Friday, May 26, 2006

Bush, NSA Kill Democracy


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Even by the increasingly jaded standards of Americans who have lived through the Bush administration and the nearly five years of its unilaterally declared “war on terror,” the lead article in the May 11 edition of USA Today was a shocker. “NSA Has Massive Database of Americans’ Phone Calls,” read the headline over Leslie Cauley’s story. Citing anonymous sources, Cauley wrote, “The National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth” — the three largest providers of phone service in the U.S.

“The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime,” Cauley continued. “The program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.” One of Cauley’s sources called the effort “the largest database ever assembled in the world,” and said the NSA’s goal was “to create a database of every call ever made” within the U.S.

If the USA Today story is correct — and two of the phone companies cited as cooperating with the NSA, Verizon and BellSouth, have said they were not providing the information USA Today said they were — the NSA is receiving reports from these phone companies containing three pieces of information on every phone call they are involved in providing: your phone number, the number you’re calling and how long the call lasts. The NSA isn’t — at least not yet — actually listening in on the content of your phone calls, nor is it recording the names and street addresses or cell locations of the callers. “But,” as the Los Angeles Times editorialized May 20, “it would be child’s play to combine these records with reverse phone directories, credit reports and other widely available databases to yield a much more revealing portrait of the people and places behind the numbers.”

There are a number of salient points to make about this program: 1) It is patently illegal on its face. 2) It is a symptom of the Bush administration’s visceral contempt for civil liberties, the right of privacy, judicial due process and anything else that would stand in the way of Bush’s radical-Right blueprint for a so-called “unitary executive” — essentially turning the Presidency into a plebiscitary dictatorship unconstrained by any constitutional or legal limits on its powers. 3) Bush and the members of his administration have systematically lied to the American people about the extent of their spying on them and sought to punish the journalists who have brought these stories to light. 4) If previous events and preliminary poll results are any guide, the majority of the American people have become so traumatized by 9/11 and the fear-mongering of this administration that they will go along with this latest offense against their liberties.


The question of whether the government has a right to obtain both phone numbers involved in every telephone call in the U.S. was settled in 1986, when the U.S. Congress passed the Electronics Communications Privacy Act. This law was passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Maryland (1979) in which the court wrote, “We doubt that people in general entertain any actual expectation of privacy in the [phone] number they dial.” Oh yes, they do, Congress said in 1986. Rather than make it illegal for the government to ask for such records, the Act made it illegal for the private phone companies to give the government that kind of information.

Section 2702 of the Electronics Communications Privacy Act says that providers of “electronic communications … shall not knowingly divulge a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber or customer … to any government entity.” The law makes exceptions in case a customer gives the company permission to release his or her records to the government, or in case of “any emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury.” James X. Dempsey, an attorney for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the Los Angeles Times that the Bush administration might have been able to make a case for an eavesdropping program like this “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11” — when the NSA actually started this data collection — but, the attorney added, “I don’t understand how that could serve as a ‘good faith’ defense for years afterward.”

Qwest, America’s fourth largest phone company, refused to provide the NSA with the information on its customers’ phone numbers and which numbers they were calling. According to the attorney representing Joseph Nacchio, who was chair and CEO of Qwest in late 2001, Nacchio concluded that complying with such a government request without either a search warrant or approval from the secret court set up under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act,” attorney Herbert J. Stern told the Los Angeles Times.

Indeed, AT&T — the largest U.S. phone company and the one so far that has refused to deny providing the NSA this information — has already been sued in San Francisco and Texas by customers claiming their privacy has been violated illegally. The administration’s response to the lawsuit has been to file a motion to have it thrown out of court by saying that the mere act of a court hearing such a suit would itself violate national security.

That’s right: your government is arguing not only that it has a right to spy on you any time it wants, in any way that its inventive minds and modern technology can come up with, but that even if there’s a law on the books making the spying illegal, no court in the country has the right to enforce it. “Adjudication of whether the alleged surveillance activities have been conducted within lawful authority cannot be resolved without state secrets,” U.S. assistant attorney general Peter D. Keisler and other federal attorneys wrote in a 34-page document filed on May 13 with the court hearing the San Francisco suit.

According to Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group representing the plaintiffs in the suit against AT&T, the government is arguing “that no one can ever go to court to stop illegal surveillance, so long as they claim it was done in the name of national security.” What’s more, the government filed a longer version of the document with the judge in the case under court seal — which means they can put any sort of argument in it they want and the other side’s lawyers will be unable to answer it because it would be a violation of national security for the judge to show it to them.


The Bush administration has presented its spying program as a legitimate response to the 9/11 attacks and the so-called “war on terror” it unilaterally declared after they occurred. But everything they’ve done indicates a thinly veiled contempt for the whole concept of a right to privacy. In the 1990’s the words “right to privacy” were usually used politically in connection with the civil rights of women and Queers — whether the government had a right to make laws against birth control, abortion and certain kinds of sex between consenting adults — but in the Bush era it’s become clear that the Right’s argument that, since the U.S. Constitution nowhere contains the actual words “right to privacy,” no such right exists, goes far beyond the politics of the sex and culture wars.

Within six weeks after 9/11, the Bush administration had proposed — and a supine Congress had overwhelmingly passed — the USA PATRIOT Act, which contained extensive assaults on civil liberties and privacy rights. While a few of the more marginal provisions, including the one that allowed the government to snoop through your library records and prevented anyone who worked for a library from giving you a heads-up that the feds were asking about you, attracted public attention, the core of the USA PATRIOT Act was its provision allowing the FBI to launch an investigation on any American, anywhere, any time, just by issuing a “national security letter” containing the accusations against you and a warning that anyone disclosing its contents, or even its existence, to the target of an investigation would themselves be guilty of a federal crime.

The USA PATRIOT Act was full of provisions that revealed the mind-set of the Bush administration and the modern Right in general that the people are, or at least should be treated as, an enemy until they prove otherwise. And that was merely the public tip of the iceberg; all the spy programs we’ve heard revealed in the last few months, and probably a few more whose existence is still secret, were also instituted in the first weeks after 9/11. Among these were the NSA’s requests for the phone numbers involved in any U.S. call and the previously publicized program of wiretapping any phone call they wanted to between a person in the U.S. and one outside the country, without bothering with the legal requirement of a warrant under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). There was also a subpoena to America’s four largest Internet service providers for information on their customers similar to what they were asking for from the phone companies — which we found out about only because one of the companies, Google, exercised its legal right to challenge the subpoena in court (and lost).

The Bush administration’s actions regarding the people’s right to know what their government is doing and hold it accountable have displayed the same kind of contempt for democracy as the USA PATRIOT Act and the secret spying programs. Even before 9/11 the administration had rewritten its guidelines for complying with the Freedom of Information Act so it became much more time-consuming and more expensive for people to extract information on what their government is actually doing. Bush has held relatively few press conferences with the media and has heavily stage-managed those he has given. And his administration’s response to the media stories on his secret spy programs has been to threaten the journalists who wrote them and the papers that published them with prosecution and to accuse them, in public, of what amounts to treason.

Indeed, on May 15 ABC-TV journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito posted to the ABC Web site an article that suggested that the purpose of the NSA’s phone surveillance may be not to protect the nation against terrorism, but to protect the Bush administration against the people knowing what it’s up to. One of their government sources contacted them to warn them that the government was tracking their phone calls to learn who their sources are. “It’s time for you to get some new cell phones, quick,” the source told them in person.

“Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation,” Ross and Esposito wrote. “One former official was asked to sign a document stating he was not a confidential source for New York Times reporter James Risen” — the man who broke the story that the NSA was wiretapping phone calls between Americans and people in other countries without obtaining FISA warrants first. While Ross and Esposito acknowledged that their calls to their sources weren’t actually being wiretapped, they concluded, “A pattern of phone calls from a reporter … could provide valuable clues for leak investigators.”

Few people have exposed the Bush administration’s contempt for privacy rights or the people’s right to know in a more eloquent or clear-cut fashion than the man who rightfully won the 2000 Presidential election, only to be done out of the office by a corrupt court process and a Republican propaganda campaign through their “kept” media, talk radio and the Fox channel: former vice-president Al Gore. On January 16, Gore spoke to a group called the Liberty Coalition and described eloquently what the Bush administration’s theory of the “unitary executive” actually means:

“Under this theory, the president’s authority when acting as commander in chief or when making foreign policy cannot be reviewed by the judiciary, cannot be checked by Congress. And President Bush has pushed the implications of this idea to its maximum by continually stressing his role as commander in chief, invoking it as frequently as he can, conflating it with his other roles, both domestic and foreign. And when added to the idea that we have entered a perpetual state of war, the implications of this theory stretch quite literally as far into the future as we can imagine.

“This effort to rework America’s carefully balanced constitutional design into a lopsided structure dominated by an all-powerful executive branch, with a subservient Congress and subservient judiciary, is ironically accompanied by an effort by the same administration to rework America’s foreign policy from one that is based primarily on U.S. moral authority into one that is based on a misguided and self-defeating effort to establish a form of dominance in the world. And the common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control.”


What’s more, while ordering the NSA’s domestic spying, Bush has consistently lied about it. During a campaign appearance in Buffalo on April 20, 2004 he flatly denied that the NSA was wiretapping anybody’s phone calls without first going to the legally constituted FISA court: “By the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires — a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”

That was a lie — and it was a lie the Bush administration was able to pressure the New York Times not to expose before the 2004 election by claiming “national security” as a justification. When the New York Times finally published the story in December 2005 — over a year after they learned about it — that the NSA was listening in on people’s phone calls without an FISA warrant, Bush changed his line and said the program was “limited” to “taking known al-Qaeda numbers — numbers from known al-Qaeda people — and just trying to find out why the phone calls are being made.”

Now we know that that, too, was a lie: that the NSA was recording nearly every single phone number involved in a call anywhere in the United States, whether the call was international or purely domestic, and running the numbers through their computers looking for so-called “patterns” that might identify so-called “terrorists.” And we already know from the horror stories that have already come out how expansive the government’s definition of what constitutes “terrorism” or “support for terrorism” is.

