Mention of Libya always makes me think of Joe Orton, I’m sorry to say.
Does anyone remember Joe Orton? The people maintaining that website clearly do, though mainly it seems as a “gay icon,” a thing Orton would have hated. He was actually a British playwright briefly famous in the mid-1960s. He died in August 1967 at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell in a murder-suicide.
Orton’s plays were considered transgressive at the time, and I recall being much amused by them in my college days. To judge from the few clips I could find on YouTube, they have not aged well. They seem not to be staged much anymore. Entertaining Mr. Sloane had a ten-week run at an off-Broadway theater in 2006. Loot seems not to have been produced anywhere of consequence since 1986. So fleeting is glory!
In 1978 John Lahr wrote a biography of Orton with the memorable title Prick Up Your Ears. It includes an account of a farcical trip to Libya taken by Orton and Halliwell in March 1967, five months before the murder-suicide. This is the only appearance of Libya in any work of literature known to me, and as you’d expect from a bookish type, it’s what always comes to mind first on a word-association test with “Libya.”
The trip was an utter disaster. The hotels were all full, so Orton and Halliwell ended up sleeping in a tiny cabin on a ship moored at Tripoli. Being deeply unsuccessful himself, Halliwell was already half-demented by Orton’s success as a playwright. Orton recorded the fiasco in his diary:
“Oh, my God!” Kenneth said, rounding upon me savagely. “Look what a mess you’ve got us into now! Dumped on a ship in the middle of some wretched fascist state! I’m going to faint!” I found myself saying, “Pull yourself together! There’s no need to behave badly.” “I warned you what it would be like. No travel agency does Libya. And I’m not surprised,” Kenneth said….
On board the evening was just beginning….A few middle-class Libyans were strolling about. “Wog bourgeoisie is even worse than the home product,” I said, rather wishing Kenneth was in a better mood to appreciate the remark. “Shut up!” Kenneth said….
Libya was at that time under the rule of the doddering but pro-Western King Idris, whose portrait I have been surprised to see on display in some of the recent news footage from rebel territory.
Idris was nothing so modern as a fascist. His country only got its first secondary school in 1935, when he was already middle-aged. Idris was a sensible reactionary willing to let national affairs be settled by consensus among tribal chiefs. Unfortunately he had no clue how to cope with the oil money flowing into his treasury by the mid-1960s. Neither did he grasp the temptation that money presented to ruthless power-challengers, nor the degree to which it relieved Libyans of the need to work for a living.
In sporting terms, America is very much an island with its own quaint customs. For this reason the etymologically unsound American version of “football””the world’s most popular sport”mainly consists of throwing a non-spherical object by hand while swathed in body armor. American “soccer” superficially resembles football, with the added dimension of anxious US “soccer moms” who push their youngsters into a sport whose reliance on large open spaces minimizes participation by “ghetto kids.”
Despite the similarities, American soccer and football as it is played in the rest of the world are two entirely different sports. In American soccer, tribalism consists of keeping unwanted tribes out of soccer altogether. But the international version of football is innately tribal, with almost every major city divided into rival fan groups whose main purpose in life seems to be baiting, demeaning, and belittling their rivals.
This was demonstrated in the recent “friendly” match played in London between Scotland and Brazil, where once again tribalism and race leaped to the fore.
A Scottish dye worker named Tom Donohue first brought the game to Brazil back in 1894. Brazil would rise to preeminence among the developed footballing nations, winning five World Cups. But with a population of nearly 200 million, their success is based on a much larger talent pool than its main rivals: Germany (81 million), Italy (60 million), and Argentina (40 million).
The recent game in London ended in a 2-0 victory for Brazil, with their teenage mulatto striker Neymar netting both goals against the Scots while apparently balancing a ferret on his head. Brazil’s brilliance is not based on their much-touted funky ethnic mishmash but simply on vast numbers of players from which to choose. Here as elsewhere, demographics are destiny.
As is common in football, the actual game”a dull victory with the favorite overcoming a cautious and defensive underdog”was overshadowed by non-footballing events. After the final whistle, Neymar complained that he had been jeered at throughout the game and that someone had thrown a banana onto the pitch.
