Rupert Murdoch Shows the Wrong Face
I was ready to declare a Tibetan "fatwa" on Rupert Murdoch's head following his criticism of the Dalai Lama, but then I realized it was an oxymoron. Tibetans won't even kill a worm, believing that all life is sacred?even that of Rupert Murdoch, the Don Giovanni of the deal. Murdoch isn't such a bad guy, he just cannot help himself when he sees a large China market opening up for him. Talk about selling your mother. Rupert actually sold his wife and would sell all four of his children if the Chinese demanded it.
I took Murdoch gold for five years?I was told by the London Sunday Times that I was the highest paid columnist on his insistence?so I must be fair. He was extremely polite whenever we'd see each other, and always invited me to various functions when in London or New York. "Why don't you stir things up a bit more?" he'd always say. "Why don't you tell your bloody lawyers to lay off my copy," I'd fire back. When Sir James Goldsmith lay dying in his Chateau de Montjeu in France a couple of summers ago, Rupert rang from Los Angeles. I answered the telephone. Murdoch apparently recognized my voice and congratulated me for being on the spot. (I had broken the story that Goldsmith was dying, at Jimmy's own request.) Murdoch and Jimmy were good friends, but the story came first. Such are the joys of journalism.
What Rupert Murdoch told Vanity Fair, however, is profoundly wrong. The Chinese have annihilated Tibetan culture, destroying hundreds of monasteries, and have murdered close to, if not more than, 100,000 Tibetans.
Han Chinese settlers have been moved to Tibet by the Chinese government in order to outnumber the indigenous population. In plain language it is called genocide, but in Murdochian terms it's called market forces. No Kosovar, no Serb, no Bosnian, no Iraqi, no South Vietnamese, no East Timorese has been treated as abominably as the Tibetans have, yet Rupy baby insults the holy Dalai Lama to please the butchers.
Since his divorce from Anna, his wife of 32 years, Murdoch's private life has been scrutinized in a manner to which his numerous newspapers often subject people far less famous than himself. Only last April I found myself seated next to Anna during a dinner at the Metropolitan Club. She had a new hairdo and told me things had been rough for her, but she was feeling much better. We talked about men in their 60s falling for younger women. "I'd take you over her anytime," I told her. It had the reverse effect of what I intended. She burst into tears and left the table. Such are the joys of gallantry.
I resigned as a columnist from the New York Post, just as I did from the Sunday Times, in order to have more free time and fun. I like Murdoch's politics and, of course, those of the Post. But there was something that bothered me throughout my years of receiving Murdoch gold. Two of his largest tabloids in England, The Sun and The News of the World, both scandal sheets, entrapped not only celebrities in sex and drug scandals, but also young people. My editor at the ST and I enjoyed a very good relationship, so when Princess Diana came to dinner chez moi, he almost dropped his cookies when I placed him next to her. The next morning he was on the telephone asking all sorts of questions. Alas, my relationship with the divine Diana was platonic, but I didn't volunteer the info to my editor. "If you don't write it for us, we'll stake you out and write it ourselves," was the way he put it. He was joking, but not too much.
Murdoch apparently claims in his interview with VF that his private life is his own, and that it's no one's business. This is a bit rich, a little like Hitler claiming to be philo-Semitic. Murdoch can take credit for saving British newspapers after Margaret Thatcher broke the union stranglehold, but he can also take credit for the downmarketing of British newspapers, once upon a time among the most respected papers anywhere. There is nothing as vicious or as malicious as an English tabloid, headed, needless to say, by the Murdoch tabloids. Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn and a Murdoch watcher par excellence, has been thundering against Rupert for years. He claims most of England's ills derive from the Murdoch presence. Waugh works for Conrad Black, as I do, the chief Murdoch competitor in Britain as well as the United States.
I won't go as far as Waugh?an extremely funny journalist, but a man I find as malicious and ugly as his father was, but without his old man's talent?because of Rupert's charm and courage. It's people like Murdoch who create jobs and wealth, not the takeover artists who today dominate Wall Street. Capitalism to me means starting something from scratch. My father, who was born rich but left home at 14 because of a dispute with my grandfather, built factories and employed tens of thousands. He was ruined during the war, came to America and in no time became one of the leading shipowners. (I was never involved in his business, but I hear through the grapevine that 10 years after his death, my brother has managed to drive the business into the ground.) I see in Murdoch a lot of my father?the bravery, the charm and the constant seeking of challenges?except that my old man, who also owned newspapers in Greece, would never drive such a hard bargain as Rupert.
