What to Do with Liars?; Death of Innocents; Getting Pissed; Journalism When It Wasn't Gross

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Getting Pissed Some years ago in the satirical English organ Private Eye there appeared a marvelous cartoon by Cluff. The scene is in a restaurant. The waiter, pen and pad in hand, is taking the order. The seated diner, returning the wine list, says, "I'll leave the wines to you, waiter, just see that I get completely pissed." Here's another one: it's a two-panel cartoon, in the first of which two men are riding an elephant, observed by two spectators. One spectator says to the other, "Look at the two assholes on that elephant." The second panel shows the riders, now dismounted, lifting the tail of the elephant, inspecting its fundament.

    This is a piece not so much about elephant fundaments as the fundamental, age-old desire of mankind to become intoxicated?to get pissed. The medium?drugs, alcohol, mushrooms, glue, paint, the ecstasy du jour?matters not so much as the desire itself, which, Aldous Huxley wrote, is and always has been a principal appetite of the soul.

    How far back would you like to go? How about to the founding of Western intellectual tradition and Plato's "Symposium"? In the classical Greek language, a "symposium" is a drinking party from "sym," together and "potes" drinker. Socrates, Pausanias, Alcibiades and the others get together at Agathon's place for a philosophical discussion and a piss-up. In fact, most of them are hungover from the "sacrificial feast" (goat orgy?) of the night before to celebrate Agathon's winning the poetry contest with his tragedy. In former times one had to be a considerable Greek scholar to get the whole flavor of this work, because the translations were so insipid. Not so with Christopher Gill's 1999 translation for Penguin, which not only describes the drinking in forthright fashion but also is particularly limpid on the homoerotic goings-on?the sharing of couches, and the jokes, explained in the footnotes, about who is a "soft spearman" and who isn't. Plato says that Socrates, who rarely bathed or wore sandals, got himself duded up on this occasion. The whole scene is reminiscent of the Manhattan Baths, lacking only Bette Midler in the role of "flute girl."

    The next time that you are invited to a symposium, why not inquire what drink will be on offer and whether the sexual orientation will be up your alley?

    Nietzsche says that the apotheosis of art is Attic tragedy, which has its origins in the goat orgies of pre-Hellenic times for which there are no written records, but which, by tradition, are reputed to have been less than sober affairs. Dionysus, the Greek Bacchus, was their patron. Tragedy comes from the Greek "tragos," goat. What took place no one exactly knows, but there is a rumored Greek saying that concludes, "A boy for love, but a goat for pleasure."

    So much for the contributions of intoxication to the origins of philosophy and the arts. Let's move on to mankind's two favorite pastimes: killing one another and sex. The will to combat, says John Keegan, the foremost military historian of our day, has been sustained generally throughout history by drink. He writes about close combat such as at Agincourt in 1415 when the penalty of defeat, or of one's lack of skill or nimbleness, was so final and so unpleasant. The English, he says, were on short rations and presumably had less to drink than the French, but both sides were nevertheless "fighting drunk." It is well known that marijuana served the purpose in Vietnam. As for drink and sex, intoxication has always been a great lubricant. Peter Finlay Dunne says the only thing to be said in favor of drink is that "It has caused many a lady to be loved that otherwise might've died single."

    But there are drawbacks. The Porter in Macbeth has the definitive word: "Drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things... nose-painting, sleep and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance." Literature has its fair share of piss-artists, perhaps no more so than in modern times. Fitzgerald was ruined by drink, but Hemingway, arguably his equal as a drunk, did not let it affect his writing directly. It eventually ruined his health, but he did not booze when he wrote, which was generally in the morning. Hemingway was scornful of Faulkner, saying he could tell in the middle of the page where Faulkner had had his first snort.

    Perhaps the all-time champion high achiever/alcoholic was Winston Churchill. In Wartime Paul Fussell quotes an article in Life magazine by Churchill's private secretary, Phyllis Moir:

    "Mr. Churchill enjoys a drink. At home or on travel, at work or on holiday, Churchill drinks a glass of dry sherry at midmorning and a small bottle of claret or Burgundy at lunch. To Mr. Churchill a meal without wine is not a meal at all. When he is in England he sometimes takes port after lunch, and always after dinner. It is at this time that his conversation is most brilliant. In the late afternoon he calls for his first whisky and soda of the day... He likes a bottle of champagne at dinner. After the ritual of port, he sips the very finest Napoleon brandy. He may have a highball in the course of the evening."

    He ran the war at this pace and lived to be 90 years of age.


