Amy Wilentz, a Nation contributing editor, is the author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti (Simon & Schuster), published this month, and The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, among other books. She teaches in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine.
Southern Exposure, which somehow looks--even in its third decade,
in the twenty-first century--as if very advanced high school students
had just stapled it together and put it on your doorstep (that's a
compliment...The Nation strives for that effect, too), is still
doing a fine job on its old beat: investigating the strange mix of
culture and corporatism that has made the South what it is today. By
extension, every issue poses the same basic question: What exactly is
America? In looking at the South in great detail over many decades,
Southern Exposure has begun to propose, although not explicitly,
First, America is a place that advocates equality but thrives on
inequality. In the 2002 Spring and Summer issue, which is subtitled "The
South at War," James Maycock has published a piece on the black American
soldier's experience in Vietnam--especially for people who did not live
through the civil rights movement and that terrible Southeast Asian
conflict, this piece will be riveting. "I'm not a draft evader,"
declares one African-American draftee on reaching Canada. "I'm a runaway
America is also a place where the Marlboro Man has not abdicated, as
Stan Goff shows in his gonzo essay on Vietnam and American masculinity
(in fact, it has crossed my mind that all those ads may have been psy-ops prep for George W. Bush's ascendancy). And last, America is a
place that loves the Army. In its useful and unassailable roundup on the
Southern states and the war industry, Southern Exposure comes up
with important facts. The dollar amount of military contracts to Florida
companies alone last year amounted to $15.2 billion. The military, of
course, is a good place to have your money right now. For example,
Florida's education budget was slashed by 4.2 percent last year while
the stock of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, two of the largest companies
with investments in Florida, were up 25 percent and 40 percent,
respectively. Nutshell portraits of thirteen states provide a real sense
of the give and take between politicians, the military and the job
market, and population in places where the military chooses to spend.
Note also: Of the top twenty-one cities involved in military production
in 2001, excepting Hartford, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Seattle, every
city on the list is in the South or in California. According to
Southern Exposure, 66 percent of the weapons sold to Israel under
the Foreign Military Sales program were produced in the South. The South
has helped situate America in the world today; that puts it in a unique
moral position. But after reading this issue of Southern
Exposure, one really wonders: Do most Southerners care?
After reading about B-29s and F-16s and macho men and Hellfire
missiles made in Orlando--of all places--I was happy to read a few
magazines that go to other extremes. Of the two big yoga magazines
available on the newsstand, Yoga Journal is the yogis' Vanity
Fair, and Yoga International is their Real Simple. We
can dispense with the latter except for the pretzel-position pictures,
but Yoga Journal is a very good niche magazine--good niche
publications take their subject and use it expansively, as a jumping-off
point. The June issue has an excellent and anthropologically important
piece by Marina Budhos on how yoga practice in the West, especially
among Americans, is changing the age-old practice in India, the
Americans behaving like cargo cultists in reverse.
Budhos found that many of the Indians in an Indian ashram (where, by the
way, the hatha yoga teacher was "a really tough Israeli") were attending
because they "were interested in teaching yoga as a career." Many of the
foreigners were simply having yoga fun on vacation--although, as I have
discovered while doing the tortoise position, the word "yoga" and the
word "fun" should never be used in the same sentence. Daniel Ghosal, an
Indian-American, says the Americans who come to India for yoga are seen
by the Indians as "kind of 'cracked.'" Indians don't think of yoga as a
social trend. "The lighting of candles and all that," Ghosal says
dismissively. "To Indians, it's just yoga."
"The Path of the Peaceful Warrior," by Anne Cushman, is also an amusing
piece. In it--after lighting a fire with newspapers in which she sees
headlines about terror and anthrax burning away, and after "folding into
the silence and surrender of a deep forward bend" (that's classic yoga
writing; you just have to push past it)--Cushman proposes a "Yogic
Battle Plan for the War on Terror." I suppose it's better than beefing
up your naval program at Newport News...
