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Last Refuge of a Rock Critic: A Bicentennial Search for Patriotism

Editors’ note, July 2, 2021: There was so much happening in New York City during the Bicentennial all those years ago that the Village Voice spread its coverage over two issues, spanning June 28 to July 12, 1976. The Big Apple was ready to party: King Kong had just left town and the Democrats were rolling in, preparing for their quadrennial convention two years after a Republican president — a liar, cheat, and bully who attempted to use his office to punish political and personal enemies — had resigned in disgrace. There was some sort of cosmic justice in Richard Nixon flaming out after winning re-election in a landslide but before he could preside over the Bicentennial, that nationwide celebration of American democracy’s survival after one civil war, two world conflicts, and countless cultural battles.

It was in the Spirit of ’76 that Greil Marcus, author of the previous year’s Mystery Train — a monumental collection of essays delving into the heart of rock ’n’ roll to reveal a luminous chunk of America’s soul — undertook a wide-ranging disquisition on the meaning of patriotism in the pages of the Village Voice. (Mark Alan Stamaty’s boisterous, labyrinthine cartoons added to the wild and woolly mood.) As they do in Mystery Train, Marcus’s references, digressions, and footnotes shoot off like fireworks. Radiant as a rocket’s red glare — think of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” aurally transmuting Francis Scott Key’s “bombs bursting in air” into bombs dropping on screaming Vietnam civilians — Marcus’s Voice article asks us to look at America’s full history, both glorious and savage. He finds beauty in “an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared,” but also quotes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered shortly before the Civil War reached its bloody end. The president, who would be assassinated just 42 days later, was acknowledging that the carnage was penance for allowing slavery to have been a part of the nation’s founding. “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”

Marcus also quotes W.E.B. DuBois from 1897, when America’s freed slaves were still waiting for the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to help them start new lives more than three decades earlier. “One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

And in typical Marcus fashion, we get a bonus line of dialogue from Claude Rains, in his role as Captain Renault in 1942’s Casablanca: “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” Marcus was in some ways less concerned with whether patriotism is truly “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Dr. Johnson so famously put it, than with the divisions that were fracturing the nation into the broken mirror we gaze further into today. “America may be breaking up into separate ‘patrimonies.’ The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does the widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities.”

In November 1972, shortly after he’d won re-election, Nixon — whose somber Quaker facade in public was belied by the profane conniver heard on the Watergate tapes — discussed cabinet changes with an adviser, noting that he might keep one lawyer on to be the “house Jew” and to “handle the Bicentennial and all that nonsense.” Such nasty cynicism has long permeated the political right — consider Coolidge’s desiccated view, “the business of America is business” — because it cannot reconcile lust for unfettered profit with government’s role of legislating for the common good. Marcus worked on Mystery Train as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. In his author’s note, he points out, “To do one’s most personal work in a time of public crisis is an honest, legitimate, paradoxically democratic act of common faith.” Although this book about the music that bound America together across generational, racial, class, and political divides was not published until 1975, Marcus signed his note with a precise date: “August 9, 1974.”

Certainly not coincidentally, that was the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

So, sometime this week, between helpings of apple pie and baseball games, take a few moments to revisit the 200th birthday of a great, if forever flawed, nation as seen through the typewriter of an ever-thoughtful writer grappling with the meaning of patriotism in these United States. Note how he praises conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for the impeachment of a conservative president whose lies, capriciousness, self-aggrandizement, and intimidation tactics they could no longer stomach: “They made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country.”

My, how times have changed. —R.C. Baker

***

In America Even the Humblest Harmony Is an Incredible Dream

By Greil Marcus
July 12, 1976

…In America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” 1922 (1) 

“Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot!”
— Claude Rains to Humphrey Bogart, at the close of Casablanca, 1942 (2)

To claim patriotism in America, where the thing is so undefined, is to claim a very great deal. It is to claim, in one way or another, to embody the republic. So as I thought about what I might say regarding patriotism, which seemed to me an appropriate subject in a week that falls between the Fourth of July and the opening of the Democratic Convention, one conviction that took shape very early was that one could not claim to be a patriot and that anyone who does should be instantly suspected.

This no doubt sounds familiar — patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” (3) as Dr. Johnson put it — but that is not at all what I mean to get at. Rather it is what I mean to get behind me, and to do that it’s necessary to deal at least briefly with the People’s Bicentennial Commission.

The PBC, organized by activist Jeremy Rifkin, presupposes to offer the real, people’s, revolutionary-at-its heart America, as opposed to the official America promulgated for Bicentennial purposes by various hucksters and governmental agencies. The PBC has received some media coverage for its “counterdemonstrations” held alongside various commemorative exercises and dress-up shows.

PBC members are self-described “New Patriots”; you can become a “New Patriot” simply by joining the PBC. According to the PBC line, America is divided into “Patriots” and “Tories” — in fact, all American history, and the American present, can be seen this way. “Patriots” past and present are those the PBC aligns on the side of social and economic justice, defined in the usual radical/liberal manner; Tories are all those who are perceived by the PBC to have resisted such goals. Thus Alexander Hamilton, despite his role in the Revolution, was really a “Tory,” as are Republicans, bankers, factory foremen, and mean high school principals (I’m not making this up).

This approach is indistinguishable from that of the American Legion. There’s nothing troublesome or ambiguous about PBC patriotism; all it takes is a correct stand on the issues, and maybe a membership card. What’s the PBC program? “Patriots” should publicly expose “Tories.” Political candidates should be forced to sign oaths affirming their loyalty to the creed of the revolution.

The PBC makes me think of James Mann of South Carolina, Walter Flowers of Alabama, and Caldwell Butler of Virginia, three conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who were crucial to the successful impeachment votes against Richard Nixon. In PBC terms they are quite obvious “Tories”; in a PBC America is it irrelevant that in working out their decisions on impeachment they made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country. (With Mann there was perhaps no “effort” — that line may have always been visible to him, as it clearly has been to, say, Sam Ervin and William O. Douglas.)

Though the PBC is not to be taken seriously (“Have your political club ask that the Declaration of Independence be displayed at the polling place, so that citizens may spend their time thinking about self-evident truths,” they suggest), the PBC mode of thought is to be taken seriously, if only because it is a mode liberals and radicals often fall into. These days especially, we want our political affairs simple, clean and above all pure. Politics may be many things but it is narcissism first and foremost, because there is more safety in the certainties of separation than in the contingencies of wholeness.

The belief that patriotism is a question of the correct stand on vital social and political issues is not only the most hollow but the most invidious version of the concept; it empties the concept of all possible meaning. The truth is that patriotism makes stranger bedfellows than politics.

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Rather than something that can be easily fixed on individuals for the asking or that adheres to issues because of their necessity, and rather than something that can be claimed, awarded, or withheld, patriotism in America is a conundrum. Most who consider themselves sophisticated in their politics think patriotism is something to outgrow, preferably by the age of 12; many more Americans of all sorts, as John Scholar has written, “are simply without patriotism.… They do not think unpatriotic thoughts, but they do not think patriotic thoughts either. The republic for them is a vague and distant thing.” Yet it seems to me that patriotism should be explored, evoked, doubted, acted, and written out. The language of patriotism needs to be retrieved, invented, nurtured, and spoken, but we should not be too quick to decide who is a patriot and who is not, nor be too careful about establishing standards for the virtuous to meet. It isn’t my purpose here to prove my patriotism to you nor to provide guidelines with which you can prove yours to yourself — should you wish to. Instead I simply want to make the idea real; and I will try to do that by focusing on two themes central to an understanding of the possibilities of the patriotic spirit in America: wholeness, or harmony, and division, separateness.

***

Three texts:

One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
— W.E.B. Du Bois (4)

When I think of Greenwich Village, it is almost with tears. For there this battered battalion dress their guns against a whole nation… From the darkest corners of the country they have fled for comfort and asylum. You may think them feeble and ridiculous — but feebleness is always relative. It may require as much force of character and as much independent thought for one of these to leave his Kansas home and espouse the opinions of Freud as for Wagner to achieve new harmonies or Einstein to conceive a finite universe. The thought of them makes me respond with a sharp gust of sympathy, precisely because they are ridiculous and yet stand for something noble. And one is touched by something like reverence when one finds among this strange indifferent people, to whom the rest of the world is a newspaper story, history a tedious legend, and abstract thought a form of insanity, a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast. By his realization he makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting: for the drama of humanity, in a sense, no setting can be trivial or mean. Gopher Prairie itself, in all its ludicrousness and futility when the human spirit rears itself there, has its importance and its dignity. 

And now that a breach has been made what a flood might sweep off the dam! — what a thundering torrent of energy, of enthusiasm, or life! Things are always beginning in America; we are always on the verge of great adventures. History seems to lie before us instead of behind.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” The New Republic, March 12, 1922 (5)

…The patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts: One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods, memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines who he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its hopes and fears goes from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those will come after. 

But… we are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities. 
— John. J. Schaar, “The Case for Patriotism,” American Review 17, May 1973

I suggest that to truly “read” these passages, which is what I will be doing for the remainder of this piece, it’s necessary to pay as close attention to the voice of each writer as to his words. Du Bois, meditating on truths that predated his time and which he does not seem to expect to change, is stymied, perplexed, quietly angry, yet full of a sort of determination that perhaps suggests the bridging of gaps he is telling us cannot be bridged. Schaar, with his eyes on the past (not merely the American past, but the past per se, the past as something that constantly informs the present), speaks in tones of regret; his cadences are measured and restrained, and what is measured out is the pain of loss, the loss of the “way of being in the world” he is describing. All this is evident well before his final disclaimer: that we are not taught the rich and complex values that make patriotism possible but cheaper values that imply the separation of each man and woman from every other as the positive basis for American society.

But Schaar and Du Bois speak as realists; their words communicate an almost tragic refusal to grant a single assumption they do not see as justified by the disappointments and betrayals of the American story. They will not speak a word they cannot prove. But they will whisper. Wilson’s “in America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream” — and not harmony as consensus, or lack of crucial disagreement, but an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared — is at the heart of what both men are saying. They are saying that whatever the American reality, or even the American fate, the possibilities of such harmony cannot be decently abandoned; that harmony is an absolute necessity if Americans are to keep the promises on which America was founded: the promises that flowed instantly from the original justification of America in 1776 as something new under the sun, and perhaps even the promises as they were reclaimed in 1865, with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, when he incorporated the truth that the betrayal of those promises in fact preceded the promises themselves into the fabric of official American thought, where it has been officially buried ever since. (See box.)

To turn from the fundamental gloom of Du Bois and Schaar to late-night meditations of a young Edmund Wilson, thinking of America from a distance, where a good deal of the best of such thinking has been done, is a shock. One may have to read what he wrote carefully to appreciate how bizarre it is.

When I first came to Berkeley, in 1963, a campus veteran told me that Berkeley and Greenwich Village were the only places in America where a person could be really free. Wilson begins with this cozily embattled fallacy; a farther shore from the kind of patriotism Schaar speaks of can hardly be imagined. And yet — or perhaps, “and so” — Wilson then drives straight back into the “darkest corners” of the country, to what Fitzgerald called “the dark fields of the republic,” and embraces them with all the restraint of a Fourth of July orator. Suddenly he has delivered himself from the repression of the American present, as only the future is of any consequence. But there is the slightest hint of condescension in Wilson’s “Gopher Prairie itself” — and, perhaps in flight from doubts that not even the most visionary moment can banish, Wilson abandons the fatal pull of specifics for a virtual manifesto of American mysticism. It’s as if he is seeking, against the terrific odds he has been careful to establish in advance, to fix precisely those things Americans can recognize — those attributes by which they can recognize each other — the feeling that “things are always beginning in America,” blown up suddenly with exclamation points into images of a great dam breaking and a flood of — not ideas, not justice, not even freedom (which was what Wilson started with, but which is somehow no longer exactly the question) — “energy, of enthusiasm, of life!” And this is because what Wilson was working out of in Paris was not a “feeling,” but a leap of faith — a leap straight across what were to Lincoln the almost predestined American crimes and divisions, the crimes and divisions that were the source of Du Bois’s torment.

The desperation in Wilson’s voice is as palpable as the joy. A moment later in the essay he will pull back again; America will become a monster of banality. But he can’t quit with this. He returns as an American St. George come not to slay the dragon but magically to transform it. The passage continues: “Our enemy offers huger bulk than the enemy in Europe, but he is much less firmly rooted. Two generations might rout him. To arms then! Let me return; I shall not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword rest in my hand till intolerance has been stricken from the laws, till the time-clock has been beaten to a punch-bowl!”

In the great tradition of John Wesley Harding, who never made a foolish move, Wilson does not choose a foolish word. The struggle he is lining out is a matter of spiritual life or death for him, and — in the sense that a true patriot, one who truly perceives and accepts a patrimony, embodies the republic — for the country equally so. Thus Wilson’s language is overblown, with every pretension undercut by self-parody (“my sword” a seemingly absurd weapon for a “mental fight”; “till intolerance has been stricken from the laws” taken down a peg by “till the time clock has been beaten to a punch bowl”). Only with a frame of the ridiculous can Wilson get away with the absolute and discomforting seriousness of every word he is speaking. He is dedicating — like Lincoln in 1865, rededicating — himself, and his country, to the liberating destiny that his country, like no other before it, set out for itself; he recognizes and affirms that the republic, along with itself, invented a birthright each American would, in a way of his or her own determining, have to accept, as a burden, before he or she could fully claim to be American.

