Friday, October 31, 2008

Wilkerson Withdraws From Senate Race

Embattled state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson said Friday she is withdrawing from her race for re-election, but she did not resign, despite being under intense pressure to step down. Wilkerson made the announcement at a news conference at the Charles St. AME Church in Roxbury with leaders from the anti-crime Boston TenPoint Coalition and the Black Ministerial Alliance. The leaders planned to hold a news conference to urge Wilkerson to resign, but she spoke with them at the last minute and the 10 a.m. event was delayed two hours to make arrangements for Wilkerson to speak.Wikerson did not take any questions from reporters. She said she will have another statement on her future next Wednesday, the day after Election Day.She was waging a write-in campaign for her seat, after losing a very close Democratic primary to Sonia Chang-Diaz in September.Wilkerson was arrested by the FBI Tuesday and charged with accepting $23,500 from undercover agents she thought were businessmen in exchange for political favors. Senators unanimously passed a resolution Thursday urging her to resign. The non-binding resolution also cites Wilkerson's past legal problems, which include a term of house arrest for failure to pay her income taxes. She also was stripped Thursday of her committee posts, including as chair of the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. Senate President Therese Murray said members are upset about the "shadow of doubt" Wilkerson placed on them. On Thursday night, Wilkerson said in a statement that it was unreasonable to ask her to step down immediately. "A decision to leave this district without representation, even for 60 days, is one that cannot and should not be made in a matter of hours," she said. The Senate has also referred Wilkerson's case to its Ethics Committee, which will investigate and report back to the Senate if Wilkerson refuses to step down. Wilkerson is free on $50,000 unsecured bond.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Senate Seeks Wilkerson's Resignation

ByHillaryChabotandLaurelJ.Sweet Thursday,October30,2008
Photo by John Wilcox
The Senate has adopted a resolution asking Sen. Dianne Wilkerson to resign immediately.
The resolution speaks to expel her from the Massachusetts State Senate. It was a unanimous decision today.
Earlier today, Gov. Deval Patrick said today Wilkerson should resign, “if the allegations are true.”
Patrick said he’s “deeply troubled” by the corruption charges levied against the eight-term state senator. “I feel personally betrayed,” he added.
Wilkerson was arrested earlier this week and charged with accepting $23,500 in bribes in exchange for passing legislation.
Sen. Michael Morrissey (D-Quincy) could move to expel Wilkerson from the Senate at today’s caucus, according to a Senate source.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos (D-Lowell), who also sits on the Ethics Committee, said he wasn’t sure if members will be able to force Wilkerson from the Senate.
“I think you can request her to do it, but I think you have to wait until the charges against her are settled in court to remove her from the Senate,” Panagiotakos said.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

lady di

By Adrian Walker, Boston Globe Columnist
There didn't seem to be anything unusual about the call I got from Dianne Wilkerson last July complaining about City Hall.
After lengthy negotiations, the city had agreed to issue new liquor licenses. Wilkerson was outraged, she told me, because Roxbury had not gotten its fair share of the new licenses, stifling constituents of hers who wanted to open businesses. I eventually wrote a column arguing that the process of granting licenses was tilted toward the politically influential.
Now comes the US Attorney's Office with the rest of the story. Wilkerson was allegedly being paid off to secure a liquor license for a club called Deja Vu, to be located in Roxbury. The feds allege that Wilkerson was getting paid to pressure City Hall to get her associate a license. Her call to me was a part of the campaign.
The government today released pictures, embarrassing ones, of Wilkerson taking money from an alleged informant and stuffing it down her bra. Pictures of her smiling and counting money.
There is said to be video as well. She is innocent until proven guilty, of course. But I defy anyone to look at her counting her earnings and say they believe in her innocence.
This all occurs as Wilkerson is waging a sticker campaign to cling to the seat to which she was first elected 16 years ago. She was almost certainly going to lose to Sonia Chang-Diaz anyway, tired as her constituents were of forgiving her flaws and foibles. She must suspend that campaign immediately, if she has an ounce of common sense left. She cannot possibly present herself to voters as a plausible representative of their interests.
This indictment follows a string of missteps: Her guilty plea in 1997 on federal tax charges, numerous state campaign finance violations, and a pending effort to disbar her for lying under oath. But even those charges pale in comparison to taking money to game the political system for personal gain. This is not about disorganization. This is about being a garden-variety crook.
When politicians get caught in schemes like this one, people often ask, 'How did they expect to get away with that?' I think that's the wrong question. The better question is 'How did they convince themselves that this was OK?"
In Wilkerson's case, a partial answer can be found in the affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Krista L. Corr. In it, Wilkerson is allegedly captured on tape telling one of her benefactors, "I am a firm believer in the notion that you can do good and do well at the same time." The notion that the means can be justified by the ends is always close at hand when politicians go rotten.
For years, Wilkerson's supporters have explained away her woes by arguing that her personal problems never affected her performance in office. I have argued myself that Wilkerson has been an effective advocate for her constituents, warts and all.
Barring complete exoneration, that last line of defense has just melted away. Taking bribes is at the heart of her performance in office; indeed, it overrides any good she may have done over the past 16 years. The lasting image of her will be of stuffing marked bills in her bra in the shadow of the State House.
The day after Wilkerson settled her tax case in 1997, I wrote the following on the front page of the Globe: "State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, once considered one of the bright stars of Boston politics, instead entered its rogues' gallery yesterday, agreeing to plead guilty to federal tax charges."
Little did I know what an understatement those words would become.

no sale

Picasso Work Is Withdrawn
From Sotheby’s Sale

A Picasso Cubist painting that was to have been a star of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art sale on Nov. 3 has been abruptly withdrawn from the auction.
Picasso’s 1909 “Arlequin” was estimated at over $30 million, but there are fears that prices will plunge by sale time.
“Arlequin” (1909), which the auction house estimated at more than $30 million, was one of the most expensive works in a high-profile sale that will kick off the important fall art season. The painting is included in the catalog that was sent to potential buyers this month.
“It’s been withdrawn for private reasons,” David Norman, a co-chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department worldwide, said late Monday. He was speaking on behalf of the seller, who could not be reached. It had been rumored for weeks that the work would be taken off the market because of fears that art prices were heading the way of the world financial markets.
The painting, which depicts a harlequin resting his chin on one hand, had belonged to the Surrealist painter Enrico Donati, who bought it for about $12,000 in the late 1940s.
When Sotheby’s announced in September that it was selling the painting, auction house officials said it was being sold without a guarantee — an undisclosed sum promised to the seller regardless of the sale’s outcome. On Monday, auction experts familiar with the negotiations said that both Sotheby’s and its archrival, Christie’s, had offered the estate a guarantee, as well as other types of financing. In the end, however, the painting was to be offered at auction without a guarantee, but with a clause in the sale contract giving the seller the right to withdraw the painting.
Donati, who died in New York in April at age 99, bought the painting after visiting the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in the late 1940s. On the visit to the museum, he happened on an early Picasso Cubist work and was so taken with what he saw that he headed straight for the Louise Leiris Gallery — lender of the painting — in the hope of buying a Cubist Picasso for himself before returning to New York.
When Donati arrived, the gallery door was locked, but a man inside came out to see what he wanted. That man was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Leiris’s brother-in-law and a legendary dealer. Kahnweiler had met Donati through a mutual friend, Marcel Duchamp.
With a palette of jade, rose and amber, “Arlequin” is a prime example of Picasso’s Analytic Cubist phase. The figure is similar in composition to portraits Picasso had painted of his mistress Fernande Olivier.
Asked if Sotheby’s planned to attempt to sell the painting privately, Mr. Norman replied, “Right now it’s just off the market.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