The first step: "Stop." I like that. That should be the entirety of an
Op-Ed piece on the Middle East crisis.
There is also "Contemplate death." Under that weighty heading, Cushman
includes this nice aperçu: "The American government's
instruction to 'Be on high alert, yet go about your ordinary life' may
have struck many people as all but impossible, but that paradoxical
injunction is actually...a core yogic practice." (Don't tell Rumsfeld!)
Under "Look Deeply," Cushman cites Tricycle editor James
Shaheen's remark that bin Laden was "inadvertently speaking the Buddhist
truth of interdependence when he said, 'Until there is peace in the
Middle East, there will be no peace for Americans at home.'" "Practice
nonviolence" is another step in the yogic battle; "take action," the
last. By the end, Yoga Journal is beginning to sound like the
editors of Southern Exposure.
Earthtimes, the monthly environmental and social paper
spiritedly edited for twelve years by the effervescent Pranay Gupte, is
folding up shop after July for lack of funding. As Gupte said in a
farewell note to colleagues: "Undercapitalization is always bad for
business; zero capitalization is worse. Since my basement press is
beyond repair, I can't even print rupee notes any longer to sustain
Earthtimes." That's Gupte and the tone of Earthtimes,
too--in moments of pain and crisis, a quiet, self-deflating, sustaining
haven't done much mental spring cleaning because so much of the last
month has been taken up with brooding and spewing about the crisis in
the Middle East; no doubt the coming months will be much the same. After
putting your mind to this issue for a long time--witness Shimon Peres,
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and so many others--cobwebs
gather and it becomes hard to see through the accumulated dust. So it
was pleasant to turn to Legal Affairs, the new publication of the
Yale Law School, edited by Lincoln Caplan, which casts an intelligent
eye over a broad and spacious intellectual terrain.
Of course the first item I turned to--obsessively--was an article on
Israel, more specifically on the legendary Supreme Court President
Aharon Barak (no relation), by Emily Bazelon--thankfully the only Middle
East piece in the inaugural issue, or who knows how I might have been
sidetracked. In 1992, from his seat on the Israeli Supreme Court, he
championed the Basic Laws that now serve the country as a kind of de
facto constitution and give Israel one of the most progressive sets of
human rights laws and precepts to govern any nation. But that was just a
first step for this exceptional person.
In May 1998, in a historic pronouncement, he declared (I'm simplifying
here) that torture of Palestinian detainees by the Shin Bet was not
legalized under Israeli codes. This meant that one day there would be no
more shabach--the technique of tying prisoners to kindergarten
chairs, putting their heads in sacks and subjecting them to humiliation
and psychological torture. It meant no more shaking, a favored method
that disorients and injures without leaving visible signs. No more sleep
deprivation. Barak later codified this ruling, when he "unequivocally
declared for a unanimous court that the Shin Bet's methods of
interrogating Palestinians detained without charges violated the rights
to human dignity and freedom." But those were better days in Israel, and
Bazelon points out that current conditions may have allowed the Shin Bet
to violate the ban. The Public Committee Against Torture has filed two
petitions to the court since September 2000, both arguing that the ban
on torture has not been "fully enforced," as Bazelon understates it. One
petition was withdrawn and the other rejected. Like so many of his
generation who hoped to normalize life in Israel, Barak too has been
undermined by the Degeneration of the Situation.
Anyway, Legal Affairs is not all bleakness and Jerusalem drizzle.
