Politics and pop, past and present.
November 22 is of course the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I haven’t read all 1,000 books about it, but I have five favorites:
Don DeLillo, Libra
“We will build theories that gleam like jade idols,” says DeLillo’s surrogate, a CIA historian writing the secret history of Dallas. “We will follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams.” In the novel, two CIA veterans of the Bay of Pigs seek to arouse anti-Cuban sentiment by organizing an assassination attempt by a Castro supporter. But in their plan, the assassin—with an identity “made out of ordinary pocket litter”—will miss. DeLillo, as John Leonard wrote in The Nation, “is an agnostic about reality.”
Stephen King, 11/22/63
When Jake steps thru the secret passage in Al’s Diner in Maine, it takes him back to 1958; can he stick around and change the course of history by stopping Oswald before November 22, 1963? And what if he discovers that the conspiracy theorists were right, and JFK was shot by someone else? Eight hundred and fifty wonderful pages of time travel romance and adventure in a world where the food tastes better and the music is more fun—and where history itself resists change, with all its might.
Robert Caro, LBJ: The Passage of Power chapters 11–13
The assassination seen through LBJ’s eyes, one car back in the motorcade in Dealey Plaza: after Oswald’s first shot, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood shouted, “Get down! Get down!” Then LBJ “was on the floor, his face on the floor, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him,” as the two cars sped toward Parkland Hospital. When they arrived, Agent Youngblood said, ‘I want you and Mrs. Johnson to stick with me and the other agents as close as you can. We are going into the hospital and we aren’t gonna stop for anything or anybody. Do you understand?’ ‘Okay, pardner, I understand,’ Lyndon Johnson said.”
Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale
Mailer in his reporter-researcher mode: at age 70, he spent six cold months in Minsk, where Oswald had lived with his Russian wife Marina for thirty months starting in 1960. Mailer interviewed fifty people and used the KGB’s tapes from Oswald’s bugged apartment to paint a vivid picture of the dullness and misery of their lives. Mailer said he started “with a prejudice in favor of the conspiracy theorists,” but he found Oswald to have been a lonely Marxist megalomaniac and an angry loser. In the end, Robert Stone wrote in The New York Review of Books, Mailer had to conclude that “absurdity and common death gape far wider beneath us than high conspiracy, tragedy, or sacrifice.”
Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History
An encyclopedia of assassination conspiracies, with each and every one refuted, “revealed as a fraud on the American public.” One thousand six hundred oversize pages, plus a CD with 1,100 pages of notes, written by the legendary criminal prosecutor. “No group of top-level conspirators,” he argues, “would ever employ someone as unstable and unreliable as Oswald to commit the biggest murder in history, no such group would ever provide its hit man with a twelve-dollar rifle to get the job done, and any such group would help its hit man escape or have a car waiting to drive him to his death, not allow him to be wandering out in the street, catching cabs and buses to get away, as we know Oswald did.”
(Courtesy of Youtube user Harvard University Press)
It doesn’t happen very often that a leading critic calls on a university press to withdraw and then reissue a corrected version of a scholarly book. But it’s happening now—the book is The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand; the publisher is Harvard University Press, and the critic is David Denby of The New Yorker, who said in a radio interview with me, “I have called for Harvard University Press to withdraw it and get him to rework it.”
Urwand claims to show “for the first time” what he calls a “bargain” made in the 1930s between the Hollywood studios, headed mostly by Jews, and “Adolf Hitler, the person and human being.” The “bargain” was that the studios “followed the instructions of the German consul in Los Angeles,” changed film scripts and cut scenes the Nazi official objected to, and cancelled planned anti-Nazi films—in exchange for continuing to distribute films and make money in Germany.
Denby reviewed the book and wrote a follow-up blog post, agreeing with Urwand that Hollywood was timid and cowardly in responding to the rise of Hitler, but calling the book “recklessly misleading.” Other reviewers have made similar criticisms. Even some of those thanked by Urwand in his acknowledgements are criticizing the book. David Thomson is perhaps our greatest film writer, author of the indispensable Biographical Dictionary of Film and more than a dozen other wonderful books, and film critic for The New Republic. He told me “there are quite a lot of ways in which one can find fault with the book.” He described “mistakes and misjudgments,” and “a certain recklessness in the book and that’s not been kindly served by the publisher.”
The problem for Thomson, Denby and others starts with the book’s title: The Collaboration. There is a huge scholarly literature on “collaboration and resistance” in World War II. Typical topic: “the French: bystanders or collaborators?” A collaborator, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is “a person who works with an enemy who has taken control of their country.” Urwand knows this, but insists his title is okay because he found the German word for “collaboration” in the Nazi documents from the 1930s describing their relationship with Hollywood studios. That doesn’t work. “This is not a case of collaboration in any sense of the word,” Thomson concluded. “It was a mistake to call the book that.”
The second problem comes with the book’s subtitle: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. There were two notorious “pacts” with Hitler—the Munich pact of 1938, where the French and British let Hitler have his way with Czechoslovakia, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, where the two agreed not to go to war and instead divided up Poland. It’s wrong to use the same term to describe the actions of Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and the others.
Urwand told me in an e-mail that the criticism of his book has been so strong “because this material is so new and so shocking.” But his critics have said precisely the opposite: Although Urwand has provided a great deal of new documentation, the story he tells is one we already know. Urwand claims to “reveal” for “the first time” the close cooperation between the Hollywood studios and the Nazi government, but several books have already done that, most recently Hollywood and Hitler, by Thomas Doherty, published by Columbia University Press in April 2013. As The New York Times Book Review explained, Doherty shows that “Nazis were all but invisible in American movies at the time when depicting their savagery might have done the most good,” and that “a great majority of American studios went out of their way to avoid any mention of the ominous political developments in Germany from the moment of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 until well into 1939.” They also backed away from depicting anti-Semitism or indeed any Jewish subject matter. Doherty shows how the key figure for the studios was the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling. The motivation of the studio heads, as the Times Book Review put it, was “largely commercial”—they “did not want to risk the loss of a major European market by offending Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, whose censors decided which foreign films would be shown in Germany.”