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This overblown way of speaking is the language, or a language, of American patriotism, and its affirmation also a settling of affairs. It sweeps right by Du Bois’s analysis of what cannot be resolved, even though Wilson’s words do not quite leave Du Bois’s statement of the facts out. “How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country?” Du Bois wrote at another time. “And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?” (7) Here and above, Du Bois speaks of black people, but the question he insists on contains all Americans who have been, and are, systematically refused America’s promises and excluded form its patrimony. That exclusion has been and is more widespread in terms of class than of race — and it is equally as subtle, as debilitating, and as resistant to fundamental change. As Du Bois would have said, the question of racial oppression is also a question of class. My attempt to follow the meaning of Du Bois’s idea applies, as metaphor, to Americans of all kinds who are excluded — and given that America was once known as “a good poor man’s country,” there are many whites who were included in the past who are excluded now.

Du Bois says that any resolution a black man or woman can make of Wilsons’s contradictions will by necessity be very different from and properly fall far short of, the glorious unity Wilson saw. The black American patrimony is separation and division; not simply because the “American” side is so full of horror and crime, but at least partly because it is so alive with promise. As Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Daughters, the life of Ned Cobb, a black Alabama sharecropper, makes clear, a full recognition of “the injustice of the laws” does not preclude the deepest recognition of that promise nor the determination to fulfill it precisely on its original, 200-year-old terms. But the laws refuse to recognize Cobb’s claim to his “American” patrimony, and without that double recognition Du Bois’s words hold.

It is very questionable whether the burden I spoke of Wilson accepting, or the debts and obligations of which Schaar writes, can be set forth by me, or anyone, as a necessary part of the patrimony of a black man or woman in America. Black men and women have made their own history in America, which America ignored or did not even see, and the evidence is strong today that it is in that specific history that black men and women are finding their patrimony — their debts, obligations, promises, possibilities — finding what it is they have to live up to, finding a way of being in the world. In Lincoln’s terms of crime and punishment, it is a measure of the price white Americans of any sort must pay for the forced odyssey of black people in America that a black American patrimony, which grows out of an altogether different kind of heroism and resourcefulness than white Americans draw on — different in kind and in quality — may not only be impossible for whites to connect to, but wrong for them to connect to. With Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Lucille Clifton’s family memoir Generations (which begins with the story of Clifton’s great-great grandmother, born in Dahomey in 1822, brought to the New Orleans slave markets and made to walk to Virginia at the age of eight, whose message to her family, into this century, was “Get what you want, you from Dahomey, women”), Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, or the film of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a white American may feel that he or she is somehow violating these tales simply by responding to them. To say, this is part of my legacy, my patrimony, too, which is to say that the “American” patrimony is, or should be, that of a black man or woman is to go much farther than any white can decently go.

Because of such history, and because the language of patriotism in America has not flourished — because it is not easily spoken nor easily understood when it is spoken; because the “way of being in the world” of which Schaar writes is foreign to most of us, so foreign as to be hard to imagine clearly — ­America may be breaking up into separate “patrimonies.” The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does a widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities. I don’t mean such groupings are always in explicit conflict, but that people are locating their primary loyalties away from “America,” as a place, a society, a republic, an idea, a promise, whatever. Historian William Appleman Williams’s recent Bicentennial book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World, takes this movement apart to one conclusion: He argues that America can best be true to its best self by returning to the Articles of Confederation, and fragmenting, by secession (violently if need be; “I will meet you on the barricades,” he says) (8), into regional socialist republics. This is a bad moment in the work of a valuable historian. But there is some truth in the book — as a skewed metaphor for retreats from America that are already well advanced.

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It may be that this is not a problem to “solve” but a reality to accept or struggle against, on an individual level, at least in the beginning. Schaar writes of America, an invented political and moral society, as a place where patriotism is not simply a matter of inheritance or lack of it — in America, patriotism is an earned choice, an earned recognition. Wilson, 51 years earlier, agreed when he spoke as baldly as he dared of a “mental fight,” of a battle he would carry on, in American letters, as a critic and a reporter, to rout the enemy, to make the wisp of American harmony he glimpsed one night in Paris more real.

When we speak of patriotism in America we must recognize an inevitable division of self in the very act of speaking, and in that sense Du Bois’s statement can serve for anyone. America is big, conformist, monolithic, faceless, cruel, and its economic game is rigged. For any sense of freedom the first impulse is to separate oneself, either following the trail of countless American lone-wolfs, solitaries, and Ishmaels, or settling for the homogeneous familiarities and protections of “one’s own”: family, religion, nationality, race, region. Yet America is still astonishing — too big, too complex, and too various for any mind to take in, and in that astonishment, in the realization of an enormous place finally justified and held together by little more than a few phrases from an old document, comes the yearning to make America whole by seeing it clearly; by pursuing that patrimony, discovering it, retrieving it, inventing it, or simply affirming it. What is it that Americans share? In what images, of crime or beauty, do Americans uniquely recognize themselves as no others would, recognize that in an essential way they are linked, that they can carry on certain conversations about certain things that others could not or would not think to enter?

One probably cannot raise such questions without realizing that if they are asked with the utmost seriousness of intent there may be no encouraging answers. But one cannot wear such questions out either. Schaar’s statement, like Wilson’s, points toward a way of being in touch with America; com­bative, suspicious, and yet deeply accepting of something like a common fate, that cannot, and should not be avoided.

***

There are two ideas around which this piece revolves, no mat­ter how erratic the orbit has been.The first is the idea of the patriot as one who embodies the republic. This is not as grand or pretentious as it might seem. A civil rights worker linking people to the re­public by convincing them to vote is embodying the republic, in many ways. Many of those on the House Judiciary Committee, by what they said and the manner in which they said it, embodied the repub­lic, for a time. James Agee, writ­ing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, embodied the republic, in all of its mystical and factual complexity. Those who honestly and visibly refuse to let the repub­lic stop short of itself embody it.

Visibly — publicly — is the key word. Wilson spoke almost mys­teriously of “a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast,” who “by his realization… makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting.” To say that this can mean anything is to point to the strength of what Wilson said, not its weakness; Wilson himself took this conviction to its extreme only 21 years after he first set it down. He wrote of Lincoln, in “Eight Essays”: “It was as if he had not only foreseen the drama [of the war] but had seen all around it, with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various points of view the world must take toward its protagonist. In the poem that Lincoln lived, Booth had been prepared for, too, and the tragic conclusion was necessary to justify all the rest. It was dramatically and mortally inevitable that this prophet who had overruled opposition and sent thousands of men to their deaths should finally attest his good faith by laying down his own life with theirs.” The patriot is a man or woman, who, in embodying the possibilities of American life, dramatizes them in view of others. That is both an instinct — the yearning for and affirmation of wholeness — and a role — the act of wholeness.

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The second idea is that of “a whole way of being in the world.” Schaar has defined it in the lines I quoted; I cannot really set it forth more fully without a long, close consideration of how specific indi­viduals, or a group of people, made their choices and lived their lives. It is both the treasure of patriotism and the key to it. It is a constant, renewing sensitivity to questions I asked earlier: What do Americans share, what is essential and unique, in their history, experience, fate? It is a state of mind that Edmund Wilson caught as well as anyone.

In Paris, in 1922, he began his meditation on America thinking of Futurism, “born in Italy, where the weight of the past lies heaviest.” “But I can scarcely adore the locomotive,” he wrote. ” I know it all too well.” He went on to wonder at his dreams of America, to criticize America as brutally as he could manage, to pull away, back and forth, back and forth, the double vision of the American pa­triot at work, searching for at least a night’s truce with itself. Wilson turned back finally to that image of the rails: “Where there is a petu­lance and a sadness in the piping of the French engines, I shall hear in the American ones an eagerness and a zest: They have elbow room here for their racing; they can drive on as far as they like; they have an unknown country to explore, a country that no one has ever heard of — What sort of men are these who live in nameless towns? At a distance, they seem, neither intelligent nor colorful nor fine — scarcely members of the same race as the beings who have built civilization. But I know that in the wide spaces of all that wilder­ness, in the life of that loose abun­dant world, for all the reign of mediocrity and the tyranny of in­tolerance, there is a new freshness and freedom to be brought to the function of mankind — the function which, in the long run, we shall never be able to get out of: staring out in wonder and dismay at the mysterious shapes of the world, either to ask ourselves what laws move them or, combining those shapes anew, to makeshift to create a nobler world in which our souls may find a home.”

Footnotes 

  1. In Keywords, Raymond Williams’s recent book on the etymology of fundamental con­temporary social concepts, the word “patriotism” is missing (so are “roots” and “fraternity”). But because I like Williams’s idea, if not his choices, I have pulled out words from the quotes I refer to that seem to me keys to an Ameri­can language of patriotism — words that in some way signify an aspect or element of “patriotism.” Here, the keywords are “humblest,” “harmony,” and “still.”
  2. Keyword: “sentimentalist.”
  3. Keyword: “refuge.”
  4. Virtually every word in this statement is a keyword. Still: “two-ness,” “souls,” “ideals,” “dogged,” “keeps it from.”
  5. Keywords: “tears,” “against,” “nation,” “corners,” “comfort,” “character,” “inde­pendent,” “home,” “espouse,” “new,” “harmonies,” “finite,” “sympathy,” “stand for,” “noble,” “reverence,” “indiffer­ent,” “history,” “legend,” “drama,” “spirit,” “dignity,” “enthusiasm,” “beginning,” “adventures.”
  6. Again, since essentially Schaar is writing a brief on the keywords of patriotism, only a few of the less obvious: “a whole way of being in the world,” “defines life by,” “one acknowledges,” “men­tality,” “tone,” “rhythm,” “shapes,” “texture,” “taught.” The grace and civility of Schaar’s writing tells one as much about patriotism as any of his words.
  7. Keywords: “how far,” “accord,” “loyalties,”
  8. Keyword: “I will meet you.”     ❖

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Beware Strategizing Painters Bearing Gifts

Sure, the world was turned upside down by COVID. But as we gladly return more and more to museums and galleries and “normal,” we still gotta take the bad with the good.

Case in point: the six paintings recently gifted by Georg Baselitz to the Metropolitan Museum. For business reasons — collectors love that institutional cachet — we can guess why Baselitz gave them away. But the real question is, why did the Met accept these bland, enervating canvases?

First, some boilerplate from the Met’s website about this clumsy body of work: “Made in 1969, they are among the first works in which Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) employed the strategy of inversion, an approach that continues to be of interest to him. The paintings mark a critical moment in the artist’s career as he sought to expunge narrative content and expression — elements present in his earlier work — in order to focus on painting itself.”

Indeed, judging by the sludgy paint handling, wan colors, flabby limbs, and doughy faces on view here, Baselitz successfully jettisoned engaging “content and expression” — his “strategy” of presenting topsy-turvy figures conveys little interest in his sitters. By 1969, painting for painting’s sake was far from revelatory, and there is precious little abstract dynamism or formal innovation to be found here.

Excepting of course … he turned his figures upside down.

Maybe Baselitz should’ve taken a page from Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter and portrayed his figures at an angle. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to commune with Peter as he contemplates the spike driven through his left hand, the weight of his powerful torso beginning to bear on pierced flesh, the executioners’ faces obscured by their own heaving limbs — shadowy lackeys of murderous empire — all of their separate agonies beautifully frozen within the composition’s wrenching equipoise.

But I forget that Baselitz was not painting sitters who were actually upside down, he was painting portraits in which they appear in that position. Such a distinction may or may not flutter the conceptual pulse, but after the artist achieved his goal of expunging “narrative content and expression,” he left viewers with … what, exactly?

And to be fair, comparison to practically any of Caravaggio’s tableaux — every bit as dramatic as his compeer in the Baroque zeitgeist, Shakespeare — is a tall order for even the greatest of painters. So here’s an experiment you can perform yourself at the Met — something that wasn’t so easy to do when Baselitz’s blunt innovations were first hung: Take a cell phone shot of one of these clunkers and then rotate the image on your screen. Is it, at least, a compelling figure? A captivating portrait?

Only if you like desiccated paint surfaces, deflated patterns, and lazily proportioned figures. It doesn’t matter if Baselitz is a righty or a southpaw because he could not be more cack-handed.

But you’re at the Met, so don’t let the day go completely awry. In a nearby gallery you will find a portrait of Saint Ambrose (1465–70) by Giovanni di Paolo.

Go ahead: Click. Flip.

Whoa. No doubt this Quattrocento master had his problems — like Baselitz — with hands and faces. But he had compositional chops to spare. Start with that bowed white trim encircling his robe, bisected by the surreal knuckle-like knots of his flail, which, doing a 180, rise like bony smoke, the totality revealing an underlying awareness of the abstract marrow necessary to give any painted image a sense of life.

