Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Jerry Falwell’s Legacy


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The first time I ever heard of Jerry Falwell was when I watched him being interviewed on 60 Minutes during the 1980 Presidential campaign — and his brazen insistence that his politics were the only “moral” positions on the various issues he was talking about took my breath away. He even said, as I recall, that supporting Taiwan over mainland China for the “China” seat in the United Nations was the only “moral” position— and I was astounded that he had stuck his neck out that far on an issue seemingly remote from the obsessions of the nascent radical Right with abortion, homosexuality and other “traditional values” concerns. When he went on fellow radical-Right minister Pat Robertson’s radio show 21 years later to say that God had allowed the 9/11 attacks to succeed because of America’s tolerance of abortion, homosexuality and the ACLU, it didn’t seem so astonishing only because, like the rest of the country, I’d become so inured to radical-Right rhetoric that it hardly caused me more than a momentary shudder: “Oh, he’s gone that far, has he?”

Just about every article written about Falwell in the last quarter-century, including the obituaries after his death May 15 (a piece of news I greeted by singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” by the way), identified him as the “founder” of the Moral Majority organization. That’s not quite true. The Moral Majority was actually the brainchild of some decidedly secular conservative and Republican organizers and fundraisers, led by Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, who in the late 1970’s saw a neglected opportunity for the Republicans to organize among evangelical Christians. Until then, if they bothered to vote at all — and they usually didn’t — white evangelicals usually voted Democratic. They embraced the progressive economic and foreign-policy positions of their historic hero, William Jennings Bryan (who was actually a Presbyterian), while backing the Democrats’ pre-civil rights era opposition to racial integration.

The evangelical Christian community first came into its own as a political force in 1976 when one of their own, Jimmy Carter, won the Democratic nomination for President. Once he got elected, though, Carter disappointed evangelicals; he proved that he’d meant what he said when he said the days of segregation were over and Southern whites needed to get over it and treat Blacks as equal human beings. He wasn’t flamingly pro-choice on abortion — he did, after all, sign the Hyde Amendment forbidding the use of federal funds to pay for poor women’s abortions — but he didn’t regard Roe v. Wade as the work of Satan and call for a constitutional amendment to reverse it either. And though Carter’s aide Midge Costanza arranged the meeting while Carter was out of town and without his knowledge, the first-ever meeting of Queer-rights organizers and activists in the White House happened on the Plains peanut farmer’s watch.

So professional Republicans anxious to defeat Carter saw an opportunity to organize evangelicals to vote against him en masse. To do that, they needed not only to start an organization but to recruit a prominent minister to be its figurehead. As a public figure who’d already turned against Carter in 1976, Falwell was a logical choice — and, as Gay journalist Perry Deane Young reported in his 1982 book God’s Bullies, the pros who actually started the Moral Majority picked Falwell over other, then better-known televangelists precisely because he wasn’t charismatic either in the religious (he wasn’t a faith healer or a speaker in tongues) or the secular sense. “He had no publicly identifiable politics, so they could mold him as they saw fit,” Young wrote. “He could head up their new coalition of single issues because he hadn’t spoken out on any of them (except homosexuality) before.”

The Moral Majority and its successor, the Christian Coalition (organized by Ralph Reed and led by Pat Robertson, one of the ministers who’d been passed over for the Moral Majority in favor of Falwell), proved successful beyond their founders’ wildest imaginations. Today up to 25 percent of all Americans identify themselves as evangelical or “born-again” Christians, and white evangelicals have become the most loyal and committed voting bloc the Republicans have. The legacy of Jerry Falwell, and the organizing effort he publicly represented and came to personify, has been its unique contribution to the overall shift to the Right in American politics that began with the combined 57 percent of the Presidential vote won by Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968 and confirmed by Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter and John Anderson in 1980.

Thanks to Jerry Falwell and his movement, the term “Christian” in American politics has been purged of any association with economic or social justice. Only a few African-American ministers still preach the old Bryanite gospel of economic liberalism and “values” conservatism. “Christian” has come to be political shorthand for anti-choice, anti-Queer, anti-civil rights, anti-evolution, and for a lassiez-faire economy whose outcomes — a vast increase in economic inequality between the rich and the poor and the devastation of America’s middle class — would likely have horrified the prophet who blessed the poor and threw the moneychangers out of the Temple of Solomon.

Thanks to Jerry Falwell and his movement, also, a de facto religious test has been instituted for the presidency and most elective offices in the U.S. It used to be that the presidency came with an unwritten rule that no atheist or agnostic need apply. Now the rule is that no one who doesn’t believe in an actively interventionist God who takes a direct day-to-day role in human affairs need apply. The Founding Fathers, almost all of whom were deists (i.e., they believed in a God which made heaven, earth and the human race, and then left us on our own), wouldn’t be able today to win the highest offices under the constitution they wrote.

Even Barry Goldwater, the founder of modern conservatism — who, when Falwell said it was his “moral duty” to vote against confirming Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, replied, “I think every good Christian ought to kick Jerry Falwell’s ass” — couldn’t win the Republican presidential nomination today because he believed that conservatism’s promise of “less government” meant keeping government out of the bedrooms as well as the boardrooms. By the end of his career, Goldwater was pro-choice, urged that Queers be made a protected class under the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which, ironically, he’d voted against in the first place) and called for an end to the ban on Queers in the military — all positions that the movement Falwell publicly led has long since put beyond the pale of anyone who wants to be a presidential nominee or a national figure in the Republican party.

Jerry Falwell’s legacy can be seen in the absurd level of piety in our politics today: in the fact that John Kerry became the first Roman Catholic Presidential nominee to lose the Catholic vote because of his pro-choice position on abortion; in the three hands that went up recently when the moderator of a debate of Republican presidential candidates asked which ones believed in creation over evolution; in the furious attempts of Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney to backpedal away from their formerly moderate stands on “values” issues, now that they’re running in the evangelical-dominated Republican primary electorate and not in the liberal bastions of New York City and Massachusetts. Falwell didn’t invent the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” of dividing the country along racial and cultural lines with the idea that that would give the Republicans the bigger piece — Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond did in 1968 — but the mobilization of Falwell’s “Christian” constituency into the Republican party has helped keep the party of racism and bigotry in the ascendancy and transformed American politics in a highly unpleasant direction for people who believe in equality in general and Queer equality in particular.


Artist Cultivates His Spiritual — And Sexual — Garden


Photos, top to bottom: François Michel Beausoleil,Beausoleil with his "My Spiritual Garden" painting of San Diego Queer activist "Big Mike" Phillips, Beausoleil with his Mary Magdalene mannequin painting

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Local artist François Michel Beausoleil — who claims to be 43 on his MySpace page but whose boyish features make him look at least 10 years younger — recently exhibited his richly colored, fully realized paintings at two group shows that couldn’t have been more different. One took place at the Rubber Rose erotic store and featured art with sexual themes; there Beausoleil brought some intense male nudes, painted with an eerie combination of machismo and vulnerability, including one striking image of a naked Jesus undergoing crucifixion as a circus act. Shortly thereafter he exhibited at one of Big Tom’s “Artists’ Open Studio” shows at the LGBT Community Center, this time focusing on his religious-themed work and in particular on My Spiritual Garden, a series he’s working on featuring various individuals meditating cross-legged on lotus flowers, a traditional Buddhist image he’s put to some startling new uses in the seven paintings he’s finished so far. He also showed a series of paintings on female mannequins, many of them linking religious, social or cultural figures in unique ways.

Beausoleil’s paintings are characterized by an intense brush style, unusually vivid use of color and especially rich backgrounds, many of them based on places he’s actually seen in his tours around the world. When he isn’t painting he’s working at the manager of the Vagabond Kitchen of the World, a restaurant at 2310 30th Street in the South Park area whose menu is as internationalist and eclectic as Beausoleil’s painting style. Beausoleil’s work can be viewed on his Web site,

Zenger’s: Why don’t you start by giving a little of your background?

François Michel Beausoleil: I was born in Montreal, into an extremely multicultural society. I was born Catholic, but my family was not really practicing. They were respectful of the religion, but really open-minded — except for my sister, who was a Jehovah’s Witness. I really experienced the multinationalism of Canada through Montreal. When I was at school I would have friends from all over the world. At some point I went and I traveled the world, mainly the Middle East and Asia.

I’ve been painting since I can remember: painting, drawing or making mock-ups of architectural buildings, spaceships, a lot of things. Even while traveling I would always find time to do something. When I was bored on the beach in Saudi Arabia with nothing to do, I started doing bead necklaces. After a while I got everybody to do them. In Asia, I did photography.

At some point I ended up in Southern California, and that’s when I got more involved with painting than any other form of art. Through all those trips I developed my sense of colors. I love colors. I think that especially came from the Middle East, because stuck inside Saudi Arabia for so long — not in the military, in the private airline business — everything is beige, white and black. When I came out of the Middle East, I really bloomed into a colorist. I really love colors. That’s when I decided no longer to do skin tones in beige and brown, but do them in colors instead. I think the diversity in my paintings shows my traveling.

Zenger’s: So with the background of a multicultural city like Montreal, and your worldwide travels, how did you end up in San Diego?

Beausoleil: I came here to visit some family and friends, and then going back to the lonely Middle East didn’t feel that good, so I stayed here.

Zenger’s: I’ve seen your work in two shows that were quite different selections of your pieces: the one at the Rubber Rose emphasizing the erotic, and the one at the Center emphasizing your spiritual series. Do they intertwine with you, or are they really just two separate sides of your personality?

Beausoleil: My major subject is humanity, being human, the human experience, basically. That means to be in the real world. That doesn’t mean that the spiritual world is not real, but it’s a different world. Those two worlds are the two facets of the same reality. Actually there are three facets; there’s the intellect as well, and that shows in my social/political painting.

I’m exploring the three facets of being a human being and trying to bring it to the world, because I don’t think that you should be ashamed of being spiritual and I don’t think that you should be ashamed of being a human being. And part of being a human is sexuality. It’s eating. It’s a lot of things. So for me they are really complete in each other.

For me, too, it’s the freedom of being a human. That’s why I don’t believe in religion. I’m more spiritual. I think you have to go inside of yourself to discover all these things, and you should not count on anybody else’s experience. You have to live your own experience, whether it is about eroticism or about spirituality. For me, being independent and being my own self is really important. Some people think I’m Buddhist, but I’m not Buddhist. Others think I’m Catholic. No, I’m not. I’m just me.

