News and Features
A friend and I were sitting around commiserating about the things that get to us: unloading small indignities, comparing thorns. "So there I was," she said, "sitting on the bus and this man across the aisle starts waving a copy of law professor Randall Kennedy's new book Nigger. He's got this mean-looking face with little raisiny eyes, and a pointy head, and he's taking this book in and out of his backpack. He's not reading it, mind you. He's just flashing it at black people."
"Don't be so touchy," I responded. "Professor Kennedy says that the N-word is just another word for 'pal' these days. So your guy was probably one of those muted souls you hear about on Fox cable, one of the ones who's been totally silenced by too much political correctness. I'd assume he was just trying to sign 'Have a nice day.'"
"Maybe so," she said, digging through her purse and pulling out a copy of Michael Moore's bestselling Stupid White Men. "But if I see him again, I'm armed with a 'nice day' of my own."
"That's not nice," I tell her. "Besides, I've decided to get in on the publishing boom myself. My next book will be called Penis. I had been going to title it Civil Claims That Shaped the Evidentiary History of Primogeniture: Paternity and Inheritance Rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence, 1883-1956, but somehow Penis seems so much more concise. We lawyers love concision."
She raised one eyebrow. "And the mere fact that hordes of sweaty-palmed adolescents might line up to sneak home a copy, or that Howard Stern would pant over it all the way to the top of the bestseller list, or that college kids would make it the one book they take on spring break----"
"...is the last thing on my mind," I assured her. "Really, I'm just trying to engage in a scholarly debate about some of the more nuanced aspects of statutory interpretation under Rule 861, subsection (c), paragraph 2... And besides, now that South Park has made the word so much a part of popular culture, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. When I hear young people singing lyrics that use the P-word, I just hum along. After all, there are no bad words, just ungood hermeneutics."
"No wonder Oprah canceled her book club," she muttered.
Seriously. We do seem to have entered a weird season in which the exercise of First Amendment rights has become a kind of XXX-treme Sport, with people taking the concept of free speech for an Olympic workout, as though to build up that constitutional muscle. People speak not just freely but wantonly, thoughtlessly, mainlined from their hormones. We live in a minefield of scorched-earth, who-me-a-diplomat?, let's-see-if-this-hurts words. As my young son twirls the radio dial in search of whatever pop music his friends are listening to, it is less the lyrics that alarm me than the disc jockeys, all of whom speak as though they were crashing cars. It makes me very grateful to have been part of the "love generation," because for today's youth, the spoken word seems governed by people from whom sticks and stones had to be wrested when they were children--truly unpleasant people who've spent years perfecting their remaining weapon: the words that can supposedly never hurt you.
The flight from the imagined horrors of political correctness seems to have overtaken common sense. Or is it possible that we have come perilously close to a state where hate speech is the common sense? In a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recently, a black man was surrounded by a group of white patrons and taunted with a series of escalatingly hostile racial epithets. The bartender refused to intervene despite being begged to do something by a white friend of the man. The taunting continued until the black man tried to leave, whereupon the crowd followed him outside and beat him severely. In Los Angeles, the head of the police commission publicly called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a "bitch"--to the glee of Log Cabin Republicans, who published an editorial gloating about how good it felt to hear him say that. And in San Jose, California, a judge allowed a white high school student to escape punishment after the student, angry at an African-American teacher who had suspended his best friend, scrawled "Thanks, Nigga" on a school wall. The judge was swayed by an argument that "nigga" is not the same as "nigger" but rather an inoffensive rap music term of endearment common among soul brothers.
Frankly, if Harvard president Lawrence Summers is going to be calling professors to account for generating controversy not befitting that venerable institution, the disingenuous Professor Kennedy would be my first choice. Kennedy's argument that the word "nigger" has lost its sting because black entertainers like Eddie Murphy have popularized it, either dehistoricizes the word to a boneheaded extent or ignores the basic capaciousness of all language. The dictionary is filled with words that have multiple meanings, depending on context. "Obsession" is "the perfume," but it can also be the basis for a harassment suit. Nigger, The Book, is an appeal to pure sensation. It's fine to recognize that ironic reversals of meaning are invaluable survival tools. But what's selling this book is not the hail-fellow-well-met banality of "nigger" but rather the ongoing liveliness of its negativity: It hits in the gut, catches the eye, knots the stomach, jerks the knee, grabs the arm. Kennedy milks this phenomenon only to ask with an entirely straight face: "So what's the big deal?"