But perhaps it is still an unfair comparison — too many props and too much gold leaf. Well then, another gallery or two along and we come to El Greco at his most splendiferously mundane: Portrait of an Old Man (ca. 1595–1600). Do that 21st-century-phone whirl and here’s what you get:

El Greco’s “Portrait of an Old Man” given a new look

Just the racing flourishes of that ruffled collar spanning burnished wedges — a swooping matrix reminiscent of one of Ed Clark’s abstract helixes — is worth the price of admission.

But if a skeptic out there thinks this is a case of comparing Old Master apples to post-war oranges, truck on over to the Alice Neel show, which is up until August 1. After all, it was Baselitz who not long ago proclaimed that women can’t paint, so go ahead and pick one of Neel’s paintings, whip out your phone, take your shot, and hit the rotate icon. You’ve got nothing to lose.   ❖

Georg Baselitz: Pivotal Turn
The Met Fifth Avenue
Through July 18

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Rudy’s Ties to a Terror Sheikh

Three weeks after 9/11, when the roar of fighter jets still haunted the city’s skyline, the emir of gas-rich Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, toured Ground Zero. Although a member of the emir’s own royal family had harbored the man who would later be identified as the mastermind of the attack—a man named Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, often referred to in intelligence circles by his initials, KSM—al-Thani rushed to New York in its aftermath, offering to make a $3 million donation, principally to the families of its victims. Rudy Giuliani, apparently unaware of what the FBI and CIA had long known about Qatari links to Al Qaeda, appeared on CNN with al-Thani that night and vouched for the emir when Larry King asked the mayor: “You are a friend of his, are you not?”

“We had a very good meeting yesterday. Very good,” said Giuliani, adding that he was “very, very grateful” for al-Thani’s generosity. It was no cinch, of course, that Giuliani would take the money: A week later, he famously rejected a $10 million donation from a Saudi prince who advised America that it should “adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause.” (Giuliani continues to congratulate himself for that snub on the campaign trail.) Al-Thani waited a month before expressing essentially the same feelings when he returned to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and stressed how important it was to “distinguish” between the “phenomenon” of 9/11 and “the legitimate struggles” of the Palestinians “to get rid of the yoke of illegitimate occupation and subjugation.” Al-Thani then accused Israel of “state terrorism” against the Palestinians.

But there was another reason to think twice about accepting al-Thani’s generosity that Giuliani had to have been aware of, even as he heaped praise on the emir. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network based in Qatar (pronounced “Cutter”), had been all but created by al-Thani, who was its largest shareholder. The Bush administration was so upset with the coverage of Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements and the U.S. threats to bomb Afghanistan that Secretary of State Colin Powell met the emir just hours before Giuliani’s on-air endorsement and asked him to tone down the state-subsidized channel’s Islamist footage and rhetoric. The six-foot-eight, 350-pound al-Thani, who was pumping about $30 million a year into Al Jazeera at the time, refused Powell’s request, citing the need for “a free and credible media.” The administration’s burgeoning distaste for what it would later brand “Terror TV” was already so palpable that King — hardly a newsman — asked the emir if he would help “spread the word” that the U.S. was “not targeting the average Afghan citizen.” Al-Thani ignored the question — right before Giuliani rushed in to praise him again.

In retrospect, Giuliani’s embrace of the emir appears peculiar. But it was only a sign of bigger things to come: the launching of a cozy business relationship with terrorist-tolerant Qatar that is inconsistent with the core message of Giuliani’s current presidential campaign, namely that his experience and toughness uniquely equip him to protect America from what he tauntingly calls “Islamic terrorists” — an enemy that he always portrays himself as ready to confront, and the Democrats as ready to accommodate.

The contradictory and stunning reality is that Giuliani Partners, the consulting company that has made Giuliani rich, feasts at the Qatar trough, doing business with the ministry run by the very member of the royal family identified in news and government reports as having concealed KSM—the terrorist mastermind who wired funds from Qatar to his nephew Ramzi Yousef prior to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and who also sold the idea of a plane attack on the towers to Osama bin Laden—on his Qatar farm in the mid-1990s.

This royal family member is Abdallah bin Khalid al-Thani, Qatar’s minister of Islamic affairs at the time, who was later installed at the interior ministry in January 2001 and reappointed by the emir during a government shake-up earlier this year. Abdallah al-Thani is also said to have welcomed Osama bin Laden on two visits to the farm, a charge repeated as recently as October 10, 2007, in a Congressional Research Service study. Abdallah al-Thani’s interior ministry or the state-owned company it helps oversee, Qatar Petroleum, has worked with Giuliani Security & Safety LLC, a subsidiary of Giuliani Partners, on an undisclosed number of contracts, the value of which neither the government nor the company will release. But there’s little question that a security agreement with Qatar’s government, or with Qatar Petroleum, would put a company like Giuliani’s in direct contact with the ministry run by Abdallah al-Thani: The website of Qatar’s government, and the interior ministry’s press office, as well as numerous press stories, all confirm that the ministry controls a 2,500-member police force, the General Administration of Public Security, and the Mubahathat, or secret police. The ministry’s charge under law is to “create and institute security in this country.” Hassan Sidibe, a public-relations officer for the ministry, says that “a company that does security work, they have to get permission from the interior ministry.”

What’s most shocking is that Abdallah al-Thani has been widely accused of helping to spirit KSM out of Qatar in 1996, just as the FBI was closing in on him. Robert Baer, a former CIA supervisor in the region, contends in a 2003 memoir that the emir himself actually sanctioned tipping KSM. The staff of the 9/11 Commission, meanwhile, noted that the FBI and CIA “were reluctant to seek help from the Qatari government” in the arrest of KSM, “fearing that he might be tipped off.” When Qatar’s emir was finally “asked for his help” in January 1996, Qatari authorities “first reported that KSM was under surveillance,” then “asked for an alternative plan that would conceal their aid to Americans,” and finally “reported that KSM had disappeared.”


Giuliani’s lifelong friend Louis Freeh, the FBI head who talked to Giuliani periodically about terrorist threats during Giuliani’s mayoral years and has endorsed him for president, was so outraged that he wrote a formal letter to Qatar’s foreign minister complaining that he’d received “disturbing information” that KSM “has again escaped the surveillance of your Security Services and that he appears to be aware of FBI interest in him.”

Abdallah al-Thani remains a named defendant in the 9/11 lawsuits that are still proceeding in Manhattan federal court, but his Washington lawyers declined to address the charges that he shielded KSM, insisting only that he never “supported” any “terrorist acts.” Asked if Abdallah al-Thani ever supported any terrorists rather than their acts, his lawyer David Nachman declined to comment further. The Congressional Research Service report summarized the evidence against him: “According to the 9/11 Commission Report and former U.S. government officials, royal family member and current Qatari Interior Minister, Sheikh Abdullah (Abdallah) bin Khalid Al Thani, provided safe harbor and assistance to Al Qaeda leaders during the 1990s,” including KSM. While numerous accounts have named Abdallah as the KSM tipster, the report simply says that “a high ranking member of the Qatari government” is believed to have “alerted” KSM “to the impending raid.”

Freeh’s letter in 1996 highlighted the consequences of this government-orchestrated escape with a prophetic declaration, saying that the “failure to apprehend KSM would allow him and other associates to continue to conduct terrorist operations.” Indeed, had KSM, who was even then focused on the use of hijacked planes as weapons, been captured in 1996, 9/11 might well have never happened.

In other words, as incredible as it might seem, Rudy Giuliani—whose presidential candidacy is steeped in 9/11 iconography—has been doing business with a government agency run by the very man who made the attacks on 9/11 possible.


This startling revelation is not a sudden disclosure from new sources. It has, in fact, been staring us in the face for many months.

The Wall Street Journal reported on November 7 that one Giuliani Partners client the former mayor hadn’t previously disclosed was, in fact, the government of Qatar. Quoting the recently retired Bush envoy to Qatar, Chase Untermeyer, the Journal reported that state-run Qatar Petroleum had signed a contract with Giuliani Security “around 2005” and that the firm (of which Giuliani has a 30 percent equity stake) is offering security advice to a giant natural-gas processing facility called Ras Laffan. While the interior ministry wouldn’t confirm individual contracts, it did tell the Voice that Qatar Petroleum and security “purchasing” are part of its portfolio.

(The Journal story was followed by a similar piece in the Chicago Tribune last week, which revealed that Giuliani’s firm has also represented a complex casino partnership seeking to build a $3.5 billion Singapore resort. The partnership included “the family of a controversial Hong Kong billionaire who has ties to the regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong II and has been linked to international organized crime by the U.S. government.”)

The Journal story, however, didn’t go into detail about the unsavory connections that Giuliani had made in the Middle East. The Journal wrote that it learned about the Qatar contract after reading a speech that Untermeyer gave in 2006, when he said that Giuliani’s firm had “important contracts” in Qatar. In fact, Untermeyer—who returned to Texas when he stepped down as ambassador to join a real-estate firm partnered with the National Bank of Qatar—told the Houston Forum that Giuliani’s “security company” has “several” contracts in Qatar, and that Giuliani himself “comes to Doha [Qatar’s capital] twice a year.” Untermeyer’s wife Diana spoke at the same event about their daughter Elly, who she said “makes friends with all she meets—other kids, generals, sheikhs, and even our famous American visitors like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whom she deems ‘cool.’ ”

While it is true that Giuliani hasn’t disclosed the particulars of his Qatar business, he and others at the firm have been bragging about it for years, presumably on the assumption that mentioning good-paying clients is the best way to generate more of the same. Giuliani told South Africa’s Business Times in June 2006, for example, that he’d “recently helped Qatar” to transform Doha in preparation for the Asian Games, an Olympics- sanctioned, 45-country competition that occurred last December. He was in Johannesburg in part to offer to do the same before South Africa hosts the 2010 World Cup. “They had the same concerns as you,” he said at the Global Leaders Africa summit, “and I helped them pull things together. You can see not only how they pulled together physical things that were necessary, such as stadiums, but how they used the plan to improve their security.”

Richard Bradshaw, a consulting-services manager for an Australian security firm that played a two-and-a-half-year role in planning the Asian Games, says that “the ministry of the interior is essentially the chief ministry in charge of internal security”—for the games and other matters. Bradshaw says that he “heard the name of Giuliani Partners quoted in this town,” but that he knew nothing directly about their Asian Games involvement, adding that “maybe they just dealt with high levels in the government.” But Hassan Sidibe, the interior ministry’s press officer, says that a special organizing committee handled contracts for the Asian Games and that “the minister of interior was part of that committee.”


In addition to specific references to the natural-gas and Asian Games deals, Giuliani Partners has hinted at broader ties to Qatar. A New York Post story in January that was filled with quotes about Giuliani Partners’ clients from Michael Hess, a managing partner at the firm, reported that Giuliani himself “has given advice from Qatar to Spain.” Another Post story in May reported that Giuliani had made lucrative speeches in 30 countries—which he does in addition to his Giuliani Partners business—and named Qatar as one of those locations. A New York Times story in January, also laced with Hess quotes, reported that Pasquale J. D’Amuro, the ex-FBI chief who replaced Bernard Kerik as the head of Giuliani’s security division, “has traveled to meet with executives in Japan, Qatar, and other nations, often focusing on clients who seek the firm out for advice on how to protect against a terrorist attack.” Any of these dealings in Qatar that involved security would necessarily connect the firm with the interior ministry run by Abdallah al-Thani.

Peter Boyer, whose New Yorker profile of Giuliani appeared this August, quoted D’Amuro and Giuliani about the expertise and work of Ali Soufan, an Arabic-speaking Lebanese-American who also left the FBI to become the international director of Giuliani Security. Both D’Amuro and Giuliani said that Soufan, the lead investigator in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, had been spending “most of his time” in a Persian Gulf country that is a Giuliani client. Boyer didn’t identify the country, but another source familiar with Soufan’s assignment has confirmed that Soufan has, until recently, been based in Qatar. “The firm has helped the country with training, and with a revamping of its security infrastructure,” Boyer wrote. “The locale is an ideal listening post for someone whose expertise is unraveling the tangle of international terror.” Soufan was the firm’s point man with the royal family, according to another former FBI operative, even providing security advice for Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the emir’s favorite of his three wives.

Gulf States Newsletter, a respected news publication in the region, used similar language this October to describe the firm’s business in Qatar. Closing a lengthy piece of boosterism that assessed who was getting security contracts in Qatar, the newsletter cited a sole example “in the field of high-end consultancy,” namely what it called “well-partnered players like Giuliani Associates.” It said the firm had, “through a combination of luck and good positioning, become trusted partners” of the Qatari government. The “key lesson for any security sector incomer,” concluded the newsletter, is that “in Qatar it is necessary but not sufficient to be technically competent. As ever, it may be who you know, not what you know, that wins the day.”

Despite this ample supply of evidence, Sunny Mindel, the firm’s spokeswoman, denied in a November 11 Post story that Giuliani Partners “had any ties to Qatar Petroleum.” Mindel may have meant that the company’s business in Qatar had come to an end, parsing her verbs carefully, or she may have been denying that the contract came directly from the petroleum entity, suggesting that the government itself paid for this security advice. Mindel’s elusive answers are consistent with other efforts by the company to conceal the Qatar deals, even as Giuliani and others have occasionally talked openly about them. These efforts suggest that Giuliani is aware the association could prove disquieting, even without the embarrassing connection to the notorious KSM.

