John Powers

Paranoia Strikes Deep

I've spent the last few months dreading The Manchurian Candidate, Jonathan Demme's remake of the outrageous political satire that was shunned by audiences back in 1962 but has been celebrated by critics ever since. John Frankenheimer's original was one of the most bracingly inventive American movies of the last 50 years, a witches' brew of Cold War paranoia, Freudian camp, hipster absurdism and a nihilism so subversive that it spooked even the film's star, Frank Sinatra, who helped keep it in the vault for nearly a quarter-century following its initial release. It would be impossible to recapture such far-out audacity, and Demme wisely doesn't try.

The new movie takes place in an exaggerated version of today's security-mad America, with suicide bombs blasting Denver and corporations pulling the puppet strings of political life. As if that weren't scary enough, Army Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) is caught in an even more terrifying nightmare. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, he and his Army recon team got ambushed by the Iraqis and were saved by the derring-do of one Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who guided them through enemy territory to safety. Or so Marco remembers. But can he trust his memory? Or did somebody brainwash his unit back in Kuwait?

To keep from completely losing it, Major Marco begins dogging Shaw, now a robotically liberal vice-presidential candidate pushed forward by his overbearing mother, conservative Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep). Marco's pursuit of Shaw plunges him into the phantasmagoric whorls of a conspiracy populated by a perky-mysterious supermarket clerk (the fine Kimberly Elise), a peacenik senator (Jon Voight, not acting loony for once) and a scientist pal, played by Bruno Ganz, who resembles an old toad happy to have been brought up, croaking, from the bottom of some dank, ancient well. Meanwhile, lurking in the background is the enigmatic business concern Manchurian Global – whose closest political ally is Eleanor Prentiss Shaw.

Although dulled by a soft-minded epilogue, The Manchurian Candidate marks a splendid return to form for Demme, a filmmaker I've rooted for ever since the 1970s, when idiosyncratic pictures like Handle With Care, Melvin and Howard and Something Wild held the fort of personal filmmaking against the invasion of infantile blockbusterism that made the 1980s the worst movie decade in American history. He was apparently knocked off balance by the success of that 1991 juggernaut The Silence of the Lambs, and followed it up with a pair of unimportant Big Important Films. While Philadelphia was distressingly conventional (it proved that gay people are human, too), the 1998 Oprah Winfrey vehicle Beloved took scads of chances but was crushingly dull – shocking from a director who had cut his teeth making movies like Caged Heat and Crazy Mama. By the time Demme reached The Truth About Charlie, his 2002 remake of another '60s touchstone, you heard people whispering that maybe he'd lost his chops. But for all that film's faults, Demme wasn't really trying to redo Stanley Donen's Charade. He was trying to rethink it, give it a whole new spirit. Which is precisely what he pulls off in The Manchurian Candidate.

Frankenheimer's original movie was based on a 1959 best-seller by the late Richard Condon, a vivid pop novelist who wore his cynicism as jauntily as Sinatra did his fedora. Steeped in the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s, Condon's novel both tapped into and sent up the Cold War hysterias of both left and right. The book was crazy-clever, and in adapting it, screenwriter George Axelrod (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Lord Love a Duck) added whole new dimensions of lunacy. While Demme's version (written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris) preserves the story's original arc, it plays things much straighter – it's more thriller than send-up. Demme makes no attempt to mimic Frankenheimer's gaudy, Wellesian imagery or capture the hallucinatory wit of the original garden-party brainwashing scene. This Manchurian Candidate is consciously modeled on the Cinema of Paranoia spawned by the Nixon years, including The Parallax View, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and William Richert's Winter Kills (an underrated personal favorite, also based on a novel by Condon). Demme and photographer Tak Fujimoto ratchet up the sense of uncertainty and dread with looming close-ups of characters facing the camera as potentially sinister figures enter the background. We share Major Marco's edgy disorientation, a feeling captured by the movie's slyly ambiguous tagline: "Everything is under control."

The question, of course, is who's controlling whom? Without spoiling things, I can tell you that this new Manchurian Candidate portrays a corporatized America dominated by companies like Big-Mart, a chain that takes in trillions each quarter; a touch-screen voting company analogous to the real-life company Diebold; and, above all, Manchurian Global, which comes off as an unholy hybrid of Halliburton and the Carlyle Group. In such a world, politics is mere shadow play. It doesn't matter which party Raymond Shaw or his mother belongs to – Manchurian Global is a contributor to both.

With its timely references to terrorism and run-wild corporations, the filmmakers are clearly hoping to update the hell-raising spirit of the original, which gleefully punched America's hottest buttons – fear of the Reds' diabolical scheming and fear of McCarthyite extremism. But what seemed daring 40 years ago has become routine in our post-assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-9/11 world. These days, heady cynicism is the culture given – the TV program 24 makes The Manchurian Candidate seem like All the President's Men. Because we already live in an era of nonstop political paranoia and conspiracy mongering, fiction must struggle to equal, let alone outstrip, reality. That's why this Manchurian Candidate's most relevant theme is its anxiety about brainwashing, a fear that makes perfect sense in an era of inescapable media messages, mood-altering drugs, and microchips implanted in the human body. (Indeed, nothing that befalls Major Marco proves nearly as disturbing as what happens to Jim Carrey's Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the brainwashing isn't political but personal – an assault on individual identity.)

Still, if Demme's version lacks the wallop of its predecessor, it is more likely to be popular with contemporary audiences, who will enjoy not only its labyrinthine twists but its stars' burnished professionalism. Although Washington can't rival Sinatra's jaded, nicotine-cured angst, he always relishes the chance to burst the mummy-tape of his physical perfection. As Major Marco, he gets to. He takes the trademark Denzel role (the genuinely righteous man), then has him walk the line between sanity and madness. When someone accidentally bumps him on the street, his ranting makes bystanders scurry away.

And yet he seems far saner than Raymond Shaw, the apparently emotionless hero-turned-politico who could all too easily become an unlikable cipher. That happened in the original, where he was played by dry-ice pretty boy Laurence Harvey. Shaw gets a better deal from Schreiber, whose bitter mien suggests inner torment and an elephant's memory for grievance. You can see why he shone as Hamlet. Playing Shaw as a welter of painful memories and bottled-up passions (Schreiber's small mouth accentuating his inability to express his real feelings), he brings nuance, even pathos, to a joyless man caged within the bars of himself.

He's been locked in there, of course, by his mother. When The Manchurian Candidate came out in the '60s, part of its iconoclasm lay in Angela Lansbury's garishly harsh portrait of star-spangled motherhood – apple pie laced with ground glass. Such domineering mothers have become a pop commonplace – reaching some sort of apotheosis in Nancy Marchand's Livia Soprano. No fool, Streep doesn't attempt to trump Lansbury's chilling turn as the maternal Queen of Hearts. Instead, she plays Eleanor Prentiss Shaw as an infinitely more cutthroat Liddy Dole or Hillary Clinton, a modern-day Lady Macbeth who schemes on behalf of the son she both idolizes and treats (to lift a line from Grace Paley) as the prize cut of beef in the meat locker of her heart. Although she spent much of her early career being asked to suffer in close-ups, Streep is an extraordinarily witty actress who can deliver a good line like a stiletto through the ribs. And her best lines capture what's always been fun about The Manchurian Candidate – our rollicking pleasure in its wickedness. There may be no more splendidly ruthless moment in a movie this year than when Senator Shaw explains the facts of life to her son. "The assassin always dies, baby," she says. "It's necessary for the national healing.

Sore Winners

Following is an excerpt from chapter four of John Power's "Sore Winners," published by Doubleday.

Halfway into the 2002 NFL season, 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens scored a touchdown against the Seahawks in Seattle. Crossing the goal line, he flabbergasted everyone by pulling a Sharpie from his sock, autographing the ball, and handing it to his financial advisor in a nearby box seat. The next day, the sports media were shrieking about hotdogging, bad sportsmanship, today's spoiled athletes – and what kind of example is this for our kids? Me, I just laughed out loud. Owens's silly stunt was simply routine braggadocio that was inevitably topped one year later when the Saints' Joe Horn celebrated a TD by pulling out a cell phone he'd planted in the end zone and making a celebratory call. The next day, the sports media were shrieking about hotdogging, bad sportsmanship, today's spoiled athletes – and what kind of example is this for our kids?

It's long been part of our national self-image that Americans are Good Winners. When Yankee soldiers triumphed over Burgoyne's army at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, British prisoners were impressed by the victors' polite silence — there was no gloating or jeering. When U.S. troops entered Germany after World War II, they didn't indulge in an orgy of rape as did the Soviets but helped rebuild the country, winning a caricatured reputation for being beaming men with chocolate bars. And when the U.S. Olympic hockey team won its famous "Do you believe in miracles?" victory over the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980, the players exulted in their triumph without getting in the Russians' faces.

In truth, no country always behaves well in victory. Sometimes our Winners have been gentlemanly; at others, vulgar and ruthless. Just ask the foreign basketball players flattened by Charles Barkley at the Barcelona Olympics. During the heyday of Social Darwinism, capitalists worked people to death without the slightest qualm and made no apology for it – try to form a union and goons would come after you with clubs. Meanwhile, the rich exulted in their wealth. The delightfully named Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish held a 1904 dinner party in honor of her dog, which turned up in a $15,000 diamond collar at a time when the average annual income was $380. Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller explained his fortune to a Sunday school class by declaring, "God gave me the money."

The Bush years may be the coarsest period in our nation's history since those days. To my amazement, I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the comparatively modest ill manners of the Reagan years, when the U.S. invaded countries like Grenada and "Junk Bond King" Michael Milken was on the prowl. Today's Winners don't simply win, they win badly: bragging, sneering, lording it over the Losers, and promoting themselves with a crassness that would leave Duddy Kravitz blushing. When Hurricane Isabel knocks out the power in much of Washington, D.C., the Redskins' billionaire owner doesn't just get a huge generator to restore his own electricity but turns on all his lights, so that his house glows like the Vegas strip while his annoyed neighbors sit in the dark.

