April 26, 1998
Be outrageous; defend the indefensible; try to convince me that fat-free tastes as good as the real thing. At first I’m a regular Sally Jesse Raphael -- sans the satellite dish glasses. I’ll listen, really listen, withhold judgment, and try to see your point of view. But just when I’m ready to say, “I understand,” my Mother Superior side has a habit of kicking in. Instead of patting you on the head, I’ll want to smack your knuckles with a thick brown wooden ruler and say, “Cut that out.”
Gender issues aside, none of this worries me. In these loopy times, when the word “inexcusable” has become archaic, a split personality is the best defense.
So it was with initial curiosity and wonder that I took a look at Tony Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” and Donald McCaig’s “Jacob’s Ladder” (both reviewed today). Though Horwitz’s book is a work of contemporary journalism and McCaig’s book is a historical novel, both hinge on efforts to find what was noble, admirable and courageous about the Confederate soldiers who shed their blood to insure that millions of innocent men, women and children would remain in bondage.
Whoops, there’s Mother Superior talking -- pipe down, sister; you’ll get your chance.
Ahem. “Jacob’s Ladder” is McCaig’s epic tale of the interlocked lives of slaves and slave owners whose lives are forever changed by the Civil War. In a recent phone interview, McCaig told me that as a “Northern liberal” -- he’d been an ad man in New York before moving to Virginia 25 years ago -- he had to clear a big moral hump before he could write the empathetic portrayal of Confederate soldiers that lies at his book’s center. They seemed unfathomable to him: horrible and evil. “I must have spent two years on false starts with this book,” he explained. “Then, one day I was at a ‘deer-beer party’ down by the river near my home. Willie Nelson was blaring out of some pickup truck speaker, and I looked around at all my neighbors and I thought, if this were 1861, I’d be going to war with them.”
Reminding me of Hannah Arendt’s classic work on Nazi Germany, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (1964), McCaig continued: “What I learned as I researched my book was that a good many honorable and decent men and women in the South were slave owners. Slavery was a great sin, a great wickedness, but they weren’t any different from you or me -- how could they be? They didn’t wear the mark of Cain on their arm. They were, for the most part, decent people doing the best they could in a tragically flawed system.”
Horwitz underwent a similar conversion while writing “Confederates in the Attic,” which depicts the black and white world of modern-day men who spend their days dressed in blue and gray (mostly gray). For these Civil War reenactors, the Lost Cause is not a blood-soaked crucible. Instead, it is a nostalgic portal, Horwitz writes, to “a time when the South seemed a cohesive region upholding Christian values and agrarian ways...[when] larger-than-life men like Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest” walked the earth. It is a balm that blows them back to a simpler era when people knew who they were and what they were. As Horwitz criss-crossed the South, he met strange birds who soak their uniform buttons in urine to give them that real old-time look, starve themselves to achieve that gaunt appearance that was all the rage at Andersonville and one Lon Chaney-type who can make himself look bloated and sallow like an authentic corpse on an ersatz field of battle.
We might dismiss these men as historically impaired yahoos as long as we include Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, among their ranks. For, as his book marches on, the lines fade between the writer and subject as he gradually cottons to the reenactors’ illusory certainties: “It restored my appreciation,” Horwitz writes, “of simple things: cold water, a crust of bread, a cool patch of shade.”
What do these two books tell us? It is that too much understanding, like too little knowledge, can be a dangerous thing. Undoubtedly, it is useful to acknowledge that slavery’s defenders were not anomalies of evil and that their modern-day doppelgangers are simply pathetic. But we must also heed Mother Superior’s warning: Do not allow that empathy to obscure your moral vision. People may display nobility and courage in the name of evil. Others may derive comfort from that cause. But, the failure to understand the evil that lay at the heart of the Confederacy is inexcusable.
Bridging the gap between words & deeds
September 20, 1998
From soft-core in prime time to triple-X in the Oval Office, from the deification of the Dow Jones to the inexorable dumbing-down of culture, it’s hard not to look around modern America and think: Ugh.
In this era of low expectations, when people assume the worst and get even less, it seems the only viable response to our condition is a feckless, ironic shrug that says, “Wake up, smell the Starbucks and go back to sleep.”
Then along comes somebody like Curtis White to give us a kick in the cortex. A writer from Normal, Ill., White thinks that through books -- yes, books! -- we can still muster a little informed resistance.
“Contemporary fiction is a literature of great promise, productivity, and possibility,” he writes in his new collection of essays, “Monstrous Possibility: An Invitation to Literary Politics” (Dalkey Archive, $12.50, paper, 118 pages). “It is a literature of monstrous possibility.”
But White -- who has written five previous books, including the experimental new novel, “Memories of My Father Watching TV” (Dalkey Archive) -- is no Pollyanna. An inexorable radical -- someone who would find something to criticize even in his own Utopia -- White believes that modern literature and art have rendered themselves largely irrelevant as forces of social betterment and change.
