Black & White Mr. Webster defines the word "dilemma" as a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives. My own present definition of a dilemma is a situation requiring a choice between trashing a very good friendÕs work, or doing a Bill Clinton and going for a whopper. As it turns out, I chose the former, but then something happened that made me change my mind: I had a chat with my 19-year-old son, and read Stanley CrouchÕs review of Black and White, the film whose premiere I attended last week. Now let me explain.
As some of you may have guessed, I am a conservative Republican, pro-death penalty, mildly pro-choice, pro-states rights, pro-decentralized government, virulently anti-Clinton/Gore. I loathe the Clinton/Gore gang for its obsessive hatred of the truth and of the past, its obsession with turning this country into a Total State and its propaganda backed by federal laws forcing people to be ashamed and frightened to even acknowledge the slightest of differences between races.
The gang's power has corrupted the media, so that even the few conservative papers left in this country are full of odious drivel about hate crimes, sex education for three-year-olds and diversity. In fact, we now have a situation in which there is a virtual exclusion of national history except as a reminder for instilling guilt and repudiating the past, a la South Carolina/ Confederate flag brouhaha. It is the total subjugation of America to professional rabble-rousers like Sharpton who make a living from race. It is all about the "Politics of Embarrassment"?destroying people's morale by endless agitprop about the racist homophobic evils of their forebears. It is the out-and-out assault by The New York Times and the media elite against conservative Christian communities, which, far from being aggressive, are being aggressed against by the liberal culture and small-timers like Frank Rich. The media, the federal bureaucracies and the courts are guilty of witchhunts for white racism, ethnic divisiveness and pandering to race baiters.
But back to the film Black and White. Producer Michael Mailer is someone I admire greatly. Intelligent and good-looking, Michael was captain of the Harvard boxing team, and once fought a final in the amateurs that in its ferocity reminded me of the Graziano-Zale slugfests. He is also a winner with the fairer sex. I first noticed him when, still wet behind the ears, he seduced the American version of Zuleika Dobson, whereas I had failed rather miserably, and then, to my great annoyance, he moved on to better and better Zuleikas. When Michael came cruising the Greek islands on my boat, he brought over a Californian who had my crew up in arms. The captain finally told me she better cover up or there would be a mutiny...followed by rape. (Chuck Pfeiffer's girl also was trouble. She let the bath run all night, thinking that boats are attached to artesian wells.)
So, when Michael invited me to the premiere of Black and White, I asked him what it was about. "Actually it's a reflection on the theme of 'The White Negro,'" his father's great 1957 essay. Briefly, Norman Mailer argued that a new kind of American existentialist had come into being, the hipster. Norman called it "the psychopath in oneself." The Negro, with his sensuality, his jazz and his centuries of discrimination, had developed an outlaw mentality, and along with the Negro, the bohemian and the delinquent, out came the hipster.
That was 1957, this is 2000. Just before the lights dimmed, an executive producer said that "this movie has enough to offend everyone." Especially, in my opinion, if one is black and middle-class. Never have I heard so much needless cussing, never have I seen a film that sends a worse message. The protagonist thug gets away with extortion and murder, while the whites are all duplicitous, weak, exploiting and very strange. The white girls beg the black dudes for it.
The trouble with the movie is that it's well done. James Toback is a talented intellectual, and a nice guy. (I met him briefly at the film's wrap party at Elaine's, and, unlike so many Hollywood schmucks, he was friendly and simpatico.) As he told Armond White in last week's New York Press, " facing up to the darkest twists of one's personality?seems to be the path that I'm following mostly...so that there's an implied libertarianism in everything I do, because it suggests that only a totalitarian nitwit who is frightened of life would try to restrict or repress people's natural exuberance and experimentation."
Call me a totalitarian nitwit, but when Chuck Pfeiffer and I walked out of the cinema we let the limo go and went sucking for air. Only last week I was complaining about the ubiquitous use of the F-word, and here I had heard it more, in less than two hours, than a courtside NBA spectator hears it in the Garden in a lifetime. And only a fool would deny that the way we talk has an effect on the actions of some of us. I repeat, it was the message that bothered me. What will go through the mind of a young black man after he sees Black and White?
Then someone faxed me the Stanley Crouch review. Crouch loathes rappers, and says that filmmakers who have looked into "thug life...have revealed it to exist in a moral toilet." But he gives credit where it's due: white filmmakers are too scared of the race Gestapo to depict "hedonistic black thugs and whores who kill each other over nothing and do whatever is necessary to get paid in order to spend all their time mindlessly chillin'..." Black and White does for "thug life" what The Bicycle Thief did for post-wartime Rome.
