“A scraping sound,” H. M. Enzensberger describes as the beginning of the end in his famous poem. The iceberg tore a jagged opening across the Titanic‘s hull, like the trail of a can opener. Not a very long or gaping breach, but just enough to ship tons of water into the engine room. As everybody knows, the biggest casualties were among the steerage passengers, huddled below decks with their bales of belongings, their infant children, and their identity papers.
Prevailing codes of civility required that women and children be placed in the lifeboats before the adult men. There are never enough lifeboats to go around; John Jacob Astor went down with the ship, along with several other bridge-playing gentlemen on A Deck. Like Enzensberger, and you, I have eidetic images of this event, jumbled with memories of Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb in A Night To Remember. There was that one cowardly millionaire in drag whose pant cuffs betrayed him in a Collapsible B as it floated away from the blazing lights of the Titanic. This individual was, I feel certain, the prototype of a kind of social criminal that flourished in America under Ronald Reagan, who had himself portrayed many spineless, good-fornothing playboys in films of the 1940s.
We spent a lot of time in the 1980s looking at TV and newspaper pictures of these arrestingly unenigmatic men. Rat-faced Elliott Abrams, lying through his teeth about Nicaragua on the 6:30 news. Grinning sociopath Oliver North, in full battle drag for the CNN cameras, exposing the Mafia in the White House basement while falling on his sword. Charles Keating, the Alvaric of Lincoln Savings, Dr. Mabuse hair in dire need of a rinse. The faces never stopped. Ivan Boesky. Michael Milken, Frank Lorenzo. Whenever one of these hapless but stubbornly unrepentant glove puppets was thrown to the wolves, another was sighted in the middle distance, snapping the reins of Dracula’s carriage. The dogs bark, as Truman Capote noted in a different context, but the caravan moves on.
Where did they come from? It seemed that they had always been there, in one guise or another, pilot fish attached near the gills of much heavier marine life, siphoning blood through strata of flesh and fat. Their social betters, born to rule, had swum through Phillips Andover and Yale, sometimes Choate and Princeton, though the Glove-Puppet-in-Chief, a petit bourgeois and adult child of an alcoholic, attended a farm college. (His Eve Harrington made Skull and Bones.) In a quieter if not more gracious time, the smaller fish would have been dashing parasites in the middle reaches of municipal banks and government agencies, brooding for years before skipping to Antigua with a bimbo and the monthly payroll. Or fourth-string advisers in Third World consulates, quietly going to seed while waiting for an Evelyn Waugh to become their Boswell.
The ’80s “empowered” such people, puffer fish from the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution who inflated every 24 hours on Nightline, icky crustaceans like Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Allan Bloom, and Mary Matalin, weird leftover mollusks like Evans and Novak, Podhoretz and Deeter, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Cap Weinberger. For the millions of outsiders whose noses were pressed to the aquarium glass, the most colorful and scary fish were the bottom-feeders. These creatures of the cold depths ranged all across the floor of the cultural cesspool, iridescent, luminescent, compellingly stupid. Their visibility in the tank sufficed to divert attention from the increasingly cannibalistic escapades of the larger fish. Randall Terry, Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer, Richard Viguerie, Henry Kravis, Peggy Noonan, Al D’Amato: just a few of the lower phyla swirling among the grasses and weeds, aquatic ruminants emitting neurotoxins while nourishing themselves on fish droppings.
I remember that in 1981 we were worried about a war.
We were children of the ’50s who had cowered under desks during air raid drills, and some of us had had, through most of our lives, recurring nightmares about the hydrogen bomb. Then came Nixon and détente, and Ford, who really seemed harmless, and “the little Carter,” a man who grew peanuts for a living and clearly had no interest in blowing up the planet. At the tail end of 1979, though, all hell broke loose. The Shah was flown out of Iran, and some pious American imperative to add insult to injury caused us to bring him here. The American embassy in Tehran was seized. China resumed border skirmishes with Vietnam, which had invaded Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge, and the Soviet Union, being an ally of Vietnam and having already invaded Afghanistan, seemed poised to invade China. Nineteen eighty turned out to be a very nervous year, and at the end of it Ronald Reagan became president.