Zenger’s: On your MySpace homepage, you mentioned Buddhism and Shintoism. I wondered how you discovered Eastern religious traditions, and what significance they’ve had for you.

Beausoleil: I’ve always been aware of them, even as a kid. But I don’t know why. Actually, Egypt was my big thing when I was a young kid. I discovered different religions through studying art history, because at one point in history all art was religious. Through studying the art of various religions, I learned about their symbolism, and through my travels I’ve been to the temples, I’ve visited a lot of sites, and they’re all related.

I chose this symbolism of Buddhism in my spiritual artwork, especially the lotus and the Buddha, because for me it is a more positive symbol of enlightenment than being nailed on a cross. Both symbols are actually at the same level of the same idea, but when you’re nailed to a cross it’s because somebody else has put you there, whereas with the lotus, it’s beautiful and it’s your own choice.

Zenger’s: One of the paintings of yours that most impressed me was the picture of the crucifixion as a circus act. What was the inspiration for that?

Beausoleil: All the TV shows and all the Christian shows, and just the fact that people read the Bible and push on me only what they want out of it. It’s like freedom: everybody is equal and free, or nobody is equal and free. You cannot take some passages of the Bible and say, “That’s what it’s supposed to be,” and forget all the others. It’s either the whole or nothing. That’s why I find the whole thing about believing in Jesus has become such a circus. It’s not so different from the beginning of Christianity during the Roman Empire. We’re actually going through the same turmoil.

Zenger’s: I noticed just by looking at your bookshelf that you have copies of the Bible and the Koran in French. How much have you read in those books, and how has it affected you?

Beausoleil: I read a lot, but the Koran is kind of tough to read — even in French, in my own language — because it’s all in poetry, and so it’s not as interesting as a story. But what is interesting is that when you read both, you realize that two different people talking about the same story, but with different angles. You even have some people appearing in one book that are not in the other, so if you only read one, you don’t get the entire story. I’ve found I still have to read the Torah to get the entire story, though!

Zenger’s: As I understand it, the Torah is simply the first five books of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, and the rest of the Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people in ancient times.

Beausoleil: Yes, but even in the Bible that part has not been translated totally the same. The King James Bible actually, omitted the fact that God in Hebrew is actually plural and gender-neutral. In the Bible it’s been translated as masculine and single. There’s a lot of translation from the Torah to the Bible where you lose some of the fineness of the Torah.

But I’ve not only read those books; I’ve also been reading through some archaeological findings about the Torah and some of the other books as well. We’re beginning to discover that we always said that we’re the only religion with only one god, but at the beginning there were two in the Torah. There was a God and his wife.

Reading the books is important not because I’m religious, but because I don’t want to be one of those people talking about a book without ever having read it. They talk about it from what others have told them. And for me, those people are irrelevant. You have to make your own experience. Again, that’s my point. It has to be from you, not from others.

I also have the Book of the Dead from Tibet, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Mahabarata. I’ve got books from Asian religions as well. I don’t know everything about it, but I have the Apocrypha, the books that were not put into the Bible, because that gives you a bigger idea of everything that was going on. I even have Mao Zedong in French. It’s interesting.

Zenger’s: So how does all of this affect you as an artist? How does it channel through in your work?

Beausoleil: It makes it more rich, in a way, because the more experience you have, the more you can express on the canvas. It seems to be simple when it looks at the pieces, but I want to express real diversity. Especially in my lotus/spiritual pieces, it’s more about the diversity and how everything is inside of you. It’s for everybody. Everybody can attain enlightenment, or at least attain a certain level of spirituality. And the world is for everybody. I guess I’m speaking like a true Canadian, a Social Democrat! Everybody should have his own space.

Zenger’s: Although in the last elections, both Canada and France chose leaders who seem, at least from here, very much like Bush.

Beausoleil: Actually, they didn’t choose them. They did not choose the opponent. That’s what happened. Especially in Canada, s that was mainly the fact that they were not happy with the previous government so they chose the other guy. And the same thing in France.

France is not as homogeneous as it seems to be. Outside of Paris, France is more prejudiced. Why are the Muslims in Europe revolting more and more? Because they cannot find jobs. They’ve been there for generations, and they still have a hard time making it economically. There’s a lot of bad things about America, but in the job market everybody is integrated here. That’s why I think it’s more peaceful here than in Europe.

Zenger’s: One thing that struck me is you said you lived for a while in Saudi Arabia, which I understand is a very fundamentalist Muslim society and very anti-art.

Beausoleil: That’s why I had to do bead necklaces!

Zenger’s: I was wondering how long you were there, and how you managed to survive in such a repressive society.

Beausoleil: I was there for intervals of three months at a time for three years. I don’t know how long in total, but I was there for quite a long time. It became more of an internal search, since there was no outlet for the external. It’s the desert, you’re not allowed to drink, no movies. Everything that is social is basically illegal. Everything that is fun is illegal. So you really do a lot of soul-searching, because you don’t have anything else to do, and it really pushes you to go inside of you. That’s why I think thousands of years ago that was one of the spiritual centers of the planet, before the Prophet took over. That flatness, that weather that is constant through the year, and that stillness of everything, it really makes you go inside. It’s like the winter, even though it’s the opposite — it’s really warm.

Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed that is different in your work from a lot of other artists is your backgrounds are very rich. You’re not just interested in putting a figure or two against a very plain backdrop. You really pay a lot of attention to detail in the backgrounds as well as the foregrounds. Why is that?

Beausoleil: I don’t know. I’ve always been like that, since I can remember. Because everything is important. After you’ve done bodies and people, it becomes repetitive, so the background is another challenge.

Zenger’s: I was wondering if that was a physical reflection in your work of where you feel people belong, where they come from.

Beausoleil: I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. But for me it’s just as important, because the way I paint is the objects surrounding them are a reflection of the people, so yes, they are as important as the people. Like if I put a melting ice cube in some painting, that was a comment about not signing the Kyoto Agreement. If I put in a gun, that’s a comment about violence and about the person who’s the subject of the painting. That’s to give another sense of diversity as well. For me diversity, in many ways, is one of the most important things, and the most amazing thing about us in the universe.

Zenger’s: One thing, living in San Diego, a lot of the diversity here lies in it being a border city, being right next to Mexico, at a time when the immigration issue is being very hotly debated and contested in the political world. I was wondering if you’d done any artwork influenced by our proximity to Mexico and the whole question of immigration, the culture clash and what our two cultures might be able to learn from each other and derive from each other in a positive way.

Beausoleil: I’ve been talking about both cultures without really talking about the problem of immigration. I’ve been talking about machismo in Mexico in one painting. I’ve been including people from all the different cultures, but not really in the context of immigration. It’s not that that’s not a concern, but I have a mind that is open to everybody, and I’m sure that at some point in our history those borders will disappear. It’s just a matter of time.

The problem with the immigration issue is that both sides are kind of right. The ones against it are right in that they did something wrong, they broke the law. And the other side says that’s true, but there’s another law, the law of humanity, of economy and of survival. So they’re both right. We just have to decide what’s more important.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me about the “My Spiritual Garden” series?

Beausoleil: It’s a series about illumination. Illumination is a big word, but for me it starts by awakening to the perception that we’re all linked to each other, to our environment and to the universe; that we are bigger as a whole than we are individually; and that the only way to achieve it is through helping each other. That’s actually how people start to awaken to it, and I want to show that it is for everybody: every race, people from every religion.

It’s what equalizes us. It’s when you get to that point of spirituality that you understand that everything that is facing you is a reflection of you as well. That’s why I choose the Buddha on the lotus: because that’s the best, most positive image of illumination. I like the idea of spirituality being like a flower that is opening. But I still say that we have to acknowledge that we live in the real world, and the laws of the real world are science. We can change the real world, but only as a group, not as a person. Actually we can as a person, but we have to reach the group to change things.

So I’m painting different people that show their love for the planet and for humanity in different ways. I’ve got a boy who is a vegan, and my point is not to tell everybody to be vegan. That’s his way. That’s how diversity applies. There are so many ways to be enlightened, and everybody has their own way. My way is to paint about it. The way of others is to give money to charity as part of what they do. I want to do people of every level. I would be interested at some point in doing some celebrities, to show people from up the scale to down the scale as well.

Zenger’s: How many paintings have you done so far in the series, and how many do you plan to do before you consider it finished?

Beausoleil: I’ve got seven done, and I’m thinking to do 33. But as the project goes further I may make up my mind to do more. It’s just that I want all of them to be all in one room so that it really, really looks like a garden. The imagery is about the lotus coming out of the murky water, which is reality. We’re kind of blind to our own reality, and this flower of spirituality is moving up, away from that, and has a better view of everything, of both realities. It’s basically all about love.

I want to show as well that Gay people are as involved with the world and with doing good things as other people. One of my subjects is a guy who works for the Gay & Lesbian Center in L.A. and does those shows to raise funds to help kids that are on the street. I’ve got this boy, who is a Buddhist, even though he’s Gay; that’s his path to try to be better towards other people, and the universe. This one is vegan and he’s Gay as well. This one is a Muslim, but he always has an open heart for everybody. There’s Big Mike here, who has been doing Ordinary Miracles and gets millions of dollars to help Gay children who have been thrown out of their homes.

We are as involved as other groups in society. It’s just that we’re involved without being religious. And I think that we should not be involved through religion, because then we’re just pushing one point of view.

Zenger’s: Also, how did the mannequin paintings come about?

Beausoleil: First of all it’s a woman. It’s the body of a woman because for me, the woman is the beginning of everything; of creation, anyway. On that woman’s body I talk about different characters of Christianity, but archetypal characters. I show, too, around the body how to relate to other symbols, other religions, other societies and other people. I’ve got Mary Magdalene, who’s one of my favorites. I connect her with many different symbols and two people in history: with Ashura, who used to be the wife of God in the Torah, in the beginning when the Torah was first done, before they decided to destroy her the same way they destroyed the story of Mary Magdalene; and Hypatia, who came after Christ. She was a scholar in Alexandria who was extremely famous, had a lot of knowledge of philosophy and mathematics, and was the first woman to invent some mathematical theorem. But she was hated by the Christians, who destroyed her because she was a woman and it was not the place for a woman. So those were three women who were really spiritual, and were destroyed because they were women.

I’ve got Jesus as the same story, in a way, as Bacchus, Quetzalcoatl, the Buddha and Kwan-Yin. They’re all similar people. I’m just showing that all those stories have been told around the planet in different cultures. I think it’s just an echo that before history, when we were — before we could write, when humanity was nearer nature, since everything was derived from our experience with nature, that’s how all the stories came out at that time, maybe 10,000 years ago, because it was the same experience humanity had with the environment when they made all those stories. And they kept it up until today in different ways.

