Taki LE MAÎTRE
A Good Snob My memory isn't what it used to be?what is??but I seem to remember a scene in a Stendahl or Flaubert novel where a princess, on her way to a ball, stops, looks at herself in front of a mirror and thinks of a terrific witticism. "Too bad," she tells herself, "that I thought of it now, and will not be able to repeat it at the ball."
The princess and her intellectual honesty came to mind when I read about Hillary's appearance on the Letterman circus. I know, I know, everyone and their cousin thrice removed has written about it, but fear not, dear readers. I shall not bore you with more stuff about the phoniest politician since Caligula named his horse to the Roman Senate. From what I read, Hillary was so primed, it was a miracle she didn't reply with the quick one-liners before Letterman's softball questions.
But back to the princess. Once upon a time, when manners meant more than money, and when coarse and dishonest behavior excluded a person from not only polite society, but also from public office, originality was all-important. Woe to the person who came over-primed, or whose letters carried the mark of somebody else's passion. In his time, Oscar Wilde's wit and instant repartee contributed more to his fame than his plays. Today, more than ever before, there is a dearth of originality, especially at the top. The Draft Dodger, Al Gore and the grotesque Hillary have to resort to taking the advice of pollsters and imagemakers in order to find out who they ought to be. Their first and only original thought is how not to be found out how unoriginal they are. A pervasive reliance on public relations and spinmeisters is indicative of persons devoid of inner convictions. Of people without any originality.
About six years ago I debated at Cambridge University. The motion was, "Should Cambridge remain an elite university?" Needless to say, I was on the side that it should. We won hands down. Our opponents tried to confuse the issue by linking elitism with snobbery. "You are right to link them together," I admitted. "Snobs are those seen as people who admire something above themselves and want to aspire to it." Like going to the best university in the world, being the best in one's field, reading the best books around... I could go on, and during the debate I did.
Which brings me to a subject very close to my heart: snobbery. Snobs nowadays are seen as fools, superficial people full of the wrong values. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A real snob does not fuss over how to set a table, or how to lure some celebrity to grace it, but fusses over the art in dining that reflects the values of civilization and is superior to eating standing up in some McDonald's. Knowing the difference between Stendahl and Danielle Steel is to inherit a treasure that lasts the whole of your lifetime. Ditto with knowing the difference between Bach and the Beach Boys.
Snobbery may not be the best way of acknowledging the finer values, but I cannot think of a better way to combat the pseudo-egalitarianism that denies that finer things even exist. When I was out in the Far East during the 60s, I was struck by the Eastern reverence for educated people and learning by people who were barely literate. Deference?something anti-snobs call groveling?for their elders, their teachers and their intellectual superiors is what makes Eastern culture superior to ours. To give one example: spitting in public in all civilized societies has traditionally been an almost imprisonable offense. Nowadays, in the sport-mad society we live in, the sports fan sees his role model spitting not even defiantly but just as a casual matter of course both during and at the end of every performance. (Mind you, it was during the great egalitarian leap of the Chinese Communists, which saw their murderous leaders spit in public and during affairs of state. Malraux describes how Mao sat next to President Pompidou happily expectorating into a spittoon every five seconds.)
Ergo manners. Mao was an uncivilized cold-blooded murderer far worse than Stalin and Hitler. He had the manners of a brute, a fact that those student radicals of the 60s, being brutish themselves, must have adored. Well, I've got news for you sports fans. Good manners are as much a part of our culture as paintings by Vermeer, music by Mozart and a Shakespeare sonnet. Manners add to our civilization, lack of them detract. Even a duel, with its mannered code, is far preferable to the murderous brawls of today.
So, to recapitulate: When government officials, and I am talking about those ghastly state appointees one has to come into contact with at times, are brusque, offhand, unhelpful and downright rude, the days of the state are numbered. No, I don't mean America will collapse this century, but it will go the way of China, France and England, whose empires collapsed once the ruling elite forgot that manners maketh man. Saint Simon reserved his greatest powers of invective for those who argued for and against whether the peers of France should have to remove their hats in the presence of the King's illegitimate children. (Thus duc pair and impair, or duke odd or even, were created. The evens did not have to remove them, the odds did. As a result, very few of the evens survived a small upheaval in 1789.) When Hillary drives up to an unfunny egomaniac's show in 10 limos, and has probably had tens of wordmeisters working on hundreds of possible questions that might be asked of her, it's time for invective. Alas, I'm no Saint Simon, but for God's sake, has this woman no shame?
