"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When President Bush started hinting in January that he was going to freeze $34 million that Congress had allocated to the United Nations Population Fund, it marked a complete turnaround from the administration’s position just a few months before.
In his budget proposal last year, Bush asked for a $25 million appropriation for the United Nations Population Fund (also called the United Nations Fund for Population Activities or UNFPA). In written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “We recognize that UNFPA does invaluable work through its programs in maternal and child health care, voluntary family planning, screening for reproductive tract cancers, breast-feeding promotion and HIV/AIDS prevention … We look forward to working with you and your colleagues to secure the funding necessary for UNFPA to continue these activities.” Congress complied with Powell’s request, appropriating $34 million for the fund.
Then Bush reversed himself. Not only has he not released the money, he’s threatened to veto a bill that would force him to. And he’s doing it based on nothing more than oft-disproved charges by a tiny far-right antiabortion group called Population Research Institute, which claims — falsely — that the UNFPA money is used for coercive abortion and sterilization in China.
“What I find so outrageous is that Bush withheld this $34 million based solely on testimony from the Population Research Institute, an arm of a far-right group,” says New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney. “PRI is the only organization that has ever made these allegations. The administration is going against the will of Congress and the international community by allowing a small band of extremists to hamstring its foreign policy.”
Despite its innocuous name, PRI is indeed extreme. The Virginia-based group is a spinoff of Human Life International, a hardcore antiabortion organization founded by Benedictine priest Paul Marx, a notorious anti-Semite known to blame Jews for abortion. In a 1993 HLI newsletter, Marx wrote, “Today, certain members of this people whose ancient religion and culture managed to survive Auschwitz and Buchenwald are presiding over the greatest Holocaust in the history of the world. American Jews have been leaders in establishing and defending the efficient destruction of more than 30 million preborn children in this country.”
Marx started PRI in 1989, and according to an HLI press release from two years ago, HLI has invested more than $1 million in the group. In 1995, Marx hired Steven Mosher to head PRI.
Mosher’s history is as checkered as Marx’s. He was thrown out of the anthropology program at Stanford University 19 years ago for what the university, quoted at the time by Science magazine, called “illegal and seriously unethical conduct” that “endangered his research subjects.” Mosher had been doing field work in his then-wife’s village in Southern China, and was accused of bribing local villagers and smuggling rare coins. Perhaps most seriously, he published pictures in a popular Taiwanese magazine of Chinese women undergoing late-term abortions without concealing their faces, which could have led the government to retaliate against them.
Mosher claimed that by expelling him Stanford was caving to Chinese pressure and filed a lawsuit, which he later dropped. Since then, he’s become militantly antiabortion and anti-China — his most recent books are “Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia and the World” and the techno-thriller “China Attacks,” co-written with Chuck DeVore. So he hooked up with the Population Research Institute, whose aim, according to a fundraising letter, is to “drive the final nail into the coffin of U.N. Population Fund abortionists.”
Mosher believes that U.N. family planning efforts are part of a “New World Order” conspiracy. He writes, “The assault on human dignity frees the proposed world government to selectively reduce the population of the world to a manageable number.” Overpopulation is a myth, Mosher contends. “In fact, underpopulation, not overpopulation, is the threat facing the world,” he wrote in a 1999 press release. “By the beginning of 2000, over seventy countries representing over half the world’s population will have below replacement fertility — defined as 2.1 children per woman … Countries with below replacement rate fertility will eventually die out. It’s just a question of time.” An article on the PRI’s Web site claims that not only is the world not getting crowded, but that “[t]he whole world’s population could fit in the state of Texas … and very comfortably indeed.”
In 1998, Marx turned PRI into a separate organization, “to enable it to operate more effectively in the secular world,” according to a July 2000 press release. Mosher claimed in an e-mail interview this week that “PRI has no relationship with HLI,” yet Marx is listed as the group’s chairman on PRI’s tax filings for the fiscal year 2000.
Under Mosher, PRI has made a mission out of targeting the UNFPA, despite the fact that U.N. law prohibits the organization from providing or funding abortion services. And he’s found a valuable ally in New Jersey congressman Chris Smith.
Last October, Smith chaired a House panel on PRI’s allegations and called Mosher and other members of PRI to testify before it. In a letter to President Bush dated Jan. 31, Smith urged him not to fund UNFPA, writing that “the UNFPA clearly supports a program of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization,” and that it “does more than simply operate in China.”