Ronald Reagan became president, and as he was sworn in the hostages were set free, and you did not need a congressional investigation to figure out that some type of mickey mouse had occurred, some deal brokered by the dark forces that had steered Reagan through his years of selling out the Screen Actors Guild to HUAC, his stump speeches for GE, his Death Valley days, his gubernatorial terms in California. They were, it went without saying, the campfire guys from Bohemian Grove.
In the depths of the fait accompli, many of us lost all interest in politics. Some were turning into cocaine, others into heroin. Perhaps you, reading this, will say that you personally were trampling through the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, and if so, good for you, but I wasn’t.
I was interested in Mrs. Harris, who had shot the diet doctor. I was interested in Mark David Chapman, who had shot John Lennon. I was not especially interested in John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan that March, partly because he missed, and the assassination attempt somehow made Reagan more plausible, a hologram taking on ectoplasm.
At her trial, Mrs. Harris would say that under the spell of Dr. Herman Tarnower she had felt like a character in “Somerset Maugham’s Magnificent Obsession.” When it was pointed out to her that Maugham was not the author of Magnificent Obsession, Mrs. Harris claimed that it had just seemed too painful to say Of Human Bondage. Mark David Chapman had a much-thumbed copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket as he waited in front of the Dakota for John and Yoko; like Holden Caulfield’s, his innocence had been violated by “phonies,” though Holden Caulfield never shot one. Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope that year, looked really, really cute in photographs. Another poor shot, though. One of the lessons of the 1960s was that only relatively useful people encounter competent assassins.
Martial law was declared in Poland. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. My friend Cookie Mueller, always in the vanguard, began watching MTV as soon as it came on the air.
Surrealism sifted down from the top, a sense of unreality spreading out into unexpectedly pliable parts of what had seemed solid, immutable. The new government, the new president, exhibited an implacable nuttiness, the kind of drollery that can’t be argued with. It would be like arguing with Lucy Ricardo. The Department of Agriculture announced that ketchup could be considered a nutritious vegetable in school lunches. The president wanted to cut more social services and pour billions into the military, to put an end to the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society type of programs. Hasta la vista the compassion thing, the affirmative action thing. He fired the air traffic controllers. He dissolved the board of the Legal Services Corporation on New Year’s Eve to keep block grants from going out to advocacy groups. He cited welfare princesses in Cadillacs. He recommended tax-exempt status for schools that practiced racial discrimination.
It became evident that the new president could not talk. Or rather he could, being an actor, talk if he were reading lines, but his spontaneous verbiage never coalesced into sentences or paragraphs or even into intelligible non sequiturs. I suppose if you had asked him about Barbie he would have confused Barbie the war criminal with Barbie the fashion doll. He could not, after all, remember whether he had helped liberate the death camps in Poland, or had merely narrated a documentary about them, The soft, chewy, evasive language that had been such a remarkably damning feature of the Nixon crew’s Watergate testimony had returned to the penthouse level of government with a vengeance. Everything was hindsight, everyone misspoke himself, the most unequivocal statements needed to be clarified the next day, turned inside out, rendered meaningless.
If you traveled a lot in those days, you were certain to notice this problem, this phenomenon of displaced persons, economic refugees, political refugees, people in flight, people from troubled Third World countries sweeping the streets of Germany and France, sweeping the streets and cleaning the sewers, and it was clear that the local people, the ones who had rallied around Hitler and Marshal Petain, no champions of the melting pot, were becoming restive. A certain Nietzschean ressentiment could be detected in the daily papers of Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Lyons.
There was Strauss in Bavaria, Le Pen in Marseilles, the National Front skinheads in Manchester and Liverpool and London. Something was taking its course, probably the incurable in human nature.
U.S. unemployment hit 10.8 per cent, though it was a boom year for the stock market. The war on drugs was announced, emphasis on interdiction and mandatory sentencing. And there was this new illness going around, something whispered about in gay bars, some people called it gay cancer and some people called it GRID, you had to look hard in the papers for it, because in 1982 gay people were decidedly not news, and the deaths of gay people, whether by homicide or disease, were welcomed, not at all quietly, by the people the new government coaxed out of the woodwork: Jesus freaks, white-collar criminals who would become Jesus freaks in countryclub prisons, military brass who wore Jesus on their lapels with their kooky decorations, abonion-clinic bombers with Jesus at their side, civil-rights opponents with a special relationship to Jesus, John Wayne.
