Wednesday, April 27, 2005

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The Worst Book About Judaism Ever Written

Dave Deutsch writes:

As both a student and teacher of history, I've learned to avoid the negative superlative. Only one war, famine, or disaster can truly be "the worst," meaning that almost all uses of the term are incorrect. Understand that reticence when you consider my next statement: Douglas Rushkoff's "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism," may very well be the worst book about Judaism ever written. It is an oroboros of badness, an Escher print of badness, a book of such badness it forces writers to grasp desperately and vainly for metaphors to capture its awful essence. By almost any standard, it truly excels in its stinkyousity.

Content: It is not merely that almost everything Rushkoff says about Judaism or Jewish culture is incorrect; it's that it is the exact opposite of what he says it is. Moreover, it is not only that he barely gives any evidence to back up his extravagantly incorrect claims, but that when he does offer a citation or specific person or period, it is invariably one which proves the exact opposite of the point he's trying to make.

Consider his central thesis, which seems to be that the essence of Judaism is, as he puts it "Iconoclasm, Abstract Monotheism, and Social Action." By iconoclasm, Mr. Rushkoff means that Judaism is about "questioning." That is, of course, true, but only in the same way that Judaism is about facial hair. Facial hair is definitely Jewish-we have beards, and those who don't have beards, are supposed to have sideburns. Certainly, questioning plays an important role in Judaism, but, like Jewish facial hair, it is done within a certain framework. A Fu Manchu has no more place in Jewish tradition than does a rejection of the mitzvos. Even in the famous episode that Rushkoff cites, when Abraham questions God about the destruction of Sodom, he doesn't question God's right to destroy Sodom. Rushkoff might say (by which I mean he does say) that God, in Judaism, isn't meant to be worshipped, but Abraham, and every Jewish authority since, would certainly question that interpretation, and Rushkoff himself offers no evidence to the contrary.

Rushkoff says that "abstract monotheism" is essential to Judaism. He makes this claim in the face of millennia of anthropomorphism in Judaism. How does he deal with a huge body of evidence suggesting that monotheism in Judaism is far from abstract? He doesn't (I'll deal with methodology later). He does, however, offer as an example of abstract monotheism, the era of prophets, insisting not only that "abstract monotheism" reached new heights, but that it was a time where God no longer played an active role in the narrative of the Israelites. In fact, the prophets see anthropomorphic references to God reaching new heights-God is a lover, God is a father, God is a husband-God is many things human, but not at all abstract.

Indeed, Rushkoff does a disservice to his own arguments regarding social justice. The Prophets command God's people to act Godly-it is not that, like the Greeks, we have a god who acts like men, but that we men are to act like God. As He is righteous, so should we be, as He hates injustice, so should we. An anthropomorphic, absolute, concrete vision of God is central to the prophets conception of social justice (I don't have any evidence for that, but then Rushkoff's hardly in a position to fault me for that). This is also a period in which God is called upon periodically to manifest Himself through His deeds, and contrary to Rushkoff's claims, He does so-or doesn't the episode in which Eliyahu challenges the priests of Baal, and God consumes his offering and the altar itself, with His fire, count?

Finally, this is a period where depictions of God's body move most clearly-and least abstractly-from the metaphoric to the real. But confronted with Ezekiel's vision of God on the Throne, Rushkoff simply follows his method, and ignores it. Far from being the time when abstract monotheism took root, the age of the prophets was a time when Judaism developed its most potent anthropomorphic elements. Who are the great representatives of what Rushkoff considers to be the "true" Jewish tradition? Philo, Spinoza, and Maimonides. Philo was a Hellenized Alexandrian Jew, Maimonides a Neo-Aristotelean, and Spinoza's family had lived as Christians for many years, and he himself moved in with a former Jesuit at the age of 18.

In all these cases, the philosophies that Rushkoff claims were signs of the "true" Jewish tradition owed much more to foreign elements than anything within Judaism. Most of his discussion of these three relates to Maimonides, and almost everything he says is wrong.

