News and Features
As corporations push new medicines, sound and affordable healthcare
Perhaps there's a limit to female masochism after all. To the great
astonishment of the New York Times, which put the story on page
one, Creating a Life, Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book deploring the
failure of female professionals to have as many children as she thinks
they need to be happy, is a big commercial flop ("The Talk of the Book
World Still Can't Sell," May 20). Out of a 30,000-copy first printing,
perhaps 8,000 have sold, despite a publicity campaign from heaven:
Time cover story, 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today,
wall-to-wall radio. The UK edition, Baby Hunger (Hewlett's
original choice of title--gag me with a spoon!), is also piling up in
The Times quotes numerous bewildered publishing people--could it
be the cover? women's "deep level of anxiety"?--but it's no big mystery
why the book isn't selling. Except when right-wing foundations buy up
truckloads of copies, antifeminist tracts usually do poorly despite
heavy attention. The media love them--this week's newsstand features
New York with "Baby Panic" and Us with "Will They Ever
Have Babies?" in which Jennifer Aniston and other nulliparous stars
bemoan their lot--but book buyers don't bite. Hewlett follows in the
steps of Katie Roiphe, who got great press but few readers for The
Morning After, which argued that date rape was just "bad sex."
Partly the reason is that these books tend to be so flimsy that the
media campaign gives away their entire contents, but the main reason is
that nobody but women buy books about women--and women who buy hardcover
books are mostly feminists. They know date rape isn't bad sex, and they
don't need Hewlett to tell them their biological clocks are ticking.
(Apparently not as fast as Ms. Hewlett claims, though. Dr. Alan
DeCherney told the Times a woman's chances of getting pregnant at
40 are better than Hewlett makes out.) Why buy a book that tells you to
smile, settle and rattle those pots and pans? That's what your relatives
By the way, my friend Judith Friedlander, coiner of the immortal phrase
"a creeping nonchoice," was surprised to find herself on Hewlett's list
of tearful women whose careers got in the way of childbearing. "I've had
a great life," she told me, "with no regrets, and I spent a long time
telling Hewlett just that."
* * *
What if a woman ran for President who had great progressive politics
except for one thing--she believed that any man accused of rape or
sexual harassment should be castrated without a trial? How many
progressive men would say to themselves, Oh well, she's got great
positions on unions, the environment, the death penalty, and all the
rest, and besides, women really like her, so she gets my vote! Ten men?
Of course, no progressive woman would ever put this crazy notion
forward. Our hypothetical candidate would understand all too well that
she couldn't propose to kick men in the collective teeth and expect them
to vote for her. Back in the real world, however, this is precisely what
some progressives apparently expect women to do for Dennis Kucinich,
whose anti-choice voting record was the subject of my last column.
Besides numerous e-mails thanking me for "outing" him and two or three
upholding the "human rights" of the "itty bitty zygote," I heard from a
few readers like Michael Sherrard, who urged "liberals" to "get over
their single-issue abortion orthodoxy." Instead of asking women to give
up their rights, why not pressure Kucinich to support them? To get that
"broad based multi-issue progressive movement" Sherrard wants, Kucinich
is the one who needs to get real, to face the demographic truth that
without the votes, dollars and volunteer labor of pro-choice women and
men, no Democrat can win the White House. His anti-choice votes may suit
his socially conservative Cleveland constituents, as his supporters
claim, but America isn't the 10th Congressional District of Ohio writ
What Kucinich's fans may not understand is that for pro-choice women,
abortion is not just another item on the list. It goes straight to the
soul. It is about whether society sees you as fully human or as a vessel
for whom no plan or hope or possibility or circumstance, however
desperate, matters more than being a nest for that "itty bitty zygote."
As I've written before, despite the claims of "pro-life feminists" and
"seamless-garment" Catholics, progressive social policies and abortion
rights tend to go together: Abortion bans flourish where there are
backwardness, poverty, undemocratic government and politically powerful
patriarchal religion, where levels of education, healthcare and social
investment in children are low, and where women have little power.
Instead of asking women to sign over their wombs for the cause,
progressives should demand that "their" politicians add abortion rights
to their agenda. No progressive would vote for someone who opposed
unions or wanted to bring back Jim Crow. Why should women's rights
matter less? It's disgusting that the AFL-CIO supports anti-choice
politicians--as if their members aren't getting (or causing) abortions
in vast numbers--and it backfires, too. In Pennsylvania's Democratic
gubernatorial primary, pro-choice centrist Democrat Ed Rendell trounced
anti-choice labor-endorsed Bob Casey Jr., 56 to 44 percent.
* * *
A French committee is promoting Ahmed Shah Massoud, the assassinated
Northern Alliance commander, for the Nobel Peace Prize (among the
signatories: actress Jane Birkin, Gen. Philippe Morillon and that
inevitable trio of trendy philosophes, Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain
Finkielkraut and Andr&eacute; Glucksmann). I know what you're thinking:
If Henry Kissinger could be awarded this honor, why not the
CIA/Russia-backed Tajik warlord who helped set up a fundamentalist
government in 1992, destroyed Kabul by fighting with his erstwhile ally
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and helped create so much havoc, including
documented massacres of civilians, that Afghans welcomed the Taliban?
Still, there's something repellent about proposing to award Massoud,
thanks in part to whom Afghanistan is riddled with landmines, the same
prize won by anti-landmine activist Jodie Williams in 1997. Maybe they
should call it the Nobel War Prize.
