The ground assault on the Bill of Rights began in November, a month that saw, among other things, Americans celebrate the fall of gas prices, the stock market switch to decimalized quotations and the first World Series games ever to be played past October. Meanwhile, shell-shocked Democrats, having forgotten the ruthlessness by which the war party acquired the property at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last year, were astounded that the Bush administration would lay claim to far-reaching emergency powers immediately after the passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act. And after all the goodwill they had shown during its “debate”!
Those powers, as most people by now know, include the president’s establishment of secret military tribunals and the attorney general’s self-declared power to bug lawyer-client conversations. (Imagine the pundit outcry and the investigations that would have been triggered had Bill Clinton proposed these measures, even after a cataclysm like September 11.) For their part, Bush and Ashcroft have looked almost human as their perplexed faces betray genuine shock that anyone would oppose their attempts to reinvent the republic as a police state. “But we’re at war,” they petulantly repeat, in the same manner the Bush camp shouted down attempts to conduct a recount of the Florida presidential vote with the whiny mantra “But we won.”
What’s not so comic is the tendency of Ashcroft and other Republicans to question the patriotism of opponents of the new surveillance culture that they are fast-tracking, whether these opponents appear behind congressional microphones or on the nation’s op-ed pages. Last week Ashcroft icily informed the Senate’s Judiciary Committee that anyone even questioning the administration is, in truth, aiding the enemy. His comment should have sent the neck hairs of his listeners standing on end, echoing as it does the logic of “objective truth” proclaimed by Joseph Stalin and enforced by the Comintern during the early 1930s. A Marxist way of saying you’re either with us or against us, the concept of objective truth argued that if you did not agree with every Moscow position toward Hitler and Franco, then you were objectively a fascist, regardless of your ideological affiliation.
As the Bush administration goes door to door hunting down phantom enemies at home and abroad, our proxy army is entering the caves of Tora Bora, the al Qaeda tunnel complex that has now become as mythic as those “caverns measureless to man” in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” If it remains to be seen whether they will find the authors of September 11 at the end of those caves, it is even less certain that we will ever see a light at the end of the hole Bush and Ashcroft are drilling into the Bill of Rights.
Since the end of November, Angelenos driving north on the Hollywood Freeway have confronted the ultimate marketing imperative. Just past the Melrose Avenue exit, a Kenneth Cole billboard bears the legend “God Dress America.” If the slogan sounds, well, a little opportunistic, consider the healing sentiments behind it.
“Kenneth is saying Americans have to get on with living, that they need to get back to shopping,” says Meredith Wollins, Cole vice president of corporate communications. “Kenneth is always topically driven, and [the company] can be even more topical with our outdoor advertising.”
A sister billboard has been placed on Manhattan’s West Side Highway, which runs past the site of the wrecked World Trade Center towers. Was there any apprehension that the slogan might be taken the wrong way?
“Absolutely,” Wollins says, “but that’s Kenneth’s style. He writes all the ads himself.”
“There’s a certain amount of material that will set off an airport scanner. A hoop in the eyebrow won’t do it. You’d have to have a piece of jewelry made from surgical steel in the shape of a gun to do that.” (Hollywood body piercer)
“When a case gets big and requires extra staff, a law firm will contact us. I get paid by the number of people I place with these firms, and I’ve watched my income go from way upper-middle-class to uh-oh scary. People went like deer in the headlights after September and have stopped using us — our business is not ‘human-need oriented.’ We’re hoping that by the end of the year people will realize that America hasn’t fallen into the sea. You can’t hold your breath forever or you’ll die.” (Kim Grant, legal-staffing consultant)
“Our fund-raising highlights? Oh, just the fact that we had three full tables of leather, fantasy fetish toys and videos. There was a feeding frenzy for videos — three-for-$10 videos, which is a really good deal for porn. We came off fairly well — we’ll split about $500 to $600 between the Firemen’s Widow Fund and Aid for AIDS. (John Clifton, owner of Piston’s, a Long Beach leather bar)
Tales of Two Cities
David Schweizer had a pretty good, if distant, view of September 11. Sitting in an L.A.-bound plane that was awaiting takeoff from Newark Airport, the Los Angeles stage and opera director could see black smoke rising from across the Hudson. “Some passengers were asking if it was coming from a factory, and I thought, Kids, that’s the World Trade Center! Then I saw the second plane hit. The stewardess announced that there had been this accident and we would be returning to the terminal.”
It was inside the airport that the awful scope of the disaster became known.
“I remember thinking, This is overkill! If I were directing this, I would think this is artificial. The Pentagon? Really, give me a break.”
Schweizer quickly found himself wandering New Jersey’s deserted roads until he was able to hitchhike to a hotel. A few days later he returned to lower Manhattan, where he and a friend share a loft six blocks from ground zero. He soon got a lesson in the differences between New Yorkers and Angelenos.
“New Yorkers tune themselves off of intense situations,” Schweizer says. “So when there’s a crisis, a kind of generous, tough love comes out. New Yorkers attain a kind of New Yorker identity in addition to their own personality, so they rose up in a fierce, defiant spirit after the attack. People in Los Angeles tend to retain the personality they came here with, and after September 11 were searching for what their part was and felt left out.”
Actor and performance artist John Fleck is another Angeleno who finds himself doing the bicoastal thing these days, and he, too, has found differences.
“I swear people are a little nicer here,” Fleck reports from the West Village. “They got the back of their seats kicked, and they almost seem sweeter — they’ll help you if you ask. I like that.”