soon come

Full Remarks from Obama in Closing Argument Speech
Remarks of Senator Barack Obama—as prepared for delivery
“One Week”
Closing Argument SpeechMonday, October 27th, 2008Canton, Ohio
One week.
After decades of broken politics in Washington, eight years of failed policies from George Bush, and twenty-one months of a campaign that has taken us from the rocky coast of Maine to the sunshine of California, we are one week away from change in America.
In one week, you can turn the page on policies that have put the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street.
In one week, you can choose policies that invest in our middle-class, create new jobs, and grow this economy from the bottom-up so that everyone has a chance to succeed; from the CEO to the secretary and the janitor; from the factory owner to the men and women who work on its floor.
In one week, you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election; that tries to pit region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat; that asks us to fear at a time when we need hope.
In one week, at this defining moment in history, you can give this country the change we need.
We began this journey in the depths of winter nearly two years ago, on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. Back then, we didn't have much money or many endorsements. We weren't given much of a chance by the polls or the pundits, and we knew how steep our climb would be.
But I also knew this. I knew that the size of our challenges had outgrown the smallness of our politics. I believed that Democrats and Republicans and Americans of every political stripe were hungry for new ideas, new leadership, and a new kind of politics – one that favors common sense over ideology; one that focuses on those values and ideals we hold in common as Americans.
Most of all, I believed in your ability to make change happen. I knew that the American people were a decent, generous people who are willing to work hard and sacrifice for future generations. And I was convinced that when we come together, our voices are more powerful than the most entrenched lobbyists, or the most vicious political attacks, or the full force of a status quo in Washington that wants to keep things just the way they are.
Twenty-one months later, my faith in the American people has been vindicated. That's how we've come so far and so close – because of you. That's how we'll change this country – with your help. And that's why we can't afford to slow down, sit back, or let up for one day, one minute, or one second in this last week. Not now. Not when so much is at stake.
We are in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. 760,000 workers have lost their jobs this year. Businesses and families can't get credit. Home values are falling. Pensions are disappearing. Wages are lower than they've been in a decade, at a time when the cost of health care and college have never been higher. It's getting harder and harder to make the mortgage, or fill up your gas tank, or even keep the electricity on at the end of the month.
At a moment like this, the last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired, old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. The last thing we can afford is four more years where no one in Washington is watching anyone on Wall Street because politicians and lobbyists killed common-sense regulations. Those are the theories that got us into this mess. They haven't worked, and it's time for change. That's why I'm running for President of the United States.
Now, Senator McCain has served this country honorably. And he can point to a few moments over the past eight years where he has broken from George Bush – on torture, for example. He deserves credit for that. But when it comes to the economy – when it comes to the central issue of this election – the plain truth is that John McCain has stood with this President every step of the way. Voting for the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that he once opposed. Voting for the Bush budgets that spent us into debt. Calling for less regulation twenty-one times just this year. Those are the facts.
And now, after twenty-one months and three debates, Senator McCain still has not been able to tell the American people a single major thing he'd do differently from George Bush when it comes to the economy. Senator McCain says that we can't spend the next four years waiting for our luck to change, but you understand that the biggest gamble we can take is embracing the same old Bush-McCain policies that have failed us for the last eight years.
It's not change when John McCain wants to give a $700,000 tax cut to the average Fortune 500 CEO. It's not change when he wants to give $200 billion to the biggest corporations or $4 billion to the oil companies or $300 billion to the same Wall Street banks that got us into this mess. It's not change when he comes up with a tax plan that doesn't give a penny of relief to more than 100 million middle-class Americans. That's not change.
Look – we've tried it John McCain's way. We've tried it George Bush's way. Deep down, Senator McCain knows that, which is why his campaign said that “if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.” That's why he's spending these last weeks calling me every name in the book. Because that's how you play the game in Washington. If you can't beat your opponent's ideas, you distort those ideas and maybe make some up. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run away from. You make a big election about small things.
Ohio, we are here to say “Not this time. Not this year. Not when so much is at stake.” Senator McCain might be worried about losing an election, but I'm worried about Americans who are losing their homes, and their jobs, and their life savings. I can take one more week of John McCain's attacks, but this country can't take four more years of the same old politics and the same failed policies. It's time for something new.
The question in this election is not “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” We know the answer to that. The real question is, “Will this country be better off four years from now?”
I know these are difficult times for America. But I also know that we have faced difficult times before. The American story has never been about things coming easy – it's been about rising to the moment when the moment was hard. It's about seeing the highest mountaintop from the deepest of valleys. It's about rejecting fear and division for unity of purpose. That's how we've overcome war and depression. That's how we've won great struggles for civil rights and women's rights and worker's rights. And that's how we'll emerge from this crisis stronger and more prosperous than we were before – as one nation; as one people.
Remember, we still have the most talented, most productive workers of any country on Earth. We're still home to innovation and technology, colleges and universities that are the envy of the world. Some of the biggest ideas in history have come from our small businesses and our research facilities. So there's no reason we can't make this century another American century. We just need a new direction. We need a new politics.
Now, I don't believe that government can or should try to solve all our problems. I know you don't either. But I do believe that government should do that which we cannot do for ourselves – protect us from harm and provide a decent education for our children; invest in new roads and new science and technology. It should reward drive and innovation and growth in the free market, but it should also make sure businesses live up to their responsibility to create American jobs, and look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road. It should ensure a shot at success not only for those with money and power and influence, but for every single American who's willing to work. That's how we create not just more millionaires, but more middle-class families. That's how we make sure businesses have customers that can afford their products and services. That's how we've always grown the American economy – from the bottom-up. John McCain calls this socialism. I call it opportunity, and there is nothing more American than that.
Understand, if we want get through this crisis, we need to get beyond the old ideological debates and divides between left and right. We don't need bigger government or smaller government. We need a better government – a more competent government – a government that upholds the values we hold in common as Americans.
We don't have to choose between allowing our financial system to collapse and spending billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street banks. As President, I will ensure that the financial rescue plan helps stop foreclosures and protects your money instead of enriching CEOs. And I will put in place the common-sense regulations I've been calling for throughout this campaign so that Wall Street can never cause a crisis like this again. That's the change we need.
The choice in this election isn't between tax cuts and no tax cuts. It's about whether you believe we should only reward wealth, or whether we should also reward the work and workers who create it. I will give a tax break to 95% of Americans who work every day and get taxes taken out of their paychecks every week. I'll eliminate income taxes for seniors making under $50,000 and give homeowners and working parents more of a break. And I'll help pay for this by asking the folks who are making more than $250,000 a year to go back to the tax rate they were paying in the 1990s. No matter what Senator McCain may claim, here are the facts – if you make under $250,000, you will not see your taxes increase by a single dime – not your income taxes, not your payroll taxes, not your capital gains taxes. Nothing. Because the last thing we should do in this economy is raise taxes on the middle-class.
