Bill the Cad Strikes Again
Good old Bill Clinton. He is said to be "deeply concerned" about the jailing of a Canadian journalist in Malaysia. Murray Hiebert, a reporter for a Hong Kong-based magazine published by Dow Jones, got six weeks in the pokey for contempt of court. Now I don't know Murray Hiebert, and I'm sure that he?unlike Clinton?does not belong behind bars, but such are the joys of journalism in faraway places.
Hiebert's conviction stemmed from an article he wrote about a woman who sued a school after her son was kicked off the debating team. I basically agree with Hiebert, who wrote about the growing number of suits in Malaysia (if I had my way, all frivolous suits, which comprise 90 percent of all suits filed in the U.S., would be punished by imprisoning the plaintiffs as well as the shyster lawyers who encouraged them), but the judge disagreed. He ruled that the article had "scandalized the court and was calculated to excite prejudice against the plaintiff."
Well, the Draft Dodger and First Perjurer was shocked that in Malaysia a judge would rule that a reporter excited prejudice against a person. Mind you, the fact that Bill Clinton and his catamites have spent a lifetime exciting prejudices via the press against anyone deemed a political adversary does not seem important. As in everything he says and does, Clinton is yet again being less than truthful. Six weeks is hardly a lifetime, which would be the sentence for, say, a Tibetan reporter for not toeing the party line. And I doubt very much if the Draft Dodger would be deeply concerned about that.
Asked about Clinton's comments, the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, was not pleased. He has a point. First of all, it is none of Clinton's business. Malaysia is a sovereign country, with a justice system of its own, not Arkansas, where friends of Bill can be appointed judges and expected to perform. Second of all, and this is what Mahathir homed in on, the American habit of arresting people in other countries and bringing them to trial in America is against international law. Clinton has not exactly put pressure on that grinning hyena, Tony Blair, to release Gen. Pinochet, illegally held under house arrest in Blighty. And another thing: Few Americans are remotely aware that for more than eight months the American and British governments have been bombing the crap out of a country that used to go by the ancient name of Mesopotamia, now Iraq. (Alexander the Great died on the banks of the Euphrates, a river that runs through it, pun intended.)
So I ask you: How is it possible to be deeply concerned about a reporter being held in contempt and jailed for six weeks in a civilized country like Malaysia, but not be at all concerned that thousands of Iraqi children are dying every year because Clinton and the grotesque Madeleine Albright have decided to play hardball against innocent people for domestic purposes? (Iraqi children do not vote in America, but reporters do influence voters.)
But let me answer my own question. As Amanda Craig wrote in the Sept. 12 Sunday Times, "The late Willie Whitelaw [a Thatcher minister], was once asked what was the difference between [a cad and a bounder]. His distinction was that a bounder is a soldier who is sent home from the front with a letter for his commanding officer's wife and, finding her both lonely and beautiful, seduces her. A cad is someone with a desk job who, when asked to deliver the same, puts on a uniform before he visits. In other words, a bounder is a shameless opportunist but a cad manipulates the odds."
I cannot think of someone who better fits the bill of a cad than Clinton. His double standards are not only breathtaking, they are unique. There is no greater hypocrite, no bigger moral coward, no slimier manipulator. He bombed and bullied the Serbs because, unlike Indonesia, Serbia is a small and unimportant country that has the merit of being within reach of Italian-based aircraft. The Far East is different. There he will posture and strike an assortment of moral attitudes but do nothing to save a single life in East Timor.
Let me remind you what the oiliest and most dishonest man ever to sleep in the White House said to justify the bombing of Serbia: "Whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it." And pigs might fly, as they say in the old country.
As I write, the Albanian mafia is tightening its grip on Kosovo. The drug-dealing KLA?more than 40 percent of the heroin reaching Western Europe moves through Kosovo?was contained by the Serbs, but no longer. Effectively, there are no borders between Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. Kosovo is now a drug lord's paradise. And since the Serb defeat, innocent Serb civilians are being killed because of their race and their religion. But there hasn't been a peep from the body-snatcher in the White House.