    Charles Glass London Desk Beats Working British writers' average annual earnings, before the Chancellor of the Exchequer lops off 30 or 40 percent in income tax, comes to a paltry $24,000. As with acting, why do so many people want a job that pays badly? It's not like it's that much fun, sitting alone in a room wondering what to scribble on sheets of deadly blank paper. Maybe it's because writing, like acting, beats working. For more than a century, good and bad writers have turned their hands to advertising, from Dorothy L. Sayers in the 1930s to Salman Rushdie in more recent years. Nowadays, young writers make more money doing speeches for corporate CEOs than they would doing pamphlets on global poverty or books on massacres in Chechnya. Money goes to the young writers who do p.r. handouts for Microsoft rather than to a new James Agee or John Steinbeck who travels the underworld with his eyes open.

    The Society of Authors survey for 1966 was much rosier: half its members made a decent living. From one out of two in 1966 to one in seven in 2000 is not progress. In 1966, there were probably fewer books, magazines and newspapers published. So, why is there less money? Well, I suppose it's the same globalizing, merchandising, demonizing capitalism that affects all other industries. The money is there, but the wealth is redistributed to the top (if not to the Top Drawer). Most writers scrape by on nothing, while only the top 3 percent earn more than $160,000. Why should writers be immune to a process that has afflicted every other industry?

    The divide in the world of writing between rich and poor mirrors that in the economy of the globe. A prosperous minority of cookery, diet, sex and shopping scribblers take more slices of the pumpkin pie than the third-world pool of writers of political treatises, good novels, plays and columns in New York Press. Of all forms of professional writing, however, book reviewing pays the least: apart from poetry. (I make nothing from poetry, sending it for free only to the woman I love. Only she knows how truly awful it is.) A cost analysis of book reviewing is instructive, in that it opens the strange workings of the writer's demented mind to the light of day. A reviewer must read the book, read related books and articles to "know the literature" and write the review. In Britain, the pay for a book review varies between about $100 to $500?all to participate in democratic debate. It usually works out to about $1 an hour, less if you are reviewing several books together.

    Upon my return from a recent visit to Baltimore, Atlanta and New York, a stack of books on Israel was awaiting my nimble reviewer's treatment. The tomes are, so far, fascinating. One is by the Israeli historian Benny Morris, whose The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (Cambridge, 1987) was one of the first Israeli histories of the campaign to dispossess the Arab population of what became Israel in 1948. His new book, Righteous Victims (published in the U.S. by Knopf), is a longer, more comprehensive study of the intellectual, military, cultural and economic battles over Israel-Palestine since the late 19th century. The others are the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall (W.W. Norton), which looks good so far, and an attack on Shlaim, Morris and the other "post-Zionists" by Efraim Karsh entitled Fabricating Israeli History (Cass). I won't review the books here, because I have a deadline to do one for the London Review of Books. One thing that interested me in Morris' book concerned the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon that I covered as a journalist from 1982 to 1985: "Extortion, intimidation, beatings, and torture became the norm, and Shiite militants from time to time were liquidated in their homes and villages by locally hired assassins or Shin Bet operatives."

    Morris' account reminded me of a story that I did for ABC News in 1984 that the network never broadcast. I had heard stories of Israeli executions of suspected militants from people in the Shiite Muslim villages, from civil servants and from UN soldiers. A camera crew and I spent a week in the south shadowing an Israeli death squad, whom we filmed. Often, the Shin Bet men would "borrow" a car from a Lebanese civilian at a checkpoint and use it to drive unnoticed into a village. They would go to the house of someone on their list, much as the CIA did in South Vietnam during the Phoenix Program, take him outside and kill him. We arrived within 20 minutes of one such execution of, as I recall, three young men. They had been lined up against a wall and shot dead. Their families were just carrying them away for burial and, not surprisingly, weeping. It was, as I was able to write in The Spectator at the time, a dirty war. The story never made air in the U.S. Robert Fisk managed to report it in The Times of London, and a few other European reporters got the story out. The American television viewer never knew about it. Now, thanks to Benny Morris, anyone who reads his book will know what happened and why. I hope Benny, at least, makes some money.