The reason Murdoch papers play such hardball is Rupert's insistence on the bottom line. The reason Murdoch ridicules the Dalai Lama is also the bottom line. And this makes me sad. It is called the unacceptable face of capitalism.
As George Szamuely predicted in NYPress last week, the streets of Dili are now, horribly, the scene of a bloodbath, some areas festooned with severed heads. Several parts of the world?East Timor, Sierra Leone, Kosovo?indicate a surrender to the spirit of fictional antiheroes of dismemberment created by celebrated highbrow crime novelists like Thomas Harris, Bret Easton Ellis and most recently Boris Starling. Perhaps it's not New York, but Dili, that's book country. In these books, tales of slaughter undertaken by intellectually superior characters like Hannibal Lecter have been fascinating large and discerning publics in the U.S., UK and even in France, where the hottest new novel is a castration extravaganza called Meat. Of course in the real world the machete-wielders are scarcely the übermenschen depicted in these books.
What's ironic is that the slaughter in the streets of Freetown and Dili, the free-fire zone on Serbs that Kosovo has become, has been, as we say, "enabled" by the thinking of highly intelligent, morally superior types in the governments of the U.S. and the UK and in the UN. There are nice, intelligent people who find these pretentious crime novels interesting and significant. Tina Brown put her seal on this fashion by forcing Martin Amis to dissect in excruciating detail the faults of Thomas Harris' sequel to Silence of the Lambs (to do so was a worthy task, but resulted in a piece so long that not all the gold of The Spectator?a sort of London version of "Taki's Top Drawer"?could tempt Toby Young actually to read it, in preparation for his magisterial celebration of Amis' 50th birthday).
But despite Amis' skewering, there is a distinct public for this work; a real taste to be fascinated by villains like Lecter who elevate themselves, through crimes and what motivates them, above the rest of us. We and our counterparts in Europe's more stable bourgeois democracies are suckers for criminals who are superior?show real class. To admire these characters, to find them impressive and authentic, is in one sense only a piece of harmless innocence on our part. One of Nabokov's tragic European characters in Pale Fire, surrounded by naive Americans insulated from history, had to remind himself that Darwin was wrong when it comes to murder: "The one who kills is always his victim's inferior."
But our inability to believe in the truth of this wisdom leads to great trouble. The best and brightest of our political minds tend to display the naivete of the reading public rather than the tragic wisdom the situation requires. In each case I've mentioned, the slaughter?in Dili, in Kosovo and in Sierra Leone?has been made worse, not better, by Western intervention.
To have encouraged elections in East Timor without a large armed force in place to protect the population; to pull out the private army provided by Sandline International. from Sierra Leone for reasons of morality, as the British did in the last year; to intervene without qualification on the side of a guerrilla organization in Kosovo?all these decisions have been the result of good intentions translated into policy. But they also display the deep innocence that marks the characters of the liberals who lead current Western governments.
The futility of the outcome could have been predicted had the actors not been so blinded by self-regard. Our current leaders, schooled in left-wing student politics and liberal high-mindedness, tend to think that violence is an abnormality, generated in otherwise peaceful types by great injustice, great passion, deep feeling. They have a sneaking admiration for hooded men who kill in the name of ideas?whether they are members of the KLA, the IRA or Shining Path. Our nice leaders' hands are always itching to sign pardons for them, to sacrifice civilian populations to them and to hamper the forces that struggle against them?sometimes, admittedly, with "excessive violence"?in the streets. (This is what the British government is about to do to the RUC.) What they don't understand is that terrorism works because it's an efficient way of delivering strength against the weakest and unprotected, not because of what "motivates" it. And because it's cheap and easy for violent men to find others who will stand up?preferably far away from where the trigger is pulled?and explain the bitter injustices that motivate the slaughter.
This scheme of things fits into our preconceptions. Consider the reaction to the recent Los Angeles neo-Nazi shootings. Common wisdom agrees that the shooting must be the result of a deeply rooted conspiracy against minorities, an upsurge of anti-Semitism. And there's more: This conspiracy could not have thrived without the unwitting complicity of those opposed to the proper kind of gun-control laws. But the fact is that the man who killed the mailman and shot the children was someone well known to be psychotic, who 50 years ago would have been kept, harmless but against his will, in an insane asylum.
