Monday, May 07, 2007
Real Meat in the Penny Press!
It's a shame so many otherwise inelligent people dismiss thick glossy magazines like Vanity Fair out of hand. Vanity Fair, GQ, Esquire - they're widely mis-characteized as lightweight vessels for clothing and perfume (ooops, sorry - cologne) ads.
In reality, since the huge amount of advertising they run allows them to pay top dollar for contributors, they routinely attract some pretty talented writers and some satisfyingly hefty subject matter.
Of course, magazines like Vanity Fair don't help their own cause much, what with bedecking their covers with bimbos and himbos in a never-ending quest to capture that elusive demographic of young men age 18-25. The irony is that the best articles these magazines run would be uninteresting - not to mention incomprehensible - to most members of that demographic. We here at Stevereads are the exception that proves the rule, a stone-cold super-hottie who's nevertheless wicked smart.
Take the latest issue of Vanity Fair, for instance. In addition to the usual yardage of fluff and nonsense (or, in the case of Graydon Carter's opening little editorials, an uncanny combination of the two), there's once again serious, challenging, and even moving content.
The fun starts in the letters page, where the last issue's collection of West Wing portraits from recent presidencies garnered what can only be called a thunderbolt from Olympus:
"I have never read a more inaccurate summary of the John F. Kennedy presidency than the text accompanying the marvelous picture you published of the surviving members from that team. To say that 'Kennedy was a hawk ... [whose] presidency reeled from calamity to predicament, [including] the Cuban missile crisis,' ignores virtually everything the man said and did, including his refusal to bomb the Soviet missiles in Cuba, tear down the wall in Berlin, or send combat troops to Vietnam, and overlooks as well his landmark speech on peace at American University. And to say that 'his leadership on civil rights was compromised by his need to court voters in the South' ignores the comprehensive civil-rights legislation sent to Congress by Kennedy in 1963, following the first presidential declaration in a century that our nation could no longer permit discrimination and segregation based on race."
That letter is by Ted Sorenson, special counsel to President Kennedy and one of the last of that 'team' around to protest at the glib mis-writing of his time's history. We have to wonder who'll write these letters when the last of the Kennedy greyhounds is dead and silent. President Kennedy re-invigorated the dreams of an entire nation, threw a clear light on all the lingering prejudices of the '50s, and, if everything else wasn't good enough, saved the world from nuclear war. We'll have to hope history itself will defend his memory.
Ironically, one of his loudest besmirchers, Chirstopher Hitchens, is also one of the other highlights of this Vanity Fair.
Hitchens' latest work has been confidence-restoring stuff, and the disturbing piece he turns in for this issue is no exception. The piece is called 'Londonistan Calling,' and it was occasioned by Hitchens returning to Finsbury Park, the London neighborhood where he grew up. To say the least, he finds his old neighborhood severely changed:
"There was never much 'bother,' as the British say, in Finsbury Park. Greeks and Turks might be fighting one another in Cyprus, but they never lifted a hand to one another in London. Many of the Irish had republican allegiances, but they didn't take that out on the local Protestants. And, even though both Cyprus and Ireland had all the grievances of partitioned former British colonies, it would have seemed inconceivable - unimaginable - that any of their sons would put a bomb on the bus their neighbors used."
In place of those old factions, Hitchens finds a huge and variegated crowd of disaffected Algerians, Bangladeshi, and other "losers in battles against Middle Eastern and Asian regimes which they regard as insufficiently Islamic."
At this point the reader is justifiably apprehensive. This has all the makings of an Archie Bunker-style rant - 'the neighborhood's gone to Hell since THOSE people started moving in' - and the reader would have ample prior evidence to back up these worries, since in the last two or three years, Hitchens has hit tub-thumping lows no self-respecting humanist should ever commit in public (perhaps that's the problem: perhaps Hitchens needs to be reminded periodically that he IS a humanist, not a political pundit).
But what he turns in here is something very different from worst fears: a thoughtful, probing piece by a man who doesn't WANT to be Archie Bunker, a man who's legitimately undecided on the subject he's writing about - which is a particularly courageous thing to be in front of Gawd, mother, and subscribers.
His lynch-pin is the age-old stereotype of the British as "proud of their tradition of hospitality and asylum," and the politically correct 'multi-culturalism' that "has been the official civic religion for so long that any criticism of any minority group has become the equivalent of profanity," Hitchens writes, and then he goes on: "And Islamic extremists have long understood that they need only suggest a racial bias - or a hint of the newly invented and meaningless term 'Islamophobia - in order to make the British cough and shuffle with embarrassment."