The New Yorker recently featured a cartoon by Art Spiegelman that captures my concern: A young skinhead furtively spray-paints a swastika on a wall. In the last panel, someone has put the wall up in a museum and the skinhead is shown sipping champagne with glittery fashionistas and art critics. I do not doubt that hateful or shocking speech can be "mainstreamed" through overuse; I am alarmed that we want to. But my greater concern is whether this gratuitous nonsense should be the most visible test of political speech in an era when government officials tell us to watch our words--even words spoken in confidence to one's lawyer--and leave us to sort out precisely what that means.
Here we are, twenty years on, and the reports of the Israeli army smashing its way through Palestinian towns remind me of what came out of Lebanon as Sharon and his invading army raced north. Israeli troops beating, looting, destroying; Palestinians huddled in refugee camps, waiting for the killers to come.
But there is a huge difference. Twenty years ago, at least for people living here in the United States, it was harder, though far from impossible, to get firsthand accounts of what was going on. You had to run out to find foreign newspapers, or have them laboriously telexed from London or Paris. Reporting in the mainstream corporate press was horrifyingly tilted, putting the best face on Israeli deeds. Mostly, it still is. But the attempted news blackout by the Sharon government and the Israeli military simply isn't working.
Here's Aviv Lavie, writing in Ha'aretz on April 2:
A journey through the TV and radio channels and the pages of the newspapers exposes a huge and embarrassing gap between what is reported to us and what is seen, heard, and read in the world.... On Arab TV stations (though not only them) one could see Israeli soldiers taking over hospitals, breaking equipment, damaging medicines, and locking doctors away from their patients. Foreign television networks all over the world have shown the images of five Palestinians from the National Security forces, shot in the head from close range.... The entire world has seen wounded people in the streets, heard reports of how the IDF prevents ambulances from reaching the wounded for treatment.
As always, there are the courageous witnesses. These days we have the enormously brave young people in the International Solidarity Movement sending daily communications back to the United States that flash their way round the Internet and even translate into important interviews in the mainstream media.
Meet a few of them. Here's Jordan Flaherty, filing this account on Indymedia:
Last night the Israeli Military tried to kill me. I'm staying in the Al Azzeh refugee camp, in Bethlehem, along with about twenty other international civilians. We're here to act as human shields.... On the hill above the camp is an Israeli military sniper's post. To get where we were staying in the village, most of us had to cross this street. It was a quick, low, dash across the street. As I ran, the sniper fired.... The shots began as I came into view, and stopped shortly after I made it to the other side. They were clearly aimed at me. And, by the sound of them, they were close. All night long, there was the sound of gun shots, as the military shot into our village. We stayed clear of the windows.... The guns and bullets were, no doubt, paid for by my tax dollars. Which is, of course, why we are here.
Or Tzaporah Ryter, filing this on Electronic Intifada:
I am an American student from the University of Minnesota. I currently am in Ramallah. We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers.... On Thursday afternoon, the Israeli army began sealing off each entrance to Ramallah.... Those traveling in began desperately searching for alternative ways and traveling in groups, but the Israelis were firing upon them and everyone was running and screaming.... Israeli jeeps were speeding across the terrain, pulling up from every direction and shooting at the women and children, and also at me...
Or the extremely articulate and self-possessed Adam Shapiro, whose testimony ended up in the New York Daily News and on CNN, where he told Kyra Phillips:
This is not about politics between Jew and Arab, between Muslim and Jew. This is a case of human dignity, human freedom and justice that the Palestinians are struggling for against an occupier, an oppressor. The violence did not start with Yasir Arafat. The violence started with the occupation.... Arafat, after every terrorist incident, every suicide bombing, after every action, has condemned this loss of life, of civilian lives on both sides. The Sharon government, sometimes will apologize after it kills an innocent civilian, but it does not apologize for raping the cities and for going in and carrying out terrorist actions, going house to house tearing holes through the walls, roughing up people, killing people, assassinating people.