The FISA law and the other limits on the government’s ability to surveil its own people were passed in the late 1970’s after similar revelations about the conduct of the FBI under director-for-life J. Edgar Hoover (whom even President Nixon was afraid of — “He’s got a file on everybody,” Nixon said on one of the Watergate tapes), which had mounted a systematic program called COINTELPRO to spy on domestic political activists, including the late Martin Luther King, Jr. There were also stories about the CIA’s activities abroad, including the assassination of foreign leaders and fomenting military coups against democratically elected governments worldwide, including Iran in 1953 (which sent the Muslim world a message that the U.S. didn’t consider them ready for democracy, which along with our down-the-line support for Israel sowed the seeds of the Muslim world’s hatred of us) and throughout Latin America in the next three decades.

FISA was seen as a compromise, allowing legitimate surveillance of identifiable targets with some link to terrorism or America’s military enemies while denying the government a blank check to spy on anyone, anywhere, any time for any reason at all. Its requirement that the government present evidence and obtain a warrant from a secret court before they can listen to Americans’ phone calls abroad has hardly proved onerous; out of more than 18,000 requests for warrants the court has turned the government down only four or five times. But that’s not good enough for Bush — or for some of his crazier apologists, like Los Angeles Times columnist and Foreign Affairs contributor Max Boot, who published a column May 17 that said bluntly that the U.S. isn’t spying on its citizens enough.

Boot’s column makes one valid point: that the information the government requested from the phone companies and ISP’s exists at all because those companies retain it for their own commercial reasons, and it’s therefore legitimate to question why it’s a violation of privacy for government to have this information but not for private corporations to collect it. Elsewhere, though, his column has the snippy, sneering tone common to Right-wing discourse these days, including the accusation in his last sentence that anybody who disagrees with him is a traitor and a threat to the nation:

“How far do the civil-liberties absolutists want to take their logic? Will troops in Afghanistan and Iraq soon have to read Miranda warnings to captured suspects and apply for a court’s permission before searching a terrorist safe house? Or do such niceties stop at our borders, thereby giving Al Qaeda and its ilk the freedom to operate unhindered only in the U.S.?

“Much of this silliness can be traced to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which for the first time made judges the overseers of our spymasters. … FISA is a luxury we can no longer afford. … The USA PATRIOT Act scaled back some FISA provisions, such as the “wall” between intelligence and law enforcement agents, but enough remain intact to raise unnecessary questions about the legality of some much-needed homeland security measures. This archaic law should be euthanized. …

“So far there has been no suggestion that the NSA has done anything with disreputable motives. The administration has nothing to be ashamed of. The only scandal here is that some people favor unilateral disarmament in our struggle against the suicide bombers.”

The People

Most appallingly of all, the preliminary polls taken after USA Today’s revelation of the NSA’s “use a phone, end up on a surveillance list” program showed the American people supporting the Bush administration and the NSA surveillance by a margin of nearly two to one. The survey ABC News and the Washington Post conducted May 12 revealed a whopping 63 percent of the respondents thought the NSA’s program was “an acceptable way to investigate terrorism,” and 65 percent said it was important to investigate potential terrorists “even if it intrudes on privacy.” Only 35 percent of the people responding to the poll called the program “unacceptable,” and just 24 percent of people said they strongly objected, compared to 44 percent who strongly supported the effort.

If these results are valid — there are later polls suggesting the support may be dropping off over time — it suggests that a majority of the American people have been so terrorized, so brainwashed, so traumatized by the 9/11 attacks and the constant drumbeat of fear-mongering by the Bush administration that they are willing to give up their privacy rights for the illusion of safety from terrorism. Probably a lot of people who responded the administration’s way in those polls don’t really think they’d be giving up their privacy rights. What they’re willing to sacrifice is someone else’s rights; with an almost childlike naïveté, many Americans still believe in the superior wisdom of their law enforcers and assume that no one gets suspected or investigated unless they’re guilty of something.

Bush himself took advantage of this in a statement right after the USA Today article that was blatantly based on a fallacy logicians call post hoc, ergo propter hoc. He said, in so many words, that the fact that there hasn’t been a 9/11-style attack on the U.S. since 9/11 is proof that his security measures are working — and therefore they have to be kept in place or the country runs the risk of another attack. Bush said he couldn’t tell us how his assaults on the privacy rights and freedoms of Americans are protecting us against terrorists — that in itself might give the terrorists information they need, he explained — but we needed to trust him. Oh please, Big Daddy Bush, do whatever you want, only please keep us safe!

“Those who would give up liberty for a little security deserve neither liberty nor security,” Benjamin Franklin said at the founding of the United States and the adoption of its constitution over 200 years ago. Franklin also famously said, in response to a woman who asked him what sort of a government the Constitutional Convention had given us, “A republic — if you can keep it.” So far, over the five and one-half years of his presidency, George W. Bush has shown a single-minded determination to take our republic away from us and replace it with a Presidential dictatorship — and unless we act now, that is indeed what will happen.
A Long Walk Home: Moving Sudan Documentary


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

By now, just about everyone in America has heard of the situation in Darfur, the western region of Sudan in which the native African population are victims of genocidal attacks by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government and the janjaweed militias, often accused of being in cahoots with the government and official military the way the notorious “death squads” of Central America were in the 1980’s. Far less well known is the situation in southern Sudan, in which the native Africans and the forces of the Arab government in the North have been fighting a civil war for 21 years and a steady stream of refugees has fled to almost equally inhospitable countries like Egypt and Kenya.

A team of local documentary filmmakers led by director Tiffany Frances Huang went to Cairo in 2005 to interview southern Sudanese refugees in Egypt’s capital and make a movie they hope will enlighten Americans about the other Sudanese crisis. Called A Long Walk Home, their 42-minute film was shown at the Media Arts Center in Golden Hill May 18 and proved to be a gripping tale. Most of their footage involves interviews with some of the refugees, mostly young men involved in a Sudanese dance and performance troupe called Gamara, intercut with shots of Gamara rehearsing and some spectacular drawings by Grace Smith, a member of the filmmaking team who came to the Media Arts Center to introduce the movie and field questions.

What’s most striking about A Long Walk Home is the matter-of-factness with which the Sudanese discuss their troubles — including the killings of their relatives — and the sheer grit and determination they show as they deal with surviving in a hostile city and hope either for resettlement in the U.S., Canada or Australia or an eventual return to Sudan itself. Their faces are haunting, their voices rich and deep, their command of English limited but good enough to tell their stories (though Diana Jean Britton’s subtitles definitely help), and their spirits are shaken but definitely “up.”

At first Huang’s decision to start her film with one of the Gamara company rehearsing some of the most openly joyous parts of their performance seems jarring — especially if you’ve walked into the theatre (or pressed “play” on the DVD) having braced yourself for a tale of blood, guts and horror — but eventually you see what she was going for: a complete picture of the Sudanese in all their joy and their determination to survive and prosper. The words of the song the Gamara members sing in the film (which bears an interesting melodic resemblance to “Sly Mongoose,” a folk song from Ghana taken up by some major African-American jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins) are, “Love, love, love makes people happy/Love, love, love makes people free.”

“Filming was very complicated,” Smith told the audience at the Media Arts Center. “It’s kind of shady-looking if you’re filming in public, so we shot mostly in private” — which gives the film a somewhat claustrophobic look and prevents us from seeing the Sudanese in Cairo going about their daily lives. At the same time, this sort of discretion was unquestionably the better part of valor; the team members’ profiles in the “Meet the Filmmakers” section of the movie’s Web site,, mention their fears that either their footage or their cameras would be confiscated by the Egyptian authorities. They also note that Egypt, run by a secularist dictator and frequently a target of Islamist terrorists, has a law prohibiting the filming of any government buildings — meaning that the most inadvertent turn of a camera in the wrong direction could have got them arrested and possibly even tortured.

One of the filmmakers’ biggest problems was to get the Sudanese to appear on camera. They kept their cameras carefully concealed and brought them out only when they had nailed down permission to film — a far cry from the way American documentarians usually shoot interview footage, with the cameras set up already and getting the interviewee to sign the release form merely a minor, though legally necessary, formality. Most of the Sudanese who were interviewed were Christians — the dominant religions in southern Sudan are Christianity and so-called “animism,” the area’s indigenous paganism — and were recruited through their churches “because those are the only safe havens the Sudanese have” in Cairo, Smith explained.

All but one of the Sudanese interviewed on camera were male — the opposite of the filmmaking team, who were five women and one man — mainly because “we had a language barrier,” Smith explained. The main language of Sudan is Arabic, and the team had an Arabic interpreter, but the interpreter wasn’t always available and in any case the filmmakers didn’t want to have to deal with the cumbersome delays of conversing through an interpreter. They needed people who could tell their stories directly in the filmmakers’ (and the intended audience’s) language — and that meant mostly men, because men were much more likely than women to have gone to school and learned English.

Asked why people who were being persecuted by an Arab Muslim government because they were Black African Christians would flee for refuge to an Arab Muslim country like Egypt, Smith explained that it’s because that’s where the office of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) for that region is located. “Most refugees flee there to establish a file with the UNHCR to be relocated elsewhere,” Smith said. “Most expect to be relocated soon, but aren’t because of logistics within the UNHCR.”

Among the more frustrating aspects of the situation is that, because the Sudanese government and the southern rebels signed a peace treaty last year — even though the conflict continues on the ground — UNHCR stopped opening any new files on refugees, thereby closing the door to resettlement in another country like the U.S., Canada or Australia. This leaves the refugees in Cairo now with only two options: to stay where they are and deal with prejudice from Egyptian Arabs and almost no available jobs, or to return to Sudan while the violence is still going on and there aren’t many employment opportunities either. Other Sudanese who’ve fled the conflict in the south have gone either to Kenya or Uganda — where they’ve been put in refugee camps and have even worse lives than the ones in Egypt — or to go to Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum, where they can hide out a bit more easily than they can in the south.

Asked where the refugees in Cairo live and whether they simply “squat” — camp out in abandoned buildings or the open air — Smith said, “Some were squatting, and others were living where they could afford. The UNHCR supports some refugees but only very selectively.” She also said that the Sudanese women are generally better able to find work than the Sudanese men because they can always get jobs as domestics — the one woman interviewee in the film talks grimly about one employer who set up an elaborate schedule of how much time each task should take and docked her if she finished something late — which was also true of African-Americans through most of the 20th century.