Hitchens goes on:
"Prince Charles himself, the heir to the throne and thus the heir to the headship of the Church of England, has announced his sympathy for Islam and his wish to be the head of all faiths and not just one. This may sound good, if absurd (a chinless prince who becomes head of a church because his mother dies?), but only if you forget that it was Prince Charles who encouraged the late King Fahd, of Saudi Arabia, to contribute more than a million pounds to build ... the Finsbury Park Mosque! If you want my opinion, our old district was a lot better off when the crowned heads of the world were busy neglecting it."
It should be pointed out here that the Prince's meanderings on the subject of Islam weren't as crack-brained - or as nefarious - as Hitchens makes them out to be; the Prince has ever been a natural-born conciliator, a uniter, as it were, not a divider. This is a rare enough trait on the throne of England, and so it's not to be despised even in the chinless (hard to know what exactly this means; the Prince has a noticeably stronger chin than Hitchens himself).
But even so, Hitchens' point is well taken: he's trying, with a degree of delicacy unusual for him (probably because it stems from sadess this time), to suggest that the tradition of hospitality to which he alludes is no longer something Britain can afford.
His sense of incomprehension is palpable:
"My colleague Henry Porter sat me down in his West London home and made me watch a documentary that he thought had received far too little attention when shown on Britain's Channel 4. It is entitled 'Undercover Mosque,' and it shows film shot in quite mainstream Islamic centers in Birmingham and London. And there it all is: foaming, bearded preachers calling for the crucifixion of unbelievers, for homosexuals to be thrown off mountaintops, for disobedient or 'deficient' women to be beaten into submission, and for Jewish and Indian property and life to be destroyed. 'You have to bomb the Indian businesses, and as for the Jews, you kill them physically,' as one sermonizer, calling himself Sheikh al-Faisal, so prettily puts it. This stuff is being inculcated in small children - who are also informed that the age of consent should be nine years old, in honor of the prophet Muhammed's youngest spouse. Again, these were not tin-roof storefront mosques but well-appointed and well-attended places of worship, often the beneficiaries of Saudi Arabian largesse."
Hitchens puts his finger on the weird sense of other-ness that has been allowed to flourish by rampant reverence for 'multi-culturalism':
"The idea of separate schools for separate faiths - the idea that worked so beautifully in Northern Ireland - has meant that children are encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to a distinct religious 'community' rather than a nation."
His conclusion sounds a note of irresolution so uncharacteristic that the reader keeps waiting for the second shoe to drop:
"Traditional Islamic law says that Muslims who live in non-Muslim societies must obey the law of the majority. But this does not restrain those who now believe that they can proselytize Islam by force and need not obey kuffar law in the meantime. I find myself haunted by a challenge that was offered on the BBC by a Muslim activist named Anjem Choudary: a man who has praised the 9/11 murders as 'magnificent' and proclaimed that 'Britain belongs to Allah.' When asked if he might prefer to move to a country which practices Shari'a, he replied: 'Who says you own Britain anyway?' A question that will have to be answered one way or another."
Hitchens doesn't answer the question, but its answer is nevertheless obvious: the British say Britain belongs to them. What he describes in the new face of invasion in the West: Islamic extremists taking advantage of the open pluralism of free Western nations to preach the physical destruction of those same countries.
Our, er, determined colleague the Reichmarshal would no doubt propose a simple solution: to the work-camps with them all! And he'd no doubt guess that we would say no, that this is exactly the price of free speech, that I may dislike what you say but I'll defend with my life your right to say it, and all that.
And the Reichmarshal would be wrong. Not on the whole work-camp thing (the beady-eyed little bugger has a fondness for work-camps), no, but on the rest of it? Free speech? Nonsense. Utter and fatally naive nonsense.
These extremists Hitchens writes about are in no way connected with the poor souls suspected of terrorist activity and thrown into bottomless holes in Cuba and Iraq by a blind and baneful American military complex; these people are openly preaching their hatred on film and the internet, cannily playing on their awareness that in some countries you can set up shop, loudly proclaim violence and hatred, and still enjoy protection under the laws of those countries.
Free speech? Nonsense. This is hate-speech, This in encitement. This is insurrection. Free speech is all about valid differences of opinion (or even vaguely in-valid differences, as in the case of the American Nazi party, and other such abominations). If you stand on a box in Times Square or Speakers Corner and loudly declaim that the United States government is corrupt, you can rant to your heart's content. But if you stand on your box and yell that the government workers in the next building should all be shot, and that you have a gun in your car, and that your car is unlocked and parked right over there, you should be arrested, not tolerated.