Ground Zeros Who says the Millennium Bug failed to strike? Okay, no planes fell out of the sky, but that's only because the world's turned upside down. Last week I returned to New York after a three-week absence to discover that Donald Trump has dumped his supermodel girlfriend, Madonna is speaking with a British accent and Time Warner has been gobbled up by an Internet service provider. Hello? What's going on here? It's like the bizarro world episode of Seinfeld. What's next? Will Charlie Rose say something smart? Will Conde Nast be bought by kozmo.com? Will the next issue of Talk bear the coverline: "HARVEY WEINSTEIN'S A FAT BASTARD"? Who knows, maybe I'll even get laid some time this century.
Initially, I assumed that entering a new millennium had had no impact on the times we live in. Like billions of people around the world, I woke up on Jan. 1, looked out of my window and thought: "Boring! Nothing's changed. It's just the same as before." I turned on CNN hoping to learn about all the victims claimed by the Y2K bug and was bitterly disappointed. I wasn't expecting nuclear Armageddon or anything, but at least a baby or two could have died in a power outage. Nothing. I felt like a boxing fan who'd shelled out $50 to watch a Mike Tyson fight on pay-per-view. The millennium turned out to be the biggest damp squib in the history of show business.
Back in Britain, people couldn't even get excited about what to call the new decade. Some of my friends suggested "the Naughties," but I pointed out that that would never stick because Americans refer to "0" as "zero" not "naught." On the other hand, "the Zeros" probably won't stick either because it's so downbeat. I ended up nominating "the Ground Zeros," but almost no one could work up any enthusiasm for that. The problem was no one really believed that the new decade had actually started yet. It was like trying to christen a child before it had been born. Then, slowly but surely, things started to happen. First, there were the strange goings-on at the U.S. box office. It's not every day we see Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robin Williams trailing a talking mouse, but that's exactly what happened when Stuart Little left Magnolia, Man on the Moon, The Green Mile, End of Days and Bicentennial Man in the dust. Indeed, the only movie to give Stuart Little a run for its money was Toy Story 2. This, surely, is a sign of things to come. In the new millennium, carbon-based life forms can no longer be relied upon to open movies?even those named Tom. The stars of the 21st century will be digital.
Then came the unexpected rehabilitation of Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. Through a bizarre combination of dieting and plastic surgery, the two ugliest women of the 20th century, the women who'd provided David Letterman with enough material to prolong his career almost indefinitely, suddenly became?well, fuckable. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but they both look a good deal better. This is the second lesson of the new millennium: the technology of bodily transformation is so advanced there'll be no ugly people in the 21st century. As a short, bald man with a potbelly, I was particularly excited by this development.
Next came the indictment of Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs for illegal weapons possession. Incredibly, the Manhattan grand jury decided to ignore the testimony of two A-list celebrities?Puff Daddy and Jennifer Lopez?in favor of that of Puffy's driver. If convicted, Puffy faces up to 15 years in jail. Could it be that law-breaking celebrities will be brought to justice in the 21st Century?
Another encouraging sign was last week's decision by Los Angeles prosecutors not to press charges against a paparazzo arrested for "stalking" Barbra Streisand and her husband James Brolin. Needless to say, all he was doing was photographing them. I predict a massive backlash against celebrities in the new millennium?even those named Tom. (Admittedly, this may be wishful thinking.)
Finally?and it really can't be avoided?there's AOL's acquisition of Time Warner. My favorite aspect of this story is that it happened in the same week that Talk chose to relaunch itself. Talk about bad timing! That's like Mother Teresa slipping out of her sandals in the same week that Lady Di falls off her throne. Not even coverboy Leo DiCaprio can compete with a $170 billion merger. Excuse the cliche, but I think it's safe to assume that this will be a year in which the media landscape is transformed beyond all recognition. Where will the titans of today's print media be in 12 months' time?and I mean you Walter Isaacson? Probably counting their stock options in their retirement homes in Westchester. When Talk finally goes down the tubes sometime next fall, one thing's for certain: this time around, the latest bulletin from Tina Brown's career won't make page one of The New York Times.
