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BACK ISSUES: November 18th to December 31st, 2002



A Republican, yesterday.


A month ago, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial, "The Non-Taxpaying Class", that launched the grandmotherly phrase "lucky duckies" onto the lips of editorialists and economics columnists across the United States. The inspiration for the Journal piece was simple; having won majorities in both houses in the fall's midterm elections, "the stars look to be in perfect alignment for tax relief".

  "Tax relief", like "evil" and "jihad", seems to be a term that means a lot of very different things to different people these days. Everyone wants to pay less taxes, so a glance will suggest an unalloyed good thing, but only the most pollyanna-ish - or the true believers at the fringe of the GOP - can come away with that same impression after staring the phrase down for awhile.

  The Journal sets the stage with an alarmingly undemocratic scenario: "... fewer and fewer Americans have been paying income taxes and fewer have been paying a significant percentage of income in taxes." Perhaps this might seem less alarming if it had been explained that fewer poor Americns have been paying income taxes and fewer rich Americans have been paying more. As even the Journal's anonymous editorial writer states: "So what? They can afford it."

  But before that dismissive shrug is fleetingly articulated, the Journal describes the situation as an "increasingly two-tiered tax system" and "steeply progressive". Up here in Canada, "two-tier" is the phrase used to damn conservative attempts to dismantle the socialized health system; it's interesting to read it transplanted into a different context. When trying to sell an ideal version of the world, it's always useful to present the vision of rich and poor, old and young, black and white, gamboling merrily on some featureless plain; never mind if neither the current reality, nor the ultimate goal, will remotely resemble that cloying but happy scene.

  America, the Journal suggests, will be a better place - a more full realized vision of democracy - if the numbers were brought more in line, if this "skewed reality" were corrected and the "absolutely legal escape hatches" for the poor were closed up. The numbers are easy to understand: the wealthiest top 5% of Americans pay more than half of the total tax revenue, while the bottom half of taxpayers payed only 4%, down three percent from 1986.

  Even more concretely, the Journal explains that "folks with adjusted gross incomes of $128,336 and higher" pay 56% of taxes, while "a person" earning $12,000, "after subtracting the personal exemption, the standard deduction and assuming no tax credits, then applying the 10% rate of the lowest bracket" pays just less than 4% of their income in taxes. "Who are these lucky duckies?" asks the Journal. It's hard to figure out just what this tremulous note of sarcasm is trying to suggest, but am I guilty of subscribing to a "skewed reality" if I think that someone who makes over $120 grand a year is probably a lot luckier than someone making less than a tenth of that?

  Clear? Well, I guess it isn't, really. The "adjusted gross income" isn't explained in much detail, while the hypothetical poor lucky ducky is qualified and defined into a neat, census-ready stereotype. It's no wonder that the Journal piece has opened not so much a can of worms as a flurry of babble. There are the (unfortunate) very rich and the (lucky) very poor, and not much discussion of the vague mass in the middle who are, it might seem, the supposed audience of the Wall Street Journal.

  Or are they? The motivation for increasing taxes on the poor seems more political than economic, which would make the "lucky duckies" editorial more like the kind of "trial balloon" piece you read in a privately-funded think tank journal like Policy Review than a nuts and bolts money business organ like the Journal. (But the op-ed page of the Journal has been, for decades, more of a free-fire zone than the rest of the paper, where there's more of an obligation to report on the empirical functions of the market.)

  Back to those lucky duckies paying less than 4% of their income to the IRS. "It ain't peanuts", the Journal admits, suggesting a vague understanding of how difficult it is to live on a thousand bucks a month, but it's "not enough to get his or her blood boiling with tax rage." We are, the Journal states, at a crucial juncture in the fiscal history of these United States, when "the constituency for tax cutting, much less for tax reform, is eroding. Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else. They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government."

  The blatant cynicism seems, frankly, fantastic. The poor, we are meant to understand, have been coddled by "tax credits for things like child care and education" (heaven forfend!) and blinded to the dangerous spectre of big government that, obviously, keeps the editorial board of the Journal awake at night with feverish dreams of democracy scuttled on the shoals of "progressivity".

  Within a week, E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post had pegged the "lucky duckies" op-ed as part of "the latest cause of the political right", the latest staggering swamp walk of the unkillable supply-side zombie. The wealthy are paying more taxes, Dionne states, because they're making more money, a gain of 157 percent by the top fifth of the population since 1979, as opposed to the stagnant gain in the bottom fifth.

  A week later, Paul Krugman in the New York Times called the "lucky duckies" op-ed part of "an internal squabble of the right", and paints the piece as part of a decidedly sinister agenda. "The Journal is terrified that future tax cuts might include token concessions to ordinary families; it wants to ensure that everything goes to corporations and the wealthy." If the poor can be convinced, even coerced by being taxed more painfully, they might support further tax cuts even if the benefits of those cuts never reach them. Krugman's tone was, typically, a bit too fond of the conspiratorial inference, but his reading of the Journal piece was dead on.

