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Giuliani again

February 23, 2015

Rudy GiulianiIt’s been all Giuliani all the time over at Talking Points Memo, ever since he embarrassed himself and Scott Walker with his animadversions on Obama’s upbringing, his likely communist affiliations, and his lack of patriotism. Josh Marshall says Giuliani introduced a dangerous distraction into the GOP primary sweepstakes, one that has already hurt Walker, who should be concentrating on economic rather than culture issues. Readers of THE NEW HATE and this blog can guess what I would say — that distractions though they might be, xenophobic and racist dog whistling have been a staple of the right wing backlash since, well, forever.

The backlash against Giuliani’s backlash has almost been comical. It’s ridiculously easy to find pictures in which he looks demented (see above); his biography and family background are absurdly easy to mine for examples of his hypocrisy (as Wayne Barrett quickly did). Giuliani’s father was a convicted criminal; Giuliani announced his second divorce to the press before he got around to telling his wife. Yadda yadda yadda.

Jim Sleeper had an article in Salon about Giuliani’s sad devolution into “just another GOP street lunatic” that I found interesting and probably right. Rudy’s fatal flaw, he said, was his “zealot’s graceless division of everyone into friend or foe and [his] snarling, sometimes histrionic, vilifications of the foes. Those are operatic emotions, beneath the civic dignity of a great city and its chief magistrate.” Ironically, it was that same flaw that enabled his apotheosis:

Only on 9/11, when the whole city became as operatic as the inside of Rudy’s mind, was he able to project himself so convincingly as America’s Mayor. For once, his New York rearranged itself into a stage fit for, say, Rossini’s “Le Siege de Corinth” or a dark, nationalist epic by Verdi or Puccini that ends with bodies strewn all over and the tragic but noble hero grieving for his devastated people and foretelling a new dawn.

I think he’s probably right, but what struck me and I think most New Yorkers about Rudy’s performance in the days after 911 wasn’t its grandeur, but its simplicity and calm. When reporters were spreading rumors about a van full of explosives on the Washington Bridge, Giuliani went on TV and quashed them. He reminded us of the unseemliness of vindictiveness and the importance of knowing the facts (although it’s worth remembering that, as Giuliani himself recounted in his book Leadership, he asked Bush to let him execute Bin Laden when he was caught). 

That aura instantly evaporated when he proposed that his term be extended, but before that he really shone, especially in the absence of national leadership (ex-president Clinton, who had been in Australia on 911, got to New York before Bush did). The most important thing that a leader can do in the face of a catastrophe is simply to show up. Bush got it as wrong after 911 as he did after Katrina; Giuliani has gotten everything else wrong ever since. But for a few days, he hit all his marks unerringly.

His tragedy, as some have called it, is that he is every bit the “nasty man” that Ed Koch said he is.

New book from Killing the Buddha

February 13, 2015

519ME2hWdKL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_I’m in this e book, along with some very impressive writers, among them Jeff Sharlet, Darcey Steinke, Nathan Schneider, and Meera Subramanian. I’m going to buy it!

The High Cost of Fame

February 13, 2015

Mike Daisey, the brilliant monologist whose embellished accounts of his investigations into the miseries of Chinese factory workers in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs got him into so much trouble a couple of years ago, offered some collegial advice to Brian Williams in Slate. “I feel sorry for Brian Williams,” he wrote. “Not because I think war stories deserve embellishment, or that famous men should be able to tell tall tales on television. Instead, I have sympathy because I know what it feels like to be put through the public wringer for this particular sin: telling the American public a story that isn’t exactly true, and pretending that it is.”

It made for interesting reading in juxtaposition with the Jon Ronson piece in the NY Times magazine, about regular people who are publicly shamed and shunned on Twitter. It’s adapted from his new book, I think. Ronson focused on Justine Sacco, the publicist who Tweeted what she thought was an ironic joke about white privilege while she was flying to South Africa, and who got off the plane to discover that she was the object of a digital firestorm that would cost her her job and her reputation. The guy who lit the match (and who subsequently suffered some digital shaming of his own) has written an interesting mea culpa).