Its other lead piece is Brendan Koerner's dazzling narrative of
cyber-intrigue and blackmail that extends from Russia to FBI
headquarters in DC. The magazine also looks at hip-hop music with the
amusing premise that it is all about law enforcement, in a piece that
would be great but for its silly, super-serious tone. Tim Dodd
contributes an excellent article from Jakarta on Syafiuddin
Kartasasmita, the conservative Indonesian judge who was assassinated a
year after leading a three-man panel that found the youngest son of the
dictator Suharto, Tommy, guilty of corruption. A very amusing piece by
Dashka Slater tells you what it's like to spend a working week watching
only court TV (answer: terrific and soporific). A bunch of small
excerpts from Christopher Buckley's latest Washington entertainment
(No Way to Treat a First Lady) are fun, if not terribly
enlightening. And "Silence! Four ways the law keeps poor people from
getting heard in court" should be on the reading list of every legal
reporter and defense attorney in America. There is also a no doubt
valuable piece by Benjamin Wittes on the faulty legal underpinnings of
Kenneth Starr's behavior (but lines like "the attorney general had the
authority to decline to request an independent counsel where a clear
Justice Department policy would preclude an indictment" really harsh my buzz).
Legal Affairs reminds you that the law matters--unlike
American Lawyer, which makes you think the law is a buddy system
for grotesque elites in major urban centers who speak a language the
rest of us cannot understand (except when it's about gigantic salaries
and hourly fees). The new magazine reminds you that the law is the
element in which most of the major stories of our lives take place
(marriages, births, deaths, crimes, real estate closings, divorce), and
that it provides the narrative framework for the unfolding of most
Globalvision News Network has set up an extremely useful website
called The News Not in the News (you can find it at
www.gvnews.net, by subscription). This is where you can see what the
Arab press is really reporting; where you'll find the latest from places
like Kyrgyzstan, where the government has just resigned following unrest
since the May 10 sentencing of Felix Kulov, the foremost leader of the
Kyrgyz (new national adjective!) opposition, to ten years in prison. The
stories are put up without annotation, so that, say, the Kyrgyz
reporting can become convoluted to the uninitiated reader. But you
wouldn't want to miss this story: In his first interview in two
years--conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in writing and by
messenger, not in person--Mullah Omar (you remember him) tells Asharq
Al-Awsat, an Arab news agency, that flames will engulf the White
House and that Osama bin Laden is still alive. Of course, for all one
knows, the interviewee could have been an Afghan schoolboy having his
fun, since there is no proof that the reporter's questions were actually
relayed to Omar himself. But that is what is both useful and charming
about this site: It is raw news as it is written and printed in other
lands, as fresh as it can be, and with its edgy myth-making untouched by
American objectivity. "What is important for the US now is to find out
why they did that [the attack on September 11]," says "Omar." "America
should remove the cause that made them do it." If only "Omar" had a
mirror version of The News Not in the News, he could see what a
tempest that very same issue set off in America's own pages not so long
ago. But we wouldn't want to harsh his buzz.
When I was a teenager on my first trip to Paris, I remember looking out
at the Parisians from the window of a taxi as we proceeded along some
splendid boulevard and thinking, But do these people take themselves
seriously, really? They're not Americans, after all. Sorry. It's true,
though embarrassing. I felt sorry for them because they weren't us. I
needed a reality check, which the French were only too happy to provide.
They soon taught me how superior to us, and to me, they were in every
way, especially intellectually and in matters of literature, fashion,
proper cigarette inhalation and the application of maquillage.
Well, let that pass. Now Granta has published the greater part of
an issue (Spring 2002) devoted to Their perceptions of Us, called "What
We Think of America." Interestingly, the writer who is possibly the most
violently anti-American in the collection, or who admits to the most
violently anti-American feeling, is not French, or Arab, but Latin
American. Ariel Dorfman, the US-born Chilean writer, tells about the
time he watched an American toddler tumble into a swimming pool at a
resort in the Andes and carefully measured what his own reaction might
be--after all, the kid had been behaving badly (loud, blond, white,
Anglophone, whining, stupid, spoiled, exploitive, rapacious,
intervening, assassinating legitimate heads of state, financing coups,
training torturers... oops... but really, you catch Dorfman's drift). In
the end, though, he did dive in after the brat.