The best example of how Giuliani’s Qatar ties could prove disastrous for his presidential candidacy occurred a year ago, at the opening of the Asian Games on December 1, 2006, eleven days after Giuliani registered his presidential exploratory committee. Ben Smith, then of the Daily News and now with Politico.com, obtained a detailed internal memo from the Giuliani campaign in January, and it contained a travel schedule. Smith wrote that “Giuliani spent the first weekend in December in Doha, Qatar, at the Qatari-government sponsored Asian Games, on which he had reportedly worked as a consultant.” Giuliani’s calendar indicates that he arrived in Qatar on December 2 and left on December 3, heading to Las Vegas to address the state’s GOP. The Qatari government spent $2.8 billion to host the games, building a massive sports complex with security very much in mind. “We have 8,000 well-trained security members and the latest technology that were used in the Olympics,” said a security spokesman.

On December 1, the day before Giuliani arrived, the emir’s special guests at the lavish opening, attended by 55,000, were Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and Syrian president Bashar Assad, all of whom are Qatar allies and were pictured sitting together on television. Giuliani’s presence that weekend wasn’t noted in news coverage at the time, even though his firm had apparently provided security advice for an event that included Ahmadinejad, whose country Giuliani has since promised to “set back five years” should it pursue its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad was later assailed by opponents in his own country for watching a female song-and-dance show that was part of the opening extravaganza. The presence of Hamas’s Haniyeh, who attended private meetings with the emir while Giuliani was in Qatar, might also have been embarrassing to Giuliani, since Qatar agreed to pay $22.5 million a month to cover the salaries of 40,000 Palestinian teachers, as well as to create a bank in the territories with a $50 million initial deposit. This break in the boycott against Hamas orchestrated by the U.S. and Israel prompted a stern rebuke from the State Department on December 5.


While Qatar’s emir has allowed the U.S. to locate its central command and other strategic facilities in the country, including the largest pre-positioning base in the region, his government was also the only member of the U.N. Security Council to oppose the July 2006 resolution that called on Iran to suspend all nuclear research and development activities. Indeed, Iran and Qatar share the North Field/South Pars natural-gas deposit off the Qatari coast, the very one that includes the Giuliani-advised Ras Laffan project. Similarly, the emir praised the Hezbollah resistance in Lebanon during the 2006 war with Israel, calling it “the first Arab victory, something we had longed for,” and he visited southern Lebanon after the war, meeting with families and giving away $250 million to rebuild destroyed homes. While Qatar had allowed Israel to open a small trade mission in Doha amid much fanfare in the mid-’90s, it had virtually shut down the office by 2000, and the last of the Israeli envoys left in 2003.

Also, Saddam Hussein’s wife, Sajida Khayrallah Tilfa, lives in Qatar, in defiance of an Interpol arrest warrant and her appearance on the Iraqi government’s 2006 most-wanted list for allegedly providing financial support to Iraqi insurgents, according to an October 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service. Invited with her daughter to Qatar by the deputy prime minister, she has not returned to Iraq despite an extradition demand issued months before Giuliani’s December visit.

Another potentially uncomfortable Giuliani visit to Doha also stayed under the radar. On January 16, 2006, Giuliani visited the Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence and the Aspire Zone, the largest sports dome in the world, built for the Asian Games as well as future international events (including the Olympic Games, which Qatar hopes to host someday). Giuliani praised the academy, which he called “a fantastic achievement,” adding that he was “looking forward to seeing it develop in the coming years.” Aspire’s communications director says that Giuliani “spent more than an hour and a half” touring its facilities, adding that the former mayor “spoke very eloquently.” But even putting his stamp of approval on such apparently benign facilities could come back to bite Giuliani: The academy, a $1.3 billion facility designed to move Qatar into the top ranks of international soccer, has been denounced in unusually blunt terms by Sepp Blatter, the head of world football’s governing body, FIFA. Blatter called Qatar’s “establishment of recruitment networks”—using 6,000 staff members to assess a half-million young footballers in seven African countries and then moving the best to Qatar—”a good example of exploitation.”

The Aspire facilities were part of the Asian Games security preparations that Giuliani told the Business Times his firm had participated in planning, since the dome allowed 10 sports to be staged simultaneously under one roof. But even the notice of Giuliani’s January appearance, which was posted on the website of an English newspaper there, made no mention of his consulting work for the government. The ex-FBI source says that Giuliani’s secretive security work in Qatar—which also includes vulnerability assessments on port facilities in Doha and pipeline security—would necessarily have involved the interior ministry.


A case officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations for nearly 19 years, Robert Baer—who calls Qatar “the center of intrigue in the Gulf”—laid out the KSM escape story in his 2003 book,
Sleeping with the Devil. His source was Hamad bin Jasim bin Hamad al-Thani, a close relative of the emir who was once the finance minister and chief of police. (An exile living in Beirut in 1997 when Baer began a relationship with him, Hamad al-Thani has since been captured by Qatar and is serving a life sentence for attempting to overthrow the emir.) Hamad told Baer that Abdallah al-Thani, whom he described as “a fanatic Wahhabi,” had taken KSM “under his wing” and that the emir had ordered Hamad to help Abdallah. He gave 20 blank Qatari passports to Abdallah, who he said gave them to KSM. “As soon as the FBI showed up in Doha” in 1996, the emir, according to Hamad, ordered Abdallah to move KSM out of his apartment to his beach estate, and eventually out of the country. “Flew the coop. Sayonara,” Hamad concluded.

Baer’s account of how KSM got away is the most far-reaching, implicating the emir himself. Since KSM “moved his family to Qatar at the suggestion” of Abdallah al-Thani, according to the 9/11 Commission, and held a job at the Ministry of Electricity and Water, Baer’s account is hardly implausible. The commission even found that Abdallah ah-Thani “underwrote a 1995 trip KSM took to join the Bosnia jihad.” Bill Gertz, the Washington Times reporter whose ties to the Bush White House are well established, affirmed Baer’s version in his 2002 book, Breakdown. Another CIA agent, Melissa Boyle Mahle, who was assigned to the KSM probe in Qatar in 1995, said that she tried to convince the FBI to do a snatch operation rather than taking the diplomatic approach, concerned about “certain Qatari officials known for their sympathies for Islamic extremists.” Instead, “Muhammad disappeared immediately after the request to the government was made,” making it “obvious to me what had happened.” Louis Freeh’s book says simply: “We believe he was tipped off; but however he got away, it was a slipup with tragic consequences.” Neither Mahle nor Freeh named names.


Counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke so mistrusted the Qataris that he plotted an extraordinary rendition, but the FBI, CIA, and Defense Department said they couldn’t pull it off. Then he asked the ambassador to “obtain the Emir’s approval for a snatch, without the word getting to anyone else.” Despite assurances that “only a few senior officials knew about our plan, KSM learned of it and fled the country ahead of the FBI’s arrest team’s arrival,” Clarke concluded in his book, Against All Enemies. “We were of course outraged at Qatari security and assumed the leak came from within the palace.” Clarke noted that “one report” indicated that KSM had evaporated on a passport supplied by Abdallah al-Thani’s Islamic-affairs ministry. When Clarke was told by the Los Angeles Times in 2003 that Abdallah had been elevated to interior minister, he said: “I’m shocked to hear that. You’re telling me that al-Thani is in charge of security inside Qatar. I hope that’s not true.” Having just left the Bush administration, Clarke added that Abdallah “had great sympathy for bin Laden, great sympathy for terrorist groups, [and] was using his personal money and ministry money to transfer to al Qaeda front groups that were allegedly charities.” The Los Angeles Times quoted “several U.S. officials involved in the hunt” for KSM who fingered Abdallah as “the one who learned of the imminent FBI dragnet and tipped off Muhammad.”

Even earlier than the Los Angeles Times report, ABC News’ Brian Ross reported that Abdallah had warned KSM, citing American intelligence officials, and added that KSM had left Qatar “with a passport provided by that country’s government.” Ross didn’t limit his broadside to Abdallah, saying that “there were others in the Qatari royal family who were sympathetic and provided safe havens for Al Qaeda.” A New York Times story in 2003 said that Abdallah “harbored as many as 100 Arab extremists on his farm.” The story also quoted Freeh as saying that KSM had “over 20 false passports at his disposal” and cited American officials who suspected Abdallah of tipping him off. However, the Times story also quoted a Qatari official who claimed that Abdallah “always provided support for Islamic extremists with the knowledge and acceptance of Qatar’s emir.”

Indeed, the Times reported in another 2003 story that after 9/11, KSM was said by Saudi intelligence officials to have “spent two weeks hiding in Qatar, with the help of prominent patrons.” Abdul Karim al-Thani, a royal family member who did not hold a government post, was also accused in the story of operating a safe house for Abu Massab al-Zarqawi, who later became the face of the early Iraqi insurgency but was depicted then as an Al Qaeda operative moving from Baghdad to Afghanistan. Abdul al-Thani, according to a senior coalition official, provided Qatari passports and a million-dollar bank account to finance the network.

Other connections between Qatar and terrorism have been reported in the press. Newsweek identified an Iraqi living in Doha and working at Abdallah’s Islamic-affairs ministry as being detained by Qatar police because of the ties he had to 9/11 hijackers—yet he was released even though phone records linked him as well to the 1993 bombers and the so-called “Bojinka” plot hatched in Manila to blow up civilian airlines. A Chechen terrorist financier harbored in Qatar was assassinated there by a Russian hit squad in 2004. Yousef Qardawi, a cleric with a talk show on Al Jazeera and ties to the emir, issued a fatwa against Americans the same year. An engineer at Qatar Petroleum carried out a suicide bomb attack at a theater popular with Westerners in early 2005, killing one and wounding 12.

Finally, the long-smoldering question of whether Osama bin Laden played a role in the 1996 bombing of the American barracks at Khobar Towers—funneling 20 tons of C-4 explosives into Saudi Arabia through Qatar—resurfaced in a story based intelligence reports and endorsed by none other than Dick Cheney. In 2003, Steven Hayes of The Weekly Standard wrote a celebrated story based on a 16-page Defense Department intelligence assessment. The thrust of the story was to advance the administration’s thesis about Al Qaeda’s ties to Iraq, but Hayes also found that in a January 1996 visit to Qatar, Osama bin Laden “discussed the successful movement of explosives into Saudi Arabia, and operations targeted against U.S. interests” in Khobar and two other locations, “using clandestine al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia.” The 2007 CRS study says that it is “unclear” if those conversations were “related to the preparations for the June 1996 attack” that killed 19 servicemen, but that the “Qatari individual” who reportedly hosted bin Laden for these discussions was none other than Abdallah al-Thani. Bill Gertz and others have been writing for years that the path to the carnage at Khobar led through Doha.

The Khobar attack closely followed an unsuccessful coup attempt against the emir on February 20, 1996, which Qatar officials, in later criminal prosecutions, formally accused Saudi Arabia of fomenting. Analysts in the region have suggested that any use of Qatar as a launching pad for the Khobar attack so soon after the coup attempt was likely to have been approved at the highest levels of the government. In October 1996, within months of both the KSM escape and the Khobar bombing, Abdallah al-Thani got his first major promotion, elevated by the emir to Minister of State for Interior Affairs, a cabinet position.

All of this evidence of Qatar’s role as a facilitator of terrorism—reaching even to the emir himself—was reported well before Giuliani Partners began its business there “around 2005.” Yet even the New York Times story, filled with quotes from Giuliani’s friend Freeh, didn’t deter him. Nor did the firm’s retention of D’Amuro and Soufan, two ex-FBI counterterrorism experts who certainly knew the terror landscape of Qatar.

Soufan, in fact, was the primary investigator who assembled the case against the terrorists who bombed American embassies in Africa in 1998. And the testimony in that 2001 trial established that the Qatar Charitable Society, a nongovernmental agency that is said to “draw much of its funding from official sources,” helped finance the attack. Daniel Pipes, a foreign-policy adviser to the Giuliani campaign, has branded the Qatar Charitable Society “one of bin Laden’s de facto banks.” Reached at home and asked about his work in Qatar, Soufan declined to comment.

Even the revelations about Khobar Towers didn’t slow Giuliani down, though he’s subsequently made the bombing a central feature in his stump-speech litany of the Clinton administration’s failings. Giuliani also ignored an official State Department report on terrorism for 2003—released in mid-2004, just before his firm began doing business in Qatar—which said that the country’s security services “monitored extremists passively,” and that “members of transnational terrorist groups and state sponsors of terror are present in Qatar.” The report added that Qatar’s government “remains cautious about taking any action that would cause embarrassment or public scrutiny” when nationals from the Gulf countries were involved. (Later reports issued by the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, moderated the department’s Qatar assessment.) Also in 2004, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute who works with the Defense Department, wrote that a “Wahhabi clique” tied to extremists “is still in charge [in Qatar], and seeded the security establishment with personnel of their choosing.” But even this strong, specific warning didn’t deter Giuliani Partners’ interest in Qatar.