When it comes to jobs, the choice in this election is not between putting up a wall around America or allowing every job to disappear overseas. The truth is, we won't be able to bring back every job that we've lost, but that doesn't mean we should follow John McCain's plan to keep giving tax breaks to corporations that send American jobs overseas. I will end those breaks as President, and I will give American businesses a $3,000 tax credit for every job they create right here in the United States of America. I'll eliminate capital gains taxes for small businesses and start-up companies that are the engine of job creation in this country. We'll create two million new jobs by rebuilding our crumbling roads, and bridges, and schools, and by laying broadband lines to reach every corner of the country. And I will invest $15 billion a year in renewable sources of energy to create five million new energy jobs over the next decade – jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced; jobs building solar panels and wind turbines and a new electricity grid; jobs building the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow, not in Japan or South Korea but here in the United States of America; jobs that will help us eliminate the oil we import from the Middle East in ten years and help save the planet in the bargain. That's how America can lead again.
When it comes to health care, we don't have to choose between a government-run health care system and the unaffordable one we have now. If you already have health insurance, the only thing that will change under my plan is that we will lower premiums. If you don't have health insurance, you'll be able to get the same kind of health insurance that Members of Congress get for themselves. We'll invest in preventative care and new technology to finally lower the cost of health care for families, businesses, and the entire economy. And as someone who watched his own mother spend the final months of her life arguing with insurance companies because they claimed her cancer was a pre-existing condition and didn't want to pay for treatment, I will stop insurance companies from discriminating against those who are sick and need care most.
When it comes to giving every child a world-class education so they can compete in this global economy for the jobs of the 21st century, the choice is not between more money and more reform – because our schools need both. As President, I will invest in early childhood education, recruit an army of new teachers, pay them more, and give them more support. But I will also demand higher standards and more accountability from our teachers and our schools. And I will make a deal with every American who has the drive and the will but not the money to go to college: if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford your tuition. You invest in America, America will invest in you, and together, we will move this country forward.
And when it comes to keeping this country safe, we don't have to choose between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end in Iraq. It's time to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a huge surplus. As President, I will end this war by asking the Iraqi government to step up, and finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century, and I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.
I won't stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy – especially now. The cost of this economic crisis, and the cost of the war in Iraq, means that Washington will have to tighten its belt and put off spending on things we can afford to do without. On this, there is no other choice. As President, I will go through the federal budget, line-by-line, ending programs that we don't need and making the ones we do need work better and cost less.
But as I've said from the day we began this journey all those months ago, the change we need isn't just about new programs and policies. It's about a new politics – a politics that calls on our better angels instead of encouraging our worst instincts; one that reminds us of the obligations we have to ourselves and one another.
Part of the reason this economic crisis occurred is because we have been living through an era of profound irresponsibility. On Wall Street, easy money and an ethic of “what's good for me is good enough” blinded greedy executives to the danger in the decisions they were making. On Main Street, lenders tricked people into buying homes they couldn't afford. Some folks knew they couldn't afford those houses and bought them anyway. In Washington, politicians spent money they didn't have and allowed lobbyists to set the agenda. They scored political points instead of solving our problems, and even after the greatest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, all we were asked to do by our President was to go out and shop.
That is why what we have lost in these last eight years cannot be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits alone. What has also been lost is the idea that in this American story, each of us has a role to play. Each of us has a responsibility to work hard and look after ourselves and our families, and each of us has a responsibility to our fellow citizens. That's what's been lost these last eight years – our sense of common purpose; of higher purpose. And that's what we need to restore right now.
Yes, government must lead the way on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and our businesses more efficient. Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But all of us must do our part as parents to turn off the television and read to our children and take responsibility for providing the love and guidance they need. Yes, we can argue and debate our positions passionately, but at this defining moment, all of us must summon the strength and grace to bridge our differences and unite in common effort – black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; Democrat and Republican, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, disabled or not.
In this election, we cannot afford the same political games and tactics that are being used to pit us against one another and make us afraid of one another. The stakes are too high to divide us by class and region and background; by who we are or what we believe.
Because despite what our opponents may claim, there are no real or fake parts of this country. There is no city or town that is more pro-America than anywhere else – we are one nation, all of us proud, all of us patriots. There are patriots who supported this war in Iraq and patriots who opposed it; patriots who believe in Democratic policies and those who believe in Republican policies. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America – they have served the United States of America.
It won't be easy, Ohio. It won't be quick. But you and I know that it is time to come together and change this country. Some of you may be cynical and fed up with politics. A lot of you may be disappointed and even angry with your leaders. You have every right to be. But despite all of this, I ask of you what has been asked of Americans throughout our history.
I ask you to believe – not just in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.
I know this change is possible. Because I have seen it over the last twenty-one months. Because in this campaign, I have had the privilege to witness what is best in America.
I've seen it in lines of voters that stretched around schools and churches; in the young people who cast their ballot for the first time, and those not so young folks who got involved again after a very long time. I've seen it in the workers who would rather cut back their hours than see their friends lose their jobs; in the neighbors who take a stranger in when the floodwaters rise; in the soldiers who re-enlist after losing a limb. I've seen it in the faces of the men and women I've met at countless rallies and town halls across the country, men and women who speak of their struggles but also of their hopes and dreams.
I still remember the email that a woman named Robyn sent me after I met her in Ft. Lauderdale. Sometime after our event, her son nearly went into cardiac arrest, and was diagnosed with a heart condition that could only be treated with a procedure that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Her insurance company refused to pay, and their family just didn't have that kind of money.
In her email, Robyn wrote, “I ask only this of you – on the days where you feel so tired you can't think of uttering another word to the people, think of us. When those who oppose you have you down, reach deep and fight back harder.”
Ohio, that's what hope is – that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better is waiting around the bend; that insists there are better days ahead. If we're willing to work for it. If we're willing to shed our fears and our doubts. If we're willing to reach deep down inside ourselves when we're tired and come back fighting harder.
Hope! That's what kept some of our parents and grandparents going when times were tough. What led them to say, “Maybe I can't go to college, but if I save a little bit each week my child can; maybe I can't have my own business but if I work really hard my child can open one of her own.” It's what led immigrants from distant lands to come to these shores against great odds and carve a new life for their families in America; what led those who couldn't vote to march and organize and stand for freedom; that led them to cry out, “It may look dark tonight, but if I hold on to hope, tomorrow will be brighter.”
That's what this election is about. That is the choice we face right now.
Don't believe for a second this election is over. Don't think for a minute that power concedes. We have to work like our future depends on it in this last week, because it does.
In one week, we can choose an economy that rewards work and creates new jobs and fuels prosperity from the bottom-up.
In one week, we can choose to invest in health care for our families, and education for our kids, and renewable energy for our future.
In one week, we can choose hope over fear, unity over division, the promise of change over the power of the status quo.
In one week, we can come together as one nation, and one people, and once more choose our better history.
That's what's at stake. That's what we're fighting for. And if in this last week, you will knock on some doors for me, and make some calls for me, and talk to your neighbors, and convince your friends; if you will stand with me, and fight with me, and give me your vote, then I promise you this – we will not just win Ohio, we will not just win this election, but together, we will change this country and we will change the world. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless America.

