Taki LE MAÎTRE Friends And Livers The world's greatest doctor, Harvey Klein, informs me that my liver at its present state is an exact replica of a map of Dresden?circa 1945, after Bomber Command had finished its business. Never have I felt worse, yet had a better time. Pre-Christmas in New York should carry a health warning. My old buddy Chuck Pfeiffer got things rolling with his annual Christmas party for those who'd rather write than fight: P.J. O'Rourke, Christopher Buckley, David Halberstam, Richard Bernstein, George Plimpton, Sam Tannenhaus (Alger Hiss opus), John Del Vecchio and Richard Shultz (Vietnam books), Michael Mailer, "Top Drawer"'s Classicus, you get the picture. Pfeiffer is a funny fellow. A West Point graduate, he won a couple of Silver Stars in Nam as a captain in the Special Forces. He and I became drinking buddies, and he gave me some very good advice before I went to that unhappy place. (Mostly where the best hookers hung out.) After the war Chuck and I began going steady. We got drunk every night and chased pussy nonstop. Perhaps it was an empty life, but it sure was fun. Like many tough guys, Pfeiffer admires writers, and they in turn respect the fact that there are still some suckers around that will answer their country's call to duty, rather than do a Clinton and run. It was Chuck who introduced me to Norman Mailer, another sucker, as well as David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winner. (Halberstam is a man who puts his money where his mouth is: when Mort Zuckerman went oiling up to him at a party, DH told him to bugger off; Zuckerman was at the time negotiating to build a monstrosity that would keep half of Central Park in permanent darkness.) Halberstam knew that it was yours truly who had exposed Sylvester Stallone's six or seven draft deferments?Rambo or Rocky as a draft-dodger has to be his funniest role?so we hit it off from the start.
Not for the first time, I was the last to leave. But there was no rest for the weary. My mentor and protector, William F. Buckley Jr., was being feted at the Museum of Television and Radio for his 33 years of Firing Line, the most intelligent talk show on television by a mile. Tom Wolfe made a wonderful speech, I made friends with Mike Wallace (who very graciously forgave me for the abuse I had heaped on him in these pages) and I felt almost weepy seeing the wonderful clips of Buckley's past shows. At dinner, sitting next to Christopher Buckley, my best man on a day that shall live in infamy, the boozing almost got out of hand, but not quite. I've got too much respect for the Buckley family to make too much of a fool of myself.
That was reserved for the days following. My three favorite restaurants in the city are Le Cirque, Swifty's and Elaine's. The trick when boozing is to booze in friendly places. In close to 30 years of dining in Le Cirque, I cannot remember ever having a meal that was not memorable. Best food, best staff by far, in my opinion. Swifty's, the new Mortimer's on Lexington Ave., is Le Cirque light, with very friendly staff and a wonderful atmosphere.
Elaine's, of course, needs no intro. Elaine protects her customers like an old mama, but even she got worried when a few years back I wrote a drunken love note to a young lady seated among eight older men. It turned out the men were Italians of the wiseguy persuasion, and they were celebrating the engagement of the capo's daughter, the recipient of my epistle. It did not help matters when I walked over and asked her if she had read my note. "Youse da ledder rider?" asked one of them. Just as I was about to say yes, Elaine came over and calmed the goodfellas down.
So it was Le Cirque, Swifty's and Elaine's nonstop, with a few pit stops at Moomba just before dawn. This was the good news. The bad is that next week I'm off to Gstaad and Paris, where the partying really gets serious. Unlike Americans, dedicated to the work ethic, Euros have more time on their hands. Ergo, parties across the pond tend to last much longer. I am giving a dinner dance in Gstaad on the 28th to see the century out, and then I go to the Palace of Versailles, where a friend of mine has taken over the Hall of Mirrors for the 31st. It's white tie, tiaras and decorations, and my only wish is to still be alive by then. One thing is for sure. There are worse ways of dying.
A very Merry Christmas to all of you.
Toby Young ARRIVISTE
Bicentennial Ham Like most journalists I know, as the millennium approaches I'm busy compiling lists. Who are Time's 10 most overrated Men of the Year? Who's the least distinguished recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Who's the most irritating man of the last 200 years? Actually, I've gratuitously added that last category just so I can award the prize to Robin Williams, who's helpfully called his latest film Bicentennial Man.