Another example: the Times' moving account of the reconstruction among the peasant villages of Peru in the wake of the Shining Path war. There's an air of discovery about the piece, as if the Times has for the first time understood that the peasants?in whose name the intellectuals and gangsters of Shining Path fought?are those who suffered the casualties.
The world is so full of evil for those interested in such things, and it is our duty as the world's policeman to understand. To turn away from the evil all about us and seek it in badly written fantasies about glamorous serial murderers is a bad sign. Our inability to confront the real nature of evil means that the "lambs" will continue unnecessarily to suffer.
If Gov. George W. Bush were running for office in Britain, he wouldn't have to worry about the cocaine issue. Any association with the drug would boost his popularity. I've just returned from London, where cocaine use has reached epidemic proportions. It's like New York in the 80s. At all my favorite watering holes, it took twice as long to get into the bathroom as it did to get a drink. At dinner parties, lines of coke are passed around like after-dinner mints. It's not an exaggeration to say that, for Britain's professional classes, cocaine has become the marijuana of the 90s.
A recent article in The Daily Mail by Adam Edwards, a hard-living Fleet Street journalist, revealed the extent of the epidemic. In the past year, he confessed, he'd taken coke with a Conservative MP, the editor of a broadsheet newspaper and the head of an investment bank. He described a dinner party in East Anglia for a senior British politician at which the hostess handed each of the guests a gram of cocaine as they arrived. She wanted everyone to have their own personal stash so they wouldn't embarrass the politician by disappearing to the bathroom two at a time.
Cocaine has even begun to have an impact on the national game. At a recent soccer match, the Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler got down on all fours, placed a finger over his left nostril and crawled along the white line of the penalty box pretending to snort it. In London, the latest term for cocaine is "Gian Luca." This is a reference to the Chelsea footballer Gian Luca Vialli, cockney rhyming slang for charlie.
At a party I went to in Mayfair, the host took me to one side and told me that if I saw anyone I didn't know I was to report them to him immediately. He explained that they would either be a dealer, which was fine, an undercover policeman, which wasn't, or a tabloid journalist, which was an absolute disaster. Over the past year, the tabloids have embarked on a crusade to expose cocaine use among the rich and famous, particularly the aristocracy. So far, the most prominent casualty of this witchhunt is Tom Parker Bowles, the son of Prince Charles' mistress.
The tabloids' latest victim is Lord Frederick Windsor, the 20-year-old son of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Last week, he was photographed at Heathrow looking very shamefaced after returning from a three-month stint in New York. "I have now rejected this side of life and I'm going to commit myself to my studies," he told the hordes of reptiles lying in wait for him. I spent an evening with him in New York last month and, as far as I could tell, he wasn't on cocaine. At any rate, he didn't offer me any.
The reaction of the British police to this revelation was surprisingly laid-back. Scotland Yard issued a brief statement announcing it wouldn't be investigating the matter. Cocaine use is now so prevalent in Britain, the police rarely bother to prosecute anyone found in possession of a small amount. In London's smartest restaurants, people's attempts to conceal their cocaine use is so halfhearted as to be almost pointless. The queues to get into the lavatories are so long, most sniffers do it in the corridors or the stairwells. Of course, this makes the job of the tabloid vigilantes much easier but it also means it won't be long before they lose interest in these sorts of stories. You can't exactly "expose" something if it's taking place in public.
Indeed, friends of mine who've given it up are much more worried about being exposed as nonusers. To be suspected of being part of the recovery movement is social death. Unlike in New York, where it's so chic to be a member of Narcotics Anonymous people scream it from the rooftops, in London reformed cocaine addicts are fantastically discreet about it. They wish to remain anonymous, not because any stigma is attached to having once done coke, but because people who don't take it are regarded as insufferable bores who shouldn't be allowed out in polite society.
As for those who've never tried it, that's tantamount to being a virgin. In a recent article in Tatler, the journalist Vassi Chamberlain related how one poor young man was dumbfounded when passed a mirror with 10 lines of coke on it at a dinner party. He'd never taken it before so he asked the girl on his left what to do. "Just snort it," she said. So he did?all 10 lines. Five minutes later he took off all his clothes and danced naked on the dining room table.