Practicing the "look out for yourself" philosophy preached in his books, Bill O'Reilly gloats about how many copies he has sold, accuses critics of "envy," and uses his media platforms to pitch his books and "The Spin Stops Here" tchotchkes. Seventeen-year-old hoops phenom LeBron James drives to high school in his $50,000 Hummer, not even bothering to pretend that he's a regular student. And careerist wiseass Dennis Miller, who now embraces George W. Bush on CNBC the better to kick the underdog, justifies a bellicose U.S. foreign policy by saying, "We are real good at what we do and the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. As that gap gets wider, they'll hate us more and more and more. We are simultaneously the most hated, feared, loved, and admired nation on this planet. In short, we are Frank Sinatra, and you know something, the Chairman didn't get to be the Chairman lying down for punks outside the Fontainbleu." On the worst day of his life, Ol' Blue Eyes, who grew up poor in Hoboken, was more idealistic about America than that.

Such Bad Winners aren't simply found in the media. We encounter them every day, from the workplace where higher-ups treat employees like "the help" to the service industries where "the help" is treated as something even lower: I recently watched an Armani-besuited woman park her Mercedes SUV in the middle of a busy street near a restaurant, dodge through traffic, and toss the keys to the busy valet parker, snapping, "I don't have time to wait for you." Granted, this was in Beverly Hills, but once such behavior was for spoiled teens. Now you find such thuggishness everywhere. It's certainly out front in business, whose leaders pride themselves on their brutality, as Donald ("You're fired") Trump made clear while pitching the stretch-limo fantasy The Apprentice: "I think there's a whole beautiful picture to be painted about business, American business, how beautiful it is but also how vicious and tough it is. The beauty is the success, the end result. You meet some wonderful people, but you also meet some treacherous, disgusting people that are worse than any snake in the jungle."

For decades, we were told that company owners and CEOs made a lot more than their employees because they were taking enormous risks. If they made bad decisions, they'd lose their jobs, while workers could just punch the clock and collect their paycheck. That fantasy has been turned upside down in a world in which CEOs of failing companies get extra stock options even as they lay off workers and bankrupt their pension plans. In October 2003, The Economist ran a cover story about executives that pictured a gargantuan carrot and asked, "Where's the Stick?" Yet what makes today's business leaders galling isn't simply their greed – that's always been part of the picture – but their shamelessness.

Consider the much-bruited case of Peter Olson, chairman and CEO of Random House, who goes through the publishing world brandishing his big balls as proudly as a gaucho his boleadora. So pleased is he with his bullying that he allowed The New York Times Magazine to record his regal behavior at the 2003 Book Expo America in Los Angeles:

On his way back to the Random House booth, Olson stopped to chat with a man who now runs the Frankfurt Book Fair. "I fired him,'' he said a moment later. "I recognize hundreds of people here. Many of them worked for me. Many of them I fired personally.'' He did not seem upset by this. In fact, he seemed amused. He walked a few steps farther. "I fired him,'' he said as two men passed by. "There are so many people here that I've fired that we could have a reunion.'' Olson's smile broadened.

By the time Olson showed the reporter his stuffed lion – "I can't help it, I always gravitate toward the predators" – he wasn't merely being a Bad Winner, he was making a production of it, like one who'd studied old tapes of Goldfinger to see how a crowd-pleasing supervillain behaved.

When Tyco chairman and CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski was indicted for fraud and conspiracy, it emerged that he not only defrauded the state of New York of more than $1 million in sales tax on purchases for his art collection but got Tyco to fork out more than $135 million in largely forgiven loans and personal expenses. As James Stewart observed in The New Yorker, "The less he actually needed Tyco's money, the more he felt entitled to take it."He's not the only one. On NPR's Fresh Air, antitax zealot turned Beltway powerbroker Grover Norquist stunned the host, Terry Gross, by actually comparing the estate tax to the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Such vaulting brutishness can't be blamed on George W. Bush, but he has done nothing to humble the Winners. He couldn't be less like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, no small egomaniac himself, who helped knock apart the Gilded Age because its ignobility gnawed at him: "Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth." The Bush administration is a veritable hive of bad winners, whether it's the President scowling peevishly at questions that Reagan would have dispatched with a joke, the Vice President sneering that energy conservation is no more than "personal virtue," or Rummy treating everyone from reporters to generals as if they were no brighter than whelks. Nothing betrays such arrogance more than Republican big shots' public boasts that the GOP is becoming the "natural" party of power – a norteno version of the PRI, the kleptocracy that ran Mexico for seventy-one years. They brag about placing Republicans in key lobbying slots of K Street, freezing out PACs that don't ante up, and using congressional redistricting to ensure that the GOP keeps winning more seats. Such political hardball is hardly unprecedented. Although less ruthlessly, the Democrats played many of the same tricks for years. What's new is how flagrantly Bush and his party flaunt tactics it was once thought politic to keep hidden. It's no longer enough just to do these things, one must make a public meal of it.

The rich and powerful aren't the only ones who have grown flush with pleasure at their privilege. Marx famously declared that the ruling ideas of any age are those of its ruling class, and conservative intellectuals have been busily crafting the Winners' postmillennial ideology, from elaborate arguments for American militarism to defenses of high-end consumerism. Over the last few years, we've been inundated with tomes such as Kagan's "Of Paradise and Power," which insists that the United States has the duty to run the world; Joseph Epstein's smug "Snobbery: The American Version," in which the Northwestern prof riffs on status-mania (from the seat of his $45,000 Jaguar); and James B. Twitchell's sharp "Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury," a volume urging us, not quite ironically enough, to think of luxury as "the necessary consumption of the unnecessary." Now, that's a phrase I bet L. Paul Bremer didn't try out on the Iraqis.

The most amiable of these works is David Brooks's “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” a self-described piece of "comic sociology," which argues that our new upper class represents sort of a Hegelian synthesis of bourgeois aspiration and bohemian lifestyle. As you'd expect of the New York Times's house neocon, Brooks is a master at giving us right-wing politics with a human face. I recognized many of my own foibles in his descriptions. Free of the reflexive contempt for middle-class life that weakens so much cultural analysis, he fills his book with astute social observations, good-humored swipes at the Bobo taste for pricy water and Tshirts – " We spend our money on peasant goods that are created in upscale versions of themselves" – and self-deprecating asides: "I sometimes think I've made a whole career out of self-loathing." It's an amusing line, although Brooks doesn't strike one as being another Roy Cohn. The Pangloss of patio culture, he seems eminently satisfied with the world and his place in it – he hadn't been an editor at The Weekly Standard for nothing. Bobos in Paradise is finally far less eager to question the values of today's Winners than to endorse them. "Bobos have reasons to feel proud of the contributions they have made to their country," Brooks tells us. "Wherever they have settled, they have made life more enjoyable (for those who can afford it)." An entire vision of the world reveals itself in those parentheses.

Early on, Brooks argues that our new ruling class, which replaced the old WASP version, is a creation of America's modern meritocracy. Individuals rise through their accomplishments, not inherited status. And this, conservatives insist, is as it should be. That's why they oppose preferential systems such as affirmative action – except, of course, for members of the elite. One of the most preposterous examples of such thinking came in “In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History,” by Saul Bellow's son, Adam, an extremely thick book of thin propaganda. Vaclav Havel once remarked that there's always something fishy about an intellectual on the winning side, and the younger Bellow does nothing to prove him wrong. The book's basic idea is pretty much what we've come to expect from conservative writers – a defense of the ruling order and its perks. Bellow argues that our so called New Nepotism is a good thing because the privileges of birth have become bound to "the iron rule of merit." Although the children of the rich and powerful clearly have more opportunities than the rest of us – posh schools, open doors, powerful allies, a sense of comfort with the elite – this is still a far cry from traditional nepotism, in which parents hired their kids outright or pulled strings to land them a good position. Whatever your connections today, Bellow insists, you still have to earn your success. This is certainly true of the NBA, where Bill Walton can't just call up David Stern and get his son Luke a good contract with the Lakers. But what of Colin Powell's son, Michael, whom Bush appointed chairman of the FCC? What of Dick Cheney's daughter Elizabeth, a deputy assistant secretary of state? What of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who's married to Senator Mitch McConnell and had as acting solicitor for the Labor Department Eugene Scalia, the son of – oh, no one in particular.

And then, of course, there's the Nepotist-in-Chief, with whom Bellow wisely dispenses very quickly. Dubya's cushy rise from hot tempered party boy to underqualified president is not exactly a career that leaves one wanting to praise nepotism. Nor did a lacerating Los Angeles Times expose that chronicled corporate America's latest trick for buying up votes in Congress: Companies simply hire as their lobbyists the children of U.S. senators whose votes affect their industry. For instance, John Breaux Jr. and the distinguished Chet Lott (a pizza-parlor manager in Kentucky) suddenly landed high-paying jobs as lobbyists for BellSouth. What stellar achievements landed them these gigs? Their fathers, Louisiana Senator John Breaux and Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, just happened to be on the Senate committees that voted on telecommunications legislation.

Predictably, Breaux and Lott and the many others in Congress with lobbyist relatives swear that they would never give a special break to a corporate cause just because their own flesh and blood happened to be representing it. Just as predictably, cases like this don't get a whole lot of play from Bellow, who, with the suaveness of one who can declare the Borgias "a remarkable family," seems blind to the elitist corruption at the heart of his argument. On the side of the Winners, he's too busy declaring nepotism an "art" that can be practiced well or badly. Then, too, so is winning. Part of doing it gracefully is knowing how to have your own way without making everyone else feel small.

Passion Show

I don't know about you, but I was sick of Mel Gibson's Jesus movie about six months ago. By that point, New York Times columnist Frank Rich had already smacked The Passion of the Christ -- sight unseen -- for potential anti-Semitism, and L.A. Times media critic Tim Rutten (who also hadn't seen it) compared producer-director Gibson to an "unwholesomely willful child playing with matches." In retaliation, Fox's Bill O'Reilly attacked the baleful "secularism" of those who would criticize the film -- Mr. No Spin has a business deal with Gibson's production company, incidentally -- while in The New Yorker, the devout Mel was placidly turning the other cheek, saying of Rich, "I want his intestines on a stick." You can take the movie star out of Braveheart . . .

Naturally, that was just the beginning. It's a Bush Culture trademark that the media stagger from one seizure to the next -- Janet Jackson's bare knocker, Howard Dean's yeaargh, Dubya's dodgy military record. Lately we've been deluged with stories piggybacking on Gibson's movie. CNN broadcast Who Was Jesus? Newsweek's cover asked, "Who Really Killed Jesus?" And Dateline sent Stone Phillips to Jerusalem to investigate the real story of Jesus' final days. (I kept waiting for a CSI team to turn up and do DNA work on the nails.) Gibson was working the cultural refs as energetically as Bobby Knight. Even as his face popped up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, wearing a thorny crown made of celluloid, the man himself was turning in a spooky performance on ABC's Primetime. Jumpy, jokey and possessed by The Truth, he seemed like the wacked-out hero of Conspiracy Theory impersonating . . . Mel Gibson.

