Culture Clash

'86–'95: From Evangelicals to Trannies, the First Gulf War to Tupac Shakur

August 2, 1988

On April 30, 1985, the mother of four-year-old Kyle Lott, a preschooler at a parent-owned day-care cooperative in New Jersey, took him to his pediatrician to check a chicken pox-like rash. A nurse told Kyle she was going to take his temperature and put a thermometer in his rectum. Kyle lay quietly for about 30 seconds before saying, "That's what my teacher does to me at nap time at school." When the nurse asked him what he meant, Kyle answered, "Her takes my temperature." His teacher was 23-year-old Margaret Kelly Michaels.

Three months ago, Michaels, now 26, was convicted on 115 counts of sexual abuse against 20 three- to five-year-old children at the Wee Care preschool—the largest number of such charges any individual has been convicted of in the United States. According to the children, Michaels raped and assaulted them on a daily basis for seven months with forks, knives, spoons, twigs, and Lego blocks. They also described her licking peanut butter off their genitals, forcing them to eat and drink her feces and urine, playing the piano in the nude, making them undress and play sexual games, and terrorizing them into silence. All of this was said to have occurred at an exclusive preschool in Maplewood, New Jersey, a small suburban community less than 20 miles from New York City.

Michaels insists she is innocent, a victim of a flawed investigation that aped California's McMartin preschool case, where investigators reported that hundreds of children were sadistically abused by seven defendants in satanic rituals. The McMartin case, which surfaced in 1983, is still in court, but charges against five defendants were dropped after the Los Angeles D.A. called the evidence "incredibly weak." An assistant D.A. went further, saying that the leading, coercive questioning of the children made the case "a hoax." Dozens of similar cases have since developed nationwide against teachers, camp counselors, and "neighborhood sex rings." Typically, these ritual abuse cases rely on children's stories that often turn bizarre, with details about satanic ceremonies and barbecued babies. After studying 36 such cases, Tom Charlier and Shirley Downing of The Memphis Commercial Appeal, a Scripps-Howard newspaper, concluded there was no material evidence to support any of them.

Many researchers now believe these cases are based on "urban myths" about devil-worshipping conspiracies.


Failure in the Desert: Blood and Neon

Tyson, Smith, Las Vegas, and Boxing
By Joyce Carol Oates

March 24, 1987

LAS VEGAS, NEVADAIn a ring still stained with blood from the heavyweight fight that preceded it, Mike Tyson, at 20 the youngest heavyweight titleholder in boxing history, brings the fight for unification of the title to James "Bonecrusher" Smith, an aging athlete at 33, and the only heavyweight titleholder in boxing history to have graduated from college. Smith will have none of it. Minute follows minute, round follows grinding round, as Tyson tries to get inside to throw the rapid-fire combinations for which he is famous, and Smith clinches, backs away, walks away, clinches again, hugging his frustrated and increasingly infuriated opponent like a drowning man hugging something—anything—that floats. For the most part Smith's expression is blank, with the blankness of fear, a stark unmitigated fear without shame, yet shameful to witness. The referee, Mills Lane, exasperated, penalizes Smith by deducting points from him after rounds two and eight. ("I could've deducted a point from him after each round," Lane said afterward, "but you don't like to do that in a title fight.") "Fight!" the crowd shouts vainly. "Do something!"


John Cage: No Shortcuts

By Kyle Gann

May 10, 1988

A critic devoted to the work of John Cage faces an inherent conflict. No composer has a soft spot in his heart for critics, but the premises of Cage's music seem, at times, to render analysis impossible. In an early interview, Cage said, "I find myself more and more questioning the professional function of the critic." His stated aim in all his activities is to free himself, the listener, and the reader from likes and dislikes; he refuses to harbor preferences. An incredulous critic once pressed him to admit he'd choose a fresh banana over a rotten one. At 16, I was so enwrapped in Cage's ideas that I began to feel guilty listening to records when I could be outside listening to traffic.

The conflict is not only the critic's but Cage's. Cage himself began as a critic—in 1941 and '42 he covered the Chicago new music scene for the journal Modern Music—and in many respects he's never quit being one. Not always capable of Cage's bodhisattva- like detachment, I've taken a perverse pleasure in keeping track of the things he doesn't like: vibraphones, dominant seventh chords, and radios, for example, which he's incorporated into his music in an effort to accept them. Other judgments are more permanent. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have "bad orchestras," the first "a group of gangsters." Always conscious of the social metaphor in music, Cage objects to jazz for enslaving one player to the beat while freeing another from it. Haydn cadences too often. Improvisers (this is also Boulez's and the general avant-garde criticism) invariably fall back on taste, habit, and "favorite licks." . . .

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