The most basic 'right' in the animal kingdom is the right to defend the home - the house, the street, the country. In a perfect world, kingdoms and governments - which, after all, exist only as accumulated embodiments of that deepest human priority - would respond as they should. But whether they do or don't, each individual citizen's duty is clear. Hitchens' final conundrum is heartfelt in its implications but staggeringly simple in its practicalities. The minute Anjem Choudary said 'who says you own Britain anyway?' the nearest person in the BBC broadcasting booth who had any size or weight on him should have interrupted the show and knocked him to the floor. No apologies, no 'I respect your opinion but respectfully disagree' ... when somebody says 'I want to take your home, give it to me,' discussion is not a valid response. Talk, as much as it pains us here at Stevereads to say it (the old Dutchman who was our most beloved teacher wouldn't have agreed, but then, he had no homeland), is not a valid response. If somebody says 'I want your country, give it to me,' your country's duty is to arrest them. If your country doesn't do that, it's your duty, personally, to reach out and break their mouth. Such are the oddly primitive protocols of the post 9/11 age.
The best - and the most bittersweet - part of this latest issue of Vanity Fair harkens back to a time which, though it didn't at all seem so at the moment, now has all the willowy suggestions of a lost golden age. We refer, of course, to the Age of Reagan.
The article in question is an excerpt from the forthcoming 'Reagan Diaries,' edited with characteristic finesse by Douglas Brinkley. And the excerpts are quietly heartbreaking, bringing alive the image of a man who was both more intelligent and more engaged than many subsequent histories - and all subsequent comedy routines - would have us all believe. The contrast isn't quite as sharp as it's done in the immortal 'Saturday Night Live' skit, but that's reality versus fantasy. Reality versus reality is another matter, and part of the heartbreak involved here comes from contrasting the smart, humble, charismatic man who comes through so clearly in these diaries with the current occupant of the job. We here at Stevereads feel fairly certain predicting that the world will never see the publication of the Dubya Diaries.
These Reagan diaries were written every day he was in office (except for the handful of days he was in the hospital), and they're studded with the abbreviations all diarists tend to use - and he was a born diarist: complete unconscious honesty in every entry, the classic diarist's ability to TURN OFF the part of the brain that worries about the remote possibility of anybody ELSE reading what you're writing down.
There's a wonderful un-self-conscious quality to these diaries, but then, the man himself possessed that quality. It's a quality that's easily mocked - it comes so close to innocence, after all - but it renders the best diaries almost indispensable. That a sitting president of the United States should be such a natural at this very peculiar kind of writing is a priceless gift to posterity.
Here's Reagan the surprisingly canny political operative:
"Thurs. May 28. Cabinet meeting. Demos. finally have come up with a counter proposal to our tax program. They want to include a reduction in the inc. tax rate on unearned income from 70 percent to the 50 percent top rate on unearned inc. We wanted that in the 1st place but were sure they'd attack us as favoring the rich. Several of their other proposals are things we wanted. I'll hail it as a great bipartisan solution. H--l! It's more than I thought we could get. I'm delighted to get the 70 down to 50."
Here's the man on suffering an almost-successful assassination attempt:
"By the time we arrived [at the hospital] I was having trouble getting enough air. We did not know that Tim McCarthy (S.S.) had been shot in the chest, Jim Brady in the head & a policeman Tom Delahanty in the neck.
I walked into the emergency room and was hoisted onto a cart where I was stripped of my clothes. It was then we learned I'd been shot & had a bullet in my lung.
Getting shot hurts."
It would be easy to keep quoting, but we'll limit ourselves to one more: All the geopolitical names are there, just decades shy of morphing into their fraught present-day counterparts, and all of it taking a backseat to the human element:
"Wed. March 4. Our wedding anniversary. 29 years of more happiness than any man could rightly deserve. A Pakistani plane was highjacked and landed in Kabul. The Russians are holding it & 3 or 6 of the passengers are American. We haven't been able to learn which figure is right but we're going to let the Soviets know we won't put up with their games."
The elder Bush was a modern-day Bourbon, overbred and very nearly inconsequential, although (as his letter-collection from a few years back amply and surpisingly demonstrated) an entirely real person. Clinton was effortlessly, ferociously smarter, but the humility was missing (as was, perhaps not unconnectedly, any personal relationship with his wife).
And the current occupant of the West Wing? No words even serve to approach the topic other than 'radical disconnect.' Our current president's wife's face is perpetually stretched into the type of grin most commonly found on the faces of wives who've lost count of how many years it's been since they last shared an entirely personal moment over breakfast with the man they married. This occupant is very deliberately and very openly post-literate, if such an abominable term can have any meaning: he doesn't read, and he has little patience with those who do, even subordinates whose JOB is to read (his daily briefings on matters that involve the health and security of the entire world are so breathtakingly short and cursory that even the worst Ronald Reagan of the caricaturists wouldn't have had the time or the inclination to nap through them).
In other words, a president for the Apocalypse, the wielder of the greatest power on Earth who understands - and WANTS to understands - neither the world nor power. We can all hope to claw our way back from the abyss, but even if we do (the current candidates on either side of the aisle aren't exactly inspiring), the bar has been lowered just that bit more. It's curiously comforting to look back at a president so many of us thought calamitous at the time and find things to like.