Quick, pinch me--am I still living in the same country? Reading and
watching the same media? This "Bob Woodward" fellow who co-wrote a tough
piece in the May 18 Washington Post demonstrating that the
now-famous August 6 presidential daily briefing, contrary to
Administration officials' claims about its contents, actually carried
the heading "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--is this the same
Bob Woodward who co-wrote the Post's infamous "Ten Days in
September" series earlier this year, the ur-document of George W. Bush's
Churchillization? And this "Michael Isikoff," sharing a byline on the
eye-opening May 27 Newsweek cover story that shreds the
Administration's "we did everything we could" line of defense--is this
the Isikoff who four years ago defined national security in terms of
dress stains and cigar probes? One begins to suspect that unbeknownst to
all of us, the terrorists have indeed struck--the Washington, DC, water
An overstatement, to be sure. But it does seem to be the case that
wherever this potentially incendiary story leads, from fog of
unprovables to hot smoking gun, one change has already taken place
because of it that is well worth marking. For the first time since
September 11--or, arguably, since ever--the press corps appears ready to
expend more effort poking holes in the vaunted Bush Administration spin
operation than admiringly limning it. More to the point, Is a new
skepticism stirring around such heretofore Teflonized officials as
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? Before her May 16
damage-control press conference, Rice was probably the Administration's
leading untouchable. After it ("I don't think anybody could have
predicted these people would...use an airplane as a missile," a
statement left bleeding on the floor after a pile of evidence came
forward showing plenty of people were predicting precisely that), her
status has taken a major hit. So, as Professor Harold Hill might put it,
certain wooorrrrdds are creeping into the media vocabulary--words
like "serious credibility gap," in the Newsweek piece.
It's been a long time coming. If anything "un-American" happened after
September 11, it was the triumph of the notion--propounded by the
Bushies, reinforced by the major media and far too readily accepted by
cowardly Democrats--that "patriotism" somehow equals "support the Bush
Administration." CBS's Dan Rather said it recently in an interview with
the BBC: "Patriotism became so strong in the United States after 11
September that it prevented US journalists from asking the toughest of
the tough questions about the war against terrorism," adding, "I do not
except myself from this criticism." The genuflection sometimes reached
levels that we might call comic, except that there's nothing comic about
a "free" press choosing to ape state-owned media, throwing rose petals
at the feet of officials from the most unilateral and secretive
Administration in modern American history ("sixty-nine years old, and
you're America's stud," Meet the Press's Tim Russert once said to
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).
One is not quite ready to say, on the evidence of several days' worth of
stories, that this sorry era is over just yet. The New York Times
and the Washington Post both ran editorials on May 17 that were
something short of being full-throated calls for investigation; from the
right-wing papers, the predictable yelping about how it's really
All this will probably continue, but at least now it appears that it
will be offset by some post-post-9/11 aggression. It will be interesting
to watch what leads the media now follow and how far they follow them.
For example, some reports--originating with the BBC but picked up in a
few minor US outlets--indicate that US intelligence agents were told to
back off the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals soon after Bush
became President. Reporters might also look into the way the
Administration declined to continue a process of tightening overseas and
offshore banking regulations begun by the Clinton Administration in an
effort to track down narcotics traffickers and terrorists. The Bush
people acted partly at the behest of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, which
means partly at the behest of Enron--and which may have ended up helping
"Connecting the dots" has become the operative cliché about
whether intelligence officials should have been able to put together the
various pre-9/11 clues they received. Now, maybe the media will start
connecting some dots of their own.
haven't done much mental spring cleaning because so much of the last
month has been taken up with brooding and spewing about the crisis in
the Middle East; no doubt the coming months will be much the same. After
putting your mind to this issue for a long time--witness Shimon Peres,
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and so many others--cobwebs
gather and it becomes hard to see through the accumulated dust. So it
was pleasant to turn to Legal Affairs, the new publication of the
Yale Law School, edited by Lincoln Caplan, which casts an intelligent
eye over a broad and spacious intellectual terrain.
Of course the first item I turned to--obsessively--was an article on
Israel, more specifically on the legendary Supreme Court President
Aharon Barak (no relation), by Emily Bazelon--thankfully the only Middle
East piece in the inaugural issue, or who knows how I might have been
sidetracked. In 1992, from his seat on the Israeli Supreme Court, he
championed the Basic Laws that now serve the country as a kind of de
facto constitution and give Israel one of the most progressive sets of
human rights laws and precepts to govern any nation. But that was just a
first step for this exceptional person.
In May 1998, in a historic pronouncement, he declared (I'm simplifying
here) that torture of Palestinian detainees by the Shin Bet was not
legalized under Israeli codes. This meant that one day there would be no
more shabach--the technique of tying prisoners to kindergarten
chairs, putting their heads in sacks and subjecting them to humiliation
and psychological torture. It meant no more shaking, a favored method
that disorients and injures without leaving visible signs. No more sleep
deprivation. Barak later codified this ruling, when he "unequivocally
declared for a unanimous court that the Shin Bet's methods of
interrogating Palestinians detained without charges violated the rights
to human dignity and freedom." But those were better days in Israel, and
Bazelon points out that current conditions may have allowed the Shin Bet
to violate the ban. The Public Committee Against Torture has filed two
petitions to the court since September 2000, both arguing that the ban
on torture has not been "fully enforced," as Bazelon understates it. One
petition was withdrawn and the other rejected. Like so many of his
generation who hoped to normalize life in Israel, Barak too has been
undermined by the Degeneration of the Situation.
Anyway, Legal Affairs is not all bleakness and Jerusalem drizzle.