Of course Brian Williams isn’t a regular person or a journalist for that matter; he’s a brand. He made millions because television-watchers thought they liked him (though of course they didn’t really know him at all). If they still think they like him when he comes back from his sojourn in the wilderness, if they still tune into NBC to watch him and his sponsors’ commercials, he’ll be fine. If not, he gets to keep his money and his daughter still has her career. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

A week or so ago, there was a huge kerfuffle on the Internet about an African American comedian who was racially victimized by a cafe in Berkeley–the same cafe, ironically, where he had celebrated his birthday a few hours before. The story was that he’d stopped to talk to his white wife and some of her friends who were sitting at an outdoor table, when a waitress pounded on the glass, mouthed something that he lipread as “Scram!”, and motioned for him to leave.

“I as a black man was being told to ‘GIT!’ like it was 1963, Selma, Alabama, and I was crashing a meeting of The New Moms of the Confederacy,” he wrote. The waitress, who insisted that she had been told that a street salesman was harassing customers, was duly fired; the restaurant promised that there would be a public dialogue. I don’t know how the story concluded, or whether the waitress was a racist or not. But it reminded me of a terrible mistake that I once made here in Brooklyn.

Shortly after we moved into this neighborhood, a homeless man offered me his services as a leaf sweeper. We negotiated a fee, and every week or so, he’d show up and sweep the leaves off the sidewalk in front of our house. When he finished, he’d ring the doorbell and I’d give him $5.00.

One day my son told me there was a guy outside sweeping leaves. I was in the middle of something, so I gave him $5.00 and told him to give it to him. My son came back and told me that the man had refused the money. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” he added. So I got up and looked out the front window and saw that the man was one of our neighbors.

I rushed outside. “I thought you were the homeless guy that comes around,” I told him, and then I got even more embarrassed. “So you think all black people are homeless?” I imagined him thinking. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to destroy me. “Author of THE NEW HATE thinks black men are put on this earth to do his chores,” he might have Tweeted. For all I know, that’s what I did think in the chthonic depths of my subconscious, and the thought of that makes me hate myself even more than I usually do. Justine Sacco’s South African family had been ANC members, they were humiliated by their daughter’s infamy and she spent a lot of time worrying, she told Ronson, that she really was the monster that so many strangers were so avid to believe she was.

Though I do think it’s ironic, as Chris Rock put it, that Brian Williams is just about the only public person who’s had to pay any price for lying about the Iraq war, I don’t particularly care about what happens to him. After all, he knew what he was getting into when he cashed his first paycheck. I do worry a lot about the little people who never sought their fame, though, and it troubles me how eager everyone seems to throw the first digital stone.

The Rebirth of PC

January 29, 2015

So I finally read the Jonathan Chait article about PC, which I think is excellent, though he overstates its systemic nature.

Back in the ’90s I used to opine that PC was as popular as it was on campuses because college students are mostly young and youth, as filled with passionate intensity as they are, are as prone to intemperance in politics as they are in other matters of the heart. The outrage, I said, wasn’t so much that young people were being so thin-skinned, or that they were blackballing and banishing each other (that’s what a lot of apolitical kids spend much of their time doing too)–it was the absence of a moderating “parental” point of view. When the Jewish kid at U Penn called that girl a “water buffalo,” for example, the school’s administration made things worse by reacting as if he’d burned a cross. A lot of the “trigger warning” and “micro-aggression” bullshit that makes people like Chait feel like they’re walking on eggshells is childish by definition–the valorization of hurt feelings.

As a mostly unread writer, I can attest that it’s sort of perversely gratifying to get trolled by my enemies, as when Glenn Beck roused his followers against me or when MRAs fill up the comment board at Hatewatch–it gives me the illusion that I’m having some kind of an impact, that people are reading and discussing me (even though most of them haven’t read past the headline).

At the same time, it hurts when my fellow travelers turn on me, as occasionally does happen. I was amazed by the leftish tone of some of the commentary on an article I wrote about Newtown Trutherism a couple of years ago at Truthout, and by the over-the-top nastiness of some of the trolls who showed up at a book group I moderated for Bill Press at Firedoglake.

A writer like Chait that people actually do read and talk about can’t but be a lightning rod; it’s got to hurt him when his smart peers like Joan Walsh and Ta-Nehisi Coates accuse him of being clueless and obtuse on the subject of race, as they did just a couple of weeks ago (Coates quite brilliantly and, I might add, graciously). But the Internet amplifies and equalizes everyone; when hundreds and thousands of nobodies pile on, their comments occupy the same virtual space as Coates’ and Walsh’s, and seem to have equal weight.