Doherty relied primarily on the trade press, while Urwand did massive archival work. His book includes sixty-five pages of endnotes, reporting on his research in five German archives and a dozen more in the US, including much more on Gyssling than Doherty found. But what he documents is basically the same story. Thomson told me, “It’s true that a lot of Hollywood was cowardly, compromising, opportunistic, looking out for its own interest. But why be surprised about that? That’s the nature of Hollywood. There’s a way in which the book is unduly outraged by things that a more experienced Hollywood commentator would understand as being part of the system.”
Another problem for Urwand: the leading Jewish defense organizations urged the studios not to make movies about anti-Semitism or Hitler. Urwand acknowledges that the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee both urged the studio heads not to make films that might lead people to blame the Jews for fomenting another war. Thus greed and cowardice were not the only motives.
Urwand writes as if the main source of pressure on the studios to change scripts and kill projects came from Gyssling, the Nazi consul, but as Doherty shows, the more insistent demands for changes came from the Production Code Administration, the “Hays Office,” headed by Joseph I. Breen, a prominent Catholic layman--Denby calls him an anti-Semite, but Doherty disagrees. Breen insisted that anti-Nazi material be cut from films, citing a statement in the code that “all nations shall be represented fairly.” Sometimes Breen responded to letters from Gyssling, but more often he acted on his own. Urwand replies that the Hays Office was a creation of the studios, which is true, and he suggests that the studio heads could have replaced Breen if they wanted. That however is hard to imagine; would these Jews really fire a prominent Catholic because they wanted to make pro-Jewish films?
And it wasn’t just the Nazis that Hollywood was cooperating with. The studios submitted to censorship from all kinds of people all the time, as Doherty and others have shown, to hold on to audiences in particular foreign countries and also in the United States. Films were cut or altered at the request of the British, the French and even the Japanese; and also in response to demands in the US from Catholic groups, temperance groups, women’s groups, and local censorship boards in places like Chicago and Kansas City. The film studios were not in the business of protecting the First Amendment rights of artists; their number-one concern was to avoid offense to anyone.
The more original parts of Urwand’s book have gotten the harshest criticism. Urwand describes the film Our Daily Bread, directed by King Vidor, as a “Hollywood movie that delivered a National Socialist message.” Denby points out that it was in fact a left-wing film that the Nazis liked for their own peculiar reasons. Urwand’s “treatment of the King Vidor film is very misguided,” Thomson said.
Thomson also cited the conclusion of the book as especially problematic. Urwand told The New York Times that the only time he ever shouted in an archive was when he found documents showing that Jack Warner and other studio heads took a Rhine cruise in July 1945 on Hitler’s yacht. What exactly was Urwand shouting about? Hitler, of course, was dead by that point, and the war in Europe was over; their host was General George Marshall. The studio heads had not only visited the Rhine but also the death camp at Dachau. “They had seen firsthand one of the sites where the murder of the Jews had taken place,” Urwand writes. But after returning to the US, “they did not put it on the screen.” That’s the last thing in his book. So even when there was no more money to be made by collaborating with Hitler, the Jews who ran the studios still didn’t expose his crimes against their people! “The boat trip at the end is really kind of fatuous,” Thomson says. “It makes the book seem more reckless than it might be.”
Urwand also makes a mistake historians are supposed to avoid: instead of exploring the historical context around his central characters, he judges them by what we subsequently learned. Yes, the studio heads failed to see that the Holocaust was coming. But as Doherty has written, in the 1930s “the Nazis had not yet become what they are now: a universal emblem for absolute evil. From our perspective, the rise of Nazism looks like a linear trajectory, a series of accelerating events terminating inevitably at the gates of Auschwitz. But at the time, the endgame of Nazism was not so clear. Most Americans, including the Hollywood moguls, had no inkling of the horrors to come.”
There’s a deeper issue for some of the critics. People like Denby object to the book in part because it comes close to arguing that the Jews who ran Hollywood were so greedy they would cooperate with Hitler himself, selling out their own people to make money. It’s an age-old anti-Semitic trope. Urwand, perhaps anticipating this theme, emphasizes his status as the child of Jewish refugees from anti-Semitism. At his website he describes himself as “the son of Jewish immigrants: his father was forced to leave Cairo, Egypt in 1956, and his mother fled Budapest, Hungary the same year.” He also says that, as an undergrad at the University of Sydney, he “won the prize for best history thesis for his work on Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List.”
The book does have at least two significant supporters. Harvard published the book with quotes on the back cover from Greil Marcus and Richard J. Evans. Marcus has written many well-known and much-admired books on American popular culture, including one on the film The Manchurian Candidate. He is described by Urwand in his acknowledgements as the person who “guided me from the moment I first stumbled upon materials in the archives,” and as someone who “has been unbelievably generous and constantly inspiring.” Marcus told me he did not want to add anything to his statement on the jacket, where he describes the book as “a tremendous piece of work, fully sustained, building momentum charged by thrillingly detailed storytelling, increasing suspense, and a consistent movement from outrages to atrocities, with a stunning conclusion of heroism and tragedy.”
Evans, who has written what is widely regarded as the definitive history of Germany in World War II, is quoted on the jacket praising the book as “full of startling and surprising revelations, presented…without any moralizing or sensationalism.” But “moralizing and sensationalism” are exactly what many critics found in the book. When I asked Evans what he thought of the critics’ arguments, he replied that he had reviewed the manuscript for the press; “I have read David Denby’s critique,” he said, “and others as well. I am not in any way convinced by them. If you read them carefully, they are either so general and rhetorical as to carry no conviction, or they pick up extremely minor points that in no way affect the overall argument.” He concluded that Urwand had written “an oustanding work of scholarship that should provide cause for reflection, not prompt knee-jerk reactions from people who are intelligent enough to know better.”