Given the fact that I knew something of Albanian history before this year, I was appalled at the speed at which truth became a casualty once the First Perjurer started to play John Wayne. Sixty-two thousand Albanians marched into Greece with Mussolini's troops in October 1940. Their leaders asked the Italian commanding general for the honor of crossing the Greek borders first. After we beat the utter crap out of both the spaghetti benders and the barbarians, they hid behind the Nazis, who attacked us in April of 1941. Under the fascist-Nazi umbrella, the Albanians gained control of Kosovo, helped the Croatians efficiently cleanse it of 300,000 Serbs and kept the Yugoslav resistance busy, thus relieving Nazi troops for duty in Normandy. These are the people we bombed innocent civilians for.
Albright and Holbrooke?how nice to see two ghastly people hating each other?harbor illusions about a multi-ethnic Kosovo, but that is not what the drug dealers have in mind. As Nikolaos Stavrow noted this past month, since Tweedledum's famous victory, the Serb and Gypsy populations have been reduced 75 and 90 percent respectively. Serbs who did not leave their ancestral homes because they had committed no crimes and trusted NATO's bullshit are now being told that NATO cannot be everywhere. In the meantime, Clinton is deeply concerned about Hiebert. If I were the unfortunate reporter, I'd ask not for amnesty from the Malaysian judge, but for the draft Dodger not to be concerned. Is there any greater shame than to have Bill Clinton on your side?
The most influential American movie in years hit the Venice Film Festival last week, producing intense arguments that spilled out into the street. According to a reporter from the Telegraph, "critics from a dozen countries stood in huddles, fiercely debating what they had just seen." The movie was Fight Club, in which a charismatic figure played by Brad Pitt persuades Edward Norton?the sort of Gen-X yuppie Pitt calls a "feminized man"?to give up trying to be a good boy and, to prove his manhood, punch Pitt in the nose.
The idea takes off, and Fight Clubs spring up all over, in which young men fight one another, then strangers on the street, ultimately driving urban society into glorious anarchy. The author of the novel Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, apparently wrote it while living a sheltered existence cosseted by a writers group in Portland, OR. I, on the other hand, am one of the few men to have tried out his idea, 30 years ago, my medium not words and emotional sensitivities but blood and pain. And I can tell him from my own experience: to fight other men in a completely feminized world does not achieve a darned thing.
True enough, the idea is attractive. In 1969, I transferred from the all-men's college I attended and joined the first class of 32 boys at Bennington, until that moment a women's college. The 590 or so Bennington girls who surrounded us were reputed to be bloody-minded, fiercely avant-garde and feminist, and justly proud of their ability to be without the presence of men. Their reputation proved to be understated. And so, to relieve our feelings of inferiority, some of us formed the Bennington Boys' Boxing Society. We staged informal matches in dormitory living rooms, sometime between ourselves, sometimes against the suitors from Harvard and Columbia who still haunted the former girls' college. We were weedy and unwelcome Ulysseses, ineffectively defending our 590 disgusted Penelopes.
So for me, the Bennington experience is more than the background of candle-illuminated bookshelves full of Lorca and Anais Nin, more than the feel of dried-out bits of Bocour acrylic paint in a headful of long brown hair, more than a collage of Swedish clogs, leotards and carefully kept journals. My Bennington was also the acrid taste of the rubber mouthguard, the sound of leather on muscle, the fear I felt when facing off against a hulking Harvard boy whom I had never seen before, the feeling of shock and lightness of head when a single blow from him dropped me to the floor.
Physical fighting was almost a new experience for me. I grew up in a Chicago neighborhood so dangerous that, as a white boy, to allow myself to be caught in a fight on the street after the age of puberty would be suicidal. Instead, I learned to negotiate, to bluff, to plead for my life. Until I went to Bennington I never had the experience of writing a poem, using a welding torch (in sculpture), trying to do Graham contractions or hitting a man in the face. Did our fighting experience affect our manhood or our standing among our 590 sisters? It only increased their contempt for us?a thing I would not have thought possible.
So I can tell you that the antidote to wimpishness we pioneered at Bennington, and now fully blown in Fight Club, simply will not do. Fighting for the sake of fighting is not the point. What is wrong with man in the age of feminism has nothing to do with whether, out of an urge to express himself, he can punch out a fellow wimp. Instead, I'd recommend to my brothers a much more neglected function of male identity: revenge.