It's easy to make fun of this conga-line of idiocy, yet there's a reason why Gibson's movie and the hoopla surrounding it have claimed so much attention. More and more, Americans address huge social issues not on news shows, op-ed pages or the campaign trail, but through popular culture. We use Michael Jackson and Eminem to explore racial identity, Martha Stewart and Buffy to examine changing ideas of womanhood. With The Passion of the Christ, our modern secular culture has bumped against a homegrown explosion of fundamentalist belief. Where the Singaporeans and French confront such an issue by banning Muslim head scarves in public schools, Americans do it by talking about a motion picture.

Of course, were it not for Gibson's celebrity, the movie would have struggled to get any publicity. Although the Christ myth dominates Western civilization, our mainstream media pay shockingly little attention to Christian life (aside from those modish pedophile priests) and even less to Christian art. The "Left Behind" series sells books by the Rapturous millions, but these novels get far less media coverage than the thrillers of that Oliver North wannabe Tom Clancy. Even a well-reviewed film like the recent Gospel of John got virtually no ink except in its connection to The Passion of the Christ.

To be fair, you can understand the media's fascination with Gibson's fascination with the Passion. It's unheard of for a movie star to ante up $30 million of his own money to make any film, let alone an earnest, literal-minded version of Jesus' final 12 hours. Such ambition alone would make Gibson's project newsworthy, but his story offers the added frisson of two clashing patrimonies. On one side is Gibson's 85-year-old father, Hutton, who is (to put it charitably) a crackpot: A traditionalist Catholic, Gibson père is an anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and says Jews want to establish "one world religion and one world government" -- he vocally insists that they're conspiring with the Vatican and U.S. Federal Reserve. On the other side, Gibson is a child of a Hollywood film industry famously invented by Jews (in Neal Gabler's phrase) as "an empire of their own." While that empire has faded, it is the Jewish community that feels most threatened by the visceral feelings that could be unleashed by this cinematic Passion Play, which, in Gibson's conception, finds the essence of Christianity not in Jesus' teachings but in his blood sacrifice. Over centuries, Jews have suffered from the passions unleashed by the Passion.

From the beginning, the tug-of-war between Hutton and Hollywood has shaped our perception of The Passion of the Christ. No one doubts Gibson's sincerity or religious fervor -- his movie's about "the Christ," after all, not just any Christ. Donning the mantle of the holy fool, he has done the supposedly uncommercial thing of aspiring to biblical "truth" and "realism," laying on endless scenes of excruciating goriness -- Gibson's work has always shown a taste for ultraviolence and martyrdom -- and making his characters speak in Aramaic and Latin, meaning the film must be subtitled. Yet even as he has vaunted himself for keeping his story "pure," he's been up to classic movie industry tricks, from casting handsome Jim Caviezel as Christ -- you won't find Paul Giamatti playing the Redeemer in Mel's picture -- to employing a marketing strategy so cynical Harvey Weinstein could only genuflect in admiration.

Gibson and his people got oodles of free publicity by pointedly excluding Jewish viewers from early screenings -- playing Rich for a patsy in the process. Later, they claimed to have gotten an Ebert-style "thumbs-up" from Pope John Paul II, the very man Gibson and his father actually disdain as a false pontiff, a betrayer of the true faith. Gibson may genuinely want to spread the gospel, but he's not exactly heroic about it. For centuries, missionaries bravely ventured into foreign lands where merely expressing their beliefs could get them killed. Ever the Hollywood control freak, Mel didn't want to show his movie to anyone who might not be with the program. It's not for nothing that his company's called Icon Productions.

The PR strategy obviously worked. Not only has the movie sold millions of dollars' worth of advance tickets -- Variety predicts it will turn a tidy profit -- but it gobbled up acres of free publicity. Much of the mainstream media seems to have been mau-maued into treating the film as a Serious Event. Tuesday's L.A. Times took the depressingly unprecedented step of running its (negative) review on the front page, as if the film were a big news story -- "Extry, Extry, read all about it: Messiah nailed to cross. Jews under arrest." The movie also received schizophrenic reviews from mainstream critics like Time's Richard Corliss, who, after beginning with obligatory praise for Gibson's integrity and craftsmanship and blah-blah-blah, makes it clear that he dislikes the film and detests its unrelentingly sadistic delight in Christ's torture. "He takes a flaying and keeps on praying," writes Corliss, who credits The Passion of the Christ with inventing a new genre -- "the religious splatter-art film."

Although the discussion leading up to the film's release focused on whether it might spark violence against Jews, an even larger story may be the ongoing clash between fundamentalism (in this case, Gibson's dangerously blinkered, old-school Catholicism) and the whole of our mass media, which is itself a kind of modern church. Because it's rooted in secularism, pluralism and materialism, this media culture prefers to deal with religion as lifestyle accessory (Buddhism is cool), social philosophy (anti-war priests), comforting spiritualism (Joan of Arcadia) or time-honored metaphor (Willem Dafoe as a Christ-figure in Platoon). Faced with hardcore faith in sacred mysteries, most mediacrats don't quite know what to do. This was obvious in Gibson's Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, who acted as if she'd never before met a true believer. At one point she solemnly asked, "Do you believe that God wrote this film?" The question struck me as utterly clueless -- but Mel paused to think about it.

And so, I suspect, would millions of other Americans. One reason the coverage of Gibson's movie has been so hysterical is that the high-powered editors and producers on the two coasts have finally begun to grasp just how thoroughly contemporary America has become steeped in religion. After all, it's one thing to know abstractly that 60 percent of Americans believe in the mumbo-jumbo of Creationism, quite another to have a born-again president address the issue of evolution by saying, "Religion has been around a lot longer than Darwin." It's one thing for that faceless 60 percent to think that the Bible is accurate history, quite another for a world-famous movie star to insist that the gospels are literally true. (By the way, do you think that 60 percent of modern Greeks believe that Zeus and Hera actually lived on Mount Olympus?)

For those of us who are devout nonbelievers, the international resurgence of "traditional" religion is dreadful news, whether it's murderous Islamist militants with an eye on celestial virgins, expansionist Israeli settlers who believe their God gave Jews the land, Hindu fundamentalists who burn Muslims to death in Indian religious riots or literal-minded Christians who believe their purchase on the truth overrides the Constitution (think of Judge Roy Moore and his 10 Commandments statue) or any concern about the polarizing anger their beliefs might engender. As one faithful to secular, tolerant democracy, I happily defend Gibson's right to make The Passion of the Christ and to show it wherever he can -- he's entitled to his religious beliefs. But as one who thinks that Christianity is only one myth among many -- "Christianism," my old colleague Michael Ventura liked to call it -- I wonder whether Mel would do the same for me.

Fight for Your Rights

"Difficile est saturam non scribere," declared Juvenal, the great scourge of Roman corruption: "It is difficult not to write satire."

The task has gotten no easier in today's America, where political reality often seems like a joke cooked up by The Daily Show. Back in March, Justice Antonin Scalia, the intellectual Torquemada of Supreme Court conservatives, went to Cleveland to accept the local City Club's "Citadel of Free Speech Award." Demonstrating his love for the First Amendment, he banned broadcast media from his speech and refused to answer any questions from reporters.

But the previous day at John Carroll University, Scalia had let it all hang out. "The Constitution just sets minimums," he declared with unnerving bluntness. "Most of the rights you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires."

The Bush administration evidently agrees, for ever since 9/11, it has been rolling back civil liberties that most of us take for granted. The most obvious example is 2001's preposterously acronymed USA PATRIOT Act (as in Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). This hastily thrown-together bill was passed 96-1 by a Senate whose members didn't have time to scan its highly detailed 342 pages, let alone ponder its niceties. Flouting numerous principles of constitutional law, the act gave the federal government unprecedented new power to secretly round up suspects, hold them indefinitely without charge and snoop into people's private lives (phone calls, credit-card bills, library records) by invoking national security in a special closed court.

Bad as it was, the PATRIOT Act didn't turn America into a police state. Howard Dean isn't under house arrest; the Dixie Chicks haven't been "disappeared"; I don't write these words in fear that I'll be arrested and put in a cell with Andrew Luster ("Whatever you do, don't fall asleep!"). Of course, things would have been much worse had John Ashcroft been allowed to run as wild as he desired. Indeed, one fascinating detail to emerge from Steven Brill's massive, breathtakingly anal "After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era" is that the attorney general's initial proposals were so nakedly repressive that they shocked Republican congressmen and the White House, neither of which he'd bothered to consult as he laid waste to the Constitution. Even they thought he sounded like a witch-finder general.

If most Americans don't yet view the PATRIOT Act as an assault on our common rights, this is largely because its worst provisions have barely touched them or the people they know. The real target has been Muslim noncitizens, hundreds of whom have been locked up at inordinate length -- unnamed, uncharged and sometimes physically abused -- for the sort of run-of-the-mill immigration violations that I myself have committed in other countries that somehow managed not to jail me with no legal recourse. And things are every bit as dire at the Guantanamo Bay base, where, virtually the whole world agrees, the U.S. government's treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners (some of them children) is in clear violation of the Geneva Accords.

Although less disgraceful than World War II internment camps, such rough justice is so un-American as to be shocking. Yet it comes as little surprise that it has prompted scant outcry from elected officials, the mass media or the population at large. For starters, it takes courage to oppose restrictions on freedom after a traumatic terror attack, which is why vaunted liberal politicians quickly hopped aboard the PATRIOT Act juggernaut ("Hello, Senator Kerry." "Hi, Hillary.") and New York Times Constitution-hugger William Safire didn't start bashing Ashcroft until almost two months after the legislative damage had been done. But there's a deeper attitude at work here, too. As Michael Kinsley recently noted in Slate, Americans have become blase about the liberty that some of those imprisoned noncitizens risked everything to get. "After 230 years," he observed wryly, "we don't need to love freedom in order to have it." Most of us -- as Kinsley admitted of himself with disarming honesty -- don't bother to do the homework about the state of our constitutional protections.

Well, it's time to get started. For even as the White House fights hard to protect its own "right" not to tell us things that might prove embarrassing -- it has blocked public release of the 800-page congressional report on 9/11 and refused to reveal the workings of Dick Cheney's secret energy task force -- our own freedoms are being whittled away.