You can't switch on the telly at the moment without seeing Robin Williams doing his shtick. He must be the hardest-working actor in Hollywood. Bicentennial Ham would be a better name for his new movie since there's almost no project Robin Williams considers beneath his gifts. I naively thought Jack was the lowest he could possibly go?it's certainly Coppola's worst film since Finian's Rainbow?but then he did Father's Day, Patch Adams and Jacob the Liar. Talk about bad choices! Those are worse than the movies John Travolta made before he was rescued by Tarantino.
Bicentennial Man looks like a giant step up from Jacob the Liar. Judging from the trailers?and wild horses couldn't drag me to see it?it looks merely unwatchable.
The first time I ever saw Robin Williams on a chat show, back when he was plugging Good Morning, Vietnam, I thought he was some kind of savant. The host only had to say a word and he was off, spewing out jokes like a bulimic with Tourette's syndrome. I assumed it was all extemporized. No matter what the subject, he had a joke about it. Okay, not every one was funny, but the fact that he could just pluck them out of the air like that was impressive.
Having seen him hundreds of times since, I now realize he was just doing material?old material, at that. Far from coming up with jokes on the spot, I'd hazard a guess that Robin Williams hasn't written a joke in 20 years. He just gives the impression he's ad-libbing because his internal joke rolodex is so large. He's like a joke jukebox: you press the button and he plays the record. The fact that it's at 78 rpm makes him seem like a genius. In fact, he's just a hack with an encyclopedic memory. I doubt he's ever forgotten a single joke?or told a memorable one.
What makes him so irritating?and I don't think I'm alone here?is his inability to shut up. If he can think of a joke, he's going to tell it, come hell or high water. Anything can set him off and when it does he's incapable of keeping his mouth shut. His pathetic eagerness to please?you can see it in his cocker spaniel eyes?robs him of any self-control. He's a comic who's totally at the mercy of his own material.
There's currently a story doing the rounds about Robin Williams that illustrates this point perfectly. I've now heard several different versions of this story so it may even qualify as an urban legend. It begins, as they all do, with a friend of a friend. This particular patsy was working for CAA at the time, the agency that at one stage represented Williams. He was ordered by his boss to drive up to San Francisco, pick up Williams and drive him to?the details vary. In some versions it's Santa Barbara, in others it's Big Sur. Anyway, the point is that he's stuck in a car with Robin Williams and, for the entire duration of the journey, the former star of Mork and Mindy is on. He won't stop doing material. Forget about 15 minutes. He does a routine that lasts more than four hours.
No matter which version I'm told, it always ends the same way: it took all the guy's self-control not to steer the car into the path of an oncoming truck.
I experienced just how irritating Williams can be when I spent an evening with him at the Groucho Club in London several years ago as a guest of British GQ. Michael Vermuelen, the editor-in-chief, had instructed all those present not to laugh at any of Williams' jokes. The moment any of us laughed, apparently, he'd be off and we'd have to sit there while he "entertained" us all night. Vermuelen, who actually liked Williams, urged us to do this out of compassion for the poor comic and not just self-interest. Williams didn't want to tell jokes all evening any more than we wanted to hear them, but once he got going he couldn't stop. The way Vermuelen put it, he made it sound like Williams had some kind of mental disorder. He had to be handled very carefully. "Our only hope of getting through the evening," Vermuelen cautioned, "is not to laugh."
By the time Williams appeared, accompanied by Vermuelen, about six of us had assembled in the Groucho's back room. It was about 7 and I had a dinner to go to at 8:30. I was planning to get out of there within about an hour. Some hope.
At first, he was pretty normal. He asked us all what we did and was, by Hollywood standards, extremely well-mannered. However, it was only a matter of time before the jokes started flowing. I didn't laugh, but, alas, my colleagues couldn't help themselves. I could see Vermuelen glaring at them disapprovingly, but it was no good. It was more out of politeness than anything else, but if Williams sensed that it just spurred him on. Before long he was racing along like an express train and it would have taken a nuclear bomb to derail him. Other people began to gather round our table, which just made things 10 times worse. By 9:30, with no sign of any letup, I realized I was trapped. I couldn't even slip away to call my date and tell her I'd be late. I didn't get out of there until 2 o'clock in the morning, by which time?I'm not exaggerating?Michael Vermuelen had actually passed out.