Incidentally, by the end of the year I wouldn't be surprised if the most prestigious newspaper in the world is edited by a digital talking mouse. Get ready for Times Story 2.
George Szamuely The Bunker
Denial Denial "Senior editors at...publishing houses still welcome me warmly as a friend, invite me to lunch in expensive New York restaurants?and then lament that if they were to sign a contract with me on a new book, there would always be somebody in their publishing house who would object." Thus the English historian David Irving, famous for his histories of Nazi Germany. He made these remarks last week in the opening statement to the lawsuit that he has brought against Penguin Books and Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University.
He claims that Lipstadt fatally damaged his career and jeopardized his livelihood by labeling him a "Holocaust denier" in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. "Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial," she wrote there. "Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda."
Irving refuses to accept the "Holocaust denier" label. He does not dispute that Jews were murdered on a massive scale by the Nazis. He does question the numbers involved as well as the means used. "By virtue of the activities of [Prof. Lipstadt] and of those who funded her and guided her hand," Irving argues, "I have since 1996 seen one fearful publisher after another falling away from me, declining to reprint my works, refusing to accept new commissions and turning their backs on me when I approach." To be called a "Holocaust denier," he says, is "like being called a wife-beater or a pedophile. It is enough for the label to be attached, for the attachee to find himself designated as a pariah, an outcast from normal society."
Irving is a scholar of enormous energy and dedication. He has published innumerable works, most of which have been praised by leading historians of the period. He is a controversialist who refuses to accept the orthodox doctrine on anything. To many this makes him a hateful figure. John Keegan, however, has written that "Irving is a historian of formidable powers, having worked in all the major German archives, discovered important deposits of papers himself, and interviewed many of the survivors or their families and intimates? No historian of the Second World War can afford to ignore Irving. His depiction of Hitler...is a key corrective to the Anglo-Saxon version, which relates the war's history solely in terms of Churchillian defiance and of the Grand Alliance."
This cuts no ice with our cultural vigilantes who would spoon-feed us what information they think we need. Back in March 1996, St. Martin's Press was looking forward to bringing out his book, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. Irving had been the first historian to get access to the 75,000 pages of Goebbels' diaries that had been lying unread in the Red Army's archives in Moscow since 1945. Irving was one of the few people in the world capable of deciphering the Nazi propaganda minister's handwriting, not to mention his peculiar elliptical references.
The book would have been a fascinating read. But it was not to be. Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League led the charge of the pious bullies. He fired off an angry letter to St. Martin's: "Surely you must know that Mr. Irving is a well-known Holocaust Denier and an apologist for the Nazi regime. A pseudo-scholar, he has no academic credentials as a historian and his writings on Hitler, Nazis and the Holocaust have been consistently shown to be replete with errors, oversights, poor research and fantasy."
The usual crowd of smelly little orthodoxies immediately chimed in. Frank Rich announced in The New York Times that publishing Irving's book would be "the willing execution of the truth." Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post declared that Irving "has the right to speak his mind in whatever dingbat fashion strikes his fancy, but no one is obliged to listen to him, much less to give him a pulpit from which to preach." Tina Rosenberg wrote that the "issue is not one of censorship... David Irving...is not just wrong, he appears to be engaging in deliberate distortion. Worse, he is a sneak; the uncautioned reader will absorb a version of history exonerating Hitler and minimizing the evil of the Holocaust without knowing it." And Lipstadt herself made the sonorous announcement: "In the Passover Hagadah, it says in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us... David Irving is not physically destroying us, but is trying to destroy the memory of those who have already perished at the hands of tyrants." The onslaught in the media was followed by death threats to the publisher.