When Michael Mailer's younger brother John left for Andover, he was warned by Michael that he would be an outcast because of his rapper-like dress. After a couple of years Michael visited the school, and instead of khakis and buttondowns, most of the students were dressed like street kids. My own son, ditto. The conquest of white teenagers by hiphop must be complete when young John-Taki, brought up on the Upper East Side and Le Rosey school in Switzerland, thinks his father a cracker with a buttoned-down mind.
George Szamuely The Bunker
Closed to Debate Our brain-dead political establishment is about to put up the fight of its life to make sure that October's presidential debates will be as boring and as uninformative as possible. No one but the mediocre nominees of the two major parties will be allowed to take part. The last thing our rulers want is to give voters a chance to choose among the available alternatives.
In January the grandly named Commission on Presidential Debates announced that no candidate will take part in the debates unless he has, first, a mathematical chance of securing an electoral college majority, and second, that he can demonstrate at least 15 percent support in five national polls one week before the debates. The polls would be conducted by five selected organizations: ABC/Washington Post; CBS/New York Times; NBC/Wall Street Journal; CNN/USA Today/Gallup; and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics.
Despite its blue-ribbon-sounding name, the CPD?invariably preceded by the ingratiating adjective "bipartisan"?has no official standing whatsoever. The CPD chairs are Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., former chairman of the Republican Party and prominent gambling industry lobbyist, and Paul G. Kirk Jr., a former chairman of the Democratic Party and also a prominent lobbyist. The commission is divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. No independents have ever been invited to join, even though the Reform Party won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and receives federal funds.
If you want to stage a debate you have to cough up $550,000. This money goes directly to the CPD. Debates all have corporate sponsors. Soft money contributions to political parties have to be reported to the FEC; debate donations do not. Debates provide corporate CEOs with an excellent opportunity to rub shoulders with presidential candidates and media bigshots. Sponsors of the 1996 debates included Ford Motor Co., J.P. Morgan & Co., Atlantic Richfield, AT&T, the Sara Lee Corp., Philip Morris and Sprint. This year the CPD asked Anheuser-Busch to sponsor all four debates. One, held at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 17, will be sponsored entirely by Anheuser-Busch. Another one, at Winston-Salem, will be sponsored by Philip Morris.
Support for the commission comes not just from corporations. There are also the rich foundations. One of the commission's funders is the Century Foundation, formerly known as the Twentieth Century Fund. It was a foundation report, written by Clifford M. Sloan, Newton N. Minow and Carlos T. Angulo?Opening Salvos: Who Should Participate in Presidential Debates??that formed the basis of the commission's debate recommendations.
It is understandable that the political parties want to stifle competition. They have been doing this for years?with tricks like the absurdly high number of signatures needed to get on a state ballot. As Ralph Nader has said, "In the business world" what the two parties do "would subject them to antitrust prosecution." But why do the tv networks go along with this censorship? The same networks, incidentally, who will carry out the polling to determine who is debate-eligible?
Thus, who gets to debate is decided by a small number of people in the pay of the very corporations whose interests are threatened by a Pat Buchanan or a Ralph Nader. Such people have every incentive to make sure that discordant voices are kept out. In 1996 the CPD ruled that Ross Perot could not take part in the debates. Why? Because the "experts" it consulted said that he had no realistic chance of winning the presidency. "Participation is not extended to candidates because they might prove interesting or entertaining," Paul Kirk explained patronizingly.
Perot's exclusion was amazing. Here was a man who had won almost a fifth of the popular vote in 1992, had launched a new political party and had taken a prominent part in national debates like the one over NAFTA. Perot sued the commission and lost. In his suit, he argued that the CPD, the Democrats, the Republicans and their financial backers were rigging the system against outsiders.
It is outrageous that we take the commission's self-serving recommendations seriously. The 15-percent hurdle is preposterous. Using such criteria, George Wallace in 1968 would not have been able to take part in the presidential debates, had there been any that year. He only got 13 percent of the vote. Yet he carried five states and went on to dominate political life for the next 25 years.
It would have been hard also in 1984 to justify Walter Mondale debating Ronald Reagan, for he did not have the remotest possibility of winning. Moreover, why shouldn't the commission's standards not also hold for the primaries? How dare all those Republican hopefuls presume to share a platform with George W. Bush when he led them by almost 50 points! In many countries, political parties secure important cabinet positions on the basis of as little as 5 percent of the vote. Were they operating in the United States, Germany's Free Democrats or Greens would long ago have been written off as the loony fringe.
The debates are for the American people?not for the corporations or the monopolistic political parties. Buchanan and Nader should be there. As should the Libertarians. We might then get a debate that will consist of something more than well-rehearsed one-liners, stump speech excerpts and corny homilies.