But it’s hard to find supporters of the book among other historians who study the subject. The Hollywood Reporter described Deborah Lipstadt, the award-winning Holocaust historian at Emory, as a “prominent defender” of Urwand in the controversy, citing her quote in The New York Times that the book “could be a blockbuster.” But she made it clear in that interview that she had not yet read the book—and she told me it is not correct to describe her as a “defender” of Urwand’s work.
I e-mailed six Berkeley faculty members thanked by Urwand in his acknowledgements, asking for their comments on the criticisms of the book. Waldo Martin and Anton Kaes did not respond. Kathleen Moran said she had not read the book. Urwand’s dissertation committee consisted of Leon Litwack, a leading historian of African-Americans (see update with comment from Litwack below), and Carol Clover, who has written a book on horror films, and who said she could not comment because she had not read the published book. The only one who defended Urwand was Martin Jay—he’s a distinguished intellectual historian and scholar of visual culture. He raised the issue of what he called “the time-dishonored anti-Semitic trope” of the greedy Jew. “Ben was aware of this issue,” Jay wrote, “but felt his evidence led him to those very conclusions.” Jay called Denby’s pieces “over-the-top,” especially what he called “the silliness of saying it was a scandal that a university press like Harvard didn’t check facts, as if this were a function of university press staffs.” Jay acknowledged that Denby raised two “valid questions”: “the 20-20 hindsight issue: the moguls were still unaware of the true nature of Nazi anti-Semitism,” and the fact of “Jewish anxiety over playing into the hands of American anti-Semites who were looking for any opportunity to blame the Jews for wanting another war.” But, he said, Urwand’s “evidence suggests there was more to the story.”
There is one possible source of the problem identified by both Denby and Thomson as the “recklessness” of the book: Harvard University Press took the unusual step of hiring an outside publicist, Goldberg McDuffie, to promote what had started as a Berkeley history PhD thesis. Goldberg McDuffie represents best-selling authors as well as companies like Amazon, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Some have suggested that the exaggerated claims for the book’s “collaboration” thesis are the work of the big-time publicist and a publisher eager for a bestseller, rather than the mild-mannered author. Thomson says Urwand was not served well by the press, and that the problems in the book could easily have been solved by an editor. “If you had a much more moderate title,” he said, “straightaway the book would have slipped into a different position.”
Other scholars who have faced intense and widespread criticism of their books have responded to critics with long detailed essays, sometimes in scholarly journals—for example David Abraham on German business and the Nazis, and Daniel Goldhagen on the Catholic Church and the Nazis. Urwand in contrast has written a five-paragraph letter to The New Yorker, only part of which was published in the magazine. His published letter restated his argument for using “collaboration” as his title. In the four paragraphs the magazine did not publish, but which he sent to me, he noted that the Hayes office was a representative of the film industry, and took up a couple of lesser issues, including how the studios got their money out of Germany. His published letter concluded, “It is time to face the actions of the Hollywood studios.” He told me he has no plans for any further response to his critics.
In the meantime, History News Network, a widely read website, polled historians on Denby’s proposal, asking, “Should Harvard University Press conduct a review of ‘The Collaboration’?” As of this writing (September 30), 62 percent said “yes,” with ninety-one people voting, and only 33 percent said “no.”
The director of Harvard University Press, William P. Sisler, has made it clear they’re not going to do that, and in fact the only books that get withdrawn by the publishers have authors who are guilty of massive research errors, systematic fraud or plagiarism. I know of only one scholarly book by a historian that has been withdrawn and reissued: Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis, by David Abraham, withdrawn by Princeton in 1984 after Abraham conceded his footnotes contained significant errors, and republished in a corrected version in 1986 by Holmes and Meier. (That story is told in my book Historians in Trouble.)
But even if you set aside Denby’s proposal and arguments, you still have Jeanine Basinger’s judgment. She’s a distinguished historian of film who teaches at Wesleyan, and her review, in The Wall Street Journal, concluded that Urwand’s book “clamors for attention and makes sensation out of facts that film historians have already weighed.” In addition, “he has judged the past from the informed awareness of the present, elevating the bad judgment and greed of individuals into actual political collaboration. His book does not prove it.” That seems right to me.
UPDATE Oct. 1: Berkeley historian Leon Litwack writes, "Ben was my student and I supervised the dissertation. He impressed me from the very outset. The depth and quality of the research, the imaginative and critical powers he brought to the book, the resources he uncovered, the literary skills he demonstrated place the book at the top of the scholarship on the subject. I am hardly surprised at the controversy it has generated. Hollywood's record on the African American experience speaks for itself."
Attorney Gloria Allred is shown speaking with students and alumni who allege Occidental College administrators violated federal standards for dealing with their rape, sexual assault or retaliation claims. April 18, 2013 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Occidental College, the Los Angeles school where thirty-seven students and alumni filed a federal complaint last spring about rape on campus, has quietly settled with at least ten of the complainants. Under the settlement, negotiated by attorney Gloria Allred, the ten received cash payments and are barred from participating in the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition, the campus group that organized the campaign that has resulted in a federal investigation.
The settlement, reported by the Los Angeles Times September 19 on page one, immediately provoked criticism. Danielle Dirks, a criminology professor who has been active in the campaign, told the Times that requiring “the women to remain silent and not to participate in campus activism could have a chilling effect at Occidental.” “Part of the reason so many women have come forward is because other assault survivors have been able to speak openly about their treatment,” Dirks said.
The settlement negotiated by Allred, Dirks said, “effectively erases all of the sexual assaults and the college’s wrongdoing.”
Allred, asked to comment, said in an email, "Our clients have made a choice to resolve this matter. It is a confidential matter."
Under the federal civil rights complaint filed last year, the thirty-seven said the school had “deliberately discouraged victims from reporting sexual assaults, misled students about their rights during campus investigations, retaliated against whistleblowers, and handed down minor punishment to known assailants who in some cases allegedly struck again.”