  Jonathan Chait in the New Republic is even more explicit, if a bit more playful, in painting the "lucky duckies" op-ed as an eruption from the stygian extremes of the GOP's ideological wing, writing that the the Journals editorial page is noted for "its occasional capacity to rise above the routine moral callousness of hack conservative punditry and attain a level of exquisite depravity normally reserved for villains in James Bond movies":

  "When I try to visualize the editorial meeting that produced this bit of diabolical inspiration, I imagine one of the more rationals staffers - maybe Dorothy Rabinowitz - tentatively raising her hand and asking, 'Isn't that idea a bit, you know, immoral?' then Robert Bartley or Paul Gigot would emit a deep, sinister laugh and press a hidden button, depositing the unfortunate staffer into a tank of piranhas."

  Like Dionne, Chait sees the Journal as an agent of the unreconstructed supply-siders in the Republican party, advocates of "a crank doctrine ridiculed by mainstream economists yet embraced by Washington policymakers." He doesn't bother to contradict the "tax the poor" initiative with statistics, but places it in the lineage of Reagan-era "voodoo economics" and flat-tax advocates like the Journal's Robert Bartley, Jude Wanniski, Jack Kemp, Steve Forbes, and that village idiot of the technocratic right, George Gilder. Gilder, who bought the American Spectator with the wealth he accrued from the tech bubble, lost it all again when his power of oracle disappeared with the NASDAQ crash, and how apparently has a lien on his house, a situation Chait finds richly ironic: "... as the Journal might note, his income-tax bill these days is probably almost nil. Lucky ducky." Ouch.

  On December 16th, the Washington Post reported what was by now assumed to be a fact - the administration was studying ways to "simplify the tax system". While the Treasury Department was "drafting new ways to calculate the distribution of tax burdens among different income classes", the White House Council of Economic Advisers was "preparing a report detailing the concentration of the tax burden on the affluent and highlighting problems with the way tax burdens are calculated for the poor."

  The Treasury Department, according to the Post, is "working up more sophisticated distribution tables that are expected to make the poor appear to be paying less in taxes and rich to be paying more." With all hands now on deck, R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told the American Enterprise Institute that "increasing reliance on taxing higher-income households and targeted social preferences at lower incomes stands in the way of moving to a simpler, flatter tax system." At the same AEI forum, outgoing White House economics adviser Lawrence Lindsey broached the novel notion that, since Social Security benefits collected through payroll taxes can be returned to the taxpayer at a later date, they shouldn't be considered as taxes, per se. (Much as mutual funds, until recently, weren't really stock speculation as such, and more of a retirement fund. Well, if you look at it that way...)

  Even among the right, this was considered a bit much. William W. Beach, an economist at the Heritage Foundation, while "sympathetic to Lindsey's argument", thought his proposal was "a dangerous argument for a Republican to make": "Do I allow defense spending to offset my income taxes since I like to be defended? Do I allow road taxes to offset my profits taxes because I use the roads? If you do start down that road, it's hard to see anything as taxes." Regardless of political sympathies, there's a consensus that the "lucky duckies" tax program was, in the words of congressman Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), "a disastrous Republican overreach."

  "I would hope the public would find it repugnant," said Robert McIntyre of the labour-funded research group Citizens for Tax Justice. "But I suppose you never know."

  In a Salon Premium feature published a few days later, Farhad Manjoo calls the "lucky duckies" op-ed "an example of ideological stubbornness gone disastrously, hilariously overboard." Manjoo interviews William Gale of the Brookings Institute, who recalls that Lindsey was counting Social Security as part of the tax burden a year and a half ago, when he argued the first major round of Bush tax cuts:

  "If payroll taxes are not a tax, then taxes as a share of the GDP are at a post-World War II low, and therefore we should try to boost taxes to bring the up to historical levels. So the administration is being hypocritical if it counts payroll taxes when it wants to say taxes are high and then doesn't when it wants to say taxes are low."

  But since a cornerstone of hardline fiscal conservative policy is the dismantling of Social Security and the end of payroll taxes, any muddying of the waters, and encouragement of vagueness in defining a tax, is perfectly in line. Sheldon Pollack, a business law professor at the University of Delaware who followed Lindsey at the podium after his AEI address, joked that "I've been studying taxes for 20 years and I thought I knew what a tax was up until an hour ago."

  It's no surprise, then, that the rhetoric is shifting to a willfully imprecise debate on the inherent unfairness of the "unreformed" tax system and away from disparaging comments on the evil of "big government", except in the Journal's intemperate op-ed pages. While it's sometimes hard to remember, there's a war going on, and there's no precedent for the shrinkage of bureacracy or the military during wartime. As Pollack told Salon, government of any size needs money, and Bush administration "is not moving to cut back the size of government. A lot of things are funded by the income tax, including the military."

  The Journal, it seemed, let the cat out of the bag with "lucky duckies", while the administration clearly wanted to slowly ease in the flat-tax program, much as they eased out the estate, or "death tax", a campaign that, in Salon's words, "is not just political - it's psychological too." While one might hope that the vast majority of "lucky duckies" would find a voice for their angry opposition to increased taxes, it might never have that chance if they whole idea can be sold gradually, with persuasive rhetoric, at a time when "the stars look to be in perfect alignment." There are, after all, enough people who'll disagree with anything that Paul Krugman or the New York Times has to say on the subject.