There is the gentler French person, badboy Benoît Duteurtre,
author most recently of the novel Le Voyage en France, which won
the 2001 Médici prize. Duteurtre criticizes Europe for
proclaiming a high ground in human rights from which to criticize the
Americans, as if, he says, to disguise from itself that it belongs to
exactly the same world and is mired in identical contradictions. He
makes fun of the way the French use the word Disneyland (pronounced
Deez-nee-lahhhhnd) to refer to the entire American polity.
President Jacques Chirac--that unsuccessful chameleon--comes in for a
smacking, too. In Chirac's speech after September 11, Duteurtre writes,
"I heard the inferiority complex of a Europe deprived of its role as
world leader...but still quick to judge good and evil."
The effect of Granta's roundup is shockingly human: Here are no,
or few, diatribes, and much affection--through tears--from Arab and
Muslim contributors. A piece that perhaps explains well what led to
September 11 (which I take to be the ostensible reason for
Granta's package) is Pankaj Mishra's "Jihadis," a beautiful,
brilliantly observed essay about Pakistan (by an Indian!) and its
troubled identity, as well as about the US and Pakistani governments'
growth and nurturing of the jihad movement. Gives you an idea, too, of
the level of corruption that made the initially pure-minded Taliban
This, to me, is the best issue of any magazine trying to explain
September 11. There is also Ziauddin Sardar's "Mecca," both funny and
instructive about the rituals of the hajj and of Saudi society in
general. Don't forget to appreciate the photo essay on Afghanistan by
Thomas Dworzak: It captures the dust, the mud, the turbans, the
mountains, as well as Northern Alliance soccer, burqa ladies buying
their liberation pop-music cassettes and the eerie ruins of eternal
Kabul, after the attacks.
Out on the Links
Sometimes, the problem with online magazines like The Black
Commentator (www.blackcommentator.com) can be the links. For
example, in the inaugural (April 2002) issue, there's a very persuasive
piece on the much-discussed Cory Booker, running for mayor of Newark in
the Democratic primary against the picaresque Sharpe James. Booker,
another dang Rhodes scholar, seems to pride himself on adopting some of
the meretricious conservative bent of Bill Clinton. The TBC piece
attacks Booker for his support of school vouchers and goes on to map out
in great detail the web of conservative groups that have supported the
Booker movement in Newark--not a pretty picture. It argues that Booker
is another pawn in the right's effort to develop African-American
politicians it can work with and manipulate.
The piece has no byline. But at the end, it has a feature possibly more
meaningful than a byline: "sources that contributed to this commentary,"
followed by a series of hyperlinks to information both pro- and
anti-Booker. In his speech at the Manhattan Institute, you can
hear--behind Booker's pro-voucher position--not only the clink of money
and financial backing and the Evil White Rich Men Who Run The World but
also the will of a black electorate with whom Booker, having lived in
Newark's projects and spent month after month on a notorious
never-cleaned-up corner in Newark's drug-dealing inner city, is not
unfamiliar. The problem with TBC is its paranoid style: I'd like
to see it address the question of why there seems to be a drift among
African-American voters toward conservatism--something that doesn't just
tell me the new black pols are being paid for it but that considers the
electorate as well, considers Booker's supporters: what they think of
people like Colin Powell or the improbably named Condoleezza Rice, or of
Cory Booker, who's no idiot. Don't some black families hold these
successful conservative types up as examples to their sons and
daughters, or is that just too Cosbyfied?
Al-Ahram Weekly, a venerable English-language publication based in Cairo
another paper that for themoment is focusing on an oppressed people--in
this case, the Palestinians. Al-Ahram is a useful corrective for
my formerly peace-leaning Jewish friends who feel that the US media,
especially the New York Times and CNN, are increasingly biased
against Israel. It's a real source for uncovered news about what's
happening in the territories, with much less of the myth-making and
demonizing that characterize so much of the Palestinian stuff coming out
of the West Bank over the Internet in these impossible times. Much less
paranoia here but, still, a painful and useful reality check.
