The Crash of Civilizations

Illustration by Peter Bennett

1. Al(most) President. First, it turned out that poor Gore was robbed in the election (the press recount showed that more Florida voters cast ballots for him than for Bush). Then the big networks and papers pretended exactly the opposite (they were busy turning our new wartime president into a latter-day Truman or Churchill). Finally, The New York Times ran an article saying that even Gore’s supporters were actually glad Bush was president. And this doesn’t even take into account all those Grizzly Adams jokes about his new beard.

2. “Baby, Talk Is Cheap,” Sex and the City. In a year when Frank Rich, Martin Amis and William F. Buckley Jr. (what a trifecta!) all wrote long articles about pornography’s monkey-grip on our culture, the truest proof of our national kinkiness was this early-July episode, which pondered the niceties of what Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie terms “tuchus-lingus.” Finally, what America has been calling for: a popular award-winning sitcom about rimming.

3. Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (CD Version). Nirvana for eavesdroppers. Hear LBJ’s Lothario purr as he sweet-talks a bereaved Jackie Kennedy (who sounds like a loopy Marilyn Monroe). Snicker as the president asks closeted FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover how to spot a secret homosexual. And discover once again that presidents are prepared to lie hugely: Even as Johnson escalated the Vietnam War and urged the press to revile anti-war protesters, he was privately telling his aides and family that the conflict couldn’t be won. You always knew this was the case. Now you can hear the cagey old sumbitch admit it.

4. The Death of Dale Earnhardt. When “The Intimidator” (as NASCAR fans knew him) plowed into a wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500, the big national media were startled by the lavish outpouring of grief throughout the South. Now everyone knows: In the red states won by George W. Bush, Earnhardt was Princess Di.

5. World Series, Game 5. When the Arizona Diamondbacks’ young Korean relief pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim gave up a game-blowing ninth-inning home run for the second night in a row, Yankee Stadium erupted in a cry of Manifest Destiny, Arizona manager Bob Brenly stared into a Nietzschean abyss (boy, did it stare back), and Kim dropped to his knees in despair. He was immediately rescued by aptly named first baseman Mark Grace, who hugged him and, in what may have been the tenderest moment in the history of our national pastime, gave him what looked like a small kiss, as one would console a beloved son who just lost a Little League game.

6. Paul Krugman. Even as most of the media gave the Bush administration a yearlong free pass, The New York Times’ economics columnist devoted two terrific pieces per week to unmasking the secrets and lies (not to mention delusions) of the president’s economic policies. If you wanted to know why the tax cut was foolish, how Republicans hoped to destroy Social Security or who Bush & Co. love above all else (answer: Big Oil), this Princeton professor laid it out clearly — with all the decimal points right in place. Krugman is no anti-capitalist talking in moral generalities, but a trenchant liberal economist who can crunch numbers every bit as skillfully as the bullying know-it-alls at The Wall Street Journal.

7. Late Night, September 17. This first show after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center will be remembered for two things: David Letterman’s touching gravity — for once, this aimless ironist seemed absolutely genuine — and weepy Dan Rather saying, “George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where.” Gunga Dan’s jingoism set the key signature for media coverage and made one ask, “So which of these guys is the newsman and which the erratic entertainer?”

8. Short Cuts. While Spike Jonze’s video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” was the year’s most sublime three minutes of pure cinema — deadpan Christopher Walken dancing with supreme grace through an empty luxury hotel — Wong Kar-wai’s Internet ad for BMW, “The Follow” (viewable at www.bmwfilms.com), demonstrated that Hong Kong director’s peerless brilliance at creating glamorous urban melancholy. Weaving music and image with amazing skill, both filmmakers created more poetry and emotion in a handful of minutes than most of the year’s movies did in two hours.

9. The Trials of Christopher Hitchens. The hardest-working left-winger in the pundit biz (and certainly the highest-paid) published three books in 2001: Letters to a Young Contrarian is bombastic, but Unacknowledged Legislation and The Trial of Henry Kissinger are superb. By championing the war against “theocratic fascism” and excoriating old comrades like America-basher Noam Chomsky, the Vanity Fair and Nation columnist has made himself both the embodiment of and the lightning rod for the contradictions of today’s left. Depending on whom you talk to, he’s the second coming of George Orwell — or Judas.

10. Candles in the Wind. Curiosity greeted the Grammy duet between aging Elton John and wayward Eminem, who was being picketed for homophobic lyrics. But their appearance together seemed less like the lion lying down with the lamb than some rock & roll family video in which Papa John (in his pink-and-yellow suit) posed with his nice son Marshall (light-blue sweat suit and sneakers), each symbolizing his particular generation’s notion of what’s supposed to be really outrageous.

11. I Now Know Why They Hate Us. On December 10, Independent correspondent Robert Fisk filed this account of being nearly killed by a group of Afghan refugees. “Young men broke my glasses and began smashing stones into my face and head. I couldn’t see for the blood pouring down my forehead and swamping my eyes. And even then, I understood. I couldn’t blame them for what they were doing. In fact, if I were the Afghan refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.” And you thought you were a guilty liberal.

12. Live on Tape. Back in the Zapruder days, when TV dreamed of instant replays and we never suspected that LBJ had the tape machine running, events only happened once — blink and you’d miss them. Now we’ve been spoiled. If something’s not recorded and infinitely re-watchable, it never happened. I mean, after seeing all those shots of that 767 crashing into the World Trade Center — with a surreal hyperclarity worthy of J.G. Ballard — it’s hard to believe a plane actually hit the Pentagon. If it really did, shouldn’t someone have taped the jet angling down over the Potomac? Shouldn’t we have seen the moment of contact? What about shots of Chandra Levy sneaking out of Gary Condit’s building? And don’t they have security cameras outside Vitello’s in Studio City?

For tapeworms, the War on Terror has proved a bonanza, with those hidden-camera exposés of Taliban cruelty, al Jazeera’s gleefully ghoulish footage of bombed Afghan civilians, and Osama’s basement tapes — especially that recent jolly party where he cackled and praised Allah’s bounty for the September 11 massacre. Of course, for those of us who feel entitled to see everything, the most serendipitous tape of all may have been the one from Mazar-e-Sharif, which brought together Taliban acolyte John Walker Lindh and Johnny Michael Spann, the CIA agent who would soon be killed in the bloody Qala Jangi prison uprising. These are the two extremes of American involvement in the war, and it’s no surprise that CBS and ABC paid 80 grand to broadcast it endlessly.

Watching the longhaired Walker, hands bound behind him, being interrogated by Spann and an agent known only as “Dave” — Spann asks civil questions, while his Company sidekick says, “He can die here if he wants. Or he’s going to be fucking spending the rest of his fucking short life in prison” — you’re reminded that real-life CIA guys are not exactly Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. But they do run the good cop/bad cop routine they learned from a thousand cop shows. Walker plays his part, too. He just keeps kneeling there silently, all soulful and wounded like the hero of some thriller, which is probably what he thinks he is. In this, all three are just like the rest of us — shaped more than they know by the stories they’ve chosen to watch.


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