  Krugman may have been right, though, that "'compassionate conservatism' and 'leave no child behind' were empty slogans", as John DiIulio Jr., former adviser to Bush on his "faith-based initiative", learned the hard way. "The President's compassion agenda was never really launched," DiIulio wrote before being forced to make a half-hearted retraction. No wonder, since what DiIulio proposed - guaranteed health insurance for all children, more tax credits for the poor, aid to big cities where the poor live, aid to community and religious groups, the implementation of Bush's own education law - would cost money that's going to scarcer while the first rounds of tax cuts for business and wealthy investors take effect.

  One final question the reader might be asking: Why should I, a Canadian, living in a land with hefty taxation across the board already in place, give a rat's ass what happens south of the border? Simply put, anything that happens to the weather south of the border, political or otherwise, ends up echoing up here, regardless of who's in charge at any level of government. I also happen to think that using taxes as a method of redistibuting wealth, while imperfect and often poorly-managed, is just about the last best way of doing precisely that.

  It's also a bit of a wild-assed abdication of logic to imagine that the poor, who lack lobby groups, and vote with decreasing frequency, are somehow able to legislate ever-larger benefits for themselves while living, as the Journal seems to think, "that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government." It's one thing to talk about cutting taxes to create jobs; it's another to advocate increased taxes on people who might be trying to raise families on less money than the unlucky rich spend on car payments or private grade school tuition. (Dec. 31st/2002)




I don't pretend to understand the British press as well as its equivalents here in Canada and the United States, so perhaps I'm missing something - some subtle coded worldplay or level of sly irony - when I read Rod Liddle's apparent defense of Tony Blair's hosting of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, published this week in the Guardian. Assad, if I read Liddle's inference correctly, believes in the ancient blood libel that Jews drink the blood of young children. Or rather - and Liddle buries this three paragraphs down - Assad's defence minister, Mustafa Tlass, subscribes to this repulsive myth, and since Assad has kept Tlass in office, Liddle is satsified that the hat fits.

  "I have no evidence that Bashar actually believes what his minster has repeatedly averred," writes Liddle, but he's unwilling to let mere facts or journalistic practice get in the way of a really great chance to make fun of Roman Catholics and the Church of England, on his way to defending Blair's meeting with Assad, in the hope that his nation's prime minister will make an about-face in British policy, and suddenly become an obstacle in the way of President Bush's "ravenous hunger for a punch-up" with Iraq. It's all very, very complex stuff, I think, so you'll have to read it for yourself.

  Personally, it's not hard to believe that Assad might - secretly or not - nod knowingly at his defence minister's expertise "on Jews and their allegedly secretive, infernal behaviour", especially considering how many of his own countrymen - and millions of others around the middle east, where they make TV miniseries out of the infamous and bestselling anti-Semitic tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - implicitly and openly believe the blood libel, and much worse. For his part, Liddle is sympathetic: "...certainly, some strange things are done in the name of religion. Jews drink the blood of children; Roman Catholics, meanwhile seem content simply to have sexual intercourse with them.:

  Loads of laughs, that Rod. "In fact, the more you think about it, the more it seems to be an unavoidable consequence of religious adherence that one should be obliged to interfere with children in some way or another, be it drinking their blood, subjecting them to unwelcome sexual advances, performing upon them female or male circumcision or, in the case of our Victorian protestant forefathers (especially in Germany), building complicated metal contraptions to place around their gentials."

  Now, before you assume that Mr. Liddle is some kind of raving, doctrinaire atheist, spending his Christmas holidays sending out cards gaily printed with images of crucified Santas and cheery goading messages like "I hope you choke on your figgy pudding, you earth-raping imperialist swine!", it has to be understood that Rod Liddle is a regular churchgoer, an observant Anglican, if this Spectator article is to be believed. Not that it spares his own professed religion any sidelong taunt: "Even today, in my own liberal, caring and gently doubting Church of England, mewling infants get half drowned in a chilly font while some robe-bedecked madman screeches for the devil and all his works to be renounced."

  Oh, please, stop. You're killing me. I mean, it's as good as a Monty Python episode, isn't it? "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" and all that. Really, really funny, don't you think? Well, don't you?

  Liddle opens his Guardian piece with a bit of sketch comedy worthy of Python - President Assad nervously eyeing his toddler son Hafez, as they settle into their suite at Claridge's or the Ritz, with "the natural - and rather endearing - paranoia that afflicts most men who have recently become fathers." Suddenly, parading through their rooms is a virtual shtetl of Jewish types, "an important world leader and some passing lawyer or moneylender or showbusiness impressario (choose your own stereotypical occupation, please)," all intent on draining poor, unsuspecting Hafez for their matzoh meal.

  Now that Liddle has your attention, he slowly moves on to the nut of his argument - yes, there is one, hidden under all these layers of hateful dross and drollery - and states his belief that Blair has every right to host alleged anti-Semites like Assad, whose country is little more than a client state of Iraq, in the hope that Blair might re-think his support of the US-led war on Iraq. "Whatever else you may think of him, Tony Blair is supremely aware of the shifts and shimmies of public opinion - and public opinion is against military action."

  It's a marvellous bit of sophistry, even for a British journalist who manages to write for the lefty Guardian, the quaint "little England" journal Country Life, and the Tory Spectator. It's one thing to accuse a politician of being spineless, a cynical windvane of political opportunism. It's another to celebrate that very trait as desirable, the equivalent of sagely political wisdom, but without the work. It's the kind of attitude that greeted Chamberlain on his return from Munich, waving his pathetic piece of paper, describing the whole miserable performance as a masterwork of statesmanship.