Faculty and staff joined students in criticizing the administration of Oxy president Jonathan Veitch. In May, 135 faculty members and ninety-four administrators and staff members signed a resolution in support of Oxy students regarding sexual assault issues.
Investigators from the federal Office for Civil Rights are expected to arrive on campus soon. Allred said in her email that the students involved in the settlement "are free to participate and serve as witnesses and discuss the alleged sexual assaults and/or rapes" in the federal investigation, and also "in any campus proceeding and in any legal proceeding and/or in any court of law."
Chloe Angyal writes about why it is important for survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories.
Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP Images)
“Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West”—that story in The New York Times on September 5 reported that “many rebels have adopted some of the same brutal and ruthless tactics as the regime they are trying to overthrow.” The dilemma: how can we punish Assad for his violations of international law, when his opponents are also in violation—in this case, killing prisoners?
The Times called this a “foreign policy puzzle.” But there’s a solution to this puzzle. Some have suggested the solution is: don’t bomb Assad. Those people are spineless and unprincipled. The obvious solution is simple: bomb both sides.
The principles enunciated by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are clear and uplifting: it’s our job to punish evildoers. It’s our job to send a message, so that others will not follow the example of evildoing. Those who oppose sending a message will be responsible for whatever evil follows.
Kerry made it clear that those who refuse to support American intervention against Assad will be responsible the next time the Syrian regime “gasses its citizens”—and they will also be responsible “when North Korea or Iran attempts to use nuclear weapons.” But of course the same argument applies to the other side: those against bombing the opposition with also be personally responsible if Iran attacks Israel with nuclear weapons.
The evidence in the New York Times is irrefutable: video tape of horrifying executions, smuggled out of Syria. As Secretary Kerry said (speaking of Assad’s crimes), “We know these things beyond the reasonable doubt that is the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives.” Everybody agrees it is a violation of international law to execute prisoners. As Secretary Kerry said, “Even countries with whom we agree on little” agree on that.
Those against an attack on the Syrian opposition—again, Secretary Kerry’s argument is powerful—“could be compared to those who would vote against action to the case of the St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Germany that was turned away from Cuba, the United States and Canada in 1939—and had to return to Europe, where many of its passengers eventually died in Nazi camps.” That’s Nazi camps, people!
To quote Secretary Kerry once more: “The world wonders whether the United States of America will consent, through silence, to standing aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.”
As the president has said, “Assad must go.” Now we need to add, “And the opposition must go.” Who then should govern Syria? Again, the answer is simple: the United States of America.
Greg Mitchell tracks those in the media who are asking the right questions about Kerry's inflated casualty figure.
On Wednesday, June 8, 2011, veteran J.J. Asevedo, left, sits at a news conference where it was announced that a lawsuit has been filed against the federal government at the Los Angeles Veterans Administration center in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/ Reed Saxon, File)
A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled August 29 that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been violating federal law by leasing land on its West LA campus for a hotel laundry, movie set storage, a baseball stadium for UCLA and a dog park. The lawsuit, brought by the ACLU of Southern California and others on behalf of homeless disabled veterans, argued that the 400 acres of Veterans Administration land in Brentwood, in West LA, is supposed to be used for housing disabled veterans.
Federal Judge James S. Otero ruled that the VA is prohibited from leasing its land to private parties “totally divorced from the provision of healthcare,” Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s chief counsel, said the ruling will return the campus to its true mission. “Those who served this nation in our time of need, now the VA is going to have to serve them in their time of need,” Rosenbaum said.
Los Angeles has more homeless vets living on the streets than any other American city—6,000 on any given night, according to the most recent count. And as the war in Afghanistan winds down, more will be arriving.
The land was donated in 1888 explicitly for housing homeless vets, and for the next eighty years, tens of thousands of vets lived there, at the Pacific Branch soldiers’ home. But for the past several decades, the dormitories have been empty, and over the years the VA has leased parts of the site for other purposes. Meanwhile, homeless veterans have been sleeping on the street outside the locked gates. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation.)
Particularly in need of help are vets with severe mental disabilities and those suffering from PTSD, brain injuries and other disorders. Housing is key to treating their medical problems, and there’s a regional VA medical center across the street from the empty dorms in Brentwood. The VA, however, argues that it has no legal or other obligation to provide housing for mentally disabled vets. It has acknowledged in court that it is required to provide medical services, but it argues that it has no responsibility to provide housing, even though these vets are too disabled to get to the hospital’s outpatient clinic on their own.
Under the order, nine leases are void, including Twentieth Century Fox Television and UCLA and the private Brentwood School, which have sports facilities on VA land. The judge gave the lessees and the VA six months to terminate the leases—or appeal his decision. The ACLU is urging the VA not to appeal: “Every day an appeal is pending the VA is putting the needs of private school students and college students over our veterans,” Rosenbaum said.
Meanwhile, the VA has been saying for a long time that it is going to house disabled homeless vets in Brentwood. More than five years ago, it designated three buildings for renovation. Congress appropriated $20 million for the first one in 2010, but ground was not broken until this past January, with a completion target of spring 2014. What do you get for $20 million? The VA says it will refurbish fifty-five apartments, forty-five as single rooms and ten as doubles, housing a total of sixty-five people. That’s around $300,000 per person. “That’s ridiculous,” says Robert Rosebrock of the Old Veterans Guard, which has been demonstrating every Sunday for five years outside the locked gates. “We could build a tent city and house thousands of homeless vets for that money.”
Michael Sorkin calls for architects to refuse to design chambers of living death.
Sarah Beth Alcabes kisses girlfriend Meghan Cleary, both of California, after the US Supreme Court’s ruling on cases against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s gay marriage ban known as Prop 8, outside the court in Washington, June 26, 2013. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Dan Savage started the It Gets Better project in 2010, with a short video online addressed to gay, lesbian, bi and transgender young people facing harassment, letting them know that, yes, it gets better. Today more than 50,000 people have posted videos at ItGetsBetter.org, which have been viewed more than 50 million times. He’s also a best-selling author whose new book is American Savage. He lives in Seattle with his husband, Terry, and their 15-year-old son, D.J.