New York and commercial presses, he writes, are now largely subsidiaries of multi-national conglomerates that serve their masters by churning out safely diverting books that confirm rather than challenge the way things are.
Likewise, “literary academia is wed to the status quo, [and] has little desire to understand what political power it might claim for itself.” The paradox is that as “radical thinking has prospered and deepened” on Amer- ican campuses, “radical activity has not.”
How can we bridge the gap between words and deeds so we can mine fiction’s monstrous possibilities?
White, justifiably, has little, make that no, hope that mainstream publishers will miraculously get religion. Instead he focuses on the forces preventing the cultural Left -- an umbrella term covering radical/experimental/alternative thinkers and writers -- from becoming agents of healthy subversion. The bottom line: Literature has withered as a political force because it has become overpoliticized.
Through a witty and erudite survey of contemporary thought (his discussions of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard render those high priests of the obscure nearly penetrable), he suggests that in its headlong effort to deconstruct, debunk and ultimately defenestrate traditional culture, the Left has thrown the kitty out with the litter.
The root of the problem, he suggests, is the notion that there is no Reality, but only interpretations of reality. Through this mindset, there are no timeless verities; every book, every idea, is simply an assertion of power, usually by the folks in charge. So fluid an environment creates a sticky landscape: “If there is no Real for revolution to return us to, no ‘true sex’ (to use Michel Foucault’s famous example) for a sexual revolution to revive, then what informs resistance to what we have?” We know what we’re fleeing, but where are we going?
A result of this thinking has been the rise of identity politics, which has led to the “superimposition of the political on the aesthetic.” Thus “art about AIDS or racism or corporate hegemony or patriarchy,” White writes, “has a de facto relevance, importance and justification quite apart from whether or not there is any artistic ‘value’ (let’s call it) involved. ... Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are saying that art is irrelevant.”
What is to be done?
Quoting Ezra Pound -- “it’s easy to go to extremes, hard to stand firm in the middle”-- White suggests that even as they pound away at the status quo, writers must recognize that mainstream culture has its merits. “People are not miserable or painful to look upon who: listen to Beethoven’s late string quartets; read Henry James; visit the Whitney ... . This is not a description of a hollow, superficial life ... . Let the truth be told: the yuppies are right! Balsamic vinegar tastes great.”
White’s solution, then, is to work both sides of the street. He is a confirmed debunker, rejecting the idea that literature is a “great tradition” of “classic works” by “men of genius,” understanding it, instead, as a place where the dominant culture “perniciously administers notions of value and desire.” And yet, “literature is also one of the places where administered value has been most purposefully contested.”
As we look askance at our world gone awry, what White reminds us is that literature -- at its confrontational, unbounded and arty best -- remains the most liberating way we have to reckon with and to remake the world. By reinvigorating literature, we can revitalize our sense of possibility.
Only an empty memory?
September 27, 1998
The second greatest crime of the 20th century is the way we remember the Holocaust, how we have turned an apotheosis of human degradation into a feel-good cause for optimism.
Every year millions of people visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, donning its gift shop buttons that promise “Remember” and “Never Again,” while touring the place President Clinton called “an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.”
And yet, as the New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch reminds us in his powerful new book, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With All Our Families” (FSG, $25, 356 pages), a year after the museum was opened in 1993, the United States and the rest of the world stood by as Rwanda’s Hutus perpetrated a genocidal war upon the nation’s minority ethnic group, the Tutsis.
The slaughter erupted on April 6, 1994, when the African nation’s president, a Hutu, was assassinated -- probably, Gourevitch writes, by extremists in his own entourage.
Under the rallying cry, “Do your work,” the Hutus murdered 75 percent of Rwanda’s Tutsis within a month. “Take the best estimate: eight hundred thousand killed in a hundred days,” Gourevitch writes. “That’s three hundred thirty-three and a third murders an hour -- or five and a half lives terminated every minute. Consider also that most of these killings actually occurred in the first three or four weeks, and add to the death toll the uncounted legions who were maimed but did not die of their wounds, and the systematic and serial rape of Tutsi women.”
Most fell from the blows of spiked machetes. But, as a survivor told Gourevitch, “ ‘One hopes not to die cruelly. Not death by machete, one hopes, but with a bullet. If you were willing to pay for it, you could often ask for a bullet.’ ”
Though Daniel Goldhagen’s book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (1996) stirred angry debate with his thesis that most Germans were complicit in the Holocaust, there is no dispute that the vast majority of Rwandan Hutus were directly involved in the slaughter. “These dead and their killers had been neighbors, schoolmates, colleagues, sometimes friends, even in-laws. ... Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients, and schoolteachers killed their pupils.”