The new Daedalus is out. I have to admit to having not read Daedalus with much fervor in the past, say, fifteen years (well, if ever, to be honest), but I was curious about the venerable journal now that it's under the editorship of James Miller, professor of political science and director of liberal studies at the New School, and author, most notably, of Flowers in the Dustbin, a book about rock and roll that actually won a music-book award, to say nothing of his other books (one on Foucault, another on the SDS, another on Rousseau, plus History and Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty).
Miller's first issue (Winter 2002) is about inequality. Whoever would have suspected twenty or thirty years ago that inequality could be considered good or that a discussion about its attributes could fuel an entire 117 pages of intelligent commentary? I'm aware of the debates--say, since Reagan--about the societal advantages of greed and inequality, but has any decent person ever seriously thought that inequality was good for anything other than sustaining the kind of high culture that produces journals like Daedalus, and of course for people like Marie Antoinette and Kenneth Lay? Anyhow, as Daedalus has traditionally, the new magazine suffers painfully from the kind of writing academics do ("In this essay, I shall attempt...," etc.) and the kind of writing policy wonks do ("The Luxembourg Income Study, which is the best current source of data on economic inequality in different countries, has calculated 90/10 ratios for fourteen rich democracies in the mid-1990s").
Yet because Daedalus has in the end a liberal mind, the new issue provides, if you can plow through it, a strong restatement of the value (economic, political and moral) of equality; and convincing arguments that inequality is pretty regularly--if sometimes more subtly than one would imagine--an evil. A historical essay that happens to be written by my distant cousin Sean Wilentz offers, among other things, lively illumination of the idea, dimly seized by me in my sporadic and unsuccessful attempts to buy a house, that the ability to purchase real estate lies at the heart of all equality or inequality.
In spite of the general impenetrability, many of the pieces have good bits. Martha Nussbaum's essay on women in India begins with an unforgettable story: A Bangladeshi woman waiting for a train at Howrah Station in Calcutta is first gallantly helped by railroad officials, and then drugged, kidnapped and gang-raped by four station employees; when she finally makes her way back to the station, battered, blood-stained and disoriented, she's tricked once again by other kindly, courtly, decent-seeming chemin de fer types into another gang-rape hideaway. Amazingly (cheerful Indian ending), she survives to bring suit against her attackers. This one anecdote brings life to Nussbaum's piece, while reminding us (as if one needed reminding, after the recent train burnings, etc.) that all the exotic incident and violence in Indian literature does not come from nowhere.
Quarrel & Quandary
As long as we're looking at venerable journals that I haven't read recently (an ever-widening category, it seems), let's talk about Partisan Review. I picked up the first issue of 2002 because it contains an article arrestingly titled "Melville's Skull and the Idea of Jerusalem," by Cynthia Ozick. Ozick is a great writer; her style is fluid and personal, and there is wonderful voice in everything she touches. This essay is no exception--if I agreed with any of its passions or arguments, it would be a beloved object of reflection. In it, among other things, Ozick claims that the modern state of Israel has at its foundations "ethical visionariness," unlike the states of Europe and other contemporary nationalist movements. Zionism, she says, "is distinct because it is inextricably bound with a coherent concept of the moral obligations of civilization: land cannot mean land alone, land bare of civilized purpose, land bare of law." This, by the way, is someone writing about Zionism not in the nineteenth century or two years ago, but today, as Israel's tanks roll back into the territories (land bedecked, no doubt, in "civilized purpose," so long as it remains occupied by those equipped with ethical visionariness). Ah, well; in her Zionist arrogation of all indignation, all righteousness, all suffering, Ozick even indicts Herman Melville for not recognizing Jerusalem's holiness, because he preferred the whiteness of the whale. She can't bear that.