Someone I know who's always abstained because his sister died of a drug overdose had a terrible experience at a dinner party the other day. He excused himself to go to the bathroom and, when he got there, discovered that two men whom he hardly knew had followed him in. They didn't believe he wanted to use the lavatory for purely conventional purposes, and refused to leave until he'd emptied the contents of his wallet on the cistern. Apparently, for the rest of the evening, every time someone went to the lavatory these same two men followed them in.
The best story I heard, which illustrates just how far cocaine has penetrated the British Establishment, concerned the senior editorial staff of The Daily Telegraph. Apparently, after reading all these stories in the tabloids about cocaine use among the glitterati, they decided they wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Consequently, they set aside an afternoon during which they would assemble in the editor's office and consume copious quantities. Unfortunately, when the day in question arrived, they couldn't go through with it. It turned out that none of them knew where to get any.
THE TIRED HEDONIST
This Friday and Saturday, Sotheby's will be holding a grand wine auction in New York. To mark the occasion, Serena Sutcliffe, the great English mistress of wine and the director of Sotheby's international wine department, will be in town, doing her bit to raise oenological standards among us Yanks.
I am devoted to Miss Sutcliffe. By my bedside I keep a little chapbook containing her tasting notes of 70 vintages of Romanee-Conti, the red Burgundy that is arguably the world's most precious wine. I am especially transported by her remarks on the 1953 vintage: "Very golden brown, like the glints in a Cognac-coloured topaz. Extravagant, meaty nose. Cigar box?an old one that has had the best Havanas in it. Smoked meat. A siren of a wine with a cedary nose. Soft, charming tobacco on the palate. Melts in the mouth. Lacy."
Nearly as evocative are Miss Sutcliffe's observations on the 1929 vintage: "A racehorse. Heady?a bit of vanilla, a touch of Guerlain, spice box, cedary sweet, traces of coffee. Palate: lacy?glorious breed. Ultra-classy. Totally 'frank.' What grace. What delicacy. A marvel!"
Those who are unable to afford Romanee-Conti, which is many thousands of dollars the bottle these days, may be forgiven for reading these descriptions as a kind of exquisite pornography. That is what I do.
The first time I recall being aroused by words about wine was upon reading the American wine expert Robert Parker's prose poem to the 1982 vintage of Chateau Petrus: "...the bouquet explodes upward from the glass within penetrating aromas of ripe mulberry, blackcurrant fruit, and spicy vanillin oak. The wealth of fruit overwhelms the palate with a luxuriance and richness that I have never encountered before. Even the considerable tannic clout of this monumental wine seems to be buried by what is simply a tidal wave of voluptuous, decadently concentrated fruit..." Jackie Collins could not have done better.
As it happens, six magnums of the equally impressive '61 vintage of Petrus will be on the block this weekend at Sotheby's. (A magnum is twice the size of an ordinary bottle.) They are expected to be knocked down for a little under $10,000 each, but I would not be surprised if the bidding were to go much, much higher.
That is what makes New York wine auctions so much fun as a spectator sport?the spectacle of rich Americans behaving like idiots in pursuit of noble wines. Wine auctions are a fairly new thing in this city. They have only been legal since 1993, which is when the state legislature finally got around to changing laws left over from Prohibition. In London, which is to wine commerce what Paris is to fashion, the bidders tend to be in the wine trade themselves, and they know what they are doing. At the New York wine auctions you see mainly private bidders, who have a much foggier notion of what wines are worth. The overbidding can be hilarious; it's like watching people take large bills out of their pockets and burn them. In some cases you could not only get the wine cheaper at retail, you could get it cheaper in a restaurant.
With a little preparation, though, it is possible to pick up a very nice case of a lesser Bordeaux from a good vintage for under a thousand dollars at one of these auctions. It can be embarrassing, when you call the auction house to supply bank references. "Are you known to Christie's?" the woman there once asked me rather archly. I confessed that I was not, but that I would not be bidding more than $500 or so. "Oh, that won't be a problem," she responded with an humiliating chuckle.