Presumably, Giuliani’s rationale for doing business there was that Qatar had become an American ally, hosting up to 40,000 troops. The CRS report put the complexity of the relationship well, noting that American concerns about Qatari support for terrorists “have been balanced over time by Qatar’s counterterrorism efforts and its broader, long-term commitment to host and support U.S. military forces.” In a footnote, the CRS report adds that the emir may finally be downplaying Abdallah al-Thani’s influence, even as he reappointed him this year. The U.S. government may have to be satisfied with that suggestion of progress; it does not have limitless military options in the Middle East. (The emir, for his part, once reportedly explained his willingness to host U.S. forces by saying: “The only way we can be sure the Americans will answer our 911 call is if we have the police at our own house.”)

Giuliani Partners, however, has a world of choices, quite literally. Some American companies who do business in Qatar, like Shell and ExxonMobil, have to chase the gas and oil wherever they are. But a consulting company with instant name recognition like Giuliani’s—and which claims to carefully vet its clients—can be both profitable and selective. Moreover, it’s the only American company known to be providing security advice to Qatar; the rest hail from Singapore, Australia, and France. A company headed by a man who has known that he would make this presidential run for years—and with 9/11 as its rationale—could have chosen to make his millions elsewhere. Especially a candidate who divides the world into good guys and bad guys, claims that this war is a “divine” mission, and shuns complexity. For that kind of a candidate, Qatar may become one Giuliani contradiction too many.

 

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From The Archives News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE 2021 THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Is Stonewall Inn’s Anheuser-Busch ‘Pour Out’ a Moment or a New Movement?

“It’s time for corporations to walk their talk,” Maeve Coyle, spokesperson for the “Keep Your Pride” campaign run by global charity Corporate Accountability Action, told the Voice.

Stonewall Inn co-owners Stacy Lentz and Kurt Kelly couldn’t agree more.

The Stonewall Inn coordinated with “Keep Your Pride” to ban Anheuser-Busch products from the bar during NYC Pride weekend, June 25 to 27. Stonewall is regarded worldwide as the birthplace of the U.S. LGBTQ rights movement.

Yesterday, to bring awareness to what observers are calling the “corporatization of Pride,” Lentz and Kelly and about 50 participants held a beverage “pour out” in front of the storied establishment. Beverages were poured out in the exact location where on June 28, 1969, gay, lesbian, transgender, and other bar patrons resisted NYC police in what is now referred to alternately as a riot, an uprising, and a rebellion.

Why Anheuser-Busch?

Since 2015, Anheuser-Busch, according to “Keep Your Pride,” has made 48 donations totaling $35,350 to 29 anti-LGBTQ legislators behind recent bills attacking trans youth. 

Lentz and Kelly are “walking their talk.” The suite of beverages banned on Pride weekend, the bar’s biggest weekend, will have an economic effect on their bottom line. In turn, how can Anheuser-Busch and other Pride sponsor corporations and businesses walk their talk?

“It’s important that we do this awareness event during Pride week and really call out corporations and people out there that aren’t showing their true colors,” Lentz told the Voice. “We’re asking corporations who traditionally sponsor Pride events around the country to change their criteria for making political donations,” Kelly added.

A growing part of the queer narrative is how corporations want access to queer markets while simultaneously contributing to elected officials who sponsor anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation. In marketing terms, queer markets are presented as loyal to businesses supportive of their communities. The problem, say activists and advocates like Lentz and Kelly and campaigns such as “Keep Your Pride,” is that many of those same businesses are not loyal in return when they contribute to anti-queer elected officials.

Spreading the news: Keep Your Pride messaging ran on a mobile billboard that circled Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis, Missouri headquarters June 19-20

Instead of contributing to politicians who thwart progress toward full LGBTQ civil rights, “We’d like to see those same corporations use their lobbying muscle to support the Equality Act,” Kelly says. The act was passed by the House on February 25 but now languishes in the Senate, where it is not expected to pass.

In defense of their donations, Anheuser-Busch told the Associated Press, “We support candidates for public office whose policy positions and objectives support investments in our communities, job creation, and industry growth.” The statement also read, “Together, with our brands, we have a clear role to play in bringing real change and creating an inclusive and equitable world where we cherish and celebrate one another.”

Coyle’s assessment of the situation is different than what is described in Anheuser-Busch’s formal statement. “This isn’t difficult. This is a really low bar. We’re calling on corporations to stop donating to lawmakers who are trying to legalize discrimination,” Coyle explains. In 2020, according to the Human Rights Campaign, there were a total of 79 anti-trans bills introduced across the country. In just the first half of this year there have been more than 100, according to PBS News Hour Weekend.

There are publicly available resources for corporations to research before writing PAC checks. “We need to change the rules. It’s a pretty easy thing for folks to check on elected officials’ positions and votes on queer issues,” Coyle says. She suggests checking Freedom for All Americans as a credible source for PAC contributions regarding LGBTQ issues; another source is Popular Information

Complicating the landscape is the dissonance created by corporations that receive high marks on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Index while simultaneously donating to elected officials whose bills and votes are at odds with the goal of comprehensive civil rights for the entire LGBTQ community.

But there’s no gray area when it comes to equality, Coyle posits. “There are not two sides to this issue. When companies donate to an elected official who supports discrimination it really shows you where their priorities lie. It’s not with supporting the LGBTQ community; it’s with their own bottom line,” she underscores.

After the Stonewall “pour out” event, the bottom line for the LGBTQ community may involve deciding if they’ll go back to buying Anheuser-Busch beverages, or goods and services from other corporations making donations to anti-queer politicians.

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No stranger to controversy, Ann Northrop, principal organizer with Reclaim Pride, stresses the importance of people making the connections between all of the corporate-sponsored Pride logos and rainbows and to whom those same businesses make political contributions.

“With the right information people can ask for corporate accountability,” Northrop told the Voice. Right now, Northrop says, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars going into campaigns to elect Republican politicians.

“I understand that corporations have a pet agenda of particular legislation about taxes or where they locate factories or outlets. Those are real concerns for them. And they want elected officials to do their bidding,” she says. “But their contributions, like Anheuser-Busch and so many others, are not good for us. And we’re allowed to say, don’t expect us to support your business when the elected officials you contribute to regularly work against our achieving full civil rights.” She notes that research has revealed more than two dozen rainbow-flag-waving corporations that have donated millions to anti-gay pols in the last two years.

Does this year’s Pride season — with its focus on the relationships between queer venues and corporations and who does what to whom with rainbows and PAC dollars — signal a new movement? “I believe it’s possible, hoping it’s possible,” Northrop concludes.

Yesterday’s street theater at Stonewall channeled not only 1969 but also much more recent history. In 2018, Reclaim Pride, a then-new organization, got this particular social justice ball rolling when their first salvo involved delivering “a list of demands to city officials, including Mayor de Blasio, New York Police Department Commissioner James O’ Neill, and Heritage of Pride regarding the 2018 New York City Pride March.” Heritage of Pride was included because it is the organizer of the annual NYC Pride March.

Essentially, Reclaim Pride’s demands have not changed much from their original statement, which focused on “working towards our vision of an NYC Pride that reflects our community’s heritage of activism as opposed to the Pride March’s current state of commercial saturation.”

Will efforts by Stonewall Inn owners, the “Keep Your Pride” campaign, and the Reclaim Pride Coalition create change?

“Moving forward, Pride means that we are reclaiming our spaces,” Reclaim Pride’s Jason Rosenberg told the Voice. “Elected officials need to stop voting against our interests. Our community needs to do this. Only we can keep ourselves safe in order to survive. We liberate ourselves and each other,” he says.

Also involved with Reclaim Pride is ACT UP’s Brandon Cuicchi, who says, “At a minimum, we need to eliminate the corporatization of Pride. We need to find new ways to make ourselves attractive as a market.”

Moving forward, the burning question for the queer community during 2021 Pride season appears to be deciding if it’s a movement or a market, or both. How does the community honor what took place in 1969 at The Stonewall Inn and what took place on the sidewalk outside its front door yesterday?  ❖

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CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Will Progressive Splits Lead to a Conservative Win in the Manhattan D.A.’s Race?

On June 22, voters in Manhattan will head to the polls to make several monumental decisions. At the top of the ballot, of course, will be the Democratic primary for mayor, where the winner could end up governing for the next eight years. Voters will also weigh in on who to choose for city comptroller, another post that often serves as a springboard for a mayoral run.

But arguably the most importance primary is occurring below them both, garnering relatively little media attention: the race for Manhattan District Attorney. Cy Vance Jr., the controversial incumbent, is not seeking re-election, and eight candidates are vying to replace him. 

There are many reasons the primary is of great consequence. In overwhelmingly Democratic Manhattan, the victor is assured the office. Since the 1970s, there have been only two other Manhattan DA’s: Vance and the late Robert Morgenthau, who retired after 2009. 

With a budget nearing $170 million, the office has a vast jurisdiction, prosecuting the wealthy and powerful on Wall Street, along with the poor and the vulnerable. Right now, Vance’s prosecutors have reportedly entered the final stages of a criminal tax investigation into Donald Trump’s long-serving chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, setting up the possibility he could face charges in the summer. 

All of the candidates have promised to continue the investigation, vowing to be tough on Trump and his associates. Yet while this is the reason many voters may care about the race — the next Democrat will be in position, perhaps, to drag the former president into a courtroom — it has far greater implications for the thousands of people, many of them Black and Latino, who are prosecuted for petty crimes every year. For defense attorneys and criminal justice reformers, Vance’s legacy is punitive. He has sought stiff sentences against poor defendants and pushed his attorneys, as often as possible, to go to trial to win convictions. 

Many of the candidates have criticized Vance and vowed to overhaul the office in the mode of progressive DA’s across America, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin. Some want to slash the office budget in half, abolish cash bail and pre-trial detention, and reduce the overall number of prosecutions. 

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The dynamics of the race, however, may not favor the progressive candidates — Tahanie Aboushie, Eliza Orlins, Dan Quart, and Alvin Bragg — because, unlike the mayoral race, there is no ranked-choice voting. A DA race is run under state rules, not municipal law, so voters will only pick one candidate. There is a very real threat, at this point, that candidates with varying left platforms could split the vote, allowing a more conservative contender to win.

And one of them looms over the field: Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former Brooklyn and federal prosecutor. Married to Boaz Weinstein, a multimillionaire hedge fund manager, Farhadian Weinstein has far outspent the field, raising millions from Wall Street megadonors while pouring $8 million of her own cash into the campaign. 

Farhadian Weinstein, at the minimum, would be a prosecutor in the mold of Vance and progressives fear she may tug the office further to the right. Running with the endorsement of some establishment Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Farhadian Weinstein has repeatedly warned about the rising number of shootings and murders. She is one of the only candidates who will not rule out entering into information-sharing agreements with federal agencies like ICE and Homeland Security Investigation. Reformers worry she will be too close to the financial sector to effectively prosecute white-collar crime. 

Polling in the race has been scant. One recent poll, from the left-leaning firm Data for Progress, showed a dead heat between Farhadian Weinstein and Bragg, a former prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office who was endorsed by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Congressman Jerry Nadler, and the New York Times. A Harlem native, Bragg speaks openly about being a victim of the criminal justice system as a Black man. He made a name for himself seeking full transparency into how the NYPD handled Eric Garner’s death.

Bragg is a former prosecutor, not a public defender or a civil rights attorney like two candidates running to the left of him, Orlins and Aboushi. But Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and prominent progressive activist who supports Bragg, has urged backers of other candidates to consolidate around him.

Some progressives, however, reacted with anger at the suggestion. “This is not your finest hour. Your point of view is myopic, privileged, and just plain wrong,” tweeted Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist backing Aboushi. “Your song is ugly & out of tune. You should do yourself & everyone else a favor and stop singing it.” 

Teachout, though, may have a point with only days left in the race. In the 2020 presidential primary, Joe Biden crushed Bernie Sanders by winning the endorsements of his top Democratic rivals. No such consolidation appears to be in the works now, with the candidates to the left of Bragg arguing, publicly and privately, they still have a path to victory. Without RCV, it will be possible to know the outcome on Election Night — and whether Nixon or Teachout, in all their ardor, are proven right.   ❖

This story was updated on June 18:  Zephyr Teachout says she specifically asked no candidates to drop out, only that the supporters of other candidates back her candidate, Bragg.

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From The Archives JOCKBEAT 2021 News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Missing Person Report: Have You Seen Hal Steinbrenner?

For the first time in a long while, the New York Yankees are the least exciting team in the entire city. 

Just across town, the Mets sit at the top of the National League East division and feature the most dominant pitcher in the sport of baseball. On the gridiron, Jets fans (foolishly) await the debut of their newest savior — QB Zach Wilson — as the Giants were seen dropping boatloads of cash and draft capital on a handful of impact players. The Nets are favorites to win the NBA championship, while a young Knicks team brought Madison Square Garden roaring back with their unlikely playoff berth this season. 

The Rangers and Islanders aren’t looking too bad themselves. The Blueshirts put the NHL on notice with a season that was light years beyond their initial rebuild schedule, while the Isles are currently one round away from the Stanley Cup Finals.