Woman Is the Deejay of the World
Yoko Ono, an equally self-possessed woman, is on the cover of Mixer magazine, a decidedly unvenerable journal devoted to "music, clubs, life." In my house, we have a Don't Diss Yoko rule. Amazingly, my small sons have learned to despise her. They've informed me that Yoko "broke up the Beatles" and that she is "bad"--by "bad" they mean "bad." The great thing about Yoko is that, at age 68, she goes on being herself. She recently refused to give Paul McCartney any special credit on the Lennon-McCartney songs that he in fact wrote himself ("Yesterday" comes to mind), keeping the old enmity with Sir Cheerful simmering. Ono's latest prank: She's become an occasional club deejay down in New York's meatpacking district. "It's weird," says Peter Rauhofer, a city deejay, "when you're in a deejay booth...and find Yoko Ono standing beside you...at 3 am." He goes on: "Her manager asked me if I had a microphone, because Ono wanted to do some 'orgasmic moans.' I thought he was joking." He wasn't, of course. She does the moans, to the supposed delight of the dance floor. Later she repairs with a reporter for further insight to her "vast, conservatively decorated kitchen" in the Dakota. Yoko's evolution from child of Japan's banking aristocracy to alternative artist and outrageous darling of New York's demimonde would make an instructive entry in the annals of inequality. But if someone has to be rich, it should be Ono. Why? Because at a happening in Hyde Park in 1968 or so, she blindfolded an entire fashionable audience with sanitary pads--and then silently left them there to contemplate their own ridiculous abandonment. That's visionariness.
Some magazines have an identity problem, and some don't. The New York Review of Books doesn't, as you may have noticed. It's relentlessly highbrow, which is how we like it. For the most part. But every once in a while, a little bit of pop culture creeps in, hooray, and then the editors do their best to hide it. In the February 14 issue, for example, there's an ebullient review of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher, among a million other of his books, by the always bubbling and boiling John Leonard. But the cover gives no hint that this amusement lurks within. Instead, it plugs yet another review of yet another book on Anthony Blunt (Blunt and Kim Philby are to NYRB what the Beatles are to Rolling Stone: no issue complete without at least one mention, even if it has to be in the personals); a searing legal indictment of Bush's military tribunal "concept" by Aryeh Neier, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch; and, smack in the center, a piece by John Updike on Gustav Klimt in New York, the exhibit at the new Neue Galerie on Museum Row in New York.
Updike's review is fine, but it gives me the feeling, again, that there are two sides to the man: Updike the great writer, and Updike the whiny curmudgeon who hangs out in New York, goes on taxing trips to China and believes he heard the twin towers "tinkle" to the ground from his vantage point in Brooklyn. Thus the Klimt review begins with a litany of complaints about traffic flow at the museum and the placement of the bookstore and gift shop on the ground floor (where else would they be?), with the brave Updike thrusting forward like a great beaky bird through the plebes. "As stated," he writes, "the café, with windows on Fifth Avenue, was thriving; in my haste to get to the art I missed the bookstore and 'design shop.'"
I'm glad the King review is there as a counterweight to the difficult walk amid the gifts and the latte drinkers and the Austrian furnishings, but it shouldn't be a secret kept from newsstand buyers. Leonard's encompassing review includes the funny and instructive story of King buying a table at the National Book Awards for himself and John Grisham (among others), who will never be invited or granted such a prize by what Leonard, borrowing a fine word from King, calls "those shit-weasels, the anal-retentive literary establishment." Not at the table, and not on the cover.
I've always been a coward, and the events of September 11 have not alleviated the problem. I own: one roll of duct tape, a medium-sized Leatherman tool, a small flashlight, seven surgical masks, a box of latex gloves, many cans of beans and a box of Carnation evaporated milk, all bought in the aftermath of that day. I admit it's not total coverage. But then, I am not much of a survivalist. Five months after the attacks, I went through some of the post-9/11 magazines, and I now know why survivalism is not for me. A person who depends on one box of Carnation (which, I have learned from my reading, lasts only six months) should not go on living on an earth that will be filled with post-Armageddon survivalists. We could not be friends. They call knives "edged weapons."
