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books

Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack By Bradley Graham. PublicAffairs. 352 pages. $26.

Bradley Graham boasts that Hit to Kill is based on more than 300 interviews, as well as meeting notes, reporting cables, briefing charts, and other primary documents. Despite this extensive research, what's most striking about the book is not what Graham has put in but what he leaves out—namely, any discussion of the political world in which the debate on missile defense takes place. There's nothing about campaign contributions, the role of lobbyists deployed by the defense contractors, or the mammoth pork barreling that has long typified defense procurement. All those factors, of course, hugely influence the decision-making process regarding a program that has eaten up $100 billion during the past half century.

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The result is a book that exhaustively (and sometimes exhaustingly) traces the arc of missile defense—from its modest, post-World War II origins, to the Reagan Star Wars years, to its current incarnation as the centerpiece of the new Bush administration's defense posture—all without shedding much light on how we got from there to here.

Graham, a Washington Post reporter, strives to be neutral in presenting the pros and cons of missile defense. Advocates have plenty of room to make their case, but Graham points out that five decades of research and development have yet to produce a system capable of intercepting enemy missiles. He also raises doubts about the missile threat posed by "rogue states" and notes that developing the requisite technology is far more complicated than anything previously attempted by American scientists.

"Going to the moon was certainly no easy task," he writes, "but think about trying to do it amid concerns that the moon might try to shoot back."

In Graham's account, missile defense proponents and opponents battle things out in the rarefied world of ideas, engaging in heady, honest debates about sensors and flight-control systems and the threat posed by U.S. enemies. In the end, as he presents it, the debate will presumably be won by the side with the best ideas and most persuasive science.

Yet in reality, as evidenced by the recent discussion in Washington about Bush's proposals, many members of Congress lack all but a cursory understanding of the science that underpins the whole debate. When it comes time to vote on funding, the majority will no doubt decide on the basis of ideological and party lines and on how much money missile defense will mean for their district or state and how their vote will play with constituents and political funders.

Graham allows that Senator Daniel Inouye has a "parochial interest" in missile defense because his state of Hawaii is far closer to North Korea than the continental United States is. But he fails to note the parochial interests of politicians from states like Alabama and Colorado—major missile defense R&D centers—which directly benefit from increased funding.

Likewise, he glosses over the fact that missile defense contractors have financial interests that might influence their public assessments. Hence, he notes without comment that a key government panel investigating the need for missile defense had "ventured outside the government's intelligence network and consulted several aerospace firms, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin." Those firms just happen to be the top two missile defense contractors, which may help explain why the panel concluded that the missile threat from rogue states was "broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly" than previously believed.

With the Bush administration seeking a vast increase in missile defense spending, the debate in Congress has been taking place in a vacuum, one in which ideas and facts don't count for much. If they did, 50 years of technological failures would have resulted in missile defense being scrapped long ago. For even if there is an emerging ballistic missile threat—and even many in the U.S. military establishment doubt this—diplomacy and the threat of retaliation are far cheaper and more reliable means of shooting it down. --Ken Silverstein

 

The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America By Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz. University of California Press. $24.95.

These are the firsthand stories of what irrepressible Americans have endured to keep the radical movement going and, in favorable moments, growing, despite the pressures— both legal and illegal—against it. The authors (a professor at Trinity College and an oral historian) have for decades been interviewing activists from the labor, black power, and antiwar movements, encouraging their subjects to tell their own stories. The more than 40 dissenters who do so in this volume—with lively introductions to individuals and issues by the Schultzes—open themselves up, with recollections of their experiences, hopes, bitter disappointments, and unbroken determination.

A handful of the interviewees are household names—black nationalist Stokely Carmichael, Pentagon Papers shrink/essayist Daniel Ellsberg. But the others, with a few exceptions, would be forgotten if the Schultzes did not bring their stories to light.

Take the two peace activists from Dallas, who recall how U.S. government agents infiltrated their organizations in the 1980s to seduce one of them (a nun at the time), steal records, and provide the military in El Salvador with the names of recent deportees. Or the victims of the Chicago police's "Red Squad" who successfully fought in court to expose a wide range of illegal activities, including the 1969 assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Some stories are more humorous than frightening: Dagmar Wilson of Women Strike for Peace remembers how the antinuclear group responded to a 1962 subpoena of its leader by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities with a flood of telegrams from other members volunteering to testify too.

Few victims have had the opportunity to conduct this kind of political guerrilla warfare. But historic successes from labor rights to racial justice to the antiwar movement show that sometimes it's possible for activists to win, given courage and persistence—and a lucky break or two. --Paul Buhle

 

Red Dust: A Path Through China By Ma Jian. Pantheon. $25.

By 1983, Ma Jian could no longer bear his life in Beijing. Following his arrest on suspicion of "spiritual pollution," his ex-wife forbade his daughter from seeing such a "dangerous political criminal." His girlfriend was cheating on him; his bosses at the foreign propaganda department were demanding he undergo "rectification." Instead, Ma Jian quit his job and, carrying little more than forged identity papers and a copy of Leaves of Grass, set out on the not-so-open road.

