Whatever. The good thing about the movie, and at times it was very good indeed, was the ambition and passion with which it evoked a time in which one's political choices really did count for quite a lot. Both in social contexts?that is, being given or denied work or one's very freedom on the basis of one's views?and familial ones. There's a scene?and it, or something like it, must have happened in thousands of Italian-American households back then?in which John Turturro (penurious lefty actor) goes ballistic on his brother because the brother is leading the assembled family's children in the singing of an Italian fascist anthem. To the brother, who's a mere five years away from being called up to kill the men who march to that song and who doesn't know any better, it's simply an expression of ethnic pride. Turturro's character does know better, but is cast out of the family for it and doesn't return.
What person whose life is at all involved with politics doesn't from time to time imagine him- or herself in such a position? I do, repeatedly. I wonder if, had I been alive in Paris in 1789, I'd been a Jacobin or a man of the Gironde. I'd like to think Jacobin, of course, as the Girondins were lukewarm middle-of-the-roaders; on the other hand, I know my hopelessly cautious nature would not have rendered me a very useful revolutionary. I'd probably have tried to negotiate everything out with the result that each side would have ended up racing the other to deliver me to the guillotine. And I've thought about 1917, at which time I suspect I would have been anti-Bolshevik. I don't necessarily say this with pride, because it's always seemed to me that, four-plus centuries of czarism having proved less than fruitful for most Russians in quality-of-life terms, Bolshevism surely must have seemed a sensible alternative at the time. I do know that I'm enough of a fan of Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitsky and that whole gang to have sensed things were turning mighty rotten when Stalin declared them counterrevolutionary.
These scenarios aren't even the half of it; liberal gradualism and radical revolution represent movement in the same general direction, at least up to a point. No, the real choices are those that would have to have been made at dead moral gunpoint, as it were. Would I, as a German born in 1911 or thereabouts, have had the courage to fight the ascendancy of Hitler? Would I have publicly denounced the Hitler-Stalin pact, or fought Franco, or been courageous enough, if I'd been an American at the time in which Robbins' movie is set, to have stood decidedly with social justice movements but decidedly against American Stalinism? Two decades later, if there'd been a New York and I'd been writing its political column, would I have written columns attacking Joe McCarthy, even after being warned against it by some gruesome Roy Cohn henchman one night at Gallagher's? I'm certain enough of my political convictions to believe I would have, but uncertain enough about my moral courage to know I would have. (Besides, there's such a thing as simple bad judgment?Leon Blum, France's Socialist prime minister of the mid-1930s and a man whose moral courage can absolutely not be doubted, saw hope for peace as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact.)
The reason I'm uncertain is that in my actual lifetime, my moral courage has never been tested. Nothing is at risk today, in anything. I mean, if I write nastily about Al Gore, I might be invited onto television or not, depending on how spectacular my allegations are; that's about it. Such is the triumph of media conglomeration in the Information Age that, as Thomas Frank put it, even dissent is commodified, given its time slot (or sometimes just ignored). This to be sure is a comfortable circumstance for me, and a positive circumstance, I suppose, for all Americans, since it's undoubtedly a good thing that anyone can say whatever the hell he wants to say and associate with whomever the hell he wants to associate with, and they can do whatever the hell they want to do together short of amassing armaments or sending out menacing e-mails.
All the same, one wishes for risk, and for historical relevance: One wishes, paradoxically and it must be confessed a little perversely, for a crisis, a test of our widely advertised liberties. The last time that was true in America, I guess, was in the 1960s. Back then, it did matter. Nixon and Mayor Daley and J. Edgar Hoover made sure of that. And not only did it matter, but you got laid a lot, too, and the album playing in the background was always great.
Too many of those who lived through the 60s never stop reminding us of all this. There's a tyranny to baby boomers' ya-shoulda-been-theres that I find noxious and inescapable. They, or some of them anyway, use it to imply their moral superiority (that is, my moral inferiority), and I hate it: I hate that they can't seem to accept that it was all 35 years ago and they should get over it, and I hate even more that they do kind of have a point. Theirs was an exciting time to be alive. Mine isn't.
Or maybe mine is, but in other ways; politics and culture as we've understood them are played out, and the energy that in the 60s and the 30s and the 1910s went into politics and culture is now going elsewhere?technology and money. Unfortunately for me, politics and culture interest me, and technology and money don't. I'm trying to get more interested in them?money particularly?and engage in the new world instead of mourning the death of the old. In the meantime, I suppose I can take comfort that watching movies and imagining myself heroically principled and historically wise is easier than actually having been there.
