Mr. Cowen told me.

Take malaria again. There are several reasons companies are drawn to it. One is that a multinational oil giant like Exxon Mobil has employees in Africa, and it is in its best interest to keep them from getting sick. But another is that, on the surface, malaria really does seem solvable, and companies like to fix things. If everyone in Africa had — and used — a bed net, the incidence of new malaria cases would drop to nearly nothing overnight. And if Coartem were more widely available, far fewer malaria victims would die.

But it’s just not that simple because malaria is so intertwined with other problems Africa faces. What happens when the bed nets tear? How do you get more of them into remote villages? What do you do as the mosquitoes become more resistant to the insecticide? What happens to the clinics — and the Coartem — when the Western money goes away? How do you make malaria programs work in the middle of civil wars and strife? And most of all, how do you extend this program all across the continent? Despite the best of intentions, neither Western corporations, nor wealthy philanthropists, are equipped to solve all these problems. “Countries make their own fate,” said Bruce Greenwald, Mr. Sachs’s economics colleague on the Columbia faculty.

When you think about it like that, it seems nearly hopeless. When I spoke to Dr. Vasella at Novartis, whose company has just agreed to sponsor a village in Tanzania, he acknowledged that Mr. Sachs’s program might not work. But, he said: “That is still no reason not to try. If you don’t try you won’t know the outcome.” He added, “Unless you are willing to fail, you shouldn’t start.”

And maybe that’s the best way to think about what Mr. Sachs — and Western companies — are trying to do. Theirs is not a solution but an experiment. It will surely do some good, but it is impossible to know how much. It is a worthy effort, but probably not as profoundly transformative as he likes to portray it. And it is probably best not to get too excited, no matter how inspiring the speeches at New York fund-raisers.

Because someday malaria is no longer going to be the pet cause in American boardrooms. And then what?

The First Domed City

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
June 16, 2007


Every week, more than 2,000 people move to the Valley of Sun, to a metro area nearly as big in size as the state of New Jersey. They come from Pittsburgh, from Buffalo, from Cleveland, from Fargo — from yesterday to tomorrow.

A city equal to Rochester plants itself here every two years. And what they find is a compelling urban experiment: nearly four million people trying to live in the Sonoran Desert, and live with what they had at home — golf courses, lakes, perennial green. But they also learn that summer is winter, in the sense that Phoenicians stay indoors this time of year, hunkered inside a climate-controlled world, and plan their extended midday excursions like an astronaut going for a space walk. In the stillness of late-afternoon, you wonder: where is everybody?

Phoenix, even more than the other desert metropolis of Las Vegas, is the new American city. People come here because nobody has a past, and because houses are still cheap and because when the snow reached the roofline they finally said: That’s it! I’ve had it.

But what if this place — so new the Bubble Wrap is barely off the red-tiled roofs of neighborhoods named for whatever they displaced — became uninhabitable? What if the climate models that predict the American West heating up faster than any other part of the country proved all too accurate?

If you live here, you know what it means when the sun becomes an enemy. On Thursday, it was 110 degrees. Yesterday, same thing. Too hot to leave a dog or a child in a car without risking their lives. Your skin stings. You feel your brain swelling while waiting for the air-conditioning when you get in the oven of a parked car.

About 800 people will be hospitalized, on average, for heat-related maladies in the coming months, and some will die, mostly the very young and the very old.

As heat waves go, this week’s mercury-topper is nothing special. It’s been 121 degrees — the all-time high. But if you look at the trends and the long-term predictions by the United Nations climate panel, you wonder how our signature New City will adapt. The average temperature of Phoenix has risen five degrees since the 1960s, according to the National Weather Service. Five of the warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000.

A few years ago, The Arizona Republic predicted that average temperatures in Phoenix might rise by 15 to 20 degrees over a generation, due to something called the urban heat island effect. The more parking lots and Dilbert-filled buildings are slapped over the desert floor, the more heat stays trapped in the valley. On top of that is climate change.

“All of the models say in the next 50 years this place is really going to heat up,” said Robert Balling, a climatologist at Arizona State University.

Outside the city, the forests of Arizona are dying, stressed by drought and rising temperatures. A fire that burned an area the size of metro Phoenix five years ago is seen as a terrifying precursor. What scientists have found is that there’s a threshold at which the forest ecosystem collapses. They’ve looked at droughts going back to the time of the Hohokam, who built canals here, and cannot find anything like the present crash.

Is there a similar point at which the city becomes imperiled? The skeptics say: No, we can engineer our way around it. Look at the ballpark where the Diamondbacks play baseball: It has a retractable roof, which is closed while the stadium is cooled by industrial-strength air-conditioning and then opened in the evening.

Or behold the great veins of the Central Arizona Project, bringing water from the Colorado River to fountains in Scottsdale. The fast-evaporating water courses through the city as it bakes, making it livable.

To their credit, residents are using less water, deploying the sun to power air-conditioning, putting in desert landscaping — cacti and stones, not bluegrass and ponds. I do not doubt that innovation will continue to make it easier to defy the heat. But it’s one thing to bring runoff from the Rocky Mountains to the desert floor. It’s another to bring alpine air to streets and parks and backyards, unless you put a dome over the whole city.

Wallace Stegner always said it was his hope that the West could build cities to match the setting. He never predicted that the setting would be the problem.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Flip Side of the Dream

The New York Times
June 16, 2007

Camden, N.J.

Emmanuel Wayne pressed his back against the shabby, one-story building, trying unsuccessfully to escape the downpour. The blue-and-white sign overhead said Bill’s Liquors.

I was standing there with him. The water pouring down the teenager’s face created a funhouse mirror effect, making it look like he was laughing and crying at the same time. It was an absurd place to conduct an interview, but a lot of things about the inner-city are absurd.

“I been looking for a job,” he said, “but you know ... .” He shrugged. “I went to the McDonald’s. I was up to the Cherry Hill Mall. Ain’t too much out here.”