  But who is Rod Liddle? A quick round of Googling - and a dip into the pile of Spectators and Guardian Weeklies I haven't put out for recycling (yes, I read them both, poor me) - reveals a man about my age - about forty or so - who was the scandalous flavour of the week a couple of months ago when a snide little Guardian column making fun of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance got him booted from his gig as editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Liddle was back on his feet quickly, keeping the Guardian gig and taking on new ones at the Spectator and Country Life, while maintaining his public profile as a BBC presenter. Good going, lad.

  In other words, a bit of a Fleet Street Zelig, in the mould of the far more legitimately amusing northerner, proto-rave impressario and Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. A London School of Economics graduate, Liddle is also a onetime punk rock musician (not in itself a qualification that implies skill or devotion and, as a onetime one myself, I should know) who named his son after poll tax rebel Wat Tyler. He's described as "colourful", an adjective that, in England, either means you're gay or that you have a provincial accent and kept reading books after you left school.

  Briefly a member of the Socialist Workers party, Liddle is a political palimpsest, more reaction than principle if you believe him: "These days, my political beliefs are fractured and episodic. I have fascistic spasms, moments of blind, bitter nihilsim and afteroons of noble socialistic intent. Hours of high Tory flatulence sometimes impinge, too, like gout." It's actually a useful trait for an ambitious journalist in a country where the media is both highly politicized and utterly unprincipled.

  It was the punk rock episode that gave me the clue I needed to understand Liddle. Like most of my generation - and certainly like almost every one of us who ended up in journalism - Liddle is fueled by both ambition and the desire to shock. The first compels him to achieve, pushes him up the ladder from lowly freelancer to columnist and presenter; the second lets him believe that if he can manage to keep the angry letters rolling in - perhaps even lose the odd gig in a (hopefully) furious fit of scandal - he can keep his "edge", perhaps even still be considered by the BBC as the spokesperson and enabler for "a new, younger audience" at the ripe age of 42, provided he can keep his hair.

  It's also the reason why my generation is such a pathetic wash-out. We're trapped in the unenviable gully between the boomers, who have grasped the reins of power and won't let go, and their children, who snap up gigs thanks to a combination of nepotism and the shallow trendspotting acumen that screams "newness" to a twice-divorced editor giddy from gym-fatigue. People like Liddle and myself, and most of our peers, bounce between flopsweat and despair, certain that we'll be abandoned without a backwards glance the moment we cease to entertain. And so we try too hard, sucking in our guts and trotting out the lame Johnny Rotten impersonation for the umpteenth time.

  Sometimes it works, and sometimes we're spared the humiliation when our pitch is rejected or the article killed, but sometimes one of us has a regular gig and a lazy editor and we end up in print hoping that President Assad of Syria had a nice visit to London, and that he "found himself a vigilant babysitter." You know, to fight off the bloodsucking Jews. Get it? You get it, don't you? It's a joke? Right? A joke?

  Whatever. Never mind. (Dec. 19th/2002)



I've railed about the Toronto Globe & Mail's arts section columnists before - and will again, no doubt - but local fictionist and dandy Russell Smith is the one who, most of all, ensures that I'll start at least one day of my week with a churning stomach full of acid on a rolling boil. This morning, Smith turned from his recent, obsessive analysis of the willfully irrelevant world of contemporary art to weigh in on beauty, or rather, beauty contests, or even more to the point the kind of homicidal intolerance that needs little more than a beauty pageant to find an excuse to set blood running in the gutters.

  Russell begins his weekly dumbshow of faint erudition with the image from this week's bloody Miss World riots in Nigeria that caught his eye, a lone demonstrator holding up a sign reading "Down with beauty". Intrigued, no doubt, by the vaguely situationist tone of the statement, he investigates further and discovers that some outpost of the Muslim world - "a religion and culture that cultivates the aesthetic in almost every aspect of life" - has exploded with violence, apparently outraged by "a particulary Western kind of beauty, which many don't find beautiful at all."

  Smith immediately grasps the nut of the tragedy, which is that the "codes of this conflict" are "confusing to Westerners". Well, to all Westerners except those, like Smith, imbued with an acute sensitivity to aesthetic verities that go deeper than mere race, religion, or politics. Westerners, he admits, have been known to protest beauty pageants, and some even take to the streets to protest "U.S. cultural dominance", but "they don't end up in mass murders and the destruction of churches and neighbourhoods."

  The reason, Smith suggests over seven ensuing, meandering paragraphs, is that Westerners aren't sufficiently in touch with the same eternal aesthetic truths that animate the Muslim world: "The multiple paradoxes here," he opines, "are particularly modern." Smith, it must be understood, is a modern kind of guy, well-suited to appreciating these paradoxes even if the President, the majority of the American people, and most of the Western world, are incapable of rising to the occasion.

  Indeed, Smith is one of those radiant, longsuffering souls who feel that, if they could only drive into our thick skulls the grievances and perspectives of those people who fervently regard our society as the wellspring of all evil, we might repent and turn from what they percieve to be the road to hell. When hackneyed phrases like "U.S. cultural dominance" don't seem to be working, he takes an even more direct route: "...the Muslim hostility is not just to Christianity per se, but to Western culture, and in particular the crass kind of American mass culture represented by idiocies such as the Miss World pageant."