I read John Hodgman’s Twitter essay on the lessons you can learn from PC, privilege and the Internet before I read Chait’s article and at first glance it seemed a little like pandering to me. Now that I’ve read both and thought about them, I can see Hodgman’s wisdom. Leftist thought-policing, labeling, privilege-accusing, and racial and religious and sexual and classist demonizing and silencing are terrible things, but for most of us they are still mostly happening at the margins (it’s quite a different story for women, blacks and Muslims when you look at what’s coming from the right side of the spectrum). Yes they hurt, but they don’t kill, and sometimes they even carry a germ of truth. Some of us do pontificate from a position of privilege, and privilege can’t but distort or color or block our perspectives from time to time. “I’ve never had an exchange with the so called SJWs,” Hodgman wrote, “that I couldn’t shrug and move on from–sometimes smarter for it.”

Those “sometimes” almost make all the grief worthwhile. Almost.

Wolves, Sheeple, and Sheepdogs

January 24, 2015

“These celebrities that we worship who haven’t done a doggone thing to protect our Constitution or our freedom, and then you have someone like Chris Kyle out there putting his life on the line, getting rid of the bad guys before the bad guys get us. And yet he’s demonized by some of those celebrities….Hypocrites are the ones who are slamming Chris Kyle.” –Sarah Palin

“The film portrays Kyle as a proud southern, rural, religious, patriotic jock and gun enthusiast who was much more anguished about the people he was unable to save in Iraq than about the 160 confirmed sniper kills that the Navy credits him with. All of these traits are anathema to the left….Leftists simply can’t digest the fact that their own safety is predicated on the willingness to fight of courageous men they openly disdain.” –Mark Hemingway, The Weekly Standard

“Hollywood progressives don’t look forward to having to write, direct and star in patriotic pictures and if they can’t destroy American Sniper at the box office, they can taint it enough that no major star or director will want to be associated with anything like it. Adding to their undercurrent of anger is the way that American Sniper upstaged Selma at the box office and at the Academy Award nominations. Selma is a mediocre movie, but it was meant to be a platform for the usual conversation that progressives want to have about how terrible Americans are. Instead audiences chose to see a movie about how great Americans can be even in difficult times. There’s nothing that threatens the left as much as that.”–Daniel Greenfield, Front Page Magazine

Everything I’ve read about the “wolf, sheep, and sheepdog” politics of American Sniper sounds so appalling–and most of what I’ve read about it was written by its defenders.

But for all I know, it’s a good movie. I haven’t seen it and I’m a little surprised how incurious I am. When I was writing THE NEW HATE, I couldn’t stop reading and quoting people like Andrew Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, and even more-so, historical haters like Henry Ford, Francis Parker Yockey, Eustace Mullins, and Elizabeth Dilling. I probably ruined the book with all the extracts, but it seemed so important to me that people understand that these people really wrote and thought the way that they did–and that opportunistically or not, supposedly mainstream politicians were still channeling their wolf, sheep, sheepdog brand of supremacism.

As a Jew, I was appalled by the persistence of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion–among the racist far right and in the Arab world and among NWO conspiracists, of course, but especially in the writings of extreme Zionist reactionaries, who use them as the template for their own brand of programmatic Islamophobia. A Pam Geller, a Frank Gaffney, or a Robert Spencer substitutes Taqiya for Talmudism and Sharia for Kehilla, but they retail the same totalizing garbage about Islam’s innate dishonesty and its thirst for world domination as the Protocols does about the Jews.

And finally as an American, I was embarrassed and repelled by a corollary assumption that goes along with American Exceptionalism–“that there are those of us who are really ‘us,'” as I put it, “and those of us who are essentially ‘other’–aliens, interlopers, pretenders, and culture distorters, parasites and freeloaders.”

All that stuff still upsets me, but I guess I convinced myself that it is an ineradicable part of who we are. I feel less and less inclination to rub my nose in it–and less of a need to share it with everyone else.