One economic opportunity the refugees have been able to create for themselves in Cairo is a company called Tukul Crafts. It’s a shop in Cairo that buys silkscreened T-shirts and other handicrafts from Sudanese refugees and resells them, keeping just enough money to cover their overhead and returning the rest to the refugees who make the pieces. Tukul Crafts is actually a program of Refuge Egypt, an effort by the worldwide Episcopal Church to reach out to Christian refugees in Egypt and help them. (Given Sudan’s past as a British colony, it’s not surprising that most Sudanese Christians are either Anglican/Episcopalian or Roman Catholic.) For more information on Tukul Crafts, visit their Web site at

Smith said that the motive of the Sudanese government’s persecutions in the south and Darfur seemed more racial than religious — the victims in the south are Christian and animist but the ones in Darfur are Muslims, and the Arab rulers’ grievance against them isn’t about religion but because they’re Black — and that director Huang was recruited to make the film by the person who drove them while they were in Cairo. “The intent of this film is just to spread the word and get the information out,” she said. “We want more screenings.”

For more information on A Long Walk Home, or to order a DVD copy of the film, visit the filmmakers’ Web site,
Diversionary/MOXIE Pulp!: Pathos Behind the Camp


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

I’m beginning to think the four women who run the MOXIE Theatre company — Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Jennifer Eve Kraus, Jo Anne Glover and Liv Kellgren — couldn’t produce a bad show if they tried. This year they’ve been presenting their shows at the Diversionary Theatre space, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights, while looking for a home of their own in North County, and their latest piece, Patricia Kane’s delicious Lesbian comedy Pulp!, is a bona fide co-production with Diversionary itself. Still, it seems more MOXIE’s kind of show than Diversionary’s, a woman-themed show (with an all-female cast) that offers real pathos and emotional depth under the insouciant surface wit.

Kane’s script had its world premiere in Chicago (where it takes place) at About Face, a Queer theatre company, in January 2004, and has since been produced in Atlanta and Boston as well. The Diversionary/MOXIE production is co-directed by Jason Southerland — who’s familiar with the play since he helmed it in Boston as well — and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Though billed as “an irreverent comedy with music that serves as a sexy homage to the sultry, jazzy world of 1950’s Lesbian pulp fiction,” Pulp! is actually quite a bit more than that. Interviewed last September by Howie Green for the Boston Edge, Kane explained that her script was inspired not only by the paperback originals about big-city Lesbian life produced by cheap publishers in the 1950’s but by the noir films of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

“The dialogue and delivery in old movies is always done with a heightened sense of expectation, like something big is going to happen any second now,” Kane told Green. “The dialogue in the old pulp novels is done the same way, like there is a vague conspiratorial tone to it all and some drastic event could transpire just around the corner. And these pulp novels are a part of Lesbian history, so I wanted to pay tribute to them.”

Pulp! is, among other things, a tribute to the courage and strength of those women who came out in the 1950’s when not only was coming-out not cool, it was downright illegal and could lead to the immediate end of your livelihood and sometimes even your life. The novels that inspired it, both those from the 1950’s and the quasi-legitimate literary works from even earlier — like Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 Lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness, which obviously inspired Kane to call the Lesbian bar where Pulp! takes place “The Well” — were among the few clues women-loving women of the 1950’s had as to how to live a Lesbian lifestyle and manage their lives emotionally and sexually while still maintaining the necessary “cover” in the straight world to avoid being arrested, beaten, raped, disowned by their families or driven to suicide.

Pulp! is set in the year 1956. Terry Logan (Jo Anne Glover) leaves the Women’s Army Corps — in which she’s served as a transport pilot since “The War” (those words in Kane’s script are always spoken portentously and immediately followed by an explosion sound effect) — after she’s caught seducing a general’s daughter. Anxious to flee the South — not only Georgia, where she was stationed, but Texas, where she was born — Terry hops a train to Chicago. On the last leg of her journey she’s approached by Eleanor “Pepper” Rousch (Jennifer Eve Thorn), who sits next to her on the train. With each woman setting off the other’s “Gaydar,” Pepper recognizes Terry as part of the sisterhood and invites her not only to hang out at The Well, where Pepper works as a bartender, but gets her a job as a waitress and arranges a room for her upstairs in the building. The one rule for residents of The Well, as Pepper solemnly informs Terry, is, “No girls upstairs!” — an edict imposed by The Well’s forbidding owner, Miss Vivian Blaine (Liv Kellgren), who’s conveniently out of the country, vacationing in Paris, when Terry arrives.

No sooner has Terry established herself at The Well than she’s heavily cruised by Eva “Bing” Malone (Jessica John, who’s usually played sweet young things but has recently made the transition to edgier roles) the “bad girl” of Kane’s script, a Doña Juanita Lesbian who goes through women with the same love-’em-and-leave-’em abandon of the nastiest straight playboy. She also meets Winny (Terri Park), the butchest regular at The Well, an expert target shooter who’s determined to enter a shooting tournament and compete against men. Terry also encounters The Well’s “cabaret” shows, in which the women do what would now be called drag-king performing: they dress as men and sing, though rather than imitating specific male performers of the day (if this turn of the plot leads you to expect to see faux Sinatras, Dean Martins and Elvises, you’ll be disappointed) they adopt their own personae and sing their own songs.

The songs are actually compositions by Amy Warren and André Pluess, with lyrics by playwright Kane, and while they’re artful pastiches of 1950’s musical styles the words are a bit more sophisticated than those of the actual songs of the period. No matter: like the songs in musicals like Cabaret and Chicago, they are believable as stand-alone cabaret numbers but also advance the plot and depict the emotional issues faced by the characters. They’re also a welcome reminder that in this era, and well into the 1970’s, drag performers of either gender were expected to do their own vocals, not merely lip-synch to records. MOXIE has made it a trademark to feature singing in virtually all their shows, requiring their performers to have professional-quality voices, and the four cast members who sing (all but Thorn, whose character stays behind the bar throughout the “cabaret” sequences) come through beautifully in the vocal department. Veteran San Diego musical performer Leigh Scarritt is credited as vocal coach, a job quite well done.

What makes Pulp! special is that for all the campiness and the use of pulp fiction’s artificial conventions — from the first-person narration Terry delivers at key points to the musical “stingers” that punctuate especially significant pieces of dialogue (kudos to co-director Southerland for his sound design and Diversionary’s soundboard operator, Rob Norton, for making all the “stingers” and sound effects happen exactly when they should) — the characters aren’t the cardboard cut-outs one would expect to find in a piece with this title and theme. They’re real human beings with recognizable emotions. Even Bing, whom Kane could easily have made a one-dimensional villainess, emerges instead as a figure of real pathos, and her redemption at the end is credible and genuinely uplifting rather than a mere nod to pulp-fiction conventions.

Kane also deserves credit for tapping one of the most effective plot devices ever invented, but one that’s long since gone out of fashion: she keeps Vivian, the obvious “star” part, offstage (except for one song) until nearly halfway through the play — expertly building audience suspense and making us wait breathlessly to meet this formidable woman we’ve heard so much about. The only trick Kane missed was in her decision to write the play in one continuous 90-minute act, which was good for maintaining the tension but kept her from being able to pull one of the hoariest pulp devices — making the characters totally miserable and devastated at the end of act one so she can pull their lives together and give them all happy endings in act two.

Nonetheless, Pulp! is a marvelously entertaining and surprisingly moving script, well crafted by Kane and done full justice by the combined forces of Diversionary and MOXIE. David Weiner’s scenic design is outstanding, vividly recreating what the sort of 1950’s cocktail lounge we’re told The Well is would actually have looked like — though the jukebox seems a bit anachronistic. Amy Chini’s props are also authentic — just where did she get that old-fashioned microphone into which the cabaret performers ostensibly sing? Chris Walsh’s lighting is appropriately dark and moody — and it’s especially effective in the scene in which two of the characters dance together and one of them holds a burning cigarette. You can actually see the smoke rising from the cigarette and hanging in the air, just like in an old movie.

Though it’s hardly a world-shattering event in Queer theatre, Pulp! ably does what its creator set out to do: lovingly recreate the lost world of the Lesbian closet in the 1950’s and the courage and beauty it took to survive and flourish in it. Even those Gay men who boast that they never go to plays about Lesbians should break that rule and see this one.

Pulp! plays at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights, through Sunday, June 11. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $27 for all performances ($23 students, seniors, military) and are available by calling (619) 220-2297 or online at
Cygnet’s Atwater an Acting Tour de Force


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Never underestimate the power of an early death to rivet an audience and hold people in their seats, crying. That’s the gimmick in Atwater: Fixin’ to Die, a good but somewhat disappointing one-person play by Robert Myers that premiered in New York in 1992, just one year after its real-life central character’s death from a brain tumor at age 40, and is having its first San Diego production at the Cygnet Theatre in the Rolando area just east of College Avenue. Though it doesn’t really do that good a job depicting the contradiction suggested by its title (the name of a 1930’s blues song by Bukka White — covered by Bob Dylan in 1961 — that’s played at the start of the show) between Lee Atwater, killer Republican political strategist and master of the veiled exploitation of racism in campaigns; and Lee Atwater, lover of African-American music and quite good amateur blues musician who recorded with B. B. King on an album that got a Grammy nomination, the piece does provide an opportunity for a tour de force for a star actor, which Jeffrey Jones seizes brilliantly in Cygnet’s production.

Harvey Leroy Atwater — it’s not surprising that someone so obsessed with being cutting-edge and cool dropped the first name altogether and abbreviated the second to “Lee” — was born in Atlanta, Georgia on February 26, 1951. His family moved to South Carolina, where he grew up and, he explains in the play, he became a Republican because the Democrats were the establishment throughout the South in the 1950’s and early 1960’s and he wanted to be a political rebel. As luck — good or bad, depending on your politics -— would have it, Atwater’s first political job was as an intern for Democrat turned independent turned Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, architect of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1968 election and the man who did more than anyone else to help the Republicans shake their image as the “party of Lincoln” and realign themselves — and the nation — as the party of racist backlash and white supremacy.