  Smith obviously feels that, in the pages of Wednesday morning's Globe & Mail, he's in friendly company, so his offhanded reference to "Christianity per se" is made with the confidence that no right-thinking person will be moved to defend an institution so archaic, so unsophisticated, so ... un-modern. But he does know, somewhere behind the agonizingly-chosen wardrobe, beneath the hair and skin care products, in a part of his mind not addled by too many late nights in too many crowded, noisy, but fashionable nightspots, that, after the events of Sept. 11th, "condemning this Western decadence is an even more unpopular and complicated position to take."

  Complicated, which is to say sophisticated, which is to say entirely and blessedly modern. Smith began his column by stating that "Beauty itself is not the issue here", but by its end he's lecturing us on beauty - real beauty - as defined by Jean Anouilh, Camus, and Leautreamont. (All of whom, I have it on good authority, are read widely in the Muslim countries like Nigeria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.) Beauty, he knows for certain, is a lot of things ("grave ... unbearable ... convulsive"; it sounds more like torment to me) but it is definitely not "the blow-dried suburban niceness of the Miss World pageant." While we, poor fat, befuddled souls, basking in our daily dose of televised corruptions of beauty, can't see the truth in front of our face, it's brutally obvious to the Nigerian protester with his sign, and his willingness to kill for beauty. "Down with beauty", understood as only Russell understands these three simple words, "makes a strange kind of sense, if you interpret it to mean 'Down with this sort of incongruous, disrespectful cultural invasion.' It doesn't mean 'Down with beauty.' It means 'Down with ugliness.'"

  "Of course," Smith adds, in demure parentheses, "I wouldn't kill anyone over it."

  But, like the good liberal who values fairness over self-preservation, he'll defend the sacred right of anyone else, preferably someone far, far away, to kill over it.

  I'm not the only person who read Smith's column with incredulity verging on dismay. Lawyer and blogger Damian Penny, of Corner Brook, Nfld., was also frankly amazed at Smith's performance:

  "I've never seen anyone twist himself into rhetorical and logical knots the way Smith does. Beauty is ugliness! Truth is falsehood! War is peace! The most disgusting thing is the way Smith pulls back and the end and insists that he, a Globe and Mail writer, dammit, wouldn't kill anyone because of a beauty pageant."

  The only way you can make your way to the end of Smith's column is to imagine the writer holding forth, all blithe and Wildean, with a velvet smoking jacket sort of an attitude that presumes art, beauty, and aesthetics are all you need to comprehend the truth behind the pain that is the world. Smith is too typical of the kind of moral imbecile whose status as a "creative" person has insulated him from the harsh task of really understanding the threat behind mob violence, or taking a truly moral stand, since art, after all, is so much more perfect than morality. Didn't Wilde say that? Well, it sounds like something he'd say, doesn't it?

  Curiously, despite his carefully-groomed, latter-day libertine pose, Smith's attitude is more than faintly prudish, a flurry of words that poorly hides his obvious repulsion for the spectacle of beauty pageants. While he'd never admit to any sympathy with the humourless harpies who turn out to protest beauty pageants, he would still long for their extinction; it's hard not to notice that the harshest, most bitterly damning adjective he can apply to Miss World is "suburban".

  It's a remarkable performance; over nine paragraphs, Smith manages to equate the intolerance of fundamentalist shari'a with the neurotic but passionate aestheticism that he's built his worldview around. There isn't so very much difference between Russell Smith, gadabout, joyless fop, and chronicler of the sexual turmoil of melancholy urbanites and a Nigerian Muslim moved to murder in the name of his narrowly-defined concept of God's justice. Well, except for the murder bit, of course. And the unpleasant but undeniable fact that Toronto's Russell Smith would be imprisoned, exiled, or killed if he suddenly found himself living in a shari'a state.

  No one who has seen them will deny the undeniable aesthetic achievements of Persia, Moorish Spain, the Seljuk Turks, or the Ottoman Empire. And I'd hope that Smith can acknowledge the particular achievements of the civilization in which he's been allowed to thrive. But the brutality that is modern Nigeria is as unlikely to be regarded as a highlight of Muslim culture as Miss World will be remembered alongside Renoir, Rubens or Georgia O'Keefe. Still, I know which one takes lives in a blind, ignorant rage, and which one is, at its worst, ignorable kitsch. Being unable to divine the difference at a glance is a kind of blindness reserved for those in thrall to a worthless idea of beauty. (Nov. 28th/2002)



In last Sunday's NY Times, columnist Maureen Dowd described how her soccer-mom girlfriends "are surreptitiously smitten with Eminem." The piece - supposedly about how the half-life of pop culture rebels these days is shorter than most Hollywood marriages - contains some truly disturbing details about the inner life of the average, upper-middle class mom, at least in Maureen Dowd's social circle.

  "They buy his posters on eBay," Dowd writes about her homegirls. "They play him on their Walkmen at the gym. They sing along lustily to 'Cleanin' Out My Closet' and 'Lose Yourself' in the car. They rhapsodize that his amazing vignettes of dysfunctional families make him the Raymond Carver of hip-hop." Well, that's a lot better than being the Ann Beattie of rap, I suppose.