Michael Tomasky is a political columnist for New York magazine. Monica, Leave Already by Margo Howard Unfortunately, you have become emblematic of the devaluation of fame in America. Your continued presence is just another reminder that we are a country of morons. Something has happened to fame?it has gone decidedly down-market and morphed into mere recognizability. Forget heroes. How about simple accomplishment? You gotta laugh. Monica Lewinsky, the nutritional overachiever and breasted American is the centerpiece, pardon the expression, of an advertising campaign. This is a girl who is famous for?well, you know what she is famous for. And to prove that the populace is on Prozac, when her first commercial went on the air, the company's stock went up! A few tasteful franchise owners in the Midwest refused to run it, but in the scheme of things, BFD. The subtextual point of Ms. Lewinsky's new "career," by the way, is that thin is good, fat is bad. I would disagree with this as a qualifier for celebrity. She was, before Jenny Craig, in fine shape. (Well, round is a shape.)
I do not blame Monica. To be truthful, when I was her age I probably would have done the same thing. Well, come to think of it, that's not true?because it would have been with Nixon. But the larger point is that salaciousness sells, making nobodies into somebodies. To be fair, my media brethren and sistern do not waltz away blameless in all this. What Mike Royko, my late colleague at the Chicago Daily News, called "the broadcast rodents" have helped us along on this path of ick. For those of us who are grownups, "famous" folk such as Puff Daddy and Jennifer Lopez are known mostly for nonsense. Talented though they may be (I wouldn't know) he is widely known for violence, and she for her behind.
Not to leave Monica out there alone with her Jenny Craig frozen dinners and her handbags, fairness demands that one acknowledge Donald Trump, faux-celeb extraordinaire. I mean, this is a guy who is in hock to the banks, whose stock is the paper version of snake oil and who could use an intestinal bypass to slake his hunger for publicity. This is the man the New Republic referred to as "billionaire, presidential candidate, lounge lizard." Actually, only the last designation has the ring of truth. As for him and the babes, I do not understand how he even gets a date, given his ego-fueled personality. And his hair. I tried to imagine what I would do, were I of an age to qualify as a consort. Let's put it this way: the Nixon fling is starting to look better.
A loony adjunct, now, to celebrity status is the idea that we should care what these people think. Who gives a rat's ass what a movie star thinks about scientific trials, or an actor about Medicaid? Pas moi. Take the PETA people. "Supermodels," those 9-foot-tall women who don't eat and are paid for walking and changing clothes, hold press conferences to denounce fur and the designers who use it. Certifiable nutcases release animals from experimental labs. Ladies in the film industry, perhaps a little beyond their prime, take to the airwaves to deliver grand mal rants about animals not being treated like people. Their contention is that animals are God's creatures, too. Well, this is a flawed argument?like imagining that a dinosaur died in a standing position at the Museum of Natural History. I am, of course, not in favor of intentional cruelty, but in the scheme of things, if humans need warmth or food or medical salvation, we are people and they are animals. Question answered.
A really good example of an "animal rights activist" is Kim Basinger, who is also among the loudest. I would dearly like to see her picture on a milk carton. Early this month, she and Martina Navratilova?another world-class thinker?made a stink about the 2000 doves released in Bethlehem for the millennium celebration. It had to be pointed out to the girls that the birds were set free, not roasted for dinner or anything. And then the PETA crazies in Australia complained that, during the millennium celebrations, the World War II level of noise disturbed many animals' mating rituals. And they got ink. See what I mean? A little clout is a dangerous thing.
And a lot of clout is even worse. Barbra "Close with a Buck" Streisand, playing Las Vegas New Year's Eve, demanded and got people walking through the hotel corridors to turn their faces to the wall as she passed so they couldn't look at her! She didn't wish to have any eye contact. Security ordered this, and people acquiesced! This almost takes my breath away. She is a singer/actress, for God's sake. See what I mean? "Fame" has become totally ruined.
And did you know it could also be a possession to be lost through divorce? In the late 70s and 80s, while married to the actor Ken Howard and living in Los Angeles, I wrote about a group that had never had publicity before: It was a support group for ex-wives of movie stars. They called themselves "the dumpettes," but the formal group name was L.A.D.I.E.S.?Life After Divorce Is Eventually Sane. I am not kidding; these women had a support group for learning to live without the guy and without the perks?not necessarily in that order. I can vouch for the fact that, even though I always knew it was kinda strange and unfair, one gets used to the access, deference, entree and first-class everything. As one of the ex-wives from the group said, "When you're living with a star, life is a bowl of free shrimp as far as the eye can see." Probably the worst/best/funniest single episode I witnessed along these lines was on an airplane going from one coast to the other. The captain came out, extended his hand and said to everybody's then-favorite 6-foot-6 blond actor, "It's a pleasure to have you on board." My dears, The White Shadow was a good series, but that good?
So here we are in our new century, and just as money doesn't care who has it, so fame doesn't care to whom it attaches. All you need is a publicist and a big mouth, scandals accepted. Eminence and distinction will probably have to wait until the next century. The trash-swilling public has spoken. Vox populi indeed.
Margo Howard is the advice columnist "Dear Prudence" for Slate.