That’s why for me, in a way, shamanism is a really important thing to discover, because it gives us the key of the way we were thinking before we could even write or were grouped in societies. It was our first awakening to a certain spirituality, through the observation of nature. I think that’s really the key to why our culture is what it is.

I would like to get my show My Spiritual Garden in a museum or in a gallery. I’m looking for sponsors. I’m supposed to have a meeting with a curator in the next month. And I want to propose them my project, even though it’s not finished. I’m getting ready to go take some pictures of a couple of famous people in Canada and England. In Canada I’m going to take a picture of Alanis Obomsawim. She’s a producer for the National Film Board of Canada’s Indian side, and she actually won a lot of awards of L.A. and Europe for her movies. And she always gives a part of her receipts to help different tribes in Canada. So she’s going to be in one of my next ones.

I’m going in London next fall to take a picture of a Lesbian comedian, Zoë Lyons, in London. She’s really, really cool. She just did a spoof of Cherie Blair, the wife of the Prime Minister of England, and she looks so much like her. She’s so good. At first, I thought she was the wife of Blair, but she’s not. She totally looks like the wife of Blair! I’ve been sending e-mails to a lot of people in London to see if they want to pose as well.
6th @ Penn’s Powerful “Resilience” Plays


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Don’t let the earnestness of the title “Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival 2007,” a series of productions running through August 12 at the 6th @ Penn storefront theatre at 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, put you off from going. True, the name sounds like a collection of highly didactic and doggedly unentertaining plays about the great political, social and moral dilemmas of our time. But at least some of the productions are highly entertaining and often moving dramas, including many original pieces, some of which offer laughter along with the tears and emotional impacts of their stories. All are well staged and acted in ways that, as regular 6th @ Penn theatergoers know, far transcends the budget and technical limitations of the company and its space. (By the way, also ignore the address on the series brochure; it’s a typo. The above address is correct.)

One of 6th @ Penn’s current productions is a double bill called The Last Class and A Hundred Birds. The Last Class was written and directed by Marianne McDonald, a feisty, wiry woman of years whose previous connection to 6th @ Penn was as consultant and sometimes translator for their productions of ancient Greek tragedies. She’s also a professor and author about the period. The Last Class is a one-character play that purports to be the final lecture the unnamed professor (Jenni Prisk) will give in her life before she retires. It starts out as a zesty talk about her love of literature in general and the Greek classics in particular, but it soon drifts into a series of disjointed reminiscences of the professor’s own past.

6th @ Penn’s program describes The Last Class as “the personal journey of a woman through the hazards of alcoholism, loss and suicide to face her most difficult challenge: staying alive, and attempting to live a life of quality.” What that description doesn’t prepare you for is how laugh-out-loud funny the piece is. From Prisk’s stumbling entrance through the theatre onto the stage to give her lecture to many of the loonier parts of McDonald’s script (and her life, she insisted afterwards in an audience talk-back on opening night), quite a lot of The Last Class is downright hilarious. Even after McDonald’s script reaches its bitter, tragic emotional climax, there are still laughs, albeit fewer and more inhibited ones.

McDonald’s direction is like her writing — snappy, incisive, direct. Especially noteworthy is the moment in which Prisk slips out from behind the lectern when her talk becomes less academic and more personal. But it’s Prisk’s virtuoso performance which makes this show. It’s no disrespect to McDonald to say that Prisk probably does a better job of playing her than McDonald could do herself; she’s taller, more imperious and has a bell-like British accent which adds both to the appearance of sang-froid she maintains at the start of the play and the vulnerability and pain she reveals as the piece progresses.

A Hundred Birds is longer (a full hour), more elaborate (a cast of four instead of one) and a good deal more bitter. Its premise is simple, and in some ways tired from recent overuse: three 20-something men from different class backgrounds, preppie Dean (Robert Borzych), proletarian Mike (Greg Wittman) and lumpen actor Terry (Thomas Hall), kidnap and threaten to kill Nicky (Bud Coleman), the man who molested them all when they were 12. As conceived by playwright Ira Bateman-Gold, Nicky is a pretty baroque child molester even by today’s standard, when child sexual abuse has become a staple of popular entertainment and a frequent news story as well; not only did he fuck his victims in the ass, he made them wear dresses, lipstick and makeup and called each of them “my pretty girl.”

Though it’s performed without intermission and on the same bill with another play, A Hundred Birds is structured in two acts — and through much of the first act it’s pretty formulaic. If Ira Bateman-Gold doesn’t have a shrine in his home where he lights candles in front of a photo of David Mamet, he should; his characters converse in a sing-song style alternating between weird bits of trivia (Dean reads science books and Mike listens to NPR) and casually tossed-off obscenities. The play is about males under extreme stress — its cast is all-male, so 6th @ Penn probably paired it deliberately with the one-woman Last Class — and it even takes place in Mamet’s favorite locale, Chicago.

One thing Bateman-Gold gets right is he taps an old but still effective rule of dramatic construction: keep your main character off stage until Act I ends, and before that bring him to life only by having the other characters talk about him, thereby keeping the audience guessing about what he’s really like. When Terry enters after a brief blackout that divides the two acts, the play takes on chilling force. Though Wittman is the cutest actor in the production, Hall is by far the most charismatic, dominating the stage as his character does the situation and rising to the challenge of making this kooky psychopath believable. Also noteworthy is how subtle Bateman-Gold’s writing is; as much as the three protagonists hate the man who molested them, they don’t make the connection between the burnout of their intellectually precocious childhoods and their victimization, though we do immediately.

The acting is generally good, though Wittman’s attempt at a dese-dem-dose accent isn’t really believable coming from someone who’s physically so much the Valley Boy. Hall grips the stage, especially when he’s delivering the bizarre monologue that explains the title, and Borzych manages to make his spoiled character appropriately whiny — though in as class-stratified a society as the U.S. has become, it’s hard to believe this snotty rich (or at least semi-rich) kid went to the same public school as the other two. In a way, Bud Coleman has the biggest acting challenge: through most of A Hundred Birds he is either unconscious or pretending to be so, which means he has to spend nearly an hour slumped over in a chair without moving at all.

6th @ Penn founder, artistic director and occasional actor Dale Morris makes his directorial debut with the company in A Hundred Birds. He stages the action rather nervously but succeeds in keeping the play from becoming too talky. A simple set design by Kevin and Brenda McFarlane (Brenda is also the artistic director of the “Resilience of the Spirit” festival) serves both pieces effectively, and Mitchell Simkovsky’s lighting designs work even though one annoying house light shines straight at the audience until the overall lighting comes down as the plays begin.

The Last Class and A Hundred Birds alternate in repertory with a play called Lemkin’s House by Catherine Filloux, whose director, Hénia Belalia, has a fascinating résumé that alternates between work in the U.S. and Spain. Its subject is Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew, born in 1900, who trained first as a linguist and then as an attorney. Serving as a prosecutor through most of the 1930’s, Lemkin studied such mass murders of civilian populations as the Turkish government’s attack on Armenians in 1915 and Iraq’s massacre of Assyrians in 1933. When the Nazis attacked Poland in September 1939, Lemkin fled the country and escaped the Holocaust — but 49 of his relatives weren’t so lucky. In 1944 he published a study called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in which, for the first time, he coined the term “genocide” — from the Greek for “a people” and the Latin for “kill” — to describe what the Nazis were doing to Jews, Slavs and others they considered “inferior races.”

After the war Lemkin served as a consultant to the Nuremberg war-crimes trials of Nazi leaders and lobbied the United Nations to pass an international convention against genocide. Passed in 1948, the convention formally took effect in 1951 after 20 nations had ratified it — but the U.S. didn’t do so until 1988, and then only when Senator William Proxmire pushed for it after the fallout over President Ronald Reagan’s visit to the graves of S.S. troops in Bitburg, Germany. Lemkin died of a heart attack in New York City in 1959 — and for some reason Catherine Filloux, instead of dramatizing his life, decided to begin her play with Lemkin’s death so she could have her fictional Lemkin react to more recent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.

Lemkin’s House has some truly powerful moments, which director Belalia and her cast do full justice to — notably the sudden entrances of both men and women with guns (usually played by the cast’s two African-American actors, Anthony Gordon Hamm and Monique Gaffney, since they represent opposite sides of the war in Rwanda) — but a lot of it is as didactic as you’d fear from an entry in a series called “Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival.” It’s hard to believe that the real Lemkin was as naïve as Filloux’ Lemkin in believing that his anti-genocide law, in and of itself, would actually prevent future genocides. What’s worse — and maybe this is more a flaw of history or human nature than of Filloux’ writing — the “resilience of the spirit” her play documents isn’t anything positive, but the seeming persistence of the human impulse to massacre great numbers of fellow humans out of some racial, tribal or religious difference totally incomprehensible to those not directly involved. At one point the characters even debate whether the instinct to commit genocide is hard-wired into the human genome.

In general, 6th @ Penn does well by Filloux’ problematic script. All the actors except the one playing Lemkin, Walter Ritter — who gets the character’s passion but needs to soften the exaggerated oy-vey idea he has of a Jewish accent — have to do quick changes among multiple roles. Hamm is especially strong on both sides of the genocide fence, as an Army man and also a U.S. State Department official whom Lemkin sees as a potential protégé. Gaffney is better as a gun-toting militiawoman than as a refugee mother who gives Lemkin her baby. Duane Weekly’s big-lug appearance makes him viable as both a torture victim and a hapless, overwhelmed Red Cross worker, and he also becomes surprisingly authoritative when he dons a suit and a fuller wig to play Senator Proxmire.

Connie DiCrazia plays two victims of the Bosnian genocide and is also deeply moving as Lemkin’s mother. Their flashback scene, set in 1939, in which he tries to get her to flee Poland with him and she insists this is their home and she is staying, is not only heartrending but makes clear what a better play Filloux could have written if she’d just dramatized Lemkin’s life instead of cooking up this post-mortem fantasy of it. The same simple set is used for Lemkin’s House as for the other two plays — though in this one the walls are draped with cloth — and Simkovsky’s simple but effective lighting designs work equally well here.

Future shows in the “Resilience of the Spirit” series deal with torture, religious conversions, genocide and its effects on its perpetrators, abortion and the effects of long-term war on the families of those who fight. If they’re anything like the plays thus far (including an earlier revival of one of the most powerful pieces 6th @ Penn ever did, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda), they’ll be worth seeing.