NEW YORK—They say when sexual attraction sets in, all other brain functions shut down. It’s nature’s way of ensuring procreation. My brain shut down last week, and for a Hollywood actress to boot. Of German extraction, Sandra Bullock is not the classic Aryan goddess, but she’s most attractive in the flesh, more so than on the screen. I ran into her at Michael Mailer’s birthday party. He threw the bash in his famous father’s old house in Brooklyn, a wonderful location overlooking New York Harbor, a place that brought back many memories of wild nights with Norman Mailer. Jimmy Toback, screenwriter for Bugsy and the director of Harvey Keitel’s gem of a movie, Fingers—the only American film ever remade as a French movie—has directed some of Michael’s films, so we talked about sons and old movies. (Jimmy is an avid Spectator reader and likes it when I make it obvious how much I love my son, as he has an 11-year-old.) Under the much maligned studio production code, sexuality’s elemental power was ever-present for a very simple reason. There was no nudity, only steamy buildups. Sophisticated innuendo will do more for sex than any full frontal. These days there’s no more mystery, no flirtation, no romance, no sizzle. Even the female body has changed. I used to die for Ava Gardner’s and Betty Grable’s curves, but today’s so-called men go for the efficient, sterile, athletic, desexualized look. What I’d like to know is whether people in their 20s really are as stupid as the characters in today’s movies. Most definitely, I’d say, especially if they listen to rock music.
The party broke up at dawn, and I left just before John Taki and his beautiful girlfriend hit the road. “Go home, daddy, you’re going to have a heart attack,” was the last rude thing I heard.
The next day I read in the paper how Sandra Bullock had given one million dollars for Japan’s victims, a small fact she failed to mention the night before. Now that’s what I call true giving. Every last penny will go where it’s needed, unlike so many charities which spend the majority of donations on themselves.
Speaking of Japan, here’s an American black female professional basketball player, a college grad who can hardly write or speak coherently, Tweeting about the earthquake: “God…makes no mistakes….They did pearl harbor so u can’t expect anything less.” Four years ago, this muscle-bound, brain-dead, poor excuse of a woman demanded that a radio host be fired for some on-air racial insensitivity—he called her teammates mop-topped—and managed it. Tells us a lot about bogus diplomas and bogus racial sensitivities in the home of the depraved.
So action finally replaced inertia, the White House’s dithering gave way to resolve, and the warplanes and cruise missiles are flying over Libya just in time. It has all provided a useful reminder of how dangerous the world can be and how quickly and unexpectedly a crisis can evolve into combat. Cold war can always turn lethally hot, and rhetoric can always erupt into conflict.
Over the past thirty years, not a single military scenario in which Britain has become involved”the Falklands, the Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq and occupation of Afghanistan, the rescue of hostages in Sierra Leone, and now Libya”was actually predicted or planned for by the politicians and war-gamers. Events have a nasty habit of taking us by surprise.
Our security depends not only on diplomacy, dialogue, and understanding, but on the means to project force when all else fails. In a fragmented world order, threats can develop anywhere. Try and gaze into the future: an unstable Middle East, a nuclear-armed and terrorism-exporting Iran, a bolshy Russia and bullying China, conflicts over oil and water and other scarce resources, tsunamis and earthquakes, and myriad natural disasters. All manner of dangers exist and we may be forced to respond.
We need British armed forces with reach and flexibility and a serious punch. Our Tornado aircraft fly 3,000-mile round trips to fire their Storm Shadow missiles. A Trafalgar-class nuclear submarine joins its American cousins in launching Tomahawk cruise missiles. But look again at our overall posture and contribution to Libya and what is planned for the long term. The frigate HMS Cumberland”currently supporting operations off Libya and critical in removing British refugees”is to be scrapped; the Tornado force is to lose two squadrons (including one at RAF Marham, from which the long-range air strikes were launched); and two RAF Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, temporarily reprieved for the Libyan operation, are soon to be retired with no replacements ordered.
The rise of the nerds to mainstream dominance is one of popular culture’s most important developments over the last generation. Consider the gulf in sensibility between old Hollywood blockbusters such as Gone with the Wind and characteristic 21st-century tent poles such as Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and The Dark Knight.
A central figure in the evolution of obsessive geeks into a self-aware, self-confident community was science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). For many of the mid-20th century’s lonely youths, discovering Heinlein stories in pulp sci-fi magazines or at the public library was a you-are-not-alone moment.
Yet a massive new Heinlein biography by William H. Patterson, Jr. illustrates a paradox: Heinlein himself wasn”t a nerd. Weighing in at 624 fact-crammed pages, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume I, 1907-1948: Learning Curve> (whew…) is redolent of the Aspergery culture that Heinlein helped call forth. Patterson can”t bear to leave out data about Heinlein’s well-documented life. The book winds up too much of a good thing for all but the most compulsive of us Heinlein geeks.