Just consider:

In March, the Senate passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which will be ratified by the House this summer and signed into law by President Bush. This marks another step in the slow dismantling of abortion rights, a process that could suddenly kick into high gear if Bush is able to appoint a new Supreme Court justice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.

On May 27, the Rehnquist court gutted the 1966 Miranda decision designed to assure suspects' rights against self-incrimination. It accepted the Bush administration's chilling argument that "police can hold people in custody and force them to talk, so long as their incriminating statements are not used to prosecute them." In this particular case, the court ruled that police were justified in interrogating Oliverio Martinez, who'd just been shot five times, once in the face, and was shrieking for help even as they grilled him.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is proceeding with Total Information Awareness (TIA, now renamed Terrorist Information Awareness), a program headed by former Reagan National Security Adviser John Poindexter, an admirable fellow who was convicted in 1990 of five counts of giving misleading and false statements to Congress. (The conviction was later overturned on a technicality.) Working under the aegis of the Pentagon, Poindexter's Information Awareness Office intends to create a vast electronic dragnet that would (among other things) let the FBI, CIA and other intelligence groups reconstruct the movements of citizens through scrutiny of bank records, credit-card purchases, e-mail messages, phone calls, government forms, drug prescriptions, library checkouts and even the movies we buy on pay-per-view. Done in the name of anti-terrorism (what isn't, these days?), TIA implies a level of Big Brotherish snooping that has even me listening for the black helicopters.

And if all that weren't enough, the White House is currently seeking to fill the lower courts with more Scalias and Clarence Thomases, right-wing judges who threaten to use the bench to push through the ultraconservative agenda the Republicans can't muster the votes to pass into law.

Naturally, it's tempting to blame our eroding liberties on a president who has joked more than once that, compared to democracy, "a dictatorship would be a whole lot easier." (Any thoughts on that one, Dr. Freud?) But Bush's lack of concern for our rights is hardly unique to him or his party. Just last month the California Assembly displayed an utter lack of concern for its constituents' privacy in the face of corporate power: By an egregious 9-3 margin -- which suggests a small fortune in campaign contributions -- a Democrat-dominated committee killed a landmark bill that would require our written approval before our financial information could be sold to telemarketers and other businesses. Perhaps the committee members thought we enjoy all those mechanized, dinnertime phone calls.

This, too, was no aberration. Although Republicans are perceived as moralistic champions of the punitive crackdown -- anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-Hollywood, anti-anti-anti-anti -- the Democrat Party is itself not exactly bursting with loyalty to the idea of personal freedom. Accustomed to defending government power against conservatives eager to privatize everything, it often loses sight of the state's own capacity for tyranny.

This blindness was on display during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who, after executing the retarded Ricky Ray Rector as part of his 1992 election campaign, led an administration known for high-profile civil-liberties debacles -- from the slaughter in Waco (which killed children in order to save them) to the jackbooted seizure of Elian Gonzalez. Eager to prove himself tough on crime, Clinton was behind both the 1994 crime bill, which expanded application of the death penalty for over 50 crimes and forced communications companies to make their systems wiretap-ready, and the ghastly Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which limited habeas corpus petitions by the condemned. The latter bill led ACLU chief Ira Glasser to a crushing judgment: "When historians write the story of civil liberties in the 20th century, they will say that the Clinton administration adopted an agenda that has everything to do with weakening civil rights and nothing to do with combating terrorism."

Before I'm inundated with angry letters, let me add that I'm not denying the difference between Clinton and Bush. Although disappointingly "moderate," Clinton's judicial appointments were less reactionary than his successor's and his attitude toward government more committed to ordinary people. If Clinton expanded the state's power over the individual, he also believed that the state has profound responsibilities to the individual: It is there to provide life-enhancing services. Not so Bush, who pursues a far cruder ideological agenda. Even as he exploits fear of terrorism to chip away at constitutional rights, he champions the inalienable rights of property (think of his horror at the "double" taxation of dividends) and mistrusts the idea of public services being provided by the government -- which is why he apparently doesn't mind bankrupting it with his budget.

Still, the fact remains that both Republicans and Democrats have willingly backed policies that increase the government's power at the expense of constitutional rights; they are part of the same continuum. That's one reason why we're seeing the collapse of the old categories of left and right. These days, the strongest voices for civil rights come from the anti-corporate left and the libertarian right -- The Nation lies down with the Cato Institute. For the left, this is not without its awkwardness. It means recognizing that Bob Barr, the mouth-breathing Georgia congressman who was among the first to call for Clinton's impeachment, has worked hard to diminish Ashcroft's assaults on the Constitution; it means acknowledging that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a wacko Texas right-winger, led the fight against the Bush administration's proposed Operation TIPS, a Stalin-worthy scheme designed to get millions of Americans reporting on each other to the authorities. (Now, that's Neighborhood Watch.)

While it's easy to scoff at the libertarian right, whose ideas about personal property make Bush look like Proudhon, its soaring confidence provides a valuable jolt of pro-rights energy in a period when too many progressives have fallen into a hysterical defeatism: They keep trying to paint a Hitler mustache on Bush or to inflate cheap attacks on Sean Penn into a new McCarthyism. It's a measure of the left's disarray that one senses in it a perverse nostalgia for the glory days when Der Fuhrer was hanging communists on meat hooks or Tail-Gunner Joe was ruining the lives of supposed "Reds." You know, back when the left occupied the high ground, morally superior and doomed.

Now, there's no denying that these are hard times for our civil liberties, which are feebly defended by the centrist ruling elite (which complains about the loss of rights only after it has voted to remove them) and erratically covered by the mainstream media, which get riled up only by attacks on freedom of the press. Then again, we should never count on our liberties being defended by leaders of any kind. As the great socialist Eugene V. Debs famously declared, "I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you out." The same logic holds true here: If we expect other people to protect our freedoms, then other people can also take them away.

To stop this from happening, one has to fight -- even when it's hard or boring. This means paying heed to the machinations of Washington (the Bush administration feeds on the public's lack of attention), sending money to constitutional-watchdog groups such as the ACLU (which Kinsley aptly terms the canary down the mineshaft of constitutional rights) and, if necessary, carrying the battle to the streets, which is where most of our freedoms were won in the first place. Although the Bush administration encourages a pacifying sense of powerlessness (think of Dubya's air of lordly disdain about the anti-war demonstrations), it is fearful of popular opinion -- it hasn't forgotten that the majority of voters were against him last time. When the shockingly tyrannical provisions of PATRIOT Act II were leaked to the wider world, the instant outcry helped stop things cold -- even Bill O'Reilly got into the act. Once the public heard about Operation TIPS, which turned informing on one's neighbor into a national ethic, the revulsion was so powerful that Congress wound up explicitly banning it. After the media finally began covering the FCC's recent decision on media ownership, the reaction was so negative that the Senate Commerce Committee actually found the courage to roll it back (though the White House is likely to push for it once it falls off the radar).

Such triumphs may not sound big and glamorous, but that's how freedom is usually gained -- slowly, painfully, against the wishes of those in power, however benevolent they may think themselves. As Woodrow Wilson put it during the 1912 election campaign: "Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance."

Wilson was absolutely right, which is why on Independence Day, 2003, it's worth remembering that the constitutional freedoms we enjoy weren't sent down from heaven or plucked off a tree. They were born of centuries of struggle by untold millions who fought and bled and died to make sure that our government can't just walk into our bedroom or read our mail, can't throw us in jail without proving to the world its right to hold us, can't torture us into making confessions, can't compel us to pray to a god we don't believe in or prohibit us from saying whatever damn thing is on our mind. It's our fault and our shame if we forget that such hard-won liberties can be taken away by the likes of Justice Scalia, that constitutional minimalist, who won't simply feel self-righteous as he takes away our rights, but will do so behind closed doors where there are no TV cameras or reporters to ask unwanted questions about all we've lost.

George of the Jungle

When George Bush made his daredevil landing last week on the USS Abraham Lincoln -- an aircraft carrier obviously chosen to give him some Great Emancipator mojo -- the event's iconography came straight from "Top Gun," but its essence was worthy of "Hot Shots!" Everyone knew the whole thing had been choreographed to provide the president with big-dick footage for his 2004 re-election commercials. Reducing the sailors to extras in the war they actually fought, Bush wrapped himself up in the bright banner of their triumph. He knows that America likes winners.

Rupert Murdoch's minions know it, too. Even as Fox News portrays Saddam's ouster as being only marginally less heroic than World War II (and with much cooler visuals), Fox's "American Idol 2" doesn't merely grab millions of viewers -- it keeps reassuring them that they're players in a hit show. A couple of weeks ago, smirking host Ryan Seacrest, who resembles a tree slug impersonating the MC in "Cabaret," welcomed us with exciting news: "American Idol 2" wasn't just the highest-rated program, but a song by the contestants, "God Bless the U.S.A.," was the number-one single, and the new album by last year's winner, braying Kelly Clarkson, had reached the top of the charts. The studio audience roared, thrilled to feel itself at the center of -- what? Bush culture?

By now, everyone is aware that America has become a two-tier society in which CEOs make 200 times more than their workers (it was only 40-1 in 1980) and political candidates woo wealthy contributors but scrupulously avoid even mentioning the poor. What makes the Bush administration distinctive is its embrace of a philosophy we might dub Populist Social Darwinism. It boasts of returning power to ordinary people ("we want to give you back your money"), then pursues policies that will produce a few highly visible winners and unravel the social safety net, leaving the majority of people to fend for themselves.

Naturally, such political values don't flourish in a vacuum, and it's no surprise that today's most memorable TV shows are reality programs such as "Joe Millionaire," "The Bachelor" and of course, the aptly named "Survivor," all of which are essentially Darwinian games of selection, extinction and survival. Supreme among them is the riveting "American Idol 2," whose calculated junkiness is so transcendent that I can't decide whether to be aghast or genuflect. The show succeeds in taking the hoariest of ideas -- the old-fashioned talent contest -- and transforming it into the mirror of our national life.

One must envy the cunning (or luck) that led its producers to scuttle the first word of the original British title -- "Pop Idol" -- and replace it with "American," a depleted adjective suddenly reinvigorated by 9/11. As it turned out, the renewed patriotic flourish of this word could hardly have proved more fitting. The winners of "American Idol" aren't so much genuine pop stars, who succeed through the mysterious workings of talent and mass taste, as they are manufactured American idols. In the end, success has far more to do with fulfilling cultural fantasies than knowing how to put across a song.

