For those who wonder why American newspapers find themselves in such perilous condition, The Scrapbook recommends a look at the November 10, 2011, Style section of the Washington Post.
The front page is almost entirely consumed with a bird’s-eye view of McPherson Square in Washington, site of one of the “Occupy D.C.” encampments, complete with careful identification of renamed sidewalks—Che Guevara Avenue, Angela Davis Avenue, etc.—and minute annotations of its various components: “The chess tent [where] after dark the ‘de-escalation team’ deploys from here to settle conflicts,” “Camp Malcolm [X], formerly Camp Awesome,” the Drum Circle, People’s Kitchen, Chair Massage, Safe Space, and solar panels.
Two inside pages are given over to detailed descriptions of the camp’s various features: A library tent with “a collection as broad as its movement” features titles like The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell. The “camp medic keeps his eye on public health”—although Pietro, devoid of surname as well as medical training, tells the Post, “I personally am opposed to vaccines.” There is even an encampment newspaper, titled (to the Post’s delight) the Occupied Washington Times, after one of the Post’s competitors.
The Scrapbook should explain, at this point, that the Occupy D.C. encampment on McPherson Square, a few blocks north of the White House, is pretty much as readers might imagine it to be: a motley assortment of homeless, aging hippies, college anarchists, suburban radicals, schizophrenics, and guys who line up for free food. Campers have descended on political gatherings around town, assaulting little old ladies and blocking traffic at will, and even driving McPherson Square’s resident family of mallard ducks to distraction. Not to put too fine a point on it, the smell is discernible a block away, and small children are living in tents as the weather descends to the freezing point. And yet, as with Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan, the civic fathers in the nation’s capital seem inclined to permit this unlawful encampment on public property—an appropriation of a much-appreciated urban refuge in downtown Washington—to continue indefinitely.
If readers of The Scrapbook guessed that the Post had chronicled Occupy D.C. in order to lampoon it, or to draw attention to its more disturbing aspects, guess again. The Style package featured a long essay by Philip Kennicott, cultural critic for the paper, who has nothing but admiration to report: The commune is a hopeful symptom of the new urbanism, he explains, and has accomplished “what so many planners, designers and architects strive for but fail to achieve: They have ‘activated’ the urban core.”
Its anti-consumerist ethos, its impatience with the media and its love of theatrical intervention in city life make it a direct heir of the Situationists, a radical European avant-garde collective begun in the late 1950s with ideas that remain influential today.
And so on.
The Scrapbook begs to differ. The urban core around McPherson Square has been exceedingly “activated” for decades, situated as it is in the middle of the city (not far from the Post headquarters, as it happens), and full of office workers, merchants, churches, restaurants, and structures of various sizes, styles, and dimensions. It may be unfortunate to some that the neighborhood has not been activated in accordance with the principles of the Situationists; but the blunt fact is that its longtime residents and denizens are not especially keen on the “theatrical intervention” of these hostile strangers in their midst.
Indeed, The Scrapbook is half-tempted to assemble a few fellow ex-subscribers to the paper and stage a “theatrical intervention” in the Post newsroom, or perhaps at Philip Kennicott’s residence, in accordance with Occupy D.C. practice.
Which leads to a final inquiry: Who, in the editorial/managerial hierarchy of the Washington Post, could possibly have imagined that this celebration of the odious, malodorous, and deliberately obnoxious Occupy movement would appeal to the taxpaying citizens of Metropolitan Washington, who must contend with its unwelcome presence, and might actually be tempted to purchase their newspaper? The Post and its parent company recently suffered an unprecedented decline in circulation and income. Is there any mystery why?
Tomcat of the Senate
The late Ted Kennedy was often referred to as the “lion of the Senate”—perhaps because this sounded better than (the far more apt) “tomcat of the Senate.” Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher tells of her encounter with Kennedy in her new memoir, Shockaholic. Straight out of rehab in 1985, Fisher found herself on a date with former senator Chris Dodd, D-Countrywide, who was then single.
Luckily for Fisher, Kennedy joined the couple for dinner. That may sound like an ominous scenario, but 1985 happens to be the same year, as reported by the late, great Michael Kelly, that Kennedy threw a waitress, Carla Gaviglio, onto a table, breaking several glasses in the process, before depositing her on Dodd’s lap and sexually assaulting her.