If I had been in a car, I definitely would have steered it into the path of an oncoming truck.
George Szamuely THE BUNKER
Who Benefits? Not the least unappealing aspect of the current Holocaust shakedown is the prominent role being played by the United States. Americans have little to be self-righteous about when it comes to the Second World War. They entered the war more than two years after the British and French did. And they did little to help Jewish refugees: America's restrictive immigration policy remained unchanged throughout the 1930s. Today, in the name of restitution for Holocaust victims, Americans are resorting to shameless extortion.
The method works like this: European companies are threatened with class-action lawsuits. The Clinton administration then steps in and promises them immunity from legal action provided they fork over billions of dollars. The companies create a "fund," which is then greedily divided up between lawyers and Jewish organizations?two leading contributors to the Democratic Party. Holocaust survivors never get to see a penny.
Last week the German government and Germany's leading companies established a $5.14 billion fund. Its purported beneficiaries are to be the men and women who were forced to work for some of the companies during the war. However, this sum has nothing to do with compensation. No one knows how many such laborers are still alive. Estimates vary from 800,000 to 2.3 million. But it is quite possible that there are hardly any left alive. The $5 billion number was arrived at through blackmail and extortion. The lawyers had originally demanded $25 billion. However, in September federal courts in New Jersey dismissed two separate class-action lawsuits that sought compensation for wartime slave laborers. The courts argued that they could not overturn postwar treaties governing reparations claims. In light of these decisions, the lawyers decided not to take their chances and settled for a much smaller sum.
But dividing up the loot is going to be tricky. There are to be two categories of beneficiaries: former "forced laborers" (mostly non-Jews) and "slave laborers" (mostly Jews). Since "slave laborers" had it worse than "forced laborers" they will be entitled to more money. This does not exactly sit well with the former "forced laborers" (many of whom are believed to live in Russia and Eastern Europe). As they see it, the issue is not who suffered most but who has not yet had a payday. "The Nazi victims in the Czech Republic were not compensated until 1998," explains a Czech official who took part in the negotiations. "If there is a [forced labor] settlement, it should reflect this historical fact... The most unfortunate thing would be if it became a fight between Jewish and non-Jewish victims. But this approach?to set up a lump sum?really asks for it."
The "lump sum" approach has been the defining characteristic of the Holocaust restitution racket. Last year the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS AG) and Credit Suisse Group set up a $1.25 billion fund to settle the lawsuits pending against them and to ward off sanctions. It was the Swiss settlement that blazed the trail for all the subsequent class-action extortion suits. Lawyers roamed across Europe and Israel signing up clients. Representatives of the World Jewish Congress?the instigator of the suit against the Swiss banks?would visit European companies, threaten them with lawsuits and then suggest a nice round sum that would buy them peace. In the meantime, unscrupulous politicians that shamelessly pander to the Jewish vote would seek guidance from the World Jewish Congress as to what sanctions to impose against whom. New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi decided that he would block Deutsche Bank's takeover of Bankers Trust until it had settled its class-action lawsuit in a satisfactory manner. California passed a law enabling Holocaust survivors to file "slave labor" lawsuits against European companies in state courts.
In the Swiss case, the plaintiffs had demanded $20 billion. As it turned out, however, the $1.25 billion was more than generous. Jewish organizations had claimed that the Swiss had stolen Jewish money, that billions lay in dormant accounts. The Volcker panel recently reported that it had uncovered something like 54,000 accounts that may have belonged to Nazi victims. Their value today is in the range of $173.5 to $263.1 million. Clearly, this figure is much closer to the 1995 Swiss estimates of $30 million than to the wild assertions of World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman Jr.