The evidence Smith cites for this comes from “an undercover fact finding team” sent to Sihui, one of 32 counties where the UNFPA operates in China. He wrote, “The investigators were told that family planning is not voluntary in Sihui, and coercive family planning policies in Sihui include: age requirements for pregnancy; birth permits; mandatory use of IUDs; mandatory sterilization; crippling fines for non-compliance; imprisonment for non-compliance; destruction of homes and property for non-compliance; forced abortion and forced sterilization.” The letter goes on to accuse UNFPA of complicity in these outrages.
Smith neglects to mention that the “investigators” were a PRI team. The PRI released a video of its findings, featuring several women, whose faces are digitally altered, talking of being forced to abort in Sihui. The implication is that since the UNFPA was operating in the county, it is responsible. The United Nations was unable to check on the video’s veracity because PRI refused to release information that would allow the team to locate the women. Smith’s office did not return several calls for comment.
Based on PRI’s findings, Smith urges Bush to exercise a prerogative given presidents in the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, a law passed in 1985 that orders money to be withheld from any organization or program which, “as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or sterilization.”
Now it seems that Bush, whose press office didn’t return calls for comment, has made the determination that Kemp-Kasten should apply to the UNFPA. In January the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development sent a plea to the president, saying, “The United Nations Population Fund assists poor countries as well as refugee populations to improve services for family planning and maternity health and to control the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases … denying funds to UNFPA will destroy the very prospect of good family life and a better future for youth, especially in developing countries.” In response, Elliott Abrams, special White House assistant for democracy and human rights, wrote that the withholding was based on “legitimate questions” about UNFPA’s “association” with forced abortion and sterilization in China.
These “legitimate questions” have been answered many times before. Today, the UNFPA operates in only 32 counties in China, counties in which it is working with the Chinese government to implement voluntary family planning programs instead of coercive ones. It is hoped that these counties will serve as models as the country tries to move away from the draconian excesses of the one-child policy. Because of the attention PRI has managed to generate, says UNFPA director of information Stirling Scruggs, 145 diplomats have visited the Chinese counties where UNFPA operates. “They’re the most-reviewed development projects in the world,” he says. None of those diplomats have raised concerns about what they saw.
Mosher isn’t wrong about China’s grotesque record of coercive abortion and sterilization. “I was in China for three-and-a-half years, and I had numerous meetings to complain about instances of coercion,” says Scruggs. “Everything mentioned [in PRI's report] happened in China.” But it didn’t happen under the auspices of the UNFPA.
In response to Smith’s hearings last year, the U.N. sent its own team to China to investigate. It was headed by Niek Biegman, a former Dutch ambassador to NATO and current NATO ambassador to Macedonia. Biegman chaired several meetings at the U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, at which China agreed to a plan that stated, “The aim of family-planning programmes must be to enable couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.”
After his trip to China, Biegman concluded, “The UNFPA is very much in the business of helping the Chinese government fulfill its obligation under the Cairo Plan of Action, which is entirely based on a voluntary approach to family planning.” He says that with UNFPA’s help, the Chinese tested this “new paradigm” in six counties, later expanded to 32. “The UNFPA is expressly active in those cantons where [the Chinese] changed their policy to move away from coercion towards a voluntary policy and a choice of family planning methods,” he says.
Of course, the U.N. might be expected to exonerate itself. Yet other delegations have come to similar conclusions. In April, a British delegation chaired by M.P. Edward Leigh, a Catholic member of the Conservative Party, went to China to investigate PRI’s charges. Upon returning, Leigh told the Washington Times that “there was evidence UNFPA is trying to persuade China away from the program of strict targets and assessments. My personal line is British or U.S. funds should not be used for coercive family planning, and I found no evidence of such practices in China.”
The U.S. State Department has come to similar conclusions. Its 2001 human rights report says that the counties in China where UNFPA operates “have eliminated the system of overall countywide birth and population targets that tends to generate coercive enforcement.” Women in those counties can still be fined for having too many children, but Scruggs notes that while such fines are a human rights violation, if the UNFPA was limited to countries with spotless human rights records it wouldn’t be able to work in much of the developing world.