Most of the time you open up a newspaper and read a robotic column--as I did the Los Angeles Times's Ronald Brownstein the other day--about Palestinian terrorism and the wretched Arafat's supposed ability to quell the uprising with a few quick words. And then you turn on the NewsHour and there, of all people, is Zbigniew Brzezinski, stating the obvious, on April 1:
The fact of the matter is that three times as many Palestinians have been killed, and a relatively small number of them were really militants. Most were civilians. Some hundreds were children.... in the course of the last year, we have had Palestinian terrorism but we have also had deliberate overreactions by Mr. Sharon designed not to repress terrorism but to destabilize the Palestinian Authority, to uproot the Oslo Agreement, which he has always denounced, in a manner which contributed to the climate, that resulted in the killing of one of the two architects of the Oslo Agreement.
After predictable dissent from Kissinger, Brzezinski went on:
It's absolute hypocrisy to be claiming that Arafat can put a stop to the terrorism.... the fact of the matter is that his ability to control the situation would be greatly increased if there was serious movement towards political process, towards a political settlement and that the United States took the lead.
Between this brisk statement and the eloquent courage of Adam Shapiro and his brave fellow internationalists, the truth is getting out--not fast enough, not loud enough--but better than twenty years ago.
The jury is still out on whether it can restore, let alone enhance, its influence.
Back in 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers accused The New York Times Book Review of unfairly assigning her attack on the women's movement, Who Stole Feminism?, to the distinguished scholar of Victorian literature Nina Auerbach for review. Sommers claimed that Auerbach was an unethical choice: Although not named in the book, she had been present at one of the many feminist academic conferences disparaged in its pages and was allegedly the author of a rather overbearing comment, cited in the book, scribbled on a paper written by Sommers's stepson, who had taken a course with Auerbach at the University of Pennsylvania (Auerbach denied writing the comment and suggested it was the work of a TA). Sommers's absurd bid for publicity stirred up a media chorus of sympathetic harrumphs about feminist conspiracies (the Review was at that time edited by a woman, Rebecca Sinkler): Columns ensued by Jim Sleeper, Howard Kurtz, Hilton Kramer. Rush Limbaugh accused the Times of trying to "kill this book."
None of these mavens of literary ethics saw fit to note that Cathy Young raved about the book in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in Commentary despite being vice president of the right-leaning Women's Freedom Network, where Sommers was on the board, or that Mary Lefkowitz gave it high marks in National Review despite being Sommers's very good friend. The Times Book Review ran two weeks' worth of letters (including a particularly rabid one from Camille Paglia, bashing Auerbach as if she were some PC criminal and not an important academic whom any author in her right mind would feel honored to be reviewed by, and who had been, in point of fact, much too high-minded and polite to give Who Stole Feminism? the pasting it deserved).
Fast-forward to the Washington Post Book World, which has landed in hot water for publishing a review of David Brock's Blinded by the Right by Bruce Bawer. Much of Brock's book deals with skulduggery at the Scaife-funded American Spectator--a magazine for which Bawer was a movie critic for several years prior to Brock's own stint there as, he now confesses, a hired mudslinger and fabricator of slanders against Anita Hill, President Clinton and others. Bawer did not mention his connection to the Spectator when offered the assignment, nor did he mention it in the review, even parenthetically, and having spent several years as The Nation's literary editor, I'm not a bit surprised: Reviewers were always neglecting to tell me that the author under consideration was their colleague, best friend, former lover or the editor of the magazine that was publishing their fiction. When I would belatedly find out and confront them, were they embarrassed? Dream on. One even wrote me an outraged letter comparing his panegyric on the poetry of his department chairman to Shelley writing about Keats. Caveat editor, indeed!