fishing and surveying

Poll Power

by Scott Keeter
As the votes were counted on the night of this past January’s New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, pollsters and other professionals in the political game began to grapple with an uncomfortable fact: Virtually all of them had been dead wrong. Despite unanimous poll results predicting a Barack Obama victory (by an average of eight points) on the heels of Senator Obama’s surprising triumph in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton was going to emerge the ­winner.
The New Hampshire debacle was not the most significant failure in the history of public-opinion polling, but it joined a list of major embarrassments that includes the disastrous Florida exit polling in the 2000 presidential election, which prompted several networks to project an Al Gore victory, and the national polls in the 1948 race, which led to perhaps the most famous headline in U.S. political history: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” After intense criticism for previous failures and equally intense efforts by pollsters to improve their techniques, this was not supposed to ­happen.
New Hampshire gave new life to many nagging doubts about polling and criticisms of its role in American politics. Are polls really accurate? Can surveys of small groups of people give a true reading of what a much larger group thinks? What about bias? Don’t pollsters stack the ­deck?
At a deeper level, the unease about polling grows out of fears about its impact on democracy. On the strength of exit polls in the 1980 presidential election, for example, the TV networks projected a Ronald Reagan victory—and Jimmy Carter conceded—even though people in the West still had time to vote. Critics charged that this premature call may have literally stopped some westerners from taking the trouble to cast their ballots. There is also a more generalized suspicion that polls (and journalists) induce political passivity by telling Americans what they think. As the New Hampshire story unfolded on January 8, former television news anchor Tom Brokaw seemed to have this idea on his mind when he said, with a bit of exasperation, that professional political observers should simply “wait for the voters” instead of “making judgments before the polls have closed and trying to stampede, in effect, the process.”
At the same time, some worry that polls put too much power in the hands of an uninformed public, and that they reduce political leaders to slavish followers of public opinion. In the White House, efforts to systematically track public opinion date back to the dawn of modern polling, during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and nobody seems to get very far in American politics today without a ­poll-­savvy Dick Morris or Karl Rove whispering in his or her ­ear.
But while there may be reason to worry about the public’s political competence, a far more serious threat to democracy arises from the large disparities in income, education, and other resources needed to participate effectively in politics. Compared with most other Western democracies, the United States has a more pronounced class skew in voter turnout and other forms of political participation, with the affluent much more politically active than those who are less well off. This uneven distribution of political engagement is what makes public-opinion polls especially valuable. Far from undermining democracy, they enhance it: They make it more democratic. As Harvard political scientist Sidney Verba observed in 1995, “Surveys produce just what democracy is supposed to ­produce—­equal representation of all citizens. The sample survey is rigorously egalitarian; it is designed so that each citizen has an equal chance to participate and an equal voice when participating.”
Elections are blunt instruments for transmitting the public will. One candidate wins, the other loses. Did the victor prevail because he or she proposed a compelling agenda of new policies, or simply because the alternative was less acceptable? On the day after his reelection in 2004, President George W. Bush declared, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” The president’s troubles in his second term indicate that this reading of his mandate was incorrect, as he vigorously pursued many policies on which the public was, at best, divided. Opposition to the war in Iraq grew in 2005. Most voters did not want to see private accounts created in the Social Security system. ­Seven ­in 10 disapproved of Bush’s personal intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who was removed from life-­support.
Obviously, polls do not always stop politicians from going their own ­way—­and they should not always do ­so—­but without polls we would not even know how disconnected official actions are from public opinion. Bush’s actions were not unlike those of many ­other political leaders ­who mistook a narrow victory for a mandate. In such cases, polling can provide a useful check. Between elections, polls provide guidance to legislators, the executive branch, journalists, and the public itself about what the public wants and what it will stand ­for.
There is no question that modern American politics is drenched in public-opinion polling. More than 20 entities, from the Gallup Organization and the Pew Research Center (where I work) to the relatively new ­“robo-­poll” firms, such as Rasmussen Reports, with their computerized telephone surveys, regularly conduct national political polls and make the results available to the public. Dozens more work at the state and local levels. The total number of surveys conducted in a campaign is large, but impossible to count with certainty. Leaving aside all the research carried out for the campaign organizations, parties, and interest groups, at least 50 national opinion polls were released to the public in the month before the 2004 presidential ­election.
All told, including surveys by business, foundations, and others, marketing and public-opinion research is an $8.6 billion industry, according to one recent estimate. But in addition to being a big business and an integral part of American’s political machinery, survey research has also become an academic discipline, with its own academic journals, such as Public Opinion Quarterly, and input from scholars in related areas such as sociology and political science. People in the field have been grappling with a large number of problems. Fewer Americans are willing to participate in polls, and an increasing number are reachable only by cell phone; people with cell phones are more difficult for pollsters to reach and interview. And there are many knotty intellectual and methodological challenges, such as improving the accuracy of polls dealing with matters including drug and alcohol use or sexual behavior that many people are not willing to be frank ­about.
This phenomenon of “social desirability bias” is central to one theory about the failure in New Hampshire. Polling is a transaction between humans, and people may not answer a question honestly if they think the person interviewing them will judge them negatively. They regularly ­over­report their virtues, such as church attendance and charitable giving, and ­under­report their vices. When the American Society for Microbiology asked people whether they washed their hands after using the toilet, 94 percent declared that they always did. But when researchers watched what actually happened in public restrooms they found that only 68 percent did. In New Hampshire, it is possible that people who feared they would be branded racists didn’t tell pollsters they were going to vote against Obama, even if race had nothing to do with their choice, while others simply avoided ­pollsters.
The race factor is well documented in the history of polling. In 1982, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, reached Election Day in his race for California’s governorship with a six-point lead in the polls but lost to white Republican George Deukmejian by less than one percent. Virginia gubernatorial candidate L. Douglas Wilder was luckier in 1989, pulling out a narrow victory after leading by five to 10 points in the final polls. But the so-called Bradley effect seems to have died out after the 1990s—perhaps because of generational and attitudinal change. In five statewide contests in 2006 that featured black and white candidates, polls were very accurate. So race probably wasn’t a factor in the New Hampshire surveys. In the 2008 primaries that followed New Hampshire, polls sometimes overestimated and sometimes underestimated Obama’s support. The only clear pattern was that his strength was underestimated in states with large black populations, chiefly because Obama got a higher percentage of the black vote than the polls indicated he would.
We may never know what went wrong in New Hampshire. It is possible that the unique circumstances, with intense media scrutiny just days after the Iowa caucuses and two very popular candidates, created an extraordinary ­dynamic.
Exit polls were not the problem in New Hampshire, but in the past they have occasionally been a source of great controversy. In addition to the erroneous early call of Florida for Gore in 2000, leaks of early exit poll results in 2004 that showed John Kerry leading caused a sharp drop in the stock market and wild mood swings among partisans on both sides. Though the TV news organizations that largely fund the polls did not make any incorrect calls on election night, the leaks led them to agree to keep future exit poll results sealed until 5:00 pm (est) on Election Day. Now the network’s poll analysts are literally locked in a windowless “quarantine room” and deprived of all communication with the outside world. There were no leaks in the 2006 elections and the 2008 ­primaries.
The more serious challenge in conducting exit polls today is the growing number of voters who choose to vote before Election Day by absentee ballot or early voting procedures. In Oregon, all voters cast their ballots by mail, and in several other states more than a quarter of the votes will be cast early. Telephone surveys can create a picture of these voters, but voting in advance poses a growing ­problem.
Exit polls have other limitations as well: Respondents must fill out paper forms, limiting the number and complexity of questions that can be asked. Yet they provide a window on voter psychology that no other method allows. Interviews are conducted immediately after people leave the voting booth, offering a more definitive accounting than other methods of who turned out and what motivated their ­choices.
Pollsters often hear the accusation that they can manipulate results, and it is true: They can. In a 1992 effort to gauge the impact of wording questions differently, for example, a New York Times poll offered two different questions about antipoverty efforts. When asked if they favored spending more money for “welfare,” only 23 percent of the respondents said yes; asked if they favored spending more on “assistance to the poor,” nearly ­two-­thirds said yes. Pollsters working for groups that advocate particular viewpoints or solutions may be under pressure to find favorable results, and it is possible for them to formulate questions that get the most favorable response. (In fact, it is ex­ceedingly difficult to write clear, unbiased, comprehensible questions, and pollsters will be the first to admit that they don’t always get it right.) Or, less ethically, pollsters can simply suppress results unfavorable to the client’s point of view. But most pollsters belong to associations with formal codes of ethics, and, more important, have a strong interest in maintaining their ­reputations, which is especially true for polling organizations that work in the public sphere.
Despite all the grumbling about polling, hard evidence that the public dislikes it is difficult to find. Pollsters, of course, have asked. More than three-fourths of respondents in a 1998 Pew Research Center study agreed that surveys on social and political issues serve a useful purpose. Still, there seems to be widespread skepticism about poll results. Another Pew study, for example, found that two-thirds of respondents didn’t believe that surveys of a small part of the population can yield an accurate picture of the whole population’s views.
We pollsters have a stock reply to this criticism: If you don’t believe in random sampling, ask your doctor to take all of your blood next time you need a blood test. Sampling is used in many fields—by accountants looking for fraud, medical researchers, and manufacturers testing for quality. The key is that every person in the population has a chance of being included, and that pollsters have a way to calculate that chance. The usual method of sampling the public is through random digit dialing, which gives every home telephone number in the United States an equal chance of being included. (Internet polls posted on websites do not have random samples, since people volunteer for them and are thus very different from the average—much more engaged in public affairs, more ideological in their views, and not very typical demographically.)