It was a gloomy late afternoon. Throughout the rundown neighborhood, young people were gathered in clusters on porches, looking out at the rain. I talked to some and they told the same story as Emmanuel. No jobs. No money.

“That’s why people go on the hustle,” said one young man. “Got to get the money somewhere.”

The summer job outlook for teenagers is beyond bleak. A modest 157,000 jobs were added to the nation’s payrolls in May. But teen employment fell for the fifth consecutive month, an ominous trend as we head into the summer months when millions of additional teenagers join in the hunt for jobs.

From January through May, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, “the national teen employment rate averaged only 33.1 percent, tying for the lowest employment rate in the past 60 years.”

For youngsters like Emmanuel Wayne and others in this distressed city just a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, the problem is much worse. Last summer, the employment rate for black teens from low-income families was an abysmal 18 percent.

This is the flip side of the American dream. Kids who grow up poor and never work at a regular job tend not to think in terms of postgraduate degrees, marriages and honeymoons, careers and the cost of educating the next generation.

A steady job could make all the difference. Along with the paycheck comes a sense of the possibilities. Kids develop a clearer understanding of the value of education and are more likely to stay in school. The heightened sense of self-worth that comes from gainful employment can be a bulwark against negative peer pressure. Contacts are made and a work history established.

“The more you work today, the more you’re going to work tomorrow,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies. “And the more you work while you’re in school, the easier it is to transition to the labor market when you graduate.”

It seems obvious that we should be putting as many young people to work as possible, but the opposite is happening. The youth labor market in the U.S. has all but collapsed. Teens were especially hard hit by the recession that followed the employment boom of the late 1990s, and there has been no substantial recovery in the teen job market since then.

Years ago the federal government played a major role in bolstering job opportunities for teenagers. There was substantial bipartisan support for both year-round and summer employment programs. But that important commitment vanished with the conservative onslaught of recent years.

The result was inevitable. As the center has reported, “Far fewer youth across the nation are gaining exposure to the job market and to the real world of work than in the late 1980s and 1990s.”

What you are left with are frustrated youngsters, full of energy but lacking appropriate outlets, who have trouble figuring out what to do with themselves. It’s an environment that is all but guaranteed to spawn bad choices.

I asked Emmanuel what he might do if he couldn’t find a job for the summer.

“Don’t know,” he said. “I got a buddy doing this and that. He could help me out.”

The rain had eased up and Emmanuel was off. A man named Darnell, who said he was 23, came out of the liquor store. He and I talked for awhile about the summer prospects for teens in the neighborhood.

“Well, there ain’t no jobs in Camden,” he said. “Not for teenagers. If you can’t get a job, you have to hustle. People be pushing weed. Cutting hair. Lifting stuff. The girls do their thing. It ain’t no picnic out here. It’s depressing.”

Workers with rights, not ‘guests’ who are slaves

By Linda Chavez-Thompson
June 14, 2007

Growing up in western Texas as the daughter of cotton sharecroppers, I spent my summers weeding cotton, five days a week, 10 hours a day, in 95-degree heat. As grueling as this workload was, others had it even worse.

For foreign workers toiling as “guest workers” (or “braceros”) alongside us in the cotton fields, the five-day workweek was an impossible luxury. They were often stiffed on wages, and health care was simply nonexistent. Viewing them as units of production, employers worked them to their limit, knowing that the following season a fresh unsuspecting batch would arrive.

Well-documented abuses

The horrific abuses suffered by workers in programs such as the bracero program are well documented and indisputable. And although most people like to think of bracero programs as a phenomenon of the past, the reality is that their legacy of exploitation and abuse continues to thrive in contemporary American society through modern guest worker programs such as the H2-A and H2-B.

Like undocumented workers, “guest workers” in this country face enormous obstacles in enforcing their labor rights.

H-2 programs

The H-2 guest worker programs bring in agricultural and other seasonal workers to pick crops, do construction and work in the seafood industry, among other jobs. Workers typically borrow large amounts of money to pay travel expenses, fees and even bribes to recruiters. That means that before they even begin to work, they are indebted.

According to a new study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it is not unusual for a Guatemalan worker to pay more than $2,500 in fees to obtain a seasonal guest worker position, about a year’s worth of income in Guatemala. And Thai workers have been known to pay as much as $10,000 for the chance to harvest crops in the orchards of the Pacific Northwest. Interest rates on the loans are sometimes as high as 20 percent a month. Homes and vehicles are required collateral.

Handcuffed workers have no rights

Handcuffed by their debt and bound to employers who can send them home on a whim, the “guests” are forced to remain and work for employers even when their pay and working conditions are second-rate, hazardous or abusive. Hungry children inevitably trump protest. Technically, these programs include some legal protections, but in reality, those protections exist mostly on paper. Government enforcement is almost nonexistent. Private attorneys refuse to take cases, and language barriers make it virtually impossible for workers to speak out.

Undocumented immigrants face similar obstacles at work. Because they are under the constant threat of deportation, they cannot effectively assert their rights at the workplace, and employers routinely take advantage of them.

The result is that both guest workers and undocumented workers end up working the most dangerous and most exploitative jobs in our country.

Situation worsens

It’s getting worse, not better. Among foreign-born workers, workplace fatalities increased by an alarming 46 percent between 1992 and 2002. Since 1992, fatalities among Hispanic workers have increased by 65 percent.

When immigrant workers try to correct such injustices by forming unions, they are cruelly harassed, intimidated and even terminated for their actions. When all else fails to break a union drive, employers simply call in the immigration authorities and everyone gets deported for standing up for basic human rights.

An injury to one is an injury to all

For years, the AFL-CIO has campaigned for an end to the exploitation and abuse of immigrant workers who are here working hard and contributing to our economy. The best way to guarantee the wages and rights of all workers in this country is to give every immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen, with all the rights and duties that entails.