Atwater learned Thurmond’s lessons well. In 1980, working for Ronald Reagan in the Southern primaries, he smeared rival John Connally with the accusation that he was trying to buy Black votes by hiring African-American ministers for a voter registration drive. Also that year, he won a Congressional race in his home state for Republican Floyd Spence by having callers do so-called “push polls” — calls that are ostensibly from impartial pollsters but are actually from a campaign and communicate derogatory information about their opponent in the form of “questions” — “exposing” Spence’s opponent, Democrat Tom Turnipseed, as a member of the NAACP. In 1984 he was involved in the re-election campaign of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms against African-American Democrat Harvey Gantt, and produced a commercial showing the hand of an otherwise unseen white job seeker filling out an application and then crumpling it up as the voiceover explained that because of affirmative-action preferences for people of color, whites need not apply.

Atwater’s most famous bit of race-baiting came when he managed the campaign of George H. W. Bush, the current president’s father, in 1988 and targeted Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, over the work-furlough program for prisoners that had let out convicted rapist and murderer Willie Horton, who’d committed another rape while on one of his furloughs. The play depicts Atwater as learning about this case from a man in a bar — actually the Horton case had first been dug up by opposition researchers for Al Gore in his campaign against Dukakis for the Democratic nomination — and being savvy enough never to use Horton’s image in a Bush commercial even while giving public statements that the Bush campaign was going to make it seem like Horton was Dukakis’s running mate.

But Atwater’s dirty tricks didn’t stop at inciting racist backlash. In 1980 he successfully trashed Tom Turnipseed by exposing that, as a teenager, Turnipseed had gone through electric shock therapy for depression. In 1984 he went after Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro by revealing that her parents had been indicted for numbers-running in the 1940’s. On the 1988 Bush campaign, Atwater worked closely with George W. Bush and his political guide, Karl Rove, and the tactics Bush used to get re-elected in 2004 — particularly the formation of a front group, the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” to attack opponent John Kerry’s war record through “independent” campaigns that, like the Willie Horton ads in 1988, were produced and put on the air by outside organizations with no official tie to the Bush campaign — certainly suggest Atwater’s long-term influence.

The real Lee Atwater was so much of a skunk that even fellow Republican political consultant Ed Rollins called him “ruthless,” compared him to Iran-contra figure Ollie North, and said Atwater “just had to drive in one more stake” against each opponent. Playwright Myers, faced with the problem of re-creating this character as someone an audience would pay good money to watch for an uninterrupted hour and a half, turned Atwater into a lovable rogue, a bottomless fount of rock ’n’ roll energy enlisted in the service of some unlikely political figures. Though the play was written while George Bush the Elder was still President, one of Atwater’s lines — boasting about his success in getting voters to believe that Bush, Connecticut-born preppie and Yale grad with a father named Prescott, was “a man of the people” — rings all the truer now given Karl Rove’s even greater success in doing the “man of the people” makeover on Bush II.

Though Myers’ play has its problems — it really doesn’t tell us what made Lee run, whether he believed in the righteousness of the Republican cause or was just in it (as Myers’ Atwater says at one point) for “the game,” and the tearjerking finale makes all too blatant use not only of Atwater’s early death but his deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism and the letters of apology he wrote to Turnipseed and Dukakis — it does one thing triumphantly well. It shows just how well the anarchic, individualistic, I-do-what-I-want-and-fuck-anybody-else attitude of rock ’n’ roll — which those of us who grew up on the Left in the 1960’s thought would lead us to a utopia of peace, love and socialism — actually dovetailed with the Right and its traditional emphasis on individualism over collectivism. Atwater and the Republicans of his generation accomplished the feat of making Right-wing politics seem edgy and cool, so much so that to this day — even with Republicans in complete control of the entire federal government — the talk-radio hosts who are Atwater’s real heirs still portray the Right and its people as an embattled minority desperately struggling against a liberal/secular-humanist/anti-militarist/anti-American “establishment.”

Indeed, the scathing tongue and leaping energy of Atwater — at least as Myers wrote him and Cygnet’s astonishing star, Jeffrey Jones, plays him — suggests that had he lived, and had the Democrats won the 1992 election the way they actually did, Atwater’s perfect home after his inevitable resignation from the chair of the Republican National Committee would have been a talk-radio show. Not only have plenty of disgraced and even criminally convicted Republicans like G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North and Roger Hedgecock (the latter two had their convictions reversed on appeal) found comfortable homes on the air, many of the Right-s talk-radio stars have come from backgrounds in rock ’n’ roll (Rush Limbaugh was a rock D.J. and Hedgecock a concert promoter) and adapted the energy of rock into political talk. If Atwater were still alive, he’d fit in beautifully on the Clear Channel or Fox networks — especially if he was really as edgy, energetic and ball-of-fire intense as Jones plays him.

Cygnet gives Atwater: Fixin’ to Die a keep-it-simple production, using cutouts to represent the people Atwater interacted with — Presidents Reagan and Bush, Senator Thurmond, Dan Quayle (Atwater’s attempts at damage control on Quayle are among the best parts of the script), Dukakis, Horton and the anonymous convicts (or actors playing same) who stood in for Horton in the Bush campaign’s “official” commercials in 1988. A single piece of furniture doubles as Atwater’s desk and the hospital bed in which he dies. (Cygnet’s founding director, Sean Murray, gets credit as set designer.) Director Rosina Reynolds does what she can with a script that depends totally on the talents of its lead (and only) actor, and Jeffrey Jones plays the character to the nines, absolutely credible both in the energetic early scenes and the quieter later ones in which he has to confront the imminence of his own death. Actors Veronica Baker, Phil Beaumont, Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, M. Scott Grabau, Tim Graves, T. J. Johnson, Marc Overton and Rojo Reynolds are credited with offstage voices, and Grabau — who in addition to being one of the voices doubles as lighting designer and triples as sound designer — deploys them effectively, especially in the surprisingly moving finale in which Atwater gets dueling elegies from the first President Bush and B. B. King.

Towards the end, Myers’ script requires Jones to play two other people besides Atwater — Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke (whom Atwater repudiated because his Ku Klux Klan and white-supremacist past represented the obvious race-baiting of old rather than the subtle 1980’s kind Atwater was a master at) and a Black student protester at Howard University demanding Atwater’s resignation from the board of the historically African-American college. Jones rises to these challenges, too, and the addition of other people brings such a lift to the drama it seems a pity Myers didn’t write it as a one-person multiple-character show along the lines of Anna Deveare Smith’s works. Having more people in the dramatis personae would have relieved us of the weariness of watching Atwater do his schtick over and over and over again — and would have given Jones even more to work with than the piece does as it stands.

Nonetheless, the Cygnet production of Atwater: Fixin’ to Die offers a thrilling evening at the theatre and an acting tour de force by its star. It’s well worth seeing just to watch Jeffrey Jones.

Atwater: Fixin’ to Die plays through Sunday, June 18 at the Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El
Cajon Blv’d., Suite N. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $22 to $26 and can be purchased by phone at (619) 337-1525 x3 or online at
Munich on DVD: Spielberg’s Masterpiece


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The American Right is against complexity virtually everywhere it rears its head, but especially when it comes to depictions of the so-called “war on terror.” (For that matter, they’re strongly opposed to people like me writing the phrase “the so-called ‘war on terror.’”) In a typically vicious diatribe, published in the April 26 Los Angeles Times, against reporters like the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and the New York Times’ James Risen for having revealed details of President Bush’s flagrant abuses of due process, the U.S. Constitution and the laws he took an oath to uphold — and the Pulitzer Prize committee for giving them awards for those stories —columnist and Foreign Affairs contributor Max Boot wrote, “I want journalists to cover the present struggle as a fight between good and evil.”

Likewise, also in the Los Angeles Times — this time in the May 7 issue — crime novelist Andrew Klavan openly called on the American movie industry to depict the “war on terror” in the same black-and-white, good-and-evil terms with which they depicted World War II while that war was actually happening. “We need some films celebrating the war against Islamo-fascism in Afghanistan and Iraq — and in Iran as well, if and when that becomes necessary,” Klavan wrote. “We need … films such as 1943’s Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic, or The Fighting Seabees and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which were released in 1944. Not all of these were great films, or even good ones, but their patriotic tributes to our fighting forces inspired the nation.”

Two days after Klavan’s column appeared, Steven Spielberg’s Munich — a film which no doubt epitomizes everything Klavan thinks is wrong about Hollywood’s treatment of the “war on terror” — appeared on DVD after disappointing box-office returns in its theatrical run. The film ran 164 minutes in its theatrical version, and the DVD is preceded by a curious five-minute apologia from Spielberg, who obviously felt moved to respond to the controversy surrounding this film, particularly the accusations of historical inaccuracy both in the movie itself and in the book Spielberg and his writers, Tony Kushner (that’s right, the Tony Kushner of A Bright Room Called Day and Angels in America) and Eric Roth, drew on as their source: George Jonas’s 1984 book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team.

I bought and watched the Munich DVD on the first day it was out, and I was astonished by both the professionalism with which it was made and the depth with which it explores the issues Spielberg set out to raise. Munich seems to me to be a great film which succeeds on every possible level: a triumph for Spielberg, his long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy (who put him on to the material), his writers and his cast, all of whom except semi-star Geoffrey Rush are unknowns and therefore able to slip into their roles far more effectively than well-known “name” actors would have been.

The story begins with the abduction and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich — presented through a mix of re-enactments and archival news footage that’s all too successful in recreating the strange roller-coaster of emotions common to hostage situations like this, especially when (as here) there’s an initial report that the victims have been rescued successfully and then the truth that they’ve all been killed emerges later. It then shifts to the Israeli cabinet, where prime minister Golda Meir (brought to life in a chillingly matter-of-fact performance by Lynn Cohen) orders the reprisal killing of 11 Palestinian activists involved either in Black September, the terrorist group that planned and ordered the Munich attack, or other terrorist acts against Israelis.

Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) is the Mossad agent assigned to recruit a team to carry out the assassinations, and he picks Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana in the film’s lead role) to lead the team on the ground, officially firing him from the Mossad and setting up arrangements to pay him in Switzerland. Things are complicated by the fact that Avner’s wife is seven months’ pregnant with their first child, and Avner’s disappearance into the netherworld of international espionage for however long it will take to kill the 11 people on his list means that he will probably not see his child for years — but Avner is the son of a former Mossad hero and he takes the assignment.