Lemkin’s House and the double bill of The Last Class and A Thousand Birds will alternate in repertory at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue near Pennsylvania in Hillcrest, through June 17 and 18, respectively. Performances are generally at 7:30 p.m. Thurs, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 2, 4 and 7 p.m. Sun. For tickets and other information, visit the special festival Web site at, e-mail, or phone (619) 688-9210.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Activists Clash Over Immigration at Queer Democratic Club


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Mary Moreno Richardson, Lilia Velasquez

Lilia Velasquez, immigration rights attorney and adjunct professor at California Western School of Law; and Mary Moreno Richardson, daughter of undocumented immigrants and reverend canon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral near Balboa Park, were supposed to be part of the same program at the May 24 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club. But, though they agreed on a lot — including the need for humane treatment and civil-rights protection of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. and their opposition to the Minutemen and similar racist anti-immigrant vigilante groups — they came to dramatically different views on the so-called “compromise” bill on immigration currently being debated in the U.S. Senate.

Velasquez gave an in-depth, point-by-point analysis of the bill and said that its total effect would be a disaster for humane immigration policy. According to Velasquez, the bill would weaken the rights of families under current immigration law, create a guest-worker program that would rival the abuses under the bracero program (in which Mexicans were imported as farm workers from 1942 to 1964, and some braceros report that 43 years later they still haven’t received all the money due them for their work) and do more of what hasn’t worked before: border fences, additional Border Patrol agents and sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.

Richardson, who throughout her presentation went for the heart while Velasquez had aimed at the brain, was guardedly optimistic about the current bill and said it meant that “we’re finally at the table from both sides. There’s a lot of work to be done because a lot of what’s being asked for is not practical. A lot of politicians have used this issue, and all they’ve created is more racism. Hopefully, we can sit down and work this out. … The big picture is we should all share and love each other. The bill is something they threw together and hoped might pass.”

Velasquez, on the other hand, said the current Senate “compromise” bill was so badly flawed she’d rather see no bill at all. She said that if Congress doesn’t act this year, they probably won’t revisit the issue in 2008 because it will be an election year, and by 2009 there will be a new president and maybe the political climate will be more favorable for a genuinely positive reform. Velasquez argued that the structure of the current proposal is based on leftover dissatisfaction from Congress’s last major overhaul of immigration law, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill of 1986, which provided amnesty for the estimated three million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. then and in return was supposed to sanction employers who hired undocumented workers. The amnesty happened; the employer sanctions didn’t.

“Now we have 12 million, and President Bush has said it would take 70 years to deport 12 million people,” Velasquez said. “That’s the big question. We can’t deport them, and we don’t want to give them ‘amnesty’ because House Republicans say we’re ‘rewarding criminals’ if we give them any kind of legal status.” Velasquez reviewed the four so-called “triggers” contained in the currently proposed Immigration Reform and Control Act: “First, you have to certify you’ve achieved ‘border security’ before the rest can be implemented, which is why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is staging raids on undocumented immigrants. The second trigger is increasing the Border Patrol. The third is employer verification, and the fourth is setting up a ‘tamper-resistant’ national ID card, like they had in the former Soviet Union.”

Velasquez made no secret of her opinion that the so-called “border security” provisions won’t actually secure the border. She cited immigration authority Professor Wayne Cornelius’s study that “Operation Gatekeeper and the triple border fence have not stopped people from coming.” According to Velasquez, the tamper-resistant national ID isn’t needed for employer verification and could be used to facilitate discrimination against Latino citizens, documented immigrants and undocumented immigrants alike. “If employer sanctions have not worked in 21 years, why would you think they would work now?” she asked.

In return for the four “triggers,” Velasquez said, the proposal offers not one but two guest-worker programs. One, for agricultural workers, duplicates a program that’s already available under current law but which most growers don’t use because they find it too bureaucratic and cumbersome. The agricultural worker program in the proposal “would not allow people to get permanent status in the future,” Velasquez explained — saying that this would make it another bracero program, as abusive to workers’ rights and income as the original.

The other guest-worker program, Velasquez said, would “gut the family reunification system” at the heart of current immigration law by dramatically restricting which relatives an immigrant who’d become a citizen or achieved legal residency could sponsor. Instead, it would assign legal visas on the basis of a “point-count” system similar to those used now in Britain, Canada and Australia. “They give you points if you speak the language [English] and/or have certain job skills,” she explained. According to Velasquez, the point-count system hasn’t worked in the other countries that have tried it and there’s no reason to think it would work here.

“Finally, there’s the so-called ‘Z visa,’ which is giving the Republicans fits,” Velasquez explained. “For $5,000, they give you a temporary card for five years, which can be renewed for four years for another $5,000. Then there’s a ‘touchback’ provision that says you have to return to your country of origin and report to the American consulate there, and then you can return. In 13 years you can get full legal status.” Velasquez said she thinks the reason the fines are so stiff is “a weeding-out process” to ensure that only the most successful or affluent immigrants can win permanent status and the much-ballyhooed “path to citizenship.”

“We think we’re better off with the bad status quo than with a bill that will make things worse,” Velasquez said. “We’re hoping it won’t happen this year. I think the issue is too controversial for any of the presidential candidates to take it on next year. If it doesn’t pass this year, it probably won’t happen until 2009, and until then we’ll have the Minutemen and all that chaos.”

Asked if she thought the Senate bill would help immigrants if it passed, Richardson was a good deal mellower about it than Velasquez had been. She said she wasn’t as bothered by the $5,000 fee for the Z visa because “these people are paying that much money to a coyote (smuggler) to get them across the border in the first place.” She also pointed out that immigration is a worldwide issue, not just one restricted to the U.S.; “I’ve talked to kids from Guatemala who’ve been abused by police in Mexico.”

Richardson accompanied her talk with a PowerPoint presentation consisting mostly of pictures she took while on the Marcha Migrante Dos, organized by Border Angels founder Enrique Morones as a follow-up to his nationwide march in 2006 calling for a humane alternative to the punitive anti-immigrant bill passed in late 2005 by the then Republican-controlled House of Representatives. This year’s march was a bit less ambitious — instead of criss-crossing the entire country it focused on the U.S.-Mexico border and traveled its entire length, from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.

Much of her recollection was of their run-ins with the Minutemen along the way — and the incredible level of their pettiness and hatred. “There’s a cemetery in Orange County where they bury the immigrants who have died,” Richardson said. “We put up crosses and flowers, and the Minutemen came in and took the crosses and flowers away. One lady found the flowers on the side where the Minutemen had thrown then, got them and put them back.”

The march moved on to Phoenix, where they joined in a vigil by a local group which had reserved a full block for a vigil for immigrants’ rights; and to Tucson, “where there’s an adobe wall where people leave flowers and crosses,” Richardson recalled. “I met a Maryknoll nun whom I’d met before at the United Nations, lobbying for the status of women and against human trafficking, and the next year I went to the U.N. but she didn’t. She was serving a six-month prison sentence for protesting the School of the Americas.”

In El Paso, their march was greeted by the city’s mayor, “an Irish-Catholic who said he would do whatever it takes not to have a fence put up on their part of the border,” Richardson said. “In a lot of the places we came to, the mayors would come and meet us. We stopped at every city and planted crosses — and every time we stopped the Border Patrol would also come up, stop and watch us.”

Richardson said she’s involved in a wide variety of projects to raise awareness of the rights of undocumented immigrants, including an art group where teenage girls paint themselves as the Virgin of Guadalupe. She boasted that she took some of their pictures with her when she went to the U.N. this year. On one of her U.N. trips, she said, “I met a woman from Mexico City who had the second highest position of any woman at the U.N. She took me to Michóacan, where whole villages are almost totally empty because so many people have migrated.”

She showed a slide of one such village — the picture of empty buildings and streets was indeed worth more than 1,000 words — and also pictures of their regular confrontations with the Minutemen outside the Home Depot store where many undocumented immigrants are hired as day laborers. Asked if anyone is documenting the Minutemen’s desecration of shrines to deceased immigrants and their strident confrontations with immigrant-rights supporters, Richardson said that the Minutemen are doing it themselves because they’re proud of it. “There are all kinds of stuff on YouTube,” she stated. “You can go on their Web site and see it.”
Robert Gallo on the Witness Stand

HIV/AIDS Model Wins Aussie Court Battle, but Not the War

news analysis by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

A court of law isn’t usually a place where scientific truth is debated and argued, but then AIDS isn’t your garden-variety disease either. In the 26 years since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control first proclaimed the existence of what it then called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” on the basis of five Gay men in Los Angeles, and the 23 years since National Cancer Institute (NCI) virologist Robert Gallo persuaded the U.S. government that the virus now called HIV was the cause of AIDS, the syndrome has grown far beyond the worlds of science and medicine and intersected the fields of politics, religion and morality.

On February 12, 2007 the various forces involved in the AIDS issue came together to create an astonishing historical spectacle: Robert Gallo himself, the man who more than any other individual created the dogma that HIV and HIV alone causes AIDS, was forced down from his mountaintop to tell a court in Brisbane, Australia just how HIV was identified as a new virus and what was the evidence on which Gallo concluded it caused AIDS. Of course, he didn’t actually come down from his mountaintop literally — he sat in an office in the virological institute in Bethesda, Maryland which he has directed since he left the NCI and his video image was beamed to the court in Brisbane.

The trial began when a young Australian man named Andre Chad Parenzee fell victim to one of the nastier types of legislation generated by the belief that HIV causes AIDS: the criminalization of sex involving a so-called “HIV positive” person. He was accused and put on trial for having consensual sex with three women, one of whom later tested “HIV positive” herself, without using condoms or telling them he was “HIV positive.” After Panerjee was convicted in January 2006, his family retained one of Australia’s best-known defense attorneys, Kevin Borick, to represent him on his appeal — and Borick in turn sought expert opinion and testimony from a maverick group of doctors and scientists in the Australian city of Perth.

Led by Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Valendar Turner, the so-called “Perth Group” have been publishing articles in scientific journals and on the Internet for over two decades questioning the popular wisdom about HIV and AIDS. They have argued that, rather than an infectious disease caused by HIV, AIDS is the product of “oxidative stress” from various toxic factors that sends the body’s blood chemistry haywire and thus trashes the immune system. They have established that what the so-called “HIV test” actually tests for is not HIV itself or even antibodies to it, but antibodies to nine proteins that supposedly make up HIV but are also found in the bodies of normal, HIV-free individuals. What’s more, they have questioned whether HIV even exists as a unique, identifiable virus at all.