Charles Glass The London Desk
Dissing Mandela Nelson Mandela came to town last week, and New Labor couldn't find time for a parade. Mandela may not be Mike Tyson, for whom Britain's ascetic home secretary, Jack Straw, waived restrictions on admitting convicted felons in time for one of the feeblest matches (sic) in boxing history on Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television. But Mandela is a recognized brand. Prime Minister Tony Blair usually attaches himself to big names. Remember his appearance at Princess Diana's funeral and his attempts to hijack the Queen Mother's upcoming 100th birthday? I expect to see him on Coronation Street, the country's longest-running soap opera. It's not like Tony to pass up the chance to "get down" with an African folk hero.
Mandela is hard to beat: the years in prison; the suffering to topple a brutal state; the good grace he showed his former persecutors; his emulation of the father of African nationalism, Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, in standing down at the end of his term, when he could have served for life. He's like Pope John Paul II, a man of global stature. No one, apart from Blair's mentor Bill Clinton, could beat Tony to a photo-op with Mandela or the pope. Or Oasis' Liam Gallagher.
Something went wrong, however. Mandela made himself persona non grata with the New Hawks of New Labor the way the pope does when he disparages capitalism for its injustice and vulgarity. If the pope visited Britain and launched into one of his anti-capitalist epistles, Blair would ditch him faster than he did his paymaster-general, Geoffrey Robinson, when the press got hold of his financial statements.
Mandela should have read a New Labor script: "Thank you, Brother Blair, for your courageous stand against Apartheid. When the chips were down, you didn't drink KWV Cabernet with your Boerewurst." They'd have given him an honorary knighthood and sent him home with Downing Street matchbooks. But Mandela blew it. He castigated the guardians of the new world order. In London, Mandela told his biographer, Anthony Sampson, that "I am resentful about the type of things America and Britain are doing. They want now to be the policemen of the world, and I'm sorry that Britain has joined the U.S. in this regard." Wrong, wrong, wrong. If he'd checked with Blair's crack flack, Alastair Campbell, the New Labor version of Mandela's pronouncement would have been, "We in Africa are very grateful that our traditional benefactors, the U.S. and British, offer aid to the weak and oppressed. We black folk, like the Arabs and Slavs, rest easy knowing the B-52s are overhead to protect us." Instead, he was ungrateful for Anglo-American largesse: "They [the U.S. and Britain] must persuade countries like China or Russia who threaten to veto their decisions at the UN. They must sit down and talk to them. They can't just ignore them and start their own actions." Of course, they can and do ignore the UN and start their own actions. Look at Kosovo. Look at the prolonged starvation of Iraq and the American browbeating to keep the UN in line.
Mandela realizes that Tony doesn't give a damn what he or any other retired Third World head of state thinks about Kosovo, Iraq or anywhere else. When he wants Mandela's opinion, he'll ask Bill Clinton to give it to him. Mandela may be 81, but that's no excuse for Isaiah-like gloom at the Anglo-American Millennium Table. Good thing Mandela went off to Dublin after his speech at the London School of Economics. The Irish, with their neutrality and traditional sympathy for the world's poor, were more sympathetic. (Ireland, unlike Britain, enforced sanctions against white South Africa while Mandela languished on Robben Island. When I was there in 1992, the Irish gave more per capita to outside charities than any other country in Europe, and donations were not tax-deductible. That may be different today: Ireland is becoming richer than Britain and rising house-prices make people more jealous of their incomes. Woe betide the prosperous.)
Mandela had the effrontery to condemn the American and British bombardment of Iraq. "The message they're sending is that any country which fears a [UN] veto can take unilateral action," Mandela said. "That means they're introducing chaos into international affairs: that any country can take a decision which it wants." Blair's foreign secretary, Robin Cook, has jumped forth to defend British policy in bombing and starving Iraq. He came under attack in a television film by the left-wing Australian journalist, John Pilger. Pilger's film, Paying the Price, accused Britain of preventing Iraq's children from receiving vital medicine. Cook vented his spleen on Pilger in The New Statesman, the Labor weekly owned by the former paymaster-general whom Blair pretends not to know, "There is nothing to prevent Iraq from ordering more medicine." Cook is telling the truth. Iraq can order all the medical supplies it likes. Britain, however, will not allow them to be delivered.
Pilger, in his own New Statesman column, responded to Cook's claim that Iraqi propaganda "fabricates claims of death and destruction." He wrote, "In one five-month period, 41 per cent of all strikes resulted in civilian casualties. The targets included fishermen's wharves, villages and livestock." He added that the UN humanitarian coordinator had verified the killing by allied bombers of a shepherd and six members of his family, one of many such examples.
Although Pilger demolished Cook's arguments one by one, Cook is in power, with the U.S. backing him. Pilger is a mere hack. Mandela is a retired senior citizen, and Blair is getting ready to welcome one of his real heroes, the Butcher of Chechnya, Vladimir Putin.