A new book by Anne Burnett on ancient Greek tragedy argues convincingly that the Greeks found successful revenge completely admirable, representing, as she says, "order itself in its original and vital form." Viewing a revenge tragedy onstage was good for the audience?it sent "more vital men back into a more vital city." Of course there were famous female revengers in classical tragedy?Electra, Medea and that favorite of Hamlet, Hecuba. But these early Bennington girls were exceptional. Revenge is a man's job, and, if properly sought, may be our only hope.
If only Prof. Burnett's book had been published in time for Bernard Lewinsky to read it 19 months ago. Think how much we could have been spared if Dr. Lewinsky had appeared in front of the White House in January 1998 brandishing a horsewhip, crying out for vengeance?
We tend to overvalue violence while disapproving of?or at least misunderstanding?vengeance. I think this is backward. And we make the further mistake of trying to fight violence itself?in the hopeless form, for example, of writing new gun laws to be disobeyed?rather than to avenge ourselves on those men and women who commit violence, and to dissuade them, by being prepared to use force, from injuring us in the first place. Simply to bloody Brad Pitt's nose?however tempting?gets us nowhere.
THE TIRED HEDONIST
Ever since Kevin Spacey made it known a week or so ago that he is definitely heterosexual, at least one gay friend of mine?I'll call him "Bill," for that is his name?has been rather glum. It seems that Bill, a boyish-looking blond lawyer, was under the impression that Kevin Spacey had picked him up one night in the mid-80s in an East Village club called the Boy Bar, and that the two of them had subsequently shared a tender moment at Bill's apartment. Now Bill knows that this "Kevin Spacey" must have been an impostor, since the real Kevin Spacey is straight. My friend is especially dejected at the thought that he had intimacies with someone who was as physically unattractive as Spacey when that person was not even a star.
The moral of this story, I think, is that one should be very careful when dealing with seeming celebrities. There are many impersonators out there, like the ersatz Kevin Spacey who seduced my friend Bill, or, more recently, the fake Roberto Benigni who was in town enjoying the hospitality of gullible Manhattanites. If someone at a party or an opening grandly says to you, "Do you know who I am?" it is safest to respond, "No, but if you ask the man at the door I'm sure he could help you."
Contrariwise, plenty of true stars walk the streets unrecognized and are treated quite rudely. Some years ago, I spotted Linda Hunt in Balducci's. Miss Hunt is a real star. She won an Academy Award for her role in The Year of Living Dangerously, in which she played a man. Obviously, she is no Julia Roberts. When she inadvertently cut into the queue at one of Balducci's cash registers, another woman curtly ordered her to "getta the backa the line!" The Oscar-winner meekly complied. It broke my heart.
Balducci's, as it happens, is a very good place to spot celebrities. In my years of shopping there I used to see on a regular basis such luminaries as William Kunstler, the radical lawyer who played himself in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors; John Cage, the avant-garde composer (now, like Kunstler, gathered to his fathers); Wally Shawn, the huggable little playwright and character actor; Carl Bernstein, the intrepid investigative reporter; not to mention (because I can't remember her name) a cast member from the television show Punky Brewster. You would not exactly call them "beautiful people"; indeed, they tended to be small and somewhat misshapen. Yet it was thrilling to shop daily in their company.
For if one cannot be a celebrity oneself?and frequently one cannot?the next best thing, existentially speaking, is to live in their midst. Ordinary humans can draw ontological power from celebrities, as the eminent Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick has pointed out. "It is as if, because they are the subjects of so much public attention, when they take cognizance of us, all that attention for a moment gets turned upon us, reflected toward us," Nozick wrote in his book The Examined Life. "We bask, however briefly, in the public attention they have received, and feel our own reality enhanced." That is exactly how I felt when, as a student living in Manhattan Valley, I went out late one night to get a pack a cigarettes and discovered Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray buying beer at the corner bodega.
One of the great lures of New York nightlife used to be the opportunities it afforded for meeting celebrities. Late in the Carter administration, I think it was, the now-famous photographer Patrick McMullan called me up one night to get me to come to a smallish club that was fashionable then called Les Mouches. "Mick Jagger will be there, and Peter Falk too," he promised. This seemed such an odd juxtaposition?Columbo and Jumping Jack Flash?that I couldn't resist. By the time I got downtown, Jagger had already departed, and so had Falk, but I did get to have a long chat with Gerome Ragni. Who, you ask, is that? You philistine. Gerome Ragni wrote the lyrics to the musical Hair. I wonder if he is still around.