Of course, all the survivalist and mercenary magazines are pro-gun, and they seem to think that having a gun will somehow help you in the next new world. In Terrorism Survival Guide's second issue, an article about choosing the right firearm tells families that "self defense has reached a level in this era of murderous terrorism that to be unarmed is equivalent to surrendering to ruthless evil." It's hard to imagine how a handgun would help as a skyscraper flattens to the ground, but I suppose the civil unrest that might follow could justify it. (And I did like the look and name of that Black Widow .22 Magnum, which weighs in at just over 6 ounces and is only 5 inches long and would fit quite snugly next to my Leatherman and flashlight.) As ever, Soldier of Fortune is the most interesting of the wacko military mags. Like Aryeh Neier--to whom you can safely say its writers are not too often compared--it abhors Bush's military tribunals, and its March issue contains a semi-thought-provoking piece on Johnny Michael Spann and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, with most of the ideas and attitudes taken from Seymour Hersh's piece on Tenet in The New Yorker last fall. Hersh and SOF: another unusual team. But then again: The World Has Changed. You can tell it has, because in the photo of a young girl and her Barbie doll in Terrorism Survival Guide's article "What Do We Tell Our Kids?", the girl is wearing a supermodern protective plastic helmet, and Barbie has on a pink tank top, lace skirt and gas mask.
There's a new niche magazine: Heeb, the New Jew Review. Intended to stir up controversy, this sparky and slightly inane newcomer will reignite the old, old controversy over what it means to be Jewish. If it means skateboarding and deejaying and graffiti-writing, I've blown it completely. But there are some great things in here, too: a wrong-minded but amusing meditation on the use of Jews in The Simpsons; a lovely homoerotic paean to Allen Ginsberg, with a moving photo of the great one in his bathrobe, cooking; a twisted essay on Pizza Hut's new Twisted Crust pie, which the writer insists is a reference to the swastika (Hakenkreuz, in German, or twisted cross); someone's old bubbe reviewing the latest pop music ("Oh, I love that beat!"). Heeb takes only a minor interest in the major crisis facing Jews today--there's a short bit (in a department called Underground Oslo) on the Old City Peace Vigil, a small interfaith group that is bravely keeping up a protest in the shadow of the Western Wall. Everything in this eye-catching magazine is irreverent, but only a teaspoonful is important. Still, it's a rare pleasure to see my people not take themselves too seriously. Oh, and it has a centerfold of Neil Diamond. Not nude, but the mutton chops are swell; he's like a luscious pinup from another lifetime.
There is a value to the much-criticized crawl that zipped along at the bottom of CNN's window during the attack on Afghanistan, beneath clips of dirty traitors and soldier-heroes and starving refugees. As the world's other news ticked blithely by, trivialized by the pictures above it, the ephemeral, superficial crawl reminded us of the worth of words that do not move, and of stories told in columns of type, not in video clips or on film. I don't want to get too sentimental, but isn't the printed page reliable; isn't it familiar; isn't it decent? It feels immutable in a way that other things do not these days. As Walter Isaacson (who is now running CNN) said when he was still at Time: "If the world were based on computers and they told you about magazines, you'd think: 'Wow: what a great technology!'"
Magazines and newspapers (and online versions of these) still often manage to tackle complex stories and say things that have meaning, unlike so much of the media. And meaning, which is so unusual now that content is dead (a friend actually told me that several years ago), meaning generates a ripple of excitement. I found it fun, for example, when Lewis Lapham called the Attorney General "Mullah John Ashcroft" in print, in Harper's, of course. You won't find "Mullah" John Ashcroft doing the crawl on CNN beneath the story about President Bush and his FPS (Failed Pretzel Swallowing). Now that Talk, which had every kind of support behind it, has gone under (in the wake of other recent casualties like Brill's Content, Lingua Franca, Mademoiselle, ON magazine), we can be reasonably sure that the print media is in for further high-temperature shrinking as the economy tightens. This column will check in regularly on the health of content and highlight what's meaningful in print, in general interest and niche publications, and in the little, spirited, idiosyncratic guys one rarely gets to.