I was spending a lot of time in Berlin. You did not hear much about the epidemic in Berlin. The disease was something people picked up in America. It was widely believed that only a certain type of person got it, a person who had too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex, or took too many drugs, or the wrong kind of drugs, and people would tell you this, sometimes, just before or just after having sex with you, or doing drugs, etc., etc.
In 1983, a lot of people who were making a lot of money decided that if they jumped up and down every day in a health club, they would never get cancer, heart disease, or old.
In 1983, several people I knew were carried off by AIDS-related pneumonia.
In 1983, traveling behind the dreaded Iron Curtain, I discovered Ronald Reagan’s true constituency: Central European intellectuals and professional types who were, for the most part, immersed in politics as an all-male, heterosexual club, an arena for jousting between randy cocksmen, some armed with state power, others clad in the drag of superior moral truth and historical victimhood. They despised feminism, and indeed any systemic critique of the status quo except the concepts of anticommunism or anticapitalism. In Budapest and Prague and East Berlin, only the Jews seemed aware that the CP had kept the lid on pogroms, ethnic warfare, border clashes, etc.
It was the would-be Kundera types, the Brodsky and Milosz wannabes who had been unlucky enough to stay behind, the ones who weren’t getting that foxy tight pussy in Paris and London and New York, the chauvinists who wrote elegant and powerful books about repression and who yet maintained a stubbornly repressive attitude toward women, homosexuals, and quite often people of other races and nationalities, who adored Ronald Reagan and his rhetorical willingness to go nuclear. The Soviet Union, they said, would only back down in the face of massive military confrontation, endless threats, endless displays of American force around the world.
At home, polling data revealed that throughout his presidency Reagan was not an especially popular chief of state, and that the political views of most people had shifted, if anything, further left. This didn’t translate at the ballot box because more and more people stayed away from ballot boxes, perceiving no practical advantage in endorsing one or another spokesperson for the superrich and the defense industry.
That year, Reagan announced his Star Wars vision. It had, it was said, come to him in a dream, screened through some vague memory of an army propaganda film he’d acted in during World War II: an ultrapowerful death ray, mounted on an ultrafuturistic multibillion-dollar orbiting space station full of special sensors and laser mirrors and stuff like that, could, with one press of a magic emergency button, zap intercontinental ballistic missiles in mid-flight and turn them into butterflies. No one believed this, really, but it was an enchanting fantasy, and Congress passed most of the money for it.
CDs hit the market for the first time.
The Cabbage Patch doll, with its cute computer-generated face, dominated the Christmas toy market. Two hundred and forty-one marines were blown to pieces in Lebanon by a kamikaze truck driver. Grenada, with its ominous stranglehold on the world’s nutmeg supply, was suddenly recognized as a threat to America’s national security. An invasion was launched, resulting in the bombing of a mental hospital and the capture of four or five Cuban engineers who were rolling an airfield for the Ministry of Tourism Eventually, 8612 medals for valor would be awarded for the Grenada microwar. Fewer than 7000 people had participated.
The playwright slept with me for a while and then he stopped sleeping with me, which was fine, except that I missed him, not all the time, but regularly at three 1n the morning, when I had often kissed him in my sleep, or in his sleep, or wrapped my legs around his waist, or rubbed his back. or his feet, and quite often he spoke 10 me in his sleep, he called me Swee1ie. But of course, looking back on i1, he may not have been talking to me at all.