The bulk of the film is a slow, methodical detailing of how an international hit team functions: how it identifies its targets, finds out their location, and carries out the killings either by guns or bombs. Mossad’s orders were to use bombs wherever possible for maximum public impact, despite the risk of collateral damage. In one scene the man in charge of the remote detonator, which is linked to a bomb concealed in a telephone that is wired to go off when the phone is answered, hangs back on the detonation because the person answering the phone is not the victim, but his daughter. In another, the bomb is wired to a bed in a hotel room and it’s duly set off, killing the victim — and, via shrapnel-like glass particles, blinding an Israeli woman who was on her honeymoon in the next room.

One of the most welcome aspects of Munich is how brilliant a piece of filmmaking it is on a purely technical craft level. In a year in which three of the five Academy Award Best Picture nominees were made by first-time directors — Paul Haggis (Crash), Bennett Miller (Capote) and George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck), it’s nice to see a movie made by a consummate filmmaker with over three decades’ experience who knows instinctively when to keep the camera still and when to move it, when to hold it on a scene and when to cut. Aided by his frequent collaborator, composer John Williams, who scored most of the film’s music only for strings, Spielberg created a powerful mood that emphasized Avner’s moral dilemmas and explained quite readily why he finishes the movie with the Mother of All Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders.

Munich is a grimly paced film, and some of the action scenes get pretty gory, but it’s more about character than about action and, in particular, the crisis of faith (it’s hard to call it anything else!) Avner goes through as he begins to question the ethics of his mission and whether he’s reducing himself to the moral level of his terrorist enemies by carrying it out. That’s the part of the film that so incensed conservative critics — including David Brooks, who couldn’t come right out and say that the director of Schindler’s List didn’t know the difference between good and evil, so he said that Spielberg had forgotten it because he refused to make the Islamists = Nazis equation Brooks had — and probably sealed its fate at the box office despite the fact that it’s a great film, easily the best of the four of last year’s Academy Award best picture nominees I’ve seen (all except the winner, Crash).

It would have been very easy for Steven Spielberg, of all directors, to go into Jaws/Jurassic Park/War of the Worlds action mode and make a nice, compact, exciting two-hour movie of this story, with lots of action and no moral complexity, and have produced the kind of good vs. evil parable people like David Brooks, Max Boot and Andrew Klavan want movies of the so-called “war on terror” to be — but that wasn’t what he wanted. Instead he stretched out the story, partly to evoke the kinds of contrasts between the precision of the means and the madness of the ends the late Stanley Kubrick, who befriended Spielberg in the last years of his life (and clearly taught him something), loved to do; and partly to draw us into the dilemmas faced by the characters.

In that regard, Munich bears an intriguing resemblance to a movie that, though made in an Allied country (Britain) during World War II, was utterly unlike the ones Klavan lauded in his column: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, co-written and co-directed by Michael Powell and German refugee Emeric Pressburger. Though Pressburger had seen the Nazis’ evil up close and personal, he and Powell made a movie that not only acknowledged the moral complexity of even such a “good war” as World War II but, like Munich, openly questioned whether, in adopting fundamentally inhumane tactics like directly bombing civilian populations, the Allies might be defeating the Nazis only to lose their own soul. And, like Munich, Blimp was controversial when it was made; British prime minister Winston Churchill hated the film and kept it from being released outside the U.K. for nearly two years.

One curious aspect of Munich is its utter humorlessness: even scenes that could have been skewed for comic relief, like the one in which the Israeli assassins come to a safe house that’s been arranged for them in Rome only to find that the place has been double-booked and an Arab group still has another day to go there, are instead used to highlight the moral and ethical issues at the heart of the film. In that confrontation, and in others, the differences not only between sides but within the Israeli team come through. At one point Steve (Daniel Craig), the tall, blond team member who’s both the least “Jewish”-looking of them and the most gung-ho, makes the chilling comment that the only blood that interests him is “Jewish blood” — and it’s a shocker to hear a Jew mimic the Nazis’ racialist madness and differ only in that he puts Jews at the top of his racist ranking of humanity instead of the bottom. Thanks to the literacy of the Kushner-Roth script, the film is able to raise these kinds of issues and have the characters talk about them without sounding either phony or overly preachy.

Munich is a classic-in-the-making, the kind of great film they’re not supposed to be making anymore, and a real surprise coming from this director, who only twice in his previous career (Schindler’s List — now why should it have been such a surprise that Spielberg made a terrorist movie a work of moral complexity when the hero of his Holocaust film was a Nazi who redeemed himself by saving Jews? — and Amistad) has reached so far into himself and pulled out such a level of emotion. If there’s a surprise in this film it’s only that he made it right after War of the Worlds, and after the publicity interviews he did for his action blockbuster portraying it as his response to 9/11 and implying that the implacable, unreachable Martian invaders of his “take” on the Wells classic were the way he saw al-Qaeda. I suspect Munich will be one of those films whose stature will grow over the years and will finally be recognized as Spielberg’s masterpiece.
White’s “My Lives”: Putting the Sex Back in HomoSEXuality


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In the 1920’s, when foreign-born film directors Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch were considered the best filmmakers at depicting decadence, Stroheim was asked what the difference between them was. “Lubitsch first shows you the king on his throne, then the king in his bedroom,” Stroheim responded. “I first show you the king in his bedroom, so you will know exactly what he is like when you see him on his throne.” Likewise, Edmund White’s autobiography, My Lives, plays fast and loose with the chronology of his life (as its title suggests) and tells quite a bit about his loves, hopeless crushes, sex partners and men who at different times were all three for him so that we will know exactly what he is like as a writer, personality and Queer celebrity.

Not that White has been reticent about describing his own life before, especially with emphasis on its sexual side. Indeed, he’s drawn so relentlessly on himself and his acquaintances, friends, lovers and tricks for material that one could argue the only difference between My Lives and the various books he’s published previously as “novels” is this time he’s using their real names. (At several points in My Lives he actually connects the people in his life with the characters he based on them in the works he presented as fiction.)

What makes My Lives a remarkable book and a must-read for every Queer male interested in the lifelong task of defining himself in relation to his sexuality is the breadth of White’s experience and the spectacular political and social incorrectness of his conclusions. White’s coming of age began in the 1950’s, when the orthodox view of homosexuality had inched forward from unspeakable sin to mental illness — and, like a lot of Queers of his generation, White ran through the usual gauntlet of psychiatrists seeking to “cure” him and turn him straight.

He’s hit virtually every major signpost of Queer history since, from the sudden emergence of “Gay liberation” out of the ferment of progressive and radical Left politics in the late 1960’s (it didn’t all happen at Stonewall, White concedes, even though his letter on the Stonewall riots was the first information many Queers outside New York City had about them); the mad whirls of sex, drugs and disco of the 1970’s; the sudden crash to earth with the advent of AIDS (White buys into HIV as the cause of AIDS and describes himself as “HIV positive” as though that meant something, though he also records that he’s been healthy for over a decade without anti-HIV meds); and the community’s current dull ache as its assimilationist leadership has given up sexual liberation as a goal in favor of joining the military, getting the legal right to marry and in general making our lives as conventional, confined and frankly boring as those of straight people.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a writer whose most significant previous pieces of nonfiction were The Joy of Gay Sex and a biography of Queer outlaw Jean Genêt (product of an arduous research process only complicated by White’s decision to undertake a book on a major French writer when he didn’t yet know how to speak French) defiantly proclaims his own sexuality, past and present, and rejects the sex-hating — or, more likely, sex-fearing — orthodoxy that has grabbed hold of the Queer community in the 21st century. The reviewers who haven’t liked White’s book have mostly zoomed in on the most explicitly sexual passages and particularly his descriptions of his partner’s penises (it does seem odd how often White uses the oddly clinical term “penis” instead of the bawdier Anglo-Saxonisms more common in Queer male writing) and the heartbreak he still feels in his 60’s when one of his thirty-something affair partners cuts him off:

“Here I am, way up in my mid-sixties, still suffering over young men just as I did in my teens and twenties. The spasms come less often and don’t last as long (knock on wood) but the still drive every other thought out of my mind. … Not long ago I was interviewed by a Gay magazine in Boston about the allure of physical beauty. In the next issue a disgusted reader wrote in to deplore that I, a sort of Gay “leader,” had lived so long and learned so little. Was I still mooning over mere physical beauty and scheming to get laid with cute boys? Had I obtained no inner serenity? Had I acquired no elder-statesmanlike dignity? Wasn’t it just a bit repellent that I took no pride in my accomplishments and could find no solace in my wisdom? Was I, in fact, wise? Or was I only one more shallow hedonist, one more unhappy old queen?”

What makes this account even more politically incorrect is that it kicks off a chapter called “My Master,” about the affair he drifted into with “a thirty-three year old actor-writer-director” whom he refers to only as “T,” with whom he had sadomasochistic sex for the first time (though neither of them seemed to take it anywhere nearly as seriously as the hard-core Leathermen of my acquaintance do). By this time White was already coupled with his current partner, Michael Carroll (a photo of him is the last thing we see before we close this book at the end), but not only didn’t that stop him from having the affair with “T.” it didn’t stop him from turning Michael into a confidant over its anguishes, anxieties and joys.

We’re not supposed to do this sort of thing anymore. We’re supposed to have grown up as a community and settled down into monogamous relationships. We’re supposed to think of Queerness in terms of who we love, not who we fuck. According to the “leaders” of our community, being Gay is supposed to be about love instead of sex. We’re not supposed to have sex — or if we do, we’re supposed to do so in the darkest recesses of the bedroom, carefully and quietly so we don’t disturb the kids we’ve fought so hard for the legal right to adopt, and certainly not with anybody but the permanent partner we’ve fought so hard for the legal right to marry.

Well, balls to that — literally and figuratively — says Edmund White. After describing his French friends’ more, shall we say, unusual sexual proclivities — including a richly comic depiction of how he and some friends rescued philosopher and historian Michel Foucault from the consequences of a bad LSD trip he had in a Gay bathhouse in New York City — White writes that some readers will think “I’m tarnishing Foucault’s reputation by mentioning his bad trip at the baths. On the contrary, I want to suggest how heroic they [Foucault and his other French friends] were. They were intellectuals, but not feeble ones who’d chosen the mind over the body. As the golden age of promiscuity was shutting down, they were leading daring sex lives in which they were collapsing age and class and racial barriers.”