Despite all the evidence disproving PRI’s claims, the Bush administration recently dispatched a State Department team to investigate its allegations. That group has now returned, but Bush hasn’t said whether he’ll release the money if the team’s report exonerates the UNFPA, as Scruggs expects it will. Meanwhile, a bill is making its way through the Senate that would force Bush to release the UNFPA funding “unless otherwise prohibited by law.” On June 5, Bush threatened to veto it. “This is all about appeasing the far right even at the expense of Bush’s credibility and honor,” says Maloney.
The result of Bush’s freeze has been a reduction in medical services to women worldwide. According to the UNFPA, in Bangladesh, where 67 percent of pregnant women receive no medical care, programs to train doctors to deal with pregnancy complications will be put on hold. In Vietnam, according to UNFPA field worker Tran Thi Van, a program to train 4,000 health workers in reproductive issues and to provide medical equipment and drugs to 500 remote clinics is in jeopardy. In Kenya, where the UNFPA has been working with the Catholic Church to prevent teenagers from getting AIDS, the church’s request to expand the program will probably have to be rejected. Overall, UNFPA’s funding shortfall is $52 million, because some other countries failed to meet their contribution targets due to financial constraints. The agency estimates that the lack of resources will result in 3 million unwanted pregnancies, 7,140 maternal deaths and, ironically, 1,215,000 abortions.
Nicholas Kristof suggested what some of the consequences of Bush’s funding freeze could be in an April 26 New York Times column about Aisha Idris, a young Sudanese woman with fistula, a condition in which a woman’s rectum, urethra and vagina are torn during childbirth, “leaving her incontinent and causing bodily wastes to seep through her vaginal canal and down her legs.” The UNFPA, he wrote, “supports precisely the kind of third-world maternal health care programs that can save women’s lives in childbirth and avoid medical complications like fistula. Yet the White House for now is crippling the fund by withholding the 13 percent of its budget that the United States provides.”
What baffles people in the U.N. is why the U.S. is willing to let programs suffer based on reports by an organization fundamentally hostile to the UNFPA’s mission. “It’s not really understood by the rest of the world how a superpower like America can be influenced in such a deadly way by four or five fanatics,” says Biegman. “It’s amazing.”
While, according to Mosher, PRI has 20,000 “supporting family members,” only a handful of people seem to be active in the group. Nevertheless, those few have demonstrated an absolute genius for spreading their message through the media and attacking UNFPA and other international aid organizations. PRI is a fixture in the Washington Times, the right-wing newspaper owned by Sun Myung Moon. Mosher’s Op-Eds have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, and he’s appeared on ABC News to discuss his book “Hegemon: China’s Plan To Dominate Asia and the World.” Late last year, PRI’s allegation that UNFPA was distributing abortion kits to Afghan refugees was picked up by the Vatican news agency Fides, which led to coverage by the French wire service Agence France-Presse. The charges were lies, Scruggs says — in fact, the kits were for safe birthing and included rubber sheets, soap and clean razor blades for cutting umbilical cords.
Occasionally, PRI’s attacks go beyond guerrilla media. During the 1999 war in Kosovo, PRI sent Austin Ruse to investigate UNFPA’s work among Albanian refugees. Ruse made the rounds of local hospitals telling people that UNFPA was allied with Slobodan Milosevic. Ruse has made no secret of this — in a January 2000 article for the Human Life Review titled “UN Pro-life Lobbying: Full Contact Sport,” he called the U.N. one of the “key sources” for the “river of death” and wrote, “This still unfolding Kosovo tragedy really began in quiet and carpeted conference rooms at U.N. headquarters in New York City.” Reached by phone, Ruse says, “The UNFPA gets really cozy with some very unsavory regimes.”
Biegman, who learned of the PRI’s rumor mongering when he went to Kosovo in 1999 to visit Dutch troops, called Ruse’s actions “criminally irresponsible.” Had the traumatized Albanians believed that the UNFPA had been complicit in Milosevic’s genocide, “they might have killed the UNFPA people.”
Mosher dismisses the idea that his people endangered overseas aid workers in Kosovo, writing via e-mail from Mexico, “UNFPA is not the victim in this scenario. It is important to focus attention on the victims and work towards their liberation.”
To Mosher, the victims are the women the UNFPA serves. To Scruggs, they’re the women it doesn’t. “A woman dies every minute from pregnancy-related causes,” he says. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of those deaths could be prevented. We’re responsible for saving women’s lives.” That’s why Congress and the administration agreed to fund it in the first place.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)