    George Szamuely The Bunker Death of Innocents The New York Times' editorial on the day after the execution of Gary Graham sonorously declared "there is powerful evidence that he did not commit the murder for which the state put him to death." Actually, there is none. Thirty-three state and federal judges reviewed the case over a period of almost 20 years and found no basis for overturning the verdict. To be sure, Graham was convicted on the testimony of a single eyewitness. But that is not unusual. Bernadine Skillern identified him right away and has never doubted what she saw that night. The other witnesses, on the other hand, had changed their stories a number of times over the years. Moreover, at a 1998 hearing Graham presented four alibi witnesses on his behalf, two of whom were relatives, including his wife. The courts found it a little hard to believe that such key witnesses would have forgotten to come forward at the time of the trial. Graham probably shouldn't have been executed, but this judgment has nothing to do with his supposed "innocence." To argue against the death penalty by claiming that the innocent are being put to death in America is foolish. Take the recent Justice Project report "A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995." The death penalty system, it asserted, is "collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes... Nationally, during the 23-year study period, the overall rate of prejudicial error in the American capital punishment system was 68 percent." The media jumped at this finding, assuming it to mean that 68 percent of death row inmates were innocent. The report suggested no such thing. Capital punishment cases are subject to far more intensive scrutiny than other cases. Consequently, there is far greater likelihood of discovering procedural errors and other grounds for overturning verdicts. In 1998, for example, 285 people were sentenced to death; 68 prisoners were executed?about 2 percent of the total on death row; and 80 had their sentences of death overturned or removed. According to the Justice Dept., as of Dec. 31, 1998, of this 80, 48 were serving reduced sentences; 15 were awaiting a new trial; 10 were awaiting resentencing; one was resentenced to time served; and four had no further action taken against them. From 1977 to 1998, 5709 people were sentenced to death. Five-hundred were executed, and 2137 were removed from death row?by appellate court decisions and reviews, or commutations, or death. Thus, if you are sentenced to death, you are four times as likely to escape the punishment as have it carried out. Nonetheless, release from death row is not the same thing as being acquitted. For all its huffing and puffing, the Justice Project was unable to cite a single example of anyone who had been wrongfully executed during the 23 years under study.

    The Times is oblivious to such complexities. The death penalty is objectionable, it thunders, on the "grounds that it is morally wrong and also unconstitutional as being cruel and unusual... The way it is meted out in this country is so grossly arbitrary, so racially unfair and so full of legal mistakes that there is no way to ensure that innocent people will be spared." Why is the death penalty "morally wrong"? Because it is bad when the state snuffs out the life of a human being? Odd. The Times was a fervent champion of last year's destruction of Yugoslavia. It has no problems with the continuing sanctions against Iraq. "By any moral standard, there can be no margin for error when the state takes human life." Tell that to the relatives of the children killed by cluster bombs in Nis. Or the infants dying in Baghdad. Those victims are all innocent?and that is a lot more than can be said about the recipients of the lethal injections.

    And why is the death penalty "unconstitutional"? People have been executed since the earliest days of the Republic. It is a little late now to turn around and say that this punishment is "unusual." As for the death penalty being "racially unfair," no matter how many times this cliche is trotted out there will still never be a scrap of evidence to support it. According to the DOJ, of the 68 who were executed in 1998, 40 were white and 18 black. During that year, a total of 1906 whites and 1486 blacks were awaiting execution. Of the 285 who were sentenced to death, 145 were white and 132 black. Of those who received the death sentence between 1977 and 1998, 50 percent were white and 41 percent black. Of those who were removed from death row during those years, 52 percent were white, 41 percent black. The numbers remain remarkably consistent. Yes, blacks are on death row in disproportionate numbers. But blacks are seven times more likely to commit homicide than whites. Since the white population is about six times that of the black, the statistical disparity, if anything, favors blacks. (Note: the Justice Dept. generally, but not always, counts Hispanics as white.)

    The argument against the death penalty has to be based on something else. Yes, it is possible that innocent people have been wrongly executed. But that is not an argument for the abolition of capital punishment. One could as easily suggest getting rid of the justice system altogether on the grounds that people are wrongly imprisoned all the time. To be sure, while there is life there is hope. But that is scarcely much comfort to someone sentenced to life without parole for a crime he did not commit. Moreover, there is something truly repellent about The New York Times demanding hate-crimes legislation one minute (which serves no other purpose but to make punishment extra-severe) and shrieking about mistakes in the system the next. If we are to do away with the death penalty, let's at least be consistent and stop visiting death on the innocent, whether at Waco or in Belgrade.