Even if you are not going to attend the wine auction, it is fun to acquire the catalog. (The one for the upcoming Sotheby's auction may be had for $34 by calling 800-444-3709.) Just leafing through the thing can render one drunk with pleasure. The references to the consignors of the different lots of precious wine are in a kind of code. "From the Cellar of a Wealthy Collector" suggests that the owner is a nouveau riche. "The Property of a Gentleman Who Has Gone Abroad" usually means that the guy has gone bankrupt or is on the lam?or in prison, which is probably what happened to a lot of the people who were paying those astronomical prices for wine in the 80s.
The pre-auction tasting can also be an interesting affair. It used to be free for those who bought the catalog, but I see that Sotheby's is now charging $80. (The Sotheby's tasting is Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 6:00 p.m.) Still, this does entitle you to sample a few dozen wines that are otherwise affordable only to partners at Goldman, Sachs. The protocol at such a tasting is quite simple. You go up to one of the guys standing behind the long tables on which the open bottles are arrayed, he dumps an ounce or two of the wine you indicate into your glass, you gravely do a bit of swirling and sniffing, then rinse the stuff around in your mouth, making a slight gurgling sound if you wish. At this point you have the option of spitting the wine into one of the vile spittoons available for the purpose, or simply swallowing it. I swallow, for a better time.
This weekend, though, I think I'll simply stay home, take to bed with an inexpensive bottle of Chilean cabernet (I love the hint of sweet tomcat on the tongue) and go through my ample trove of oenological pornography. I am especially looking forward to revisiting some of the kinkier wine descriptions I have collected. A decade or so ago I was reading Auberon Waugh's wine column in The Spectator, and I was astonished to come across a sentence in which he praised a wine for its "anal" bouquet. Surely, I thought, this must be a typo. A few years later I ran into Waugh at a club in London and asked him what he had meant. He assured me that it was no typo. The wine's bouquet was anal, he said, and that was precisely the quality he thought worth hymning. I am glad that I clipped that column. "Anal" goes rather well with "lacy," doesn't it?
THE LONDON DESK
My son Edward and I took the leisurely route home to London by car from Tuscany. We stopped for a night in Santa Margherita Ligure and a few days near Gstaad with a strange and hospitable chap named Taki. Our most pleasurable of holidays ended abruptly when the train deposited us on the English side of the channel in Kent, once the garden of England, now the electricity pylon of the universe. Worse was the tiresome drive through the architectural bombsite that is South London, obviously the model for the Turkish construction engineers whose collapsed buildings featured prominently in this summer's earthquake.
What a summer it's been, between the devastation of Kosovo and the annihilation of East Timor. Britain's newspapers informed us on arrival that the populace of East Timor, illegally occupied by one of the world's more brutal and well-supplied armies since 1975, voted overwhelmingly for independence on Aug. 30. Atrocities, mild in comparison with those of the first four years of Indonesia's occupation, marred the plebiscite. The perpetrators were anti-independence militias, some of whom UN monitors saw training at Indonesian army bases last May. The monitors warned the "international community" about them. The U.S. ignored them and let its allies do the same. When the 78.5 percent vote for independence was announced, Xanana Gusmao, the incarcerated leader of the independence movement Fretilin, predicted, "We foresee total destruction in a desperate and last attempt by the Indonesian generals, and politicians, to deny the people of East Timor their freedom." He pleaded for international protection. UN monitors, having witnessed Indonesia's occupying forces' treatment of the natives, rang the same alarms.
By the time Edward and I were back in London, the Indonesian puppet militias had murdered hundreds of East Timorese, including UN employees. Some were hacked to death while UN officials and foreign Catholic clergymen watched. Now the militias are killing the priests and nuns. Surely, my son and I reasoned, here was a case for the New Humanitarians in the White House and Downing Street. In Kosovo, Battlin' Bill Clinton and Tornado Tony Blair unleashed their air forces on Yugoslavia when 2000 Albanians were dispossessed. In East Timor, the figure of those driven from their homes?many deported to Indonesia itself?is about 100 times that. Isn't this, post-Kosovo, the Era of the "New" New World Order? Don't all foreign ethnic cleansers know that America with its British subalterns means business? How many Marines will Bill be sending? How many Royal Marine Commandos will Tony the Terror land on the palm-lined beaches of Timor?