The exploitation of immigrant workers hurts us all. When standards are driven down for some workers, they are driven down for all workers. For this same reason, guest worker programs must by squarely rejected. Because workers in these programs are always dependent on their host employers for both for their livelihoods and legal status, these programs create a disenfranchised underclass of workers.

Labor rights for all

History, economics and common sense dictate that exploitation of workers will continue as long as it makes economic sense for employers to do so. We must step outside of the status quo and revise the current immigration law in a way that guarantees full labor rights for future foreign workers and reflects real labor market conditions by restructuring the current permanent employment visa category. That is, future foreign workers should be welcomed as permanent residents with full rights at the onset — not as disposable “guests.” This is the only way to guarantee that foreign workers enjoy the same rights and protections as all other U.S. workers, including the freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.

As a nation that prides itself on fair treatment and equality, how can we possibly settle for anything less?

Linda Chavez-Thompson is the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, representing 10 million workers. She is the highest-ranking woman and Latina in that labor federation. The above commentary written by her appeared on the AFL-CIO web site June 6 and in a recent issue of Forbes Magazine.

Labor leaders call for end to occupation

By Marilyn Bechtel
June 14 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — To judge by most U.S. media, the daily slaughter of Iraqis and the ever-climbing death toll among U.S. occupation forces sum up reality in Iraq. We rarely hear that a powerful labor movement is defending workers’ rights, campaigning for an end to the U.S.-led occupation and for better daily living conditions for ordinary people, and upholding the Iraqi people’s right to keep control of their country’s great oil resources.

This month, people across the U.S. are getting a glimpse of that other reality, as they hear from two Iraqi trade union leaders, Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the Oil Workers Union, and Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union and the first woman to head a national union in Iraq.

The two, from the southern port city of Basra, are touring under the auspices of U.S. Labor Against War, the American Friends Service Committee and United for Peace and Justice, appealing for stepped-up solidarity to end the occupation and to keep Iraq’s oil fields from being privatized to benefit transnational oil corporations.

During their stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, the two received word of Iraqi oil workers’ victory in the strike they began June 4 for the right to participate in talks on the new oil law and for decent wages and working conditions.

“We know that most people here support us and oppose the occupation,” Hussein told audiences at union halls in San Jose and San Francisco. “Our hearts are with the American soldiers,” she said. “We don’t want them to be killed in our country; they should return home safely.” The two unionists point out that Iraqis of different ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions have worked together for centuries, and say the war and occupation are to blame for the current sectarian strife. They emphasize that the Iraqi people have the ability to reconstruct and govern their country and to manage its industries including oil.

“The sectarian divisions and violence are completely new to Iraqis,” Hussein said. “Even during the first year and a half of occupation, there was no violence, which shows that it was planned for during that time.”

Umara added that sectarian violence is much more intense in areas controlled by U.S. and British occupation forces than in regions controlled by Iraqi police and military.

A special bone of contention is the draft oil law now before the Iraqi Parliament. Iraq’s oil, like that of all other Middle Eastern countries, was nationalized in the 1960s, and the country’s new constitution states that its oil and gas resources, among the world’s largest, belong to all the Iraqi people. But the proposed law, which the Bush administration is pressing the Parliament to pass, would open most of the oil to foreign control under so-called production sharing agreements that are unprecedented among major Middle East oil-producing countries.

Calling the law crucial to the U.S. drive for “economic occupation,” Umara said the oil workers, who up to now have been barred from talks about the measure, want the National Oil Company to have sole control of oil and gas. While the company would pay for outside services to develop the oil fields, Umara said, “We will produce and export our oil, and we will rebuild our country from the oil revenues.”

The oil workers, with support from all the other Iraqi unions, have shown they can back up their words with action, not only in this month’s strike but also through a three-day strike in 2003, which blocked Halliburton’s attempt to seize control of oil wells and rigs.

Tour preparations were complicated by a long struggle to obtain visas. Umara actually arrived several days late because of a last-minute hitch. Now the two are being received very warmly in the U.S.

In Washington, D.C., Hussein met with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whom she called “very supportive of Iraqi workers.”

The AFL-CIO and the British Trades Union Congress later wrote jointly urging the Iraqi government to stop using force to intimidate the striking oil workers.

The unionists also met with members of Congress including Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Dennis Kucinich. “They promised to redouble their efforts for the occupation forces to leave, and pledged to work for defeat of the proposed oil law,” Hussein said.

Coming stops include New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. For details, visit

Oil workers win their strike

This week Hassan Juma’a, president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), sent word the oil workers had won the strike they started June 4. He said the federation and the government had agreed to form a special committee to address the workers’ demands. Besides wages, benefits and working conditions, these include a role for the oil workers in talks on the draft oil law now before Parliament.

Pipeline workers belonging to the 26,000-member IFOU had shut down some pipelines from wells in the south, charging that weeks of negotiations had yielded no progress.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the army to surround the strikers and issued warrants for their leaders’ arrest.

After the union put the strike “on hold,” warning it could resume June 11, al-Maliki sent a high-level delegation and agreed to negotiate on the issues.

“We couldn’t have done it without support of all the other unions, who protested at their workplaces and sent material support,” said IFOU General Secretary Faleh Abood Umara, now touring the U.S.


US: New polls reveal mass opposition to Democrats and Republicans

By Joe Kay
15 June 2007

New opinion polls released this week show mounting discontent within the American population over the war in Iraq and the policies of both political parties. They reflect deep and bitter opposition to the Bush administration, but also reveal that just six months after the Democrats took control of Congress, masses of Americans who voted Democratic to express their opposition to the Iraq war are disillusioned and angry over the Democrats’ cowardice and complicity with Bush.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Wednesday, Bush’s overall approval rating stands at an all-time low of 29 percent. Over 66 percent disapprove of his job performance. From April of this year Bush’s approval rating dropped 6 percentage points, an extraordinary fall in such a short period of time, particularly given the president’s already low numbers.