White clearly sees himself as less daring and less brilliant than his friends, but equally committed to combining his intellectual and physical sides. You can’t separate the one from the other, he says in My Lives, not only because sex in its various permutations has provided so much of the raw material for his books but also because you can’t understand the “elder statesman of Gay literature” the disgruntled reader of White’s interview with that Boston paper wanted to experience unless he’s first shown you into his bedroom — or bathhouse, orgy room, streetcorner or parked truck (one of the book’s more unforgettable scenes describes one of the orgies that regularly took place in the Gay parts of New York City in the 1970’s inside truck trailers, often several rented at once and linked by the goings-on outside and under as well as in them) — and confronted you with the depth and breadth of his normal male sexual desires.

And make no mistake about it: these are normal male sexual desires. I’ve often wondered about the reluctance of writers like John Gray (the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus guy) and others who are trying to establish some observable and consistent difference between how men and women respond to and fulfill their sexual desires to look at Queers. It’s good science to isolate a variable, after all; if the hypothesis you want to test is that men are far more casual in terms of when, where and with whom they will have sex, while women are much more concerned about romantic and relationship contexts, the place to test that is among the people whose sexual interests are with their own gender and therefore don’t have to adjust to the demands and needs of the other sex: totally Gay men and totally Lesbian women.

I can’t say for sure about Lesbians, but certainly the Mars-Venus theory would predict that Gay men would be far more rambunctious sexually than straight ones, far more promiscuous (what a loaded word! It sounds like a disease), more willing to create outlets for sex without the complications of love. And they are. Indeed, one of the things I like best about My Lives is it really forces its readers to confront just how randy Gay men are, how frequently driven they are by their sexual impulse, how Gay male couplings can fall just about anywhere on that broad spectrum between casual stranger-sex and lifelong romantic commitment, and how the greatest emotional pains Gay men go through are frequently triggered by a mismatch in those expectations: either we’ve fallen in love with a trick, or we’ve disappointed a partner by having a trick, or we’ve realized a man we thought was just a trick is in love, and how the hell do we get rid of him and end this unexpected and frightening complication in our lives?

Of course, this is a sweeping generalization about human behavior and, like all such generalizations, subject to a wide variety of individual exceptions. Doubtless there are Lesbians out there who are as randy and casual about whom they have sex with, when, where and in what context, as the most stereotypical Gay man — and Gay men who could give straights and Lesbians lessons in fulfilling the expectations of the standard marriage ceremony of “forsaking all others” and staying together “till death do us part.” But for the most part, the rules of marriage as they were invented and promulgated by and for heterosexuals simply do not apply to Gay men. Certainly the options for having your relationship recognized by the state ought to be made available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally — but the social, moral and religious baggage carried by the term “marriage” would only be a burden to most sexually active Gay men. That is the most fascinating moral of Edmund White’s My Lives and the reason why every Gay man wondering how on earth to manage his own sexuality —and finding that, contrary to his expectation, that task is not getting easier as he gets older — should read it.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Film Exposes Negroponte’s Human-Rights Abuses

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On September 13, 2001 — just two days after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. that supposedly “changed everything” — it was business as usual in a U.S. Senate hearing room, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was considering President Bush’s nomination of John Dimitri Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations. One man in the audience, Andreas Tomás Gutierrez, came to the hearing with a mission: to do what he could to expose Negroponte’s involvement in death-squad killings and other human-rights abuses in Honduras during the early 1980’s, when he was U.S. ambassador there.

Gutierrez had been asked to go to Negroponte’s hearing by Sonida Velasquez, Honduran human-rights activist and sister of one of the victims: Manfredo Velasquez, who had “disappeared” on September 12, 1981. “She called me and asked me to go to the hearing and carry a sign saying, ‘Manfredo Velasquez, presente,’” Gutierrez recalled at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest May 10. “I couldn’t make the first scheduled hearing date — September 12, 2001 — because I was supposed to go to New York to do some translation work. Then 9/11 happened, and Negroponte’s hearing was rescheduled — but just by one day because they wanted to rush it through — and I was able to go after all.”

Originally Gutierrez had intended only to do what Sonida Velasquez asked him — sit through the hearing silently with the sign memorializing her brother — but he was so appalled by the lies Negroponte told the committee he decided on the spot to disrupt the hearing. “I gave my friend Kathy the keys to my car and told her, ‘I have to do something,’” Gutierrez said. “I stood up and said, ‘The people of Honduras consider you to be a state terrorist.’”

Unlike Cindy Sheehan, who got arrested for showing up at President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address wearing a T-shirt commemorating the U.S. servicemembers killed in Iraq, Gutierrez managed to avoid being taken into custody. “The D.C. police were on me very quickly and were very confused,” he recalled. “The Democrats were in power in the Senate at the time and Joe Biden was chair of the committee. It was his call to decide whether I’d be arrested. They held me in the hallway and the press started asking me questions, while the police still didn’t know whether to arrest me or not. Ultimately they decided not to, because they didn’t want a news story about someone in the Capitol disrupting a hearing two days after 9/11.”

Gutierrez spoke to the audience as part of an event sponsored by the church’s Peace and Democracy Action Group, which included a showing of an hour-long documentary film about Negroponte that explained exactly why many Honduran people would consider him a state terrorist. The film, The Ambassador [Ambassadøren], was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Erling Borgen for Norwegian TV in 2005. The church’s copy was in English, though an occasional insert — like a map of central America which identified the Caribbean Sea in Norwegian — gave away its national origins.

According to Gutierrez, he worked as a consultant on the film, mostly by talking to his friends in the Honduran human-rights movement and getting them to participate in the production. He’s not listed in the screen credits because, he explained, Borgen saw himself as a journalist and Gutierrez as an activist, and felt that with his name listed people would see the film as activist propaganda against Negroponte rather than honest journalism.

But the film is a meticulous indictment against Negroponte, highlighting not only his history of human-rights abuses but his consistent promotion from job to job under the presidencies of Reagan and both Bushes. Negroponte began as a low-level attaché in the U.S. embassy in South Viet Nam during the Viet Nam war in the 1960’s. He attracted the attention of Henry Kissinger, who picked Negroponte as his assistant in the peace negotiations in Paris — where, according to Gutierrez, he took a harder-line stand than Kissinger’s and urged him to sabotage the negotiations and keep the war going.

In 1981, President Reagan appointed Negroponte U.S. ambassador to Honduras to replace another ambassador, a Carter appointee who’d upset the Honduran military by sending the State Department reports on its human-rights abuses. At the time, Honduras had a nominal civilian president but the country’s real ruler was General Alvarez, an Argentinian-trained army officer who’d organized his own death squad, “Battalion 316,” to carry out extra-judicial killings of activists and political opponents of the regime. According to the film, Negroponte and Alvarez worked closely together to destroy political opposition and murder people the general or the ambassador considered “subversive.” According to Gutierrez, Negroponte and Alvarez were such close friends they became compadres — making Alvarez the godfather to Negroponte’s children — and it was Negroponte’s denial at his Senate hearing of any knowledge of “Battalion 316” during his ambassadorship that led Gutierrez to make his outburst.

Though Alvarez was overthrown in a coup by other Honduran officers in 1984 and Negroponte’s ambassadorship ended a year later, Gutierrez said, “The years Negroponte was head of the wars in central America were those in which the seeds were put in place for Iran-contra.” The contras — U.S.-backed rebels dedicated to launching a civil war in Nicaragua to overthrow the Leftist Sandinista government, which had taken power in a revolution in 1978 — trained in Honduras, and many of the people who trained them were Honduran military officers who had themselves been trained in Argentina. According to Gutierrez, many of these officers taught the contras the tricks they’d learned from the Argentinian officers who ran that country in the late 1970’s, including kidnapping political activists and dissidents so no one from their families would know what happened to them — the so-called desaparecidos or “disappeared” — and killing them by pushing them out of airplanes in midair.

The film The Ambassador repeats two clips of Negroponte from the September 13, 2001 hearing. In one he says, “One human rights abuse is one too many.” In the other, he claims that there were no “systemic” human-rights abuses by the Honduran government or military during his tenure there — a claim the film shows to have been a lie. Unlike some other Left-leaning political documentaries, The Ambassador takes pains not only to argue that Negroponte bore some overall responsibility for the Honduran military’s abuses but to tie him to specific cases in which people were killed or otherwise punished for opposing the regime. In one chilling sequence, Borgen interviews the former president of the autonomous university in Tegucigalpas, the Honduran capital, who was re-elected by the faculty and students but needed ratification by the Honduran supreme court to continue in that position. Negroponte and Alvarez personally visited the supreme court justices to intimidate them into vetoing the university president’s re-election because he had been publicly critical of the Honduran military’s suppression of political dissent.

Negroponte was well rewarded for his role in aiding the Honduran military and supporting the contras. By the end of the 1980’s he was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, where he was serving when the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed and when the Mexican government brutally repressed some student demonstrators. When the current President Bush took office, he nominated Negroponte as U.N. ambassador in 2001 and ambassador to Iraq in 2004. The Iraq appointment was part of a strategy to shift control from the “Coalition Provisional Authority,” which had directly governed Iraq after the U.S. conquered it in 2003, to a nominally independent Iraqi government closely supervised by a so-called “embassy” which would be the largest U.S. diplomatic establishment in the world and would effectively dictate to the Iraqi “government.”

In 2005 Bush tabbed Negroponte for an even bigger job: the first U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI), coordinating the work of all U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). Once he was appointed DNI, Negroponte picked Air Force General Michael Hayden, head of the NSA from 1996 to 2005 and the man who implemented the Bush administration’s controversial programs to wiretap phone calls between Americans and people in other countries and log the phone numbers of every call made by users of three of the four largest U.S. phone companies. According to mainstream news reports, Negroponte’s micromanagement of the intelligence agencies under his supervision upset CIA director Porter Goss so much that Goss resigned after just 18 months in that job — whereupon Bush immediately chose Hayden, Negroponte’s deputy, to replace him.