In the heyday of nightlife I made a point of going to every new club on opening night. I kept this up for years, even after most of the celebrities whose company I sought had withdrawn from the scene. Then one night?it was the opening, as I recall, of a Tribeca club called AM/PM?I just couldn't muster the will to pull myself together and get downtown. My resolve was broken. I became more and more casual about discharging my nightlife duties. Doormen forgot my face. Drink tickets and other party favors were no longer discreetly offered to me. Soon I was off the circuit completely.
Today, feeling the demure restlessness of middle age, I have begun to participate again in the nocturnal pageant?cheaply, chastely and healthily. I do this by rising at about 6 a.m. on Sunday morning and jogging west toward the Hudson. First I jog by Twilo on 27th St. Some of the kids are already heading out of the club's doors and homeward; a few of the more hard-core types are just arriving. From Twilo I run down 11th Ave., greeting the street-walkers and their colorfully dressed pimps along the way, to the Roxy on 18th St., where the party-makers, sweaty and with dilated pupils, are also streaming out into the dawn light. I proceed down past 14th to the meatpacking district, whose streets pullulate with transvestite hookers and preppie couples on the razzle.
The gratifying thing is that, since these bedraggled revelers have been out all night whereas I have had a full night's sleep, they don't at the moment look all that much younger than me! Also, the testosterone levels of the males have been almost completely depleted, whereas mine is at a peak. (Testosterone in men runs down during the day and is replenished by slumber, hitting its high point when you wake up.)
By 7 a.m. I am back in my apartment with the Sunday Times, having compressed a complete New York nightlife experience into a single hour of aerobic activity. I recommend this regimen to all aging roués who no longer have the stamina or the liver to keep up with their younger counterparts. The only element missing is the one that is vulgarly called "booty," but I am working on that.
The other day Gen. Wiranto mocked the worldwide concern for the fate of East Timor by singing "Feelings." Though his gesture was crude, Wiranto did raise an interesting point. Why are people so preoccupied with East Timor? To be sure, Indonesian brutality has been, well, pretty brutal. But we are hardly running short of atrocities. It is interesting to compare today's attitudes toward Indonesia with those of nearly 40 years ago?the last time it took over half of an island it had no right to and proceeded to colonize it ruthlessly.
In May 1963, after years of agitation, Indonesia took over West New Guinea (now known as Irian Jaya) from the Dutch. Indonesia's claims on the territory had been based on its being the successor state to the Dutch East Indies. Since West New Guinea had belonged to the Dutch East Indies, it must by rights become part of Indonesia. The Papuans and Melanesians who inhabited the western part of the island were the same Papuans and Melanesians who inhabited the eastern part of the island?then administered by Australia. They did not want to be ruled by Indonesia's Javanese elite. The Dutch rejected Indonesia's demands. President Sukarno huffed and puffed. In 1961 he began a military campaign involving a variety of naval actions and an air drop against the Dutch in West New Guinea. Though the Dutch had nothing more on the island than a small garrison, they easily defeated these feeble operations. Survivors picked up from sunken Indonesian vessels were disdainfully returned.
But as far as the United Nations was concerned, the wishes of the island's population were neither here nor there. The Dutch were European colonists and had to surrender the territory. Significantly, one of the leading champions of Indonesia's cause was the United States. The Kennedy administration had made a decision that Sukarno was just the kind of nationalist the United States needed in the great struggle against Communism. Its dazzling intellects?Robert Kennedy, Averell Harriman, Roger Hilsman?had concluded that so-called "mandarin" leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, Synghman Rhee and Ngo Dinh Diem could not possibly prevail against the Communists. Their day had come and gone. What the Third World needed was nationalist leaders?"nation builders"?who would run "guided democracies" (to use Sukarno's description of his dictatorship). Armed with these half-baked notions, Americans engineered the downfall of South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem, with catastrophic results.