However, the continued collapse of support for the Bush administration has not translated into a corresponding rise in support for the Democrats. In fact, approval for the Democratic-controlled Congress stands at only 23 percent, below even that for Bush and down sharply from only a few months ago.

In early 2007, following the midterm elections, approval for Congress jumped to 31 percent from its pre-election low of 16 percent. Over the past two months, however, support for Congress has fallen a full 8 percentage points.

The fall in support for the Democrats reflects more than anything else anger over the passage of the $100 billion war-funding bill in May.

Another recent poll, conducted by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg earlier this week, registered similar results. It found that 63 percent of the population believes that the new Democratic-controlled Congress is governing in a “business as usual” manner—that is, doing nothing to change the course of US government policy.

The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has an approval rating of only 36 percent, while 58 percent of self-described “liberal Democrats”—those most likely to oppose the war in Iraq—disapprove of Congress, up 15 percentage points from January.

On Iraq, the poll found that 68 percent of the population now favors the complete withdrawal of US troops within one year or less, with 25 percent favoring “immediate withdrawal,” up from 19 percent in January. These views, held by the overwhelming majority of the population, are nowhere expressed in the political establishment.

At the same time, 54 percent of those surveyed in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said the situation in Iraq has gotten worse in recent months, during the period of the “surge,” while only 10 percent said it has gotten better. A New York Times/CBS News poll last month found opposition to the Iraq war at record highs, with six in ten saying that the US should never have gone into Iraq.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll also found that only 19 percent of those surveyed—less than one in five—said that the country is “headed in the right direction,” while 68 percent said it was “off on the wrong track.”

Besides mass opposition to the Iraq war, these polls reflect mounting anger over the growing concentration of wealth at the top, and the increasingly difficult economic situation facing working people. Rising gas and food prices, the collapse of the housing market, job cuts, attacks on health benefits and pensions, wage stagnation have all contributed to widespread anxiety and disillusionment within the American population.

The percentage of people who believe the country is headed in the right direction has declined steadily over the past several months, from 29 percent last October, to 28 percent in January, 25 percent in March, and 22 percent in April.

These figures provide a snapshot of a political system in deep crisis. Beneath the ossified and unrepresentative political and media establishment in the US is a population seething with anger and discontent.

Commenting on the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll findings Wednesday evening, NBC News anchor Brian Williams said they indicate a “volatile period in modern American history,” in which the mood of the population has turned “decidedly grim and downright angry.” NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert remarked that the polls showed “it’s churning out there.”

These comments reflect nervousness within the ruling elite that growing opposition could produce a social explosion, with the public finding new channels for expressing its views and interests beyond the confines of the two-party system.

There is a profound disconnect between the majority of the population, increasingly politicized by the war in Iraq and the social crisis, and the political establishment. Underlying the chasm between official politics and the sentiments of masses of people are longer-term trends, in particular, the extraordinary growth of social inequality. The political establishment is dominated by the interests of a tiny oligarchy.

America Comes Up Short

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 15, 2007


Traveling through Europe recently, I’ve been able to confirm through personal experience what statistical surveys tell us: the perceived stature of Americans is not what it was. Europeans used to look up to us; now, many of them look down on us instead.

No, I’m not talking metaphorically about our loss of moral authority in the wake of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. I’m literally talking about feet and inches.

To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.

The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”

This is not a trivial matter. As the paper says, “height is indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.” There’s a whole discipline of “anthropometric history” that uses evidence on heights to assess changes in social conditions.

For example, nothing demonstrates the harsh class distinctions of Britain in the age of Dickens better than the 9-inch height gap between 15-year-old students at Sandhurst, the elite military academy, and their counterparts at the working-class Marine School. The dismal working and living conditions of urban Americans during the Gilded Age were reflected in a 1- 1/2 inch decline in the average height of men born in 1890, compared with those born in 1830. Americans born after 1920 were the first industrial generation to regain preindustrial stature.

So what is America’s modern height lag telling us?

There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country’s average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.

It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.

And although the Komlos-Lauderdale paper suggests that growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that, as the authors themselves point out, even high-status Americans are falling short: “rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans.”

We seem to be left with two main possible explanations of the height gap.

One is that America really has turned into “Fast Food Nation.”

“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.

A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.

Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short.

The National Pastime

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 15, 2007

At this very moment thousands of people are surfing the Web looking for genetic material so their children will be nothing like me. They are looking through files at sperm bank sites with Jetson-like names such as Xytex, which have become the new eBays for offspring.

These sites take sex and turn it into shopping. They allow you to browse through page after page of donor profiles, comparing weight, noses, personality and what one site calls “tannability.”

Shoppers can use these sites and select much better genetic material than would be possessed by someone they could realistically lure into bed. And they can more efficiently engage in the national pastime — rigging our childrens’ lives so they’ll be turbocharged for success.

When given this kind of freedom of choice, people seem to want to produce athletic Aryans with a passion for housekeeping. There is tremendous market demand for DNA from blue-eyed, blond-haired, 6-foot-2 finely sculpted hunks who roast their own coffee. These are the kind of guys you see jogging in the park and nothing moves. They’ve got a stomach, a chest and flanks, but as they bounce along nothing jiggles, not even their hair. They’re like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime from the shoulders down, and Trent Lott from the scalp up.

Nor is brainpower neglected. In a bow to all that is sacred in our culture, one sperm bank has one branch located between Harvard and M.I.T. and the other next to Stanford. An ad in The Harvard Crimson offered $50,000 for an egg from a Harvard woman. A recent ad in the Chicago Maroon at the University of Chicago offered $35,000 for a Chicago egg and stipulated, “You must be very healthy, very intelligent and very attractive, and most of all, very happy. Liberal political views and athletic ability are pluses.”

(Is liberalism genetic? I thought it was the product of some environmental deprivation.)