    Taki LE MAÎTRE The Eternal Dilemma At Conrad Black's (Canadian newspaper tycoon and owner of the Telegraph group that includes The Spectator) annual summer garden party for royals, politicians, writers and a few socialites, I spot James Rubin and his wife Christiane Amanpour. Rubin sticks out from the crowd because he's the only poseur present, a phony, a smiling wallet-lifter among the great and the good. There is nothing quite like a soft summer London evening in an extraordinarily beautiful house with tens of liveried butlers serving champagne. There are beautiful young women like Allanah Weston and Nicola Formby and Katie Braine, and very wise and learned men like Sir John Keegan, Paul Johnson, Lord Thomas, Lord Rees-Mogg and so on. There is Sir Tom Stoppard, England's greatest playwright, and Lady Anne Somerset, a beautiful historian. There is the King of Greece and Lady Annunziata Asquith, and Princess Alexandra of Kent. There is Prince Andrew, thick as a plank, and responsible for the Fergie fiasco, but still a man who flew helicopter missions for his country during the Falklands War. There is Prince Michael of Kent, even thicker than his nephew, and his pushy and greedy wife, Marie-Christine. There is Hans Coudenhove, introduced to me by David Pryce-Jones, the esteemed writer who is Jewish, as the youngest Panzer commander in the last great war. Coudenhove was in the Second Panzer Division, described by Pryce-Jones as, "the most gallant and cleanest division [of Nazi elements] in the Wehrmacht."

    Despite our host being a newspaper tycoon, there are very few journalists present. Unlike in America, in Blighty members of the Fourth Estate are considered only one step above child molesters and one down from pimps. This is why Rubin sticks out. He's got the tv talking-head look, the shameless gimmickry of false earnestness hiding the arrogance of the shallow. For a moment it crosses my mind to go over to tell him what I think of him (a liar on a par with Sid the Scumbag Blumenthal), but of course I do nothing of the sort. It is very bad manners to embarrass one's host, so I unburden myself to England's greatest brain, Paul Johnson, and leave it at that. When I arrive home it is dawn, so I call up George Szamuely in New York and announce that I beat the shit out of Rubin. Szamuely is exultant, screaming with delight until I tell him the truth. He hangs up in despair and disappointment. It's the eternal dilemma. Should one act in a civilized manner toward people whose mendacity has no bounds? Well, a certain candidate for senator for New York has lied throughout her life, and she's favored to win in November. The man who holds the highest office in the land has lied throughout his life, and the American people have elected him twice. The Clintons have made lying acceptable, just like swearing in public has been made acceptable by Hollywood's constant use of the F-word. Rubin knew all along that what he was feeding us was one big lie, but he was only serving a bigger liar, Madeleine Albright, who, in turn, was serving the biggest liar of them all. Al Gore, needless to say, is a quick learner. He will follow the Clinton way, which is that there is no right or wrong, only spin.

    And speaking of liars, after three years in power phony Tony Blair's honeymoon with the press is starting to go sour. The people, too, are starting to be turned off by Blair's lies and spin. The Blairite state, like the Clinton one, seeks to be the central arbiter of personal relations?between the races, between the sexes, between town and country. It divides people into categories and then tells them how to treat one another?whom to employ, how to address each other, and, even more important, how not to address each other. The Blairite state enforces these morality rules with a growing cadre of bureaucrats and thought policemen. There are plainclothes detectives who are actually sent to pubs with the power to fine or arrest people who use racist language.

    Just as Clinton plays the race card to the hilt?remember how much mileage he got from the church-burning of a few years ago, which turned out to have had nothing to do with race? Or the Oklahoma City bombing, which did not turn out to be the fault of Rush Limbaugh, as Clinton hinted??Blair stigmatizes the old "elites" as being the ones who have held England back.

    The Blair con trick worked until recently. Then people began to realize that it was all spin. The national health service is among the worst in Europe and has got much worse in the last three years. Ditto education. Blair did away with the House of Lords, a responsible and extremely wise body, and replaced it with his cronies and apparatchiks. Taking yet another page from Clinton's selling of the White House to rich contributors, he has ennobled rich types who even 20 years ago would have been considered unfit to run public companies. The government has consistently lied about taxes?indirect taxation has skyrocketed?and lied about the amount spent on education.

    Blair handles the media even better than Clinton. Access is given only to friends. Hundreds of spin doctors work overtime to improve Blair's image. Even the type of shirt Blair wears or the sort of tea mug that he clutches are matters of great calculation. It's a long way from Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, who both told it as it was and to hell with the repercussions.

    Still, even the Clinton disease could not spoil it for me. A wonderful party at Highgrove, Prince Charles' house in Gloucestershire, Royal Ascot, the aforementioned garden party?made it all worthwhile.