Its other lead piece is Brendan Koerner's dazzling narrative of
cyber-intrigue and blackmail that extends from Russia to FBI
headquarters in DC. The magazine also looks at hip-hop music with the
amusing premise that it is all about law enforcement, in a piece that
would be great but for its silly, super-serious tone. Tim Dodd
contributes an excellent article from Jakarta on Syafiuddin
Kartasasmita, the conservative Indonesian judge who was assassinated a
year after leading a three-man panel that found the youngest son of the
dictator Suharto, Tommy, guilty of corruption. A very amusing piece by
Dashka Slater tells you what it's like to spend a working week watching
only court TV (answer: terrific and soporific). A bunch of small
excerpts from Christopher Buckley's latest Washington entertainment
(No Way to Treat a First Lady) are fun, if not terribly
enlightening. And "Silence! Four ways the law keeps poor people from
getting heard in court" should be on the reading list of every legal
reporter and defense attorney in America. There is also a no doubt
valuable piece by Benjamin Wittes on the faulty legal underpinnings of
Kenneth Starr's behavior (but lines like "the attorney general had the
authority to decline to request an independent counsel where a clear
Justice Department policy would preclude an indictment" really harsh my buzz).
Legal Affairs reminds you that the law matters--unlike
American Lawyer, which makes you think the law is a buddy system
for grotesque elites in major urban centers who speak a language the
rest of us cannot understand (except when it's about gigantic salaries
and hourly fees). The new magazine reminds you that the law is the
element in which most of the major stories of our lives take place
(marriages, births, deaths, crimes, real estate closings, divorce), and
that it provides the narrative framework for the unfolding of most
News From Nowhere
Globalvision News Network has set up an extremely useful website
called The News Not in the News (you can find it at
www.gvnews.net, by subscription). This is where you can see what the
Arab press is really reporting; where you'll find the latest from places
like Kyrgyzstan, where the government has just resigned following unrest
since the May 10 sentencing of Felix Kulov, the foremost leader of the
Kyrgyz (new national adjective!) opposition, to ten years in prison. The
stories are put up without annotation, so that, say, the Kyrgyz
reporting can become convoluted to the uninitiated reader. But you
wouldn't want to miss this story: In his first interview in two
years--conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in writing and by
messenger, not in person--Mullah Omar (you remember him) tells Asharq
Al-Awsat, an Arab news agency, that flames will engulf the White
House and that Osama bin Laden is still alive. Of course, for all one
knows, the interviewee could have been an Afghan schoolboy having his
fun, since there is no proof that the reporter's questions were actually
relayed to Omar himself. But that is what is both useful and charming
about this site: It is raw news as it is written and printed in other
lands, as fresh as it can be, and with its edgy myth-making untouched by
American objectivity. "What is important for the US now is to find out
why they did that [the attack on September 11]," says "Omar." "America
should remove the cause that made them do it." If only "Omar" had a
mirror version of The News Not in the News, he could see what a
tempest that very same issue set off in America's own pages not so long
ago. But we wouldn't want to harsh his buzz.
The essential mystery of the 2000 election has always been this: How in
the world did George W. Bush ever get close enough to invite the
Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to give him his
Of course, he couldn't have done it all by himself. Al Gore ran away
from one of the most successful economic records of any Administration
this century and could not seem to articulate a single compelling reason
that he should be President. Bush was also mightily aided by Ralph
Nader, whose spoiler candidacy commanded just enough support to swing
battleground states for the Republicans while failing to come even
remotely close to the 5 percent, matching-funds goal that was his
professed inspiration. But the biggest piece of the puzzle is still
Bush. He may have "grown" in office, but the fact is he had some of the
skimpiest qualifications for the job of almost any successful candidate
in our history, while Gore's were among the best. Moreover, his
political views were well to the right of most voters on almost
everything, while Gore's were well within the national consensus. By any
conventional calculation, Bush should have lost in a landslide.
The obvious answer to the paradox is that Bush sold his personality, not
his politics. But how? Are people just stupid? Don't they realize that
it doesn't matter if one candidate is a likable cutup and the other one
a superior stiff when it comes to stuff like global warming, a patients'
bills of rights, Social Security, the right to choose, etc.? Well,
that's one answer. But a more compelling one is that the so-called
liberal media, contrary to its nonsensical reputation for favoring
Democrats, failed to inform the public of the two candidates' political
and ideological differences, and the implications those differences held
for the nation's future.
The release of two different kinds of campaign documents--Ambling
Into History, a book by New York Times reporter Frank Bruni,
and Journeys With George, a film by former NBC News producer
Alexandra Pelosi--shed considerable light on just how the media managed
to spend millions upon millions covering the candidates while reporting
next to nothing of value to voters. Ambling is a memoir of a
love-struck reporter. The journalist charged with covering the campaign
for the newspaper that sets the agenda for most of the elite media
focuses with laserlike intensity on every nod, wink, smile and
profession of alleged "love" that comes his way from the candidate. But
we hear barely a word about the candidate's pollution- and
fat-cat-friendly policies as governor of Texas or his lies and
dissimulations when it came to environmental protection, affirmative
action, issues of corporate responsibility, healthcare policy and the
like. If you want to know the exact number of seconds that George and
Laura Bush danced at every one of their nine Inaugural Balls, then the
intrepid Mr. Bruni is your man. If you have any interest in what Bush
might have been doing at his desk the following morning, well, where did
you get the silly idea that a New York Times reporter should
concern himself with boring stuff like that?
The willingness of the Times bigfoot to treat the election as the
equivalent of a junior high popularity contest signaled to the rest of
the media that contentless coverage would be the order of the day. The
net result, as Pelosi shows us in her fascinating but nauseating
documentary--to be broadcast on HBO in November--is a press corps that
follows its campaign masters like a litter of newborn puppies. They wait
open-mouthed for Karl Rove or Karen Hughes to drop a tender morsel of
warmed-over baloney into their mouths, wagging their tails in
appreciation after every feeding.