But then you have the Yankees, the absolute pinnacle of New York City — and, pretty much, North American — sports, who, with 27 world championships, always set expectations high. And currently, a baseball team that is painfully mediocre despite a really talented roster. 

The thing is, their owner is missing. Have you seen him? Sources say he hasn’t been spotted since the 2009 World Series.

Hal Steinbrenner officially took control of the Yankees in 2008 for his ailing father George — the spontaneous and abrupt owner who fired and spent his way to 11 American League pennants and seven World Series trophies. 

With George’s health deteriorating fast, Hal and his late brother, Hank, went on a shopping spree to get one last gift for their father: the 2009 World Series Championship. In perhaps the most exciting free agency period for Yankees fans ever, New York signed pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to seven-year, $161 million and five-year, $82.5 million deals, respectively. They also brought on first baseman Mark Teixeira for eight years at $180 million.

Essentially, they purchased themselves a World Series that off-season.

But lately, with the Boss gone since 2010, son Hal hasn’t shown the kind of urgency he did in 2009, nor the kind that his father ruled by during his 37-year reign. George was notorious for being hands-on to a fault. Like him or not, the Boss’s domineering presence over team personnel decisions combined with his no-bullshit attitude nearly always meant an entertaining product was on the field at Yankee Stadium. And that’s just the way he wanted it. George was his own team’s biggest fan. 

Most of the time, he ran the team like a Bleacher Creature, too. Famous for his frequent firings and penchant for throwing preposterous amounts of cash at players, there was never a dull moment with Steinbrenner’s Yanks. Famed manager Billy Martin was fired so often by George that it became a running joke on Miller Lite commercials. Bob Lemon was fired a few games into the 1982 season — just a few months removed from guiding the team to a World Series appearance. Yankees legend Don Mattingly was once benched because he refused to abide by the grooming standards the Boss put in place. 

The Boss set this management style in the first innings of his ownership reign, bringing Oakland Athletics superstar Reggie Jackson to the Yankees back in 1976. New York had just lost the World Series months prior, and George wanted to take that next step. His squad would go on to win the 1977 title, with Jackson winning World Series MVP. They’d repeat in 1978.

Just a few years earlier, Steinbrenner signed the first MLB free agent ever to exist: future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter. Many attribute the explosion of big-money deals in major sports to George’s trigger-happy nature during free agency. 

With George, the good always came with the bad — he was not a man known for patience. When the mid-’80s rolled around and the Yanks were in the dumps, he made moves. To the dismay of many New Yorkers, those moves included trading the likes of Willis McGee, Fred McGriff, and Jay Buhner — the latter inspiring one of the most popular scenes in sitcom history on Seinfeld

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One day, though, The Boss got caught with the pine tar too far up his bat. It turns out Steinbrenner had paid gambler Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, the man who The Boss had given the richest contract in sports in 1980. Winfield, a phenomenal player and one of the lone bright spots for those 80’s New York teams, drew the ire of Steinbrenner for underperforming in crunch time. George, remembering Reggie Jackson’s postseason dominance from the late ’70s, which earned him the nickname Mr. October, slapped Winfield with the moniker Mr. May and hired Spira in an attempt to rid himself of the expensive right fielder. The consequences were harsh: the MLB banned Steinbrenner for life …  temporarily.

When the Boss returned three years later, in 1993, GM Gene Michael had already drafted and started developing the core players that would turn the Yankees into the dynasty that won championships in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Steinbrenner, naturally, would still have some input on how that dynasty would take shape — he fired manager Buck Showalter after the 1995 season in favor of a guy named Joe Torre. 

But if George’s tendencies — unpredictable and absurd yet somehow effective — are a perfect match for Seinfeld, Hal could have slid into a role on The Big Bang Theory, which, with its bland yet sometimes ironically funny humor and shameless implementation of the hot-girl-next-door trope, did just enough to keep you from flipping the channel.

Since taking over, Hal has opportunistically echoed the words of his late father but has mimicked his actions more sporadically with each year. Following the 2020 postseason, Hal took a page out of George’s playbook when he publicly apologized to Yankees fans for not fielding a more successful team. New York had just played a win-or-go-home American League Divisional Series Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, in which their star-studded offense sputtered to a 2–1 loss. Within his apology was the admittance that he himself was responsible for the failures of the team, a quote that seemed to indicate that moves from this lower-case “b” boss could be on the horizon.

So, the Yankees let Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ walk during the off-season —  probably wise moves, with the exception of Tanaka. The real issue is how they went about fixing their rotation, which was then left with superstar Gerrit Cole as the only reliable starter. It was quite a bold strategy. In picking up former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Pittsburgh Pirate Jameson Taillon, New York hoped to build an ultra-high-ceiling rotation for 2021 that would depend on Domingo German and Luis Severino returning to full form at various points during the season. However, those four starters had only pitched a combined one inning during the 2020 season

Jockbeat articles from the Village Voice newspaper sports section

Big surprise: it didn’t work. Taillon has posted a dreadful 5.74 ERA in just over 53 innings pitched. Severino’s comeback from Tommy John surgery took a step back last week because of a groin injury. Kluber, while pitching exceptionally early on (including a no-hitter on May 19), is expected to be out for about two months with a shoulder injury. The only exception is German, who has a solid 3.88 ERA in 12 starts. 

Even if this plan had worked out, free agency bargain hunting to fill out important roster holes is a strategy meant for the Oakland A’s of the league, not the New York Yankees. One of the best pitchers in baseball, Trevor Bauer, was a free agent this past off-season, and before you question how unrealistic it would’ve been to sign the top available free agent in back-to-back off-seasons (Cole was signed in 2019), just take a look at the team Bauer ended up inking a deal with. The Los Angeles Dodgers gave Bauer $102 million over three years, adding that kind of money to a payroll that already included southpaw Clayton Kershaw’s $31 million per season. Oh yeah, they also recently signed star outfielder Mookie Betts to the second-richest deal in Major League Baseball history. 

Take notes, Hal. 

The Yankees, unlike the Dodgers, who won it all last season, haven’t sniffed a World Series game since 2009. They’ve reached the American League Championship series twice since 2017, only to be gatekept from the big stage by the Houston Astros. 

So if the Dodgers are still urgently adding top talent after winning a championship, why are the Yankees content with making minor moves when they haven’t had even half as much success in recent years?

Because of the MLB’s Competitive Balance Tax (the league’s luxury tax — thanks, George!), teams who exceed a $210 million payroll must pay hefty fines that are adjusted according to how far over they are. The longer you’re over the figure, the more you pay. 

In a poetic turn of events that likely has George looking down from the clouds, eyes ablaze, with steam blowing out of his ears, Hal is now a slave to the consequences that his own father’s profligacy brought on the league. The Yankees, in the midst of a window with a ton of good young players on affordable contracts, paid nothing in luxury taxes in 2018 and just $5 million in 2019. In 2020 they jumped up to over $20 million, but in 2021 the team is once again on pace to pay nothing.

So while Hal has made some big splashes in recent years, such as Cole’s nine-year, $324 million deal, and trading for Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract, he’s also made cost-cutting moves that have neutralized those big additions. Reliever Adam Ottavino was dealt to the Boston Red Sox last season as a pure salary dump — he’s now posting a healthy 2.67 ERA in 27 innings, including two scoreless against the Yanks. D.J. LeMahieu was re-signed to a long-term deal that will pay him until he’s 37 in exchange for a lighter hit on the luxury tax. Don’t forget the list of bargain-bin and perpetually injured starters that currently comprise their makeshift rotation.

Those transactions are in no way George-like. Hal knows that. It’s just that his desire to maximize profits is greater than his drive to win. And his refusal to step in and make a change with manager Aaron Boone unable to clean up one of the sloppiest, yet talented, teams in the league just screams indifference. But then again, screaming requires some sort of passion — ask George. And we all know the only thing that gets Hal screaming is when Brian Cashman gets a buck too close to that $210 million mark.

This isn’t even a demand for Hal to start signing every superstar out there. It’s a request that he looks like he cares about anything other than his wallet. Shaking up an ineffective coaching staff or filling out some glaring roster holes by the upcoming July 30 trade deadline could go a long way. The prestige and tradition of Yankees baseball requires an owner whose actions reflect the franchise’s values, not one who delivers a depressing exit interview every season and cuts costs. 

It’s perfectly fitting that the last time Hal showed a sense of urgency to win was among the last months of his father’s life. He and his brother knew how much winning meant to George. The Boss’s passion for the team’s success, for better or worse, was never in question.

Unfortunately, that passion, the urgency to win, and the willingness to do whatever it takes, seems to have died with him in 2010.  ❖

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From The Archives NEW YORK 2021 News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

NYC’s Mayoral Cheat Sheet

If you’ve waited until the last minute to figure out who to vote for mayor, the Village Voice has you covered with our handy cheat sheet. We summarized the eight top Democratic candidates’ positions in three major topic areas: public safety, housing, and the economy. 

Before we jump in, here’s a quick who’s who of candidates:

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who draws on his experience as a Black NYPD officer; Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner who quit after fallout over budget cuts; Maya Wiley, ex-ACLU lawyer and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio; Andrew Yang, an ex-presidential hopeful turned mayoral front runner who’s gotten all kinds of press; Scott Stringer, the anti-de Blasio city comptroller who’s fending off allegations of sexual harassment; Dianne Morales, the far-left candidate who’s battling protests inside her campaign; Wall Street executive Ray McGuire; and Shaun Donovan, Obama’s former housing secretary, whose rich father made a huge splash in the race.    

Hopefully, this cheat sheet will help you decide who to rank where on your ballot. (We are focusing on the top eight vote-getters in recent polls. Below they are listed in the order in which they appear on the ballot.) Early voting for primary elections will be open until June 20 (after that, voters will cast their ballots on Election Day, June 22).

¶ Do they support “defunding” the NYPD?

Dianne Morales: Yes. Morales is the only frontrunner who has embraced the “defund police” slogan (it’s literally on her website). She wants to cut the NYPD budget by $3 billion and remove officers from schools, traffic enforcement, and other instances where she believes armed police presence is unnecessary. She proposes redistributing funds to a Community First Responders Department, independent from the NYPD and staffed with personnel trained in trauma-informed intervention.

Scott Stringer: Sort of? As comptroller, Stringer criticized de Blasio’s NYPD budget allocation amid summer protests, calling to slash $1.1 billion from the department to reinvest in community services. But as a candidate he has shied away from the “defund” slogan — there’s no mention of the $1 billion cut on his campaign website or in his public safety report. An investigation revealed that Stringer audited the NYPD twice over his eight-year tenure (for comparison, he audited the Housing Authority 17 times). He favors shifting funding toward social services and strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Ray McGuire: No. McGuire is explicitly against it, arguing that the city’s budget ($98.6 billion for the 2022 fiscal year so far) barely contributed funds for the NYPD, which has a proposed budget of $5.4 billion. Instead, McGuire wants better training for the police force; continued use of the experimental ShotSpotter program, the gunshot-detection system which alerts officers of possible gun-related activity; and a 24/7 emergency social services bureau.

Maya Wiley: Yes. Wiley has kept an arm’s-length from the “defund” slogan (opting for the term “right-sizing” instead) but regularly pushes concerns on excessive policing. She pledges to cut the NYPD’s budget by at least $1 billion each year to fund alternatives to traditional policing. Wiley was chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the oversight body for the NYPD, but some say she did little to reform the sleepy agency during her year there.

Kathryn Garcia: No. Garcia is a proponent of police reform, proposing improved mechanisms for transparent discipline against officers and implementing new training. She’s mentioned investing in the NYPD’s Gun Violence Suppression Division to combat gun violence and wants to reassign more officers to the neighborhood policing unit.

Eric Adams: No. Adams, a former NYPD captain, has repeatedly argued against taking money from the department (and drew heat from activists after suggesting that affluent white millennials were leading the “defund” movement). He’s acknowledged abusive policing, having been beaten by police as a teenager, and pushes for reform through improved training, better accountability systems, and a new version of the disbanded plainclothes Anti-Crime unit. While he’s painted himself as the public-safety candidate, don’t expect him to give up packing once he’s mayor.

Shaun Donovan: Maybe. Donovan wants to refocus police priorities on violent crimes but hasn’t stated he would cut the NYPD’s budget. He has pledged, by his second year, to invest $500 million each year in community-focused public safety initiatives, in part by “redirecting funds allocated to law enforcement and corrections,” which includes agencies beyond the NYPD.

Andrew Yang: No. Yang has stated that “defunding” is “the wrong approach for New York City,” and proposes staffing up certain divisions to improve the city’s low-solve rate. He’s argued for diversifying recruiting inside the NYPD (asking New Yorkers to sign up for the police force during a televised debate) and proposed stronger civilian oversight by appointing a civilian police commissioner.  

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¶ What are they going to do about rising housing costs and homelessness?

Dianne Morales: Morales’s proposal mixes moderate fixes like converting unopened hotels and vacant lots into affordable housing with radical ideas such as replacing the Public Housing Authority with a fully tenant-run management body. She proposes reallocating the $3 billion annual shelter budget toward preventive measures against evictions. But housing advocates have been critical of Morales’s ties to Phipps Housing, an affordable housing developer and one of New York City’s worst landlords. 

