Call and Answer

When the Going Gets Tough ... Reading Is Liberation

Call and Answer

After following the Legislature for five months, I welcomed the request from Chronicle Books Editor Shawn Badgley to slow down, retreat a bit, and consider matters from a broader, more reflective perspective. "Literature," famously declared Ezra Pound, "is news that stays news." While much of what follows would hardly meet Pound's exacting standards, most of it is certainly more permanent than the fish-wrap I do for a living. It is hardly a systematic list -- rather, a few weeks of eclectic reading in and out of the primary territory we cover here weekly in the News department.

While at the Chronicle we try to maintain, for practical as well as professional reasons, a primarily local focus, an occasional excursion allows us to escape the comforting but dangerous illusion that the world begins and ends in Austin, Texas. Finally, there is yet another explicit literary and political precedent for stepping beyond the overbearing shadow of the Capitol dome.

"Poets," declared Percy Bysshe Shelley, "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

The Business of America ...

The dictionary illustration for "self-promotion" might well be a photo of Greg Palast. The U.S.-born, UK-based investigative journalist (for the British Broadcasting Corporation and the nonprofit independent Guardian newspapers) cannot seem to write a paragraph without trumpeting his own exclusive access to top-top-secret documents or sources. His Web site ( is absolutely breathless with advertisements for himself. Austin readers may be additionally discomfited by Palast's credulous fawning over local cable-access conspiracy-frother Alex Jones, thereby ably demonstrating the axiom that there is no huckster so shameless as a writer flogging a book.

All that said, Palast has considerable reason to crow. The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (a U.S. paperback update and expansion of the 2002 hardcover edition) is a collection and recapitulation of Palast's major political/economic stories of the last few years, and anyone otherwise sentenced to the puerile blandishments of the mainstream U.S. press -- the Austin American-Coxcomb, Q.E.D., -- would be well-armed with a copy, if only in self-defense. In the slangy and often hyperbolic style happily indulged by both good and bad English newspapers (not unlike present company), Palast recounts a litany of contemporary outrages from all over the increasingly small globe.

His most notorious exposé, the George W. Bush & Co. grand theft of the Florida presidential election, has more than one Texas hook. Not only was it operations base of Dubya the Dubious, but among the 57,000 or so eligible voters -- half or more of them African-American -- illegally excluded from Florida rolls were thousands of former Texans listed on a Dept. of Public Safety database and erroneously designated "felons" by the computer company Florida hired to purge its election rolls. (Both the company and the state knew or should have known the data was hopelessly corrupt, and the evidence is persuasive of the former.) Other reporters have glanced at this story, but Palast broke it, mined it thoroughly, and stays on it like the proverbial terrier on a bone -- in part because he expects it to be repeated in subsequent U.S. elections (see p.72, "The Theft of the Presidential Election -- 2004"). For his tenacity, Palast earned the epithet "twisted and maniacally partisan" from Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris -- music to a reporter's ears.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair had only called him a liar. That was in response to Palast's successful undercover sting investigation of deals by Labor government insiders on behalf of U.S. corporations. That story is told here, as is the Bush family's unsavory business-as-government history, the fleecing of California utilities by corporate "power pirates" (several Texas-based), the thoroughly (and intentionally) destructive international consequences of "globalization," union-bashing at Wal-Mart, and so on. Palast always swings hard and often wildly -- but most of the time he connects.

Among Palast's international megavillains is Enron Corp., late of Houston -- remember? A couple of years and an oil war later, it seems so long ago. Power Failure, a breezy, vivid collaboration between Texas Monthly writer Mimi Swartz and former Enron executive Sherron Watkins, brings it all back with the narrative rush of a Houston flood: here, everywhere, gone. Pre-pub rumors suggested a wrestling match between Watkins and Swartz over control of the story. Swartz holds the copyright, and Watkins becomes largely a minor casualty in the 1,000 miles of bad road that was Enron's collapse, so you make the call. Watkins' now-legendary status as a "whistle blower" is greatly if unintentionally diminished by the frank history of her initially anonymous memo to top dog Ken Lay, written in the immediate wake of CEO Jeff Skilling's resignation. The memo, later a headline item and the focus of a congressional inquiry, raised questions about Chief Financial Officer Andy Fastow's insider deals and the curious accounting methods used to disguise them. But the horses, Skilling only the most prominent among them, had long since fled the barn (carrying the company saddlebags). The Watkins memo politely suggesting the door could use a new latch was more than a tad belated.