Inevitably, St. Martin's caved and withdrew the book from publication. Irving is right to be upset that an influential minority with a political agenda succeeded in destroying his career. It is one thing if people do not want to buy your books. It is something else if people are denied the chance to buy your books. Irving is also right to be outraged by the promiscuous use of the phrase "Holocaust denial." As Lipstadt uses the term, it means whatever she wants it to mean. If you believe that fewer than six million died, are you still a Holocaust denier? Are you a Holocaust denier if you have questions about the precise means of death? In Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt wrote that Pat Buchanan's "attacks on the credibility of survivors' testimony are standard elements of Holocaust denial." Yet, a few years ago the director of Yad Vashem's archive told a reporter that most of the 20,000 testimonies it had collected were unreliable: "Many were never in the places where they claim to have witnessed atrocities, while others relied on secondhand information given them by friends or passing strangers." Is he also then a "Holocaust denier"?
We now know that many of the most lurid stories of the Holocaust are not true. Jews were never made into soap. Jewish skin was not used to make lampshades. Deaths at Auschwitz, once estimated at around four million, have been scaled back to about 1.1 million. There were no gassings at Dachau. Holocaust scholars no longer accept the six-million-Jewish-dead figure; two leading figures?Raul Hilberg and Robert Jan van Pelt?believe the figure is probably closer to 5.1 million. Is this Holocaust denial or merely addition to our knowledge? While Irving's motives repeatedly come under scrutiny, his factual claims stand unchallenged. For instance, in his opening statement Irving declared: "We now know that the gas chamber shown to the tourists at Auschwitz is a fake built by the Poles after the war, just like the one established by the Americans at Dachau... The Poles admitted it in January 1995."
Whether Irving wins or loses his libel case, we will probably find out that our current knowledge of the Holocaust is much flimsier than we had believed. Today, David Irving is banned from entering Canada, Australia and Germany. If our politically correct globalists have their way, he will probably be banned here and everywhere else as well soon. Why? Irving is a scholar, not a criminal. There is something contemptible about democracies terrified of anyone challenging their prevailing pieties. Outlawing him only serves to make him look good and our rulers shabby.
Giles Auty The Singular Eye
New Orthodoxy Please may we have our culture back? Now that the fireworks are over, what's different? Are we truly going to bumble through the next century?to say nothing of the millennium?quite as inefficiently as the last? What are the major threats that confront us as we tiptoe cautiously into our shiny new age? Overpopulation? Global warming? Unforeseen eco-disaster? What about the growing global influence of a Red Mafia, as suggested by Paul Johnson in The Spectator recently?
I have no personal doubt about the answer I should give. I am convinced the gravest danger facing all of us in the West is a kind of galloping intellectual dishonesty, which is corroding our societies from within. This corrosion?or cancer?spreads outward from our revered seats of tertiary education where those of university age receive their first, formal injection of the virus. But the infection has usually begun already while our brightest and best were attending their secondary and even primary schools. That is where they were first exposed to postmodernist ideologies by teachers who had already been indoctrinated themselves.
In the main, the process has had little effective opposition. Today, almost all adverse comment on the subject comes from outside the world of education, since the new, Stalinist orthodoxies of postmodernism will allow little or no disagreement or debate from within.
To anyone unconnected with university life, the preliminary warning shots fired by multiculturalists, postcolonialists, feminists, deconstructionists, historical revisionists, gender theorists and others of such stripe often seemed like a joke. I do not think I had heard the odd expression "male chauvinist pig" before 1971, when a close friend reentered university life in Britain as a semimature student. As a token of the once-jocular nature of gender warfare, a large demand for ties bearing the acronym MCP existed among the university's sportsmen.
I did not meet my first entirely rabid feminist until as late as 1977, when I innocently invited an attractive American graduate who was working in a London art gallery to lunch at a restaurant I could not really afford. Foolishly I had given her a copy of a book of mine that had just been published. In the event, the only sentence I managed to complete during the two hours of our lunch was to ask the waiter for the bill. At first I was convinced my guest was joking as she cited each instance of supposed political incorrectness in my book. My other thought was that friends might have put her up to the whole thing as a laugh at my considerable expense. Poor misguided fool.