Did the Washington Post engineer a pan for Brock by knowingly choosing a reviewer too closely allied with the people and politics he attacks, as claimed by the Media Whores Online website, which is calling for the public beheading of the Book World editor, Marie Arana? Bawer is mentioned (briefly and favorably) in the book, but there is no index and--I hate to be the one to break this to MWO--"previewing" a book before assigning it is not the same as reading every page. (Truth in advertising: I've written a few reviews for Arana and think she's an excellent editor and swell human being, even if the Book World didn't review my last book.) Still, it's a little hard to believe that nobody at the Book World knew that Bawer is a pretty conservative fellow, and, as MWO points out, there is a bit of history here: Two years ago, the Post assigned Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President to James Bowman, who was also associated with The American Spectator. On the other hand, Bawer, who, like Brock, is gay, says he left the Spectator over its slurs against homosexuals. Gee, two gay guys who both quit the same rightwingnut magazine--had Bawer loved the book, conservatives would be claiming the fix was in. In fact, Bawer's review was fairly trivial; mostly he made fun of Brock in a feline sort of way--slyly noting his love of elegant tailoring, fancy parties, attention and money, and observing that Brock is still talking trash, only now his targets are his erstwhile friends on the right. Compared with Helen Vendler, whose poetry criticism Bawer skewered in the Hudson Review some years ago with such relish and in such detail that anti-Vendlerites bought up the entire print run within minutes, Brock got off easy.
But then Helen Vendler's taste, like all taste, is open to question, while so far no conservative, Bawer included, has seriously disputed Brock's revelations beyond expressing a general skepticism that this self-confessed liar and suck-up artist has changed his spots. Is Brock lying when he describes how wealthy right-wing foundations created and fueled a media apparatus devoted to smearing liberals, feminists and Democrats, especially the Clintons, with whatever mud it could find or fabricate? Are his unflattering characterizations of his former cronies false? Brock portrays peroxided pundette Laura Ingraham as an ignorant drunk who does not own a single book; he charges Ann Coulter with "virulent anti-Semitism"; he says Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. urged him to attack women because that sold papers. He claims the only thing Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos wanted to know before handing him a million dollars to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton was whether she was a lesbian. He says Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the EEOC under Clarence Thomas and one of his most stalwart supporters, was thoroughly persuaded by Strange Justice, in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson validate Hill's claims, but helped Brock savage the book anyway. Virtually every page of Blinded by the Right makes an assertion that is, if true, embarrassing, and if false, libelous. The silence is curious, to say the least.
After much urging, the Post acknowledged that Bawer's review was inappropriate. Meanwhile, you can be sure that none of the pundits who raked Nina Auerbach and the New York Times over the coals will be firing up the barbie this time.
Call it the year of the yellow notepad. Doris Kearns Goodwin, ejected from Parnassus, Pulitzer jury service and kindred honorable obligations, sinks under charges of plagiarism consequent, she claims, of sloppy note-taking on her yellow legal pads.
Michael Bellesiles, flayed for knavish scholarship in his Arming America, says that his notations from probate records, central to his assertions about gun ownership in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, were on legal yellow pads that were irreparably damaged when his office at Emory University was flooded in May 2000, the year his book was published.
Stephen Ambrose, overtaken by charges of plagiarism, did not have recourse to the yellow-notepad defense, presumably because he had become rich enough not only to discard them in favor of teams of researchers, including his family, but to make an out-of-pocket, $1.25 million donation for environmental good works, including restoration on the Blackfoot River, no doubt hoping that water in Montana would be as efficacious as at Emory in purging the record.
The plagiarist lurks in all of us, and temptation or carelessness looms closer with the cut-and-paste function of the computer, though Shakespeare managed to steal a lot of Holinshed without electronic assistance.
With Bellesiles the stakes are high, because he addresses the issue of gun ownership in America and the Second Amendment. By the mid-1990s the battle was tilting decisively in favor of those arguing that the amendment asserts the right of individual citizens to own guns for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance. (NB: The preceding sentence concludes with twenty-two words lifted from a piece by Chris Mooney in Lingua Franca.)