You don't need to be a music whiz to understand this. You need merely listen to Joshua Gracin, one of the four remaining finalists, who's been hailed in Entertainment Weekly for his "Garth Brooks twang." Wrong. There's only one striking thing about the 22-year-old Josh: He can't sing a lick. Yet week after week, the public votes to keep him on the show, even as affable panelist Randy Jackson declares that Josh's pitch was sharp, and fussy Simon Cowell gripes that a singer so rotten wasn't kicked off the first week. (What a masterstroke of cliché to make the truth-telling villain a bitchy Brit!) But Josh does have two things going for him. He's a Marine and this is wartime. And evidently that's enough in the current climate. "When Josh crooned the first few lines in the group's 'God Bless the U.S.A.' performance," wrote E.W., "he left no doubt that he's proud to be an American. And we should be proud to have him as an Idol." Josh may not have the stuff of a real idol, but he's got a uniform to prove he's American.

So are the other contestants, of course, but some Americans are more equal than others. After the April 30 show, a friend who'd never seen the series called to ask, "Is it just me, or is that show blatantly racist?" Actually, neither. From the beginning, one of "American Idol"'s scariest features is watching this country's invisible voters boot off accomplished black performers in favor of lousy white ones. This may have reached its nadir last week, when the talentless Josh was one of three "safe" contestants while the two dark-skinned African-Americans, single-named Trenyce and mountainous Ruben Studdard, were made to sweat -- one of them had been voted off. The shocker was the possible elimination of Ruben (one comes to know them all by their first names), a Luther Vandross in waiting who is so clearly the competition's best singer that the panelists were rolling their eyes and suggesting, not all that subtly, that the public needs to kinda, you know, vote honestly.

This isn't to say that last week's vote was an overt racist attempt to knock black singers off the show, though such feelings are doubtless part of it. At my parents' lily-white retirement home in the Midwest, all the golfers root against one guy. Guess who? Still, the show's skewed balloting probably has more to do with an insidiously casual racism based on familiarity and comfort. Just as NFL owners pass over promising black coaches in favor of white retreads with whom they feel socially at ease, so perhaps "American Idol 2" viewers tend to vote for the contestants who somehow seem the most like themselves -- or their dreams of themselves. Which tells you something about the demographic for flag-waving "event" television. If this show were broadcast on wigger-happy MTV, both the music and the voting would have a different racial cast.

In the end, Ruben lived on to sing again, and Trenyce, who may now want to reclaim her real name, got the hook. But she didn't depart without doing her bit to fatten the Murdoch fortune. It's part of the diabolical genius of "American Idol 2" that the contestants aren't merely enlisted into commercials for the show's sponsors -- you know, Ruben and Clay crooning for Ford -- but are also used to cross-promote other Fox product. Last week, Josh, Ruben, Clay, Trenyce and Kimberley were filmed at the premiere of "X2." Afterward, they told us how fab the movie was (could they have actually seen this dud?), and their praise was folded into the show. In Trenyce's last hurrah, they even used digital effects to turn her eyes milky-white, just like Halle Berry's Storm. As she walked off the stage for the last time, leaving behind America's most popular Marine to mangle more music, she may well have been pondering the cruel law that still underwrites "American Idol" and, for that matter, American Populist Social Darwinism: survival of the whitest.

Connoisseurs of schadenfreude have had a delightful week. Alabama fired its football coach, Mike Price, after it was revealed he'd spent $1,000 on (and an unconscious night with) a stripper whose name, Destiny, proved all too uncannily true. Iowa State's basketball coach, Larry Eustachy (the state's highest-paid government employee!), was forced to resign after photos showed him at a post-game Mizzou party guzzling beer and nuzzling a coed. Dude, never kiss the chick whose boyfriend is holding the camera. While these Coaches Gone Wild moments allowed sportswriters to mount their high horses -- does anyone worship and loathe their subjects more intensely than these wannabe jocks? -- these stories gave me no pleasure. One shouldn't exult in another man's frailty. But I must confess that I hooted when Newsweek and The Washington Monthly reported that manatee-shaped Republican William Bennett, America's former drug czar, ex-secretary of education and tireless Clinton scold, has gambled away up to $8 million in casinos over the last decade.

To be fair, for all his well-paid sanctimony about America's moral decline -- he gets 50 grand for a speech and made a small fortune from "The Book of Virtues" -- Bennett has done nothing illegal, nor has he ever spoken out against gambling. But it does seem convenient that the only victimless vice that he doesn't denounce just happens to be his own -- the guy seemed plenty happy to imprison poor drug addicts. Still, the most pathetic part of the story isn't that Bennett lost all that money but that he lost so much of it in the dehumanized realm of the slots and video poker. I don't know what grandiose fantasy Bill thinks he's living, but it ain't exactly 007 at the chemin de fer table in Monte Carlo.

Moving Beyond Smart

Near the end of the Reagan era, I once found myself at a cocktail party talking with Norman Mailer, who couldn't stop talking about his dislike of yuppie culture. "Do you know the worst thing about it?" he asked, rattling off words like a Brooklyn bookie. "It places its highest value on astuteness."

Now, Mailer himself was never exactly what you'd call a sucker. By the early 1950s, he'd grasped that, in a society dominated by mass media, literary fame was less a matter of writing great books (though that did help) than making oneself a public personality. With no little canniness, he began creating advertisements for himself a full 40 years before Dave Eggers -- with a wink displaying his own commercial acumen -- declared his own staggering genius.

Still, over the years, I've come to think that Mailer got it pretty much right. If the '60s and early '70s were shot through with a sentimental, often dopey idealism, the last two decades have put a premium on a particular, and extremely narrow, idea of being smart -- wised-up, pragmatic, detached.

Our culture has made a fetish of knowingness: which tech stock is hot, which designer is about to break out, which movie is number one at the box office, which cable show is being spoofed on Saturday Night Live, which Internet site sells the cheapest everything. The flip side of all this knowing has been a loss of courage, a terror of appearing foolish if we champion lost causes, hang out at yesterday's hot club or (god help us) admit to tearing up at the uncle's death in Spider-Man. At times, it seems that American life -- or at least that part of it portrayed in the media -- has become a ghastly version of high school in which everyone is supposed to be one of the cool kids. Small wonder that the era's key signature has been a free-floating irony that allows almost anyone to be in on the joke, while remaining outside and beyond everything else.

For years, such cultivated knowingness felt inescapable. It was there in Seinfeld's smug dithering, David Letterman's pre-heart surgery cruelty to ordinary people and the Coen Brothers' snickers at almost everything. It inhabited Jeff Koons' meta-kitsch sculptures and Jenny Holtzer's desiccated truisms (no less banal for adorning museum walls). It stared out from Vanity Fair covers, desperate to be the first to announce the impending superstardom of Gretchen Mol (oops!), and from ESPN's wiseass anchors who clearly think their quips are more enjoyable than anything a mere athlete might do. It even prompted the vogue of Don DeLillo, whose dazzling-cold sentences have a disco-ball brilliance -- all those memorable riffs on car crashes, football, Hitler -- yet can't make you care what happens to a single one of his characters.

This worship of "smart" has had its analogue in the political world, most damagingly among liberals and leftists, who have long been drawn to elitist intellectual style (think Adlai Stevenson). They spent eight years calling Reagan "stupid" -- as he steamrolled them -- and, evidently learning nothing from the experience, have continued doing the same with George W. Bush, who skillfully masks his actual elitism with an affably folksy persona that is a construction (as we discover in "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush," the new book by his ex-speechwriter, David Frum). People laughed at Bush's malaprops as he snatched the presidency from A-student Al Gore, and you still hear them calling him "dumb" as he completes a far more successful first two years than the promiscuously intelligent Bill Clinton.

Watching today's bloodless, pragmatic Democrats' feeble attempts to confront Bush always reminds me of CNN's original Crossfire back when raging bull Pat Buchanan was paired with sly, bespectacled Michael Kinsley. Buchanan would spout some conservative boilerplate aimed straight at the listener's gut, then Kinsley would make a wry, twinkly, debating-society response that may have had some imaginary Oxford audience shouting "Here, here," but got him flattened in the rough-and-tumble of a TV talk show. You always wound up knowing what Buchanan thought about every subject, while wondering what exactly Kinsley believed in -- other than his own ability to make smart arguments. Caught behind his frozen grin, he seemed unaware that knowing isn't everything.

Nor, for that matter, is knowingness. Well before 9/11 supposedly rang the death knell of irony (thank god Larry David slept through it), there were countless signs that the Age of Smart had begun to crumble from its own brittleness. Letterman was waxing positively avuncular, Eminem was exploding pomo playfulness with roaring emotion, and self-important Jonathan Franzen was stripping away some of his highfalutin intellectual armature to write his pointedly touching family novel The Corrections (although he did get all snooty about Oprah).

Of course, ingrained cultural habits die hard, and these days it's fascinating to watch our brainy artists struggling, not always successfully, to push beyond smart without sinking into the mindlessness, anti-intellectualism or cheap sentimentality that defines so much of mass culture. In recent movies alone, you can see this effort in Steven Soderbergh's heartfelt but chilly Solaris, Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, which finds pathos in satire, and Charlie Kaufman's script for Adaptation -- a tug of war between narcissistic cleverness and human empathy that falls apart when Kaufman merely folds his solipsism into the film's last half-hour rather than trying to overcome it artistically.

Perhaps the most revealing example of this is found in Todd Haynes' widely acclaimed Far From Heaven. Having studied semiotics at Brown, Haynes is a certified member of the Smart Generation, and his movie's conceit -- re-conceiving Hollywood melodrama a la Douglas Sirk -- makes it sound like the pinnacle of freeze-dried intellectualism. Yet ironically, the film's shortcoming is that its simplistic picture of the 1950s doesn't really challenge a contemporary audience; it flatters our prejudices rather than making us rethink them. In fact, the story's pull is almost purely emotional. Far From Heaven's power lies not in its period re-creation or notions of gender and race but in the traditional stuff of tearjerkers, such as the heartbreaking separation at the railway station of Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert (who play the scene with irresistible conviction). People aren't liking this movie because it's smart -- it actually should be a lot smarter -- but because it makes them cry. Haynes' flagrantly postmodern style once again makes weeping at the movies intellectually respectable. Which I, for one, think is a good thing.