The clowning frat boy who plays the Republican presidential candidate in
the Pelosi movie does turn out to be a genuinely congenial fellow. If
you've been wondering why it is that everybody seems to like this
guy--and how he has managed to forge so many lifelong bonds with people
irrespective of his apparent doofus-like qualities--then this movie will
provide a painless seventy-six-minute education. The filmmaker--the
daughter of House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi--hates Bush's politics
but likes him personally, and so can we. She tells audiences that
Journeys is a documentary about process and that the candidate
himself is unimportant. But that's nonsense. Bush is a star. If Pelosi
had had the misfortune to be assigned to Al Gore's press plane, this
movie would have sucked.
But like Ambling, Journeys is more valuable for what it
shows than what it tells. Over and over we hear the reporters criticize
themselves for the emptiness of their coverage as they express a kind of
wearied contempt for the snowmobile rides and other pseudoevents that
substitute for substance. But over and over again, they submit without
apparent protest. They regurgitate the campaign's baloney sandwiches and
watered-down Kool-Aid--without even bothering to convince themselves
that it's really steak and champagne. In between feedings, they ask the
Man for his autograph, laugh at his jokes and seek, without much
success, to justify the effects of their collective lobotomy to Pelosi's
Unlike Bruni, Pelosi demonstrates considerable professional
self-awareness (which is why she felt compelled to quit her job and
leave the field entirely after the campaign). Early on, she gives us
the Financial Times's Richard Wolffe speaking excitedly about
covering "the greatest story in the world...big issues, big stakes; it's
a big game, but it's important." A little later he admits, "Most of our
time is spent doing really stupid things, in stupid places with stupid
people." If you want your mystery summed up in a single sentence, it
would be hard to outdo Wolffe: "The Gore press corps is about how they
didn't like Gore, didn't trust him.... Over here, we were writing only
about the trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us."
But Bush himself puts it best, just before kissing Pelosi in pursuit of
her (meaningless) vote in the California primary: "If I lose," he
playfully smirks, "you're out of work, baby. You're off the plane."
On April 11, 2002, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was ousted in an ill-fated coup attempt. On April 14 he returned in triumph to the presidential palace. What to call the interregnum?
Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently
undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related
happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a
book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic). The
lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't
wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists,
by contrast, were near despondency. They had entered the profession
"armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an
exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the
significance of stories and the manner in which they should be
presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a
profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from
professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the
professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits"
focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient
interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned"
profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.
Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered
Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or
anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine
journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet
in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of
figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction
of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its
corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're
not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing
more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on
As much as the media like to report on themselves--I'd use the
obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation--few
observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been
transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with
more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.)
Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers
have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire
the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the
University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the
Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news;
swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless
task. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive
the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff
wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its
Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual
end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many
people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with
exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David
Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But
its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been
shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier
lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed
discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism
that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel
Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si
Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary
journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS,
under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard.
If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else
can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?
With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of
survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a
significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news
division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman,
which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could
they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the
division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is
coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their
corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving
Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public
humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the
entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.
Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of
serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with
only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning
and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The
evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as
well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors
goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local
affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds,
It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public
watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who
has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service
regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein
Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue
operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US
Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies
really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter,
Ted, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's
dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little
noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?
When I was a teenager on my first trip to Paris, I remember looking out
at the Parisians from the window of a taxi as we proceeded along some
splendid boulevard and thinking, But do these people take themselves
seriously, really? They're not Americans, after all. Sorry. It's true,
though embarrassing. I felt sorry for them because they weren't us. I
needed a reality check, which the French were only too happy to provide.
They soon taught me how superior to us, and to me, they were in every
way, especially intellectually and in matters of literature, fashion,
proper cigarette inhalation and the application of maquillage.
Well, let that pass. Now Granta has published the greater part of
an issue (Spring 2002) devoted to Their perceptions of Us, called "What
We Think of America." Interestingly, the writer who is possibly the most
violently anti-American in the collection, or who admits to the most
violently anti-American feeling, is not French, or Arab, but Latin
American. Ariel Dorfman, the US-born Chilean writer, tells about the
time he watched an American toddler tumble into a swimming pool at a
resort in the Andes and carefully measured what his own reaction might
be--after all, the kid had been behaving badly (loud, blond, white,
Anglophone, whining, stupid, spoiled, exploitive, rapacious,
intervening, assassinating legitimate heads of state, financing coups,
training torturers... oops... but really, you catch Dorfman's drift). In
the end, though, he did dive in after the brat.
There is the gentler French person, badboy Benoît Duteurtre,
author most recently of the novel Le Voyage en France, which won
the 2001 Médici prize. Duteurtre criticizes Europe for
proclaiming a high ground in human rights from which to criticize the
Americans, as if, he says, to disguise from itself that it belongs to
exactly the same world and is mired in identical contradictions. He
makes fun of the way the French use the word Disneyland (pronounced
Deez-nee-lahhhhnd) to refer to the entire American polity.
President Jacques Chirac--that unsuccessful chameleon--comes in for a
smacking, too. In Chirac's speech after September 11, Duteurtre writes,
"I heard the inferiority complex of a Europe deprived of its role as
world leader...but still quick to judge good and evil."
The effect of Granta's roundup is shockingly human: Here are no,
or few, diatribes, and much affection--through tears--from Arab and
Muslim contributors. A piece that perhaps explains well what led to
September 11 (which I take to be the ostensible reason for
Granta's package) is Pankaj Mishra's "Jihadis," a beautiful,
brilliantly observed essay about Pakistan (by an Indian!) and its
troubled identity, as well as about the US and Pakistani governments'
growth and nurturing of the jihad movement. Gives you an idea, too, of
the level of corruption that made the initially pure-minded Taliban
This, to me, is the best issue of any magazine trying to explain
September 11. There is also Ziauddin Sardar's "Mecca," both funny and
instructive about the rituals of the hajj and of Saudi society in
general. Don't forget to appreciate the photo essay on Afghanistan by
Thomas Dworzak: It captures the dust, the mud, the turbans, the
mountains, as well as Northern Alliance soccer, burqa ladies buying
their liberation pop-music cassettes and the eerie ruins of eternal
Kabul, after the attacks.