Papadopulos-Eleopulos, Turner and their colleagues base that startling claim on a belief that the standard experiments needed to establish the existence of a previously unknown virus were never done for HIV. In a 24-page affidavit submitted to the court hearing Parenzee’s appeal, Turner argued that neither Gallo nor Luc Montagnier of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, commonly regarded as the joint discoverers of HIV, actually “isolated” the virus in the literal meaning of the term: that is, separating it out from all other biological material and then photographing it with an electron microscope to prove not only that it exists but it has the physical features of a virus.

Instead, Turner wrote, “What Montagnier reported as ‘isolation’ [of HIV] was detection of an enzyme activity — that is, reverse transcription — not purification of virus-like particles proven to be infectious. In fact, Montagnier did not purify ‘HIV.’” Attorney Borick used Turner’s affidavit to argue that since HIV was never properly isolated in the first place, and therefore could not possibly have been shown to cause AIDS, his client Parenzee shouldn’t be held legally responsible for endangering the lives of his sex partners by exposing them to a so-called “virus” that may or may not exist, which he was supposed to have had on the basis of an antibody test that may or may not have measured perfectly normal bodily proteins.

Parenzee’s prosecutor, Sandi McDonald, responded by bringing in seven Australian scientists and health practitioners to testify in favor of the HIV/AIDS model: Peter McDonald, Elizabeth Dax, John Kaldor, Martyn French, David Gordon, Dominic Dwyer and David Cooper, all of whom work either in research or patient care on AIDS at Australian institutions. MacDonald also called Gallo to the witness stand to defend the work of both his and Montagnier’s labs in identifying HIV and linking it to AIDS.

The Decision

The judge’s final ruling, issued April 27, was a sweeping attempt to vindicate the mainstream view of AIDS: that HIV is its cause, the virus is sexually transmitted, the antibody tests are specific and sensitive, and there was no reason to reopen the case based on the statements of the Perth Group to the contrary. It’s true that the Parenzee case raised these issues in one of the worst imaginable factual contexts: he was accused of having unprotected sex with three women, one of whom supposedly became “HIV positive” from her contact with him. Also, his attorneys didn’t raise the question of whether HIV existed or caused AIDS, or whether the antibody tests were accurate, in the initial trial. Parenzee’s defense didn’t bring this issue up until they filed permission to appeal the original verdict on the basis of new evidence — and the standard of proof for that, in Australia as in the U.S., is higher than it would be for its admissibility in an initial trial.

Nonetheless, Justice John Sulan’s opinion dripped with scorn for the alternative view of AIDS in general and Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner in particular. Noting that neither Papadopulos-Eleopulos nor Turner has specific expertise in virology, epidemiology or immunology — she’s a nuclear physicist who works in radiation medicine at the Royal Perth Hospital and he’s an emergency-room physician there — he rejected the defense claim that they be considered expert witnesses. Their views “are outside the scientific mainstream and … have not been widely expressed in either mainstream or scientific publications,” Justice Sulan wrote (p. 10). “Neither Ms. Papadopulos-Eleopulos nor Dr. Turner claimed to have practical experience or qualifications in any of the particular scientific disciplines to which their evidence pertained.” (p. 13)

That wasn’t the only reason Justice Sulan found for disregarding everything Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner had to say about HIV and AIDS. He said that they had misinterpreted various scientific papers they cited in their presentations and had relied almost exclusively on information published in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Papadopulos-Eleopulos “has not read or she has chosen to ignore an enormous volume of recently published material on the diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS,” Justice Sulan wrote (p. 22).

He also ruled that Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner couldn’t be considered “objective” experts because they maintain a Web site,, on which they promote their contrarian views on HIV and AIDS, and because the home page of the Perth Group site advocates, as one of three possible ways of testing the HIV/AIDS model, that “HIV seropositive individuals … have the evidence for their diagnoses of ‘HIV’ infection examined in courts of law.” The judge said Turner’s affidavit to the court couldn’t be accepted as evidence because it was also published on their Web site — ignoring the no-brain fact that scientists supporting the HIV/AIDS model regularly post justifications for it on their Web sites.

Justice Sulan also faulted Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner for not carrying out any original research on HIV and AIDS, but instead merely reading other people’s published papers — many by authors who themselves accept the HIV/AIDS model — and critiquing them. Among the papers Papadopulos-Eleopulos cited in court were three by Nancy Padian, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the University of Canada, which Papadopulos-Eleopulos said cast doubt on whether, or how efficiently, HIV could be transmitted by heterosexual sex; and a study by Rodriguez and Liederman (Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 27, 2006) which she said suggested that the primary causes of CD4 T-cell depletion in people with AIDS come from factors other than HIV.

In throwing out Papadopulos-Eleopulos’s contentions, Justice Sulan relied mostly on statements by the authors of these papers rejecting her interpretations of them and reaffirming their fealty to the One True Faith of “HIV/AIDS.” “HIV is unquestionably transmitted through heterosexual intercourse,” Padian wrote in the statement the judge quoted (p. 26). “Indeed, heterosexual intercourse is now responsible for 70 to 80 percent of all HIV transmissions worldwide.” Likewise, the statement by Rodriguez and Liederman Justice Sulan quoted called Papadopulos-Eleopulos’s interpretation of their findings “disturbing” and added, “There is absolutely no doubt that HIV is the cause of AIDS; far from challenging the veracity of this statement, our work further confirms it.” (p. 30) [For more information on the Rodriguez-Liederman paper from an alternative perspective, see and]

If taken to its logical conclusion, Justice Sulan’s position would argue that the only people qualified to interpret and analyze a scientific paper would be the scientists who did the research themselves. No one would be allowed to read a paper and question whether the data reported really supported the conclusion the authors said they did. What’s more, Justice Sulan wasn’t consistent in applying this standard. He certainly didn’t apply it to Kary Mullis, Ph.D., who in 1983 invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology used in the so-called HIV “viral load” tests and in 1993 won the Nobel Prize for this invention. Mullis has consistently rejected both the HIV/AIDS model itself and the use of PCR in “viral load” tests.

The reason is the PCR is a technique for amplifying small amounts of protein or genetic material by copying them millions of times into a large sample that can then be analyzed and sequenced. The problem is that, because it is an amplification technique, it’s good at determining whether a particular genetic sequence existed in your original sample but it’s lousy at determining how much of it you started with. “Quantitative PCR is an oxymoron,” Mullis has repeatedly said — and therefore, according to the inventor of the technology used to generate them, all those official-sounding numbers people with HIV and AIDS are given from their “viral load” tests are meaningless.

But Justice Sulan, who was willing to regard Padian, Rodriguez and Liederman as the sole arbiters of what their research means, didn’t grant the same concession to Mullis. Paraphrasing prosecution witness Peter James McDonald, Sulan said that Mullis had “express[ed] confidence in the PCR system” but totally ignored Mullis’s well-known critique of its use as the basis of “viral load” tests (p. 82). Instead, Sulan called Mullis an “AIDS denialist” — a common propaganda term used by the HIV/AIDS mainstream to attack both scientists and lay people who advance alternative views — and said Mullis’s views on AIDS “are not supported by research” (pp. 81, 83).

The extent to which Justice Sulan’s decision was motivated by politics rather than research was nowhere more apparent than his statement that, “in support of the proposition that HIV is the cause of AIDS,” the prosecution “relied upon the Durban Declaration … a document signed by 5,000 scientists and research institutions acknowledging that HIV causes AIDS” (p. 78). The Durban Declaration was issued in 2000, on the eve of the international AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, and though it contained a handful of scientific references, its overall purpose was political, not scientific: to shame South African president Thabo Mbeki into abandoning his government’s efforts to bring mainstream and alternative AIDS scientists together to debate and test the foundational assumptions behind the HIV/AIDS model.

According to Justice Sulan, scientific “truth” is whatever a majority of the world’s scientists studying a problem say it is. If that had been the accepted view throughout history, we would still believe that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun, planets and stars revolved around it; that human illnesses could not possibly be caused by organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye; that people of color were biologically and genetically inferior to whites; and that homosexuality was per se a mental illness. We don’t believe those things anymore because courageous individuals like Copernicus, Galileo, Pasteur, Franz Boas and Evelyn Hooker made it their business to challenge them, and ultimately their ideas were vindicated. Indeed, the most famous scientists in human history are generally the ones who challenged the conventional wisdom of the day and were proved right — though they weren’t always able to live long enough to enjoy it.

Justice Sulan’s idea of what constitutes “science” puts any scientist who wants to challenge conventional wisdom in a catch-22 similar to the one in Joseph Heller’s famous novel. If your expertise isn’t in the same field as the idea you’re challenging, you can be written off as “not an expert.” If it is, you’ll be subject to loss of jobs and research grants from the establishment you’re trying to take on. If you base your critique solely on an analysis of the published papers in the field, you’ll be told it’s invalid because you haven’t actually done your own research. If you try to do your own research, the establishment you’re challenging will make sure you don’t get the money for it. Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Turner actually did design a research study to test some of their ideas on HIV and AIDS, and they even won the cooperation of a fellow Royal Perth Hospital staff member who testified for the prosecution in the Parenzee case, but the only funding they had was $10,000 from Turner’s father — and, as Papadopulos-Eleopulos ruefully noted in the hearing, “$10,000 can’t go too far these days.” (pp. 38-39)

Gallo on the Stand

Though Parenzee’s counsel, Kevin Borick, lost his client’s case, he gave the alternative AIDS movement one hell of a consolation prize: Robert Gallo’s on-the-record, under-oath testimony on how the HIV/AIDS model came to be in the first place. An article in the February 14, 2007 online publication New AIDS Review called Gallo’s testimony “raw meat for the baying hounds of AIDS ‘denialism’ (that is, any intelligent person willing to read the scientific literature critically … ).” Hamstrung not only by Gallo’s famously combative demeanor but by a strict time limit on Gallo’s availability (his total testimony took only 76 minutes), Borick nonetheless subjected Gallo to a withering cross-examination that shed unexpected light on just how Gallo supposedly identified HIV as a unique virus, how he validated the antibody tests that have been the standard measures of HIV “infection” ever since, and how he got the U.S. government and most of the worldwide scientific community to sign on to his claim that HIV and HIV alone caused AIDS.

