Since the high-tech Bonanza began in the early 1990s, American journalists have become more European in their vacation habits. Increasingly, you’ll ask why you haven’t seen So-and-So’s byline in weeks, and you’ll be told, "Oh, he has a place in Tuscany for July and August." The evidence of this Christmas is that the idleness is spreading to the holiday season, too. This used to be my big newspaper-reading week. I’d shovel a bit of snow (sometimes), drink a lot of tea and bundle up on the couch with an afghan and five or six papers.
Not this year. There’s a lot going on in the world—at least in North Korea and Iraq. Buildings are blowing up in Chechnya and the Turkish parliament is trying to alter the country’s constitution so the Islamist leader Recep Erdogan can serve as prime minister despite having gone to jail for inciting religious hatred in 1999. But the entire American journalistic profession seems to be on vacation. Charles Krauthammer wrote his column this week on chess. Michael Kinsley wrote an Anyway-I-Was-Just-Thinkin’ piece on Trent Lott and Bill Frist. And elsewhere in the papers, the straining to find things to write about is almost painful to watch. Andrew Whittaker Jr., that black-hatted galoot from West Virginia who won $314.9 million in the Powerball drawing, has been made into a celebrity along the lines of Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic solo flight. As if we care where Whittaker worships (the Church of God), what he eats for breakfast (biscuits) and where he buys his gasoline (the C&L Super Serve in Hurricane, WV). Meanwhile, editors across the country were trying to drum up suspense about the volume of Christmas shopping. "Stores, Shoppers Play Their Cards," wrote The Washington Post on Christmas. "Consumers and retailers are counting on gift cards to pay off this holiday season." I was on the edge of my seat until I read in the lead story in Friday’s New York Times, "Growth in Sales for Holiday Period Is Lowest in Years."
A story like this vaults out of the category of "boring" and into the category of "insulting." It rests on the assumption that readers/viewers are so bereft of interests of their own that they will inevitably leap at any readymade interest the mass media devises for them. It used to be that this type of condescension was reserved for carefully targeted audiences of sports fans, who, even if not lugnuts in terms of IQ, can be said to exhibit a Will to Lugnuttery in their collective behavior at sporting events. Note how much of the video entertainment at a baseball game is oriented around similar phony suspense. There are those prerecorded "races" where three Budweiser bottle caps marked "1," "2" and "3" move along a table. There are those "Guess the Attendance" multiple-choice contests, where the tallies are generally so close together—(a) 41,943, (b) 42,063, (c) 42,102—that there is no skill involved, only the chance for people to cheer moronically when "their" number is chosen at random.
That same edition of the Times also produced the single lamest piece of article-assigning I’ve seen since I was a regular reader of my high school newspaper. Under the headline "A Digit and a World Apart: At 565 Park Ave., Living the Dream; at 1565, Still Dreaming," reporter Alan Feuer examined two apartment buildings: one at E. 62nd St., the other at E. 112th St. Feuer is probably not to be blamed for this. Cannily, the Times was able to ferret out that the building in the heart of the east side, across from the Colony Club, was rich, while the tenement known as the James Weldon Johnson Houses in Harlem was poor. The article was full of compare-and-contrast—diamonds and champagne here, urine in the stairwells there! In our edition of the Times the photo caption ran, "At 565 Park Avenue, above, an elegant co-op apartment building at 62nd Street in Manhattan, there is a liveried doorman. At the brick-faced public housing tower at 1565 Park Avenue, several miles to the north, there is a broken door buzzer."
So what next from the Times? Maybe "1492 and 1942… Despite the Superficial Similarities, Two Very Different Years." Or "Greenwich and Greenland: Behind the Names, a World of Difference."
I fear that one of the nasty surprises awaiting us in the coming months of war will be the discovery that, sometime in the past decade or so, Britain has turned into a "European" country. Princess Diana may have been the shallowest public figure of recent decades, but her death five years ago should have taught us some profound lessons. The English have become—all cliches about their national character to the contrary—emotional, modern and lifestyle-oriented. In short, they’re like us without the empire, and are unlikely to be terribly game to wade into a gas attack in the Iraqi marshes. Tony Blair has been a brick about this whole Iraq business, but pretty much every opinion poll taken in the past year has shown that his voters are decidedly not in his corner.
This Christmas season, the evidence has been all over the place that the Brits are a bit queasy about the alliance. Colorfully so, it must be granted. The fledgling Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave what must be one of the bizarrest Christmas sermons since the Reformation, looking at the Nativity story as a parable about terrorism. In this reading, the bien-pensants urging a war on Iraq were in the same position as the Three Wise Men. The Birth of Our Savior, the Son of Man, the Lamb of God Who Taketh Away the Sins of the World may have been a good thing on balance, Williams granted, and the Magi may have been right to rejoice, but Williams urged us consider the humanitarian fallout, the collateral damage wrought by those bearing gold and frankincense and myrrh. "Telling Herod about the Christ child," said Williams, "they provoked the massacre of the children of Bethlehem." It’s for such subordination of revelation to human rights that the adjective "post-Christian" was coined.
And then, the Today show on BBC’s Radio 4 asked its listeners to vote for an end-of-the-year list of five people "most deserving of honorary status as a British citizen." Nelson Mandela topped the polling with 50 percent of these votes. Bill Clinton and the Burmese human-rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi also ranked high. But guess who else made the top five? Saddam Hussein.
It would be tempting to take some solace in reports that George W. Bush got a few votes. But according to the Guardian, reasons for backing our President included his "contribution to entertainment" and the consolation that "as a British citizen he would no longer be eligible to be president of the USA."
As Russ Smith moves on to what we in Washington call "private life," Iwish him every happiness. This is partly for selfish reasons—since so much of Russ’ happiness has in recent years depended on the fortunes of the Red Sox, there is a good chance that if he is unhappy, I’ll be unhappy. Even if the new owners of New York Press prove models of sound judgment, discernment, wit, sex appeal and largesse, it will be tough to lose the owner who came up with the idea of this column and has stood behind it for the last seven years. It’s been an honor to work for him. Sarava!