Out on the Links
Sometimes, the problem with online magazines like The Black
Commentator (www.blackcommentator.com) can be the links. For
example, in the inaugural (April 2002) issue, there's a very persuasive
piece on the much-discussed Cory Booker, running for mayor of Newark in
the Democratic primary against the picaresque Sharpe James. Booker,
another dang Rhodes scholar, seems to pride himself on adopting some of
the meretricious conservative bent of Bill Clinton. The TBC piece
attacks Booker for his support of school vouchers and goes on to map out
in great detail the web of conservative groups that have supported the
Booker movement in Newark--not a pretty picture. It argues that Booker
is another pawn in the right's effort to develop African-American
politicians it can work with and manipulate.
The piece has no byline. But at the end, it has a feature possibly more
meaningful than a byline: "sources that contributed to this commentary,"
followed by a series of hyperlinks to information both pro- and
anti-Booker. In his speech at the Manhattan Institute, you can
hear--behind Booker's pro-voucher position--not only the clink of money
and financial backing and the Evil White Rich Men Who Run The World but
also the will of a black electorate with whom Booker, having lived in
Newark's projects and spent month after month on a notorious
never-cleaned-up corner in Newark's drug-dealing inner city, is not
unfamiliar. The problem with TBC is its paranoid style: I'd like
to see it address the question of why there seems to be a drift among
African-American voters toward conservatism--something that doesn't just
tell me the new black pols are being paid for it but that considers the
electorate as well, considers Booker's supporters: what they think of
people like Colin Powell or the improbably named Condoleezza Rice, or of
Cory Booker, who's no idiot. Don't some black families hold these
successful conservative types up as examples to their sons and
daughters, or is that just too Cosbyfied?
Al-Ahram Weekly, a venerable English-language publication based in Cairo
another paper that for themoment is focusing on an oppressed people--in
this case, the Palestinians. Al-Ahram is a useful corrective for
my formerly peace-leaning Jewish friends who feel that the US media,
especially the New York Times and CNN, are increasingly biased
against Israel. It's a real source for uncovered news about what's
happening in the territories, with much less of the myth-making and
demonizing that characterize so much of the Palestinian stuff coming out
of the West Bank over the Internet in these impossible times. Much less
paranoia here but, still, a painful and useful reality check.
In an end-of-the-year column devoted to "Politics and Prose," Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, asserted that there had been a "new gravity" and "sobriety" to American journalism since September 11. Literary responses had failed, he argued, to process the event, notably in a commemorative issue of The New Yorker in which the writing had been "excessive, even grotesque when applied to mass carnage in downtown New York."
Beinart declared it was now the era of the essay--"non-reported, non-narrative, political or historical analysis"--and "the sombre profile of a person in power"--stripped of excessive description, wanton psychoanalysis and "edge" but not of dutiful and accurate quotation. "American journalism, after a long while on the sidelines," he rallied, was "back in the game."
It was a shaky argument, one some editor of The New Republic (a magazine that confuses an antiliterary style of journalism with an anti-indulgent outlook as a matter of policy) was bound to try to make sometime.
Let's face it, the new Hunter S. Thompson won't ever be found in its Puritan liberal pages, though the journalism of a New Yorker writer like Jonathan Franzen just might be, albeit a soberer, straighter version. Franzen himself exhibits too minute a panic in his work, too much of an "edge" (see his novel of last year, The Corrections), is simply too much like a literary forefather such as Joseph Heller (Catch-22 and, more important for Franzen, Something Happened) to make any editor at The New Republic feel he had a grip on the world. And what is The New Republic--or any news and culture magazine--about if it isn't grip, skeptical firmness, analytical rectitude?
Ever since the 1960s and the advent of New Journalism--subjective and, yes, "literary" in its aspirations, distinguished by figures like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy, Joan Didion--there has been an ongoing and necessary argument in favor of old-school values like objectivity, plain writing and reporting craft. Beinart's analysis of the American print media today is just the latest salvo, objectively put of course, saying out with "the New" and in with the old. It's part of a larger debate about consciousness and language, and how best to represent the state of the nation in both journalism and fiction in ways that reassure Americans their world can be secured, defined, reinforced.
Ironically, the tag New Journalism has been a misnomer from the beginning, implying--all the more alongside the revolutionary context of the 1960s that birthed it--a rejection of past values and a blind dive into the postpsychedelic waters of contemporary reality. It also denies the historical significance of figures like George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Joseph Mitchell and Damon Runyon, who created openings in journalistic convention, idiosyncrasies that demonstrate that "New Journalism" had been around for the best part of the century--if a writer had the gift and the license to explore the possibilities. For that matter, is it so far from Walt Whitman's 1882 diary of the Civil War in Specimen Days, to Michael Herr's scattershot report on Vietnam, Dispatches?
Many writers disliked the term New Journalism for these very reasons, preferring less-catchy descriptions like "Immersion Journalism" to describe the intense amounts of research and closeness to one's subject matter required to make such subjective reporting great and accurate storytelling; or "Literary Journalism" because of the undisguised desire to apply the techniques of fiction to a retelling of factual events and conversations.
One of the most notorious indicators of the style was the use of interior monologue, even pure streams of consciousness in groundbreaking pieces like Gay Talese's "The Loser," a brilliant profile of boxer Floyd Patterson (Esquire, 1964) and Tom Wolfe's "The First Tycoon of Teen" (New York, 1965) a feature story on the recording mogul Phil Spector. How absurd, these voices from inside their heads! Wolfe's rhetorical answer to the critics was a slap in the face: "How could a journalist, writing nonfiction, accurately penetrate the thoughts of another person? The answer proved to be marvelously simple: interview him about his thoughts and emotions."