Like any good tactician, Bellesiles shifted the terms of discussion. He said he'd reviewed more than 11,000 probate records between 1765 and 1850 from New England and Pennsylvania, and discovered that roughly 14 percent of all adult white Protestant males owned firearms, meaning about 3 percent of the total population at the time of the Revolution, and that hence "all this talk about universal gun ownership is entirely a myth that I can find no evidence of." (More cribbing from Mooney.)
So if the people weren't armed, and if even official militias were mostly a disheveled rabble without arms, the Second Amendment was really an antic fantasy, like feudal armor in the mock-Tudor hall of a Bradford cotton millionaire.
The antigun crowd greeted Bellesiles with as much ecstasy as any relief column by early settlers in Indian Country. The Organization of American Historians gratefully pinned the Binkley-Stephenson Award to Bellesiles's bosom for his 1996 essay on the origins of American gun culture. Arming America elicited not only fervent applause by Garry Wills in The New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books, but also the Bancroft Prize.
Bellesiles came under attack, but since his assailants included NRA types and even Charlton Heston (who cut to the heart of the matter by charging that Bellesiles simply had too much time on his hands), their often cogent demolitions were initially discounted as sore-loser barrages from the rednecks. Even so, the sappers pressed forward and began to penetrate Bellesiles's inner defenses.
A crucial chunk of battlement crashed to the ground when Bellesiles's most sedulous critic, James Lindgren, investigated his claim to have researched probate records at a National Archives center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren no such records existed. (Cockburn's source here is Danny Postel in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since Cockburn once borrowed Postel's car in Chicago and saddled him with a couple of parking tickets, he definitely owes him a cite. These two tickets were probably the final straws in a load of fines that prompted Postel to flee Chicago for Washington, DC.) Then more chunks fell when other archival records cited by Bellesiles, in San Francisco and Vermont, turned out not to exist.
Bellesiles's Little Big Horn comes in the January edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. Primed in part by Lindgren, Gloria Main of the University of Colorado pounds Bellesiles with medium-range artillery, as in "[Bellesiles] found only 7 percent in Maryland with guns. My own work in the probate records of six Maryland counties from the years 1650 to 1720, ignored by Bellesiles, shows an average of 76 percent of young fathers owning arms of some sort." Ira Gruber of Rice slides the bayonet into Bellesiles with incredulous harrumphs about misrepresented evidence on casualty rates in American and European battles ("But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim"). In an interesting essay on guns, gun culture and murder in early America, Bellesiles is finally dispatched by Randolph Roth of Ohio State ("every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong").
To give him credit, Bellesiles falls with some dignity ("Arming America is admittedly tentative in its statistics"), but fall he does. Now Emory is making nasty noises, and erstwhile allies are fleeing into the hills. Morgan, who whooped him up in the New York Review, says he's rethinking. Garry Wills says he's too busy now to address the matter, which is pretty lighthearted, considering that Bellesiles's phony scholarship is as devastating a blow as the antigun crowd has sustained in decades of fighting over the Second Amendment. (I speak contentedly as the owner of a 12-gauge and a .22, though I think too many discussions, pro and con, of the Second Amendment lack any sense of dynamism in the surge and ebb of class struggle in America.)
What about Knopf, which published Arming America? Editor Jane Garrett tells Postel that the house "stands behind" Bellesiles, that his were not intentional errors but the result of some "over-quick research." Knopf is renowned for its cookbooks. Suppose Bellesiles had suggested putting Amanita phalloides into the risotto. I don't think Garrett would be so forgiving.
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.
Andrew Sullivan cannot have an easy life. A Catholic gay man who is also HIV positive, his political views have led him to attach himself to a party, a movement and a church that believe him to be practicing an abomination. Influential Republican power-brokers blame America's sexual tolerance for the attacks of 9/11. The military he reveres is kicking gays out at a rate unseen since the presidency of Ronald Reagan--another Sullivan hero. And his church offers a warmer embrace for pedophile priests than for honest homosexuals.