Jon Wiener: How did you feel when you first heard the news that the Supreme Court had overruled DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act that had defined marriage as limited to two people of the opposite sex?
Dan Savage: I’m morbid, so my first thought was ‘I can die now.’
You didn’t think “now we can live happily ever after”?
For fifteen years my husband Terry has been a stay-home parent. I’m the sole source of support for my family. I have had this burden on my shoulders: if something should happen to me—if a plane I was on crashed, or some of these people who send me death threats made good on that threat, Terry wouldn’t get my Social Security survivor benefits, which he would if he was a woman; he would pay a crushing tax burden; he would lose the house. Terry and D.J. would be made to suffer.
And what was the official reason for that?
Persecuting Terry and D.J. in the event of my death was framed as something that, in some mysterious way, would strengthen the heterosexual family. So that morning, when the decision came down—it was 7 o’clock in Seattle—suddenly I didn’t have to worry any more about the gratuitous financial persecution of my husband and son in the event of my death. Which I hope isn’t coming anytime soon.
How did it happen that a gay man became the go-to guy for straight people seeking advice about sex? When you started the Savage Love column, was that the plan?
That was absolutely not the plan. I started the column as a joke. A friend was starting a newspaper, and I said, “You should have an advice column, everybody reads those.” He said, “Great idea, you should write it.” I was a gay dude and out for a long time even then. We thought it would be funny to have a gay guy giving advice to straight people. And I would treat straight people with the same contempt and revulsion that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people. To be treated with this kind of contempt was a new experience for straight people, and they liked it. So this thing I thought I would be doing for six months or a year turned into something I am now trapped into doing for the rest of my life.
The letters you get from teenagers led you to write in American Savage: that “every teenager should be required to take a sex-ed class.” I imagine the curriculum would not be “abstinence only.”
Very different. And very different from what people who consider themselves progressive mean when they say “comprehensive sex ed.” I call that “sex dread education.” Because it’s usually abstinence plus: If you’re going to have sex anyway, my God wear a condom! Otherwise your penis will explode, or you will get pregnant and you’ll die. Reproductive biology is what we teach in most of our ‘good’ sex ed classes—these things nobody thinks about when they are having sex or trying to get laid.
So what do we need to teach in sex ed classes?
What we need to teach is pleasure. What really trips people up is, how do you communicate about your desires? What is consent and how do you obtain it, explicitly? What we have now is like a driver’s ed class where they teach you how the internal combustion engine works, but they don’t teach you how to steer, or break or what the red octagon on the stick means. Sex for pleasure is difficult, and that’s what we have to teach.
Back in 2007 there was a famous incident at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, when Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, was arrested in a men’s room and charged with “lewd conduct.” The police arrested forty other men in the same sting operation. Larry Craig pled guilty to a lesser charge of “disorderly conduct.” He denied he was gay, but didn’t run for re-election. I wonder if you have any sympathy for closeted men like Larry Craig who get arrested in police operations like that one.
When I first came out when I was 18 years old, I went to gay bars and would meet 50- and 60-year-old gay men. Some of my friends would make fun of them, but I would do the math: when they were 18, it was the 1940s or the 1950s. It was a terrible time to be gay, and they really missed out on what we are benefiting from—this new space in the culture to be openly gay and happy.
But now, when you meet guys in their 50s or 60s who are closeted—the Larry Craigs, the Ted Haggards—they didn’t miss out. They opted out. Larry Craig could have been an openly gay or bisexual man and lived with some integrity and honesty. He chose to be a hateful homophobic closet case. And a rabidly anti-gay senator. The idea was “nobody will think I’m gay if I’m the biggest bigot in the USA.” I have no sympathy for those guys. They should be outed.
What about the other thirty-nine men who were arrested the same day in the same airport men’s room?
I have sympathy for some of those other guys. They have sad lives that are warped by shame, but they really didn’t hurt anybody except themselves. Larry Craig hurt gay people, and he hurt them badly. He got everything that was coming to him, and I wish he’d gotten worse.
This interview, originally for KPFK radio in Los Angeles, as been edited and condensed.
How did the “opt-out revolution” change men?
Edward Snowden (Courtesy of guardiannews.com)
I got an e-mail from Edward Snowden yesterday. He says he’s got money in banks in Hong Kong and needs my help in getting it out. There are two surprises here: first, that he picked me; second, that his English is pretty bad. I’m excited that he picked me, but frankly I’m concerned about his writing.
He wrote, “Before I blue the whistle about the American secret, I had deposited sum money abroad, in a disguise, to two countries.”
He should have asked Julian Assange to help him with that sentence—Assange is English, and they are really good at writing—look at Christopher Hitchens. (Actually Assange is Australian, but he’s in England, so it’s sort of the same thing.)
The statement Snowden released at the Moscow airport was a lot better: “I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing,” he wrote. “I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell US secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice.” That’s good writing. But I guess a lot of people are sloppier in their e-mails.
The deal is this: he wants me to help him “get this fund out of those countries and keep it either a personal of companies account which you have absolute control over.” It’s a little hard to follow, but you get the point.
Moving millions of dollars that belong to the most wanted man in the Western world—what could possibly go wrong with that?
Maybe he picked me because I consider him a whistleblower and not a traitor.
But then 55 percent of Americans think the same thing—that’s 172 million people.
Maybe he picked me because I think it’s wrong for Obama to charge him with violating the Espionage Act. Espionage is giving secrets to the enemy. Edward Snowden gave secrets to all of us. But I’m not the only one who thinks that—The New York Times said pretty much the same thing in an editorial: it called the Espionage Act “a 1917 law that has become the Obama administration’s hobbyhorse to go after government workers whose actions look nothing like spying.”