This isn't to say that I'm hoping to be bombarded by Hollywood tearjerkers or feel contempt for those who dare flaunt their intelligence. Indeed, if you want to learn something about race in the American '50s, you'd be better skipping Far from Heaven and picking up "The Time of Our Singing," the remarkable new novel by that full-fledged brainiac Richard Powers (no relation). Spanning six decades of post-Depression U.S. history, the book is a family epic about three half-Jewish, half-black kids, the Stroms -- Jonah is a classical musical prodigy, Ruth becomes a Black Panther, and the narrator, Joey, gets caught in between.

Powers' work is always formidably intellectual (even his touching Galatea 2.2 is about a man's love affair with an A.I. "woman"), and here he keeps us reading intently for 600-odd pages without ever quite achieving the full-blooded richness that most of us want from a work of this reach. You can sense Powers laboring to make us care deeply about the Strom family -- he wants to engage our hearts as well as our heads -- but the book's real interest lies less in its small moments of poignancy than its blizzard of ideas about race, music, history, physics and the boundless significance of time.

Deep into the novel, Joey Strom -- who has always tried to remain a neutral mediator on every issue -- comes to realize a simple truth: "Whatever you did or said or loved took sides." And in his words, we find a reminder that what's always been most deadening about the Age of Smart is neither its reflexive irony (which can be awfully damned funny) nor its knowingness about such things as good restaurants (hey, I like eating well, too), but its air of passionless detachment. For all his intelligence, Powers is no disembodied brain, but an artist profoundly committed to fiction's power to take the world seriously, engage in its complexities and explore questions of love, freedom and justice. He's too smart to simply be smart.

John Powers is a columnist and editor at L.A. Weekly .

Bush Bashing

Power-worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.
--George Orwell

Long before the Republicans' victory on November 5, George Bush was already tormenting his opponents. They'd watched him get away with murder -- using "compassionate conservatism" to further enrich the rich and impoverish the government, turning the War on Terror into an instrument of imperial hubris, and feigning outrage at the corporate crimes committed by his fellow crony capitalists while secretly working to dilute any remedy. But the agony came to a head on that Tuesday night when the country was told that Bush's "historic" success in midterm elections was proof of just how popular he is.

Now, you could hardly blame Bush and Co. for gloating about how much they weren't gloating -- after all, they'd won. But during hours of coverage most memorable for James Carville putting a wastebasket over his head, you hoped that at least one of those countless newsfolk would find a moment to inject some skepticism into the triumphalist official storyline. You know, point out that anomalous-seeming midterm results are not unprecedented (at the peak of the Clinton impeachment fever in 1998, Democrats gained House seats), or maybe ponder the unseemliness of a commander in chief who, on the brink of leading his country into war, would set new records for fund-raising and campaigning on behalf of a single party. Dream on.

Of course, Bush has enjoyed a soft ride from the very beginning. You got some inkling why if you watched Journeys With George, Alexandra Pelosi's breezily vacuous behind-the-scenes HBO documentary about traveling on the press plane with Bush's 2000 campaign. If you think the Iraqi parliament is supine ... Even as George W. demonstrated his skill at joking with media folk he actually disdains (he'd obviously honed his banter in countless frat houses and locker rooms), the press corps revealed itself as a pack of self-described lemmings who weren't about to risk their access by asking the candidate tough questions. They did what they were told, asked Bush for his autograph (!) and fawned like those desperate chicks on The Bachelor each time he strolled back to their area of the plane. Where the reporters on the Democratic plane actively disliked Gore -- turning his coverage negative -- the opposite was clearly true with Bush. As the Financial Times' Richard Wolffe told Pelosi, "He charmed our pants off."

Their pants have stayed off, and Bush has been not so much reported on as robed in mythology. At first, the media failed to unmask the carefully crafted myth that he's a political centrist (his policies may be even more right-wing than Reagan's) and helped perpetuate the tired myth that he's a dope, an idea that, astonishingly, we're still supposed to find screamingly funny: Last week's Saturday Night Live opened with a skit in which Bush keeps getting confused about the number of U.S. senators. You're slaying me, dude.

After 9/11, the press began selling us a third myth -- that Prince Hal Bush was inexorably growing into his job. He was compared to both plainspoken Harry Truman and, once his speechwriters began cribbing from famous speeches, the eloquent Winston Churchill. Yet, he has never been so lionized as he is today, now that the conventional wisdom has him bestriding the narrow world like a colossus. Andrew Sullivan has compared him to JFK, a New York Times article declared "A Bush Dynasty Begins To Look Real," and The Weekly Standard's David Brooks has offered doubters a warning: "Never, ever, ever underestimate George W. Bush. It took me two years of being wrong about Bush before finally I got sick of it. The rest of the pundit class had better catch on. He is a leader of the first order."

Behold the wisdom of the power worshippers. Me, I recall how Papa Bush enjoyed an even better first two years than his son -- overseeing the collapse of communism, "winning" the Gulf War -- and still got the boot after a single term. As Orwell wisely suggests, what's happening now doesn't have to keep happening forever.

Such a thought may be the only consolation left for the Democratic Party, which, ever since the Republicans stole the presidency and learned the dark arts of Clintonian triangulation, has been little more than a defeated ooze, like a mollusk that has misplaced its shell. Faced with a hard-line Republican president whose values most Americans don't share, the party has been terrified of standing up to Bush's personal popularity. That job has fallen to liberal-left pundits who've spent the last 22 months wondering why a press corps that obsessively nailed Clinton and Gore for small, private fibs keep failing to point out the president's habitual dishonesty on huge public issues such as taxes and war.

The president's ongoing success clearly drives these Bush bashers crazy, and their rhetoric has grown progressively more aggressive and frantic; suddenly, everyone's starting to sound like the barking dogs at Media Whores Online, the shrill, Gore-loving blog that never stops shrieking about the Bush administration's duplicity and the media's complicity in helping it thrive. The Nation's Eric Alterman asked why reporters can't flat out call Bush a liar, Salon's Brendan Nyhan wrote an article called "Making Bush Tell the Truth About Iraq" (bring out the thumbscrews!), and over on PBS, Bill Moyers raved, "If you liked the Supreme Court that put George W. Bush in the White House, you will swoon over what's coming. And if you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture." The hysteria is infectious, and each time I turn on The Capital Gang, I half expect chipper Mark Shields to start braying like Chris Matthews.

From the beginning, the president's most effective establishment critic has been New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who neatly characterizes the Bush administration as "an extremely elitist clique trying to maintain a populist façade." Because he's a renowned Princeton economist who actually understands markets and finance, nobody has more forcefully exposed Bush's lies about his tax plan, Social Security and corporate reform. Naturally, this has made him a bête noire of the right, subject to frequent intellectual and personal attacks by The Wall Street Journal and sleepless Andrew Sullivan, possibly the world's most richly sponsored blogger, who's obviously far more concerned about Krugman's integrity than about his own.

These days, part of the drama of Krugman's writing is seeing just how nuts the Bush presidency will finally make him. When he began writing for the Times, he was clearly not accustomed to the mud-wrestling that's become part of political journalism, but over the nearly two years since Bush took office Krugman's measured Ivy League cool has gradually turned to a boil. His charges have grown more sulfurous -- he accuses the White House of smear campaigns against its critics -- and his rhetoric more openly populist. Writing after the election, he declared, "we're going to have an extended sojourn in the political wilderness" (and he never really stuck me as a "we" guy). Krugman's even begun chiding the rest of the press for its feebleness in exposing Bush's lies. Little by little, he's becoming the Angriest Economist in the World, bound so tightly with tension and anger -- and competitiveness -- that he's even begun lashing out weirdly at allies. A few weeks ago, he mocked Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley for his tardiness in noticing Bush's lies, when all along Kinsley has actually been one of Krugman's key rivals at exposing the president's dishonesty.

Still, such minor eruptions look positively healthy compared to what Bush has done to Gore Vidal's head. In a long, sneery 7,000-word piece for London's Observer that's been widely distributed on the Internet, Vidal describes the Bush-Cheney "junta" as "Hitlerian" and says the president deliberately didn't stop the 9/11 terror attacks so that he would have an excuse to conquer Afghanistan, partly in the service of Unocal's oil plans. Now it's easy to see why such a theory appeals to Vidal's aristocratic narcissism. After all, his interpretation of American history has always focused on the very elite that he himself was born into, thereby putting him (unlike the rest of us slobs) at the center of our national history. This is his own version of power worship.

Trouble is, Vidal's explanation of 9/11 is unconvincingly loony -- a grab bag of anti-American insults, self-contradictions and bogus pieces of "evidence." (To think he had the gall to insult Oliver Stone for distorting history!) While it's possible that Vidal thinks he's being amusingly provocative -- this has always been one of his vices -- such rubbish from a famous writer actually helps Bush by making his critics seem not merely unserious but unhinged. Indeed, like nearly all conspiracy theories, Vidal's account of our president's diabolically hidden schemes is actually bad politics -- it distracts us from all the hideous policies that are being enacted in plain sight. After all, we hardly need to inflate George Bush into a 007-level archvillain in order to make him worth bashing. He's plenty bad enough just as he is.

The Summer of Stolen Children

Deep into "The Lovely Bones," the new best-seller by Alice Sebold, the novel's narrator -- a 14-year-old named Susie Salmon who has been raped and murdered by a serial killer -- gazes down at her neighborhood from heaven. "Our house looked the same as every other one on the block," she says, "but it was not the same. Murder had a blood red door on the other side of which was everything unimaginable to everyone."

One can only wonder what terrible imaginings nourished the recent emotional outpouring for 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, whose abduction, violation and death prompted a funeral ceremony in which private mourning turned into a public spectacle joined by absolute strangers who drove for two days to attend. Feelings ran high at the Crystal Cathedral that evening, and had I been present, I might well have been caught up in the ecstatic display of communal grief -- a true moment of catharsis in what's being treated as the Summer of Stolen Children. But watching the funeral on TV, I could only cringe at our networks' genius for turning sorrow into bathos.

None was more shameless than CNN, whose on-air "talent" milked the event like a stableful of demented dairy farmers. Larry King introduced Dominick Dunne with his usual delicacy ("We're an hour away from an emotional funeral service for little Samantha Runnion. Hear his take on her awful murder."). Quoting the dead girl's words about loving her family, reporter David Mattingly ordered the camera to zoom in on one of Samantha's drawings. And Aaron Brown lapsed into maudlin pseudo-profundity: "This is a child who was just weeks from the second grade, who will never know the most simple things of life -- a new bicycle, a first date, the anxiety of a final examination or a broken heart." If Samantha had been an old woman, her funeral would have dwelled on what she'd done with her life, but as she was only 5, it could only make a fetish of her death.

