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10. The End Is Endlessly Nigh. When Janet Jackson’s bare
breast made its special guest appearance at the Super Bowl, the postgame -hysteria
made you understand why H.L. Mencken coined the term “booboisie.”
Networks replayed the footage over and over. The right organized an e-mail campaign
by parents shocked that their innocent kids could be exposed to such filth (the
kids looked up from their Jenna Jameson downloads and yawned). And professional
moralists decried the end of civilization, just as they did when Michael Jackson
strutted atop his car outside his molestation trial, when towel-less Nicollette
Sheridan jumped into Terrell Owens’ arms on Monday Night Football, when Ron
Artest and his fellow Pacers charged into the stands in Detroit, when . . .

9. What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Exactly a hundred years ago (give or take a few weeks), Joseph Conrad published
Nostromo, his masterpiece about greed, politics and corruption in a small
banana republic. “There is no peace and no rest in the development of material
interests,” says one of its characters. “They have their law and their
justice. But it is founded on expediency and is -inhuman.” In 2004 the
left was baffled why so many citizens of our own banana republic would vote
for a president who champions powerful material interests rather than ordinary
people. This perplexity made a best-seller of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter
with Kansas?
, which deftly explained the Republicans’ strategy: Even as
it promotes the interests of the economic elite, the right speaks the lingo
of cultural populism, bashing the “liberal elite” on questions of
abortion, gay marriage and religion. But Frank can’t explain why this
trick works. As a good neo-Marxist, he assumes that people ought to vote their
rational self-interest. Yet if the last 50 years has taught us anything, it’s
that, even though society is ruled by material interests, human beings are irrational
creatures whose fears, dreams and spiritual yearnings far outstrip any form
of social engineering.

8. The Plot Against Literature. While 73-year-old Tom Wolfe
was being pilloried for being hopelessly out of touch in his university novel
I Am Charlotte Simmons — live by the zeitgeist, die by the zeitgeist
— his 71-year-old contemporary, Philip Roth, scored a coup with The Plot
Against America
, a novel about fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beating
FDR in the 1940 presidential race. Both books became best-sellers, but Roth’s
inspired lengthy, thumbsucking ruminations on its story’s parallels to the Bush
years. Trouble is, all this attention went to one of Roth’s lesser novels, an
attenuated piece of sentimental pulp clad in the style of a major writer. As
alternative history, it’s far less compelling than, say, Philip K. Dick’s The
Man in the High Castle
; as literature, it can’t approach the brilliant audacity
of Roth’s own Sabbath’s Theater, which didn’t get one-tenth the press.
In these days when even literary publishing is caught up in the same blockbuster
complex as Hollywood, one thing is clear: A novel is better off seeming timely
than being great.

7. Terrible Swift Sword. Although some savant idiots (including
me) wrote that Fahrenheit 9/11 might well swing the election, that agit-prop
documentary had far less impact than the anti-Kerry commercials by the ironically
named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Not that most of us ever saw those TV spots.
We didn’t need to. The Swift Boat campaign grasped that its ads need merely
raise charges against Kerry’s Vietnam service and the mainstream media would
do the rest. Which is precisely what happened. Petrified of appearing partisan
and drowning in the most benighted possible notion of “objectivity,”
the networks spent endless hours presenting bogus accusations and truthful responses
as if they carried equal weight. And worse. Who can forget the morning when
CNN’s party-girl anchor Daryn Kagan — who may become Rush Limbaugh’s fourth
wife (really) — referred to “the medals that John Kerry might have
won“? Whoa, Nelly. If you think the Swift Boat ads weren’t genius,
consider this: Kerry’s medals became more controversial than Bush’s National
Guard shenanigans, and on Film Threat’s anti-Hot List, “The Frigid
50,” Michael Moore just checked in at number one.

6. Really Desperate. Concocted from more borrowed DNA than
a genetically modified tomato — you’ve got your Twin Peaks, your Six
Feet Under
, your Sex and the City — ABC’s hit show Desperate Housewives
makes The O.C. look as densely imagined as The Great Fire, the
National Book Award–winning novel that Ryan was inexplicably reading after a
botched date a couple of weeks back. No matter. Although not a little insulting
to women, especially those who are getting on in years or poundage, Desperate
Housewives
prompted the level of ecstasy you only get from a media burning
to jump on this year’s model of bandwagon. Entertainment Weekly splashed
the show on its cover in only its second week, yet this premature ejaculation
was soon surpassed by the panting cover spread in the November 29 Newsweek,
which wondered why it took so long for the networks to “put together a
decent show about women and their real lives” (yes, one admires the Dreiserian
realism of Wisteria Lane) and declared the show “something of a miracle.”
Something, indeed. Of course, the standard of miraculousness has obviously declined
in days when the image of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast sells on e-Bay
for $28,000.