Still, even with random sampling, some types of people are a little more likely than others to participate in polls. Statistical weighting—which gives greater clout to the answers of people from demographic groups that are underrepresented in the survey and less to the overrepresented—can mitigate most of this bias. Because it typically increases the contribution of people with lower levels of education and income, weighting tends to increase the percentage of those who say they will vote Democratic. In a July Pew poll, the unweighted horse-race result among registered voters gave Obama a one-point advantage over John McCain, 44 percent to 43 percent. The weighted result was a five-point lead, 47 to 42.
Weighting does not cure all ills. People who are interested in the topic of the survey are more likely to participate, potentially leading polls to overstate how involved the public is in a subject, whether it is sports, politics, or technology. Weighting can only partially adjust for this, since interest in a topic may not be closely related to demographic factors. This is one of the reasons why post-election polls often overstate the percentage of the public that turned out to vote. (The charge that there is a liberal bias in telephone polls because conservatives are less likely to participate in surveys sponsored by the mainstream media, however, has been shown to be incorrect by experiments in which extraordinary efforts were made to ensure a high response rate. There was no ideological difference in the results.)
Participation rates have become a more generalized problem for pollsters in recent years. Americans are overwhelmed by demands on their time and are bombarded with requests of all kinds, and they are increasingly using technologies such as voice mail and ­call ­blocking. As a result, survey response rates have declined sharply. The Pew Research Center’s response rates are now around 22 percent, down from about 36 percent 10 years ago. That is fairly typical of the polling industry. As pollsters work harder to recruit participants, costs rise. The average political survey may require calling 15,000 numbers to identify approximately 5,000 working telephone numbers, of which about 1,000 will produce a person who agrees to be interviewed. Altogether, this effort will require 30,000 to 40,000 phone calls. It is difficult to provide an average cost, but a typical telephone survey with a response rate of 20 to 25 percent and good quality control (including extensive interviewer training, questionnaire testing, and close supervision of the interviewing process) can cost $40 to $50 per interview or ­more.
Rising costs may have serious consequences, since they increase the temptation to cut corners. For example, reputable pollsters typically make multiple calls to each telephone number to obtain an interview. It is cheaper to dial fresh numbers and interview whoever is available and willing to talk, but that approach risks biasing the sample toward people who are usually at home and willing to participate. Another cost-saving measure is the use of interactive voice response technology, or “robo-polling,” in which a computer dials numbers and a recorded voice conducts the survey. About one-third of all published polls in the Democratic primary elections this year and a majority of the published statewide general-election polls completed by mid-September were robo-polls. Overall, they performed well in the 2006 elections and the 2008 primaries, achieving an accuracy rate comparable to that of conventional telephone surveys. But they typically have to include very few questions, which limits their value for shedding light on what’s behind voters’ positions.
Another problem facing telephone polling is that a growing number of people are out of reach because they have a cell phone and no landline—currently 15 percent of adults, according to U.S. government studies. ­Cell-­only Americans tend to be much younger than average, more likely to be members of a minority racial or ethnic group, and less likely to be married or own a home. Pollsters are responding; most of the major media polling organizations are now adding cell phones to the samples for some surveys. And, for now, experimentation by Pew and other survey organizations is finding that surveys that include ­cell-­only respondents get the same results on most topics as those without cell phone samples. This is because the kinds of people who are reachable only on cell ­phones—­the young, the unmarried, renters, ­minorities—­have the same kinds of attitudes as similar individuals reached on landline phones. But no one knows how long this will hold ­true.
Whatever their pitfalls, election polls face the ultimate measure of accountability: reality. By that standard, their track record is very good. In 2004, nearly every national pollster correctly forecast that Bush would win in a close election, and the average of the polls predicted a Bush total within a few tenths of a percent of what he achieved. Among statewide polls in races for governor and U.S. Senate, 90 percent correctly forecast the winner, and many that did not were still within the margin of sampling error. The record in 2000 was similar, though that was an even closer ­election.
It is doubtful that the Founding Fathers would have taken much comfort in the reliability of survey research. They were skeptical of public opinion and fearful of direct democracy, believing, as James Madison artfully declared, that the public’s views should be “refine[d] and enlarge[d] . . . by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
That skepticism is shared today by those who argue that the public simply does not know enough to form rational opinions on most issues of the day. But political leaders have to divine the public’s views from somewhere in order to “refine and enlarge” them. If the public is too ­ill ­informed to be consulted through surveys, why bother consulting it through ­elections?
There are four essential arguments that support the case for a greater role for the public and public opinion in political life. First, while some citizens may be uninformed or irrational, collective public opinion as expressed in polls is rational and responsive to the events and needs of the times. Much as juries reach accurate decisions after pooling the perspectives and knowledge of a range of individual members, collective preferences in polls reflect an averaging of the perspectives of many different kinds of people that offsets the errors introduced by the ­uninformed.
Second, people are able to make effective use of “information shortcuts” to develop opinions and reach voting decisions that are consistent with their underlying values, even when they don’t have detailed knowledge about the issues. Party affiliation is perhaps the most useful shortcut, allowing voters to select candidates likely to be ideologically in tune with them even if they know little about where the candidates stand on a range of specific issues. Voters also take cues from trusted interest groups and organizations, such as the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood, or the League of Conservation ­Voters.
A third argument is that citizens are more knowledgeable than they seem. As psychologists have noted, people often cannot cite the specific factual information on which they base judgments, whether the subject is politics, movies, or even other people. But that does not mean they made their judgments in the absence of information. Rather, it reflects the fact that people often use facts to form impressions and then forget the facts while remembering the overall impression. I may recall that I liked watching The Usual Suspects and not recall who starred in it or the specifics of the plot. But if I watch it again, I am likely to reach the same conclusion about it.
Finally, opinion polls plumb other important questions apart from people’s views on complex decisions about public policy. They gauge assessments of the state of the national and local economies, the health care system, the importance of one issue versus another, and people’s ­day-­to-­day experiences and struggles. On these matters, the views of people with less political sophistication and knowledge can be as important as those of the better ­informed.
None of this is to say that shortcuts or collective public opinion always compensate for the failures of the citizenry, or that there is no room for improvement. But the larger point is that the public is better able to make meaningful distinctions than many elites assume. When news of a possible affair between President Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky began to seep out in January 1998, the common judgment in political Washington was that Clinton’s presidency would be over if the charges proved to be true. The public would demand that the president resign or be removed, it was said. The charges did turn out to be true, but the predictions were wrong. From the very beginning, Americans told pollsters they opposed the idea of Clinton resigning or being impeached. Majorities described themselves as “disgusted” by the affair, but also said that special counsel Kenneth Starr should drop his investigation. The public was able to separate its judgments about Clinton the leader from those about Clinton the person. Indeed, Clinton’s job approval rating went up after the scandal broke: “It is not an exaggeration to say that these judgments saved Clinton’s presidency,” said my Pew colleague Andrew Kohut. “And it is inconceivable to think that public opinion could have had such an impact in an era prior to the emergence of the media polls.”
While political professionals must be attuned to public sentiment in order to survive, their perceptions are sometimes wrong. Polling can be an invaluable antidote in such situations. That doesn’t mean that leaders will always heed it. Later in 1998, polling showed strong opposition to the Republican Congress’s impeachment proceedings, but the GOP pressed on. It paid dearly for its persistence in the congressional elections that ­fall.
Clinton himself, the master of “triangulation,” embodies for some critics another fear about polls—that they will turn leaders into followers or panderers. In subtler form, this is a concern that polls provide an ultimately unreliable expression of the public mind, and because of their apparent authority as “the voice of the people” get more weight than they deserve. The Republican Party’s performance in the Clinton scandal is a good example of politicians pandering. There is no doubt that politicians sometimes bend with the political wind—as they should in a democracy—but there is very little evidence that they slavishly follow polls. In fact, quite the opposite is true, according to a study by political scientists Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro. In Politicians Don’t Pander (2000), they wrote: “What concerns us are indications of declining responsiveness to public opinion and the growing list of policies on which politicians of both major political parties ignore public opinion and supply no explicit justification for it.”
Indeed, Clinton himself misjudged the potential for a public backlash when he moved ahead, early in his first term, with a plan to ease the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. Polls showed that the public was, at best, divided on this question. That’s not to say that the military’s prohibition of service by gays and lesbians was right, but Clinton bucked strong opposition without adequately preparing public opinion for the change. The ensuing controversy weakened him and contributed to the troubles he and his party faced the following year in the 1994 midterm ­elections.
The leaders of the impeachment drive during Clinton’s second term were insulated from public opinion, in part because they represented states or districts that were homogeneously conservative and thus unlikely to rebuke them for reaching beyond what the general public would support, Jacobs and Shapiro say. This pattern is increasingly typical of a Washington populated by legislators who are from highly gerrymandered districts and can be pushed to extremes by partisan interest groups that demand ideological loyalty as the price for avoiding a challenge in the political primary before the next ­election.
Even when they turn to opinion polls, politicians may use them less for guidance than for manipulation—to help them craft rhetoric that will allow them to avoid conforming to majority opinion when it conflicts with their personal or ideological goals. This is not always a bad thing, but it is ironic that polling has made it much easier for officials to minimize the influence of public opinion when it serves their interests to do ­so.
For all their flaws, polls are a unique source of information about America’s citizenry—not just their opinions on issues but also their experiences, life circumstances, priorities, and hopes and fears. All of these elements of everyday Americans’ lives are potentially relevant to the making of policy, and—compared with phone calls and elections—polls provide a fair and detailed accounting of them.
The eminent political scientist V. O. Key once defined public opinion as “those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.” Though by no means a perfect instrument, polls make it possible for more opinions, held by a broader and more representative range of citizens, to be known to the government and thus, potentially, ­heeded. Scott Keeter is director of survey research for the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. A political scientist and survey methodologist, he is the author of A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen (2006), among other books. Reprinted from Autumn 2008 Wilson Quarterly.