In any case, a Harris poll suggested that more than 40 percent of Americans would use genetic engineering to upgrade their children mentally and physically. If you get social acceptance at that level, then everybody has to do it or their kids will be left behind.

Which means that sooner or later reproduction becomes a casting call for “Baywatch” and people like me become an evolutionary dead end. For centuries my ancestors have been hewing peat in Wales and skipping school in Ukraine, but those of us in the low-center-of-gravity community will be left on evolution’s cutting-room floor. People under 5-foot-9 can’t even donate sperm to these banks, so my co-equals are doomed, let alone future Napoleons.

The people who do this will pay no heed to the fact that mediocre looks have always been a great spur to creative achievement and ugliness is the mother of genius.

In a world in which Brad Pitt is average, say farewell to loneliness, sublimation and nerds’ witty bids for attention. In a world in which everyone is smart, good-looking and pleasant, everyone will be fit to perform in hit movies, but no one will be fit to review them.

I’m not under the illusion that any of this can be stopped. Conservatives like me think that if you want your kids to have Harvard genes you should have to endure living with a Harvard spouse. But the rest of the country is not with us. There’s no way people are going to foreswear the joys of creative genetics. “I would probably choose somebody with a darker skin color so I don’t have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time,” one potential mother told Jennifer Egan of The Times Magazine last year.

So as my kind heads off to obsolescence, I wonder about the unintended consequences. What if it’s true, as some believe, that genes are dominant and home environment has little effect on children? You could have two lesbian bikers giving birth to Mitt Romney.

What if parents are perpetually buying genes on the downward slope? After all, for maximum success, you don’t want President Kennedy’s genes. You want Joseph Kennedy’s genes. You don’t want Bill Clinton’s genes. You want his father’s. What if we get the national equivalent of the 38th generation of the House of Windsor?

Or, on the other hand, what if nurture still trumps nature? After all, if you look at world-historical figures you’re struck by how many had their parents die when they were about 12. How many superconcerned moms and dads are going to put that in their datebook?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Cry of the Disappeared

International Herald Tribune
June 13, 2007


To disappear became a transitive verb in Latin America. Military dictatorships “disappeared” their opponents. That is to say, they kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disposed of them, leaving only an inconsolable absence in the place of a human being.

I spent some time in Argentina in the aftermath of the 1976-83 dictatorship. Enough to become familiar with countless picture frames holding images of impossibly lovely young women, taken from their homes for “brief questioning,” never to be seen again. Enough to know the unquenchable parental tears these disappearances provoked.

It was not too early then, in rooms filled with the animal sobbing of the bereaved, to feel rage at the junta’s crimes. But it was too early to know the full extent of them: the 30,000 disappeared, the torture at the Navy School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires, the corpse-dumping flights out to sea.

Argentines still hoped back in the 1980s. They hoped, whatever their heads told them, that the longing in their hearts might return their loved ones intact. No doubt, many still hope.

With disappearance, closure is impossible, for there is no evidence of an ending. In this infinite prolongation of suffering lay the particular contribution of the generals to the infliction of pain.

There was something else we did not know back then. Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, told Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti, the Argentine foreign minister, in June 1976: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures.”

Later, Kissinger assured the admiral that the administration “won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties.” He also grew angry when he learned that the U.S. ambassador in Buenos Aires, Robert Hill, has given the junta a warning about violations of human rights. “In what way is it compatible with my policy?” Kissinger asked, before suggesting that Hill might have to go.

These exchanges, records of which were obtained in recent years under the federal Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit National Security Archive, suggest how the surrogate battles of the Cold War, as fought in the American hemisphere, drew the United States into forms of complicity that remain a shadow on its conscience.

More recently, the historian Robert Dallek unearthed transcripts in the National Archives that show Kissinger, bitter at negative newspaper coverage of the 1973 coup in Chile, complaining to President Richard Nixon that, “in the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes.” The coup would lead to thousands of “disappearances.”

I was thrust back into this Latin American vortex, which haunted me in the 1980s, by a powerful show called “The Disappeared” at New York’s El Museo del Barrio. It features works about horrors, often followed by impunity, to which the United States turned a blind eye at best.

Ana Tiscornia’s blurred portraits, palimpsests in which the subjects seem to hover between life and death, capture the slow fading of the disappeared, and their flickering hold on those from whom they were seized.

A corridor full of photographs of young couples feature women who were pregnant when “disappeared.” The Argentine military would wait for the child to be born before murdering the mother. The babies went to childless military couples. Laconic captions say: “The couple and their child remain disappeared.”

As Laurel Reuter and Julian Zugazagoitia write in their introduction to the show, organized by the North Dakota Museum of Art, the artists “ask us, as North Americans, to question what role our own country played in supporting the Latin American governments which killed their people as a matter of course.”

The artists also ask us something else. This month six human rights groups listed 39 people they believe are secretly imprisoned in unknown locations by the United States as part of the war on terror.

President George W. Bush acknowledged last year that some individuals deemed particularly dangerous had been moved “to an environment where they can be held secretly.” In effect, categorized as enemy combatants, they have been “disappeared.”

This practice is unconscionable. It does not matter that the purpose of the disappearance is not murder, as it was in Argentina.

Once people disappear, every basic human right is at risk because every check, every balance, has gone with them. The worst becomes almost inevitable because there is nothing to stop it.

The United States demands accountability of others when its own people go missing. It must demand the same accountability of itself, whatever the fight. The lovely, longing and lost young faces of Latin America require at least that.

Where the Goods Are Odd

The New York Times
June 14, 2007

This time of year, Alaska is paradise. King Salmon hustle up to the front porch of Anchorage. Softball games unfold in the buttery glow of the midnight sun. And the woods are full of mega fauna in frisky pursuit.

But amid the lovely, longest days of the year, the political world — controlled and corrupted by age and oil — is unraveling. The farce in the far north involves two national politicians who are used to getting their way, and a lobby that treats legislators like houseboys.

