October 28, 2003: “The dismal direction of American history…”

One recent visit with Cuba’s kindergarten teacher, Karen Derusha, reawakened both my fear and my loathing of the dismal direction of American history as represented and presumably directed by, as Robert Stone opined in a recent conversation, a bunch of "truimphalist babbits." The stench of disingenuous posturing, as exhibited by George Bush’s claims to aspiring to being the Education President, has lifted from many places—but not from my memory. It also brought to mind that one but needs a few prompts from the real world to gain a sense of the disconnection of a great many members of our ruling and mandarin classes. For example, images of flag-draped caskets of dead GI from the Iraq adventure being off-loaded are upsetting Americans. Solution, discontinue media coverage. The long list of complaints and concerns I have about American civilization are not what I want to spend my time airing out at this particular moment, but as intellectually arrogant as I think this claim is, I feel pretty certain that the men and women who have finagled their way into the offices of governance and power will not be judged well by history.

There is much I admire in Susan Sontag’s acceptance speech for the prestigious German Friedenspreis peace prize, which appears to have been willfully ignored by America’s press (Jennifer Lopez and Liza Minnelli appear to be more worthy of attention). Here’s some choice Sontag:

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his "favorite philosopher," the well-received answer — one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party in any European country a laughing stock — was "Jesus Christ." But, of course, Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would feel bound to any of the precepts or social programs actually expounded by Jesus.

And then there is Lt. General William G Boykin. Here’s a sample of this military intelligence leader’s point–of–view from his October press conference:

MS.THOMAS: Thank you, Mister Lt. General. You have repeatedly been quoted telling church audiences that your mission is "a battle with Satan," and that "we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian … and the enemy is a guy named Satan." How do you respond to charges that these remarks are not only divisive, but also serve to inflame and propagate religious hatred?

LT. GENERAL BOYKIN: How do I respond? War is hatred, cup of pudding. I mean no ill will to these Islamian cockroaches. I say, they have the freedom to worship whatever idols they wish to worship. No matter how false or ridiculous. They also have a right to instantaneously disintegrate before my archangel’s blade. I do not spread… religious hatred. I spread religious purity. Like boiling water. Kills the impurities. Clean water. Water to wash your hands in. Sanctify your hands, your holy hands. Yes. Clean. Jesus washed the feet of whores. My feet are clean. Where I walk, my footprints pool with the blood of the enemy. Muslims are Christians who don’t know that until I send them to hell.

Okay, okay but not so far from the real thing.

Anyway, leftist running dog and journalist Tina Brown’s new love object, Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria, has a worthwhile suggestion, "President Bush’s commission on public diplomacy recently noted that in nine Muslim and Arab nations only 12 percent of respondents surveyed believed that ‘Americans respect Arab/Islamic values.’ Such attitudes, the commission argued, create a toxic atmosphere of anti-Americanism that cripples U.S. foreign policy and helps terrorists. To address the problem the commission suggested a major reorganization of the American government, hundreds of millions of dollars of funding and the creation of a new cabinet position. I have a simpler, more urgent suggestion: fire William Boykin."

Another reminder of the blessings of religion came in the form of Christopher Hitchens’ reiteration of his case against Mother Theresa upon her recent beatification. Hitchens has written a deft monograph on the new saint, The Missionary Position (part of his great trilogy of character vivisections—the other two personages being Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton). Hitchens, by the way, was called to testify by the Vatican, "As it happens, I myself was interviewed by them but only in the most perfunctory way. The procedure still does demand a show of consultation with doubters, and a show of consultation was what, in this case, it got."

Here’s some primo Hitchens:

This returns us to the medieval corruption of the church, which sold indulgences to the rich while preaching hellfire and continence to the poor. MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?

Wil Haygood, who wrote a masterful biography of Adam Clayton Powell, has just had his In Black And White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. biography published. I was intending to read it anyway with the expectation it will fall into the Nick Tosches and David Hadju approach to biography. In the mean time, Frank Rich was incisively amusing with his revisionist take on the Rat Pack and quotes Haygood usefully:

For Republicans with long memories, the party’s new affection for Rat Pack naughtiness must feel like coming home. Though Sinatra and his pals were known for their liberal Democratic politics in the early 60’s, they moved to the right once the 60’s rock culture shoved them to the show business sidelines. By 1972, Sammy Davis was hugging Richard Nixon at the Republican convention in Miami Beach; two years earlier, Sinatra had stumped for Reagan’s re-election in California. It was also then, Wil Haygood reports in his sparkling new Davis biography, "In Black and White," that the party’s "unofficial envoys to Hollywood were Donald Rumsfeld, an aide to Nixon, and his wife, Joyce." In Mr. Haygood’s account, we learn that the Rumsfelds hung out with Sammy at the pool in Vegas and even obtained an audience with an apparently pill-popping Elvis. To this day, we can see the Sinatra influence in our secretary of defense’s hair-trigger temper, though he has a way to go to emulate Sammy’s sartorial flair.

When I saw the photo of Floridian Jews on Harleys in his Jews/America/A Representation, I was convinced of Frederic Brenner’s great talent and vision. His newest grand opus Diaspora —years in the making—is an artistic/photographic tour de force. He spent a quarter of a century and traveled to forty countries working on this project. This is almost unimaginable to me, this kind of focus and dedication over so many years. Wow!

Edward Jones has recently been nominated for the National Book Awards for his first novel, The Known World, which by one reckoning has taken him eleven years, is as compelling a book as I have read. One of my favorite passages occurs near the end of the story:

When Augustus Townsend died in Georgia near the Florida line, he rose above the barn where he had died, up above the trees and the crumbling smokehouse and the little family house nearby and he walked away quick like toward Virginia. He discovered that when people were above it all they walked faster, as much as a hundred times faster than when they were confined to the earth and so he reached Virginia in little or no time. He came to the house he had built for his family, for Mildred his wife and Henry his son, and he opened and went through the door. He thought she might be at the kitchen table, unable to sleep and drinking something to ease here mind. But he did not find his wife there. Augustus went upstairs and found Mildred sleeping in their bed. He looked at her for a long time. Certainly as long as it would have taken him, walking up above it all, to walk to Canada and beyond. Then he went to bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.

The kiss went through the breast, through the skin and bone and came to the cage that protected the heart. Now the kiss, like so many kisses, had all manner of keys, but it, like so many kisses was forgetful, and it could not find the right key to the cage. So in the end, frustrated, desperate, the kiss squeezed through the bars and kissed Mildred’s heart. She woke immediately and knew her husband was gone forever. All breath went and she was seized with such a pain that she had to come to her feet. But the rooms and the house were not big enough to contain her pain and she stumbled out of the room, out and down the stairs, out through the door that Augustus as usual had left open. The dog watched her from the hearth. Only in the yard could she breathe again. And the breath brought tears. She fell to her knees, out in the open yard, in her nightclothes, something Augustus would not have approved of. Augustus dies on Wednesday.

Maybe he’ll win the National Book Award he is nominated for. In any case I look forward to talking with Jones.

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