A radical and disciplined art, New Journalism presented a cinematic and psychological rupture with the prevailing journalistic approaches, using dialogue, scenes, thoughts in a dramatic reconstruction of events and interview material. But it still depended on the old verities: solid research, thorough interviewing, good writing (albeit more jazzy in tone and form) and diligent fact-checking. It was an extension of the possibilities, not a denial or negation of what had happened before.
Not content to disturb the print media, New Journalists started shaking up the literary world by producing "narrative non-fiction" bestsellers that caught the times better than any novelist seemed capable of: Capote's masterful and groundbreaking insight into murder and America's pathological underbelly, In Cold Blood (1965); Didion's neurotic essays on her pale sense of selfhood amid West Coast cultural decadence, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); Mailer's rambunctious, egomaniacal coverage of an anti-Vietnam War protest march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night (1968).
Books like Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973), Herr's Dispatches (1977), Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979) and Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1979) were among a slather of later releases that proved the phenomenon was not going away--from magazine and newspaper journalism or the bestseller lists. In a twist of fate, Mikal Gilmore, the brother of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer's subject in the capital punishment "thriller" The Executioner's Song, would go on to become one of the few decent writers of the 1990s operating within what could be called the New Journalist tradition, producing a superb book on his brother as well as some excellent writing for Rolling Stone.
Something sick, though, has been happening since the 1960s and '70s heyday of such writers and books. News as non-stop entertainment, the journalist as B-grade personality, a long, slow, moronic nose dive into excess on a scale difficult to imagine back then.
Beinart is right to attack a media consumed today by "lifestyle writing," the bastard child of New Journalism, and a puffed-up aesthetic attitude lacking the flair and depth of earlier, greater writers. Rather than simply attack an excess of style, though, and perhaps a poverty of generational talent, I'd locate the current malaise in the format-driven glibness that is smothering the oxygen of intelligence--not to mention true journalistic creativity--out of magazines and newspapers today.
As serious print media have attempted to go "lighter" and chase readers in the past decade, circulation figures have dropped, even plummeted. This is a worldwide crisis for up-market magazines and newspapers, dimly explained with arguments (not entirely believed, even by those proposing them) that people are getting more information from the Internet or that the educated reader is disappearing. The truth, more awfully, is that readers of all stripes are disillusioned with what's available. Editors and publishers don't seem to know what to do about that except to go further down-market to anything dumber, faster and glitzier, pursuing that fragmenting audience, that shrinking attention span.
Unfortunately, the old formulas aren't functioning anymore in this fractured, increasingly unstable--some might even say dystopic--market. Thus the argument for "sections" and targeted bites of information neatly accompanied by highly supportive advertising. Even if it's meaningless and no one reads it, at least it turns a profit.
If the New Journalist was merely an "impresario" of stories, as the critic Michael Arlen caustically observed in 1972, today's news feature is altogether more miserable, niche-marketed directly to you without need of any bigger and possibly destabilizing voice. The impresarios are mostly gone; now only the product exists, its sheen undisturbed.
Market conditions of the industry aside, there is something deeply conservative beneath Beinart's analysis, a view that spells trouble for the future of modern journalism and where it might go in the United States today--and therefore the world at large. Certainly Beinart's reactionary spirit is in tune with the nation's siege mentality and a chauvinism that encourages the closing not just of borders but of the state of the American mind. There is a feeling that the unexpected, the elusive, manifest in the form of volatile individuals and their creativity, are not legitimate concerns and activities for American voices in an era of uncertainty and instability.
This affects both the media and literature as the struggle for "representation" in American life takes on a deeply political dimension in terms of the language that should be used. It is not just a matter of what is debated, interpreted, depicted--but how that debate should be carried out, the implication being that the wrong words themselves betray the state. There has been an across-the-board conservative intellectual push in the United States for some time now, making an argument for a return to literary order in fiction. B.R. Myers's controversial essay, "A Reader's Manifesto," in The Atlantic Monthly last summer, struck similar notes to Beinart's more recent aria, attacking the wordy pretensions and metaphoric excesses of contemporary American fiction writers like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx. Subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose," the essay denounced evil postmodernists, showoffs and "pansified intellectuals" who had undermined good language and sound thinking across the nation. What Myers demanded was "a reorientation towards tradition."
In one of many trainspotting examples he berated Proulx for some "characteristic prose" where she thanked her children at the end of Close Range (1999) for putting up with her "strangled, work-driven ways." According to Myers this phrase made "no sense on any level." When a reader wrote in to complain that it was "an implied metaphor and hardly difficult to understand," Myers stuck to his guns, returning to the dictionary and rules of grammar to justify himself. Fortunately for us, language moves--and is received--poetically and intuitively, even if Myers doesn't want to admit it.
However, he did finger a crucial distraction from the building of the modern American novel and how it is reviewed, even sanctified today. He called this "the sentence cult," those who adore wonderful phrases and patches of writing that finally do not add up to a fully felt, organically "alive" book worth reading, let alone relating to deeply. On this point of literary fragmentation, a collapse away from storytelling and character, a collapse of identification and therefore identity, he may well be right. As to whether such a collapse makes the literature inherently bad--well, that's another thing altogether.
This debate about the state of the American novel has been going on for years. Indeed, American literature regularly convulses to such landmark essays--and the need to write them--a battle for intellectual territory that should not be underestimated. The reverberations of these opinion pieces among cultural elites carry through as manifestoes for the times and exert enormous influence in publishing houses and the media. They should also be understood as beachheads for the highbrow magazines presenting them: in this case the long-running desire of the Atlantic to overtake Harper's as the defining literary and intellectual periodical of the day, a desire underlined by its drift toward political and aesthetic conservatism. The Atlantic is ready for the Bush era, righteous, satisfied and a little smug, just as Harper's might be seen as aristocratically Clintonian, progressive to the point of dilettantism and somehow out of step with the narrowing contemporary mood.