Many of the members of the church audience were veterans of the solidarity movements which had opposed U.S. support for the contras in the 1980’s, and a lot of the questions Gutierrez got were about current politics in Latin America. Audience members were especially interested in the growing number of Left-leaning presidents being elected there and the chances that the U.S. will stage or support coups to get rid of them the way they did in Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973. Gutierrez said, not surprisingly, that the biggest thorn in the side of the U.S. in terms of its position in Latin America is Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, who so far has survived not only a coup but several attempts to remove him from office through electoral means.

“Chávez has been re-elected three times and has tremendous support in his country,” Gutierrez said. “Venezuela is in the U.S. interest because of its oil. Some people hav e said that if it weren’t for Iraq, the U.S. would be invading Venezuela now. Because the American Empire is overreaching, as all empires do before they fall, some in the administration are saying we shouldn’t invade Iran or Venezuela” — including Negroponte himself, who had been on the Sunday network news shows the weekend before the meeting to question the idea of a military strike on Iran. But Gutierrez stressed that the U.S. government “has their eye” on the situation in Venezuela, even if they choose not to intervene militarily at this time.

Asked if anyone in the U.S. diplomatic service today is playing a role similar to Negroponte’s in Honduras in the 1980’s, Gutierrez mentioned his namesake, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina — who formerly served in Nicaragua — who’s “a gusano Cuban, very anti-Castro. But there’s no one now who compares to Negroponte or wields that much power.” Gutierrez also mentioned that the U.S. has built an enormous military base in Manta, Ecuador — “the largest U.S. base in the Western hemisphere outside the U.S.” — and as a result, a group he’s associated with that seeks an international ban on countries maintaining military bases outside their own territory is planning its first worldwide convention for March 8, 2007 in Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

Regarding the upcoming elections in the three central American countries in whose internal conflicts Negroponte was most intimately involved in the 1980’s — Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador — Gutierrez said, “Honduras just had an election in which Hilda Rivera, the woman who was one of the students who was tortured in the 1980’s, is now the Secretary of State in Honduras. But Honduras is still a pretty conservative country. In El Salvador, the FMLN [the former guerrilla movement that fought the government in the 1980’s] is in parliament, but the government is still dominated by the ARENA party, formed by the military officers who killed Archbishop Romero in 1979. Nicaragua is facing a major election this year, and this could be the year [Sandinista leader] Daniel Ortega will be re-elected. The Bush administration is ardently against the Ortega candidacy.”

The film The Ambassador is still not available for general release in the U.S. Peace and Democracy Action Group coordinator Tanja Winter pledged her support to help find a U.S. distributor for the film so it can be seen widely. To help, please contact her at
Group Acts Against Genocide in Northern Uganda

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In the developed world, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has carefully cultivated an image as a hero since he was installed in power in 1986 following the collapse of the murderous regimes of dictators Milton Obote and Idi Amin. A much-publicized anti-AIDS campaign helped burnish Museveni’s international image despite its wild claims of having reduced HIV prevalence in his country from 20 to 6 percent. On the ground, however — especially among the Acholi people in northern Uganda, near its border with Sudan — Museveni’s government is leading a campaign that Ugandan-born activist Charlie Lakony calls genocide.

Lakony, an émigré who serves as vice-president of a group called Friends for Peace in Africa, and Kathy Smith of the local chapter of Amnesty International discussed the situation in northern Uganda at an unusual meeting of Activist San Diego May 8. The meeting was unusual because it took place, not at Activist San Diego’s normal headquarters in City Heights, but at the Alliance for African Assistance, 5952 El Cajon Boulevard in the College area. Since Lakony works there, and holds a regular meeting every Monday night to plan actions against the Ugandan genocide, he began his presentation by joking, “I feel like a visitor in my own house.”

Once he got underway, however, he was deadly serious as he said bluntly, “What is going on in northern Uganda amounts to genocide.” Lakony acknowledged that “a certain number of deaths don’t necessarily amount to genocide,” but he said that under the official United Nations definition in a document called the Rome Convention, this one did. The situation is complicated because the Acholis are caught in the middle of a civil conflict between the Ugandan government and a movement called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), whose ideology Lakony didn’t discuss in depth but who were described in the call to the meeting as “a rebel group with no discernible goals except to overthrow the current government and install one based on its interpretation of the Ten Commandments.”

According to Lakony, the Ugandan government started its campaign against the Acholi people in 1996 and used the threat of the LRA as an excuse. They followed the classic strategy, pioneered by the British against the Boers in South Africa in the 1890’s and copied by the Nazis during World War II and the U.S. in Viet Nam, of forcing the local population out of their home villages, rounding them up and putting them in concentration camps. The people who were pushed off their land and the only life they had ever known were euphemistically described as “IDP’s” — “internally displaced persons.”

“People were moved away from their land, away from their houses and away from their livelihoods, [allegedly] so they would not provide cover, food and sanctuary to the [LRA] rebels,” Lakony explained. “There are now 200 camps where 2 million people are crammed. “ He compared conditions in the camps to those in the New Orleans Superdome during the evacuation following Hurricane Katrina. “Their houses are about three, four or five yards in diameter, three feet from each other, grass huts, very dry,” Lakony said. “If one house starts burning, the entire camp burns up and 50,000 people are left homeless.”

What’s more, he said, rather than harming the LRA, the relocation actually helped them, according to Lakony. “The LRA is a very vicious guerrilla movement that was abducting people, using children as soldiers and sex slaves, and cutting off people’s limbs and tearing out their eyes,” he explained. “Before the camps were open they would have to go to people’s homes and schools to abduct their children. When the government moved people to the camps, all the LRA had to do was come into the camps and collect their victims.”

Lakony discussed Museveni’s international reputation, pointing out that just about anybody who took over from Idi Amin and Milton Obote would have looked good by comparison. “Museveni introduced a system of government and an economic system that has benefited a great majority of the rest of the country, except the north, which is not only left out but is calculatedly deprived of every necessity,” Lakony said. While he declined to speculate on whether Museveni’s motivation for his assaults on the north was racist hatred of the Acholi people or a desire to clear the area for future economic development and settlement by southerners, he accused the Ugandan government of using the LRA as “cover” for a genocidal attack.

“The government said they took the people away and put them into the camps to protect them against the LRA because the LRA was killing people, but statistics show that only 7 percent of the people who are dying in Uganda are because of the LRA,” Lakony explained. “Fully 93 percent are dying because of the conditions in the camps and what the government soldiers are doing themselves. We got some statistics just today that say that 3,123 people are dying each week in these camps. These are deaths that could have been prevented if the government was taking action. People are dying of malaria, fever, cholera, malnutrition. Mothers are committing suicide because they can’t stand seeing their children die in their arms. Mothers line up for three days to get a jerry-can of water, and then when they get that water they have to divide it, because you have to bribe somebody in order to survive in there.”

According to Lakony, Uganda is one of the three most corrupt countries in the world (he didn’t name the other two), despite the positive image Museveni has carefully cultivated abroad as part of a “new breed” of African leader. Lakony said that most of the money the government has allocated to needs in the north has been siphoned off by the Ugandan army, while Museveni’s worldwide propaganda campaign has convinced most people who care about northern Uganda at all that their problems are entirely due to the LRA, not the government. “The government has kept the world so focused on the LRA it doesn’t notice that the government itself is letting people die,” Lakony said.

One of the elements in this propaganda campaign, Lakony argued, was a heart-wrenching film called Invisible Children. “It tells a poignant story of rebels decimating an entire community and children trying to seek sanctuary in the cities,” Lakony said. Indeed, much of the literature on northern Uganda tells stories of the so-called “night commuters,” children who move from their homes to shelters, schools, churches or balconies in large cities. The government of Uganda said the “night commuters” were doing this to avoid the LRA’s kidnapping gangs, but Lakony said they were also trying to keep out of the hands of Uganda’s own army, which is also kidnapping children and forcing them into military service or sexual slavery.

According to Lakony, the situation for the Acholi people is so dire that “the death rate is way higher than the birth rate. A group of people is being killed off. You may not agree with our assessment, but whether it is genocide or just a little ‘skirmish,’ over 3,000 people are dying each week. It is worse than Darfur. It is worse than Iraq. … It is not acceptable that children are dying and the government is killing them.” What’s more, he said, when his group has lobbied other governments around the world, including Germany, Canada and some of the Scandinavian countries, they’ve been told that those countries are deferring to the United States and Great Britain — both of which are so strongly supportive of Museveni that they jointly vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions to take action against Uganda.

Lakony argued that the U.S. is applying a double standard, letting Uganda get away with actions that this country has condemned elsewhere in the world. “When Museveni decided to take people from their homes and put them in camps, Burundi’s government was doing the same thing — and the U.S said they couldn’t do that,” Lakony said. “Bosnia was recognized as a genocide and the world said it would never happen again. Rwanda happened, and the world said, ‘We dropped the ball.’ Each of you have heard of Darfur. But when we speak about northern Uganda, we hear people say they never heard of the genocide and ask what the government is doing. There seems to be a veil when you talk about the Ugandan government’s actions against the people.”

Kathy Smith of Amnesty International put the Ugandan situation in a regional context, pointing out that Uganda is part of the so-called “Great Lakes” region of Africa and most of the countries that border it, including Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan, have had their own civil wars and atrocities. She cited the statement of Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, after her field trip to the region in 2003, which pointed out that developed countries are helping keep these wars and genocides going by selling arms to those governments. “We call on all U.N. member states not to engage in arms transfers and supplies of military and police equipment or training to the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda unless they are able to subject these transfers to the most stringent certification and scrutiny to ensure that the equipment will not be used to perpetrate human-rights abuses,” Khan said.

According to Smith, there are a few positive signs in Uganda, including a reduction in the number of “night commuter” children from 30,000 to 7,000 in one city, Bulu. But she refused to say whether that was an indicator of stability. Like Lakony, Smith criticized the film Invisible Children for “not highlighting the responsibility of the government” for the deaths and abuses against Ugandan children. She cited the international Doctors Without Borders group for “highlighting the psychological abuse of children. Over 1,200 children seek refuge every evening. The children will say they are fleeing rebels and robbers, but there’s a general atmosphere of violence they face every day. The children are raped and they trade sexual favors; 23.5 percent demonstrate severe psychological distress and 37.5 percent are in danger of slipping into that fate.”