Gallo’s testimony began in the customary way with a direct examination by prosecutor McDonald. Though McDonald’s questions were intended to build up Gallo’s credentials and answer the criticisms made over the years — including the allegations that he didn’t discover HIV at all, that he stole it from culture samples Montagnier sent him and then claimed it as his own discovery — they also revealed Gallo’s famous egomania and his combative nature. He claimed the entire controversy over his role in identifying HIV was started as a vendetta by Congressmember John Dingell (D-Michigan) and a woman on his staff who headed the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Scientific Inquiry (OSI) investigation against him. Gallo was found guilty of scientific misconduct in that investigation, but the finding was reversed on appeal, and he boasted that the woman in charge of his investigation had been fired.

“Nobody ever in that group charged anyone with misappropriating a virus,” Gallo insisted. “That was innuendo. That was [an accusation made by] the French patent lawyers [defending Montagnier’s claim as sole discoverer of HIV] but it was never part of the governmental statement. [Milan] Popovic, my co-worker, was reviewed for whether his paper acknowledges a classic for succeeding in the mass production in HIV — that was making what was important even more golden and that fell down and didn’t stand under appeal. When that didn’t stand, this group that wanted to do damage to me dropped everything.” (pp. 1270-1271)

The reference to “mass production in [sic] HIV” referred to one of Gallo’s major claims in defense of HIV’s existence. The Perth Group has long maintained that the only way to identify a retrovirus, which HIV is supposed to be, is through what are called “sucrose density gradients.” This is a process that involves adding the suspected virus to a sugar solution, spinning it in a centrifuge, and seeing in what concentration of sugar the supposed virus particles collect. According to the Perth Group, in order to be a retrovirus, the particles must collect in the part of the sugar solution that contains 1.6 grams of sugar per milliliter of water. They claim that the failure of Gallo to publish any electron microscope photographs of HIV at that sugar density in his initial papers on the virus, published in May 1984 in Science, shows that he never properly isolated the virus and therefore did not prove it existed.

In court, Gallo partly blamed this failure on Montagnier — who, he said, sent him an electron microscope picture of the wrong virus — and also said that once he had figured out how to grow HIV in quantity in his lab, that proved its existence as a unique virus and made sucrose density gradients beside the point. The problem with viral cultures in general is that a virus can’t reproduce without the help of a host cell — and the problem with retrovirus cultures in particular is that retroviruses are dependent on their host cells for their own survival. Gallo had earlier figured out how to grow retroviruses in quantity by extracting T-cells from people with leukemia, growing their cells into so-called “immortal’ cell lines, then introducing the viruses, letting them grow inside the host cells and using powerful chemicals called mitogenic stimulants to get them out again.

According to Gallo, his ability to do this with HIV proved beyond a doubt that the virus exists. “When we succeeded in mass-producing the virus in a continuous culture, you have got an enormous purification far beyond the sucrose gradient alone because you are now producing loads of virus with little amount of cell,” he told the Australian court. (p. 1258) Gallo also spent a lot of time trying to undercut the Perth Group’s claim that the genetic sequences claimed to constitute HIV may actually be so-called “endogenous viruses,” virus-like particles created by the human body itself. “We didn’t find HIV in normal cultures, normal lymphocytes,” Gallo said. “Molecularly, it is simple to distinguish HIV from endogenous retroviral sequences. They are night and day.” (p. 1260)

Ironically, some scientists who otherwise question HIV as the cause of AIDS agree with Gallo’s point here. “HIV viral DNA is reasonably well defined, as well as you can define it,” Peter Duesberg, UC Berkeley-based virologist who started the scientific critique of the HIV/AIDS model in 1987 in the journal Cancer Research, said in an interview with this reporter in the January 1998 Zenger’s. “It’s been cloned and sequenced. … It’s not an intrinsic element of the human genome.” In the same interview, Duesberg essentially took Gallo’s side over the Perth Group’s on the question of whether HIV had been sufficiently “isolated” to prove its existence, and agreed with Gallo that his ability to grow (“clone”) HIV in immortal T-cell lines proves that the virus exists.

Political Proclamation of “HIV/AIDS”

Gallo’s testimony before the Australian court also dealt with the question of just how HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS in the first place. In his cross-examination, Kevin Borick zeroed in on one of the most controversial aspects of the claim that HIV causes AIDS: the fact that in Gallo’s 1986 paper in Nature he reported that he could find HIV in just 40 percent (48 out of 119) of the people with AIDS from whom he tried to isolate it. “Do you agree that the isolation of HIV from only 40 percent of [AIDS] patients is not proof that HIV causes AIDS?” Borick asked Gallo (p. 1294).

“In and of itself, 40 percent isolation of a new virus, I wouldn’t say is the cause,” Gallo said. “But … I would be phenomenally stimulated by it, especially a virus that targeted CD4 T-cells … and was new and unknown in man before and was being found in risk groups and not in healthy heterosexual populations at that time. … The virus was new, the disease was new.” Gallo went on to say that he re-ran the antibody tests from his original sample, in which 88 percent of people with AIDS had tested positive, and the new tests revealed 100 percent of the AIDS patients tested positive while only “one in over 1,000 healthy heterosexuals” tested positive. He also said that there were no positive test results from serum samples sent from countries “where there was no AIDS.” (pp. 1294-1295)

Gallo also argued that his failure to “isolate” the virus from his original samples — at least in the Perth Group’s preferred meaning of the term, which is to separate it not only from all other potentially biochemically active material but from inert material as well — was because, “other than in a peak of an acute viremia with an acute infectious virus,” hardly any viral particles exist to isolate. “Samples you get are decayed, they are lysed and cells are destroyed,” he explained. “If you don’t have enough of the target cells … [in] the population of the blood you get, you have hardly any CD4 T-cells to work with. You would be a liar if you said you isolated it every time.” (p. 1301)

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Gallo’s testimony was when he inadvertently confirmed what alternative AIDS scientists, journalists and activists have been claiming for years: that the identification of HIV as the cause of AIDS was determined largely by politics, not science. “In March 1984,” Gallo said, “I went to a restaurant in Bethesda with Jim Curran” — then head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — “and he handed me an envelope and I handed him an envelope. They were coded samples” of the blood transfusion patients from whom he’d claimed first an 88 percent, then a 100 percent, correlation between testing “HIV positive” and having AIDS. “When we opened the letters up, he looked at me and he said, ‘It’s all over,’” Gallo recalled. “When I went to that restaurant I was convinced I knew the cause of AIDS, but when I came out I was happy because I knew from Jim Curran that he knew the cause of AIDS also.” (p. 1316)

One month later, Curran’s boss, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler, hosted a press conference at which she introduced Gallo and announced that he had found “the probable cause of AIDS” — and from that moment, before any of Gallo’s research papers had been published and before anyone other than Curran, CDC official Dr. Don Francis and maybe peer reviewers for the journal Science had had a chance to read them, the U.S. government declared HIV the sole cause of AIDS and stopped funding any research exploring any other possibilities, a ban that has remained in effect to this day. In essence, Robert Gallo and Jim Curran decided on HIV as the “cause” of AIDS over lunch in Bethesda, Maryland one afternoon in March 1984, without any input from the rest of the scientific community and without any opportunity for anyone to review their research objectively.

To download a PDF or OCR text version of Robert Gallo’s complete testimony, visit The judge’s final ruling is available at Page numbers above refer to the PDF versions of these documents available from those links.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mike Byron Introduces “Infinity’s Rainbow” at S.D. Library

How Global Warming, Peak Oil, Corporate Personhood and Fundamentalism Interact


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“I had been reading a lot about global warming, energy policy, peak oil [the theory that humans have already used up half the world’s available petroleum and the remainder will become increasingly difficult, environmentally destructive and expensive to extract], religious fundamentalism and what’s wrong with our foreign policy,” author and political science professor Mike Byron told the San Diego Humanist Association at the downtown library May 20, “and I hadn’t seen much about how every one of these issues relates to everything else. The more I thought about these diverse issues, the more I felt that to deal effectively with those problems, you have to consider how they interrelate.”

Byron’s search to put his concerns about war, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, the power of corporations over the political system and the potentially apocalyptic consequences of the human race running out of energy and having to deal with global warming simultaneously led him to a two-year research project that produced a book he called Infinity’s Rainbow. Its basic thesis is that the combination of global warming and the imminent exhaustion of the world’s fossil fuels presents the world in general and the U.S. in particular with a major crisis that threatens the very existence of humanity — and we’re ill-equipped to handle it for two reasons: the iron grip corporations have on the U.S. political system and the rising power of religious fundamentalists who see environmental disaster and conflict in the Middle East over oil as good things: fulfillment of the quasi-Biblical prophecies of Armageddon and the Rapture.

“Basically, I began by looking at a couple of problems,” Byron explained. “One is the fact that human activity affects the climate. We’ve assumed that whatever we do will not affect the biosphere, and for most of human history that has been correct. The problem is that civilizations tend to burn out their local environments. For example, the very first human civilization, the Sumerians in what is now Iraq, used the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as sources for canals for irrigation water, and so the land between them became lush and fertile. Today, what you find there is a lunar landscape with giant mounds standing in the middle that are what’s left of the Sumerian cities. Irrigation water contains salts and other minerals which eventually so saturated the soil that nothing has grown there for about 3,000 years — and it will take another 10,000 years before anything can grow there again.”

In the days of the Sumerians, and throughout the history of human civilization until the industrial revolution began almost 200 years ago, burning out one part of the earth wasn’t much of a problem because people could always move and re-establish their civilization somewhere else, Byron explained. In fact, he said that this was the beginning of imperialism, as the most successful and militarily powerful civilizations used their armed might to take over new lands that were still fresh and capable of supporting them. “Unfortunately, human industrial civilization is now so large, and so powerfully able to impact the biosphere, that not only is there no longer anywhere else to go, but its impacts are worldwide,” Byron said. “We’re disrupting the long-term climate and rainfall patterns of the entire planet.”

Byron stressed that, as much as modern humans like to pretend that they are no longer dependent on the natural world for their survival, in fact the very ability of the human race to feed itself requires an awareness of natural weather patterns and an ability to predict them. “Agriculture is a bet that you understand the climate and rainfall well enough to grow crops and feed your population,” he explained. “If you randomly alter these conditions in ways so complicated we can’t predict them, the ability to grow food decreases as the population still increases.”

