Last days of summer, hot, humid. I toss and turn as nightmarish sprites dance through the wee hours. I hallucinate: Baseball suspended whilst Fenway Park taken over by still-Rolling Stones. Arnold Schwarzenegger stages political fundraiser in stadium full of moss-free but confused Red Sox fans. Score tied in cliffhanger twixt Frat Boy and The Caliphate. In what is surely my imagination, Pat Robertson issues a fatwa from the televised pulpit of The 700 Club calling for Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez to be assassinated. British Home Secretary Charles Clarke says he “will be publishing and then acting upon new ways of dealing with preachers of intolerance and hatred.” New York’s Mayor Bloomberg cancels permit for street party at which twenty artists planned to paint graffiti on metal surfaces resembling subway cars. The good mayor fears it will incite criminal behavior and says that “defacing subway cars is hardly a joke.” A jauntily cavalier activist judge restores party despite obvious slippery slope of what might be incited by stagings of Oedipus Rex or Hamlet.
At homeland insecurity, new categories of suspect profiles bubble forth in government advisory after government advisory. Race, ethnicity, religion, a fortiori–but the list churns on with up-to-the-minute brands of scoundrel like an endless ticker tape: Unusually clean-shaven men, men with long beards, people wearing heavy clothing or shoes with thick soles or big hats, women carrying large handbags, unknown delivery men bearing oversized packages, kids with backpacks or violin cases, cell-phone users, sweaty people, cool-as-a-sly-cucumber people, people with cameras, people praying aloud, people who blink too much or not enough, men with thick waists, women pretending to be pregnant, people who spend too much time in public libraries, men reeking of rosewater–on and on it goes. Most recently, we are to be on the lookout for the great masses of the unshaved, unwashed and unperfumed, to wit, “vagrants who seem out of place”–an almost calculatedly redundant designation–for fear they might be terrorists posing as “homeless people, shoeshiners, street vendors or street sweepers.”
In once celestial cities, all of whose denizens are now deemed dangerous, one hears calls for house-to-house searches, shoot-to-kill policies and protection from “too many” civil rights. Debates rage about “political correctness” rather than whether this isn’t beginning to look like martial law, or an effective immunization of police from discriminatory behavior, scattershot decision-making as well as deadly mistake. On the other side of the pond, London police send the mother of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician regrettably executed by official mistake, a sympathy note with a $27,000 check tucked in, as “compensation.” The part that really brings tears to the eyes is a touchingly generous little coda assuring her that “if a claim were brought in future, then the sum offered today would be taken as being on account of any other payments.”
“Political correctness,” meanwhile, has morphed away from a dismissal of liberal martinets who don’t appreciate a good joke and into an all-out question of life and death, patriotism and treason. These days, the politically correct are those shiny-eyed zealots who worry more about the feelings of terrorists than protecting the homeland and who would sacrifice the rude but real rank and file upon the altar of false gods and secular demons. According to this new narrative, the politically incorrect are the ones laying down their lives, rough and ready, who cut through the bull to shoot first and ask questions later.
I ponder this global theater in which all the men and women are merely players and pretenders. Our civic domesticity is embittered, haunted by the possibility of enemies amongst us whose voices speak like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, whose shapes we “know” instinctively and in defiance of fancy rituals of politeness, legal niceties, book learning or empirical knowledge. Alas, poor us. The course we pursue may be politically disastrous, academically wrong, strategically flawed, statistically disproved–a cacophony of finger-pointing and calls to 911–but our leaders are stubborn guardians of the faith, enchanted by verities delivered to them in visions of good old country horse sense.
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No Reader of The Nation Left Behind: President Bush is rumored to have a summer reading list that improves upon the literary preferences so often attributed to him. The new list is three books long by an ostentatiously sober heft: Mark Kurlansky’s history of salt, John Barry’s account of the great flu pandemic of 1918-19 and Edward Radzinsky’s Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. Salt. Plague. Czars.
Very presidential, but if you yearn for something studiously apolitical, here are my three favorite summer reads. Top of the list is performance artist Damali Ayo’s How to Rent a Negro, just out from Lawrence Hill Books. It’s a very funny expansion of the concept explored on her popular website, rent-a-negro.com–witty, empathetic, unsettling, hilarious. A kind of Miss Manners for the racially isolated yet yearning to connect. For those who do wish to rent a Negro, handy tips on how to enliven your parties with a little integration, how to impress your friends you’re not a racist and how to compliment your Negro on the articulateness of his speech. And for the rentable Negroes in question, set-up advice and sound financial planning. Have you been giving your services as liberal eye candy away for free? Do you know how much to charge people who want to Touch The Hair?
I also recommend Small Island, by Andrea Levy, from Picador. It’s a wry, engrossing love story that ranges from London to the Caribbean to India and back again during the years just after World War II. I could not put it down.
Finally, in the spirit of Eric Alterman’s shameless, absolutely shameless, flair for self-promotion, allow me to suggest a People magazine critic’s choice of the week, Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons and the Search for a Room of My Own, by yours truly.