Of course, once the United States backed Indonesia's claims, the Dutch had little option but to surrender. As its prime minister explained to his outraged nation: "We were forced into it against our will and against everything we honor? The Netherlands could not count on the support of its allies." The Dutch were to hand over the territory to the United Nations. Indonesia would assume responsibility for the administration under UN auspices and a plebiscite would be held in 1969 to determine whether the local population wished to belong to Indonesia or not. No plebiscite was ever held. Instead, Indonesia handpicked a tame delegation of Papuan chiefs and headmen who gave a 100 percent vote in support of remaining within Indonesia. The Indonesians proceeded to rob the place blind and soon thousands of refugees were pouring across the border to the eastern part of the island. The United Nations and the United States had no problem with the outcome.
The United States had of course embraced the two causes of "anti-colonialism" and "anti-Communism," long before Kennedy. These words, sanctimoniously intoned, allowed Americans ruthlessly to pursue their economic self-interest. U.S. companies, salivating at the prospect of winning concessions on their mineral-rich possessions, wanted to get the Dutch out of East Asia. The U.S. decided to promote a spurious "Indonesian" nationalism while concealing unsavory details about its clients.
For instance, during the Second World War, Sukarno's "Indonesian" nationalists had actively collaborated with the Japanese. In Indochina Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh movement had helped Allied efforts against the Japanese; in the Dutch East Indies Sukarno's men turned over any Allied agents to the Japanese the moment they arrived in Sumatra. To get around this embarrassing detail, wartime intelligence reports deliberately distorted the truth: Sukarno, they declared, was "anti-Japanese at heart." He was nothing of the sort, and owed the power he commanded at the end of the war to Japanese economic and military assistance.
Americans knew perfectly well that there was no such thing as an "Indonesian" nation. The people who inhabited the thousands of tiny islands that comprised the Dutch East Indies were divided by ethnicity, language and religion. The Dutch proposed to create a series of federal states "associated" with the Netherlands. The United States would have none of it. It preferred to see control of this vast archipelago handed over to the gang of unrepresentative Javanese intellectuals favored by the Japanese.
When Sukarno launched a guerrilla war the Dutch moved to crush it. Secretary of State Dean Acheson threatened to end Marshall Aid to the Netherlands. All this was kept secret. Negotiations on the setting up of NATO were in full swing. It is doubtful if the Dutch public would have agreed to join an organization under the tutelage of a power that was sabotaging their interests with such vigor.
The Dutch government caved into American pressure and an independent Indonesia was proclaimed in 1950. Yet armed opposition to rule from Djakarta was to go on for years. Violent suppression of the independent republic of the South Moluccas took place in 1949. Separatist movements in Sumatra almost toppled Sukarno's regime over the next decade. Interestingly, already in 1945, Sukarno was laying claim not just to the whole of the Dutch East Indies but to territories that had never belonged to the Dutch empire: all of New Guinea, North Borneo, Sarawak, East Timor, even Malaya and Singapore!
Suharto's invasion of East Timor in 1975 was thus only a very modest attempt at realizing this grand ambition. As head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Dept., George Kennan wrote in 1948: "Indonesia is the anchor in that chain of islands stretching from Hokkaido to Sumatra which we should develop as a politico-economic counter-force to Communism on the Asiatic land mass and as base areas from which?we could with our air and sea power dominate continental East Asia and South Asia."
Indonesia turned out to be nothing of the sort, always too weak economically to play the part Kennan had written for it. But wishful thinking deluded American policy-makers into backing Indonesia no matter what, in one case even encouraging a notion of Sukarno that North Borneo, a part of the British Commonwealth soon to join the nation of Malaysia, should become part of Indonesia.
By invading East Timor in 1975, Indonesia broke a fundamental principle: former colonies could become independent states, but only within the existing colonial borders. No other changes were permitted. Accordingly, East Timor could not join Indonesia or Australia, but must remain independent. Under Sukarno's watch, Indonesia could get away with his imperialist ambitions on account of his bogus reputation as a great "nationalist" leader. But Suharto could not.
The problem is, the last country in the world that today has any right to insist on the sacrosanct nature of international borders is the United States. In organizing the murderous onslaught on Serbia it had violated the most fundamental principle of international law, namely, the sovereignty of states within recognized borders. By facilitating the creation of Greater Albania it also redrew by force international borders that it had agreed at Helsinki in 1975 could not be changed. The United States and Indonesia are two gangster states?they should be exchanging tips, not Sunday school sermons.
