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Post Cards From a Paranoid Universe

My Century, My Ass

Back in 1990, a few months after the fall of the Wall, I was in Berlin and wanted to interview one of my heroes, Günter Grass. His publisher gave me his secretary’s number, but when I called, the great man himself answered. He said he’d be happy to meet me, but, alas, he was going out of town. Naturally, I assumed he was gently blowing me off, but later that afternoon, I was passing the Zoo railway station and who should be rushing toward it, suitcase in hand, but Grass — he of the unmistakable mustache — followed by his panting wife. I was quietly pleased: He’d been telling me the truth.

So you can imagine that I felt like Floyd Landis’ mom when, after decades of drumming his insistence that Germans confront their history, Grass came out with the flabbergasting news that, as a 17-year-old, he’d served as a conscript in the famously brutal Waffen SS. Predictably, his 60-year silence was excoriated by political conservatives, who often bore the brunt of his scorn for their attempts to bury the past, and younger writers who’ve spent years wishing he’d just die, or at least stop bogarting the literary fame. I still can’t decide what’s the biggest example of bad faith: hiding the truth for so long; revealing it as part of the prelaunch publicity for his autobiography, Peeling the Onion; or (sneakily?) laying the groundwork for these revelations with his 2003 book Crabwalk, his first to explore German suffering during the war. It’s baffling. If Grass had simply admitted everything when he published The Tin Drum back in 1959, this would have actually increased his moral stature; after all, he hadn’t committed any war crimes. In a way, such self-serving silence is less astonishing than the fact that his real war record had never before come to light — he’d admitted his SS role to the Americans when they arrested him in 1945. Had the teenage Gore Vidal been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, I’m betting somebody would have spilled the beans during the last half-century. Which only goes to show how gingerly postwar West Germany tiptoed around awkward questions of individual guilt and innocence.

Mercifully, books take on lives of their own, so Grass’ slipperiness in no way diminishes the quality of his best work; even now, I’d love to have written Dog Years or From the Diary of a Snail. Still, the Grass affair reminds us that an authorial persona is itself a fiction — the style is not necessarily the man — and it underscores the literary dangers of writers flaunting themselves as cultural monuments.

“Poets don’t give prescriptions,” says a character in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. “They give headaches.”

The same is true of novelists. In promoting his image as the moral conscience of his nation — Grass has always loved giving prescriptions — he gave his own reputation a whopping migraine that won’t soon go away.

Apocalypto

I smiled when Mel Gibson showed up in that mug shot beaming like a dissolute Soupy Sales. I laughed when I heard what he’d said to the cops — it’s always nice to see a man come out of the closet. But I could only snort when the media spent the entire next week moralizing at him for being a misogynist, Jew-hating jerk. He is one, of course. But it’s typical that networks would devote far more airtime to Gibson’s anti-Semitic rants than to the sober ones of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Granted, the Hezbollah leader will never be declared The Sexiest Man Alive, even by Lebanese People, but if you really want to go after somebody who hates Jews (and women’s rights), here’s your guy. And he has the lethal weapons to prove it: He’ll even blow up Israeli Muslims on the off chance of killing somebody Jewish.

Now, I appreciate that (especially for many on the left) it’s far more comfortable to go after Mad Mel. Disdaining him has no implications beyond the pleasure of boycotting his movies. But to confront Nasrallah’s Jew hatred — in fact, the whole theocratic ideology of Hezbollah and its Iranian backers — has the same unsettling effect as grasping the hideous values of the Iraqi insurgents or the roaming death squads of the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis. I don’t care if they’re fighting against Bush and Israeli right wingers. Along with al Qaeda and the Taliban, these are some of the most objectively reactionary groups on the planet. No good can come of their success. Indeed, Nasrallah makes me think of Joe Louis’ great reply when asked, during World War II, why he would fight for a country that treated African-Americans so abominably: “There ain’t nothing wrong with the country Hitler can fix.” I don’t care if Hezbollah provides social services — and funnels Iranian rials to the Lebanese homeless after the cease-fire — there ain’t nothing wrong with Lebanon, Palestine or Israel that this sheikh is going to make better.

Superfreak

When JonBenet Ramsey was first found violated and murdered in her home a decade ago, many people were less shocked by the crime itself than fascinated by images of the 6-year-old in full beauty-queen regalia. It wasn’t hard to see why. In Crime and Punishment, the murderer Raskolnikov has a horrifying dream in which an innocent little girl’s face suddenly takes on the lewd, lipsticked look of a whore. What Dostoyevsky presented as the ultimate nightmare had become the Little Miss Colorado pageant. This made the story not just sad but disturbingly freaky — its pop resonance still fuels Little Miss Sunshine — and started people wondering if her parents could actually be the culprits. After all, if they’d dress their little girl up like that . . .

While the titillating tragedy of a cute, little white girl always has media legs — it’s our voyeuristic way of feigning concern about The Children — the Ramsey story was soon replaced by those of Samantha Runnion, Danielle van Dam, Cassandra Williams and Elizabeth Smart, to name only the quartet who starred in 2002’s summer of stolen children. Still, JonBenet’s story was always the sexiest, so it was only natural that snarling Nancy Grace and her fellow hyenas should start baying so excitedly at the arrest of John Mark Karr. I don’t know whether he’s guilty or not — I’m not even sure he does. But as a film critic, allow me to give Karr full marks for his memorably moist performance as a child rapist and murderer. Not only has he perfected the creepy limpness favored by today’s most memorable villains (Kevin Spacey in Seven, the serial killer in Cure, languid Osama bin Laden), he makes simply buttoning your top button seem like a perversion. It’s enough to make David Lynch show his chest hair.