By the end of the decade, more and more poisoned pollen had drifted eastward across the Atlantic, and soon mousy misses from Merseyside were looking up "paternalistic" and other uncomplimentary adjectives in their dictionaries. Indeed, in what seemed no time at all, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, one of London's more prestigious thoroughfares, was hosting worldwide convocations of women artists. Wandering inadvertently into one of these, I foolishly pinched the derriere of the only friend in sight?our established, mutual mode of greeting?only to discover that it was in fact her identical twin and violently feminist sister whom I had seemingly assaulted. A huge artwork bearing the legend All Men Are Rapists looked down unsympathetically upon my outrageous deed.
That was nearly 20 years ago, during which time political correctness and other Stalinist measures have moved from the status of jokes to that of fundamentalist religious laws. A friend of mine who occupies a very senior post in education in Britain was told a while back that she had to attend a 48-hour debriefing course to see whether she entertained subconscious racist thoughts. I do not think intelligent people are unaware that some men have behaved oppressively to women, in non-Western cultures especially, or that racism, say, is undesirable and impolite. Imperialism may also largely have had its day, although clearly not in Chechnya or Tibet. Nonetheless, a visitor from Mars might question which African state if any has become happier or more habitable since its independence.
In short, many social programs, even including communism, could be said to have had some theoretical justification, at least, at their outsets. The problem is they mutate, as anyone with even the slightest mature understanding of human nature might foresee. In my experience of the former USSR, the gap between privileged and poor was as wide as anywhere, with little genuine chance of upward mobility for the proletariat.
Postmodernist theories all have some initial vestige of justification. It is in their mutated forms that they become increasingly destructive, dishonest and absurd. No one who enjoys the advantages of living in a Western democracy ought to support the idea of political indoctrination of children and young adults by their teachers. So why do we allow it? At the end of seven years at an English boarding school, I could not have told you the political orientation of a single one of my teachers. That is how it should be. In spite of such a system's subsequent detractors, it was a fundamentally neutral system that encouraged the acquisition of knowledge, learning and skills and the development of independent thinking. As such, it was infinitely superior to anything that has succeeded it.
Sam Schulman Hamlet
My Century An essay in The New Statesman?the British version of The Nation, only intelligent?sadly argues that in our new century, conservatism will be even stronger than it has been in America and Britain since the age of Reagan and Thatcher: "It is quite possible that we are moving from a century of progressive ideas, led by conservatives, to a century of triumph for conservative ideas, led by people only professing to be on the left." If this is so, then "Top Drawer," its generous and patient founder Taki, Jim Holt and, most of all, I deserve the credit.
It may be a good time to recount how so many of us struggled to bring forth the idea that has turned Bill Clinton's Democrats and Tony Blair's New Labor Party into conservatives?the story of "Top Drawer" itself. In 1984, I was living in the hills of Western Massachusetts, working as associate publisher of a regional magazine called New England Monthly. I was hired because...well, for the same reason I have been hired by every employer I've ever had: because a girl I went to Bennington with made her husband do it. There, slowly, in utter isolation, I changed my political stripes. I was propelled by disgust at the nuclear freeze movement, by the realization that the "progressive" forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua were just as murderous as the previous regimes, and by the failure of American liberals to support Solidarity in Poland. And of course I was still bitter about when the dream died for so many of us in the 1984 Massachusetts primary?the dream that Reuben Askew of Florida should become the Democratic nominee for president.
What I didn't realize was the degree of social ostracism my decision would involve. My more urbane friends thought it was "cute." Most were horrified. The depth of my ignominy came when I was asked to a dinner party by the husband of the Bennington girl as the date of a distinguished and devastatingly attractive woman writer?and she was so disgusted by my views that she left early. (Oh, Jan Morris, wherever you are, don't I deserve a second chance?)
I realized then that in America having principles and winning arguments and making things work?bringing peace and prosperity and lowering taxes while increasing government revenues?don't matter. What matters is what is fashionable. The cooler you were, the more liberal you became. And the American right was not only unfashionable, it didn't even care that it was.