Myers's essay is an attempt to supersede an argument put forth by Franzen in Harper's in 1996, in a piece titled "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images a Reason to Write Novels." In that essay, Franzen wrote of his own "despair about the American novel." His conclusions, and hopes, however, were somewhat different from those of Myers.
Of the social novel Franzen wrote: "I didn't know that Philip Roth, twenty years earlier, had already performed the autopsy, describing 'American reality' as a thing that stupefies...sickens...infuriates, and finally...is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents." His despair for the state of the American novel was born out of the 1991Gulf War and "a winter when every house in the nation was haunted by the ghostly telepresences of Peter Arnett in Baghdad and Tom Brokaw in Saudi Arabia--a winter when the inhabitants of those houses seemed less like individuals than a collective algorithm for the conversion of media jingoism into an 89 percent approval rating."
Questioning the difficulties of social realism in the age of electronic media, and arguing that TV could represent reality better than any novel could, Franzen pined for the days when a book like Catch-22 had a huge social impact, raising questions about society to such a level that its title became part of the common vocabulary, entering itself in the dictionary (a thought that must give B.R. Myers a sleepless night or two).
What Franzen saw in Heller's black and absurdist work was less of a need to find legitimacy in a realistically detailed social novel of the present à la Dickens, but instead to write a novel that socially engaged, quite a different--if not unrelated--thing. It was this thinking that guided him in writing The Corrections, with its vaguely hallucinogenic, forensically detailed portrait of American family life, and the struggle of its characters to remain human amid the blizzard of consumer alienation. Despite the rave reviews and bestseller status, it is perhaps a little early yet to know if Franzen has succeeded in his project of engagement; but there is no doubt he has struck a nerve.
None too surprisingly, The New Republic took Franzen to task for his epic yet atomized scope. Observing the influence of the novelist Don DeLillo on the younger Franzen, the critic James Wood made a piercing summation of the senior writer's impact on The Corrections: "The DeLillo notion of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry, has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die." Noting that Franzen imagined "a correction of DeLillo in favor of the human," Wood went on to say that this was "more than welcome, it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things--the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons!--but do not know a single human being."
It's clear that Wood--one of America's finest literary critics--finally favors something of Franzen's humanity but resents the occult unease beneath DeLillo's crowded linguistic responses to consumer capitalism and how he applies that language to create a surreptitious and infecting despair, a deep, flamboyant coldness. There is also a vague feeling from Wood that DeLillo is somehow evil, a monster of hidden tones, corrupting America from within. He is certainly appalled by a DeLillo essay that appeared in the New York Times, "The Power of History," wherein the novelist declared, "At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition, and awe. Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history."
How strange those words from 1997 read now, post-September 11. In the buildup to this statement DeLillo had defined the modern novelist as a radical and an outsider to all systems: political, social, linguistic. "Fiction will always examine the small anonymous corners of human experience," he wrote.
But there is also the magnetic force of public events and the people behind them. There is something in the novel itself, its size, its openness to strong social themes that suggests a matching of odd-couple appetites--the solitary writer and the public figure at the teeming center of events. The writer wants to see inside the human works, down to dreams and routine rambling thoughts, in order to locate the neural strands that link him to men and women who shape history. Genius, ruthlessness, military mastery, eloquent self-sacrifice--the coin of actual seething lives.
Against the force of history, so powerful, visible and real, the novelist poses the idiosyncratic self. Here it is, sly, mazed, mercurial, scared half-crazy. It is also free and undivided, the only thing that can match the enormous dimensions of social reality.
This is a nihilistic view, divorcing itself from history's involving tug or becoming perhaps a perversion of it. DeLillo might argue that such perversions are simply the logical result of a "social individual" in the Information Age. A kind of endgame--alienated, yes, but lit with negative protest nonetheless.
Franzen identified this problem similarly in his "Perchance to Dream" essay as the way "privacy is exactly what the American Century has tended toward. First there was mass suburbanization, then the perfection of at-home entertainment, and finally the creation of virtual communities whose most striking feature is that interaction within them is entirely optional--terminable the instant the experience ceases to gratify the user."
The collapse of the myth of the Internet as a democratizing force in news and information, as a glue for a new public consciousness, is part of this great feeling of disaffection and disconnection. While it remains a counterculture organizing ground for assorted global protest groups, it is not quite the democratic free-for-all it was once hoped to be. Meanwhile, clichés like "the New New Journalism" and "the Way New Journalism," which try to give countercultural weight to new forms of Internet journalism, have fallen fast to the reality that major news corporations are maintaining their centrality and indeed expanding it, seeking international print and electronic monopolies over freelance writers in a manner that all but strangles them out of the mainstream system. Add to this a babble of impotent, even crazed voices, and you have confusion, not liberty, shouting to be heard outside the corporate gates.
Where New Journalism once challenged a homogeneity of opinion, even one of its most extreme practitioners, Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of "Gonzo," finds a heterogeneity on the Net so repulsive he can't bear it. As he put it, "There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can't really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but at least there is some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it's becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything's acceptable as long as it's interesting."
The language of the Net itself is affecting new books and the audiences who might be reading them. Figures like Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are also partly a literary byproduct of chat rooms and websites, and use an eclipsed language more heady and conversational at once, and therefore "young." Overall, though, one senses an impatience at root in Net culture, a desperation for sensation and the moment that does not feed itself into writing or reading books. In that regard the seething quality of the public consciousness, its near-madness, is really what the Net comes to represent--and with it a deep loneliness, a frenzy masked as social activity. Novelists like DeLillo, Franzen, Eggers, David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody order that sea of thought, but also manifest its rabidity and pointless depths, indexing it to the furies and absurdities of consumer culture. To steal a line from Marshall McLuhan, "Some like it cold."