There were wild men roaming the back hills of Idaho and Colorado, men with large, cultlike families, children with straight greasy hair who’d been yanked out of public schools to learn marksmanship at home, where a ten years’ supply of canned food was kept next to the AK-47s in the bomb shelter. They believed in skin color as the organizing principle of their particular mammal clan. They believed that Ronald Reagan might himself be a socialist, a tool of the Trilateral Commission. or a dupe of the Kremlin. Every so often, these people shot a policeman, or clubbed an Asian to death, causing the media spotlight to settle, briefly, not on their alarming numbers, but on the special features of their delusional system. These included the concept of survival as a full-time obsession, tax revolt as a revolutionary tool, and old-time patriarchy as the will of God. Which turned out to be not unlike the opinions aired on Crossfire, or printed in Commentary and The New Republic, except for the inside-the-beltway caveat that, of course, it was wrong to attack people, wrong to kill people one disagreed with, unless the vital economic interests of the country were at stake.
It must have been that winter that I fell, deeply and insensibly, in love with a junkie. I have always had a weak place for junkies, for semi-helpless people with Christ fixations, people who believe, usually for good reasons, that they are doomed. Beautiful losers, debutantes gone awry. He could’ve done the cover of GQ without much effort, but he wanted, I think, someone with extravagant will to scoop him up and save him, and this is where, perhaps, Mark David Chapman’s favorite novel and I have something in common. I tried, and after he sold the entire contents of my apartment on the street, I gave up.
At any given moment, you had an investigation or a set of hearings or a probe going on, often several at the same time, in the House or Senate or Justice Department or FBI, and along with these investigations, hearings, and probes, you got leaks, followed by denials, and eventually by confirmations, followed by subpoenas and indictments. A chestnut from the Nixon period — “how much did he know, and when did he know it?” — became the favorite, irrelevant question of the White House press corps.
Language as a medium for describing reality underwent deconstruction. “I don’t recall,” “I can’t remember,” “I have no recollection of that,” were considered acceptable euphemisms for “I’m not going to tell you.” If an embarrassing or litigable fact leaked, one could credibly claim to have been “out of the loop,” even if one happened to have been in the same room where the loop was.
The president was said to be a grandfatherly type, naturally charming, genial, who never became ruffied by anything. And it was said, later, by people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, that these ingratiating qualities, added to the fact that the press was always accused of excessive liberalism and therefore felt obliged to be more than fair, accounted for the media allowing him a free ride, never clocking his mistakes, never finding him accountable.
The principle of unaccountability was an important nuance. It signaled that the Captain really was just a Spokesperson, a comfortingly wrinkled ventriloquist’s doll. The unaccountability thing became the Washington drug of choice. When the White House chief of staff’s proximity to Iran-contra fell under scrutiny, he asked, with a note of pique, “Does a bank president know whether a bank teller is fiddling around with the books?”
It was the year of Miami Vice and Bhopal. Daniel Ortega won a free and fair election in Managua, an election heavily monitored by representatives of the previous U.S. government. The Reagan people immediately declared it null and void, and for years this election was treated by New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer and in most U.S. newspapers as if it had never occurred.
Even though I did a fair amount of cultural reporting in 1985, it’s hard to remember in any detail what was going on. Words like simulacra, Other with a capital O, appropriation, and infotainment were in high vogue. The art world had already seeped past its usual coterie boundaries when national magazines discovered the East Village Art Scene, causing a flood of suburban trust-fund bohemians and boutiques to inundate the neighborhood, displacing thousands of working-class stiffs. Now painters and sculptors and their newly decorated country homes were turning up in People, in Architectural Digest, and on Page Six, their parties and benefits and plans for world domination reported in gossip columns.
Real estate values were pushing through the roof. The Dow Jones average finished the year at 1546, an all-time high. Buying and owning were the art world things to do. Ditto the Wall Street thing to do. Buying, owning, getting married.
“We Are the World” went platinum.
General Dynamics was indicted for conspiracy to defraud the army. Years later, General Dynamics would opt to lay off thousands of employees rather than retool for civilian industry. Capital Cities Communications seized ABC. General Electric seized RCA, which controlled NBC. Laurence A. Tisch, owner of Lorillard tobacco, seized CBS.
A volcanic eruption in Colombia killed 23,000. An 8.1 earthquake in Mexico City killed 7000. Mob boss Paul Castellano was shot outside Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street. A hole in the ozone layer was reported by British scientists.