Although the murder of a child is always especially horrible, it's not often that one is deemed particularly newsworthy, let alone granted hour after hour of live national coverage in a world of trapped miners and beached whales. What made the Runnion case a media event was how neatly its storyline filled the needs of cable-TV news. Samantha was a cute little white girl of respectable parents (unlike Danielle van Damme) from an apparently safe neighborhood in Orange County. Her avenger was media-savvy Sheriff Mike Carona, who seemed to have stepped from Central Casting with script in hand (he dubbed her "America's little girl"). And her tale was perfectly calibrated to satisfy our dwindling national attention span: The case didn't drag on like that of Elizabeth Smart, stolen from her home in Salt Lake City, nor did it unfold too quickly, as happened with St. Louis' Cassandra Williamson, whose abduction and murder 36 hours after the Runnion funeral gave viewers too little time to identify with the characters involved.

Everything about Samantha's story made it easy for people to say, as they often did, that she had become "like our own little girl." While such expressions of empathy from ordinary people were often touching, it was creepy getting this from broadcasters busy using the tragedy to jack up their ratings. Indeed, each time I heard it, I was reminded of a line from Ian McEwan's novel "The Child in Time," about a father whose daughter is snatched from a store and suddenly belongs to the public domain. "The lost child was everyone's property," McEwan writes, and part of the horror of the Runnion case was watching America's little girl become the property of those who would bend her life to their own purposes and then abandon her.

Of course, American broadcasters are hardly the first people to exploit a child's death to win an audience. Back in the 1840s, Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop" contained the fabled death of Little Nell, a scene of a dying girl so extravagantly mawkish that Oscar Wilde joked that you'd have to have a heart of stone to read it without laughing. But at least Dickens was a sincere sentimentalist who gave Nell a life to lose. Today's storytellers haven't the slightest compunction about treating dead kids as simple narrative devices -- a trigger for easy emotion or shorthand for parental motivation. In the new film "Sex and Lucía," a young girl is accidentally killed just so her mother can be driven to animalistic sex with a stranger. The tactic is balder still in Spielberg's "Minority Report," where a kidnapped young son becomes the excuse for Tom Cruise to believe ardently in the Department of Pre-Crime (which, as a good Hollywood liberal, he knows to despise).

Still, none of this is as pernicious as the relentless news coverage of stolen children, which has turned our airwaves into a vast ministry of fear (to use Graham Greene's famous phrase). The parents I know live in eternal dread that their briefest lapse of attention could have fatal consequences -- "I'm already overprotective," says a friend about her 7-year-old -- and cable news does them no favors by making stories of kidnap and murder the wallpaper of daily life. We're being force-fed paranoia each time a rabble-rouser like Bill O'Reilly claims that 100,000 kids are grabbed every year by strangers when the correct number is closer to 600 (welcome to the No Facts Zone!).

Nor is the damage undone when Aaron Brown declares that "we're not in some epidemic of kidnapping" and then spends the next 15 minutes dwelling on the case of another kidnapped child. Brown's behavior makes a mockery of his words, rather like when a woman asks her husband if he loves her and he answers "yes" without looking up from the Dodgers game.

Although the Summer of Stolen Children is a creation of excessive media coverage -- an obvious kin to last year's Summer of the Shark -- the recent child kidnappings and murders actually do seem to have taken on a more frightening resonance in the aftermath of September 11. Now, nowhere feels safe. This connection appears to have been grasped by Sheriff Carona, whose initial words to the kidnapper ("We will be relentless . . . We will hunt you down and arrest you") neatly echoed President Bush's threats to Osama bin Laden. One reason the Runnion case produced such an emotional release was that Carona got his man, Alejandro Avila, bringing about what people have taken to calling closure.

But heartbreak is not cured with either justice or vengeance (however often the president declares Avila guilty in advance or Samantha's mother rages against the jurors who set him free the last time). Anger will not save you. Indeed, this is one of the implicit themes of "The Lovely Bones," which owes its popularity to being so gracefully attuned to the spiritual yearnings of a culture discovering that prosperity cannot protect you from loss. Rather than trapping us inside the unhappiness of parents tortured over losing their child, Sebold takes a cannier, more imaginative path. She gives us the world through the voice of the young victim who, blessed by being outside time, looks down on Earth from an extremely pleasant heaven that smells ever so slightly of skunk; to us she's not really dead. The result is the cheeriest and most life-affirming work ever written about child murder.

Sebold is no stranger to very bad things (her first book, "Lucky," was about her brutal rape as a college student), and "The Lovely Bones" guides us through the painful steps of a violent crime, steps that come to feel universal: Susie's encounter with the killer, her father's guilt at not protecting her, the memorial service that lets her community feel better, the fracturing of her family under the pressure of her death. Yet even as the novel charts the human cost of a teenage girl's death, it also presents a vision of healing that, in its lavish doses of wish fulfillment, soars free of realistic constraints. Rather like the film "The Sixth Sense," Sebold's book offers a reassuring pop-religious fantasy for a secular age. It tells us that those we've lost aren't completely gone -- "the line between the living and the dead could be . . . murky and blurred" -- and that the dead may help the living to find peace.

For all of her skillful storytelling, it would be easy to chide Sebold for turning the bleakness of a young girl's murder into a book that's so likable, so happy. But in a summer when our newscasts routinely make the world seem so much worse than it actually is, such winsomeness clearly strikes many readers as something of a relief. I doubt that any novel could provide consolation to those who lose a child, but for those of us who worry constantly about all of our loved ones, "The Lovely Bones" offers a fleeting refuge from the most chilling possibility of cases like that of Samantha Runnion -- that life's cruelty and pain are ultimately meaningless, that our lovely bones are actually no more than bones.

The Man Show

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about," wrote Oscar Wilde, "and that is not being talked about." You might try telling that to Mike Piazza, the New York Mets catcher and ex-Dodger who last week felt compelled to call a press conference to announce that he is -- hold on to your hats -- heterosexual.

The farce began when Mets manager Bobby Valentine told Details magazine that he thought professional baseball was probably ready for an openly gay player. This was taken to mean that Valentine was paving the way for one of his players to come out. Suddenly sports-talk shows were buzzing with speculations about who it might be. The leading candidates were Piazza and Roberto Alomar Jr., who are not only single but well-groomed (always a pink flag). The spotlight settled on Piazza when the New York Post's gossip columnist Neal Travis did a blind item about a rumored-to-be-gay Mets star who "spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs." Piazza is known for doing exactly that, and while you might think such behavior proves he likes women, that only goes to show how naive you are. After all, who do models hang out with? That's right. Homosexuals.

Although the Piazza rumors made the Chandra Levy case look as weighty as 9/11, everyone felt the need to chime in, often in amusing ways. Even as business experts justified Piazza's press conference as an attempt to "protect his brand" -- he is, after all, a $100 million enterprise who can't afford to be thought gay -- the N.Y. Post was firing sportswriter Wallace Matthews for taking an anti-Travis column they'd killed and publishing it online. "I always knew the paper had no integrity," wrote Matthews on the Web site. "Now we know it has no balls, either."

For all their clichéd machismo, Matthews' words did unwittingly point to the psychosexual truth underlying the whole Piazza foofaraw. In a real sense, this was a story about having balls -- in particular, our shifting ideas of what it means to be a man.

Nowhere was this more naked than on sports-talk radio, which spent last week in a state of barely suppressed hysteria. I've never heard so many nervous giggles and too-hearty guffaws. ESPN Radio's suave Dan Patrick broke for a commercial by saying, "Don't read Details magazine" -- a quip that had his flunkies rupturing themselves with laughter. Meanwhile, Fox Sports' late-night idiots couldn't stop sniggering about the very notion of gays in a locker room. They kept promising an interview with retired Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza that was going to fill us in on how ballplayers would hate having homosexuals around. But when "Gooby" finally came on, he said that he wouldn't care about a teammate's sexual life as long as he performed on the field.

He wasn't the only one. The Yankees' Mike Mussina said it's okay by him if players come out (sure, he went to Stanford, but still). Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood made a couple of cracks about how real men don't wear open-toed sandals, but when asked about having a gay teammate, he became matter-of-fact: "Statistically, there's one on every team." Far from being doused in homophobia, Piazza's press conference was a model of courteous tolerance. "I'm heterosexual," he said, then calmly added that there's nothing wrong or uncool about being gay. I don't want to make too much of such sensible statements -- today's internationalized players constantly slur one another's sexuality in many different tongues -- but judging from their comments, the athletes already know (or at least suspect) who around them is gay. And like it or not, they're forced to make some kind of peace with it. The real problem with having a gay teammate, several said, was that the media would never let it drop.

This I don't doubt, for the people who kept insisting that America couldn't handle an openly gay ballplayer were the sports journalists, from the print-world panelists on ESPN's Sunday-morning The Sports Reporters to radio's King of Smack Jim Rome, who sounded afraid of alienating his wiseass audience. It's ironic. Commentators are forever grousing that today's athletes are shallower than they used to be -- why can't Michael Jordan be another Muhammad Ali, why isn't Barry Bonds as socially aware as Arthur Ashe? -- but listening to Rome prove more resistant to change than some of his callers, I found myself longing for the late Howard Cosell. Instead of telling us that America isn't ready for gay ballplayers, that old egomaniac would be insisting that it should be. I can just hear him championing anyone with the courage to do for gays what was done for black Americans by "the great Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, of the erstwhile Brooklyn Dah-juzz."

Of course, one reason we don't hear such things is that most of our sportswriters, columnists and broadcasters are still as square as Grampa's checkerboard. It disturbs them that some of the heroes they celebrate may not fit our still-limited notions of masculinity. (Think of their tireless horror at the gender-bending antics of Dennis Rodman. And he was banging Madonna.) You can partly understand their unease. If professional athletes' straight-arrow masculinity is not inviolate, think what that might imply about journalists who devote their lives to watching well-built guys perform, hanging out in locker rooms and inhabiting a world that largely resembles an unironic version of The Man Show.