Maimonides was hardly an anti-elitist-he was a member of the intellectual and religious elite himself. He also didn't write the Mishneh Torah to allow people to pick and choose which mitzvos to follow; just the opposite, he wrote it to make sure that people could follow them correctly. The man whom Rushkoff says wanted to allow people to make their own choices so they wouldn't have to ask their rabbis questions, used to spend every shabbos answering the questions of his own community. While the Mishneh Torah certainly simplified the law, that was actually contrary to Rushkoff's own belief that Judaism was about questioning-Maimonides removed the process of questioning that's found in the Talmud, and gave just the answers.

Far from being an example of the trends Rushkoff thinks are so crucial, the Mishne Torah was a step in the other direction. As for the Guide for the Perplexed, it was not made to convince Torah-observant Jews that God was abstract, etc. Just the opposite: it was made to convince rationalistic Jews to observe the Torah. What's important to Maimonides is ultimately the practice-indeed, he doesn't expect that many Jews will understand his philosophy, but he believes they have to follow the torah.

Most absurdly, Rushkoff suggests that, had Maimonides not been "rudely interrupted" by those critics who banned and burned his books, he would have demonstrated that Judaism was not "a system of beliefs, but a process." Once again, completely the opposite-it was Maimonides who actually formulated the Thirteen Principles of Faith that established what the fundamental system of beliefs of Judaism was. And its hard to see how his work was "rudely interrupted" by the burning of Guide for the Perplexed and chapter one of the mishne torah, when the burning took place in France, where the rabbis had absolutely no authority over him, and most importantly, took place nearly three decades after his death. On the other hand, one of Maimonides Thirteen Principles is the resurrection of the dead, so maybe he was planning on continuing his theological revolution after Moshiach comes.

Methodology: Rushkoff essentially follows the methodology of absolutely ignoring the vast body of evidence that contradicts his thesis. He claims that "abstract monotheism" is central to Judaism? Fine, then over two thousand years of anthropomorphic references to God, ranging from mystical visions of the prophets to Yiddish prayers said by women in Eastern Europe finds no place in his "truth about Judaism." Does he believe that the interpretation of the Akeida as a test of Avraham only developed in response to anti-Jewish massacres of the Crusades? Fine, then reference to the Akeida in the Talmud-five hundred years before the Crusades-finds no place in his "truth about Judaism."

When he does actually cite a source, it proves the exact opposite of his point. He wants to say that the reverence for the land of Israel is a modern, Zionistic creation with no place in traditional Judaism? Its not enough to ignore the fact that for well over a millennium, at least, Jews have prayed three times a day for a return to Israel. No, he brings in a quote from Genesis, where God tells Avraham, "Get thee from thy land." "See," crows Rushkoff, "God says get from your land, because the land isn't important-it's Jewish iconoclasm!" Had he bothered reading the rest of the sentence, he would have seen God telling Avraham "Get thee from thy land, to the land that I will show you." Any guesses as to which land that was?

Similarly, when he tries to disparage the notion that Jews have historically seen themselves as a nation-again, in the face of over two thousand years of clear tradition, he declares authoritatively that the first time in the Torah that the Jews are called a nation is by Pharaoh. Again, he should have continued to read that passage in Genesis, where after God tells Avraham that in the land he shows him, he will make him a "nation." Oops. Of course, even if he had read it, it wouldn't have mattered, since Rushkoff "deconstructs" passages. To "deconstruct" is a literary term that is a good example of doublespeak. In plain English, "deconstruct" means "break down," but when literary critics use it, it often means "make up." Thus, when Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die, it's just to teach a moral lesson to the Jews: Hagar was an Egyptian, the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, so therefore, the enslavement can be seen as a metaphoric punishment for Abraham's inhospitality to Hagar. By "deconstructing" this passage thusly, Rushkoff is able to ignore the part of the story where God tells Avraham to send her to the wilderness, which would certainly complicate Rushkoff's story. Deconstruction does explain, however, how Rushkoff could have made so many fundamental errors-his fact checker probably came in and said "Mr. Rushkoff-everything you're saying about Jewish history is incorrect." "Ah," says Rushkoff, "When you say 'incorrect,' I deconstruct that to have the same relationship to 'correct' as 'invaluable' has to 'valuable.' Not only am I correct, I'm very correct."