Godfather II

They were salsaing in the streets of Miami when early reports suggested that Fidel Castro’s surgery had gone badly — the Bearded One might be dead. I don’t know whether they were blasting the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack in the White House, but the administration already has a task force — and millions of dollars in funding — to help shape the new Cuba once Castro’s gone. (Do you think they have similar plans in case Tony Blair or Germany’s Angela Merkel should drop dead?)

Now, despite the Cuban Revolution’s early idealism and reasonably egalitarian social programs — this isn’t Haiti or even Mexico — you won’t find me defending Fidel. The old caudillo’s decades-old rejection of mufti says everything you need to know about how the country is run. Nor am I heartened at the thought of his equally ruthless brother Raúl transforming the country into a Chinese-style (read: single-party) capitalist police state. But lest we forget — and the right keeps encouraging us to — Cuba wasn’t exactly paradise before Fidel arrived. The dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista enriched American corporations, made Havana a luxurious city (for the wealthy) and, as historian Hugh Thomas put it, “formalized gangsterism” — it was better for Michael Corleone than the impoverished majority. That’s why so many Cubans, even those who can’t stand Fidel, fear that, once he’s dead, their country may well be taken over once again by an outside elite — including rich, self-righteous Miami Cubans with a sense of entitlement the size of the whole island.

From the Diary of a Slug

Winston Churchill famously joked that Clement Attlee was a modest man with a lot to be modest about. I used to think the same of Senator Joe Lieberman. But the years have made it obvious that the dreary senator’s pose of self-effacing decency actually masked a ghastly, self-promoting vanity. His true self became as vivid as Mel Gibson’s after his loss to Ned Lamont in Connecticut’s Democratic primary when he promptly began running as a fear-mongering Independent. (You see, it’s always about Joe.) Although Lieberman’s doom may have been sealed from the moment he got that televised kiss from George W. Bush at the 2005 State of the Union address — that image is what really started the Fredo-mentum — he treated a personal electoral loss as a Democratic Götterdämmerung. Demonstrating exactly why he got beat, he accused party opponents of imposing a litmus test on the Iraq war (patently false) and of being wildly out of the mainstream (86 percent of Democrats oppose the Iraq war). Echoing Cheney, he tried to link Lamont’s victory to the London plot to blow up airliners.

If you didn’t know better, you might think that Lieberman’s foes, especially the Netroots, were Trotskyites or superannuated SDSers, their freak flags still flying. In reality, they’re that most peculiar of birds: strident liberals. The new Democratic activists are radical only in their partisanship (not an irrational position in a polarized era when, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently argued, a politician’s partisan affiliation matters more than his personal beliefs). Which makes it all the funnier that Lieberman fancies himself the victim of an ideological purge (led, it must be noted, by a millionaire heir with a venture-capitalist wife). Like whiny Bernard Goldberg — whose own troubles at CBS led him to accuse that Viacom-owned network of egregious left-wing bias — he’s become a clownish parody of the disillusioned communists who once felt that their God Had Failed.

Summer Blockbusters

“It’s a paranoid universe,” a Mossad agent tells Philip Roth in Operation Shylock, “but don’t overdo it.” You have to admit it’s tempting. Less than 48 hours after Lamont beat Lieberman — could the usual fear tactics be losing their teeth? — the Bush administration was pushing the British into making an overhasty roundup in the London airline bomb plot. America’s own color-coded threat level was dramatically raised to orange. So what? you may ask. Well, as Keith Olbermann reported in a terrific segment on Countdown — TV’s only essential news show — this was the 10th time in the last four years that the government made a production of announcing a deadly new threat right after potentially damaging political news for the White House. Meanwhile, Tony Blair stayed on vacation.

This doesn’t mean that the London bomb plot is phony (although many in Britain have doubts), much less that there aren’t Islamic terrorists eager to kill Americans. There undeniably are. But while our leaders were quick to behave as if they, not the Brits, had done something marvelous, they didn’t seem to care that the London case was broken through old-fashioned police work rather than, oh, toppling Middle Eastern dictators. (As James Atlas argues in the current Atlantic Monthly, the weak link in the fight against terrorism is treating it, intellectually and militarily, as a war.) With his oft-announced willingness to stay the course, the president continues to behave as if the best way to protect America is by stockpiling gaudy weaponry. Although huge new high-tech weapons systems are useless in Afghanistan or Iraq — and won’t stop a dirty bomb at Staples Center — the administration has doubled spending (up to $1.6 trillion) on such programs since 2001. It’s business as usual.

Luckily for us, al Qaeda evidently follows the same logic as movie-studio executives. Osama and Zawahiri keep looking for a blockbuster to match, even top 9/11 — something boffo like the London airline plot. As it happens, such grandiose schemes are generally easier to foil than small ones (9/11 cried out to be prevented), so we should all be grateful that the kings of Islamic terror haven’t yet grasped that a series of small attacks on places like Starbucks or a movie theater or a shopping mall would actually do more to shake American life than another Hollywood-style spectacle. Let’s just pray that Osama never hears about Sundance.