modern hell

Sidney Lumets's

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Capitol Films (2007)

Alan A. Stone
Sidney Lumet’s new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, has been praised by the mainstream critics, most lavishly by Robert Koehler, in the Christian Science Monitor, who called it “one of the great American films of the past decade” and the “crowning masterpiece of Lumet’s long career.”
Lumet’s career is long indeed. The 83-year-old director got his start as a child actor in Yiddish theater where his father was a star. He later founded an acting studio for people who were fed up with the Lee Strasberg method. His first Hollywood film was the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men (with Henry Fonda), and many other critical and commercial successes followed: The Verdict with Paul Newman, Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino, Network with Peter Finch. He has directed seventeen actors and actresses in Oscar-nominated performances. But there has been no signature to Lumet’s films, no obvious cinematic masterpiece (his greatest talent may be in getting great performances from his actors), and no Oscar for best director or best film. Over the past fifteen years he seemed to have been on a declining trajectory. The Academy awarded him its “consolation” Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2005, no doubt assuming that he was finished.
Now he is back. Devil has revitalized his fifty-year Hollywood career, which now includes a new three-picture deal.
What critics emphasize in their praise for Devil is that the octogenarian’s comeback is thoroughly contemporary. It is billed as a crime thriller and family tragedy tied up in a postmodern package that reveals its characters by circling back in time. If that were not enough to intrigue me, a friend who had seen the film said that Marisa Tomei’s naked body was worth the price of admission.
The body of the 43-year-old actress is in fact a wonder, and whether it is a natural blessing or a miracle of plastic surgery, her casual and splendid nakedness is a major ingredient of Lumet’s modernity. That’s not all. The film begins with a graphic sex scene that proclaims Devil contemporary—contemporary because we exist in a popular culture in which the obscene and the pornographic are almost inescapable features of our everyday experience. Once we have watched the opening scene—the flabby Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Andy Hanson takes the perfect Marisa Tomei from behind—we know this must be a film for the 21st century.
The scene was Lumet’s invention but he deserves credit for much more than that, including the film’s impressive ensemble cast. After the venerable Albert Finney signed on as the elderly father of the ill-fated Hanson family, others eagerly followed him: Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eldest son, Andy; Ethan Hawke as the youngest son, Hank; and Marisa Tomei as Andy’s wife, Gina. Under Lumet’s guidance, they played their characters to the hilt. And it took marvelous acting—indeed overacting—to make Devil engage the audience. For by including no character with whom the audience can positively identify, this film violates an axiom of Hollywood and melodrama. We are witnesses to a tragedy that does not even ask for our sympathy.
Both the performances and Lumet’s reconception of the screenplay account for the film’s emotional impact. The screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s script languished for seven years before it fell into Lumet’s hands. The original plot involved buddies who plan a jewelry store heist that goes tragically wrong. From that opening, the film was to move backward in time to what led each of the characters up to that event. They were to be ordinary people who keep doing stupid things that deepen their trouble. Lumet turned the buddies into brothers, and the screenplay now had a deeper psychological dimension.
Lumet’s Hanson family is a Freudian nightmare, yet the Freudian passions remain largely in the background. This should not be surprising: contemporary American cinema is much less Freudian than it once was, and Lumet has been more of a slice-of-life social psychologist, never plunging very deeply into the psyches of his characters. In my two favorite Lumet films, Twelve Angry Men and The Verdict, both legal-moral fables, we never learn why Henry Fonda’s character is so determined to see justice done or how Paul Newman, a recovering-alcoholic lawyer, perseveres against all odds. In Devil, Lumet does not cycle back to childhood to explore the Freudian Devil of the Hanson-family dynamics. Those dynamics simply explode onto the screen in the course of the film. We don’t learn the back story of the Hanson family and the trauma that made them who they are. But they are recognizable human beings, extraordinary only because they are capable of doing the hateful things to one another that most of us can only imagine on our worst days.
What is surprisingly absent from Lumet’s film is the gritty social and ethnic realism of his genre films, such as Dog Day Afternoon and Devil. Having made the Hansons a family we will come to despise, Lumet dances around their ethnic identity. The title of his film comes from a traditional Irish toast, “may you be in heaven half an hour Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” but Hanson is a Scandinavian name, not an Irish one. Can we imagine a Scandinavian Charles Hanson starting as a diamond cutter on 47th Street in New York and working his way up so he can move his family to Westchester and open a mom-and-pop jewelry store in the local mall? If Lumet had insisted on the ethnic realism of 47th Street, Hanson would have been Horowitz with a kippah, and Devil would have been seen as stridently anti-Semitic. Instead Lumet airbrushes away any identifiable ethnicity. At best, this says something about the kind of filmmaker Lumet is: a man willing to compromise and a cinematic master of bricolage, improvising as he goes along and allowing his actors to fill out their characters rather than starting with a rigid plan and insisting they conform. In his book on filmmaking, he describes each day’s shooting as the creation of a tile that he hopes will, in the end, fit into a mosaic. Devil feels very much as though it were made in that way.
The film opens with Andy and his wife Gina vacationing in Brazil. Their sex life and their marriage are both in trouble: they are unable to achieve sexual intimacy. When we first see them they are loudly and clearly moving toward orgasm together. As the camera moves alongside them we see that Andy is focused not just on his beautiful wife but also on the full-length mirror on the wall. He has added the thrill of voyeurism and is delighted by the result: so, apparently, is his wife. Why, he wonders out loud, is it so good here when back in the city it does not work? We will learn as the film evolves that husband and wife have secret lives they do not share with each other. He is an embezzler and a drug addict who has a lot on his mind. She is a woman who needs most of all to be sexually desired and is carrying on an affair with Andy’s younger brother, Hank. The couple enacts the culture of pornography in their search for orgasm with or without intimacy, always on the edge of collapsing into narcissistic gratification or masochistic surrender. Andy’s postcoital chat for some unexplained reason offends his wife and the moment of intimacy ends.
The next moment takes us from contemporary sex to contemporary violence—the tragic event the screenwriter originally imagined as the first scene. At a Westchester strip mall, almost deserted in the early morning, we witness the holdup of the mom-and-pop jewelry store. After a series of blunders, the masked robber and the mom end up shooting and killing each other. From these bleak opening moments of sex and violence, we follow Charles Hanson and his sons each to their personal hells.
Throughout Lumet keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. This is not a Rashomon story where each character’s version of the events leaves us uncertain as to what really happened. Here each perspective deepens our understanding of the awful and ill-fated Hansons. Andy, though totally alienated from his family, still feels cheated of his father’s love and respect and sees his brother Hank as the spoiled baby of the family. He plans the robbery of his parents’ store, and he cajoles and cons Hank into carrying out the plan. In his mind the plan is brilliant: he will get the inheritance he deserves, by stealing it; his younger brother will do the dirty work; and because the store is insured, the crime will be victimless. With his share of the money he will go back to Rio with Gina—Brazil has no extradition treaty—and start a new life of good sex.
Andy’s plan has a Freudian dynamic, the enraged Oedipal child will get revenge on his unloving father and use the baby who displaced him to do it. But Hank, though he agrees to the plan, only drives the car and gets a real thug to do the robbery. And although he planned the heist for a morning when his mother would not be there, on this fatal day she is.
We learn exactly what happened as each Hanson does. First Charles Hanson discovers that the wife he loves and the only person he cares about is dead, but he does not yet know as we do that his sons are responsible. The funeral is awful and unforgettable, with the father overcome by grief and his sons by guilt. Lumet’s film turns the knife in every psychological wound. We are fascinated and repelled as the horror deepens and the violence grows more desperate. The plot is complicated and there are moments when one is overcome by disbelief. But under Lumet’s direction, Devil carries on with the intensity of a primal myth. When Charles Hanson murders his eldest son it is as though the Oedipal father has walked out of the Greek myth and finally taken revenge. The mythical resonance may save the film from nihilism, even as the sadly desperate sex and gratuitous violence make Lumet’s Devil all too recognizably contemporary.

crowing out ones heart

Sarah Arvio
Winner of the eleventh annual Boston Review poetry contest
Introduced by John Koethe
The idea of the distinctive poetic voice, once central to the very idea of poetry, has fallen into disrepute in recent decades, perhaps because of its association with tendentious notions of authenticity in the confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century. Yet a certain uniformity in much of the poetry written by younger American poets suggests that individual voice might be due for a revival, but freed from its association with the poet’s actual psychological self. It certainly seems central to Sarah Arvio’s poetry, which sounds like no one else’s. Yet the voice in her poems seems to emanate from a kind of psychic doppelganger, originating from an imagined self somewhere outside her and passing through her on the way to the reader. It writes the self from which it issues, rather than the other way around, and is constructed out of wordplay and verbal associations. Its remoteness from the autobiographical is implicit in this group of poems, which juxtapose the Stevensian smoothness of the tercets with a more ragged and disjunctive syntax. Most poetry involves verbal associations at the level of sound, but seldom in as undisguised a fashion as Arvio’s. The results are poems that possess both an eerie psychological presence and a blunt verbal materiality.
—John Koethe
Small War

I thought I had left behind the darkness

of the heart it was a plan leaving it

behind I planned to enter the trance of

sensual peace and fulfillment that was

my plan But the best-laid plans I say and

pause thinking it better not to mention

mice with their trail of dark images strange

scurry into dark holes the sense of un-

cleanliness the gamey smell a small-game

smell Oh there’s a better word game the game

of the heart small game that’s good too like small

arms and light weapons this is a small war

a small dark and secret war of the heart

The deer running fleet chased by the hounds

No not that game Heart war against all plan

thrusting out of its dark hole and

scurrying through the room of the life

Scurry or gallop the sound of horses’

hooves beating on the distant hill I’ve heard

that and thought they were running through my heart

Great gallop on the hill of a dark heart

Though war is too great a word even

small war when we remember the torture

chambers the real torture on the real flesh

the bullet piercing the flesh-and-blood heart

There are no words great or small to describe

the private torture of the hounded heart

Sunday, October 26, 2008

dangerous poetry?

Do you dare?
by Gregory Cowles
The online used-book collective has released a list of its best-selling signed books for August. It includes Michael Phelps’s autobiography, David Wroblewski’s “Story of Edgar Sawtelle” and two volumes from Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. What stopped me, though, was the book at No. 10: an autographed copy of “Dean Koontz’s 2003 foray into poetry.” (”Believe it or not,” the press release says.) Titled “The Book of Counted Sorrows,” the collection was apparently printed in a limited edition of 1,250 copies by an outfit called Charnel House. The cheapest copy currently on sale at AbeBooks is listed at $800. Koontz describes his book this way, according to the title page: “Being the mind bending, heart stopping, bowel freezing , spleen tickling history of the most dangerous book of poetry ever written including the text of that cursed book itself, with the prayer that God will protect you from a spontaneous head explosion (and even worse potential fates) if you dare read it.”