No sooner did the Swiss hand over the $1.25 billion than fighting broke out over the division of the booty. Who was a worthy beneficiary? Who could prove the existence of a bank account from 60 years ago? How much was such an account worth today? Who was the rightful heir? Rather than try to grapple with these issues the court decided that the safest course was simply to turn the money over to Jewish organizations. "It is important that [the plaintiffs'] interests and those represented...by the World Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Jewish Agency be synthesized in a dignified and orderly way...so that we don't have an unseemly disagreement in court about the distribution," Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat declared fatuously.
Various Jewish charitable groups wanted to distribute the money to bolster their influence in the Jewish world. The World Jewish Restitution Organization, an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, claimed that it has been empowered by the Israeli government to represent Jewish interests on Holocaust-related matters. It proposed handing over 80 percent of the funds to Holocaust survivors. Payment, however, would not necessarily be monetary but in the form of "charitable services." The remaining 20 percent would go toward Holocaust-related educational programs. There was little talk of turning money over to the heirs of victims who had Swiss bank accounts.
Gizella Weisshaus lost her family during the German occupation of Romania. She was the first to sue the Swiss banks to recover family assets. Today she complains that compensation payments are going to Jewish organizations and not to individual survivors and their heirs: "Survivors are sick, they're losing hope, and these people are taking the money. It's unbelievable... This is our money. They have no right to it."
Shaking down insurance companies proved to be the most lucrative activity of all. That is because they fall under the jurisdiction of 50 different state regulators. Therefore, 50 different sets of politicians can try to get their hands on the money. California recently passed a law requiring European insurance companies to provide a list of policies written between 1920 and 1945. Failure to do so would lead to revocation of their licenses to operate in California. The insurance companies also had to prove that they had paid out claims or had tried to locate the heirs of policyholders. If heirs could not be located the unpaid policies were to be turned over to a fund for Holocaust survivors. Florida has passed a similar law. Since locating millions of policies from so many years ago is an almost impossible undertaking, insurance companies realized that their best option was simply to cough up the money. They were soon "volunteering" to contribute to the appropriate Holocaust "funds."
Facing the prospect of harassment at the hands of state insurance regulators, six major European insurance companies committed $90 million to a "fund" for Holocaust survivors. Recently, the giant Italian insurance company, Assicurazioni Generali, agreed to shell out $100 million. The money would go to individual claimants and, of course, to a Holocaust "fund."
To make the looting of the insurance companies a little less haphazard, in 1998 an international commission to be chaired by Lawrence Eagleburger was set up. The commission comprises state insurance regulators, the insurance companies and Jewish organizations. The idea was to force the insurance companies to make a global settlement. In return for cooperating with the commission, the companies would be exempt from the penalties of state laws.
As usual, greed got in the way. The state regulators were not about to lose this cash cow. As the hapless Eizenstat was forced to admit, while the U.S. government could promise the insurers freedom from federal lawsuits, it could offer them no protection from state insurance regulators.
The Holocaust restitution racket is an unseemly brew of greed and self-righteousness. One wonders how Americans would respond if the Japanese were to try to extort money from U.S. companies that were in some way involved with Hiroshima? What would happen if the Germans decided to seek compensation from the United States for the pain inflicted on the 15 million Germans who were expelled?with the full knowledge and connivance of the U.S. government?from their ancient European homelands after 1945? There are few things in the world more repellent than lucrative moralizing.
Sam Schulman HAMLET
2nd Goy In NYC When I return from Chicago on Sunday evening, I will probably be a goy. The Southern Baptist Convention has decided to send 100,000 missionaries to Chicago, targeting my native city's Jews for conversion. And I am fully resigned to being swept up in their evangelistic dragnet.
Many Jewish leaders are up in arms about the Baptist campaign, and about any attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. I'm not so sure this is wise. By all means, establish some ground rules to make it sporting: leave children alone; don't sail under false colors, as the Jews for Jesus do. But to restrict members of one religion from spreading their message is unworthy of a people who have been prevented so often and so bloodily from practicing their own?and rather a dangerous precedent. It can't be done without raising a terrible legal and moral precedent.
I myself will face the missionaries like a man. And if they take me down, well, let's face it: there will be many advantages to being a Christian. I will become as much a rarity in New York's literary circles as Jim Holt. Soon I, too, will be asked to the sort of swanky dinners where, as a party trick, Jim is made by his hosts to expound on such doctrines as Original Sin and the Eternity of Divine Punishment. I know Jim will understand that I am not trying to take the really good claret out of his mouth?I merely wish to remove a heavy social burden from his Brooks Brothers-tailored shoulders.