Sullivan is best known as a kind of all-purpose controversy magnet. He posed for a Gap ad; he posted a lurid online advertisement for unprotected sex; and he briefly accepted $7,500 in paid website advertising from a pharmaceutical industry trade association whose products he regularly praises, before returning it. During his stormy editorship of The New Republic, he opened its pages to the lunatic ravings of Camille Paglia, the racist pseudoscience of Charles Murray and the libelous fantasies of Stephen Glass. Sullivan has, moreover, been the target of much gay ire over the conservative content of his writings in The New York Times Magazine, where its editors inexplicably allowed him--slyly but effectively--to out a whole host of allegedly gay Democratic politicians, including Clinton Cabinet members, along with liberal talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell.
Now Sullivan has launched a career in the brave new world of "blogging," or vanity websites. And while his site arouses a certain gruesome car-wreck fascination, it serves primarily as a reminder to writers of why we need editors. Andrewsullivan.com sets a standard for narcissistic egocentricity that makes Henry Kissinger look like St. Francis of Assisi. Readers are informed, for instance, that Andy's toilet recently overflowed; that he had a rollicking dinner chez Hitchens; that he might have seen Tina Brown across a hotel lobby, but he's not sure; and that, in separate, apparently unrelated incidents, he had a nightmare and ate a bad tuna-fish sandwich that upset his tummy, requiring many "stomach evacuations."
Beyond the confines of his bathroom, Sullivan's singular obsession appears to be the crushing of any hint of democratic debate about the war. His campaign began with a now notorious London Times missive warning his fellow patriots: "The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts...may well mount...a fifth column." Called upon to defend this vile slander of inhabitants of the very city that suffered the attack, Sullivan named four writers who, he determined, "were more concerned with what they see as the evil of American power than the evil of terrorism, that their first response was to blame America." Among the myriad problems with this answer was the fact that at least one of the four--me, as it happens--supported the war and much of the patriotic reaction the attacks inspired.
No matter, the Sullivan Inquisition continues undeterred. Barely a day passes without his unmasking yet another "Anti-War Democrat"--in whose ranks he includes the pro-war Tom Daschle, the pro-war Hillary Clinton and the pro-war Janet Reno, among many others--basing his argument less on the words these politicians speak than on the thoughts he knows them to be holding in secret. In Clinton's case, he writes that when she said that Congress should be "asking the hard questions" and "having the debate Congress is required to have--where to go, what to do," her words may have been "unobjectionable" but her "intent is clear." Democrats simply prefer "weakness" to a "strong and unapologetic role in the role [sic]." Can there be a better illustration of the modus operandi of the ideological commissar--the McCarthyite mullah--than this kind of mindreading? (It's also a pretty solid argument for proofreaders.)
A British expat, Sullivan has set himself up as a one-man House Un-American Activities Committee. Take, for instance, Ted Rall's nasty, offensive cartoon ridiculing Marianne Pearl and 9/11 widows as money-grubbing attention grabbers. "If this is what is motivating some elements of the anti-war left," he roared, "they're even more depraved than I thought," as if mocking the victims of September 11 is a leftist cause célèbre; as if one silly cartoonist speaks for anyone but himself. Next came the commissar's decree: "No paper should ever run Rall again."
Sometimes Sullivan's hysterics are merely amusing. For instance, his TNR colleague Jonathan Chait counted fifty-one attacks on the moderately liberal Paul Krugman in slightly more than five weeks. Sullivan also, in Chait's words, "distort[ed] Krugman's views so wildly as to venture into pure fantasy." (This happens a lot.) The pundit's crime was to accept a $37,500 consulting payment from Enron years before he became a columnist and to disclose it when he first mentioned Enron favorably in Forbes and later negatively for the Times. William Kristol and Irwin Stelzer, by contrast, took their Enron cash and then proceeded, respectively, to edit and to write a highly favorable article about the company without any niceties of financial disclosure. Calculated on the basis of Sullivan attacks, the conservatives' transgressions were approximately one-twentieth as serious.