Let’s start with the Senator for Life, Ted Stevens, 83, the longest-serving Republican in the upper chamber. You know him, perhaps, only because he described the Internet last year as a “series of tubes” that can get backed up for days. This, while discussing legislation involving that dad-gummed series of tubes.

Uncle Ted is to Alaska what Huey Long was to Louisiana, and tributes range from the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to the hundreds of projects built with “Ted Stevens money” as your tax dollars are called in Alaska. One of Uncle Ted’s best friends, Bill J. Allen, former chief executive of an oil services company, pleaded guilty last month to bribery and other charges in a scandal that has rocked Alaska and produced four indictments of state politicians. It looks like there’s more to come, soon.

If you live in Alaska, you pay no state taxes, and get a check every year in shared oil royalties. What keeps the gravy train going is oil. But as the decay in Saudi Arabia demonstrates, oil corrupts. And absolute oil corrupts absolutely. “There are two things we worry about here in Alaska: Life after oil, and life after Uncle Ted,” said Ivan Moore, an independent pollster.

Last week, Senator Stevens said the F.B.I. had asked him to preserve some of his records. He also said his son Ben, the former state Senate president, was under investigation. The probe is linked to bribes and other services paid by the oil services company, VECO. The F.B.I. has not said if the elder Stevens is a target.

Ted Stevens used to be a respected independent voice in the Senate. But his obsession with opening the Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, and his nearly 40 years in the Senate, have left him an embittered, tired old politician with a host of grudges.

Then there’s the Congressman for Life, Representative Don Young, 74. You know him from the Bridge to Nowhere, his effort to direct more than $200 million to build a span nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge from Ketchikan to an island with less than 100 people.

As chairman of the committee that bundled all pet projects into a single transportation bill last year, Young had this to say about the legislative process: “I stuffed it like a turkey.”

He said he was proud to be one of the biggest pigs at the trough — he used the word “oinker” — because the power to control $300 billion only comes around once in a lifetime. But as it turned out, the pipe dream really was a bridge to somewhere: the back door. Many Republicans say it cost them control of the House in the 2006 election.

Last week, David D. Kirkpatrick wrote in The Times about one of Young’s other earmarks — $10 million to a Florida district whose congressman had never requested it. But a Florida real estate developer who stood to gain a huge windfall with the new road was very interested in the project. So much so that he helped to raise $40,000 for the sole congressman from Alaska.

Asked about the earmark, Young made an obscene gesture, which was in character, given that he once expressed himself similarly with a group of wide-eyed schoolchildren in Fairbanks.

The good news for Republicans is that the most popular fresh face is one of theirs — Gov. Sarah Palin, who looks like Tina Fey of “Saturday Night Live” fame. A marathon runner and commercial fisherwoman — whose kids are named Track, Bristol, Willow and Piper — Governor Palin knocked out an encrusted incumbent in the primary last year. She supports a new ethics bill designed to bring light to the long winter of Alaska politics.

Maybe the women should have been given a chance earlier. With more men than women, Alaska has always been the kind of place where the odds are good, as the saying goes, but the goods are odd. Especially with age and power.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

Africa’s World War

The New York Times
June 14, 2007


Speciose Kabagwira lost another baby last week. It was the end of her 12th pregnancy, and the infant was stillborn on delivery.

It was her fifth stillbirth or miscarriage. And of her seven children born alive, four have died.

At one level, what killed her children and cost her those pregnancies was a combination of poverty and pathetic health care. But hovering in the background is another of Africa’s great killers: civil conflict and instability.

Earlier this year, I held a “win-a-trip contest” to choose a student and a teacher to take with me on a reporting trip to Africa. Now I’m taking the winners to the Great Lakes region here in Central Africa partly because it underscores the vast human cost when we in the West allow conflicts to fester in forgotten parts of the world.

On our two-week trip, the winners — Leana Wen, a medical student from Washington University, and Will Okun, a high school teacher in Chicago — will travel with me through Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Will and Leana are blogging and video blogging at

Since the Rwandan genocide began in 1994, at least five million people have died in the Great Lakes region in what is sometimes called Africa’s first world war. In the Congo, those deaths are still piling up.

Leana, Will and I visited the Catholic church yesterday in Nyamata, in Southern Rwanda, where hundreds and hundreds of terrified Tutsis were butchered in 1994 after they took shelter there.

Most numbing are the bloodstains on one section in the back of the church. That is where the attackers gathered babies and bashed them against the wall. Below the church is a crypt with endless rows of skulls and other bones of the victims — a monument to the shameful refusal of Western powers to get involved in African genocides.

The Rwandan bloodbath was over quickly, and Rwanda is now peaceful and booming, but the turmoil is still enveloping families like Ms. Kabagwira’s. We found her in an encampment of 2,000 Rwandans, all of whom who had fled tribal violence to Tanzania — but who were driven back last year by rampaging Tanzanians.

Now Ms. Kabagwira is living in a makeshift hut, in an area where water is inadequate, soil is poor and the nearest hospital is a one-hour bus ride away. She says she might have been able to save her baby last week if she had gone to the hospital earlier, but she couldn’t pay the $1.20 bus fare.

So how do we help people like Ms. Kabagwira? Some excellent answers are found in the best book on international affairs so far this year: Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.”

Mr. Collier, a former research director of the World Bank, notes that when the G-8 countries talk about helping Africa, they overwhelmingly focus just on foreign aid. Sure, aid has a role to play, but it’s pointless to build clinics when rebel groups are running around burning towns and shooting doctors.

One essential kind of help that the West can provide — but one that is rarely talked about — is Western military assistance in squashing rebellions, genocides and civil wars, or in protecting good governments from insurrections. The average civil war costs $64 billion, yet could often be suppressed in its early stages for very modest sums. The British military intervention in Sierra Leone easily ended a savage war and was enthusiastically welcomed by local people — and, as a financial investment, achieved benefits worth 30 times the cost.