On this particular evening Fisher got to witness the Camelot charm firsthand:
Suddenly, Senator Kennedy, seated directly across from me, looked at me with his alert, aristocratic eyes and asked me a most surprising question. “So,” he said, clearly amused, “do you think you’ll be having sex with Chris at the end of your date?”
The comment left Dodd with “an unusual grin hanging on his very flushed face.” Fisher found herself unpersuaded by Kennedy’s attempt to play wingman, and rather explicitly declined to engage in relations with Dodd that evening.
Still, it took more than that to deflate Kennedy’s sense of entitlement. Kennedy pressed on: “ ‘Would you have sex with Chris in a hot tub?’ Senator Kennedy asked me, perhaps as a way to say good night?” Fisher writes. “ ‘I’m no good in water,’ I told him.”
We’d laugh at Fisher’s deserved reputation as an acid wit, if it weren’t a pungent reminder of how Kennedy’s conduct toward women was excused and covered up his entire life.
Always Look on the Bright Side
"Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?” asks our friend and colleague John Podhoretz in the November issue of Commentary, the august journal he edits. He solicited answers from 41 symposiasts, who replied with a diversity of approach and richness of reflection about the nation and its prospects. Among the contributors who should be familiar to our readers are Charlotte Allen, Paul Cantor, James W. Ceaser, Yuval Levin, Harvey Mansfield, Rich Lowry, and James Q. Wilson. And—we hasten to add, with an eye to our job security!—we particularly liked the effort from the guy down the hall, our editor William Kristol. Here’s a taste of his contribution:
Post-9/11, and post-financial crisis, and post-postmodernism, the range of possible outcomes seems amazingly wide and the odds on any of them strikingly indeterminate. I suspect our thinking about the future isn’t yet radical enough, either analytically or prescriptively. . . . So should one be optimistic or pessimistic? God knows. But I do know that conservatives—indeed all friends of political liberty and American greatness—should, in the short term, be agonistic. They need to fight. Fight to defeat President Obama in 2012. Then fight in 2013 to repeal Obamacare, to rebuild our defenses, to restore U.S. credibility abroad, and to establish fiscal, regulatory, and monetary sanity at home. . . . Then the agenda gets more ambitious and less determinate. But more interesting.
If you want to be pushed to think more about that interesting agenda, read the symposium—and subscribe to Commentary (or download its new iPad app).
Joe Frazier, 1944-2011
The death of ex-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier last week reminded The Scrapbook less of Smokin’ Joe’s tenure in the ring—which was impressive by any standard—than of the conundrum posed by his famous rival, Muhammad Ali. Any recounting of Frazier’s career, which involved three storied bouts with Ali, must include descriptions of Ali’s habit of taunting his opponents with racial epithets. Joe Frazier, he would say, was “ignorant,” “ugly,” “dumb,” “a gorilla,” and worst of all, an “Uncle Tom.”
In the words of Matt Schudel’s excellent obituary in the Washington Post, “Frazier, who had admired Ali, was baffled and insulted by what he considered a betrayal of the brotherhood of boxers.” But of course, that was Ali’s intent: The dancing and the doggerel and the racist invective were a psychological ploy to undermine his opponents. He didn’t necessarily mean it personally; it was just business.
That was not the way Joe Frazier saw it, and to the end of his life, he was mystified by his fate in the popular culture. Frazier, a poor boy from rural South Carolina whose first job was holding nails for his one-armed father to hammer, was regarded with disdain by sportswriters and wannabe pugilists—Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield—who swooned at the sight of Muhammad Ali. If you visited the Frazier training camp you would find it was populated almost exclusively by working-class African Americans; drop by Ali’s and you might bump into Woody Allen.
To be sure, it’s a puzzlement. If any other modern boxer had counted among his weapons the habit of hurling racial taunts at opponents—complicated, in this instance, by Frazier’s dark complexion and Ali’s light one—he would rightly have been cast into oblivion. But Ali’s behavior, ranging from draft-dodging to membership in the Nation of Islam, seems to have earned him a permanent niche in the national pantheon. In 1998 the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, published a biography—King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero—which remains the last word in sycophancy.
Frazier was embittered by the curious standards that made him the villain against the celebrity favorite, Ali. But he was also somebody who had risen from the humblest origins to considerable wealth and prominence, and kept a workmanlike attitude toward boxing and life in his Philadelphia retirement. He may have fallen short in the estimation of the Woody-Allen types, but was well aware of how little that counted for.