The president had cancer, or, as the Reaganese du jour had it, a little, noncancerous thing inside the president had some cancer in it. Namely his colon. A few months before the little thing inside the president had cancer, the president visited an SS cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. He declared that the soldiers of the SS were, in their way, victims, just like the Jews in Auschwitz. Because they were all, you know, kind of inside a little thing called World War II.
Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and it was felt that his death would bring the epidemic into focus for people who had so far ignored it. Rock Hudson had been, after all, a friend of the Reagans, beloved by millions, and, in private life, by all accounts, a sweet guy. But the focus settled a bit to the side of the larger issue: on Rock Hudson’s secret gay life, Rock Hudson’s ex-lover’s lawsuit, the actual size of Rock Hudson’s estate, and on whether or not Rock Hudson should have kissed Linda Evans on Dynasty. The lesson of Rock Hudson’s death became boilerplate for every celebrity AIDS death, i.e., “even a movie star can get AIDS,” as though it were widely assumed that fame immunized a person against physical misfortune.
The next year, we retaliated for the bombing of a disco in Germany by bombing Tripoli. In the absence of hard evidence that Libyans were actually involved in the German disco bombing, the State Department assured us, as did the president himself, that the ruler of Libya was a “mad dog,” similar to Hitler, and therefore crazy enough to lash out at a vastly superior military foe.
The Senate approved $100 million in aid to the contras, an army of mercenaries left over from Somoza days in Nicaragua, most of them drug dealers with ties to what was traditionally referred to in Pentagon circles as the “disposal problem,” i.e., the old Bay of Pigs veterans who, with backup from jailbird flotsam from the Mariel boat lift, now ran the coke business in Miami. Ever since they may or may not have helped assassinate JFK, the anti-Castro Cubans had been on one or another federal payrol — of the CIA, FBI, NSC — biding their time, with scapulars of the Virgin Mary and Batista clasped to their chests along with the gold chains and the coke spoons.
Baby Doc fled Haiti with most of the national treasury. Years later, the Bush people would open a concentration camp for Haitian refugees at Guantánamo, reminding many Americans who’d forgotten that throughout 30 years of economic blockade, the U.S. has maintained a military base on Cuba itself.
Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the Philippines with billions. The space shuttle exploded. The Chernobyl reactor exploded. A lake in Cameroon exploded, killing 1700.
William Rehnquist became chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Anthony Scalia was confirmed as associate justice.
Mergers in the airline industry. More mergers in communications.
The Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal was reported in a Beirut newspaper.
Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was shot on the street in Stockholm.
Unemployment fell to 6.6 per cent.
In The World Almanac’s Sixth Annual Heroes of Young America poll, Eddie Murphy was chosen as Young America’s “Top Hero,” followed by Ronald Reagan, Bill Cosby, Prince, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Debbie Allen, Michael Jordan, Madonna, Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Van Halen, and Harrison Ford.
What do you call these things, I asked the psychiatrist, where you don’t sleep with the person, but become so involved with him that the two of you behave like people in the throes of passion? You have fights, you make scenes, you spend hours gazing like cows into each other’s eyes, and even the people you are sleeping with become secondary figures in the drama, extras you go home to, members of the chorus.
Well, the psychiatrist said, I’d call it barking up the wrong tree, frankly.
Everyone was under indictment. The principle of unaccountability was part of the mandate of surrealism. Unless you were caught, preferably on videotape, with your hand in the cookie jar, what you knew and when you knew it, or what you did and how you did it, were matters of pure conjecture I and speculation. Unless someone had actually seen you hurl your wife out the window, or shoot her up with an overdose of insulin, the beau monde would flock to your defense, throw cocktail parties and banquets in your honor, write profiles of you in Vanity Fair.
Nobody was responsible for anything bad. And if you had, in fact, been caught doing something terrible, your entertainment value shot up.
Wearing a green velvet Carolina Herrera dress, Nancy Reagan presided as guest of honor at a fund-raising dinner at the Met: pasta with lobster and roast veal with calvados sauce. In Managua, Times journalist Stephen Kinzer valiantly continued reporting the horrors of Sandinista land reform and free day-care centers.
There was a stock market crash in 1987. The Dow ended the year at 1938, down from 2640 on October 5. Ivan Boesky pleaded guilty to insider trading.