Josh Ruxin, a Columbia University public health expert living in Rwanda, notes that a modest Western force could have stopped the genocide in 1994 — or, afterward, rooted out Hutu extremists who fled to Congo and dragged that country into a civil war that has cost millions of lives.

“Had an international force come in and rounded them up, that would have been the biggest life-saving measure in modern history,” he said.

So it’s time for the G-8 countries to conceive of foreign aid more broadly — not just to build hospitals and schools, but also to work with the African Union to provide security in areas that have been ravaged by rebellion and war. A starting point would be a serious effort to confront genocide in Darfur — and at least an international force to prop up Chad and Central African Republic, rather than allow Africa to tumble into its second world war.

Forbidden Hollywood: three films from Hollywood’s pre-Production Code era

By Charles Bogle
14 June 2007

Forbidden Hollywood, vol. 1, Turner Classic Movies Archives, 2006

Turner Classic Movies Archives has released a boxed set of three movies generally credited with hastening enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code.

Waterloo Bridge (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933) feature three working class women who use men to better themselves economically and/or socially. The cover on the set promises the “nudity, adultery, and prostitution” that made Hollywood enforce its production code, but this viewer is more inclined to believe that the three movies’ greatest threat to the Code’s commandments was their portrayal of a society riven by economic and social inequality and the narrow range of options for advancement available to a working class woman. One of the films adds to that threat by leaving its leading character unpunished, indeed, at the top of the social ladder, by the movie’s end.

While Hollywood had known censoring bodies since the early 1920s, it was not until the advent of sound that a Production Code was established (1930) and eventually enforced (1934). The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 created additional social tensions and new anxieties for the powers that be. The need to prevent as much as possible the social and moral realities of the time finding expression in a mass medium became a major concern of the Hollywood and Washington establishment.

The eponymous Hays Office (named for its director, Will Hays, a public relations figure from the Harding administration) was formed in 1922 after a series of scandals had rocked Hollywood. Because Hays, however, had been hired not to censor the movies, but rather to convince audiences that Hollywood would censor itself, his office proved ineffective.

The conjuncture of sound and the Depression brought a profound change to Hollywood and censorship. The combination of economic slump and ‘talking pictures’ seemed particularly dangerous. Hearing spoken words seemed more morally threatening, at least to certain religious leaders (especially Catholic ones), than reading titles or lips in silent movies. These same religious leaders therefore urged the creation of a code of conduct for movie language and behavior, specifically, profanity, crime, and nudity; and Hollywood responded by diminishing Hays’ role and adopting a Production Code in 1930. (Its provisions are available here)

Of course, the onset of the Depression had countervailing effects. Certain writers and directors were impelled to depict its social consequences and Hollywood studios, in the face of diminishing ticket sales, were obliged to pay more attention to realistically depicting the plight of their working class audience, including women.

In addition to the three from the Turner Classic Archives, numerous films—among them, Blonde Venus, Faithless and Safe in Hell—featured working class women driven to prostitution or other indignities as a consequence of the Great Depression. But as of 1934 films featuring such content would no longer be made as Hollywood succumbed to increasing pressures and gave the Production Code Administration full authority to review all movies and demand script changes.

Waterloo Bridge

The closest thing to nudity in the 1931 release Waterloo Bridge (directed by James Whale, most famous for Frankenstein) occurs in the opening scene when a group of chorus girls, backstage after the closing night of a stage show, change from costumes to street clothes. The movie does include prostitution—in fact, a prostitute is the main character, Myra Danville (Mae Clarke); but we are quickly made to understand that this is due to circumstances beyond her control.

Due to wartime economic conditions (the movie takes in England during World War I), the stage show Myra followed from New York to London closes. For two years, she is unable to find a legitimate job in London and equally unable to ask her alcoholic American parents for financial assistance. To survive as a prostitute, she develops a harsh, embittered carapace to protect her vulnerable inner self.

While “working” Waterloo Bridge one night, Myra hides during an air raid, and there she encounters 19-year-old American soldier Roy Cronin (played by Kent Douglass). The son of an American woman and a rich English stepfather and military man who moved to England at the start of the First World War, Roy is wholesomely handsome and innocent—at Myra’s apartment, he tells her he joined the services out of “boyish enthusiasm”—and immediately attracted to Myra. She, in turn, is drawn to his qualities, which bring out her trusting, vulnerable side.

But Myra’s vulnerability makes Roy want to protect and help her, resulting in a sudden reversion (played with remarkable realism by Clarke) to her harsh, bitter self. “Don’t you feel noble?” she snaps when Roy offers to buy a dress she needs, “You’re the prince and I’m the beggar maid.” Her harsh reply is at least partly due to the shame she must feel for accepting money from men for her favors, but it’s also due to her recognition that she and Roy are from different classes, a recognition which is underscored when she refuses Roy’s offer to join him on a trip to his mother’s countryside estate in the morning. A final, emphatic point is made when, after Roy leaves, Myra sits in front of a dimly lit mirror and we watch her soft face turn rigid and businesslike as she applies make-up for her night’s work.

Before leaving for his mother’s estate, Roy brings flowers to Myra the next morning, only to find her out, “still at work.” Her neighbor, Kitty, who has also been forced into prostitution, convinces Roy that Myra is lonely and needs his help. With this news in hand, he rushes to his mother’s and stepfather’s estate—where he also joins his sister Janet, played by a 23-year old Bette Davis—and confides in his mother that he is in love with a girl who is beneath their social standing: “I know she’s only a chorus girl, but she’s different,” to which his mother nods condescending approval.

This condescension carries on to the movie’s final scenes. Emboldened by his mother’s approval, Roy returns to Myra’s apartment and convinces her to return with him to his family’s estate. There, she finally tells Roy’s mother about her secret “occupation” and the mother (and family) immediate accept her. But when Myra later finds out that the mother hasn’t told Roy about her secret, she is sure he won’t accept her and returns to London without telling Roy or his family.