Scott Stringer: Stringer tries to establish himself as a “watchdog” to de Blasio, criticizing the mayor’s appetite for rezoning low-income neighborhoods to build more affordable housing and emphasizing his record auditing New York City’s Housing Authority. Stringer promises to build 10,000 affordable housing units each year, requiring every new building to allocate 25% of units for affordable housing, and pledges that he will oppose “developer-driven” rezonings.

Ray McGuire: McGuire’s business background is apparent in proposals to reduce construction costs by streamlining approvals and a new tax credit to incentivize construction of senior affordable housing. He wants to invest $1.5 billion in public housing annually and give tenants more control over how those funds are spent through signed contracts with the city. 

Maya Wiley: Wiley’s housing policy centers on measures that get at root causes of the crisis, such as creating a “universal community care” ecosystem. It’s an ambitious plan: In addition to committing $2 billion for public housing, she promises to guarantee that New Yorkers making 50% or less of Area Median Income won’t pay more than 30% of their income on rent. 

Kathryn Garcia: Garcia’s housing policy is a mixed bag; she wants to move the city away from shelters to permanent housing planning by building 50,000 “deeply” affordable housing units, but suggests creating 24-hour drop-in centers with bathrooms and other services for unhoused New Yorkers. She also supports NYCHA’s Blueprint For Change plan, which tenant advocates have criticized as a step toward privatization.

Eric Adams: Adams wants more housing — and quickly, promising to expedite the city’s initiative to create 15,000 units of supportive housing in 15 years to 10 years. He has low-income renters in mind, with proposals such as streamlining rent-relief applications and adjusting housing vouchers based on market rate, and cites nonprofit Fountain House as a model for wrap-around social services. But Adams has a cozy relationship with developers, raising nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations from real estate stakeholders.

Shaun Donovan: Donovan loves to remind everyone of his stint as President Obama’s housing secretary, and (to a lesser extent) his tenure as housing commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg. A look at his track record brings up mixed reviews. Much of Donovan’s plan relies on state support, like pushing the state to establish a State Public Housing Preservation Trust and to increase annual spending on emergency rental assistance.

Andrew Yang: Yang’s housing approach seems focused on improving existing mechanisms: He would convert the city’s unopened hotels into affordable housing buildings and, as a big believer in Community Land Trusts (CLTs), invest more in existing CLTs. He’s committed to investing $4 billion annually in building affordable and supportive housing.

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¶ How are they going to recover jobs and businesses for New Yorkers?

Dianne Morales: Morales has made investing in small and mid-size businesses the center of her economic recovery platform. She wants to eliminate massive tax breaks for wealthy corporations operating in the city and has committed to investing at least $1 billion in a participatory city-wide People’s Budget Project.

Scott Stringer: The city comptroller proposes a $1 billion NYC Recovery Now Fund for small business grants up to $100,000, which can be used to pay off back rent and rehire former employees. Stringer also proposes developing a stronger workforce pipeline for CUNY graduates and an affordable childcare plan for families with toddlers. 

Ray McGuire: McGuire’s “Comeback Plan” zeroes in on supporting the city’s small businesses. He wants to bring back 50,000 jobs through items such as wage subsidies — covering half of wages for small businesses over a year — and expanding small business owners’ access to loans through community bank investments.

Maya Wiley: Through her “New Deal New York” plan, Wiley wants to invest $10 billion in a public works program, with a target of creating 100,000 new jobs over a five-year period. Wiley pushes for a “care-based economy” through $5,000 grants for high-need care workers and building community care centers.

Kathryn Garcia: As the “fixer” candidate, Garcia leans into cutting red tape that impacts small business owners, proposing an all-in-one small business permit and a new program offering zero-interest microloans. The highlight of her economic recovery plan is her promise to support working parents and guardians in families earning less than $70,000 a year, with free childcare for children up to three years old.

Eric Adams: Adams wants to create jobs by investing in green infrastructure — establishing the city as the “wind power hub” of the East Coast — and attract businesses by expanding the Relocation Employment Assistance Program of tax credits for businesses if they open in certain neighborhoods. He’s also focused on work development for youth, with a proposal to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program to operate year-round.

Shaun Donovan: Donovan’s economic recovery plan centers on rebuilding the city’s strongest revenue sector — entertainment and nightlife — and work development for the city’s future generation, committing to creating 500,000 jobs in his first term. He promises 10,000 internship placements within the first years of his mayorship through a skills-based training program that guarantees placement for public school and CUNY students, and an NYC Job Corps to train potential workers in high-growth job industries.   

Andrew Yang: Yang supports the City Council’s contentious Small Business Job Survival Act, legislation that would essentially help with rent stabilization for commercial tenants, and wants a “universal portable benefits fund” to support expansion of the city’s gig workers’ protections.    ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES NYC REOPENING

Tribeca ‘21: What We Do in the Shadows, All Together in the Dark

Boy, are we ready. Nineteen years after the Tribeca Film Festival was invented as a kind of annual team-building retreat for all of a wounded New York, here we are again, emerging from a fog of trial and tribulation to get together, and reacquaint ourselves with the communal nature of moviegoing. It is, after all, a festival.

But will we? Even with our inner Eberts straining at the bit after over a year of being home-screen bound, it might be an uphill climb. For one thing, the fest’s Tribeca at Home virtual hub opens the gates on most of the films to anyone in the country, in their living rooms — which is different from a streaming service how? In a larger context, we may well have passed the point of no return in seeing or even caring about the difference between “going to” a movie, taking it in under the classic theatrical circumstances, and simply staying home and watching it on the best screen we’ve got, which in many cases may be very good indeed.

But that’s not a “festival,” is it? Nor is it anywhere close to the “event” context that moviegoing had for many decades, back when movies were a place you went to, and an individual film could change your life. Tribeca was from its beginning a defiant party, a self-celebration that framed itself as being bigger than its britches, gradually evolving into the downtown institution it always thought it was and bringing the measure of starfucking and showbiz pomp that the NYFF had always haughtily deferred. Of course en masse moviegoing was always the stock in the soup; without it, as we saw last year, the effort felt less like actual sex and more like internet porn, to evoke a very contemporary parallel dilemma.  

Or, put it like the critic David Thomson, who likened the difference between watching a movie on TV and watching it in a full-sized theater to the difference between looking at an aquarium and watching a whale swim past you underwater. The last 15 months may have made our already convenience-first home viewing habits practically intractable, but there’s a classic and rather unshakable argument supporting the necessity of the cinema. (We’ll get to this year’s Tribeca docket in a minute.) In 1969 the doggedly sensible philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote about how, in a traditional live-theater situation, “the first task of the dramatist is to gather us and then to silence and immobilize us,” and then, via the story on hand, “to show that this very extraordinary behavior, sitting in a crowd in the dark, is very sane.”

No Man of God

Helplessness has been an imperative mechanism, forcing us to experience movies as classical audiences enjoyed Shakespeare — “paralyzed” by decorum in the “black box,” and therefore forced to share the characters’ fates, empathize with their sufferings, fully engage in the emotional moment. The drama unfolds within a window of time you cannot alter, and is comprised of decisions, tragedies, fates and fortunes you cannot mitigate or prevent. Being helpless is our role, and we must accept it. Cavell retells an old anecdote, in which a Southern yokel instinctively jumps onto the stage during a performance of Othello in order to save Desdemona from the homicidal rage of a black man. Cavell doesn’t even touch on the scenario’s inherent racism — he instead looks at the man’s reaction as the antithesis of what it means to partake of and participate in dramatic art.

The Southern man ignores the difference between reality and “pretend,” but more vitally he fails to understand that there is no reason to act or interfere, because there is absolutely nothing a spectator can do to help Desdemona or deter Othello. It is precisely our inability to alter the course of the story, as we sit and are forced to endure it from beginning to end, that guarantees our emotional investment and cathartic involvement. It is our hostage status, the norms that define the audience and the stage as two complementary but separate worlds, that makes the drama work. The feelings of alarm and empathy a play or movie musters is why we’re there. We can care about Desdemona, but we can never save her.

It is, virtually by definition, inconvenient — anti-convenience, even. At home, of course, the spell can be destroyed in a thousand ways, and routinely is, and if you’re going to theorize about how our moviegoing habits have mutated over the last decade or two — toward hyperextended or even endless TV narratives, toward CGI’d explosiveness, toward re-binging thoughtlessly, toward the unthreatening safety of sequels and reboots — Cavell’s thesis may be a good place to start. The endgame question might be, do we — or even can we — care about Desdemona anymore?

My Heart Won’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

Black box, take me in. Rousing from her coma, the new Tribeca fest returns with a rich docket, a hearty helping of which are actually holdovers from last year, COVID having robbed them of their fest premieres. (Awards were still doled out.) Typically, it’s a robust cross-section of what’s being made out there, beyond the multiplexes and Netflix menus, and for better or worse. Jonathan Cuartas’ My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To did, in fact, win a Best Cinematography jury laurel last year, and its off-center, claustrophobic intimacy perfectly manifests the secretive world of its protagonists: a brother (Patrick Fugit) and sister (Ingrid Sophie Schram) who kidnap and kill loners and nobodies in order to secure blood for a sickly quasi-vampiric third sibling (Owen Campbell). It’s an EC Comics scenario dished out with funereal solemnity, as what is obviously an untenable situation (“He’s not getting any better,” Fugit’s guilt-bundle mutters) helplessly spirals into cataclysm. The whys and hows and what-the-s are blessedly left dangling.

No Man of God

A fellow grim brooder without answers, Amber Sealey’s No Man of God takes on the last death row days of Ted Bundy, seen through the exploratory interviews conducted by FBI profiler William Hagmaier (Elijah Wood). As the infamously manipulative and seductive Bundy, Luke Kirby is the movie’s gasoline; his performance is often leeringly lurid and menacingly flamboyant, but so was Bundy; his strange performative psychopathy was a kind of a complex acting job all its own, devious and untrustworthy but always played in the key of Watch Me. Even so, the filmmakers deserve credit for the puncturing moments of context — as when the camera hones in, during a prison interview with a televangelist, on a young female crew member we know nothing about, watching Bundy spin his web, tears welling up in her eyes.

Poser

Otherwise, navel-gazing Gen-Z mood pieces are of course thick on the fest’s ground, as they are everywhere, with Noah Dixon and Ori Segev’s diaphanous and rather odd Poser leading the pack. Newcomer Sylvie Mix plays a decidedly passive hotel maid and music-scene wannabe who begins a podcast for what seems to be large parasitical purposes, attaching herself to a local vampy singer named Bobbi Kitten, played by Bobbi Kitten. Which is the odd part — the film, a kind of All About Eve for the Phoebe Bridgers set, is split between being a satire on the “scene” and a distended promo for Kitten and her band, Damn the Witch Siren, when it’s not simply dallying in dark clubs and watching the beguilingly lispy Mix watch everyone else.  

Shapeless

Samantha Aldana’s Shapeless is similarly fuzzy, following a budding jazz singer (Kelly Murtaugh, also the screenwriter) as she battles with bulimia, gorging and puking (Fruity Pebbles!) over and over. Swamped with filter distortions, lighting flares, and song interludes, the film has a handful of startling Cronenberg moments — that eyeball — suggesting bulimia’s body alienation, but they’re reflecting only the character’s internal state, and they’re too brief to stick. 

See For Me

Randall Okita’s See for Me moves more confidently, by virtue of its very simple genre set-up: a prickly blind girl (Skyler Davenport) cat-sitting in a McMansion is beset by an armed team of safecrackers — which she evades and works against with the help of a phone app connecting her with a sighted staffer (Jessica Parker Kennedy). A Wait Until Dark plus iPhones and virtual sisterhood (even gunplay is doable for the girls), it’s a spiffy résumé B-movie and unpretentiously fun.

The Neutral Ground

As you’d expect, the line-up is also filthy with inspirational profile docs: drag queens, skateboarders, activists of all kinds (in and out of a subprogram celebrating Juneteenth), woman conductors (Marin Alsop), wise old Nobel Peace Prize winners, gender-fluid Nigerian youths, female war-zone camerawomen, adolescent Olympians, Leonard Bernstein, and so almost infinitely on. If that’s your jam — more provocative, non-fiction-wise, is the Michael Moore-ish strategy Daily Show vet CJ Hunt uses, in The Neutral Ground, to investigate Southern racism through the ongoing argument around Confederate monuments — the dumb, brazen absurdity of which effortlessly musters an all-American sense of surreal comedy.

Enemies of the State

Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State is another refresher, marching us through, in Errol Morris fashion (he’s an exec producer), the insidious federal persecution of Anonymous cohort Matt DeHart, and in the process reminding us, after four Trumpian years of looking at the FBI and CIA in a heroic light, how deep-dish criminal those agencies can get.  

Dear Mr. Brody

It often helps if a doc has a solid and unique starting point, and for Keith Maitland and Melissa Robyn Glassman’s Dear Mr. Brody, it’s a cache of 30,000 unopened letters, sent in 1970 to one Michael Brody, a hopped-up 21-year-old Scarsdale millionaire who announced, foolishly, that he would give away $25 million to whomever asks. An irritating, starry-eyed loudmouth with a serious PCP habit, who managed only a handful of giveaways as he battled with the press, Brody made himself a tortured celebrity for a while, but the film brightens when diving into the letters and, sometimes, the now-aged writers, reading their hopeful notes 50 years later. Your eyes will sting.  