Frankly the spelling in the e-mail from “Edward Snowden” is a lot like the spelling in an e-mail I got a while ago from the widow of the oil minister of Nigeria. She wanted my help in getting his millions; the problem was that he had died in what she described as a “plan crash.”
I couldn’t resist replying, “What was the plan?”
Ever since I sent that e-mail, lots of people in faraway places with millions of dollars have been asking me to help them with their money.
Snowden’s biggest revelation was an NSA program called XKeystore, where they can search the content of your e-mails and other online activity if they know your e-mail address. I imagine they would be searching all e-mails sent by “Edward Snowden.” In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last month, NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis said that the agency’s data sweeps extend “two or three hops.”
From this “Edward Snowden” to me is one hop. The second hop is everyone in my e-mail address book and everyone who sent me an e-mail. Also all of my Facebook “friends.” The third hop is everyone in the e-mail address books of all of those people. We are talking about a lot of people. Luckily the NSA computers can handle a lot of data—a billion pieces a day, or something like that.
But what if this “Edward Snowden” sent the same e-mail to other people?
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Author Gore Vidal in December 9, 1974. He tossed barbs in all directions as he discussed Hollywood unions, politics, lecturing and publicizing books during an interview in Los Angeles. (AP File Photo)
The first page of Gore Vidal’s FBI file, released by the bureau after his death a year ago on July 31, is not about his political activism, his critique of the National Security State or even about his homosexuality. The first page, from 1960, says he made disparaging remarks about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The problem: Vidal’s play The Best Man (a satire of Washington politics with characters loosely based on real political figures) had just opened on Broadway, and the assistant special agent in charge of the New York City office sent a memo to Cartha DeLoach, Hoover’s right-hand man, informing him that the play contained “an unnecessary, quite unfunny and certainly unfair jibe [sic] at J. Edgar Hoover”—according to a show-biz columnist for a daily newspaper.
The bureau snapped to, informing DeLoach that “a Special Agent will attend this performance tonight” and that his report would be transmitted promptly. Indeed it was the supervisor of the New York FBI Office who was sent out on this mission. After seeing the play and taking notes, he filed his report: “The only reference to the Director [always capitalized] is when one play character—presumably Vice President Nixon—says to another—presumably Harry Truman, ‘J. Edgar Hoover considers you to be one of the most moral and religious men ever to be in the White House.’ The man replies with a sarcastic inflection, ‘I’ll reserve my opinion of J. Edgar Hoover for a posthumous memoir.’ ”
That is the disparaging remark that inspired the FBI to open a file on Gore Vidal. The agent assured the Director that “the crack came out fast and fell very flat,” and that at an earlier performance, “the audience booed.” On a routing slip, the report was checked off by Clyde Tolson and seven other high officials of the FBI. It was initialed by the Director himself.
Who was this Gore Vidal? DeLoach is informed that he seemed to be “a male homosexual.” The source of this information may surprise some: The Daily Worker, the official publication of the Communist Party USA. FBI Agents were obsessive readers of The Daily Worker. The relevant story was The Daily Worker’s 1948 review of Vidal’s novel The City and the Pillar—actually a hostile, a bitter attack on the book as “crude” and “primitive” in its portrayal of “the ‘delights’ of homosexuality.”
The Vidal FBI file totaled thirty-five pages, many of them letters from right-wingers complaining to Hoover about political statements Vidal made in print or on TV. Hoover replied to most of those with a polite brush-off. But there is one apparently innocuous letter with a fascinating back story: a 1967 “request for a name check” from “Mrs. Mildred Stegall.” Mildred Stegall was a key aide to President Lyndon Johnson. She’s best known, in the words of the Austin Statesman, as the person who “secured his secret White House telephone recordings in a West Wing vault only she could open.” (Lady Bird overruled her after Watergate, which is why we have the tapes now.)
Requesting an FBI “name check” was a serious move, invoking an official procedure established in the 1950s by presidential Executive Order 10450, issued by Dwight Eisenhower. Even today Name Check (capitalized by the bureau) has its own FBI webpage. A Name Check request requires “a search of the FBI’s Central Records System Universal Index.” FBI Name Checks are used for security clearances and also for immigrants’ applications for green cards, among other things.
Of course in the age of metadata, when billions of phone calls and e-mails are collected by the NSA, the FBI’s Universal Index of the J. Edgar Hoover era seems laughably small. But it was state-of-the-art at the time. When Mildred Stegall submitted an FBI Name Check request in 1967, LBJ was basically asking J. Edgar Hoover, “What have you got on Gore Vidal?”
Why was LBJ asking—and why on May 4, 1967? “Apparently Vidal appeared on the ‘Today’ show this morning,” FBI agent Sterling B. Donahoe explained to Cartha DeLoach, “and made some vicious remarks” about LBJ and the Vietnam war. Vidal now “detested” LBJ, in the words of biographer Fred Kaplan. Vidal had written a few weeks earlier about “what a disaster it was for the country to have that vulgar, inept boor” as president. The White House request said “no active investigation is desired but…as much detailed data as is available…should be furnished. If necessary the office covering his place of residence should be contacted…and we should be particularly alert to any public statements he has made.”
Those particular “vicious remarks” of Vidal’s have apparently been lost to history. I couldn’t find any tape of The Today Show from 1967 (although Vidal’s archives at Harvard include three folders labeled “fan mail” he received in response to that appearance). At the time, Vidal was on a book tour promoting his new best-selling novel Washington, D.C., which included a barely veiled critique of Kennedy. The previous fall Vidal had done a lecture tour of campuses, including seventeen in California, where he talked about the war and about America as an imperial nation. The campus audiences, Kaplan reports, “were astoundingly large, irrepressibly enthusiastic, especially in California, where he realized… that he was immensely popular with college students.”
Although LBJ would withdraw from his own re-election campaign, that would not happen for another year. At this point, May 1967, everyone assumed he would be running again. So LBJ wanted to find out what the FBI had on this Gore Vidal.