To Tell These War Stories, Words Aren’t Enough
By BEN BRANTLEY-New York Times
It’s not until the first body pushes itself out of the pool table, a few minutes into the show, that you begin to grasp just how thrilling — and how disturbing — “Black Watch” is going to be. Up to that point, this transfixing play from Edinburgh about a Scottish Army regiment in Iraq, which opened last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, has felt like a smart but orthodox docudrama, a form increasingly common in political theater.
You go in knowing, presumably, that this production from the National Theater of Scotland, written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, is woven from interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq with the Black Watch regiment. The opening scenes more or less confirm expectations of a gallery of talking heads of brute eloquence.
A group of young men sit around in a pub, looking wary, joking rough and ragging an enemy in their midst, an interviewer asking variations on the question they are most tired of hearing: “What was it like in Iraq?” Yes, this is all according to form, a self-conscious presentation of the making of the play you are watching.
And then, without preamble, the red felt surface of the pool table tears, and a hand punches through, followed by the full body of a man in combat fatigues, who is followed by another. Abstract memories of the dead have become an undeniable physical reality. And you know that for these men, these bodies are always there, in the pub, in the pool table, in whatever place they happen to be.
“Black Watch,” which was the hit of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year and runs through Nov. 11, arrives like a blazing redeemer in the grayness of the current New York theater season, a cause for hope after a surfeit of microwaved revivals and ersatz musicals.
For “Black Watch” is a necessary reminder of the transporting power that is unique to theater. Other narrative forms — fiction, memoirs, film, television — could tell the story that is told here. But none could summon and deploy the array of artistic tools that is used with such mastery and immediacy.
In portraying the tours of duty in Iraq of members of the Black Watch, an almost 300-year-old regiment with a gloriously storied past, this production dissolves traditional boundaries of time and form. It seems to exist at the same moment in intimate close-up — of the men being interviewed — and in wide-angle historical perspective, which encompasses the generations of Black Watch soldiers who have come before these.
The means through which this breadth of vision is achieved are varied and seamlessly integrated. They include images on television monitors of villages being bombed or pornography or men of state speaking pompously; naturalistic scenes of life in Iraq remembered at home in a pub and lived in the desert, in an agony of waiting; lyrical monologues of e-mail messages sent home; regimental marches that turn into dances of death; and traditional Scottish military ballads that seem to rise out of the company like a morning mist.
Much of what is portrayed here in the naturalistic scenes will be familiar to those who have read books or seen documentaries about soldiers in this war: the double-edged sensation of boredom and anxious anticipation; the watching of mass bombings from a distance as if they were a sort of theater; the dopey adolescent camaraderie and in-fighting; and the omnipresence of the embedded news media, who seem to know more about what’s happening to the soldiers than the soldiers themselves do.
The actors, to a man, invest these scenes with an of-the-moment spontaneity and also with individuality. Within minutes after the show has begun, you’re aware of each of them as a particular presence — and not according to the usual lineup of stereotypes of military dramas. And while you can trace an arc of disenchantment through the experiences of Cammy (Paul Rattray), the play’s central figure, it never seems dictated by an imposed political agenda.
I have done this production a disservice if I have made it sound like a revue of sketches and songs. Every moment in “Black Watch” seems to bleed from the previous one in an uninterrupted river of sensations. All the scenes are choreographed, though sometimes so subtly that you don’t quite realize it. In the interview sequences in the pub, for example, notice how the men stand with their pool cues or change and move their seats.
As for the full song-and-dance numbers, brilliantly devised by Steven Hoggett (movement) and Davey Anderson (music), they stirringly elicit the poetry within both a dying military tradition and the specific men we come to know here. There’s a bravura sequence in which the entire history of the Black Watch is evoked through a sustained narrative by Cammy as he is moved about and dressed like a doll in the changing uniforms of the regiment over the centuries.
The stylistic range and unerring appropriateness of the choreography throughout are astonishing, from the silent tableau in which the soldiers respond to letters from home with their own stylized sign languages to the martial ballet in which the men work off their restlessness by fighting one another. The formation marches in which soldiers fall and get up again bring to mind the danse macabre of Paul Taylor’s “Banquet of Vultures.”
But unlike Mr. Taylor’s choreography, the dances here are less a matter of an imposed thematic vision than an evocation of individual lives harnessed together. Behind the ritual of the marches and the ceremonial dances, there is always the sense of undiluted youthful rawness, of energy in search of an outlet.
In the final marching sequence, as the men moved forward and stumbled in shifting patterns, I found to my surprise that I was crying. For this was no anonymous military phalanx. It was an assembly of men who, while moving in synchronicity, were each and every one a distinctive blend of fears and ambitions and confusion.
They were every soldier; they were also irreducibly themselves. This exquisitely sustained double vision makes “Black Watch” one of the most richly human works of art to have emerged from this long-lived war.
By Gregory Burke; directed by John Tiffany; associate director (movement), Steven Hoggett; associate director (music), Davey Anderson; sets by Laura Hopkins; sound by Gareth Fry; lighting by Colin Grenfell; costumes by Jessica Brettle; video design by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions Ltd. A National Theater of Scotland production, presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse in association with Affinity Company Theater. At St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn; (718) 254-8779. Through Nov. 11. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
WITH: David Colvin (Macca), Ali Craig (Stewarty), Emun Elliott (Fraz), Ryan Fletcher (Kenzie), Jack Fortune (Officer), Paul Higgins (Writer/Sergeant), Henry Pettigrew (Rossco), Nabil Stuart (Nabsy), Paul Rattray (Cammy) and Jordan Young (Granty).

quickly, quickly

Stray Questions for: Patrick Phillips
By Gregory Cowles
Patrick Phillips is the author of two books of poetry, “Chattahoochee” and “Boy.” His work has appeared in many magazines, including Poetry, Ploughshares and The Virginia Quarterly Review.
What are you working on?
I’m working on a poem called “1969,” about the night of my conception in Spring Garden, Ala. It’s about a lot of other things too, though I don’t really know how much they are related to the image that gave rise to the poem: the idea of peering through a window and catching my parents in the act of making me. I’m the father of two small kids now, and as I listen to the patter of their little feet it’s sometimes easy to imagine I’m my father, in a very different role in my own childhood drama. I’ve written a draft of the poem that I love but don’t understand at all, and which I now recite to myself every morning as I ride my bike over the Brooklyn Bridge. It has a metrical structure that gives the lines the sound of sense, though I really don’t know if they make much sense at all. Buzz Aldrin came into the poem for some reason, and Yuri Gagarin. And the Apollo 11 capsule, which did indeed streak across the sky in the summer of 1969, when some version of the scene I have imagined must have actually taken place. I don’t know what I will ever do with the poem, as I’m not at all sure it works. But nonetheless at some point every day I find myself reciting (and revising) it under my breath. For the past several months it’s been my boon companion.
How much time — if any — do you spend on the Web? Is it a distraction or a blessing?
While I depend on the Web for a great deal (including the correct spelling of “Gagarin,” above), I think of it as a curse. I learned this again recently when a friend said I should hawk my poetry on Facebook. With trepidation I created an account, and absent-mindedly clicked OK when the site asked if it could scan my address book After lots of flickering green lights, up came the profiles, with photos, of everyone to whom I have ever sent an e-mail: old students doing Jaeger shots at Daytona, an old colleague playing the banjo, random strangers posed with dogs, and children, and dolphins, and skateboards, and cars. Among my “Friends” were many despised enemies, to whom Facebook asked if it could send a greeting, and an invitation to be my “Friend.” I hit cancel, cancel, cancel, and ran screaming out of Facebook. There is no greater blessing for a writer, I think, than the joy of being left alone.
Whose books are generally shelved around yours in bookstores? How does it feel to be sitting between them?
My books are generally between Carl Phillips, a wonderful poet and former teacher of mine, and Sylvia Plath, a poet whose work I love, and who has been, of course, a staple of anthologies and college classrooms for decades. How do I feel when I see my books between them? Rich, and orphaned, and beloved.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