Brighton 4th

Of the more inspired features, I wouldn’t miss Levan Koguashvili’s Brighton 4th, a tiny but near-perfect, semi-comic portrait of the low-rent Georgian enclave in Brighton Beach, visited from Tbilisi by an elderly ex-wrestler (Levan Tediashvili), whose ne’er-do-well son (Giorgi Tabidze) is drowning in gambling debt owed to gangsters. It’s quite like a wintery, shabby day trip to Coney Island, because the film fans out, embracing a dozen or more vivid, craggy-faced characters and their struggles and grifts, less to drive a story than to thumbnail a weathered, hard-smoking community.

Settlers

Regrettably, Brighton 4th goes where you think it will, but Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers, a polished sci-fi drama shot entirely in Namibia, doesn’t quite — we’re with a homesteading family in an outpost on Mars, where threats from unexplained outlaws are ever-present, suggesting to us a social-conflict parable we can’t quite pin down. But the Mom and Dad (Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller) are on the razor’s edge of homicidal dread (as seen from the POV of the nine-year-old daughter, played by Brooklynn Prince), and what seemed like a home invasion scenario with orange skies changes and changes again; deaths occur off-screen, and we’re never sure where the story’s sympathies will go. The unarticulated macro view, of a human colony failing and collapsing over generations into a feral wasteland, is daunting.

Ultrasound

And, a fave: Rob Schroeder’s Ultrasound is another kind of beast altogether — a clever wedge of mindfuckery that invokes the adjective “Shane Carruthian,” no small praise. Many balls are in the air — a stranded motorist (Vincent Kartheiser) and the odd couple who take him in and cajole him into sleeping with the wife (Chelsea Lopez), a tense psychologist (Breeda Wool) rehearsing a transcript of the motorist’s and wife’s conversation, an underground research complex of mysterious ends, several pregnancies and many memories that may not be real, a whiff of The Manchurian Candidate, a trace of David Cronenberg’s Stereo. Centered on a relentlessly garrulous performance by Bob Stephenson — we learn quickly he’s not who he says he is — the movie is a dizzying puzzle you don’t quite want to solve itself. It does and it doesn’t, ultimately, and sticks to your frontal lobe like a sweaty shirt.   ❖

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from June 9 – 20

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CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES

NYC Is About To Have Its Biggest Election In A Decade. Will New Yorkers Show Up?

June 22 is a big day for New York City: In primary elections for the largest government turnover in a decade, roughly two-thirds of the City Council is up for grabs, along with the comptroller, four borough presidents, district attorneys, and, of course, the next mayor.

But if this year is anything like previous years, few New Yorkers will show up and vote. As data makes clear, the New Yawk brand of loud and opinionated hasn’t quite translated to high voter turnout. In fact, New York consistently ranks among states with the worst turnout rates in the country. Combined with debates over its new ranked-choice voting system — which may turn off some voters even more — this year could see the low turnout trend continue, meaning the next mayor and other elected positions could be selected by just a sliver of the city’s population.

City Hall and local organizations are combining efforts to educate, engage, and, hopefully, persuade New Yorkers to vote in greater numbers this year. In April, the mayor’s office announced a $15 million voter outreach initiative under DemocracyNYC, the city’s civic engagement arm, to encourage New Yorkers to head to the polls. A portion of that has gone to educating constituents, including launching an interactive app, available in 16 languages, that helps voters practice ranked-choice voting on pretend ballots to decide designations like “favorite NYC landmark” and view how votes are tallied.

“The reality is a lot of New Yorkers just have so much else on their minds that they haven’t really focused on [ranked-choice voting] and the fact that this important election is coming up,” said Laura Wood, New York City’s Chief Democracy Officer. “Our mission is to make sure … New Yorkers have that information going into the June primary.” 

New York City’s Poor Voter Turnout

In 2016, there were 4.9 million registered voters in New York City. In the following year’s general election, Mayor Bill de Blasio clinched his second term with just 726,361 votes. That means only 14 percent of people who could vote, voted for de Blasio (it’s maybe part of why he’s so unpopular despite having been made mayor twice).

Last year, with a highly consequential presidential election at stake, the city saw a slight bump in voter turnout compared to 2016. According to a voter analysis report by the Campaign Finance Board, nearly 62 percent of city voters turned out in November with the biggest overall increase among younger voters ages 18 to 29. 

But voting tends to nose-dive after national elections and that could happen in the upcoming primaries. There’s no single reason behind New York’s underwhelming turnout numbers, but one that everyone seems to agree on is the state’s outdated voting laws which, intentionally or not, affect voting accessibility. And the harder it is for people to vote, the less likely they will. 

“Up until a couple of years ago, it was kind of hard to vote,” said Jan Combopiano, senior policy director at the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, an independent organization that works on voting access. New York did not allow early voting until recently (it was passed into law in 2019) and technically still doesn’t allow no-excuse absentee ballots (which have been temporarily allowed during the pandemic). Rigid rules around designated poll sites and online voter registration are other issues that Combopiano says can make voters less likely to participate. “We’ve never had a municipal election under these circumstances before where we did have early voting, where we did have easier access to an absentee ballot,” she said. “So we’re hoping to see a change in this election.”

Omar Suárez, director of partnerships and outreach for NYCVotes, says it’s all about messaging. “We don’t give local government the same sense of urgency that we do when it comes to national politics,” said Suárez, noting drop-off levels after presidential elections. “Something that is a constant focus of ours is, how can we retain those voters?” 

BVA volunteer Madeleine registering a voter in East Flatbush

As the Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach initiative, NYCVotes is allocating $2 million to its get-out-the-vote efforts this year which includes town halls and voter training sessions. Additionally, a board spokesperson confirmed a portion of the $15 million from the mayor’s office will go towards amplifying NYCVotes’s ads and translating educational materials, but did not specify how much.

New York’s New System: Ranked-Choice Voting

With New York in pandemic recovery and with so many important city-level jobs on the line, this year’s local elections are a huge deal. The city’s primaries, in particular, are considered to hold more weight than the general elections given that 3,376,341 of active voters are registered Democrats (by contrast, just 501,848 are registered Republicans). 

But this year’s outreach campaigns have another challenge: educating New Yorkers about the new ranked-choice voting system, which was voted into law through a 2019 ballot referendum. Using this new system, voters can rank up to five candidates in a number of races, including for mayor, comptroller, borough presidents, city council, and public advocate. If no candidate achieves a majority of votes, the candidate with the lowest tally is eliminated. But those votes won’t go to waste; instead, in the next round of counting, citizens whose number one choice has been eliminated will have their votes counted towards their second-ranked candidate. The cycle continues until a clear majority winner is determined. 

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Ranked-choice voting was used for the first time in New York City in February, during a special election to fill seats for City Council Districts 24 and 31, the latter formerly occupied by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (he is seeking reelection against four other Democratic candidates in June). To educate constituents on ranked-choice voting, his office created a Civic Engagement Committee made up of members from community organizations, civic associations, and individual volunteers. 

The committee, one of the lead partners with DemocracyNYC, is now using lessons from their previous ranked-choice outreach efforts ahead of June, focusing on in-person campaigns to push voter turnout in neighborhoods like Flushing, Jackson Heights, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway.

BVA volunteer Gilda registering a new voter at a pop-up event on Atlantic Ave

“We know it’s important that we have communities of color, other marginalized communities, who oftentimes are not coming out to vote at the rate we’d like to see,” said Franck D. Joseph III, Richards’s chief of staff who oversees the committee. “We want to make sure we’re going into those communities and actively ensuring that folks understand what ranked-choice voting is, and they know how to fill out their ballot.” 

Research shows clear benefits to ranked-choice voting: low-visibility candidates have more chances of staying in the race while voters don’t have their votes wasted. But the new system has faced opposition, with some lawmakers questioning the city’s readiness for it and an impending lawsuit to halt the use of ranked-choice voting altogether. 

Anecdotally, some voters have shown disinterest in ranked-choice voting and many still don’t get how ranked-choice voting works. “One of the things we hear is people trying to game the system,” Combopiano shared, citing her organization’s weekly public trainings. “‘Oh, I don’t want this candidate to win. Should I mark them fifth?’ And we’re like — No! If you don’t want them to win, don’t put them on the ballot.”

Despite challenges, a survey from the special elections shows a promising response from voters toward ranked-choice voting. Of 635 surveyed voters who participated in that election, over 95 percent found filling out the ranked-choice voting ballot to be either very or somewhat simple. About 61 percent chose to rank multiple candidates on their ballots with 31 percent ranking up to the maximum five candidates. Joseph III views arguments around ranked-choice voting as a normal response to a new tool. For him, it reflects a lack of understanding about ranked-choice voting more than voter apathy. 

“I think once they get past the confusion, it really opens up the scope,” he said, “because we all know there’s no one perfect candidate for any office.”    ❖

Note: Early voting runs from June 12 to June 20.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

The Socko Ambiguities of ‘Slow Machine’

Achieving a slick, professional digital sheen and the genre accessibility to go with it is a common ambition for nascent filmmakers — but where’s the risk, the volatile chemical compounds, the ill-gotten brain stuck into the handstitched body, just to see what happens? This itch for evil-doing is happily scratched by the new ultra-indie Slow Machine, which is a rare thing these days: an unstable experiment, a pro-am comedy of menace and uncertainty that inhabits a world — a New York — two degrees off from any we’d recognize.

The film’s 16mm grain is virtually its main character, fusing with the faux-inept framing flubs and focus challenges to evoke the downtown indies of the late ’70s / early ’80s No Wave scene, when film was just one of many ways to fire a gob of low-rent spit into the Establishment’s eye. But are we in the present? (Name-checking the long-time Pope of downtown experimental theater, Richard Foreman, only narrows the timeline to the last half-century.) 

We look for signs and anchors, but everything is inconclusive. The actual heroine is Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), a struggling actress who appears to be Swedish (though her faint Euro-accent tilts soft Brit on occasion), and who attends NA meetings, confrontationally stumping for more judgment, not less, though we have no reason to think she was ever an addict. At times her accent goes all Texan — for a role she’s prepping for? — though only in the company of some people. Hayes’ placid Joni Mitchell-with-owl-eyes affect doesn’t provide us with many clues; she’s a quantum factor in a crude retro movie-space that doesn’t care if we watch or not.

Stephanie meets Gerard (Scott Shepard), a wily cadger in a suit who says he’s an NYPD counter-terrorism agent, but who may also be lying, and who may also be a predatory madman. Huge chunks of this palm-sized film coast on the untrustworthy banter between the two — at one point, the discussion ropes in a Lacanian Ph.D. dissertation on porn — and stories multiply, in various accents, at monologuing length, and in a persistent fog of fabrication. Hayes’ watchful nonchalance gear-locks beautifully with Shepard’s crafty speed-talking; none of what they talk about is “true” but we never want them to stop. Toxic masculinity, surveillance concerns, things unseen, all lurk beneath the characters’ masks. “Deep Brooklyn” is mentioned as though it were an uncharted wilderness. Often, Stephanie loiters upstate with a band who never actually records and performs, and hangs with her seasoned friend Chloë  (Chloë Sevigny), who lengthily recounts a bizarre audition scenario out of Eyes Wide Shut that might, you think, be how the actress had been asked to audition for this movie.

Or so the filmmakers wink. It’s at about this point that you start thinking Jacques Rivette, and that directors Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo are exploring a retro yet neo-all-American Rivettian vibe. Famously the paranoid yarn-spinner of the French New Wave, Rivette made films that occupy a dream-time parallel reality, an inexplicit, vaporous republic chockablock with free-associative consciousnesses, unreadable connections, causes without effects, irrational but contagious suspicions, metaphoric ghosts, searches for unarticulated goals, social orchestrations centered on illusions, theatrical rehearsals that never coalesce, and anxieties about unseen phenomenon. Which is all to say, Rivette’s movies are movies at their moviest — but instead of knowing everything we need to know, like gods, in Rivette’s world we’re lost ones, repeating questions, wondering what’s underneath everything, waiting for rumored salvations. (The greatest film ever made about the joy of uncertainty, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating [1975] is just out on a Criterion Blu-ray.)

An acquaintance with, and a lust for, Rivette’s peculiar program might be the gateway tab you’d need to fully grok Slow Machine (though at 70 minutes it’s virtually the length of a trailer for one of Rivette’s monster marathons). For a first film — Felten’s scant credits include the screenplay to James Franco’s never-seen Steve Erickson adaptation Zeroville, while DeNardo’s primary notch is an impressionistic featurette he shot in Bulgaria about folk music — it’s impressively confident in its defiant ambivalence. By the last act, “some years later,” everything has evolved in secretive ways, including Hayes’ depth and range as an actress, as if years, and experiences, actually did pass by. Of course, wonderfully, there’s no ending. Or so it would seem.   ❖

Slow Machine
Directed by Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo
Grasshopper Film
Available on Projectr