What 'The Arab' Thinks
Since the fall of the towers, I've listened to and read so much drivel about "Arab casbah culture" and the "Arabs' nomadic mentality" and about what Arabs think and what really drives "The Arab," that it was good to find Al Jadid, a quarterly published in Los Angeles devoted to Arab culture and arts. The way I found it was unfortunate, however--painful. Suffice it to say that my recent novel (which is about Jerusalem) received from Al Jadid its only English-language notice from an Arab point of view, and the review was not entirely kind. So I was led reluctantly to the magazine, but when I looked into its back issues, I discovered that it contains a wealth of opinion and information that no one else is publishing in English.
I knew Al Jadid was for me when one knowledgeable Arab of my acquaintance told me disdainfully that the magazine was "not influential." I love that; for me, "not influential" means you can read the thing without having to feel you must agree with it. Consider these noninfluential observations, by Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist, essayist and editor, on Saddam (yes, the Saddam) Hussein's first novel, Zubayba and the King (2000): For Arab military dictatorships, Khoury writes,
literature became somehow a field associated with the...dictatorship, perhaps because all writing in [such] regimes is like writing intelligence reports. We find a strange mixture between the writer and the intelligence analyst.... Creative writers first become intelligence report writers and then become authors!... The literary world suffered in a terrifying way thanks to this strange combination: Egyptian authors were imprisoned; Iraqi writers lived between exile, prison and assassination; literature in Syria knew a great decline; and in the Gulf regimes, monarchies, emirates and sheikhdoms, the censor is almost the sole author.
Magazines like Al Jadid, which are concerned with niche obsessions or particular groups, also often speak with unintentional authority to the universal, to the general human experience. One of my favorite examples of this--in the Al Jadid "Editor's Notebook" column by Elie Chalala, in the Winter 2001 issue--is called "Poet and Critic Nouri Jarah Laments Standards of Arab Literary Criticism, Rushing Poetry into Translation."
The first interesting thing you discover in this great piece is that "individuals seeking political asylum" are trying to pass themselves off as Great Poets from their home countries, in order to claim persecution. That's a good ruse. Unfortunately, this is the only eccentric thing you discover about the Arab publishing world. Otherwise, we might as well be in New York or London. Jarah states that "decisions of culture [in the Arab world] are based on exchanges of power and influence" rather than on sheer literary merit. He also points out that "the Arab critic-author relationship is one of enmity rather than amity."
Mmmmmm. Oh yes. Really.
Now I understand where my reviewer was coming from.
Woman on the Go
Working Woman was closed by new management (a bank) last September, on its twenty-fifth anniversary. The magazine went on "hiatus," as the holding company that still owns the name puts it. This leaves Woman's sororal twin, Working Mother, still out there in the market because, as one former employee says, "it's easier for advertisers to understand Working Mother's audience; the demographic is more tangible." Doctors' offices are among Working Mother's largest subscriber groups. (In case you are wondering, Ms. is still published but is not advertiser-supported.)
Working Woman was intended to target CEO-level women, who make about twice as much as, say, the readership of Good Housekeeping (which shows no signs of closing down). But the high-end women were more likely to subscribe to Business Week, Forbes or Fortune. Eventually the advertising community deserted the publication, because it could get at the actual Woman readers better elsewhere: at Family Circle, for example, or in the fashion and beauty and shopper magazines.
In an interesting note, Working Mother, which also changed hands and recruited a new staff in September, will now be put out by an editor in chief and a deputy editor neither of whom have ever had children. It's as if you had a white person editing Ebony.