In 1997, the Gingrich Republicans had the brainstorm of addressing the GOP's burgeoning "Hispanic problem" by easing the path of Puerto Rico toward statehood. In the end, their bill barely passed (most rank-and-file Republicans voted against it). Then the island's voters confounded the issue by rejecting the statehood option in a referendum, narrowly opting for the status quo of commonwealth. If the GOP gained any Hispanic votes from this venture, it was hardly apparent in the 1998 elections.
Then it was Hillary Clinton's turn to stumble?when she backed away from her husband's clemency for the FALN terrorists, thus managing to alienate virtually every Puerto Rican politician in the city. Still, there are positive signs in the raising of these questions. As George Szamuely's forceful piece here last week demonstrated, non-Puerto Rican writers no longer feel that the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. is something only Puerto Ricans are allowed to state an opinion about. (At the New York Post, I tried, without evident success, to establish this point.) Still, among mainstream elected officials, the debate has a long way to go.
Szamuely's piece aside, absent from the recent talk about terrorists, clemency and how Puerto Rico affects American elections is any real discussion of Puerto Rico's status?the very issue that has preoccupied the island's intellectual and political leadership throughout a century of American control. Indeed, many observers were shocked by the fact that so many Puerto Ricans rallied to support clemency for the FALN fighters.
If Puerto Ricans really rejected independence (and less than four percent voted for that option at last year's referendum), why did they demonstrate in the streets of San Juan to support clemency? Why did elected officials in New York speak with warmth and respect for men and women ready to murder the innocent in support of their aims?
The answer is that great injustices have been perpetrated by the other (American) side as well, that Puerto Rican independence is not a dead cause and in principle is anything but a ridiculous one. Until the 1940s independence was the majority political sentiment on the island?the natural goal toward which most of the island's political leaders oriented themselves. During World War II and the subsequent Cold War, Puerto Rico suddenly loomed as strategically vital for U.S. defense planners, and independence sentiment was vigorously suppressed?thousands of its supporters were jailed under flimsy pretexts. Simultaneously the United States began to undercut nationalist sentiment by a kind of bribery: For submerging aspirations for nationhood, Puerto Rico was flooded with food stamps and other federal benefits. The rise of transfer payments from the United States exacerbated social problems: as independence advocate Ruben Berrios Martinez writes, treat a nation like a ghetto and it will behave like one.
Advocates for statehood, the option that has made the most progress in recent decades, present their solution as a way of continuing the bribery deal under better terms. Statehood's chief spokesman, Carlos Romero Barcelo, openly touts the option as a way for Puerto Ricans to get more welfare and other benefits from American taxpayers. Meanwhile, in a sop to nationalist sentiment, statehood advocates tell Puerto Ricans that becoming a state would not threaten the status of Spanish as the island's official language.
Though outgunned by the resources available to both the statehood and status quo parties, much of Puerto Rico's cultural and intellectual elite still remains nationalist?feeling, as Berrios Martinez puts it, that "Puerto Rico's heart is not American. It is Puerto Rican." While they are hardly ready for an armed struggle for independence, the warmth Puerto Ricans displayed for their recently released kinsmen is evidence enough that such sentiments are widespread.
Moreover, unless Puerto Rico could become a state without undergoing any cultural assimilation, joining the Union as kind of an American Quebec, independentista passions would surely be provoked. The fact that independence parties now fare poorly in the ballot box may turn out to be no more relevant than the fact that IRA-linked politicians seem to do poorly. Until it happens, Americans have no way of knowing how difficult swallowing Puerto Rico would be, what kind of independence forces would be stirred against it or how harsh the measures to suppress them would have to be. But looking at the havoc that committed nationalist minorities can wreak, from Belfast to Chechnya, why would Washington want to find out?
Meanwhile, other small states with populations as well-educated as Puerto Rico's have managed well after decolonization. If Americans were to look beyond the headlines about terror, clemency and their local elections, they would see Puerto Rico as a vestige of their own colonialism, a place best set free in the most cooperative and generous way possible.