Red Dust records Ma Jian's years of adventure in a rapidly changing China (the title is taken from a Buddhist text addressed to "Sentient beings, lost in the red dust of the world"). He stays in a tent with a family of Kazak nomads, cuts hair in the markets of Golmud, and visits a mountain village so poor that no one there has ever worn shoes. He is arrested as a Burmese spy and narrowly escapes dying of thirst in the desert and drowning in the rapids of the Nu River. Red Dust is a Sino-beatnik travelogue, a fascinating search for self in a world where crass profiteering is increasingly condoned, but more existential forms of striving are still considered treasonous. --Ben Ehrenreich

 

The Feast of the Goat By Mario Vargas Llosa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.

It is hard not to read The Feast of the Goat, a fictionalized account of the fall of the Dominican Republic's Trujillo dictatorship in 1961, as a veiled attack on Mario Vargas Llosa's old political rival Alberto Fujimori, who trounced him in a 1990 bid for the Peruvian presidency. In interviews prior to the novel's publication, Vargas Llosa explicitly compared the brutality of Trujillo's regime to Fujimori's only slightly more subtle authoritarianism. But here, Vargas Llosa's political passions seem to have overrun his formidable novelistic talents. Trujillo himself never escapes the boundaries of his cartoon dictator silhouette, while a subplot that should be the novel's moral and structural heart functions only as a flimsy narrative shell. Its many flaws notwithstanding, The Feast of the Goat does have its moments. The suspense, as Trujillo's assassins wait for the arrival of their quarry, is chilling. And Vargas Llosa, who himself lives in self-imposed exile in London, captures well the claustrophobia of the "perverse system Trujillo created ... in which all Dominicans sooner or later took part as accomplices, a system which only exiles (not always) and the dead could escape." --Ben Ehrenreich

 

music

Blue Gardenia. Etta James. Private Music.

A top-flight R&B shouter in the '50s and '60s, Etta James now combines both elegance and grit. On Blue Gardenia, she finds unexpected shades of meaning in the lyrics of bittersweet pop standards like "He's Funny That Way" and "Love Letters." Choosing raw emotion over technical perfection, James plays the wronged lover exquisitely on "Cry Me a River" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," deftly blending anger, regret, and desire. Horn arrangements by jazz composer Cedar Walton add an earthy glow to James' resonant vocals. Etta has mellowed without losing her inner fire. --Jon Young

 

Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt Various Artists. Pedernales.

The late Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt enjoyed scant commercial success but was beloved by his peers, as this stirring tribute attests. Van Zandt's tender, dusty songs tell stories of loss, regret, and life on the edge with a minimum of sentimentality, preferring understatement to grand flourishes. There's not a weak track on the album, but standouts include Willie Nelson's stark "Marie," the forlorn tale of a homeless couple, and Billy Joe Shaver's "White Freightliner Blues," one of many Van Zandt odes to ramblin' fever. Cowboy Junkies deliver the haunting "Highway Kind," while Lucinda Williams' mournful "Nothin'" takes a chilling glimpse into the abyss. Kudos also to Delbert McClinton, John Prine, and Emmylou Harris. Van Zandt was a master at mining truth and beauty from "ordinary" lives, and these remark- able performances do his legacy proud. --Jon Young

 

Sound-Dust Stereolab. Elektra.

One of the most underrated bands of the last decade, Stereolab revels in its own eclecticism. On the enthralling Sound-Dust, their palette includes everything from chirpy lounge pop (complete with bubbling analog synths) to avant-garde soundscapes to mellow soul, often in the same song. Whatever the style, there's no resisting Laetitia Sadier's cool, soothing vocals—with shades of bossa nova icon Astrud Gilberto—or the luscious melodies, which recall Brian Wilson at his elegant best. The album offers less of the bracing social commentary of previous records, although "Gus the Mynah Bird" does get political, concluding, "Self-determination should be a fact." Sweet and provocative at once, this is easy listening at its smartest.

 

film

Life and Debt Stephanie Black. 86 minutes. Tuff Gong Pictures.

The economics of globalization, particularly the machinations of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank, wouldn't seem to lend itself to gripping drama. So it's no small achievement that Stephanie Black's sharp portrait of modern-day Jamaica is unforgettable. Rastas sit around a campfire puzzling over how their free country has become a debtor nation. On flickering televisions, news reports of fiery roadblock riots give way to a Baskin-Robbins commercial ("One world, 31 flavors"). Meanwhile, planes disgorge oblivious tourists to drink and dance— footage juxtaposed with cutting commentary by author Jamaica Kincaid. Black shows us IMF deputy director Stanley Fischer smirking as he intones, "Jamaica is a very small country. It's not the kind of country that could thrive by producing for itself." In response, Black captures banana growers squeezed by IMF rulings; dairy farmers, their business dashed by cut-rate imports, pouring rivers of milk into the ground; and sweatshop workers speaking of "free trade zones" as slave plantations. Exquisitely shot, Life and Debt captures the human costs behind World Bank buzzwords like "structural reform." Former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley says, in one of his final interviews, "In the end, you struggle, you survive, but the country that comes out is nothing like the country that could have been."--Jeff Chang