Yet the Piazza-is-gay brouhaha reveals more about the male psyche than simple homosexual panic. For you can't be a good sports reporter without first being a fan -- you have to love the beauty and grace of athletic action, thrill to the drama and unpredictability of the game. But as British writer Nick Hornby makes clear in his great soccer memoir "Fever Pitch," being a fan is a form of permanent adolescence, and a distinctively male one at that, like obsessing over the filing system for your record collection or building your day around watching TV shows as Hugh Grant does in the adaptation of Hornby's "About a Boy." By fixating on wins and losses or yo-yoing between adoration and hatred -- the recent coverage of the Lakers has been positively bipolar -- you can create an alternative reality that helps fend off the complex realities of manhood. That's why so many fans and sportswriters hate hearing about money in sports. That's why they still find it hard to admit that Pete Rose was gambling on games. And that's why the idea of a gay ballplayer threatens not only their attitudes toward masculinity but their whole sense of sports as a refuge from the messy emotional stuff of real life. Once a star the caliber of Piazza (or Shaq!) finally comes out -- it's bound to happen -- this refuge will never be quite the same again.

In Tuesday's L.A. Times, Patrick Goldstein (whose column is consistently one of the paper's highlights) wrote about how The Rock and Vin Diesel represent a new breed of action star whose urban, multicultural brand of masculinity cuts across all races (and beyond: Diesel has a cult gay following). Of course, such muscled-up masculinity is hardly new in Hollywood -- it wasn't so long ago that Stallone and Schwarzenegger ruled the box office -- but it's all the more striking in an era when so many of our younger stars are overgrown boys. For every Russell Crowe (an Australian import), there's a Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Will Smith and, of course, eternally young Tom Cruise, who's spent much of the last 15 years getting the Piazza treatment. Although these boyish actors are considered heartthrobs, what's striking is how neutered they seem compared to the '60s generation of stars -- Nicholson, Beatty, Redford and Hoffman -- all of whom carried a sexual tang. Even Woody Allen was all about getting laid. One reason Diesel seems bound for a fresh kind of superstardom is that he does something that Sly and Arnold and Clint never could: He brings more than a whiff of carnality to the idea of being a badass.

Diesel is almost the opposite of Hugh Grant, who has spent years serving up a version of masculinity so effetely English that it leaves you begging he won't take off his shirt during the love scenes. He is the movies' current icon of aristocratic charm -- cute, dithery, shockingly sexless -- and one great pleasure of About a Boy is the way it deflates that particular fantasy (and not only by lopping off his forelocks). Rather than suggest that we all ought to swoon before Grant's posh mannerisms and winning smile, the film shows that these things are an empty shell -- he's the good-looking guy you date once, then dump because he cares too much about his shirt. Grant is well aware of this, of course (he's one of our smartest actors), and clearly delights in the chance to deconstruct an image that has obviously been a velvet prison. After all, if you're the kind of guy who'll pay for blowjobs from a black chick on the Sunset Strip, it's humiliating to have to keep saying "Oh, bugger" as if it were the most adorable thing in the world.

John Powers writes for L.A. Weekly, where this article originally appeared.

Shark Jumping in America

Power does not interest me. After victory, I want to go back to my village and just be a lawyer again.
--Fidel Castro, 1957

What the hell, maybe he thought he meant it. Of course, by the time Jimmy Carter visited Havana last week, Castro -- or Fidel, as his admirers invariably call him -- was into his fifth decade as a political icon. Although ruling an island that's now best known in some circles for the Buena Vista Social Club, he has managed to keep himself on history's center stage by being the obligatory whipping boy of 10 straight American presidents -- he's the Cold War enemy who never cried "Uncle" -- and the symbol of a revolutionary politics that many on the left still cherish.

Carter's trip to Cuba was an attempt to push beyond policies that you hoped would have ended when the ominous-sounding initials USSR became the impossible-to-remember CIS. Playing his favorite role as a transnational Yoda (which may be one reason he was such a duff president), Carter met with dissidents, debunked Bush administration scare talk about Cuban biological weapons and delivered, in Spanish, a superb speech. He called for democracy and human rights in Cuba -- probably the first time anyone had said such things publicly there in 40 years -- and suggested that the U.S. lift its trade embargo, a move that would likely hasten Castro's fall and certainly make ordinary Cubans' daily lives easier.

For his trouble, the L.A. Times' witless cartoonist Michael Ramirez turned Carter's toothy smile into a prison confining a shackled figure named "Cuba." Old Jimmy may be a sucker, but he's not a jail keeper.

Such an overture was far wiser than anything ventured by other recent American presidents, Republican or Democrat, whose approach to Cuba and its leader seems to have been dreamed up by CIA field officer Wile E. Coyote. Over the years, Castro has been faced with Mafia contracts, the Bay of Pigs invasion, schemes for exploding sea shells, and weird powders intended to make his beard fall out -- not to mention a plan to set off fireworks over the island to convince Cubans that the Second Coming had arrived, thereby provoking anti-Communist insurrection. And after all this, he's still there with his beard and those damned fatigues. Bee-beep.

If the Castro obsession has debased our foreign policy, it has also warped our domestic politics. For decades, politicians have pandered to the powerful émigré Cuban community in the crucial swing state of Florida. When President Bush flew down to Miami this week to reaffirm his hard-line stance on the embargo, he was motivated less by any great commitment to democracy than by a desire for votes -- brother Jeb is in a tight governor's race. As George W. glad-handed his hosts, I wondered just how many of those rabid, rich Miami Cubans will actually move back to Havana once communism falls (not many, I'd wager), and how many will simply buy up their old country on the cheap and then send Fredo over to run the family business. One shudders to think what they'll do to the new Cuba Libre.

Then again, one shudders to think what Castro has already done. Early on, his regime clearly improved health care, raised literacy rates, diminished racial discrimination and supported popular rebellions in oppressed countries -- a great utopian dream the citizenry willingly sacrificed to realize. But by the late 1960s, the Cuban Revolution hadn't so much jumped the shark as landed in its jaws, and the country became an economic basket case, especially once Moscow stopped propping it up in the early '90s. While American policy has always had a lot to do with Cuba's economic woes, so has Castro's desire for absolute control -- he didn't have to nationalize everything, including street vendors.

These days, he uses the state as a labor broker and sells off his people to foreign capital: A Spanish-owned hotel will pay the Cuban government, say, $350 a month for a waiter's wages, then the government pays the waiter 350 pesos (worth maybe $15) and keeps the difference. No unions, no fuss. When Castro first took power, he made a show of rooting out the capitalist vice of prostitution; these days, the streets are filled with spandexed jiniteras seeking the hard currency that is the national lifeline. So much for socialism.

If there's anything more depressing than watching thuggish Cuban-American millionaires bray as the president calls Castro a "tyrant," it's talking to friends on the left who insist that he isn't one, and cling to Fidel as the last flickering flame of some enduring torch of freedom. Get over it, folks. He's a dictator, a despot, a caudillo who uses police-state tactics to keep himself in power. If a right-wing general did what Castro has done -- crushing free speech, purging revolutionary allies, imprisoning political prisoners by the thousands, summarily executing "counterrevolutionaries" -- publications like The Nation would pillory him in every issue. Castro is our Pinochet and, one hopes, our final illusion.

To be fair, most leftists don't think of Castro as a great leader nor do they buy into primitivist guff about how Cubans are ennobled by not having the freedoms and material possessions that we enjoy -- you try pedaling to work on one of those clunky iron bicycles. Yet I still have far too many conversations like the one I recently had at a cocktail party honoring Gore Vidal. I was telling an old friend that, if I were being honest, I'd have to say that authoritarian, hypercapitalist Singapore is an incomparably freer and better-run nation than Cuba. He winced.

"Oh, don't you start piling on Fidel," he said. "It's too easy. Anyway, things would be different if the United States hadn't destroyed Cuba's economy."

I was just starting to mention political prisoners and the exploitation of labor when he raised his hand to stop me. "I know what you're doing. You're attacking me with . . . the facts." Then he giggled, knowing he didn't want to hear them.

And Then There's 'TerrorGate'

Last fall, when asked whether there'd been any warning about September 11, the Bush administration said no. Last week, when it leaked out that this wasn't exactly, er, true -- there was in fact a Cassandra-trail of memos and high-level meetings -- all the president's men (and woman) did exactly what you'd expect. They weaseled, blamed underlings and tried to scare us. That famed champion of democracy Anakin Cheney declared that our "irresponsible" Congress shouldn't be allowed to examine the evidence (God, he must envy Castro). Bush denied foreknowledge of the attacks with the how-dare-you frown of a husband whose wife had the temerity to ask about the lipstick on his boxers. And with a subject-changing promptitude that feels not a little fishy, government officials suddenly couldn't stop talking about "inevitable" future attacks.

I took no small pleasure in watching the Bush people squirm. And after months of giving the administration a soft ride as it shamelessly exploited 9/11, the media are enjoying it, too. There's nothing like the whiff of a cover-up to bring on that old Watergate rush -- Democrats even introduced the nostalgic phrase "What did the president know and when did he know it?" -- and by the time CBS's affable Bob Schieffer began firing hardball questions, Ari Fleischer must've felt he'd blundered into some weird episode of That '70s Show. Incredibly, reporters are still suckers for the romantic dream of becoming Woodward and Bernstein (although W&B themselves seem more turned on by the idea of doing well-paid hackwork), and there've already been a few sightings of "TerrorGate."

While not a single leading Democrat believes that Bush actually knew al Qaeda's plans and decided to do nothing ("Hey, an attack will help my dad and the Carlisle Group!"), the party leaped at the chance to practice what is sometimes disdained as "gotcha politics" but is actually just politics as it's now played in America. The Democrats' questions prompted Bush to lash out at Washington culture, where "second-guessing has become second nature," but it was hard to spare him much sympathy. After watching the right spend eight years employing every nickel-and-dime excuse to go after Bill Clinton, everyone knows the Dems are merely following the conservative playbook.

Of course, the Republicans already know it by heart. On ABC's Sunday Morning, Senator Joseph Lieberman, whose white-noise drone could cure Al Pacino's sleeplessness in Insomnia, said that some White House staffers were justifying their refusal to hand over documents by claiming that the Clinton administration had been too free with information. Naturally, this is just the opposite of what the Republicans were saying back when they were subpoenaing every shred of paper about such earth-shattering scandals as TravelGate and the "murder" of Vincent Foster.

But you expect such things from our relentless conservatives, who continue to find Clinton even more galling than Castro. Why, just last week, right-wing party girl Shannen Doherty talked to the New York Observer about her visit to the Bush White House. "I would have never stepped foot in the Clinton White House!" she declared. "They were sleazy."

Shannen Doherty calling someone else sleazy! I hadn't laughed that hard since James Woods went on Fresh Air and attacked Clinton for having an unsavory sex life.

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