Power Failure is neither as trenchant nor complete as Robert Bryce's Pipe Dreams (2002) while covering much of the same ground, but Swartz has a nice home-town feel for Houston social ironies and a sharp eye for the personalities involved in the company's collapse -- from the politically astute but professionally ineffective Lay to the conniving and apparently predatory Fastow, as well as a whole host of minor players. It's clear there was an advanced culture of intellectual corruption and remorseless self-dealing at Enron; it remains uncertain how characteristic it now may be among major corporate institutions that swim in the same sea.

E-mail has made instant invective far too convenient. Since the curious rise of George W. Bush to become boss of all bosses, the Chronicle has received a steady stream of letters from out of state accusing Texas of being the root of all contemporary evil. As Michael Lind takes great pains to point out in Made in Texas, there are many more than one "Texas," and there is even more than one Texas conservatism. It is his intriguing thesis that Dubya in fact represents, under the transparent guise of West Texas cowboy, the old Confederacy that has dominated politics from Richmond to Austin since Reconstruction and which has (temporarily he hopes) triumphed over a parallel "modernizing" and populist tradition of Texas conservatism represented by the likes of Lyndon Johnson and H. Ross Perot.

The notion that Texas is a Southern rather than a Western state is not new, and Don Graham among others has written elegantly on the subject. Although he sometimes ties himself up in geographic knots laying out his thesis (by the time he'd gotten done bolluxing up Midland, Waco, and College Station, I'd lost my bearings), Lind brings a national historical context to the discussion on issues as wide-ranging as rural electrification and stem-cell research. The distressing conclusion is that "Southernomics" (plantation feudalism) has seized the national economy, and Confederate nationalism (millennialist militarism) has taken over U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Lind suggests several antidotes, drawn from the populist, yeoman traditions rooted in the Hill Country and the larger democratic, modernist traditions of the nation as a whole. With a Texas/Southern Boob-o-Crat now installed as Judeo-Christian Boy Emperor, it's difficult to be optimistic.

Rumors of War

With the Iraq war already fading from the mainstream news cycle (not to mention the steady return of Afghanistan to chaos) and increasingly belligerent noises coming from the Bush administration against Iran, books can hardly keep up with the accelerating armies. Novelists, accustomed to a longer view, may have a prescient shot at perspective. Among the best essays written just prior to the invasion of Iraq was Norman Mailer's Feb. 20 address to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, "Why Are We at War?" published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted here as the centerpiece of a brief collection of the same name. Even at 80, Mailer continues to think very big, with mixed success but much insight wherever he finds it. "It may be that Empire depends on an obscenely wealthy upper upper class who, given the inbuilt, never-ending threat to their wealth, is bound to feel no great allegiance in the pit of its heart to democracy. ... The disproportionate wealth that collected through the Nineties may have created an all but irresistible pressure at the top to move from democracy to Empire."

The rest of the book (featuring particularly lame interview questions from the ever-sycophantic Dotson Rader) is not at that level, but there are other portions where Mailer's singular variety of "left conservatism" bears a cutting edge, as in remarks about the current predicament of Israel: "Israel is now one more powerhouse in the world. But what they've lost is special. Now they treat the Palestinians as if they, the Israelis, are the Cossacks and the Palestinians are ghetto Jews. You know, the older you get, the more you depend on irony as the last human element you can rely on. Whatever exists will, sooner or later, turn itself inside out."

As Mailer is primarily a mythological and psychological thinker, the young Indian writer Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things, is a pragmatic and historical one. Her War Talk is a collection of essays on more various subjects, a couple of them direct educations to Western eyes of the complex politics of India (and Pakistan), now reduced to ancillary headlines in nearly all U.S. news sources.