The exact figure is, I had to confess to my bemused son, none. It took no less august a personage than Defense Secretary William Cohen to explain, "We have to be selective where we commit our forces and, under the circumstances, this is not an area that we are prepared to commit forces." Oh, not an area where we are prepared to commit forces. It is not even a place where Clinton will let the UN, which has an obligation to act, commit forces. The only thing committed in East Timor is genocide.
At the last moment, Clinton criticized Indonesia's army and said it could no longer enjoy U.S. Army favors?something previous presidents said but never actually did. Indonesian commanding Gen. Wiranto doesn't seem cowed. The U.S. is doing little more now than it did the day in December 1975 when President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew to Jakarta to give the military dictator, Gen. Suharto, permission for his invasion. Ford admitted his complicity to columnist Jack Anderson years ago. The diplomat Phil Habib, who had accompanied Ford and Kissinger at the time, told me in London that there was "no way" the U.S. would have stopped that invasion. Illegal, yes. Forbidden, no. End of summer, back to the familiar hypocrisy.
All the liberal commentators who told us we were in a new age of military intervention for humanitarian purposes are returning from Martha's Vineyard, the Hamptons and Tuscany to the same old world of realpolitik and real lies in Washington and London, and real dying by dark-skinned people far away. Read Noam Chomsky's excellent new book, The New Military Humanism, to understand America's intervention in Kosovo and its inaction in East Timor. Chomsky has been called a bore (what's a genocide among allies?) for raising East Timor repeatedly since 1975, but anyone who read this book last month would have known what would happen now. He wrote back in 1980, and nothing has changed, that "the fate of the Timorese is simply a matter of no concern." This is not a new era. It is a continuation of the old, with the same old faces.
Richard Holbrooke, America's new ambassador to the UN and personally a nice guy who is married to a friend of mine, has long experience in East Timor policy. In December 1979, while an under-secretary of state in the Carter administration, he told the Congressional Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs that "the welfare of the East Timorese people is the major objective of our policy towards East Timor." By that time, Indonesian troops had helped to kill about one in every three people there?using U.S. and a few British weapons with barely a murmur from the humanitarian arms-supply states. When I visited the East Timorese capital Dili in 1992, the Indonesian army was still terrifying the Timorese and herding them into concentration camps and a prison island where Amnesty International reported some of the world's worst torture took place. Still, the Free World delivered weapons and aid money on time and trained Indonesia's special forces.
The man who held Holbrooke's UN post during the consolidation of Indonesian power over the Timorese, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote in his memoirs (A Dangerous Place, 1978), "The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success." Well done. Not surprising, with 200,000 or more East Timorese dead and the number rising, that Moynihan's success in preventing UN action took him into that millionaires' club known as the U.S. Senate. Equally unsurprising is that his likely successor there will be Mrs. William Jefferson Clinton. East Timor has never been legally part of Indonesia. Its people speak a different language, were colonized by Portuguese rather than Dutch and are Catholic rather than Muslim.
Yet the Indonesian army is sending a message with the destruction of East Timor in the few months before it says it will grant independence: try to secede and we will destroy you too. With more than 200 million people, many fighting for independence, stretching over much of the Pacific, Indonesia could be much bloodier than Yugoslavia ever was.
The best thing about my return to Blighty has been the season of Samuel Beckett plays from Ireland's Abbey Theatre in London's dreadful Barbican complex. Listening the other evening to Waiting for Godot, I thought of the East Timorese waiting endlessly for deliverance, something that ought to have come with their vote to end the Indonesian occupation. Then I heard Lucky say, "They are all born mad. Some of them remain so." You know which ones remain so.
Bill Clinton was right to offer the 16 imprisoned members of the FALN clemency. In fact, he should have gone further. He should have announced his intention of granting independence to Puerto Rico as soon as possible.
The continued possession of Puerto Rico is a throwback to a colonial era that should have been abandoned long ago. Puerto Rico's bizarre "commonwealth" status is one that robs Puerto Ricans of their dignity and Americans of their dollars. Moreover, the acquisition of Puerto Rico followed one of the most shameful acts of American history?one that has particular significance today.
In 1898 the United States picked a fight with Spain for no reason whatsoever. As a result of that war Spain lost its few remaining imperial possessions and with it its sense of national honor. And America abandoned its proud anticolonial tradition and became a colonial power. In 1895 Cuba mounted one of its periodic rebellions against Spanish rule. As the Spanish sought to restore order Americans got caught up in self-righteous frenzy.