A final twist occurs when Roy, who has finally learned of Myra’s occupation from her landlady, discovers Myra on Waterloo Bridge and tells her he wants to marry her anyway. She accepts; he leaves for the front on a troop truck; and we follow Myra, from the vantage point of a dirigible in the London sky, as she walks to her death by a bomb dropped from the same airship. Because the audience shares the dirigible’s viewpoint, we too are reminded of our share of moral responsibility for Myra’s death.

Kent Douglass as Roy Cronin is like many of the matinee idols of his time: an innocent face and too good to be true. Other stereotypes—Myra’s landlady and neighbor, as well as Major Wetherby—appear throughout the film. But Mae Clarke’s Myra is entirely believable, and the movie’s insistence on identifying the causes for Myra’s occupation and death are noteworthy.

Red-Headed Woman

Directed by Jack Conway and released in 1932, Red-Headed Woman does contain a glimpse of a bare breast as well as adultery, but given that more than a few pre-Code movies feature at least this much “offensive” content, one must assume that the main reason for the censor’s wrath was that it allowed a working class girl, Lillian Andrews (played by Jean Harlow in her first leading role), to get away with sleeping her way to the top.

The movie quickly establishes the lack of legitimate options for the working class, both men and women. Lillian’s working class boyfriend, whom she drops for her boss, is a bootlegger. And unlike Myra, Lillian does have a legitimate job as office help, but she has no illusions about getting ahead via this route. Her option is her handsome, rich, and married (to the vapid Irene, played by Leila Hyams) young boss—Bill Legendre, Jr. (Chester Morris), who can’t take his eyes off of her.

The scene in which Lillian confronts her boss with this fact—she uses the excuse of delivering work papers to the home of the sick Bill Jr. to seduce him—is just one of the instances that reveal the hypocrisy of the upper class and Lillian’s ability to use this hypocrisy to her advantage. When the married Bill Jr. can’t deny that he watches Myra’s every move, or later, when their affair is growing and he tells her he can’t be with her because of his marriage, she confronts him with his hypocrisy by demanding, “Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t love me.”

And following Bill Jr.’s divorce from his wife, Myra uses his inability to stand up to those members of his class (including his father, played by Lewis Stone) who are attempting to split up the couple as an excuse to leave him for a richer, older man, coal tycoon Charles B. Gaerste (Henry Stephens).

The theme of upper class hypocrisy follows to the movie’s end. Gaerste won’t even speak to the married Lillian because she’s from a lower class, but he quickly accepts her offer of sexual favors when she visits his apartment anonymously. Then, after their marriage ends abruptly (he’s found her with his chauffeur, played by a young Charles Boyer), Lillian uses the money that Bill Jr.’s father gives her to leave to reestablish herself in France. There, several years later, while attending a horse race, the Legendres—son and father—commit the final hypocrisy when Bill notices the woman placing the wreath on the winning horse is Lillian, who’s now with a French nobleman. Bill Jr. hands the binoculars to his father, who appears mesmerized, so much so that he and his son fail to tell their wives whom they’re watching.

Harlow’s Lillian can sometimes be annoying, as when she overdoes her little girl routine; and her attempt at drunkenness in one scene is unrealistic. But her vibrancy and newfound ability to deliver, with machine gun precision and rapidity, a string of invectives at the rotten phoniness underlying the ruling class fairly begs the audience to celebrate her ultimate triumph.

Baby Face

Turner Classic Archives offers two versions of Baby Face: the censored version released to theaters in 1933 and the original, uncut version that was rediscovered in 2004 and contains approximately five additional minutes. This reviewer will honor the filmmakers’ intent and discuss the latter version.

Baby Face (directed by Alfred E. Green) is similar to the earlier Red Headed Woman in several ways. Lilly Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) comes from a working class background that is portrayed even more graphically in the opening scenes: forced to grow up in her father’s basement speakeasy, which looks out onto factory smokestacks, Lilly is also forced by her father to provide entertainment for the men who frequent the joint, including prostituting herself from the age of 14.

Lilly finds too she has no other option other than using the skills she learned in her youth. She is released from bondage when her father’s still explodes and also kills him, and she turns for help to a neighborhood figure who might best be understood as the film’s confusing nod to 1930s’ American radicalism. Sitting amidst his library of books, a gray bearded, bespectacled immigrant man recommends reading Nietzsche and using men to get what she wants. No doubt, a Marxist couldn’t have gotten past the censors; besides, a Marxist wouldn’t have made that recommendation.

At any rate, the similarities between the two ‘forbidden’ films continue when Lillian decides to sleep her way to the top, this time literally. Beginning on the first floor of a bank-owned skyscraper in New York, she seduces one company official after another (in the process, we watch her blow off a young John Wayne because he’s not an executive) until she’s living in a penthouse on the top floor and causes the murder-suicide of two company executives whom she has seduced.

After discovering that a newspaper has offered Lilly $10,000 for the diary she (falsely) claims to have kept of her experiences at the bank, the board of directors offers her $15,000, which she accepts, and hires a young playboy, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), as president, whose first duty is to offer her a job in Paris.

At this point, the movies’ similarities end and Baby Face suffers for it. The playboy president arrives in Paris and quickly falls in love with Lilly, and she begins to behave and dress more conservatively. However, as was the case with many American banks during the Great Depression, his bank goes bust and he is indicted. When he asks Lilly for the money the bank gave her so he can fight the charges, she refuses and Trenholm returns to New York; but she has an attack of consciousness and follows him home, where, following his attempted suicide (which he survives) she suddenly realizes she needs him more than she needs the money.

In addition to the contrived, underdeveloped ending, Baby Face suffers from male stereotypes, especially the working class frequenters of Lilly’s father’s speakeasy, who are, to a man, coarse and filthy. On the other hand, the film’s attention to detail in presenting Lilly’s background and Barbara Stanwyck’s emotional range are first rate.

The quality of the transfer to disc is excellent.

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