I find myself in a rather awkward spot. A friend I was at Oxford with, Rupert Wainwright, has directed a film that has just been released and any day now he's liable to call me up and ask me what I think of it. Ordinarily, this wouldn't matter. In the past I've usually liked what my Oxford contemporaries have done, whether it's books they've written or magazines they've edited. But this time I'm anticipating the worst. You see, the film in question is Stigmata. Houston, we have a problem.
Now I should point out that I haven't actually seen Stigmata. For all I know it's a masterpiece. But the reviews aren't promising. "A silly, roiling melange of special effects and overheated religious symbolism," sniffed The New York Times' Stephen Holden. "Stigmata is so bad it ultimately leaves you with the age-old question, 'If there is a God why would He permit a film like this to be made?'" quipped the Citadel Broadcasting critic. It's not an exaggeration to say that Stigmata has had the worst reviews of any film this year?and 1999 has been a vintage year for turkeys.
My best strategy is probably just to not go and see it. A few years ago another friend of mine in the movie business, Barry Isaacson, invited me to the premier of The Paper (1994), Ron Howard's film about a day in the life of a New York tabloid. Barry had shepherded it through the development process at Universal, where he was a low-ranking executive, and he was very proud of it. Afterward, he buttonholed me in the lobby and asked me what I thought. The awkward silence that followed spoke volumes. Barry has gone on to have a very successful career in the movie business?he now works at DreamWorks?but he's never invited me to another premiere since. Fortunately, my invitation to the premiere of Stigmata got lost in the post.
Friends of theater producers have the same problem when they're invited to opening nights. Convention obliges them to go backstage and congratulate the producer after the show, smiles plastered to their faces, even if it's a real stinker. Fortunately, the fact that it's such a well-rehearsed ritual means that the words have very little meaning. The producer knows when his friends are being insincere, they know he knows, and yet they go through the motions anyway just for form's sake: "Mahvelous, dah-ling, simply mahvelous." They might as well be congratulating their five-year-old for having drawn a house with a chimney.
For those who feel uncomfortable about lying through their teeth, though, one alternative is to come up with the kind of comment that could be interpreted as praise but, strictly speaking, is completely neutral. The trouble is, such ruses don't fool anybody?they're the combovers of the critical lexicon. Back in the days when I was a magazine editor, if I told a contributor his piece was "fine" he knew it was unsalvageable. Still, there are more sophisticated versions of "fine." I once witnessed a Vanity Fair editor tell a writer his piece sucked in the most diplomatic way I'd ever heard. "I liked it," she said, trying to sound as enthusiastic as possible, "but I wanna love it." He was crushed.
In my experience, really good critics never pull their punches. If someone asks them what they thought of something, even if that person is a really good friend, they let them have it, straight between the eyes. Indeed, one critic I know deliberately avoids those friends whose work he's recently seen or heard or read because he knows they'll ask him what he thinks. Of course, being sensitive artists they soon pick up on the fact that he's avoiding them and it doesn't take them long to work out why. Come to think of it, most of the critics I know have very few friends.
In a profile of Noel Coward, Kenneth Tynan related how in 1959 he spotted Coward at Sardi's on the very day The New Yorker had published a devastating review by him of Coward's latest play. Tynan was terrified since he knew Coward too well not to say hello and yet not well enough to pass the incident off with a casual remark. As soon as he saw Tynan, Coward marched straight up to him. "Mr. T," he said tartly, "you are a cunt. Come and have dinner with me."
Somehow, if I savaged Stigmata in print, I don't think Rupert Wainwright would behave with quite as much class. One of the reasons I suspect it's bad?apart from the terrible reviews?is that I was in a play written by Rupert at Oxford. Called All That Glisters, it concerned the efforts of a celebrated alchemist to win the favor of a king. The problem was, the alchemist couldn't turn ordinary metal into gold. He was a fake, a charlatan, and the play followed his increasingly desperate efforts to avoid detection. I've always suspected that there was a strong autobiographical streak running through All That Glisters, not least because it completely sucked.
As you might have guessed by now, Rupert isn't that close a friend of mine. I haven't seen his previous movies?Blank Check (1994) and The Sadness of Sex (1995)?either. With any luck he won't call, but if he does I think I'll just tell him Stigmata was fine.