It is not as if responsible blogging is impossible. Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles.com and Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com manage to control (or at least occasionally mock) their own egos while offering valuable and quirky takes on the news, and without any news from their bathrooms. But the will to censorship that underlies Sullivan's rants is dangerous. Smart fellows like Ron Rosenbaum, Howard Kurtz and Michael Wolff have marveled at the ideological heterodoxy of the well-spoken "gaycatholictory" who likes to compare himself to George Orwell. This reputation is--to put it mildly--undeserved. In the space of a few days, Sullivan's site recommended articles by Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Norman Podhoretz, William F. Buckley and Michael Ledeen. Not exactly Orwell Country, I fear. Sullivan recently announced to his acolytes that he plans to write less in order to play Benedick in a Washington production of Much Ado About Nothing in a pair of black leather pants. "That should pack them in," he adds. Give the man credit for audacity, if nothing else.
The Houston company was part of the biggest "big idea" of the past decade.
Nation pay rates, you may have heard from brother Trillin, are not those of Condé Nast. Every once in a while I don't mind this, because the job just kind of does itself. Take this week: I couldn't decide which of the many McCarthyite wing-nuts currently accusing ex-lovers and comrades of being liars, gay-bashers, anti-Semites and spouse-abusers merited an entire column. None of them did. But hey, I got a column out of just trying to figure it out.
(1) Weekly Standard writer David Frum took a job as a supposedly anonymous White House speechwriter. But his wife, novelist Danielle Crittenden (yes, she's the one who tells women to use their husband's name professionally but doesn't bother with that silliness herself), could not bear to see hubby's genius go unrecognized and sent out a mass e-mail claiming his authorship for Bush's nonsensical "axis of evil" formulation. Tim Noah, Slate's Cindy Adams, owns this baby. He published the offending e-mail. ("It's not often a phrase one writes gains national notice...so I hope you'll indulge my wifely pride in seeing this one repeated in headlines everywhere!!") He quoted her stepdaddy's Canadian newspaper telling the same tale. And he cited other possible authors. Later Frum, thinking twice, decided Bush had thunk it up all by his lonesome. (When you think about it, it's just foolish enough...) Anyway, speechwriters are not supposed to take credit for anything, even dumb ideas, and now Davy's unemployed. Bob Novak blames wifey's e-mail. Davy says Bobby's a liar and he was quitting anyway. Now, "Nofacts" is a well-known McCarthyite fabulist, but Mr. Crittenden does not improve his own credibility much by claiming that W. has "proven himself to be one of the great presidents of American history." So who's really writing fiction here? You be the judge.
(2) Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund has landed on Page Six in a bizarre tale that is almost too weird to write down. It seems that a woman with whom Fund had an affair twenty years ago named Melinda Pillsbury Foster sent her daughter, Morgan, to look up Fund when she came to town. One thing led to another and the results appear to have been a live-in relationship and an abortion. This is strange enough for a Wall Street Journal editorial writer who, although very much a gentleman in person, penned some of the most vicious and irresponsible material about Clinton and the Democrats outside the columns of this magazine. (Fund is also a ghostwriter for Rush Limbaugh and, irony of ironies, is widely believed to be the source of Matt Drudge's libelous claim that Sidney Blumenthal is a wife-beater.) Anyway, things did not exactly work out. Mother and daughter decided to take their revenge by uploading onto the web a taped telephone call in which John attempts to reconcile his support for Morgan's abortion with his "family values" politics. They then informed the media that John and Morgan had decided to wed after all. This turned out to be false, but the next thing you know, Fund is gone from the Journal's editorial page, arrested in Manhattan for battery of Melinda and under a restraining order. (Join me for a moment in imagining what the Wall Street Journal/Washington Times/New York Post/Fox News/Rush Limbaugh/American Spectator scandal machine would do with this crazy story if it were about, say, Frank Rich.) In the meantime, I am inclined to accept Fund's denials absent contrary evidence. Politically the man may be a menace, but his accusers have already proven themselves to be--to coin a phrase--"a little bit nutty." You pays your money and you picks your liar.
(3) Ever wonder what it must have felt like to be a right-winger and lay your hands on Whittaker Chambers's Witness for the first time? Run, don't walk to your corner bookstore. David Brock's Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative is a liberal's Stairway to Heaven. Absolutely everything we thought about these bozos in the vast right-wing conspiracy turns out to be true and then some. Meet Anti-Semite Ann Coulter, Homophobe Johnny Podhoretz, Lovesick Matt Drudge, etc. Like Chambers, Brock is a confessed liar, an ex-ideologue and a formerly closeted homosexual who conspired with people and publications specializing in McCarthyite slander of innocent liberals, minorities and gays. For Chambers fans, anyway, that should do it.