  "They crowd into movie theatres along with teenage boys in watch caps, and then insist that Eminem's rapping his way out of a Detroit car factory in 8 Mile is way hotter than Jennifer Beal's dancing her way out of the Pittsburgh steel mill in Flashdance." I haven't seen the film, but I hope it's a whole lot more believable. And I hope Eminem didn't have to get doused with water to do it.

  "They put off helping their kids with homework so they can watch the rapper's trailer-park mom being interviewed on 'Primetime Live'." They'd better be careful or dad and his bastard lawyer will get another shot at full custody.

  It's a potent image that Dowd paints, of women who benefitted from the social and economic freedoms won by first-wave feminism, who spent the 70s in Diane Furstenberg wrap dresses and the 80s in short-lived "starter marriages", nodding their heads to the rhythm of their kids' bedroom boom boxes thumping through the wall as they write a cheque for the housekeeper and try to figure out how much to put on Visa this month. I imagine them playing hooky at the mall on a weekday morning while the kids are at school, trying on low-rider jeans at the Gap and listening to Jay-Z and Missy Elliot on the listening stations at Tower. It's a vision that inspires a cold, rolling shudder all the way up my spine.

  The kids, needless to say, are appalled, and rightly so: "'My 11-year-old daughter is repulsed that I like him,' a friend says, as her daughter chimes in that mom is 'psychotic and weird.'" I can see their point - I would have been horrified if my mom had gotten into my Cramps or Iggy Pop records; I may be showing my age, but it's the unthinkable spectacle of Cheap Trick's "Surrender" come to life: coming home to find mom and dad "rolling on the couch / rolling numbers, rock and rolling, got my Kiss records out." Surrender, indeed, but to whom?

  "I have to listen to his music in the car because my kids don't want to hear him anymore," Dowd quotes one of her friends saying. "He's attractive and smart and very, very macho. There's no fake posturing in his music. He blasts away." Jeez, couldn't these women have stuck with Warren Beatty or Pierce Brosnan? And since when did moms get all up into ghetto realness, anyway?

  This is probably the essence of unintended consequences, from the standpoint of the marketing departments at Time-Warner/AOL, Bertelsmann and Vivendi, a kind of music biz "blowback". At best, I'm sure the folks behind the music imagined that Dido's sales might get a boost from moms listening in on "Stan" as the kids vegged out in front of MTV. It seems, though, that "Tapestry" and "Court and Spark" are more likely to be rediscovered by future twentysomething vegetarians who don't think Avril Lavigne has matured along with them, while their moms show up for Christmas wearing their pearls with hoodies and cargo pants, throwing gang signs as they unload the presents from the BMW.

  Dowd lists the very respectable press Eminem has gotten lately, including profiles by Andrew Sarris and Neal Gabler, a feature by Frank Rich in the Sunday NY Times Magazine, and "a radical chic ode to the rapper in The New York Observer" by writer Paul Slansky, who "suggested that middle-aged fans liked to echo Eminem's anger after they drove in the car pool: 'So we drop off the kids, roll down the windows and blast Eminem.'"

  I don't get out to the 'burbs much these days, but if I found myself in traffic next to someone's spa-bound mother, idling in their Ford Explorer while "My Fault" blares from the sound system, I'd probably start thinking about "getting off the grid" and going back to the land, like fast.

  It's sobering to think that the same middle-class boomers, who've benefited from the demographic juggernaut that my generation has watched with envy and bitterness, can be emotionally sympatico with a millionaire trailer-park wigga.

  Perhaps it's not so surprising, though. Eminem was a lot funnier when he rapped about his trailer trash upbringing and dressed up like Marilyn Manson and Bill Clinton in his videos. He rapped, with some wit, about a kind of life that millions of people could understand, most of whom couldn't afford gym memberships or computer camp for the kids. In no time, though, he started rapping about being famous, being misunderstood, being hated by and hating other famous people. He became a lot less funny. As he told Pat O'Brien when "Access Hollywood" visited his suburban Detroit "crib": "I can't see losing that edge ... especially now being on top. I got new problems."

  Like being made fun of by a man speaking through a dog puppet, or worrying whether he has a shot at an Oscar nomination. Or whether to be offended or flattered when The New Yorker runs "Eminem: The Quiz" (written by Paul Slansky, apparently angling to be the Gay Talese of urban crossover) on its Back Page.

  It's tempting to try to paint Eminem's new audience, one defiantly adolescent in attitude if not in years, as proof of cultural democracy, the chance everyone has to connect across barriers of class and demography and make a very decent living at it, a last-chance subgenre of the The American Dream reserved for those who spent most of high school on disciplinary probation. Far from it - Eminem is only as valuable as his willingness to be an object of vicarious fascination. The trailer park, the shrew mother, the beloved daughter, the hated ex-wife, the haunted, unblinking stare meeting the camera; Eminem is all attitude but precious little personality, a perfect cipher for anyone from mythical fans like "Stan" to the apparently very real boomer moms Dowd meets in the city for mojitos on Friday nights when the kids are with their father.