Gourevitch traces the genocide to the racial caste system enforced by Germany and then Belgium when those countries held Rwanda as a colony. They anointed the minority Tutsis -- whose features they considered “nobler” and more “aristocratic” than the “bestial” Hutus -- as their puppet leaders. When independence came in 1961, the Hutus took control. In this poor and corrupt land, they perversely used violence against the Tutsis -- in 1959, ’61, ’63 and so on through ’94 -- to forge a fragile and fleeting unity that could only be maintained by another round of terror. “Killing Tutsis was a political tradition in postcolonial Rwanda; it brought people together.”
Though the causes of genocide are specific to Rwanda’s history, the world’s reaction, we might hope, would have echoed the universal pledges, “Remember,” and “Never Again.” Heartbreakingly, Gourevitch reports, the United Nations commander in Rwanda said he could stop the bloodshed with “5,000 well-equipped soldiers and a free hand.” Instead, he got the cold shoulder. “The desertion of Rwanda by the UN force,” Gourevitch writes, “... can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States,” which was wary of UN peacekeeping missions after suffering televised casualties in Somalia.
Meanwhile, the pro-Hutu French forces who were dispatched “supported and preserved the same local political leaders who had presided over the genocide ... permit[ting] the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month.”
Indignation is the natural -- and necessary -- reaction to Gourevitch’s book; to abandon our revulsion is to abandon hope. And yet, the false comfort our emotion provides should not blind us to the darker truths that Rwanda (and Cambodia and Bosnia) reveal about how we have actually responded to genocide since the Holocaust.
I can think of no better distillation of this wrenching abyss between our empty resolve and deadly inaction than the two quotes from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi which Gourevitch uses as epigraphs.
In 1958, Levi wrote: “If there is one thing sure in this world, it is certainly this: that it will not happen to us a second time.”
But by 1986 Levi had realized: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”
What Gourevitch -- and Rwanda -- show us is that memory only has meaning as a prelude to action.
Psst, I’ve got a secret
October 4, 1998
Psst. Come here. Closer. I want to tell you something. It’s personal and rather embarrassing. Something my dearest friends only suspect. So be warned, it might make you a little uncomfortable.
You’re still reading, aren’t you? Of course, you are. Who could resist?
Here it is: I love gossip. Who’s doing what to whom. I can’t get enough of it. Tell me a really juicy bit and I might tell you I want a bar of soap, but what I’m really hoping is you’ll spill some more. Dish, poop and inside scoop are like Lays potato chips to me.
My revelation may seem a tad tame, obscenely obvious, but nowadays it is deliciously taboo. We are a nation of Geraldo Riveras who want everyone to believe we are Edward R. Murrows. We tell pollsters our top concerns are health care, social security and campaign finance reform, but let the networks move from INVESTIGATING THE CRISIS to those more high-minded topics, and we reach for the remote. And, what would the newspapers do without editorial, op-ed and book pages, which allow them to condemn the salacious, invasive material they print in their news sections?
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m part of the crowd that has shot “The Starr Report” onto the bestseller list. And civic virtue had nothing to do with it. I bought it because of ... do I really have to tell you: The most intimate secrets of the world’s most powerful man, the story Bill Clinton tried to hide from the world for eight months. A favorite scene: Clinton told Lewinsky that “he suspected a foreign embassy (he did not specify which one) was tapping his telephones, and he proposed cover stories. If ever questioned, she should say that the two of them were just friends. If anyone ever asked about their phone sex, she should say that they knew their calls were being monitored all along, and the phone sex was just a put-on.”
That is a bit much, isn’t it? I, mean, he is the president. Had enough? But don’t you want to know which famous writer eats frozen peas for breakfast?
That would be J.D. Salinger, of course. If Joyce Maynard is to be believed in her book about the year-long affair she had with the reclusive writer a quarter-century ago, “At Home in the World” (Picador), Salinger also hates doctors, encouraged Maynard’s bulimia and recited dialogue verbatim from “The Andy Griffith Show”!
But wait, there’s more:
In “Here but Not Here” (Random House), Lillian Ross reveals the secret she and the late New Yorker editor William Shawn shared for 40 years: They were lovers. (The fusty Shawn liked rich food, fast cars and was a spirited lover!)
Paul Theroux portrays his mentor, V.S. Naipaul, as a bigoted, disloyal genius in his new work, “Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents” (Houghton Mifflin). Imagine!!!
Although those tawdry tales have a little extra zip because of the star power involved, plenty of complete strangers are eager to reveal their most intimate details -- God bless ’em.
Dani Shapiro tells us how she prostituted herself out to an older man in “Slow Motion” (Random House); Laura Slater reveals how she had to trade her sex drive for her sanity in “Prozac Diary” (Random House); and Catherine Texier lets her two children and the rest of us see what a creep her adulterous husband was -- and how remarkable he was in bed -- in her memoir “Breakup: The End of A Love Story” (Doubleday).