and then there are flowers

You Must Read This
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - NPR

An African Education in 'No Sweetness Here'
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, now out in paperback. She divides her time between New Haven, Conn., and Lagos, Nigeria, and is on a life-consuming quest to learn how to dance. “Aidoo is too good a writer to paint with overly broad brush strokes. She does not at all suggest that the past was perfect, and there is no romanticizing of culture.”
All Things Considered, January 18, 2008 · When I first came to the U.S. to go to university almost 10 years ago, my roommates were startled by everything about me: that I wore what they called "American" clothes, that I spoke English, that I knew who Mariah Carey was. They also seemed disappointed, as if they had been expecting a real African and then had me turn up.
Later, I began to suspect that this was because, apart from the movie Tarzan, all they knew of Africa was Chinua Achebe's magnificent novel Things Fall Apart, which they read in high school. But their teacher had forgotten to tell them that Things Fall Apart was set in the Nigeria of a hundred years ago. And so I gave them the collection of stories by the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo called No Sweetness Here.
These stories of Ghana in the 1960s after independence are done so beautifully and so wisely and with such subtlety. The characters lie uneasily between old and new, live in rural and urban areas, and struggle to deal with the unpleasant surprises of independence.
There is a keen but understated longing for the past in these stories, but Aidoo is too good a writer to paint with overly broad brush strokes. She does not at all suggest that the past was perfect, and there is no romanticizing of culture.
Here's an example: Traditional weddings in Ghana have always been full of what one character tells us is misguided foolishness. The past was not, in other words, one in which things were necessarily better — and Aidoo herself might question the usefulness of "better" or "worse" as categories — but rather a past that is longed for only because it was created by Africans themselves without the power dynamics of colonialism. It was a time in which people understood their lives and could create meaning from their interactions with one another.
Westernization has spawned an unthinking consumerism in the characters, a desire for Western things often unwanted by the West itself. One character describes this as "desiring only nonsensical items from someone else's factory;" another sees it as "people at home scrambling to pay exorbitant prices for secondhand clothes from America."
No Sweetness Here is the kind of old-fashioned social realism I have always been drawn to in fiction, and it does what I think all good literature should: It entertains you. Aidoo has a fantastic sly wit and humor; she does not hit you over the head with her "message," but after you have greedily finished each story, you sit back and realize that you have been through an intellectual experience as well.
This book was particularly meaningful to me during my first alienating months in America. It was a comfort — its familiarity, the way it captured ideas I understood but would never have been able to capture myself.
I dislike the idea of literature as anthropology, and yet I rather unreasonably wanted my roommates to read this book as anthropology — as a follow-up to Things Fall Apart, as a way of making myself less of an unpleasant surprise.
Of course I also hoped that they would love the stories. In the end, only one of my roommates read the book. It took her a while to finish it and when I asked what she thought, she said it wasn't very African.
I've always been curious about how much of our cultural baggage we bring to what and how we read. I suspect we bring a lot, although we like to think we don't. I loved my roommate's response because it meant that this wonderful book had challenged some of her stock ideas about Africa. And although she didn't say so, I'm certain that it made her think and laugh as well.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'No Sweetness Here'
by Ama Ata Aidoo
He was beautiful, but that was not important. Beauty does not play such a vital role in a man's life as it does in a woman's, or so people think. If a man's beauty is so ill-mannered as to be noticeable, people discreetly ignore its existence. Only an immodest girl like me would dare comment on a boy's beauty. "Kwesi is so handsome," I was always telling his mother. "If ever I am transferred from this place, I will kidnap him." I enjoyed teasing the dear woman and she enjoyed being teased about him. She would look scandalized, pleased and alarmed all in one fleeting moment.
"Ei, Chicha. You should not say such things. The boy is not very handsome really." But she knew she was lying. "Besides, Chicha, who cares whether a boy is handsome or not?" Again she knew that at least she cared, for, after all, didn't the boy's wonderful personality throw a warm light on the mother's lively though already waning beauty? Then gingerly, but in a remarkably matter-of-fact tone, she would voice out her gnawing fear. "Please Chicha, I always know you are just making fun of me, but please, promise me you won't take Kwesi away with you." Almost at once her tiny mouth would quiver and she would hide her eyes in her cloth as if ashamed of her great love and her fears. But I understood. "O, Maami, don't cry, you know I don't mean it."
"Chicha I am sorry, and I trust you. Only I can't help fearing, can I? What will I do, Chicha, what would I do, should something happen to my child?" She would raise her pretty eyes, glistening with unshed tears.
"Nothing will happen to him," I would assure her. "He is a good boy. He does not fight and therefore there is no chance of anyone beating him. He is not dull, at least not too dull, which means he does not get more cane-lashes than the rest of his mates…"
"Chicha, I shall willingly submit to your canes if he gets his sums wrong," she would hastily intervene.
"Don't be funny. A little warming-up on a cold morning wouldn't do him any harm. But if you say so, I won't object to hitting that soft flesh of yours." At this, the tension would break and both of us begin laughing. Yet I always went away with the image of her quivering mouth and unshed tears in my mind.
Maami Ama loved her son; and this is a silly statement, as silly as saying Maami Ama is a woman. Which mother would not? At the time of this story, he had just turned ten years old. He was in Primary Class Four and quite tall for his age. His skin was as smooth as shea-butter and as dark as charcoal. His black hair was as soft as his mother's. His eyes were of the kind that always remind one of the long dream on a hot afternoon. It is indecent to dwell on a boy's physical appearance, but then Kwesi's beauty was indecent.
The evening was not yet come. My watch read 4:15 p.m., that ambiguous time of the day which these people, despite their great ancient astronomic knowledge, have always failed to identify. For the very young and very old, it is certainly evening, for they've stayed at home all day and they begin to persuade themselves that the day is ending. Bored with their own company, they sprawl in the market-place or by their own walls. The children begin to whimper for their mothers, for they are tired with playing "house." Fancying themselves starving, they go back to what was left of their lunch, but really they only pray that mother will come home from the farm soon. The very old certainly do not go back on lunch remains but they do bite back at old conversational topics which were fresh at ten o'clock.
"I say, Kwame, as I was saying this morning, my first wife was a most beautiful woman," old Kofi would say.
"Oh! yes, yes, she was an unusually beautiful girl. I remember her." Old Kwame would nod his head but the truth was he was tired of the story and he was sleepy. "It's high time the young people came back from the farm."
But I was a teacher, and I went the white man's way. School was over. Maami Ama's hut was at one end of the village and the school was at the other. Nevertheless it was not a long walk from the school to her place because Bamso is not really a big village. I had left my books to little Grace Ason to take home for me; so I had only my little clock in my hand and I was walking in a leisurely way. As I passed the old people, they shouted their greetings. It was always the Fanticised form of the English.
"Kudiimin-o, Chicha." Then I would answer, "Kudiimin, Nana."
When I greeted first, the response was "Tanchiw."
"Chicha, how are you?"
"Nana, I am well."
"And how are the children?"
"Nana, they are well.
"Yoo, that is good." When an old man felt inclined to be talkative, especially if he had more than me for audience, he would compliment me on the work I was doing. Then he would go on to the assets of education, especially female education, ending up with quoting Dr. Aggrey.
So this evening too, I was delayed: but it was as well, for when I arrived at the hut, Maami Ama had just arrived from the farm. The door opened, facing the village, and so I could see her. Oh, that picture is still vivid in my mind. She was sitting on a low stool with her load before her. Like all the loads the other women would bring from the farms into their homes, it was colourful with miscellaneous articles. At the very bottom of the wide wooden tray were the cassava and yam tubers, rich muddy brown, the colour of the earth. Next were the plantain, of the green colour of the woods from which they came. Then there were the gay vegetables, the scarlet pepper, garden eggs, golden pawpaw and crimson tomatoes. Over this riot of colours the little woman's eyes were fixed, absorbed, while the tiny hands delicately picked the pepper. I made a scratchy noise at the door. She looked up and smiled. Her smile was wonderful flashing whiteness.
"Oh Chicha, I have just arrived."
"So I see. Ayekoo."
"Yaa, my own. And how are you, my child?"
"Very well, Mother. And you?"
"Tanchiw. Do sit down, there's a stool in the corner. Sit down. Mmmm….Life is a battle. What can we do? We are just trying, my daughter."
"Why were you longer at the farm today?"
"After weeding that plot I told you about last week, I thought I would go for one or two yams."
"Ah!" I cried.
"You know tomorrow is Ahobaa. Even if one does not feel happy, one must have some yam for old Ahor."
"Yes. So I understand. The old saviour deserves it. After all it is not often that a man offers himself as a sacrifice to the gods to save his people from pestilence."
"No, Chicha, we were so lucky."
"But Maami Ama, why do you look so sad? After all, the yams are quite big." She gave me a small grin, looking at the yams she had now packed at the corner.
"Do you think so? Well, they are the best of the lot. My daughter, when life fails you, it fails you totally. One's yams reflect the total sum of one's life. And mine look wretched enough."
"O, Maami, why are you always speaking in this way? Look at Kwesi, how many mothers can boast of such a son? Even though he is only one, consider those who have none at all. Perhaps some woman is sitting at some corner envying you."
She chuckled. "What an unhappy woman she must be who would envy Ama! But thank you, I should be grateful for Kwesi."
After that we were quiet for a while. I always loved to see her moving quietly about her work. Having finished unpacking, she knocked the dirt out of the tray and started making fire to prepare the evening meal. She started humming a religious lyric. She was a Methodist.
We are fightingWe are fightingWe are fighting for Canaan, the Heavenly Kingdom above.
Excerpted from No Sweetness Here by Ama Ata Aidoo © 1970 Ama Ata Aidoo. Reprinted by permission of Feminist Press.