(4) Washington Post writer Michael Kelly says of his column: "It's not that important to me.... It's a busman's holiday." Here I am pretty confident Kelly is telling the truth. Complaining of a negative reference to the State of the Union in a New York Times Op-Ed by Mark Lilla, Kelly, who edits both National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly, recently joked that the author was "a professor of something called social thought (presumably, there are professors of antisocial thought too, but no one knows who they are since they won't answer the phone)." LOL. Apparently nobody at the Post takes Kelly's column seriously either. Had Kelly spent a few minutes on research, he might have discovered that the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought has been the home of such nobodies as Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, Harold Rosenberg, Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom. Today the novelist J.M. Coetzee, the poet Mark Strand and George Bush's favorite bioethicist, Leon Kass, all hang their homburgs there alongside that of Lilla, who is also the ex-editor of the neoconservative Public Interest. Since none of the above are pacifists--or as Kelly would put it, "evil...objectively pro-terrorist.... Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites"--perhaps one might even rate a contribution to the once-great Atlantic.
(5) Speaking of verbal diarrhea, Scaife-funded David Horowitz has just published another of his entertainingly insane pamphlets; this one joining fellow McCarthyite Andrew Sullivan in blaming the "Fifth Column" left for September 11. Last time I mentioned Horowitz, he responded, "Eric Alterman apparently thinks lying is a form of mooning." I don't know what that means, but it does confirm my long-held belief that one Panther-loving Commie-turned-reactionary-racebaiter sure does spend a lot of time with his head up his ass.
The nation's largest media corporations are now poised to gain dramatically greater control over what Americans watch, listen to and read. A February 19 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit nullified two longstanding government regulations limiting the scope and size of media companies that use the public airwaves. If the decision stands, there will no longer be limits on the same company owning television stations and cable franchises in the same market. The court also ordered the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider a rule barring a TV network from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience.
The end result of this latest deregulation wave could be, in the words of Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union, "the most massive consolidation in media this nation has ever seen." The only good news in the appeals court's ruling was its rejection of a claim by media company lawyers that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. This means that even as FCC chairman Michael Powell seeks to repeal the remaining regulatory limits on media monopoly, Congress could reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful legislators, including Senator Ernest Hollings and Representative John Conyers Jr., want to do just that. But they are going to need public pressure from a real media reform movement if they are to have any hope of converting their fellow members to a fight for Americans' right to a diverse media.
With the looming prospect of one or two giant media conglomerates controlling almost all our news and entertainment, the survival of alternative, noncommercial media outlets becomes more important than ever. One of them--Pacifica radio--has famously been rocked by internal problems and requires support from all who care about independent media. The Nation is deeply committed to the Pacifica ideal of independent broadcasting (at both the national and local levels) and has many friends and longtime contributors involved in the network in various capacities. Now that an Alameda County Superior Court judge has replaced the old board with an interim body charged with restoring harmony and solvency to the battered network, it's vital that those of us in the penumbra of the Pacifica community do what we can to help the new cast of characters be true to the Pacifica ideal.
Recent events--including the axing of Pacifica Network News, the firing of KPFK station manager Mark Schubb, the suspension of Marc Cooper and the cancellation of his daily show on KPFK (Cooper is a contributing editor of this magazine and also the host of RadioNation)--suggest that all is not pacified at Pacifica. Further, the network is saddled with a debt of $4.8 million, partly as a result of litigation during the recent troubles.
We'll have a report in an upcoming issue on the latest developments. Meanwhile, Pacifica remains a beacon of independent thinking and progressive values in a sea of conglomeratized and homogenized media. Readers who have strong views on Pacifica's future course should convey them to their local station. For those of you who wish to send contributions to offset the alarming deficit: Make out checks to Pacifica Foundation and mail them to Pacifica Radio, Attention: Accounts, 2390 Champlain St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
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