President William McKinley understandably had little enthusiasm for going to war with Spain. Spain posed no threat to the United States. It ran its empire pretty well. And if it were to be dispossessed of its colonies what was to be done with them?
No American seriously believed that Cubans could govern themselves. But the shrieking Bill Kristols and David Rieffs of that time did not trouble themselves with such details. Day after day they would proclaim that American intervention was essential to prevent a great humanitarian calamity. Newspapers were filled with lurid tales of unimaginable horrors that the Spanish were perpetrating. "Massacre," "Slaughter of Innocent Noncombatants Continues in Cuba," "Bodies Thrown into Trenches and Left Unburied" were a few of the contemporary headlines. William Randolph Hearst's gutter journalism was almost as bad as Rupert Murdoch's.
To intervene was a "humanitarian" imperative. One senator declared: "We intervene not for conquest, not for aggrandizement? We intervene for humanity's sake?to aid a people who have suffered every form of tyranny and who have made a desperate struggle to be free." Sound familiar? Here is what Henry Cabot Lodge had to say about Spain: it was "three hundred years behind all the rest of the world? What seems to us brutal treachery seems to them all right." "I would like to see Spain?swept from the face of the earth," said suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton?the Stacy Sullivan of her day. Hating the Spanish was even more fun than hating the Serbs. Catholic and obviously in decline, they were ideal material on which Americans could etch their lurid fantasies.
Though Americans fought poorly, they were fortunate that the Spanish performed even worse. The war was to have devastating consequences. Spain went from revolution to dictatorship to civil war. The Franco era brought a measure of stability but it also cut Spain off from the rest of Europe. Today the Spanish are once more in a downward spiral.
For its part, America acquired colonies that it had no idea what to do with. Neither statehood nor independence was thinkable to the U.S. So it came up with a compromise solution. These territories would be reduced to dependencies of one sort or another of the United States. Such a solution was to have wretched consequences for everyone else. Cuba, for instance, never really recovered from being cut off from Spain. Ask any Cuban today and he will tell you that the Spanish era was Cuba's most glorious time. Cut off from Spain and Spanish culture, Cuba never managed to develop any stable self-government. The United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene in Cuba any time it felt that American interests were endangered. It was a right that the United States was to exercise with some frequency in coming years.
The story of the Philippines is just as dismal. Fighting broke out immediately between U.S. forces on the island and Filipino rebels. Soon Americans were committing the very atrocities for which they had so self-righteously denounced the Spanish. By 1901, 200,000 Filipino civilians had been killed in the fighting. Having won this war, the United States proceeded relentlessly with the Americanization of the Filipinos. The result was a disaster. Unlike other places in Asia, no sense of nationhood ever developed in the Philippines.
The United States acquired Puerto Rico without ever really intending to. Puerto Rico, impoverished and wretched, became an American possession as compensation for expenses that the United States incurred fighting its war with Spain. A ferocious campaign of Americanization pretty much destroyed a 400-year-old Spanish culture, but did not succeed in turning Puerto Ricans into English speakers. The United States then decided that Puerto Rico would be denied statehood, independence or even any representation in the federal government.
As part of the supposedly oppressive Spanish empire, Puerto Rico had voting representation in both chambers of parliament in Madrid, whereas it was never to have any representation under U.S. democracy. U.S. federal laws apply to Puerto Rico and they are enforced by federal agencies. Yet Puerto Ricans have no say in the making of these laws.
Not surprisingly, Puerto Rico has become a parasite. Exempt from federal taxes, it lives off federal handouts. It survives by being able to export its population to the mainland. Puerto Rico has an unemployment rate of 13 percent (three times the size of that on the mainland); 20 percent of its workforce is employed by the government; 30 percent of its economy derives from federal transfers. When the food stamp program was introduced in the 1960s, something like 75 percent of the island's population was eligible. Puerto Rico received no less than 10 percent of all federal food stamp payments. The program brought billions to Puerto Rico. It fueled corruption, crime, drugs, gang warfare as well as a culture of dependency. Puerto Ricans found that living on welfare was quite lucrative. No one felt much like working after that. Boasting poverty and hardship became a means of squeezing more money out of the U.S. Treasury.