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5. Yeeeaargghhhh. When Howard Dean unleashed his primal
scream after the Iowa caucuses, this wasn’t just a fabulous pop culture moment
— people were dancing to remixes of it before he’d even caught his breath —
but a transformative moment in the 2004 campaign. Shipwrecking Dean’s chances,
it made the front-loaded primary schedule a cakewalk for John Kerry, who, in
a matter of weeks, went from being a dead dog to his party’s Rin Tin Tin. Of
course, it was the Democrats who went Yeeeaargghhhh when their “electable”
candidate told the press that, even granted the benefit of hindsight, he would’ve
still voted for the Iraq war resolution. Kerry wound up back in the Senate,
reportedly pondering a 2008 presidential run that made even (especially?) his
wife cringe. Meanwhile, Dean was strolling along the high road to rehabilitation.
Although he’d often been bashed on the campaign trail for foolishly shooting
from the hip — such as noting that America was no safer after catching Saddam
— many of his “outrageous” pronouncements had proved correct. By the
end of the year, Dean was on Meet the Press, where he seemed like the
sharp, tough, brainy guy he’d been before being the champion of reform went
to his head.

4. The Novel as History, History as a Novel. In a 1950s
essay on middlebrow fiction, critic Dwight Macdonald filleted America’s national
taste for treasuring “facts in themselves, collecting them as boys collect
postage stamps, treating them, in short, as objects of consumption rather than
productive tools.” He could well be describing this year’s number-one best-seller,
The 9/11 Commission Report, which strings scads of interesting facts
into a gripping narrative that rarely gets to the heart of the matter. You don’t
have to be as paranoid as Kobe to know you aren’t being told the whole truth.
As my old colleague Michael Ventura noted, one can pore over the 11 pages on
the Bush administration’s behavior on September 11, 2001, without ever learning
exactly what the president was up to for all those hours. Like so much of the
government’s reaction to 9/11, the commission’s report puts a “bipartisan”
premium on making sure no individuals, Democrat or Republican, are made to bear
any responsibility for what happened. The buck stops nowhere. And so, just as
Donald Rumsfeld stays on the job despite the debacle of the Iraq occupation,
nobody has gotten fired after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Remember
when the powerful sneered at anyone who blamed The System? Now, they’re doing
it themselves.

3. Mining Neverland. Whether it’s Jim Carrey’s inexpressive
nerd getting Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or
Quentin Tarantino idolizing his dream chick in Kill Bill Vol. 2 — she’s
a kung fu mom who looks like Uma Thurman — this is a year in which even art
movies specialized in fulfilling the wishes of immature men. Nowhere was the
-fantasy balder than in the wonderful, voluminously praised Sideways,
where Paul Giamatti’s homely, self-absorbed wine-geek Miles finds a soul mate
in Maya, a gorgeous divorcée who knows her vintages, understands his
pinot noir touchiness, even praises his unpublished -(perhaps -unpublishable)
novel and, of course, looks like Virginia Madsen.

2. The Looking-Glass War. Scarier than the last five Japanese
horror remakes, more vivid than the sharpest anti-Bush poster, the year’s most
memorable image shows an Iraqi man standing on a chair, his head and body covered
with what looks like a huge, black, eyeless Ku Klux Klan robe. Man, is it spooky.
And like nearly all the infamous shots from Abu Ghraib prison, it seems to be
a gloss on Nietzche’s line, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that
in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss,
the abyss looks into you.” Naturally, this is a thought that the powerful
don’t like to entertain, lest it get in the way of blaming others: Although
Seymour Hersh has traced the Abu Ghraib torture all the way up to Rummy’s office,
so far only “bad apples” (read: dispensable underlings) have been
punished. And America has spent too little time pondering what it says that
we would so easily forgive our troops — and ourselves — for rounding up innocent
Iraqis and then making them submit to torture and sexual humiliation. The
Daily Show
’s Rob Corddry brilliantly summed up this attitude: “It’s
not important that we did torture these people. What’s important is that
we are not the kind of people who would torture these people.”

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1. Not So Great Awakening. In the months leading up to
the release of The Passion of the Christ, both The New York
Times and Los Angeles Times cranked out stories warning us (sight
unseen) that the movie was anti-Semitic. Underlying all this was fear that it
might spark violence against Jews. Mercifully, that didn’t happen. Although
Gibson’s film is anti-Semitic, most Christians who saw it treated it
as an occasion not for blame but for an affirmation of their own faith. Ironically,
The Passion of the Christ probably had a less transformative effect on
ordinary Christians than it did on our media. With the start of 2004’s inescapable
religious deluge, outlets that once scoffed at the movie began running huge
stories on everything from evangelical preachers to the wacko series of Left
Behind
novels (whose satanic villain, uproariously enough, was once People’s
“Sexiest Man Alive”). Hollywood, too, had a Great Awakening. Movie
execs who shrieked in horror at Gibson’s film before it was released — and would
still sooner die than give him an Oscar for making it — began seeking out Bible-themed
projects that would let them reel in those Christian greenbacks. Months before
November’s triumph of the evangelical electorate, Gibson demonstrated Christianity’s
clout in the time-honored American way — by making huge profits.

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