The book is an embarrassing reminder that to know much or accurately of anything beyond U.S. borders, a reader needs to seek out foreign sources of news and history. These pieces range from an insider's view of the India/Pakistan standoff (with its catastrophic effects on India's civil society) to a recapitulation of memorable "9/11s" mostly unremembered in the United States (e.g., the Sept. 11, 1922, British declaration of the Zionist mandate for Palestine; the Sept. 11, 1973, U.S.-backed military overthrow of the Chilean Allende government) to the text of a speech delivered in January at the World Social Forum in Brazil. It includes also a tribute to Noam Chomsky, the introduction to the new edition of his For Reasons of State: "When the sun sets on the American empire, as it will, as it must, Noam Chomsky's work will survive."

Roy ends on a similarly optimistic note, addressed to that largely unreported crowd of international activists in Brazil: "Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them."

Not Just Rumors

On Middle East matters, I tend to trust those Israelis and Palestinians who most deeply distrust their own respective governments. (Setting aside the ample regional evidence, this also has more than a little to do with my own continuing disillusionment as a U.S. citizen, under a half-century of undemocratic rule at home complemented by endless imperial adventures abroad.) Tanya Reinhart is a journalist and a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University; Mourid Barghouti is a poet and Palestinian ambassador who spent 30 years in exile from his childhood home in Ramallah. Reinhart's book Israel/Palestine, is a blistering Middle East political history of the last 50 years, accompanied by a withering deconstruction of the badly misnamed "peace process." Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah is a much more personal story, the first general market English publication of his 1997 memoir of his return home.

If you wish to have a true historical perspective on the latest public-relations "road map" for peace recently promulgated by the Bush administration (and grudgingly accepted by the Sharon government on the condition that only the Palestinians have to abide by it), I strongly recommend the accurate foreshadowing of Israel/Palestine: "The assumption since Oslo has been that Palestinians are expected to keep all their commitments and concessions, while Israel is not only exempt from implementing its signed agreements, but at the same time can expand its hold on the occupied land." Unless and until that imbalance shifts -- the U.S. underwriters of the Israeli occupation could reverse it with one withheld check -- there will be neither peace nor justice in Israel nor Palestine.

That means there will be many more bitter memories like those recounted in I Saw Ramallah, which won Barghouti in 1997 the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. It precedes the latest and bloodiest rounds of Palestinian intifada and Israeli repression, and Barghouti's next visit to Ramallah will be less sweet, more bitter. "Life does not allow us to consider repeated uprootings as tragic," he writes, "for there is an aspect to them that reminds us of farce, and it will not let us get used to them as repeated jokes because there is always a tragic side to them. Life teaches us to be content with the only fate proposed to us."

Some Solace

A few weeks before he died early last year, my father was thinking back over the unlikely journey that had brought him to the U.S. from Eastern Europe as a young man just before World War II, his dogged (and to me, heroic) construction of a life and family from scratch, and the subsequent history of his times. "All my life, Michael," he said, "I have been surrounded by wars." The country he found here had saved his life, and over the following decades -- most painfully in the Vietnam decade -- it also broke his heart.

I thought often of that conversation as I read Poets Against the War, the collection resulting from the controversy earlier this year over Laura Bush's planned White House symposium ("Poetry and the American Voice") on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. When in response poet Sam Hamill, editor and co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, sent out a call for poems in opposition to the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq, Laura Bush "postponed" the symposium on the grounds it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum" (a curious notion especially in relation to the work of Whitman and Hughes).

Sam Hamill (or more precisely, the Web site now known as received 13,000 poems from 11,000 poets, including such notables as Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, Marvin Bell, Rita Dove, Maxine Kumin, Simon Ortiz ... and many, many, many others, lesser known but often equally accomplished, to judge from these singular excerpts.

You can browse through all these poems (and now many more) on the Web site, but for a host of reasons political, emotional, and financial, I strongly recommend you buy the book. We need to keep this newly revitalized, worldwide, anti-war movement growing; we need to defy those for whom human beings and human culture have become fungible and easily obliterated commodities; we need heart solace.

I offer for you this fragment, from Robert Bly's "Call and Answer":

Have we agreed to so many wars that we can't
Escape from silence? If we don't lift our voices, we allow
Others (who are ourselves) to rob the house.

How come we've listened to the great criers -- Neruda,
Ahkmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass -- and now
We're silent as sparrows in the little bushes?

Some masters say our life lasts only seven days.
Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet?
Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come.
end story

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