I decided to address this problem head-on. I would start a stylish magazine of arts and entertainment that was not tendentious or polemical, but would simply be not-left. It would make conservatism hip. What would the magazine be like? I thought of the scene in It's a Wonderful Life when the town appears as it would have had Jimmy Stewart never been born. The movie palace showing The Bells of St. Mary's has turned into a girlie joint. Everyone is hardboiled with a short fuse. Donna Reed is a fearful and repressed librarian. I decided we lived in that world?but didn't have to. I would call my magazine, ironically, Civilization.
I took my idea to people like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Hersant, late publisher of Le Figaro. I sought advice from the only other conservative in the Massachusetts hills, George Gilder. He told me not to expect much. "Conservatives are conservative partly because they don't care what people think of them." "But I care what people think of me," I protested?thinking, naturally, of Jan Morris. Gilder looked at me pityingly.
Then in 1989 I came to New York to become publisher of a magazine called Wigwag (where another Bennington girl made her husband hire me). Wigwag was started by a group of young ex-New Yorker editors who left when William Shawn was fired (my new colleagues had known Shawn so intimately that they all called him "Mister"). It was the age of George Bush's "kinder and gentler" presidency, and Wigwag was a kind and gentle magazine. When I arrived, another early Bennington boy, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion, asked me to join a monthly gathering of conservative journalists called Vile Bodies, after the Evelyn Waugh novel.
There I met Jim Holt. Jim was in social agony lest anyone think him a habitue of any group so declasse as VB. It was clear that the need for my magazine was desperate, and I could state its raison d'etre very clearly: to cure "Holt's syndrome," which has been defined formally as "uncontrollable mortification at being seen at parties with National Review and New Criterion sorts of people."
Finally, the event that changed the century: In 1991, I met Taki. He also had been dreaming of starting a magazine?a magazine of quality and integrity, where his own work could never be spiked. We spent much of the ensuing decade refining and perfecting our plans, discarding one editor after another.
In 1998, when Taki sat down with Russ Smith to design "Top Drawer," we were ready. Jim Holt wanted to cure his Holt's syndrome so badly that he agreed to join us. Toby Young, by an amazing coincidence, happened to be resting between engagements at major magazines, and had the time to write as well. Yes, some people have left; there's no need to mention names. One followed his dream and is now a dental hygienist. We discovered that the claim of another to be a son of Susan Sontag was simply false, and so we had to let him go. But all in all, we've experienced less than the normal staff turnover to be expected at any new editorial venture.
And as a result, the world has changed. So remember: Whenever you hear a little bell ring, it means the husband of another girl I went to Bennington with has offered me a job.
Melik Kaylan The Spy
Why A Spy Readers of this column are entitled?just?to know if I am indeed a spy. If so for whom, and if not, why the preposterous illustration? First, it must be obvious, even to those untutored in "tradecraft," that only the phonies would draw attention to themselves like this. Ergo, not a spy. Or it could be a double-bluff. "You are either a fool or?Very ingenious, Mr. Bond." Ergo a spy. Usually, when I deal with espionage matters I listen to the original soundtrack of Matt Munro softly crooning "From Russiaah Wiiith Luuuuuvv." May I suggest you do the same while you read on?
I've often been accused of being a spy, a routine hazard for Western journalists working in trouble spots abroad. It happened in Bucharest (Ceausescu's art thefts, BBC), in Moscow (Russian sex mafia, Details), in Beirut (counterfeit C-notes, BBC), most recently in Afghanistan at the Khyber Pass (bin Laden, Fox TV). For some years my association with Spy added a further pleasing complication.
Occupational routine. You recover over a few beers at the hotel bar with your camera crew, or with your editor when you get back home. Much more astonishing, infuriating and a little creepy is to be confronted with it on the home front. Doesn't happen in the UK?perhaps because I grew up there and speak in Anglo accents. Or perhaps because they don't yet have the full-fledged interethnic battle for media influence that we have here. So the hidden agendas that might arise from being Anglo-Japanese, or Anglo-Jewish, or Anglo-Chinese or Anglo-Greek are not a big issue yet. For good or ill, you either reflect a British point of view or you don't work in the media. That simplifies things.