I may also have a new career path open to me, because we sons of Israel do very well in the church when we turn our minds to it. I may well become archbishop of Paris, if I choose to follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Lustiger. But then when I become a sleek and sophisticated prince of the church in Paris, it will put Jim's nose out of joint as well. Since by a tragic accident of fate he was born to Christian parents, he won't have my advantages in the hierarchy. Life isn't fair.
The reaction of Chicago's Jewish leaders is curiously fraught. They are up in arms. But they have to be a bit circumspect, so they have hit on the notion that the missionary campaign might be "conducive to hate crimes." They explain that when the Baptists say that Jews and others (including most Christians) have yet to be "saved," it is really a coded way of saying that we Jews are inferior. And some?not the Baptists themselves, but others "on the fringe"?might find the implied suggestion of Jewish inferiority "the final straw that pushes them over" into the commission of hate crimes (in the words of the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, in an interview with The Forward).
Such an attitude is disingenuous, logic-chopping and cowardly. Let them come. One hundred thousand will set out, but how many will recross the Mason-Dixon line who aren't wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit? How many of those who came North with a light step bearing 10 commandments will stagger back with our 613 mitzwot? How many will be bringing back to Mother a dark-eyed olive-skinned wife who will in no circumstance ever obey him?
If we stand our ground and convert back, this could be a very costly campaign, and the mothers-in-law of Dixie will be weeping next year.
In any case, the most powerful missionary force confronting the Jews is not sweetly earnest young Baptist missionaries, but something far more nefarious. It is depicted in all its horror in the old Elaine May/Bruce Jay Friedman movie The Heartbreak Kid: the young, achingly blonde Cybill Shepherd, her father Eddie Arnold Sr., in a white dinner jacket at a Minneapolis country club, proffering a pitcher of martinis at lakeside, a general atmosphere of moonlight, Adirondack chairs, canoes and lobsters. I've faced that situation a dozen times, and let me tell you, anyone who says he's not frightened is lying.
My problem now is to figure out whether New York is big enough for two Christians?me and Jim Holt.
Jim Holt THE TIRED HEDONIST
A Goy's Retort After nearly a year and a half of devoted service to Taki's section in New York Press, my reward is to be made sport of by Sam Schulman in his "Hamlet" column. I am asked by the editors to respond to Mr. Schulman's reflections on the advantages of converting from Judaism to Christianity. I do not repine; I do as I am bidden. But I fear that any advice I have to offer may already be too late. Even now, I imagine, Mr. Schulman, once a sober and stalwart Jew, is dancing around in a revivalist frenzy, tambourine in hand, belting out a Negro spiritual with great gusto.
Does it behoove a Jew to convert to the Christian faith? As Christmas approaches it is well to remember that Jesus himself, despite his Hispanic name, was born a Jew. In the two millennia since Jesus walked the earth, many Jews have found spiritual succor in the church that he established.
Although I do not flaunt my own spirituality, I am, as Mr. Schulman observes, a Christian. In public life, I try to take an inclusive, ecumenical position. Indeed, as the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Restoration of the Religious Landmarks of the Bronx, I feel I have, in a quiet, unobtrusive way, done a great deal of good for all religions. I would welcome Mr. Schulman as a coreligionist. Come inside, Sam.
As an extreme right-winger, you will find the Christian message quite congenial, much more so than the pinko Jewish one. Nowhere in the four Gospels does Christ say anything against the flat tax or cutting capital gains rates. "Pick up thy bed and walk!" he commands one Moaning Minnie, whose initiative had no doubt been sapped by the welfare state.
The so-called "caring" side of Christianity has been greatly exaggerated by liberals. Sometimes, admittedly, Jesus does seem to be pandering to the underprivileged in a mushy-headed sort of way. "Blessed are the meek," he was once quoted as saying, "for they shall inherit the earth." But the distinguished English theologian Wallace Arnold, after much research into the matter, has concluded that Our Lord's words should not be taken in their modern sense. "It seems perfectly obvious to me that Christ's intention was in no way to praise or seek to justify the self-styled 'meek,'" Dr. Arnold has written. "Instead, He meant 'meek' in the sense of 'comfortably off, well-mannered and taking a personal pride in one's appearance.'"