No, It’s Not Giuliani Time

January 6, 2015

A lot of the news stories I’ve been reading and watching about the NYPD’s war with DeBlasio imply that the city at large is part of the backlash too, that he is as good as going the way of Dinkins. Dinkins, lest we forget, was even less popular with the police than DeBlasio is. On September 16, 1992, off-duty police officers gathered at City Hall to protest his refusal to give them automatic weapons and his appointment of a panel to investigate police corruption. “‘He never supports us on anything,'” Officer Tara Fanning of the Midtown South Precinct told The New York Times’s James McKinley, Jr. “‘A cop shoots someone with a gun who’s a drug dealer, and he goes and visits the family.'” Afterwards, thousands of them ran amok on the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic, denting cars, and assaulting reporters, while on-duty officers stood by and did nothing.

But let’s look at the numbers. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, 62 percent of the NYPD resides within the city limits — a comparatively high figure compared to, say, LA, where only 23 percent of police do, or Miami, Florida, where just 7 percent of cops are residents.

“But there’s a stark racial divide,” the article (dated August, 2014) continues. “Seventy-seven percent of black New York police officers live in the city, and 76 percent of Hispanic ones do, but the same is true for only 45 percent of white officers.” 53 percent of the approximately 35,000 officers in the NYPD are white, according to Wikipedia. Even if all of them hate DeBlasio, they only account for 8347 votes–the equivalent, say, of about a third of the population of Brooklyn Heights, just one of the city’s 177 neighborhoods.

Granted, Giuliani wasn’t swept into office in 1993 by angry cops alone, but those demographics are telling. The city has changed in the last two decades. It’s a lot less violent, for one thing — and a lot more of its middle class are people of color. Stop-and-frisk might have played well in the suburbs, but outside of Staten Island and the offices of the New York Post, there hasn’t been much of a clamor to bring it back in the city. The white backlash is real, but it’s much more powerful in the suburbs and in the media whose consumers live in the suburbs. Though De Blasio’s brand might not be exactly booming, I suspect much the same is true of the DeBlasio backlash.

Luise Rainer, Edward Brooke and Me

January 5, 2015

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” –David Copperfield

I know I’m not the first person to think of this–Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” says it with much more wit and poignancy than I could ever muster–but what with this being 2015 and all, 31 years since 1984, 14 years after 2001, and the very year, I learned from a TV news program the other day, that 1989’s “Back To the Future II” is set in, I have been a little overwhelmed by the fact that I am living in what science fiction has primed me to think of as the far-off future. I’m not exactly senescent, but I’m far enough past the mid-point of my allotted three-score and ten that “middle-aged” is a euphemism. The narrative arc of my life is way past the point where something big and triumphant could occur to redeem or vindicate it, or send it off in any new direction but down. I’m too married to get the girl and too old to land the big promotion; my children are already out in the world. If I ever was the hero of my own life, its times for heroics came and went without any major fireworks.

Everybody probably feels this way at some point, even bonafide A-listers. Our subjectivity, the fact that we experience the world from the vantage of our own heads, and hence through the lenses of our prejudices, interests, desires, and disappointments, creates the illusion that we are the ultimate subject of whatever production it is our fate to be cast in.

A long time ago I was waiting for a table outside the dining room of a mediocre expense account restaurant when I noticed that the man behind me in line was Robert L. Bernstein, who until just a few years before had been the Chairman and President of Random House. If I’d had any doubt who he was, it was dispelled when he gave his name to the hostess and she impassively checked it off her list. He was wearing an expensive suit, but he didn’t fill it out quite like he did when I’d see him climbing into or out of a limo outside 201 E 50th Street. Seeing him was a little like reading the obituary of a former personage you hadn’t realized was still alive–a Hollywood star of the 1930s; the first black US Senator since Reconstruction. In his mind, though, the world was still revolving around him, because of course it was, right up until he drew his last breath.

Stupid people go through life without realizing how stupid they are, because they are lacking in the smart stuff that would allow them to take the true measure of their capacities; supernumeraries like Rosencrantz and Goldwag believe that they are really stars, even if they are just walk-ons, or more likely still, faceless extras in an unimportant crowd scene.

No matter how humble and self-effacing we try to be, we are all narcissists and conspiracy theorists to one degree or another. It’s how we’re wired.

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