At the same time as our overuse of hydrocarbon fuels is creating global warming and threatening the weather patterns on which agriculture depends, Byron added, we’re also exhausting our supply of these irreplaceable sources of energy. “Worldwide industrial civilization is based on hydrocarbon energy,” he said. “First it came from coal, which powered steam engines. Then it came from oil. A barrel of oil, which is 42 gallons, contains the energy level of a person’s labor for 20 years. That is how much energy is concentrated in that substance. Your car weighs thousands of pounds, and if you try to push it for 25 miles, that will give you a really deep understanding of how much energy there is in a gallon of gasoline.” Unfortunately, in releasing all that energy hydrocarbon fuels also release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which unites with oxygen molecules to create carbon dioxide.

What’s more worrisome is that at the very time we’re starting to screw up the climate by our long history of relying on hydrocarbons for up to 80 percent of all our energy needs, we’re also starting to run out of them, Byron explained. “Very detailed studies by energy geologists and physicists show that the total amount of recoverable oil that has ever existed on earth is two trillion barrels, and we’ve already used one trillion,” he said. “We seem to be at a plateau of oil production. Production peaked in 2005 at 80 million barrels a day, and it has declined slightly since then.” Byron pointed out that as the supply of oil decreases, economic law dictates that its price will go up — and as the price of oil goes up, “the cost of everything in our civilization will increase very dramatically.”

According to Byron, our last chance to handle this problem and achieve a smooth transition from hydrocarbons to renewable energy was in the late 1970’s. The OPEC-engineered oil price spikes of 1973 and 1979 actually had a beneficial effect, he said — they delayed the peak of oil production from the mid-1980’s (when it was predicted in the 1970’s) to the mid 2000’s, as people drove less, bought smaller cars and generally conserved energy — but when Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as President, “he tore down the solar panels Carter had put on the White House roof,” thereby symbolically encouraging the American people to go back into denial about the long-term consequences of their energy use. Today, Byron added, the Bush administration is actively impeding the efforts of other countries to address the twin issues of global warming and peak oil, and Americans generally are in a state of denial about their (and the world’s) climate and energy future.

Why isn’t the U.S. government aggressively moving to address these issues? Byron has two answers: the power of corporations over U.S. government and politics, and the rise of the radical religious Right to a position of prominence in the American political system. Byron traces corporate power back to 1886, when corporations won from the U.S. Supreme Court the right to be regarded as “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Originally passed in 1868, just after the Civil War, to safeguard the rights of the newly freed African-American slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment became a shield for corporate power and from 1886 to 1935 was repeatedly used by a Right-wing Supreme Court to strike down minimum-wage laws, laws to ensure workers’ health and safety, environmental regulations and just about any attempt by the government to tame the most blatant abuses of lassiez-faire capitalism.

What’s more, said Byron, the Supreme Court itself never actually decided that corporations were “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment. The key phrase was simply inserted into the abstract of an opinion by a Supreme Court law clerk who’d formerly been a railroad attorney. Usually, passing statements in judicial opinions are called “dicta” and aren’t considered valid precedents — but not this one. Over the next 50 years, the statement that corporations were “persons” was routinely cited to hold that corporations could basically do whatever they liked — and while the Court backed away from that somewhat during the New Deal, in recent years, as more Right-wing judges from the so-called “Law and Economics” movement have been appointed, mostly (but not always) by Republican presidents, the Supreme Court has once again taken on its historic role under the Fourteenth Amendment and the doctrine of corporate personhood to block attempts to regulate the economy and put brakes on corporate power.

Byron cited the recent documentary film The Corporation and its companion book for their analyses of what’s wrong with letting corporations run things without any attempt at regulating them. The major point of The Corporation is that a corporation is required by its charter and its legal responsibility to single-mindedly pursue short-term profit, no matter what the long-term consequences: behavior that in an individual would be diagnosed as psychopathic. “The only reason a corporation exists is to provide profits for its shareholders,” he explained.. “The corporations are reifications of our deepest wishes. We all want wealth and riches, and they exist because we are what we are and we have the values we do, including the belief that there’s always wealth for the taking. From the beginning of civilization, we’ve assumed that the earth is a cornucopia and we can’t affect the biosphere. The consequences are potentially fatal for human civilization, and we’re in total denial.”

And as if the corporate attitude of pursuit of short-term profit, damn the long-term consequences, weren’t threatening enough, Byron identified another political and social force in today’s U.S. that’s even more dangerous for our long-term survival: Christian fundamentalism, particularly the movement within it known as “dispensationalism.” Based on a reading of the New Testament, particularly its final book — the Revelation of St. John the Divine — that was first articulated towards the end of the 19th century, dispensationalism holds that the prophecies of Revelation are being fulfilled in our own time. Dispensationalists look towards the battle of Armageddon, the final struggle between heaven and hell, to take place in the modern Middle East, to be followed by the “Rapture,” in which the faithful, as Byron put it, “get to be beamed up, like on Star Trek, just before the world collapses.”

Byron said that the dispensationalists within the radical Christian Right are skewing political decision-makers to regard rationally dangerous policies as desirable because they will supposedly hasten the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies. “Since the timetable to the Rapture is set up by catastrophic war in the Middle East, if you’re a dispensationalist you’ll want there to be catastrophic war in the Middle East,” he said. “You’ll want the U.S. not only to invade Iraq but also Iran, and conquer that part of the world which has at least one-eighth of all its known energy resources. Tens of millions of Americans now believe that we have to fight in the Middle East. They think they’re doing God’s work, but they’re actually doing Exxon-Mobil’s and Shell’s.”

What is to be done? According to Byron — who admitted his current book is light on proposed solutions, and is writing another one that will focus more on the ways out of the four-sided crisis he describes — “what’s needed is a broad-based movement” of people organizing and campaigning, mostly outside the existing political system but also within it, to demand positive change. Byron said that until 2006 he was active within the Democratic party — he even ran for U.S. Congress against Darrell Issa in 2004 — but he’s since dropped out of party politics because, “While the parties at the local level are filled with idealistic people, the higher you get the less eager people are to do anything that challenges the status quo.”

For a number of reasons — the most important being that both Republican and Democratic parties are dependent for their survival on money from corporations or their stockholders and executives — “the political parties are incapable of bringing about change,” Byron said. He cited the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960’s — a movement “from outside and inside the parties, that would accept nothing less than that we do what we need to do” — as the model for the kind of activism we need. Byron also said that we have to be willing to put our own money where our mouths are; he said that he personally spent $10,000 on solar panels for his home. Joking that this expenditure “probably horrified my wife” (who was at his San Diego library presentation with him), he said, “I needed to put my research into action.”

A good part of Byron’s prescription is for Americans to move away from the incredible consumerism and acquisitiveness we’ve been encouraged in by a multi-billion dollar advertising industry. “As long as we keep wanting more wealth and more stuff, we aren’t going to change until it’s too late,” he said.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Jeremy Scahill Speaks Out Against Blackwater

Comes to San Diego to Help Block Mercenary Firm’s Proposed Camp


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Right now, Potrero is a little-known rural community in southeastern San Diego County, a hidden valley filled with wetlands and various kinds of raptor birds, with a golden eagle habitat 3,500 feet to the north and about 1,000 adult residents, most of whom moved there to get away from the noise of an urban environment and live in harmony with nature. But if Blackwater U.S.A., a politically well-connected company which hires mercenary soldiers and support personnel to aid the U.S. military throughout the world, including Iraq, all that will change. Those 1,000 residents will find themselves living in a virtual war zone; they won’t be running the kinds of risks Iraqis face every day when they leave their homes but they will be experiencing the sights and sounds of Blackwater’s minions training for their parts in future U.S. wars.

That was the fate Potrero residents sought to avoid when they joined forces with anti-war groups like the Peace Resource Center and the Peace and Democracy Action Group of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church to invite Jeremy Scahill to speak in San Diego May 1 and 2. Scahill is an independent journalist who’s been covering the Blackwater story ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks vastly expanded the company’s business opportunities. He’s written an extensive series of articles on Blackwater, most of them for The Nation, and recently he collected his dossier on the company into a book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Scahill spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest on May 1 and the La Mesa Community Center, co-sponsored by the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club, on May 2.

Scahill began his La Mesa appearance by reading one of the most spectacular stories from his book: the death of four Blackwater “contractors” in combat in Falloujah, Iraq in March 2004. The four men, Jerry Zovko, Wes Batalona, Mike Teague and Scott Helvenston, were all veterans of elite units in the U.S. military — the Army Rangers, Air Force 140th Special Operations regiment, the Navy SEAL’s — who had signed on with Blackwater to do the same work they’d done as servicemembers and get paid more for it. They were sent out on a mission in an unarmored Jeep, two men short of the six-member crew they were supposed to have, and were ambushed and captured by Iraqi insurgents. The four men were killed and their bodies were displayed publicly by the insurgent fighters who had killed them.

“The crowd swelled to more than 300 people, as the original attackers faded into the side streets of Falloujah,” Scahill wrote. “The scorched bodies were pulled from the burned-out Jeep, and men and boys literally tore them apart, limb from limb. Men beat the bodies with the soles of their shoes, while others hacked off burned body parts with metal pipes and shovels. A young man methodically kicked one of the heads until it was severed from the body. In front of the cameras, someone held a small sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones that declared [in English], ‘Falloujah is the graveyard of the Americans!’”

America’s response to the killing of Blackwater’s four mercenaries would be just as savage. According to Scahill, the Bush administration overruled its military commanders on the ground and ordered an immediate all-out U.S. attack on Falloujah. “When the Americans came into Falloujah, they would shout insults at the people in Arabic, the people of Falloujah would come out and the Americans would shoot them,” Scahill told his La Mesa audience. “They started the attack by bombing the power plants, and U.S. soldiers were firing on ambulances. The U.S. went in and totally destroyed Falloujah. It was the moment the war turned.”

Blackwater’s own response showed the extent to which the company has become both a staunch supporter and a beneficiary of Republican philosophies and governmental policies. “The day after the massacre, they hired the Alexander Study Group, a lobbying firm with ties to Jack Abramoff and then-House majority leader Tom DeLay,” Scahill said. (Abramoff and DeLay were both later brought down by corruption scandals.) “Within days of the ambush, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and other executives had face-to-face meetings with the people running Congress. By June 2004 Blackwater was given a $320 million contract to provide security services for U.S. diplomats.”

Blackwater Is Born

Blackwater U.S.A. was the brainchild of Erik Prince, son of a Detroit millionaire, Edgar Prince, who made his fortune in the auto-parts business and invented the lighted windshield visor for cars. (He also had some less commercially successful inventions, including a lighted sock drawer and an automatic ham de-boning device.) The Prince family were thoroughgoing political conservativ es who, unlike many of the corporate rich, donated overwhelming sums to Republican candidates and only pittances to Democrats. Erik’s sister Elizabeth, usually called Betsy, married Dick DeVos, son of the founder of Amway, who since 1979 has given $650,000 to Republican candidates, $7 million to finance the school vouchers movement, and another $2 million to Right-wing interest groups.