Ironically, the urbane Heinlein preached the virtues of being an all-arounder. He famously proclaimed:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
In truth, Heinlein wasn”t hugely successful at anything other than writing science fiction. Yet his resume of near misses during the decade before he started writing sci-fi gave his books a texture and realism surprising in a genre aimed at unworldly youths. He had been a naval officer on the world’s largest aircraft carrier, a Greenwich Village bohemian artist, a silver-mine owner as the front man for the Pendergast Kansas City political machine, and a crusading left-wing politician.
Heinlein’s life story, beginning with lower-middle-class poverty, is similar to that of his idol, H. G. Wells, the pioneering science-fiction novelist. Wells, however, was a giant figure in early 20th-century culture, while Heinlein’s renown was narrower. That sort of ghettoization is ongoing. Andy Warhol is still famous for saying 43 years ago that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. It’s more likely that in the future everyone will be famous to 15 people.
As an aficionado of the atrocious, I thought I”d sneak a peek at Rebecca Black’s song “Friday.” For those too engrossed in such small matters as Libya to notice, the song has been almost universally derided by “negative Nancies“ as “the worst song ever made,” “hilariously dreadful,” and “inept.” Even TIME shook its grizzled locks in disbelief.
The 13-year-old Californian chanteuse has been the target of innumerable scornful, bitchy, and even threatening messages from the music-loving mob. The song has gone viral with over 63 million YouTube views as of March 29, and despite all the criticism Becky doubtless has a career ahead. (She and the company have already earned some $1 million.) She has defiantly told critics she will not “give the haters the satisfaction that they got me so bad I gave up.” Nevertheless obviously stung, she performed an acoustic version to show she doesn”t rely entirely on Auto-Tune and has said she will donate some of her earnings to charity.
The song is thin, adenoidal, and accompanied by”what else?””the worst video ever.” But at least the lyrics contain chronological insights:
Gettin” down on Friday…
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today
Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwards
But life is not all partyin”. Important choices await we-we-we:
Kickin” in the front seat
Sittin” in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?
And even before that dilemma, urgent tasks must be performed:
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Thin gruel though “Friday” is, it is as good as thousands of other songs released every year. Had it not been for the hyperbole, I wouldn”t have paid it any attention”except to switch off the radio hastily if it took me unawares. The tune is catchy, Rebecca has a pleasant smile, her hedonism seems harmless, and the lyrics are at least as good as those of a lot of bands people idolize. “Friday” is certainly more meaningful than the much-vaunted U2’s “Elevation”:
I’ve lost all self control
Been living like a mole
Now going down, excavation
I and I in the sky
You make me feel like I can fly
To return briefly to cereal, the well-known Pop-Tart Madonna also lowered the lyric bar in “I Love New York”:
I don”t like cities, but I like New York
Other places make me feel like a dork
Only feel like? But then Ms. Ciccone doesn”t care what people think of her lyrics, and she trills feelingly:
If you don”t like my attitude, then you can “F” off
Madonna is not the only performer-philosopher. In “Spice Up Your Life,” the Spice Girls point out sagely:
Yellow man in Timbucktoo [sic]
Color for both me and you
Kung Fu fighting dancing queen
Tribal spaceman and all that’s in between
Speaking of spacemen, what vision does REM’s cerebral Michael Stipe adumbrate in “Man on the Moon”?
Mott the Hoople and the Game of Life. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Andy Kaufman in the wrestling match. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Monopoly, twenty-one, checkers, and chess. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Fred Blassie in a breakfast mess. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
That is almost certainly the best song ever written about Fred Blassie.
In ordering air and naval strikes on a country that neither threatened nor attacked the United States, did President Obama commit an impeachable act?
So it would seem. For the framers of the Constitution were precise. The power to declare war is entrusted solely to Congress.
From King William’s War to Queen Anne’s War to King George’s War to the Seven Years’ War, the colonists had had their fill of royal wars. To no principle were they more committed than that the power to declare war must be separate from the power to wage it.
And Obama usurped that power.
His defenders argue that under the War Powers Act he can wage war for 60 days before going to Congress. But that applies only if the president is responding to an attack or has determined that the nation is under imminent threat.
Had JFK ordered air strikes on the Cuban missile sites, he would have been responding to an imminent and potentially mortal threat.