  As Dowd writes: "Eminem sings only about himself, which makes him a perfect boomers' crooner." Imagine the shock of millions of suburban teens when they discover that their parents connect with Eminem more profoundly than they do, then project the steep fall-off in record sales when they're confronted with the D12 record blaring from every other SUV at tailgate picnics. It's a good thing that Marshall Mathers has been easing himself into an acting career from the moment he made his first video. He'll need that second act when his records end up on the racks at Borders next to Ry Cooder and Caesaria Evora. Hopefully he'll get a better agent than the one Sting hired, but there may yet be a Brimstone and Treacle in Eminem's future. (Nov. 27th/2002)



Atlantic Monthly writer William Langewiesche's "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" was one of the most praised pieces of post-9/11 journalism published this year. The story of the firefighters, rescue crews, city bureaucrats, engineers and construction workers who reduced the mountainous ruins of the towers to a hole in the ground in less than a year, now out in hardcover, was considered a virtual shoe-in for this year's Pulitzers.

  Published in three parts by The Atlantic (parts 1, 2, 3,) over the course of last summer and early fall, it was a mostly unabashed paean to the men and women who worked at Ground Zero, but contained allegations that crews working on the site had looted office buildings on the site in the weeks and months following the attack. Even more shocking was the story of a fire truck found buried deep in the rubble that, once pried open, reportedly revealed neat piles of jeans looted from a Gap store in the underground mall. It's this allegation in particular that brought out crowds of angry firefighters, and families of fire crews (different articles put the number anywhere from 100 to 150) who died in the collapse, to protest at a Manhattan book signing by the writer this week.

  A New York Newsday piece on the protests carefully qualifies its take on the conflict, allowing doubts about Langewiesche's work to surface, knowing too well that firefighters and supporters of the firefighters are probably more vociferous than they are numerous. "I'm not a truth squad as far as 9/11 goes," they quote Langewiesche as saying, after a statement that he did not personally fact-check everything he heard while he worked on the story. "I am a reporter. I was interested about what people really believed."

  The magazine that originally published his work stands behind the piece, and another Newsday piece has The Atlantic making a statement that the articles were thoroughly fact-checked, but there's an interesting equivocation in the statement: "While there is speculation within 'American Ground', it is open speculation, and in most cases it was included because it was the speculation that was active at the site."

  Phrases like "not a truth squad" and words like "speculation" don't ring with trustworthiness, especially when applied to journalists and their work. In the original article, Langewiesche recalls that the firefighters, embarassed by the discovery of the jeans, tried to explain it away by talking about them getting blown into the truck by the force of the tower's implosion, a scenario that Langewiesche pointedly ridicules. This time around, the firefighters have marshalled better arguments, stating in the NY Daily News that the clothes weren't from the Gap, but from another store, that they were found near, not in the truck, and that remains of members of the truck's crew were discovered near a Hurst prying tool, suggesting that they had died while trying to save lives. (Why the demotion of the incriminating jeans from brand name to generic works in the firefighters' favour is beyond me, but there it is.)

  In a piece on the ITV website, Peter Gorman of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association contemptuously attacks the logic behind Langewiesche's story: "For him to insinuate that a firefighter got off the truck on September 11th and told his captain, 'I'll be right with you Cap, let me go down and grab a couple pair of jeans and I'll be right back inside,' is disgusting." It's the kind of logic that will probably bring a lot of people around the the firefighters' side of the argument.

  Taken together, the articles on the firefighters' confrontation with Langewiesche and his book put the advantage firmly in the firemen's court. All it would take is for someone to draw parallels with Stephen Glass and other recent, notable, lapses in journalistic truth-telling to put Langewiesche and The Atlantic seriously on the defensive. It wouldn't be hard; Glass, and other abusers of the reader's trust of the media, were able to get their fabrications across by appealing to the prejudices and imaginations of editors and readers. Glass was able to hoodwink The New Republic's fact-checkers with a bit of effort, and one must assume that the fact-checkers at Harper's are as assiduous as at The Atlantic, Harper's longtime rival, but Glass got a real lulu across on Lewis Lapham's magazine, and readers such as yours truly, whose only thought when I read Glass' "expose" on phone psychics was envy that he'd made the obvious so compelling.

  I'm not suggesting that Langewiesche made up the story of the Gap jeans in the fire truck - trust me, I'm not - but when you read words like "speculation" and no firm, adamant confirmation that the writer was actually there when the truck was opened, you wonder whether it wasn't just a story that he, and his editors, and ultimately his readers (like myself) wanted to believe, because it seemed so true to some basic, pessimistic assumption about human nature, even in the face of tragedy and noble response.

  There was a rising resentment at the mantle of martyrdom assumed by NYC firefighters in the months after the attack, silently paralleling the flower and gift-covered memorials erected at fire stations all over Manhattan and the boroughs. Langewiesche makes it clear that this resentment was openly aired at Ground Zero, where rescue workers and their city supervisors seethed at what seemed like a firefighter preference toward recovering the remains of their own. A few blocks away, the rest of the world had made them the heroes of 9/11, while at the site of the attack they were considered obstinate, self-righteous, and increasingly difficult to control in a situation that constantly verged on chaos. Besides, nothing is more tiresome, even infuriating, to the average person than the spectacle of virtue, and any writer or editor would welcome an opportunity to go against conventional wisdom and tarnish the halo a bit. More than merely good journalism, it reads like good drama; a tragic flaw, a deserved retribution for the sins of pride and hubris.