The FBI Search Slip for the Name Check indicates that twenty-five different files were checked. Several were marked with the result “NP”–“not pertinent”–and several with the menacing initials “SI” (Security Index—people considered by the FBI to be potentially dangerous to US national security). The bureau’s findings were summarized in two pages, starting with a crucial statement: “Mr. Gore Vidal…has not been the subject of an investigation by the FBI”—the most important single sentence in Vidal’s FBI file. He had a file, but that contained only clippings and correspondence about him.
LBJ was informed that Vidal was “a writer and author of several books as well as a contributor of articles to various nationally distributed magazines,” as well as “a Democratic-Liberal candidate for the US Congress in 1960.” So far, all true—and no doubt also known to LBJ’s people. Next came The Daily Worker quote describing The City and the Pillar as a book about “the physical adventures of a male homosexual.” Then came another quote, from the left-wing National Guardian, reporting that Vidal was scheduled to speak in 1961 at a New York City “rally to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee,” which he had “severely criticized” in a column for the New York Herald Tribune. Then the news that a “confidential source” reported six years earlier, in 1961, that Vidal “was associated with the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee.”
The FBI also provided LBJ with a brief version of the story of Vidal’s relationship with Bobby Kennedy, based on “recent information coming to our attention,” which “tends to indicate that he has developed an antagonistic attitude” toward the Kennedy family. The source of this “recent information”? Vidal’s own writings. The bureau report describes a review Vidal wrote of William Manchester’s book Death of a President, quoting his line describing the Kennedys as “ruthless and not very loveable after all.” The FBI report also refers to the just-published article in Esquire magazine “in which Gore Vidal attacks the Kennedy family, particularly Senator Robert Kennedy.” No doubt the Vidal-Kennedy story was well known to LBJ, as it was to many Americans at the time.
So the Gore Vidal FBI file didn’t tell LBJ anything about Vidal that wasn’t public information, and it doesn’t tell us anything new about him. It tells us LBJ turned to the FBI in search of dirt on one of his critics, but we already knew he (and the other presidents) did that. It tells us the FBI kept files on writers on the left, and that it functioned as the J. Edgar Hoover Admiration Society—but we already knew that.
The most interesting things in the file are those letters to J. Edgar Hoover from Vidal haters that the Director dismissed with a polite brush-off. The letters suggest something about the mind set of right-wingers in Cold War America. They all contain the same message: “Dear Mr. Hoover, I’m a loyal American, you’re a great American, and Gore Vidal is neither.” One 1961 correspondent, Fred Devine, went to the trouble of transcribing an interview of Vidal’s on a radio station in Philadelphia. J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t interested, but it’s probably the only source we have for what Vidal said on the Frank Ford Show. In 1964 somebody whose name has been withheld complains that Vidal on TV “was extremely critical of the Director.” The writer concluded, “May I now tell you that I thank God that you are in charge…. I feel all would be lost without your vigilance.” But from 1960 to 1970, the period covered in the file, there are only half a dozen letters complaining to the FBI about Vidal.
A file of only thirty-five pages: that must have disappointed Vidal when he saw his file. A file that contained no secrets—that, he would have said, was disheartening. And only half a dozen letters complaining about him. With a twinkle in his eye, he would have called that fact a crushing blow.
View the Gore Vidal FBI file HERE.
Also of interest: Gore Vidal’s State of the Union: The Nation’s Essays 1958-2008 and I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics: Interviews with Jon Wiener.
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Reza Aslan speaking at Roanoke College on April 18, 2012. (Courtest of Flickr.)
Reza Aslan is best known as the author of No God but God: The Origin, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages and named by Blackwell as one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. His new book is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jon Wiener: Jesus on the cross provides a powerful symbol for a couple of billion people of his sacrifice for our sins. But what exactly did crucifixion mean in Roman Palestine?
Reza Aslan: Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved exclusively for the crime of sedition, for crimes against the state. If you know nothing else about Jesus except that his life ended on the cross at Golgotha, you know enough to understand who he was and what kind of threat he posed to Rome.
Your Jesus is “the man who defied the will of the most powerful empire the world had ever known—and lost.” Sounds a bit like Bradley Manning.
I think you could make a lot of comparisons in that regard. The historical Jesus took on the powers that be on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the outcast and the marginalized; he sacrificed himself for a group that most Romans—and the Jewish elite—didn’t consider to be real people, much less people worthy of salvation.
I should disclose that I am not a Christian, I am a Jewish atheist, an old and honorable tradition.
You have something in common with Jesus, because he also was not a Christian. He was a Jew.
There’s a famous quote: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”
We have this vision of Jesus as a detached celestial spirit. If that was who Jesus was, he would have lived a long and happy life. He would not have been seized by the Romans, he would not have been viewed as such a threat to the stability of the state that he had to be executed.
You are treating Jesus as a political figure rather than a religious one.
There is no difference between politics and religion in Jesus’s time. Simply saying “I am the messiah” was a treasonable offense. If you are claiming to ring in the kingdom of God, you are also claiming to ring out the kingdom of Caesar.
But what about “My kingdom is not of this world”?
That is from the Gospel of John, written about ninety years after Jesus’s death, after Christianity has divorced itself from Judaism and is now a purely Roman religion. The Jesus in the Gospel of John is no longer a human being. No other gospel ever calls Jesus “God.” Everything else we know about what Jesus said about establishing the “kingdom of God”, including what’s in Matthew, Mark and Luke, is about a real kingdom to be established on earth.
During Jesus’ lifetime, you show, he had lots of competition—prophets, preachers and would-be messiahs wandering through the Holy Land, all of them claiming to have messages from God. Some of them were more famous than Jesus was, and had more followers than Jesus did. How come Jesus succeeded at being recognized as the son of God, and the rest of them failed?