A critic like Wood finds this sprawling ambition depressing. You might recall his lament that "It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.... This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist's quarries anymore." It could be argued that just when New Journalism was pushing its way into literature's representational culture, the more talented novelists were moving out to the fringes of consciousness, to places "nonfiction narrative" could not reach. So much so that Tom Wolfe himself eventually berated modern American novelists for their abstractions and lack of research in his own essay manifesto, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." Wolfe espoused a return to the qualities of naturalism, citing Emile Zola and, of course, the importance of the "novelist as reporter." (Since Wolfe had recently written The Bonfire of the Vanities, his screed was seen in many quarters as bald self-promotion.)
Wolfe's views are not so far away from those of B.R. Myers. Wolfe's zippy writing style may have sung with pop culture verve, but he has always been a conservative at heart, as his rigid championing of realism, or "documentation," as he prefers to call it, shows. Aside from a stoush with Mailer over A Man in Full, Wolfe has also argued with John Updike and John Irving, the latter describing all of Wolfe's novels as nothing but "yak" and "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction." Wolfe responded to them all in an essay called "My Three Stooges" (it can be found in his latest collection, Hooking Up), accusing Mailer, Updike and Irving of having "wasted their careers by not engaging in the life around them...turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history."
In Wolfe's final opinion, the American social novel is suffering not from "obsolescence" but from "anorexia." For all its force of actuality, though, Franzen's sickened density in The Corrections is quite a different creature from Wolfe's idea of what a social novel should be. It doesn't just observe or document; it palpitates, realistically, with the surreal excess Wolfe once identified as an indulgence. And in a strange way, perhaps, it softens the blows of DeLillo, tries to put us back together again without hiding the cracks.
Now, however, a new era of unvarnished reporting and the dogmatism of style that underlies it appears to be dawning. September 11 is fuel to this conservative fire. The world has become so unsteady, the argument runs, that we have to get back to our roots, find the lines that moor us safely to what and where we are. Plasticity of language, tangential and subjective reporting, work that emphasizes a fractured or restless view of the world--these must be stopped. Examples abound.
There can be little argument that September 11 has sent everyone into the spin of re-evaluation. But writers have always had to wrestle with such extreme moments, monstrous acts that threaten to annihilate us, spiritually if not actually. Where is the sense in it? How do we become human again, rather than vengeful, blind with loss or hate? One danger for literary journalism, of course, is that it threatens to aestheticize the experience of an event like September 11. The same may well be true of writing about Hiroshima, the Holocaust, even something as basic as a brutal, anonymous murder. Straight journalism must negotiate the obverse dangers, the tendency to reduce everything to the details, an impartiality that becomes desensitizing and objective to the point of emotional irrelevance.
The proof of value must finally lie within the words themselves. And for all of Beinart's criticisms of unnecessary poetics and dubious metaphors, the literary fraternity and journalists of literary inclination still gave us much to be grateful for. What that may mean in terms of novels and a broader state of mind to come is still too early to tell; but his and Myers's demand for a retreat from the frontiers of ambiguity, from wordplay and a tensile language that the likes of Don DeLillo tease into something conscious and unsettling within us is, well, a backward step. It may be awful to say it, but the obsession with information that underlies the work of DeLillo, Franzen and others could still be capturing the real and enduring trauma for society, way beyond the immediate horror of September 11 and its psychic impact.
I have to note that the English novelist Ian McEwan's dark and cool eloquence in The Guardian--his interrogation of the images and our action-replay absorption in them, our nauseating lust for news--was of the first order, as both literary essay and as a moral inquiry between self and the society of spectacle. Factual journalism alone can't easily create that kind of recognition. In Vanity Fair, the novelist Toni Morrison's address to the dead was the finest elegy I read from anyone, anywhere, with her bruising admission of "nothing to give...except this gesture, this thread between your humanity and mine." Yes, facts can make us grieve, too, but there are times when we also need the obscure magic of poetry to heal us.
Even the issue of The New Yorker so maligned by Beinart was filled with great literary journalism. The one exception to the form was an essay--nonreported, nonnarrative, political, historical, analytical--by Susan Sontag, a piece strangely overlooked by Beinart in his comments, given the new aesthetic world order he perceives. Sontag questioned the proposition of national innocence, and how that outlook refuses some of the baggage--some of the baggage--of responsibility America has to bear for its foreign policy. It was easier to misunderstand, simplify and demonize her arguments than to take on board the questions she was asking, even the sober ones.
September 11 did do something to the imagination, did go beyond words. It was a profound blow to the spirit. In all the realms of journalism and analysis since then, some have spoken well, some haven't. Some, most interesting of all, have evoked confusion and mixed feelings, and longed for the light of understanding. The clamor to speak has itself become a problem, a moral dilemma that reflects the media's sickening habit of overproduction, its sheer commerciality.
After any death, any tragedy, there is an inevitable level of sobriety and reserve, yes. If that leads to better journalism, better writing, better books, how wonderful for us all. But the argument that literary responses and literary journalism are somehow not up to the task, that reflection and rebuilding the public consciousness should be left to the practitioners of conventional bricks-and-mortar journalism and old-fashioned storytellers who know their rules of grammar, is far from convincing. To do the job fully we need a little soul and poetry, a little shaking up too. Literary journalism and great, radically written novels are more than able to fill that gap. And perhaps raise a few questions as well in that world between the imagined and the real where nightmares--and dreams--are born.
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.
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