  The truth probably lies somewhere between both sides - a pusillanimous kind of statement, I know, but truisms are usually banal - and it's entirely unlikely that it'll ever be known, as the only real witnesses are no longer around. The firefighters have done their job well, though, by casting a pall of reasonable doubt on Langewiesche's story that will attach itself, as nagging as a prominent footnote. There's every reason to believe that, given the American taste for litigiousness, this could end up in court, but it's unlikely that would result in anything but a better standard of living for a few lawyers.

  Some people might regard this as sad, even sordid, a dissolution of the sense of purpose and nobility that arose out of the attacks, and which at one point prompted otherwise intelligent people to pronounce the "death of irony". Far from it, I think this is inevitable, even healthy, since among the advantages western society has over the one imagined by, even lived in, the people who attacked us over a year ago is this disinclination to burnish and ennoble the mythic grievance, a wonderful tendency to mitigate, to criticize, to subvert and debunk and be skeptical. A society that so quickly and disinterestedly begins dismantling its heroes is one that will never wholeheartedly embrace any kind of physical or ideological tyranny. No fantasy of martyrdom or righteousness can evolve into theology here, and that's the way it should be, thank God. (Nov. 19th/2002)



The arts section of the Globe & Mail, my morning paper, is home to a species of columnist whose primary task is to prompt a small but gentle spasm of thoughtful chinoking over your coffee and muffin. Nothing strenuous is ever attempted, mind you, no full bench press of weighty ideas or brief but harrowing assumption of some uncomfortable act of empathy; a comforting appeal to the reader's carefully liberal assumptions about life, finessed with a few gentle pats on the remnants of their education, pretty much defines the formula.

  Creative types - middle-rank novelists and playwrights, preferably - usually perform the task, since they're always grateful for the regular wage, and appreciative of their unique social position. This morning it was novelist David Macfarlane's chance to shine, and he turned in a little musing on the nature of happiness. Never afraid to attack sacred cows, Macfarlane began with an assault on the old trope that money doesn't buy happiness, feinting and jabbing with his own observation that, as far as he can see, "they appear to be having a pretty good time up there in first class."

  "Many of them look quite well adjusted," Macfarlane continues, clearly warming to his subject. "The rich people I see whenever I sneak into the Four Seasons to sell a few roses don't look in the least downcast as they order their tournedos and call for another bottle of Petrus." The problem, he thinks, is more with the kind of people - a class of their own, Macfarlane infers, and one that your children shouldn't attend school with - who seem obsessed with proving that the rich aren't, indeed can't be happy: "If the not-rich people who keep repeating this weren't so miserable themselves, they wouldn't begrudge the fabulously wealthy people who build preposterously enormous and insanely expensives homes a little happiness."

  The sentence might be a bit inelegant, but Macfarlane's point is clear enough, which doesn't prevent him from repeating it again in the next paragraph: "...let the rich people get on with the business of being rich - so long as they say thanks now and then when we bring them their tea, or draw them their baths, or leave them little pieces of Belgian chocolate on their Pratesi pillows." It's a stance Macfarlane likes to take - an exagerrated, carefully ironic display of forelock-tugging that somehow doesn't quite manage to conceal real deference. Or envy, with all that ostentatious name-dropping of luxury brands, but Macfarlane isn't shy about admitting as much, painting a rueful image of himself, nose pressed "against the windows of the restaurants they frequent", on the lookout for a remotely despondent rich person, conspicuously finding none.

  All of this is a roundabout - and Macfarlane can be terribly roundabout - setup for his real point, that the moments of real joy he's witnessed lately have been in the company of artists, at a basement jazz club, and at the theatre. As far as he could tell, in both places he was in the company of other paupers. "I'm sure rich people could have been there, and just because they weren't doesn't mean anything."

  In the jazz club, he watches approvingly as a trio's improvisation comes off very nicely, marvelling that "it was perfectly obvious that the musicians were. . .well, happy. Their music had made them so." At the theatre, he beholds the same, simple spectacle of joy: "The actors were happy to be acting." How wonderful for them. Pleasures in among la vie boheme, Macfarlane wants us to know, are so much less complicated than at the Four Seasons, Petrus or no Petrus.

  "I, for one, would rather be rich than poor any day," Macfarlane writes, and I'm sure that someone with his humble but cultivated sensibilities would find better things to do with his money than spend it on Pratesi pillowcases. The columnist is careful to head off any taint of "mere naivete" in suggesting "that there might be happiness that is not contingent on the accumulation of wealth." His column, he's at pains to let us know, isn't about wealth, or the wealthy, but about a keystone in the edifice that is the human condition. It's a real O. Henry finish, summed up with the chinoking question: "What would we discover if we could actually measure happiness?"

  It's also an utter pantload. The wealthy, indeed the "fabulously wealthy", insist on making appearances in nearly every paragraph of Macfarlane's column. Like the humble rose-seller that he is, David Macfarlane, novelist and Globe & Mail columnist, is a man constantly aware of the rich readers of the Globe, the rich shoppers who can afford what he can only name, the rich men who sign his paycheque, and the rich patrons of the arts who offhandedly fund the opera companies, symphonies and theatre companies where Macfarlane finds joy. They define the boundaries of his world, as much as their presence and (very notable) absence hovers over his column, week after week. (Nov. 18/2002)

©2002 Rick McGinnis all rights reserved