This eminent scholar has also established that Jesus was a great believer in tax-free transfers ("They presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh") and an unabashed elitist ("For many are called, but few are chosen"). "In all likelihood," Prof. Arnold says, "Jesus had a pleasant house, tastefully decorated, and enjoyed having a few close friends to dinner?or 'supper,' as it is wrongly translated?entertaining them with his (occasionally forthright!) opinions." In short, Jesus was a religious man, but not a fanatic?very much like you, Sam.
Still, I think it would be unwise for you to forsake the faith of your Jewish fathers to become a Southern Baptist. You'd be picking the wrong pew in the right church, so to speak. Socially, being a Baptist in Manhattan cuts no ice, at least south of 125th St. If you want to pass as WASP, you might join the Episcopalians instead (jumping from God's Chosen People to God's Frozen People, some would say).
But I think even that move would be a mistake. In England, the better sort of person has been abandoning the Anglican Church in droves ever since it approved the ordination of women some years ago. They have been turning toward Rome. Roman Catholics continue to abide by the Pauline injunction that women should be "silent in the churches" (1 Cor. xiv 34). Although women are making any amount of noise in Catholic churches today?reading homilies before the congregation, gassing on in their womanly way about "love" and "peace" and "forgiveness" at deplorable ukulele masses?they are not allowed to be priests, as they are in so many Protestant sects. (Let's not even speak about female rabbis.)
In New York, you might think, being a Catholic means having to consort with a lot of garlic-eating Italians and dipso Irishmen. But that is not really true. You've got plenty of very posh Catholics in New York, like William Buckley, for example. Buckley, I dare say, comes off as far WASPier than your friend George Plimpton, who, as a matter of fact, has something slightly Semitic or Levantine about him.
So, Sam, I suggest you forget about Southern Baptists, Episcopalians and the rest of the Protestant ruck, and aspire to be received into the Catholic Church. Being a man of high intellectual attainment, you could take instruction from a Jesuit priest, who himself might have been born Jewish, just as Cardinal Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, was. (By the way, I know a few still-Jewish relatives of Cardinal Lustiger in Paris, and they are most amused by his career in the church.) You can cut off your earlocks?or "mezuzahs," as I believe they are called?and doff your phylacteries in favor of a nice white dinner jacket. You say that you find martinis seductive? You think of them as the ultimate WASP perquisite? Well, let me tell you, Catholics take martinis very seriously too. In fact, the odds-on favorite in the Vatican at the moment to succeed Pope John Paul II is a churchman named for this very cocktail?Cardinal Martini.
If, on maturer reflection, you decide to remain a Jew, be assured, Sam, that you will continue to enjoy my friendship. In fact, I sometimes feel that I myself am a Jew trapped in the body of a goy. Only the other week, in the home of some Jewish friends in Brooklyn during Chanukah, I was thrilled when they asked me to do the honors with the menorah. I lit the candles as instructed. Then I made a wish?that people of all religions might live together in harmony?and successfully blew them out.
Charles Glass THE LONDON DESK
Unwanted Guests The U.S. government, I read over here, behaved with its usual tact when it let immigration officers at JFK fingerprint and photograph a group of Iranians who had been invited to attend a conference in Washington. The Iranians were all clerics who had come from Iran's equivalent of the Bible Belt, Qom. The guardians of America's frontiers treated the clergymen with the respect ordinarily reserved for drug dealers and pedophiles.
It looks like Bill Clinton is not changing the tradition of getting it wrong in Iran. That goes back at least to World War II, when U.S. troops occupied part of Iran with the British and Russians and left Iranians with folktales of good ol' American racism. The Iranians, who come from a civilization far older than ours, are not opposed to racism in principle so much as its application to them. They are, after all, the Aryans. After the war, the CIA disposed of the prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, for demanding a share of Iran's oil revenues for Iranians. The Shah escaped to Switzerland and didn't really want to return. By 1979, he certainly didn't want to leave, but Jimmy Carter left him to his fate and he toured the world looking for a hospital bed to take him?not unlike the current victims of Britain's National Health Service, which New Labor is privatizing by stealth, or anyone without medical insurance in America.