Like a Peeping Tom who has moved next door to a nudist colony, I have only one regret: so much revelation, so little time.
Of course, I know that there’s no such thing as a free double latte. To invade everyone else’s privacy, I have to surrender my own. I must accept that my employers can peruse my e-mail and tap into my voice mail; that bank, mall, workplace (etc.) video cameras surveil my every move; Internet companies track me on the Web; the magazines I love sell my name and address to people and causes I despise; credit compa-nies I’ve never heard of hold thick dossiers on me; my supermarket records every one of my purchases -- what do they make of the fact that I crave diet soda as much as coffee almond ice cream with chocolate syrup?
Slap a bar code on me, and let’s just get it over with.
Sometimes I wonder, is it all worth it? The poop on them for the scoop on me?
But then, what can I do about it? And besides, who can resist?
The wages of sin is fame
November 1, 1998
I confess. At times I’ve been “a punk,” a “jerk” and a tad “arrogant,” but I don’t think I’m “illiterate” -- judge for yourself -- and I am decidedly not a “hermaphrodite” (you’ll have to trust me on that).
Those are just some of the epithets the shock jock Don Imus hurled at me recently during his morning radio show. For almost an hour he blustered and raged against yours truly in response to my somewhat critical column on his Imus American Book Awards.
The funny thing is that my friends and colleagues -- even my own mother, for goodness’s sake -- viewed this nationally broadcast abuse as a cause for celebration. People slapped my back, shook my hand, rang my line and flooded my e-mail to offer heartfelt congratulations. You see, I had been noticed by someone with real power -- STAR POWER -- and in modern America it doesn’t get any better than that. Whether the neon light bestows insult or praise, it doesn’t matter. That’s J. Peder Zane. Thanks, I-Man.
But as the day wore on, I wondered: What sent Imus into such a tizzy? What angered him so much that he spoke of pistol-whipping me? Ouch!
On the whole, my column had been affirming. Commending Imus’ plan to create America’s richest literary prize -- which will award $250,000 to four authors this December -- I wrote, “At a time when only a handful of authors can make a living off their writing and when midlist authors are going the way of the dodo bird, this infusion of cash is heaven-sent.”
What got Imus’ goat was this brief description: “Filtering world and personal news through the smeared lens of locker-room humor that relies on racial, ethnic and sexual stereotypes, Imus has earned infamy and fortune. Having made his millions by being puerilely offensive ... Imus now wants to purchase himself a little dignity, using his lowbrow perch to become a tastemaker of American letters.”
You’d think that little dig would be tame stuff to the I-Man, who makes his living calling people “morons,” “scumbags” -- and yes, even “hermaphrodites” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But, as I thought about it, a useful distinction began to emerge, the line between honesty and truth. Much of Imus’ appeal is that he seems fearless sitting behind his microphone, ensconced in that glass booth in his faraway studio. He’s willing to blast everyone from Bill Clinton to delivery men whenever he sees fit. Callow and rude, he is a vent for the grand injustices and petty irritations we all suffer from time to time but are too afraid, too unwilling or too well-adjusted to voice.
In short, he seems to his millions of listeners like an honest man -- just as Howard Stern, G. Gordon Liddy and other muck mongers seem to their followers. But passion is not thoughtfulness. Anger is not insight. Name calling is a mode of attack, not explanation. While honesty is the expression of how we feel at any given moment, truth can only be arrived at by exploring those feelings and seeing if they can withstand the scrutiny of reason. Imus is honest, but rarely truthful.
I riled Imus because I wouldn’t play his game. I didn’t try to denounce, but to explain some aspect of him. If I hadn’t hit my mark -- hadn’t pinpointed the nagging insecurity that he tries to conceal behind his bluster and good works -- he wouldn’t have reacted so violently.
Since Imus has told me I was on the right track, let’s peel another layer of the onion’s skin. Like so many people who believe they must compromise their better sides to get ahead, a part of Imus is ashamed about how he makes his living.
Some part of him senses that he is Better Than That. And yet, despite his great success and fat bank book, he doesn’t have the courage to walk away from it, to transform a program built on put-downs into something edifying.
At heart, I must admit that I know exactly where he is coming from. As he pilloried me, I wasn’t so much offended as thrilled. Hearing my name spewed across the airwaves conjured small fantasies of ambition. Maybe he’ll ask me to be on his program. Maybe I should call him. And so on. My distaste had evaporated. I was momentarily willing to sell out even before an offer was made.
The truth is that as American society continues to coarsen and entertainers such as Don Imus exert ever more influence on our cultural life, we will increasingly wrestle with that difficult question: Will we fall prey to the lure of celebrity, or are we better than that?Related Articles
1999 winners of the ASNE Writing Awards announced