Lakony leads a coalition of local activists aimed at raising awareness of the genocide in northern Uganda and building a grass-roots movement aimed at putting pressure on U.S. Senators and Congressmembers to act. The group meets every Monday night at 7 at the Alliance for African Assistance, 5952 El Cajon Boulevard. For more information on the Ugandan genocide, visit the Human Rights Watch Web site,, and download “Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda.”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Over 200 Attend Demo to Stop Attack on Iran

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Despite the short notice — the e-mails promoting the action went out only two days before it took place — over 200 San Diegans turned out to the Federal Building downtown to demand that the U.S. government abandon its plans for a military attack and/or economic sanctions against Iran. Sponsored by a new coalition called the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMI) in association with the Peace Resource Center, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice and the San Diego chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the action drew a mixed crowd, about half peace demonstration “regulars” and half Iranian and Arab Americans disenchanted with the current Iranian regime but also determined to see that the U.S. doesn’t turn Iran into the chaotic mess neighboring Iraq has become since the U.S. attacked it and overthrew its government in 2003.

“Three years ago, the Bush administration used the same lies to get us into war with Iraq,” said Ali Goldstein, who MC’d the rally. “The First Amendment is the only right we have left — the Bush administration has systematically taken away all the others, including the Fourth Amendment right against unwarranted searches and seizures — and if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it. We saw the fantastic exercise of it on May 1 by the documented and undocumented telling the establishment they have to listen to us. Many members of the immigrant community have been recruited into the U.S. military and have given their lives.”

Goldstein, like some of the speakers that followed, targeted not only the specific plans of the Bush administration to attack Iran and their consideration of using so-called “tactical” or “bunker-buster” nuclear weapons but the overall attempt of the U.S. military and the Bush administration to blur the lines between conventional and nuclear warfare. “The danger of the new nuclear-weapons policy that the U.S. has adopted is that we are now willing to use nuclear weapons against countries that don’t have them,” Goldstein said.

The agenda of the rally was not just to oppose a military attack on Iran but also to forestall any attempt to impose economic sanctions on Iran similar to those the United Nations, under U.S. pressure, put on Iraq in 1990 and didn’t lift until the U.S. defeated Saddam Hussein’s regime militarily in 2003. “Five hundred thousand children died in Iraq as a result of the sanctions,” said Goldstein, “and now they want to impose them on Iran, which has three times the population of Iraq.”

“We all love this country and want it to do the right thing,” said Will Rummell, who co-MC’d with Goldstein. “In the war against Iraq 594 Camp Pendleton Marines have died. What could happen in Iran, with the innocent civilians that would be targeted in any attack, is devastating.”

“I celebrate the fact that you are people who care about peace and what happens in the world, because the U.S. government doesn’t,” said Carol Jahnkow of the Peace Resource Center and the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice. “What brings us here is a human issue. The U.S. threatens Iran with the same devastation as Afghanistan and Iraq. We know this will harm innocent people immediately, and more innocent people as time goes on. We have to speak out against any attack on Iran, whether with nuclear or conventional weapons. “

Pointing out that the Bush administration is plotting a new war in Iran while their old one in Iraq “grows more unpopular every day,” Jahnkow said, “Our immediate task is to counter the Bush administration’s rationales for the war. They say they favor diplomatic solutions as they lobby for sanctions and plan nuclear attacks. There’s the hypocrisy of nuclear-armed nations saying to other countries that they can’t have nuclear weapons. No one should have nuclear weapons. There’s also the hypocrisy of America doing nothing about Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.”

“I am here as an individual concerned about the rhetoric of the Bush administration,” said Madiaf al-Rahimi, professor of religion at UCSD. He accused the administration of deliberately setting up false attempts at diplomacy that are designed to fail and provide the rationale for an attack on Iran — just as the administration did with Iraq. According to al-Rahimi, the Bush administration’s demand that Iran stop enriching uranium for nuclear fuel is one such, because under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — which both the U.S. and Iran have signed — Iran or any other non-nuclear signatory is allowed to enrich uranium to the 3.5 percent level needed for civilian nuclear power.

“Sanctions against Iran will not stop them from developing nuclear technology,” al-Rahimi warned. “The sanctions will not hurt the Iranian government, only the Iranian people. If the U.S. government attacks Iran, especially with nuclear weapons, you will have the unleashing of a new nuclear age that will have devastating consequences.” Al-Rahimi called on the U.S. government to negotiate directly with Iran on the nuclear power issue — something it has refused to do — and “get rid of those ‘diplomats’ who are really warriors, including [U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John] Bolton. You can’t call for diplomacy while being absent from the negotiating tables.”

Al-Rahimi was followed by another UCSD professor, physicist Jorge Hirsch, who stressed the special responsibility physicists feel towards the use of nuclear weapons since it was members of their profession that invented them in the first place. “We have been very concerned in the last few years over the chances in U.S. nuclear-weapons policies and the development of new nuclear weapons,” Hirsch said. “We have a special responsibility to tell you and our government not to use nuclear weapons because it will be crossing a line. It will tell the rest of the world’s countries that they are fair game for a U.S. nuclear attack, and the 182 countries who signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will abandon it and develop nuclear weapons themselves.”

Hirsch pointed out that under current U.S. law, the responsibility of deciding whether and when the U.S. uses nuclear weapons lies with the President alone — and while that may have made sense during the Cold War, when there was at least one other nuclear-armed superpower capable of mounting a surprise attack on the U.S., “today the U.S. is threatening non-nuclear powers with attack — and that should not be solely the President’s decision. Congress should pass a law making it illegal for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear country. If we are going to use nuclear weapons, it should be a decision of all Americans, not just Bush, [vice-president Dick] Cheney or [defense secretary Donald] Rumsfeld.”

At this point Hirsch chilled the crowd — and provided the most dramatic moment of the rally — when he played a tape of President Bush at a recent news conference repeating three times that “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran and specifically refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. Hirsch accused Congress of “not facing up to its responsibilities” and said that keeping open the option of a nuclear attack on Iran “does not put any pressure on Iran. It only damages the U.S. and our reputation in the world. This is not the right approach for the U.S.” Like Goldstein, he pointed out that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Iran has the legal right to enrich uranium to the 3.5 percent concentration of fissionable material needed to run a nuclear power plant and criticized the U.S. for “telling the world that they have no right to have nuclear weapons, while we reserve our right to have them and use them against anyone we choose.”

Civil-rights attorney Randall Hamud said the problem was with the ingrained lawlessness of the Bush administration. “It came into office ignoring the rule of law,” he said. “It has a system of kidnapping people and maintaining secret prisons around the world. It brutalizes people in ‘interrogatioins’ and it has surrendered the moral high ground the U.S. used to enjoy. I believe this administration came into office with the intent to discredit the moderates in Iran as a pretext for war. It is a government of neo-conservatives, neo-Trotskyites and, I would say, neo-fascists. I don’t want Rumsfeld to resign; I want Bush to resign — or be impeached.”

Hamud pointed out that the main charge against the Nazi leaders in the 1946 war crimes trials at Nuremberg was “waging aggressive war” — and that the U.S. itself is similarly guilty of waging an aggressive war against Iraq and would only compound its guilt by starting another one against Iran. “Perhaps we could negotiate directly with Iran and bring about a nuclear-free Middle East, including Israel,” Hamud said. “But we won’t have President Bush impeached until we have a Democratic-controlled Congress” — a remark that, along with Hamud’s subsequent call for people to go out and campaign for Francine Busby and other local Democratic Congressional candidates, got a lukewarm reaction from the crowd. Many people there obviously considered the Democrats in Congress, many of whom voted to authorize the Iraq war and virtually all of whom have consistently voted to support it financially, just as culpable in Bush’s aggressions as the Republicans.

“Now that the mission hasn’t been accomplished in Iraq, Bush is setting up for an even bigger disaster in Iran,” said attorney and Thomas Jefferson College of Law professor Marjorie Cohn, a familiar speaker at peace rallies in San Diego over the last five years. “Bush’s plan is grounded in the idea that a sustained bombing campaign against Iran will lead to the fall of the religious regime.” Cohn argued that, if anything, the opposite is true: a U.S. attack will allow the Iranian politicians and the Islamic clerics who have the ultimate power in the country to rally their people behind the government to defend against a foreign attacker.

Citing a number of sources — including veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, whose article in The New Yorker first broke the extent of Bush’s war plans against Iran and his administration’s determination to maintain the option of using nuclear weapons against Iran and other non-nuclear states — Cohn said, “U.S. Air Force groups are already drawing up lists of targets in Iran. U.S. troops have been ordered into Iran for reconnaissance and also to make contact with anti-government Iranians.” She said that, contrary to the administration — which has portrayed the so-called “bunker-buster” nukes as benign weapons which would explode underground — they would produce “mushroom clouds and contamination for years.” According to Cohn, the U.S. attack plans against Iran involve hundreds of proposed targets, “85 to 90 percent of which have nothing to do with nuclear proliferation.”

Like a number of other rally speakers, Cohn noted that the Bush administration is using many of the same strategies to prepare the public to support an attack on Iran that it used successfully in the run-up to the war on Iraq, including “using the media to work the American public into a frenzy.” She also drew on her previous analysis of the U.S. attack on Iraq as a violation of international law — under which United Nations members can use force only in direct self-defense or under authorization from the U.N. Security Council — and said that a draft resolution to the Security Council, officially offered by Britain but, she said, actually written by the Bush administration, is part of the smokescreen with which the administration is surrounding its actions and plans.

According to Cohn, the resolution would be based on Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter — but that chapter “requires a finding that Iran poses an immediate threat to world security” before the Security Council can authorize an attack, and that’s an almost impossible case to make. She pointed out that the recent report on Iran from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had found some technical violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty but also “said there is no evidence that Iran has diverted nuclear resources into a weapons program.”

Cohn called on the U.S. to negotiate directly with Iran — “The Iranians are willing to compromise on enrichment in exchange for security guarantees against attack,” she said — and added that a U.S. attack on Iran “would strengthen Iran’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons. There is no military solution to the Iran problem. We cannot allow Bush to prosecute another illegal and unnecessary war in our names. We need to continue to rally and not only elect a Democratic Congress but keep the pressure on them to do the right thing. Our peace depends on it.”