Erik Prince himself made his first political contribution in 1989, at age 19: $15,000 to the Republican party. He was one of the first interns at the Family Research Council, a major organization in the radical Christian Right, and he also served six months as an intern in the administration of the first President Bush in 1991. The experience left him so disgusted that he broke with Bush and endorsed radical-Right candidate Patrick Buchanan for the Republican nomination in 1992. In a rare interview with the Grand Rapids Press, he said he’d abandoned Bush, Sr. because he “saw a lot of things I didn’t agree with — homosexual groups being invited in [the White House], the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those kinds of bills. I think the administration has been indifferent to a lot of conservative concerns.”

In 1992 Erik Prince enlisted in the U.S. Navy and volunteered for the elite SEAL team. But his military career was cut short with the death of his father, Edgar Prince, in 1995. He was allowed to leave the military and help his family wrap up his father’s affairs. The family sold the auto-parts business for $1.4 billion and, with part of his share of the proceeds, Erik started Blackwater in 1996. At first, Scahill noted, the company was called “Blackwater Lodge and Training Center” and operated a facility in Moyock, North Carolina. Two conservative Republican Congressmembers from Orange County, Dana Rohrabacher (for whom Prince had also interned) and John Doolittle, attended the opening ceremonies.

Erik Prince largely built his company from the political opportunities presented by outside events, Scahill explained. “After the Columbine shootings in 1999, Blackwater responded by erecting a mock high school and inviting law enforcement personnel to train there,” he said. “In 2000, when the U.S.S. Cole was bombed [by al-Qaeda terrorists], the Navy awarded Blackwater a $3.2 million training contract. The election of George W. Bush as president and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 vastly expanded the opportunities for Blackwater and other private military contractors.

During the first Bush presidency, then-secretary of defense Dick Cheney had floated the idea of outsourcing many of the military’s functions to private corporations. He hired Halliburton, an international corporation whose Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) subsidiary was a major potential beneficiary of such contracting, for $500 to do a study of military privatization; then, when Cheney left government, he became Halliburton’s CEO. As for Blackwater, Prince boasted in a rare TV appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s program that the CIA had asked him to send a team to Afghanistan. “Prince went with this team himself,” Scahill said, “and as far as we know, that was the moment when Blackwater crossed from being a training force to a mercenary force.”

Thanks to Blackwater and the other “contractors” supplying personnel to the U.S. military, the U.S. has 126,000 private employees in Iraq fulfilling military roles, in addition to the 140,000 actual troops. Not all the “contractors” are mercenaries or combat team members; most have taken over cooking, cleaning, driving and other support services for which the U.S. military used to use its own people. But the Government Accountability Office (GOA), the federal government’s official financial watchdog, estimates that 40,000 of the 126,000 private-sector personnel in the U.S. force in Iraq are mercenaries in combat roles.

Blackwater’s first contract in Iraq was for $21 million, to protect Paul Bremer, the official Bush appointed to run Iraq after the U.S. attack got rid of Saddam Hussein’s government. (According to Scahill, Blackwaqter uses the fact that Bremer got out of Iraq alive as a selling point on their Web site.) Every subsequent U.S. ambassador in Iraq, and every U.S. V.I.P. mission there — including that of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — has been guarded by Blackwater personnel, Scahill said. “This company has had $750 million worth of contracts with the State Department alone,” he explained.

Playing by Their Own Rules

In addition to lobbying the government for more contracts at higher fees, Scahill said, Blackwater has also worked hard to make sure no one can hold them accountable either for the actions of their employees on the ground or the decisions made at corporate headquarters that might endanger them. According to Scahill, the contract under which the four Blackwater victims of the Falloujah massacre worked involved another company, Regency, and had been amended to delete the requirement that Blackwater provide its people with armored vehicles. That negotiation saved Blackwater $1.5 million and may have cost the four men their lives.

Blackwater’s avoidance of accountability got a major boost in June 2004, just before Paul Bremer left Iraq. “He issued General Order 17, which granted sweeping immunity under Iraqi law to all contractors and their personnel,” Scahill said. Because Blackwater employees serve as part of a U.S. military operation, the company claims that they have the same “sovereign immunity” from criminal prosecution or civil suit as actual servicemembers and their commanders, Scahill explained — but because Blackwater’s people aren’t servicemembers, they’re not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) on which the military system of courts-martial is based. (At least they weren’t until Republican Senator Lindsey Graham slipped a requirement into the 2006 Defense Authorization Act that they would be — which, ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union is opposing because they don’t want to see cooks and other civilians working for the U.S. military subject to military justice.) And, thanks to General Order 17, the Iraqi government can’t do anything to Blackwater personnel for any murders or other crimes they commit on Iraqi soil.

But the company’s attempts to insulate themselves from all responsibility hit a roadblock in 2005, when the families of the four contractors killed in Falloujah filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Blackwater. Ironically, at first their survivors hadn’t realized they were working for a private company instead of serving with the U.S. military; they were in a war zone and doing what they’d always done. Scott Helvenston’s mother Katie “remembered seeing the report of her son’s death,” Scahill said, “and it didn’t occur to her that it could be him because she didn’t know he was there as a ‘contractor.’ When she and the other families found out, they started asking questions about why they went out in unarmored vehicles and with a team that was two men short. Blackwater said they would hold a memorial service for them in North Carolina, and executives would be there to answer their questions. Danica Zovko, Jerry’s mother, asked to see an after-incident report. They were hemming and hawing, and at one point a Blackwater executive said, ‘This is a classified document, and you’ll have to sue us to get it.’”

The families took Blackwater’s dare and filed suit in January 2005. According to Scahill, the company didn’t deny the families’ allegations. “Instead, they said that because they were hired by Donald Rumsfeld and the Department of Defense, they should have the same immunity as the U.S. government.” Scahill estimated that about 770 contractors have been killed in Iraq — a figure he based on the number of families that have applied to the U.S. government for death benefits — and added, “What’s more disturbing than the death toll is that no one is supervising their conduct. There have been 64 courts-martial of U.S. servicemembers in Iraq on murder-related charges and only two disciplinary actions against contractors.”

Blackwater in New Orleans

When Scahill describes Blackwater as a bottom-feeding company building its business on human disasters, he’s not talking just about terrorist attacks or wars. According to Scahill, Hurricane Katrina was a godsend for Blackwater’s bottom line — and the huge sums Blackwater got paid in the aftermath of Katrina while people were literally starving in the streets, desperate for emergency assistance, was a good indication of the priorities of the current federal government.

“I got to New Orleans a few days after the hurricane, and there was almost no humanitarian operations or National Guard troops because Bush had sent them all to Iraq,” Scahill recalled. “I was talking to two New York police officers when three people drove up in a car and asked, ‘Where are the rest of the Blackwater guys?’ The Blackwater guys said, ‘We’re here to help confront criminals and stop looters.’ One had just been in Iraq two weeks before, and another said ‘there wasn’t enough action’ in New Orleans. I asked under whose authority were they there, and they said they’d been deputized by the governor of Louisiana. I asked if they were from the Department of Homeland Security, and one of them said, ‘That’s above my pay grade.’”

Eventually, Scahill found out that not only were Blackwater “security” personnel working for the Department of Homeland Security in New Orleans, but that Blackwater was billing the government $950 per man per day while the men were only being paid $350 per day. “Blackwater held a fundraiser for Katrina and began a new branch for domestic security,” Scahill explained. “They opened a private facility in Illinois, and then they thought they could expand their domestic operations still further by opening a training camp in Potrero.”


Before they decided to locate their third U.S. training camp in the small San Diego community of Potrero, Blackwater’s executives did their homework. They knew of San Diego’s reputation as a conservative town in which the U.S. Navy is the biggest industry and whatever the military says goes. They got the support of Congressmember Duncan Hunter, 14-term Republican veteran and (until the November 2006 elections returned control of Congress to the Democrats) head of the House Armed Services Committee. They met secretly with representatives of the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use as early as May 2006 — five months before Potrero residents had any idea that Blackwater would be moving into their community — and one of their attorneys, Lori Spar, later joined the county department as a land use/environmental planner. Blackwater even won unanimous approval from the Potrero community’s planning board after their one opponent, Jan Hedlun, didn’t realize she was eligible to vote.

According to Miriam Raftery and Muriel Kane’s report published April 3, 2007 on the Raw Story Web site,, “The proposed Blackwater West training facility at Potrero would include 15 firing ranges for automatic and semi-automatic weapons and small caliber guns, as well as an emergency vehicle operator’s course the length of ten football fields — 3,280 feet in length and 1,320 feet in width, according to a project description. The facility would also include bunkhouses and commando-type training facilities, ship simulators, and law enforcement and rescue safety training towers with rock-climbing walls and platforms. Multiple San Diego County records indicate that ‘hazards’ — including ‘explosives’ – ‘should’ be stored in an ‘armory’ at the site.”

With all their political ducks lined up at both the federal and county levels, the last thing Blackwater expected or planned for was “indigenous opposition from a community of 1,000 people,” Scahill explained. “Half of all the registered voters in Potrero signed a petition against the facility, and 150 protestors showed up at the April 5 hearing. Though some of their objections are classic NIMBY — “not in my backyard” — others go to the heart of the environmental objections to the project, including the possible disruptive effects on the eagle habitat 3,500 feet away, the combat-style noise to which residents will be subjected continually and the risk that Blackwater’s combat-training operations could start a severe fire in a county already devastated by wildfires four years ago.

Scahill closed his presentation on Blackwater with a critique of the U.S. media, saying that the role of Blackwater as an unaccountable combat force not only abroad but in the U.S. as well is just one of many stories that aren’t being covered properly in the mainstream press. “Over 635,000 Iraqis have died since the war began, but most Americans think it’s less than 10,000,” he said. “This is the direct result of media that participate in the Bush administration’s cover-ups. The media did a great job covering the killings at Virginia Tech, but Virginia Tech is one hour in one day in one Iraqi neighborhood. If the media were doing their job and we heard the stories of some of the 650,000 Iraqis who were killed, this war would end tomorrow. We are a country of good people who don’t believe in killing Iraqi civilians, but the media haven’t shown the consequences of this irrational war based on lies.”