When Ronald Reagan ordered the liberation of Grenada after Marxist thugs murdered the president and 500 American medical students there seemed in danger of being taken hostage, he acted within the War Powers Act. Some 100,000 AK-47 automatic rifles were found stockpiled on the island.
Reagan again acted within the spirit and letter of the act when he used the New Jersey and carrier-based air to retaliate against the terrorist camps of those who engineered the massacre of the 241 Marines in Beirut and when he retaliated against Libya and Moammar Gadhafi for the attack on U.S. soldiers at the Berlin discotheque.
But before George H.W. Bush went to war to liberate Kuwait and George W. Bush took us to war against Iraq, each went to Congress and got roll-call votes authorizing those wars.
Obama worked the phones to get the approval of 10 of 15 members of the Security Council, but not Russia, China, Germany, India or Brazil. He then sought the benediction of the Arab League, which reveals much about where Obama thinks real moral authority in this world resides.
The president described his reasoning: “(W)hen innocent people are being brutalized; when someone like Gadhafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region; and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives—then it’s in our national interest to act. And it’s our responsibility.”
But if Obama’s U.N. mandate was to “protect civilians” in besieged Benghazi, why did we put a Tomahawk cruise missile down the chimney of Gadhafi’s compound, 600 miles away?
Saturday, Ajdabiya fell to the rebels after U.S. planes pulverized its defenders. If civilians were in danger in Ajdabiya, it was because of a rebel attack that could not have been mounted had U.S. planes not conducted air strikes on tanks and troops defending the town.
I know my husband has been cheating on me. He also knows that I know, because I hired a private investigator who nailed him red-handed. I wanted to get back at him, so I slept with two men without telling him. I have to admit it made me feel better and was actually a little fun after 18 years of being faithful. I know that sounds trampy. The point is that initially I was going to confront him and tell him what I had done and put him in his place, but now after I cheated I am not sure what to do. At the moment he feels guilty and I get to have some fun. I realized that maybe being cheated on is not the worst thing that can happen. I definitely do not have feelings for those two men; maybe my husband feels the same way about his dalliances. Anyway, I feel like a terrible, amoral hypocrite about the whole thing. Am I wrong?
“Cheating Duo on Long Island
Dear Cheating Duo on Long Island,
You need to stop cheating. Maybe you did not like these two men, and most likely your husband does not feel emotionally attached to his extracurricular activities, either. Yes, married couples used to mutually cheat and take lovers and somehow make it all work, but they were much more sophisticated than we are, partially because marriages were arranged and divorce was illegal. You need to put a stop to it all before one of you”most likely you, seeing as men are much, much better at compartmentalizing sex”actually falls in love with someone else.
“Maybe your friend is simply a very annoying person and you never realized it before.”
Considering you are both cheating and apparently liking it, maybe you need to think about what the hell is going on in your marriage and try to fix it.
One of my good friends is annoyingly ultra-competitive about her child’s achievements. She goes on and on about her kid’s drawing skills, table manners, clean diction, puzzle-solving ability, you name it”her three-year-old does everything perfectly. Whenever I spend time with my friend, I walk away thinking my child is challenged. I love my friend and her child, but these continual one-upping comments about achievement”or the implied lack thereof in my child’s case”are eating me alive. I don”t think I can listen to her anymore without falling into a deep depression and seeking out doctors to find out what is wrong with my child. How do I make her stop?
“Mommy Competition in Chicago
America’s Great Weird Religion hit Manhattan’s Great White Way last Thursday night as South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone premiered their musical The Book of Mormon to rapturously rhapsodic rave reviews. The Mormons” arrival on Broadway”even as objects of ridicule”signals they”ve “arrived” in pop culture. They”re mainstream enough to have a whole Broadway musical devoted to them and sufficiently good-natured to tolerate the sort of satirical pummeling that many world religions (and all tiny cults) would never allow. To date, there have been no reports of Mormons planting car bombs in Times Square.
Despite the fact that it gleefully eviscerates many of Mormonism’s more esoteric doctrinal idiocies, from all accounts The Book of Mormon oozes with sweetness and even respect for Mormon culture. Parker and Stone collaborated with Robert Lopez on the book and score, and all three have remarked with wonderment on the relentless cheeriness of the Mormons they”ve met.