In 1988, Panama’s General Noriega was indicted for drug dealing by a Florida grand jury.
The largest leveraged buyout in history occurred in 1988, when RJR Nabisco, which employed 12,000 people in its tobacco division alone. was acquired by Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., an investment firm with 15 dealmakers. Thanks to Willie Horton and Read My Lips, the baton of shininess passed from Ronald Reagan to George Bush.
We had, according to the papers, partially overcome “the Vietnam syndrome,” which meant, as far as I could tell, partially forgetting the experience of losing a war. Reagan had sounded this theme and backed it up by bombing various backwaters where actual battle and troop loss were unlikely, though Lebanon was a miscalculation. Ever since Vietnam, Americans had displayed the petulance and pettiness of sore losers, stoking the issue of MIAs, which involved some satanic fantasy of GIs pressed into slave labor long after the war was finished. It did not matter to anyone that the Vietnamese had over a million dead to mourn, or that their landscape was still toxic from American chemicals. In Vietnam. it is common for two men or two women to hold hands while walking in the street. Here it’s an incitement to murder, and we have an active lobby on our local school boards determined 10 keep it that way.
I suppose I fixated on him because of the rotten times we were living in, with more rotten times expected ahead, and we ended up clinging to each other like two wet rags stiffened by a sudden drop in temperature. He wouldn’t make love because he was scared, and I convinced myself, you see, that having him around would be enough, and then, in a tentative frightened way, he began to open up, began getting physical, and I thought, Well, there, he loves you after all. Months passed. He became more and more open, more available, more talkative, more passionate, more insistent about the convolutions of his psyche, the turmoil our relationship was stirring in his soul. I thought he was coming to love me, and actually he was having a nervous breakdown.
George Bush was not loved by the people who simply lived in the country, the faceless thousands strung out on revolving credit and bad mortgages, the people who lost their jobs when their plants packed up for Mexico, the folks who found themselves without enough insurance when the inevitable neoplasm rolled around. He was not loved by people with HIV infection and AIDS or the people who cared about them. He was unloved by people of color.
The press enjoyed, especially at the end, telling us that Barbara Bush was, in fact, widely admired, but I despised her chickenwattle face and that gleeful malice in her eyes — this phony grandmother who probably carried on in private like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, cyanide pellets hidden in the pearls — and a lot of people fell the same way.
George Bush was not loved, because he’d had the silver spoon thing going from Day One, and that Yale Skull & Bones thing, and everything he did, to cop a phrase from Robert Wilson, was just Instant Hitler. The deals with China, the April Glaspie cables, Clarence Thomas, Iran-contra, and that ghastly massacre in Iraq. The land of hope and glory thing didn’t work on him, not really, not for long. He’d climbed on the ticket in 1980 by renouncing abortion rights and endorsing what he’d previously called voodoo economics, and rode the coattails straight into a brick wall.
Everybody knew he had no principles except Me First. He epitomized hypocrisy. He had that whale Marlin Fitzwater blubbering in the briefing room, and that other horror Margaret Tutwiler, two dead ugly people who blinked so often you knew they were pulling one over, and it won’t surprise me, you know, if they’re all under indictment tomorrow morning, Tutwiler, Fitzwater, Mephistopheles Baker, the whole greasy crew with their High Episcopal pretentions, their sycophants from Fordham, that Kristol nightmare whom they brought in to teach Quayle the alphabet, the Council on Competitiveness, and all the other no-neck monsters who went that extra mile to make ordinary people’s lives a living hell.
George Bush was not loved by the people who own the country. He was jumped-up, not in a brash oil millionaire sort of way, or a Kennedy Mafia bootleg sort of way, but in a thin, simpering, obsequious way. He whined. He was obviously vindictive and mean-spirited. He believed, you see, in noblesse oblige in New England, but he kept a hotel room in Texas as a phony sunbelt pedigree, and that showed you he was neither fish nor fowl. He was the American Andropov, with too many ugly things on his resumé. He had to go. David Rockefeller endorsed Clinton.