That’s the million-dollar question. It’s not so much what Jesus himself said or did; it had more to do with what his followers said and did after he died. Once those other would-be messiahs were executed by Rome, they were by definition “false messiahs.” The mission of the messiah in first century Palestine is to recreate the kingdom of David and usher in the reign of God. If you didn’t do that, you’re not the messiah.
Was Jesus a “failed messiah”?
He did not re-establish the kingdom of David, so he failed. But after his death, his followers redefined the meaning of “messiah”: they talked about Jesus’s messianic functions taking place not on earth, but rather in heaven. They recast his failure as a victory—a victory that would come to fruition at the end of time, when he returned to earth.
More importantly, they started to share this message not with their fellow Jews but with Romans. The concept of a god-man was quite familiar to Romans; after all Caesar was a god-man. It’s the Roman adoption of this new religion that paves the path for its becoming the largest in the world.
You say the key task of the early Christians after the crucifixion was to make Jesus “less Jewish.” Please explain.
Every word written about Jesus in the Gospels was written after 70 AD. What happened in 70 AD? The Romans returned after a massive Jewish revolt and destroyed Jerusalem, burned the temple to the ground, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews, exiled the rest, renamed the city and made Judaism a pariah religion. The first time anybody ever bothered to write the story of Jesus is after that. Everything written about Jesus has to be understood in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem. That’s why the evangelists began proselytizing to Romans.
So how do you get Romans to follow a Jew?
Two things: You have to make Jesus a little less Jewish—you don’t want to tell Romans to follow a movement started by one of those Jewish revolutionaries. Secondly, you have to remove all blame for Jesus’s death from Rome. It wasn’t the Romans, it was the Jews who killed Jesus.
Those darn Jews!
It becomes the foundation for 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism.
The subtitle of your book is “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I thought Jesus was born in Bethlehem. You point out that Bethlehem is the city of David, and being born there is part of Jesus’s claim of godliness. Have I got that right?
Absolutely not “godliness.” Kingliness! David was king. The messiah was to succeed him as king. The concept of the god-man does not exist in Judaism. It’s as simple as that. Jesus was a Jew. His religion was Judaism. His spiritual experience was grounded in the Hebrew scriptures, and the notion of a man who is divine is anathema to everything that Judaism stands for. That is why Jesus himself would not have claimed divinity.
Interview has been condensed and edited; originally broadcast on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.
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Oprah Winfrey speaks during Harvard University's commencement ceremonies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Today is graduation day on my campus. At the University of California and thousands of other schools over the last few weeks, millions of students and their families have been celebrating—and listening (or not listening) to commencement speakers. Fox News has a complaint about those speakers: too many of them are liberals.
“When it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, the nation’s top 100 universities lean decidedly left,” Fox News declared. “Of the top 100 universities listed by U.S. News and World Report, 62 have selected liberal commencement speakers and only 17 selected conservatives.”
“Conservative speakers aren’t welcome on college and university campuses,” says Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, he reported that no current or former Republican elected official was scheduled to speak at any of the top fifty liberal arts colleges, and only four spoke anywhere in the top 100 universities. Meanwhile Cory Booker, the Democrat from Newark who is running for the senate in New Jersey, gave as many commencement speeches as all current elected Republicans combined.
The evidence seems overwhelming—until you look at what all those liberals are telling the class of 2013 and their families.
Bill Clinton spoke at Howard University. He said “what we have in common is more important than our differences.”
Arianna Huffington spoke at Smith. She said it was time to move “beyond money and power” and focus instead on “wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back.”
Michelle Obama spoke at Bowie State. She urged students and their families to “take a stand against the culture that glorifies instant gratification instead of hard work and lasting success.”
The commencement speaker who got the most media attention this season was Oprah Winfrey—at Harvard. I wondered whether her message would be “Believe in yourself”—which you don’t really need to tell those students. In fact what she said was, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
And what about Cory Booker, the Democrat from Newark who gave more commencement speeches than all current elected Republicans combined? What matters in life, he told graduates at Washington University in St. Louis, is “the content of your character, the quality of your ideas, the kindness that you have in your heart.”
There’s a related problem, says Kevin Hassett of AEI. What motivated him to take up this issue was that at his own school, Swarthmore College, a conservative, Robert Zolleck, was invited—but “pulled out after being attacked by students who said he’d helped instigate the Iraq war.” Hassett says that was “a preposterous claim considering he was the US trade representative at the time the conflict began.”
But Zolleck didn’t have to pull out—that was his own decision. He should have gone to Swarthmore, and explained what he really thought about the Iraq War. He should have had the courage of his convictions.
Others have complained that the few conservatives who did give commencement speeches sometimes faced protests. When Condoleezza Rice spoke at Boston College, some students and faculty stood and held up signs that said “your war brings dishonor” and “not in my name.” Kevin Hassett told the NPR radio station in Los Angeles, where the two of us debated the issue, that once a speaker is invited, they should be treated with respect.
My view is that debate and criticism are part of the mission of the university—and that, for the rest of her life, Condoleezza Rice should be confronted about her role in taking us into a decade of war in Iraq. But unlike Zolleck, she didn’t pull out because people criticized her. In her speech she acknowledged the protesters and said, “There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately.” The audience responded with applause.
Her main message to students, however, was a different one: “be optimistic.” But what about the optimistic view that invading Iraq would be “a cake-walk”?
One more thing: it’s true that most commencement speakers at the top 100 liberal arts colleges and universities are liberals. But at the top conservative and Christian colleges, all the commencement speakers are conservatives. When has a liberal ever been invited to be the commencement speaker at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, or Bob Jones University, or Colorado Christian, which recently sued to block Obamacare?
One more question: what is it that commencement audiences at all those liberal arts colleges are missing when they don’t get to hear conservatives? Paul Ryan was the commencement speaker this season at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He didn’t tell the Class of 2013 that freedom in America means tax cuts for the rich. Instead, he said, “We are all in this together, so we must be good to one another.”
As a liberal, I say, “Amen.”
Why are national security leaks so easy? Read Chase Madar's argument here.