It is this nearly unbearable level of smiley-faced reasonableness, this naÃ¯ve thermonuclear squareness, that makes Mormons funny. Given the right acoustics, Mormons are so squeaky-clean that you can actually hear them squeaking. Except for the part about being business and organizational geniuses, they encapsulate everything the cosmopolitan coastal media tend to mock about flyover country and the silly benighted goyische gnomes therein. In a rigidly defined cultural crayon box where white is the only color you can have “too much” of, Mormons catapult high over the snowcapped Rocky Mountains through clouds made of bleach, soaring beyond Whiteville into some blinding Ãber Weiss paradise, a land so white that snowflakes stain your angel wings, an American Zion of unmitigated wholesomeness where towheaded cherubim eat sugar cookies and ancient patriarchs with 40-foot-long silver beards have 80 wives and 4,000 grandchildren and where guys named Marlin and Dallin and Wilford and Taft and Potter and True say “fetch” and “flip” and “darn” instead of cuss words and the Osmond Brothers perform “Crazy Horses“ 24 hours a day throughout eternity and no one ever gets annoyed because they”re too busy grinning as they hand out vanilla-frosted cupcakes to the poor.
In terms of cultural style, it’s hard to think of anyone less Jewish than the Mormons. Still, Mormons consider themselves the modern “House of Israel,” while others have compared them to Jews in ways that aren”t so nice.
Give or take a few stragglers and apostates, there are roughly as many Mormons in the USA as there are Jews. Same goes for the world. And just as Jews have perennially faced accusations of covert attempts to rule the planet, so have the Mormons. As far back as their early settlement in Nauvoo, IL, Mormons were accused of purposely maintaining a sense of self-interested separateness that caused them to “dominate community, economic, and political life wherever they reside.”
In 2008, The New York Times” Noah Feldman commented on the “systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeople and lawyers.” In 2009, the Atlantic boldly asserted that Mormons are “overrepresented in the national political elite.” Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg transgressed the bounds of religious tolerance to tag Mormon prophet Joseph Smith “an obvious con man.”
Yeah, it takes a swindler to say you dug up and then transcribed ancient engraved golden plates from God”and a gullible idiot to believe it all”but do we really want to get into the plausibility of Moses tiptoeing down from Mt. Sinai with divinely engraved stone tablets? Let’s apply our “con man” charges with a sense of fairness and equity, shall we?
As with die Juden, die Mormonen also share a sense of isolation and persecution. Joseph Smith complained that other Christian sects were “all united to persecute me.” Mormons were so unpopular in Missouri that in 1838 Governor Lilburn Boggs issued a military order that they “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good.” This little known Missourian “Final Solution” for the Mormon Question was not rescinded until 1976.
(with apologies to James Agee, author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941)
In Paris at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop the other night, a ninety-three-year old man delivered a lecture on resistance. Reflecting on his near-death in a German concentration camp, he told us that he wrote down a Shakespeare sonnet that he hid inside his clothes. He hoped that if he were killed, his body might one day be found and the sonnet sent to his wife. He then declaimed the seventy-first sonnet from memory:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
It is impressive to remember all the words of a sonnet committed to memory at school more than seventy years ago”even more so when it’s in your third language. This gentleman, StÃ©phane Hessel, belongs to an era that has passed. (His most recent book has sold almost two million copies in France, and I have just published it in English as Time for Outrage! under my new imprint. Not bad to become a best-selling author at 93.) A generation of Googlers, podcasters, video gamers, and television viewers will be unlikely to mourn the passing of people like StÃ©phane Hessel because most of them do not know such erudition and style ever existed.
“Modern culture does not nurture the intellects and spirits of men like Hessel, Weiss, and Chomsky.”
When I think of the educated, artistic, and fascinating people in my life, they are almost all older than I am. And I am not all that young. Among them was the great Krikor Mazloumian, who owned and ran the Baron’s Hotel in Aleppo, Syria. Mazloumian always dressed impeccably in a tailored suit. Rare was the language he did not speak fluently. Some Austrian friends told me his German was better and more refined than theirs. Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, English, and French flowed from his lips as naturally as lies from a politician. His family founded the Baron’s in 1909, and he was lucky to survive the Turkish genocide of the Armenians a few years later. He used to regale me over bottles of Armenian brandy with long tales of the hotel’s famous guests, among them Lawrence of Arabia, Prince Feisal of the Hejaz, Agatha Christie, Charles de Gaulle, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Mazloumian had a fondness for poetry, which he could recite at will in whatever language he felt like.
Another savant was the actor and singer Theo Bikel, born in Vienna in 1924 and an old friend of my mother. Although I have not seen him since my mother died when I was sixteen, I remember him singing ancient folksongs in his five languages. He knew about art and politics, although on the latter he and my mother agreed to disagree.