As I write this, Channel 17 features, at certain hours, several seriously disturbed individuals posed in front of an Israeli flag, vowing vengeance for Rabbi Kahane. They refer to Arabs as “Jew-hating cockroaches on two legs.”
There is, still, years after the 1967 war, a widely held view of Israel as a victimized and embattled state, surrounded by hostile Arabs, when, in reality, the state of Israel is a heavily armed welfare client of the U.S., actively engaged in what would be called, in a different setting, ethnic cleansing. The Israelis deport and jail people arbitrarily, engage in torture, bulldoze houses belonging to Palestinians.
I’ve always believed that the state of Israel should have been established in Lower Bavaria, to keep things secular. The state of Israel was established like this: you are sitting in the living room of the house your family has lived in for several generations. Strangers smash down the front door and, using their gun butts, force everyone up to the attic, declaring that they owned your house a thousand years ago, it says so in some sacred book, and anyway, some other people threw them out of the place they were living in, etc., etc. Now they want the attic, too, since you have relatives living next door that you can move in with.
We could do the Berlin Wall, or the miraculous Fall of Communism. The refugee populations pouring over the old borders, the Balkanization of the Balkans, the breakup of the Soviet Union into myriad nuclear-ready zones, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Time-Warner merger, Tiananmen Square, HUD, the $ 166 billion price tag on the S&Ls, Mitsubishi’s acquisition of Rockefeller Center, Sony’s buy-up of CBS and Columbia Pictures. We could do the invasion of Panama, the execution of Ceauscescu. We could do the budget deficit. We could do the trade deficit.
Or the Quayle thing, which everyone said was impeachment insurance for George Bush, but it said something else to the country at large, and what it said was, We’ve had Charlie McCarthy for eight years as Number One, and now Number Two is going to be Howdy Doody.
A theory. It was something about taking things on faith for a little while, and something, in the end, about exhaustion. Since the beginning of the Cold War, American governments had misidentified the Soviet Union as the enemy of the country, when the actual adversaries of American business and its partners in the Pentagon were Japan and Western Europe.
The false enemy was forever depicted as technologically inept, incapable of manufacturing a working light bulb, yet dangerous, because of its state-of-the-art nuclear arsenal. The real enemies were persuaded to underwrite our budget deficit, with the false understanding that their markers would never be called in.
These fables worked long enough to dump a lion’s share of 40 years of public money into research and development for General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop, Boeing, General Electric, and other defense contractors, who were the true welfare queens of the era. As capital was diverted into increasingly pointless products like the 8-1 bomber and Star Wars, with no reinvestment in civilian enterprise and infrastructure, our competitors were able to outstrip us in most areas of practical benefit and conoern to the general population.
A theory. It was something about the porcine lack of inhibition that the newly rich displayed while celebrating their ascendancy: the $1000-a-plate fundraisers, the constant parading of patriotic symbols, the eroticization of contempt. It was about the pasta with lobster and roast veal with calvados sauce juxtaposed with three million homeless rooting around in garbage cans for bits of food. It was George Bush complaining to Florida hurricane victims that his own little shack in Kennebunkport had sustained a bit of damage, too, so he knew how they felt. It was George Bush telling Katie Courie on Today that he’d testified 450 times, under oath, about Iran-contra, when he in fact had testified exactly once. It was too many dubious foreign affairs, too many tin-pot dictators transformed into mad dogs and Hitlers whenever the president’s approval rating hit a slump, too many telegenic bombings of sleepy desert capitals. It was George Bush trying to win an election with a war everyone had forgotten, since hardly any of our own people were killed, and the Hitler du jour, remained in the saddle.
The Big Lie works great when you’ve just built the autobahn and invented the Volkswagen. It doesn’t work at all when the autobahn’s falling apart and no one can afford a Volkswagen.
But it worked for 12 years, and the people it worked for aren’t the types to fade quietly into outer darkness. They’ll be around, some waiting to do a few months in a resort slammer, others blowing bubbles in their think tanks, ruminating on family values, the evil lifestyle of homosexuals, the glories of war, the absolute sanctity of money, and the motto of Republicans the world over. Admit Nothing, Blame Everybody, Be Bitter. ■
Research Assistance by David Lewis
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 11, 2020