The American legacy in Iran was cruel, but the Iranians love us. The revolution is over, and the young are determined to overthrow the mullahs. The more reactionary among the ruling elite are fighting to keep power, but they will lose eventually. The U.S., however, handed the revanchist theologues a propaganda coup at JFK. Pity.
Most Persians are too young to remember the days when the U.S. maintained military and economic advisers in Iran, ran a large chunk of the economy and fed the Shah more arms than he could ever hope to use. (If they want a reminder, all they need do is look across the gulf at Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. preserves its old Iran policy with the Saudi princes.) Before the Islamic revolution in 1979, the Iranians hated us. On my first trip to Iran in 1973, the Iranians struck me as the most xenophobic race in the Middle East. The Arabs, by comparison, loved us. Sadat was just getting rid of the last of the Soviets, whom the Egyptians really detested. In Tehran then, shopkeepers in the bazaar went out of their way to be rude to Americans. They were as content to sell me trinkets as not. There were thousands of us. Now, with more or less no Americans around, the bazaaris invite the rare American visitor to stay and drink tea. When I hitchhiked a few years ago from northern Iran to Tehran, my journey took twice as long as it should because everyone took me home to eat and meet the neighbors.
Traditions of hospitality die hard, and the British have much to learn from the Iranians. Her Majesty's government, beginning two weeks ago, is treating all who come here in search of political asylum as if they were Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic under indictment for war crimes. Roma refugees from the Czech Republic, who are persecuted as no other race in Europe these days, have been herded into camps on Britains south coast. These so-called gypsies were seriously abused at home, where the state would cut their electricity and the police would ignore attacks on them by skinheads. They are not welcome in Britain. Nick Cohen, a vigorous critic of New Labor's new Stalinism, wrote in The Observer of the greeting awaiting refugees from the new barbarism: "They will hear that the state will decide where they will live. They will be denied access to the capital's refugee support networks?interpreters, lawyers used to dealing with the Home Office and friends who found sanctuary before New Labour revived old brutalism. They will be parcelled up and handed on to one of nine regional consortia of councils which will put them in vacant property."
Beware, ye huddled members of any oppressed mass who seek shelter in newly rebranded Britain. The government will shut you away, refuse you permission to move to London, give you vouchers with which to buy food at selected shops and probably, if past experience points to the future, won't protect you from the kind of skinhead attacks that drove you out of Vaclav Havel's postcommunist paradise in the first place. If you manage to slip past the vigilantes at the ports and airports and get into UK, Ltd., your application for asylum will be tricky. And long. Cohen notes, "The average time it took to decide a case was 14 months when Labor came to power in 1997. It is now 28 months and rising." While you wait to be processed, you will be under curfew for your own protection. The only thing that may make you endure a nonlife here is the fact that you probably won't be ethnically cleansed or murdered, as you might have been in Burundi or the Iraqi marshes, or see your children beaten and your neighborhood walled in, as in the Czech Republic. Of course, if you have a lot of money, the usual asylum restrictions magically vanish like Brigadoon at the end of day. Yes, with enough lucre, you will experience the welcome of that most famous British immigrant, Mohammed Al-Fayed. The Phoney Pharoah, as the tabloids here call him, has enriched all our lives, particularly the otherwise dreary existences of the Members of Parliament he admitted to having bribed in testimony to a London court this month.
Impoverished refugees from persecution and genocide, however, will not be allowed to come to London to buy smoked salmon with their food coupons in Mr. Fayed's shop, Harrod's. I think the government is making a mistake in keeping them out of London. New Labor may well need all those refugees at midnight on New Year's Eve to fill its billion-dollar Millennium Dome. Government spin doctors could bus the refugees in from their camps. Their curfew could be extended so they can watch Tony Blair and the Queen gaze idiotically at the achievements of New Labor. In the morning, at the new century's dawn, they can resume the dreary life the state here has contrived for them.