As a Turco-Anglo-American I'm admittedly a dubious hard-to-classify creature. So is Taki, you might say, but then most Americans know a Greek or two. In contrast, what they know about Turks began with James Bond's From Russia with Love peregrinations in Istanbul and ended with Midnight Express. Beyond that they have a vague chiaroscuro image of curved domes at dusk, minarets at sunrise, dances with veils, carpets and kebabs. Pretty compelling evidence of shady tendencies, I'm forced to admit. Anyone from such a place probably should be a spy. Add to that my effete penchant for collecting antique textiles and reporting from weird frontiers?
Near as I can tell, the rumors began around 1990. Thomas Hoving, then boss at Connoisseur, sent me off on a series of articles about the smuggling of antiquities from the Mediterranean, mostly out of Turkey. One treasure from the Midas/Croesus era called the Lydian Hoard had come in to the Metropolitan Museum during Hoving's time as director there. Another, a treasure of Athenian silver coins dating from the fourth century BC, had emerged in the 1980s. I tracked down the local smugglers, the international dealers in Germany and the American buyers. Of the latter, one was a golden boy at Lazard Freres and another was, well, William Koch, America's 10th richest man (or so) at the time and sponsor of an America's Cup team. Litigation followed. A lot of treasure eventually went back to Turkey. I also did disparaging tv work on Sotheby's conduct in the antiquities market.
In sum, many powerful enemies in a short time. A Lazard Freres spokesman actually threatened me over the phone. Something like, "We can harm you in ways you wouldn't imagine." One of Koch's lawyers accused me of being a Turkish agent. He was astonished when I wrote a humorous, scathing article for Spy about the two months I spent in the Turkish army. "I thought you were one of them," he muttered. The Turkish military hated me thereafter.
People like these retain the most refined journalistic bodyguards, who know when and how to play dirty, smear reporters and blunt accusations. Bill Clinton's aides didn't invent these things. The Clinton media wars did show us how easy it is. We watched as journalists happily complied with attacks on one another's reputations. I should have known something was up when the young researcher sitting near me at Spy's offices began to hum the Bond tune every time I came in. Later, an editorial assistant at New York asked me in hushed tones, "Melik, what, um, what exactly do you do?"
"I'm a journalist, I think. Does that sound about right?"
"Well, because there's a rumor around here that you're a spy."
I laughed, then I stopped. He was embarrassed for uttering something so moronic.
Yet I'd had trouble at New York and other U.S. magazines of late. Nothing I could pin down. Certain risk-averse editors shuttered down for no reason, some of them old friends. Artsy subjects seemed fine. Anything more contentious and intrigue-y froze them. If not, you might have read about the IRA's early peace meetings in New York having been secretly organized by the Irish Voice (because an employee there was a good friend); about splendid scandal on Boutros-Ghali's nightlife (from UN friends); about early Taliban organizing in New York (from Pakistani friends); about several minority-cum-foreign-interest groups paying local politicians to favor their home countries on Capitol Hill.
Some of this stuff simply breaks the p.c. code and will never come out. For the rest, blame the soft fingers of tremblingly parochial editors. To them, though America is now ground zero for world intrigue, though it's all happening on our streets, anyone who knows or cares about such topics is un-American, up to no good and probably a spy. The point is, would you rather live in a town where you can read about it or not?
In the U.S. media, of course, it's absurd to view anyone as a clandestine agent of influence for anything?because everyone is, publicly. For Murdoch, for CNN, for their own career, for their hockey team, for their ethnic side, for whatever sexual or political perversion they espouse. Trouble is, most editors got so busy hugging their formulas, they lost journalistic sinews.
In 1995, I think, I talked to National Geographic about the formerly Soviet Central Asian republics, the so-called "stans" (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc.). I'd gone trekking along the Silk Road, spoke the Turkic languages and wanted to do a spread. Plus, I had a terrific "in" from a veteran Geographic board member.
The editors smiled and told me to stay in touch. Months passed. I gave ideas. Always someone had just beat me to it, they said. Finally I gave up. Years later I met up with my sponsor-friend, an old patrician Yankee from Palm Beach whose family virtually owns Jupiter Island. "We almost got your article in there," he said. "Unfortunately, some contact in Turkey told them you were a spy?for the British."