THE SINGULAR EYE
Art history is becoming an increasingly odd business, especially as we draw closer to the present. Take the case of postmodernism if you will. The first lecture I was asked to give 15 years ago on what was then a very recent phenomenon was to medical students. Out of respect for their calling I entitled my talk "No Post-Modernism without a Post-Mortem." Two of the questions my title prompted me to ask were (a) if modernism were now apparently dead, what had been its morbid symptoms? and (b) who precisely had signed its death certificate or ordered an autopsy?
No one has answered either question satisfactorily to this day. My objective in raising these matters was that I could foresee how easily modernism could merge seamlessly into so-called postmodernism and thus continue effectively under another name. What would be avoided by this ruse was the hope of our ever learning anything from modernism's more obvious or fatal flaws. Probably the most damaging of these was the way modernism had effectively severed all links with the premodern past. To seem brave and new, modernist artists had to exemplify both qualities?initially, at least. However, once the battle for fashionable opinion had been won?which took rather less time than many now think?novelty on its own would generally suffice.
The last days of so-called late modernism were typified by an increasingly desperate search for even the emptiest appearances of innovation. Artists were seemingly forced to such extremes because modernist codes of practice decreed that no refreshment or revitalization could be sought from premodern sources. Happily for the first so-called postmodernists, who began to appear in public some 20 years ago, none felt bound by any such scruples. Their new orthodoxy in art and architecture held that it was perfectly permissible to plunder the past for its treasures, providing only that the exercise was conducted in a spirit of irony. It was still not allowed to admire the achievements of the premodern past simply for what they were, since we still liked to believe we knew better in everything. Even to think that the human race may have lost a great deal through the abandonment of desirable premodern artistic practices meant one might present oneself for labeling as a possible reactionary. In a world ruled by radical rhetoric this was tantamount to an admission of consanguinity with General Franco. It was a chance not too many were willing to take.
So is postmodernism really a cunning continuation of the basic codes of modernism by another name? Those who believe so point out that no hard-line modernists who occupied positions of artistic influence lost any of their power in the new, postmodernist climate. As token of a philosophical bond, new, so-called postmodernists felt just as free to pour scorn on areas such as revivalist architecture as their hard-line modernist counterparts had been.
Possibly the greatest single difference ushered in with postmodernism was not the querying of modernist or pre-modernist cultures but the questioning of the validity of any kind of genuine culture at all. Postmodernism soon gathered under its voluminous skirts disparate strands that had their origins in the events of the late 60s: deconstruction, feminism, postcolonialism, multiculturalism, gender issues, political correctness and so forth. A range of new adages and ideologies became the rage just when we might have learned something useful from a call to order following the collapse of mainstream modernism.
Among the new orthodoxies was a widely promoted notion that skills were elitist and undemocratic and that henceforward everyone was an artist. As for esthetics, this was simply a branch of exclusivist Western snobbery invented for their own purposes by the white men of dominant cultures. Learned art historians learned rather to their surprise that art history had thrown up more than its fair share of female old masters, although we weren't allowed to know about these because of male-engineered conspiracies.
Revisionist history, of which Stalin had been such an enthusiast, suddenly became the new order in the universities of the Western world. Fogeyish resisters who might have been sent to gulags in true revisionist regimes were simply consigned to academic oblivion instead. Intellectuals who had fought against the sillier excesses of late modernist practice suddenly found themselves grappling with a postmodern Hydra. In many Western countries no idea could seemingly be too silly or destructive for the Red Guards of the new radicalism. Following effective destruction of the formal language of art, educational radicals turned their assault on the teaching of structured or grammatical English, which they claimed empowered those who mastered its intricacies and disadvantaged all who could not.
But what was the lasting effect of this purge, delivered in the name of greater democracy, other than to produce a generation unable to write lucidly or to spell? If you are 40 now you will probably recognize your age group. In fact, those disadvantaged already by birth or circumstances were soon disadvantaged still further, since children from so-called bourgeois homes might hope for remedial instruction in English either from their parents or from specially employed tutors. On the other hand, poor kids, often from immigrant families, soon discovered what a favor their radical teachers had done them when they made their first, unsuccessful applications even for rotten jobs.
Often postmodernist artistic and educational creeds have come uncomfortably close to madness. Dare we hope one day that post-postmodernism may bring us some relief?
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