Melik Kaylan The Spy
Fatwa-Baiting History will record that America invented Islamic fundamentalism. If you don't believe it, let me rant a little while I have you here. As Americans, it's said that you don't care about foreign stories. Now that the Cold War and Princess Di are gone, print and tv editors simply can't prevail on you to focus on events abroad. This, at a time of unprecedented immigration. All those recent Euro-Afro-Hispano-Chinese Americans apparently don't care about the old countries, or what the new country as lone superpower does over there. I don't buy it. The likelier explanation: media and power elites prefer not to overeducate you on such topics. You would certainly get in the way.
So here's assuming you do care. About Islamic fundamentalism for example. From the 60s on, the U.S. and Israel fostered Mideastern fundamentalism to counteract the area's Arab socialist regimes. One group, the Muslim Brotherhood, eventually assassinated Egypt's Anwar Sadat (although they continue to deny involvement). In Iran, once the Shah departed, his leftover secret service and the CIA leaked names of pro-Soviet leftist activists to Ayatollah supporters. Iran now conspires with Russia to build nuclear capability. Then in the 80s, America backed the Pak-Afghan mujahid resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. I trust you know what subsequently happened there: the Taliban took over.
At first glance, it all looks like a short-term opportunistic policy gone bad and, inevitably, sour. Short-term it wasn't. Back in the 50s, when America applied the Marshall Plan in Turkey, they built no public infrastructure, no wealth-creating industries, no internal oil supplies. Just roads. But nobody had cars or trucks, except the army. Fair enough: at least that meant a military infrastructure to fight off the Soviets. And if cars should multiply. Turkey would be locked into Saudi oil and the Saudis to U.S. patronage. Enter Saudi Arabia as a geostrategic proxy worldwide. In the 70s, under American guidance, the Saudis financed and ran Islamic schools in Turkey to counteract leftist student movements. Turkish fundamentalism was implanted?in a hitherto highly secular environment. The Saudis did it again in Pakistan during the 80s, this time for the Afghan anti-Soviet effort. Now it's all over Africa and Central Asia.
So the U.S. created a kind of worldwide McFundamentalism franchise. In theory, I don't necessarily dismiss the strategy, or the need, nor even condemn outright the Machiavellian use of religion. The devil's in the particulars here?the particular brand of Saudi Islam: Wahhabism. Why of all the strains of Islam in all the world, did they have to globalize that one? Wahhabis came out of the Arabian desert in the last two centuries as a fiery fulminating sect and took hold among the Saudi tribes. Purity, austerity, judgment-day primitivism and plenty of bloodshed are the sect's chief strengths?and temptations. It's like choosing the Peruvian Shining Path guerrillas as a model of Marxism to spread around the world?a policy of empowering the barbarians.
I'll probably get a death fatwa for this stuff, but I am Muslim-born and these cannibals implicate me by universalizing their atrocities under the banner of Islam. All too often, impoverished slum- or desert-dwelling tribal Muslims can only identify with the religion's early years of warfare and sacrifice. Nor are they taught by Saudi-trained clerics, who don't know any better, of Cordoba and Alhambra, of Moghul poetry and architecture, Harun al-Rashid and Scheherazade?the variegated heights of their culture. Indeed they would disapprove of it all. They've so smothered its grandeur that the world has forgotten too. What do they know of epic Urdu verse, the very mention of which seems so abstruse now as to sound pretentious? Yet a whole subcontinent lived in thrall to it for centuries. In the 19th century, so poetry-besotted was the Indian city of Lucknow that the entire population divided in support of one or other of the two leading resident poets who declaimed epic Muslim verse.
Believers who live in conditions comparable to the early embattled years of a faith, be it religious or political, tend to accept its genesis myths as literal truth. Conversely, those who believe such myths to be literal truth tend to bring about such primitive conditions artificially. It reinforces their message. They often see no harm in collapsing an economy. They can justify mass throat-slashing as in Algeria, or chattel slavery as in Sudan. Sudan's National Islamic Front government has waged an eight-year war in the south, a "holy" war against non-Muslims in which they have deliberately killed the men, enslaved and forcibly converted the women and children. Literally enslaved. Humans are on sale for $100 a pop in the slave markets of southern Sudan. Forcible miscegenation, Serbian-fashion, is also visited on the women. Financing comes from Libya and other fundamentalist sympathizers.
Now quickly before the fatwas take wing, let me reiterate: I am deploring only a narrow, self-appointed and relatively recent brand of Islam, one that claims the entire faith for itself, and one that the West foisted on everyone as a Cold War remedy. I celebrate the splendors of the higher tradition equally, and equally blame outsiders for their part. Such as Russia, for example. I promise to take up the cudgel on that front in another column, but from Bosnia through Chechnya to Afghanistan they've wrought uniform destruction. They've returned a large chunk of the Muslim world back to the primitive conditions of the early faith. Then justified it as an antifundamentalist campaign and sought the West's endorsement. In the end, all we've achieved is a millennial step back to the mindset of the Crusades.