Sadly, Puerto Ricans have become quite satisfied with their current absurd "commonwealth" status. As a U.S. state, they would no longer be exempt from federal taxes. As an independent country, they would no longer be eligible for federal handouts. This is why the time has come to do to the Puerto Ricans what grownups are eventually forced to do to their idle offspring: kick them out of the house. If it makes him feel any better, let Clinton apologize for 100 years of colonialism while he is doing it.
At a wedding reception last summer?outdoors in one of those seaside towns frequented by the "Top Drawer" staff?dinner conversation turned to the setting. Not just the property, the house, the sublime gardens and trees, but the effort that had gone into making the evening memorable for 200 guests. The tent to shield the diners from a summer shower was the most remarkable. While it would take Martha Stewart's vocabulary to do it justice, if you looked out from your table you saw not the sides of a tent, but something like the pleated and pillowing curtains hanging in a Park Avenue living room. Freshly cut flowers hung from the border of the sides and top, so one had the impression of dining in a soft bubble, surrounded by chiffon and living colors.
After the dessert was served, the husband of one of my tablemates, like her a veteran ideological warrior, bounded over and confided to his wife (as I strained to listen) what he had learned of the cost of the affair?an impressive sum I won't pass on. But I surprised myself by blurting out the first leftish remark I had uttered since sometime in the 1970s. "Never in American history has more talent been directed toward meeting the needs of the very rich."
In the 1960s a lawn party under a tent was simply under a tent. The rich drank more and behaved more recklessly. According to strict "meritocratic" standards, they may have deserved their stature less. Certainly their SAT scores were more modest. In the United States at least, the economy and culture did not seem geared so singlemindedly toward celebrating them, touting their exploits and making their lives more pleasant.
This Labor Day weekend, the papers reported statistical confirmation of my sentiments. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a study showing how much the earnings ratio between the rich and poor has tilted in the last 20 years. The richest one percent of Americans now have as much after-tax income as the lowest 38 percent?more than double the ratio that existed in 1977. The data also show that four out of five American households have a smaller slice of the national economic pie than they did 20 years ago. The share of the top one fifth grew, 90 percent of the growth going to the richest one percent. The social consequences of the rise in the shares of the rich are softened by a general expansion of the economic pie, but the poor have not even benefited from that. Their real after-tax income has fallen 12 percent since 1977.
During the Cold War serious people used to analyze the conditions that made a country ripe for communist insurrection. Extreme inequality, on the Latin American or Southeast Asian model, topped the list. Now the United States is moving toward a social profile resembling the Third World countries one used to think of as unstable. The causes fall at least in part under the rubric of globalization: Increasingly American businessmen look abroad for their markets and employees, while congratulating themselves for being broad-minded citizens of the world. The late Christopher Lasch, in The Revolt of the Elites, described the American ruling class as having seceded from the United States. When the profits are to be made in Mexico or Thailand, why should it give a hoot about the lives of folks in Youngstown, OH?
Curiously, while inequality has increased, the left has made great advances in the cultural realm. You cannot turn on the television now without seeing prime-time programs, geared at teens and preteens, drenched in sexual innuendo. The ruling establishment of neither party dares to challenge bilingual education or racial quotas. Denigration of the dead white male figures of American history is standard classroom fare.
The two developments are linked, the result of an informal ruling class arrangement: The left-wing multicultural elites won't challenge the hegemony of the rich; business leaders embrace "diversity" with all its negative implications for traditional American mores. Both parties receive their funding from different wings of the same establishment.
So long as the United States remains a democracy, this outcome is ripe for challenge, particularly one that is culturally conservative and economically egalitarian. But it won't come from Democrats or Republicans. That is why the Reform Party has such potential, and why both wings of the ruling establishment are petrified that an articulate figure able to focus national attention on real ideas?Pat Buchanan comes obviously to mind?might secure the Reform nod and change the face of American politics. Look for establishment assaults on Buchanan, which have recently appeared in the conservative Wall Street Journal and liberal Salon, to intensify in the weeks to come.
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‘Picture of the Year’ on view
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A quarter-century of service
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Map shows empty storefronts
‘Picture of the Year’ on view
Zoning scuffles continue
A crusader for cats
Contemporizing the classics
A quarter-century of service
Chelsea, under a wide lens
Visual haikus at the Whitney
Map shows empty storefronts
On 23rd Street, a community responds
Steinem, at home and on the road