Tone: All of this-his glaring errors, his ignoring anything (which is most things) that contradicts his theories, could be forgiven, if he was at least humble about it. But this man, who knows so little, pretends to know so much. When he puts forth an interpretation, it isn't "an" interpretation, it is "the" interpretation. Anybody who disagrees is pitiable or deceitful. He reserves particular scorn for the Orthodox, especially baalei teshuva, since they have the temerity to actually take all these bible stories literally, as opposed to the assorted allegories that Rushkoff insists they are. Indeed, the book is littered with encounters with rabbis of various stripes, where they are confronted with the truth according to Rushkoff, and found wanting. Speaking as one self-righteous egomaniac to another, I beg Rushkoff to develop, if not a sense of humility, at least a sense of humor about himself.

Conclusions: And just what is the great truth at the end of all this? Rushkoff discovers that Judaism is fluid, evolutionary, and must be interpreted anew in every generation. In other words, he has discovered Reconstructionism, and only 80 or so years after Mordechai Kaplan did. But let's be absolutely clear on this-when he says it needs to be reinterpreted, he means by him. Those Jews who already have found meaning-e.g., that the Torah is divine and literal-need to accept his interpretations, regardless of their lack of any apparent basis. As for his critiques about American Judaism, they are often true, but hardly original or profound. Ultimately, there is nothing new, or brilliant, or even menschlich about Rushkoff's work, a work which offers no truth to truthseekers, and seeks only to discomfit those who have found, if not truth, at least meaning.

I could go on (believe me-since reading this book over Pesach, I've become obsessed-this whole thing was written from memory), but I think I've had enough catharsis for now. The only thing that Rushkoff's book has done has proven that we live in an era in which Judaism has fallen on hard times-if only because it's a time in which some people could confuse his book for "the truth about Judaism."

Ethics and Entertainment Journalism Panel Discussion

Due to religious restrictions on the second day of Passover, I had to walk ten miles to downtown Los Angeles Monday afternoon (reenacting Michael Douglas's journey in Falling Down (1993), but in reverse, as I sought the stimulation of racial diversity and homelessness) to the public library, where I found a quiet place to mutter my evening prayers.

Then on to the big event.

Despite the prominent "No taping" sign outside the Mark Taper auditorium, my friend Joe (who does all the things that the real me can not do) snuck a recorder in and taped the proceedings. The transcript runs later.

By the time I arrived home from my 20-mile journey through dangerous territory, I was fatigued and not quite in possession of my right mind when I poured out the following:

Sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the discussion was moderated by Cal State Fullerton Journalism Professor Tom Clanin (he's the advisor to the Cal State Northridge student paper) who said he rarely read celebrity journalism. During the program, he didn't exhibit much knowledge of entertainment journalism (though he was up on what The NYT was doing in 1910).

He did the dull, plodding, predictable job you'd expect from a journalism prof. He wasn't content to go around the group and ask just once about their organization's policies on gift bags (about the most covered topic in journalism on entertainment journalism). No, he insisted on bringing up the matter several times. I think Tom spent close to an hour on this one topic of accepting gifts (travel, hotels, massages, swag) from the people you cover.

I was about ready to start singing, "Let me Abos loose, Lou."

At 8:45pm, almost two hours into the program, I had enough and rudely yelled out from the audience (Tom rarely looked at the audience and didn't seem to give a damn about us) that they should open up to questions.

Tom kindly allowed me the first one. Eager to break up the circle jerk, I asked LAT reporter John Horn why the Times wasn't more aggressive in its entertainment coverage. Judith Regan moves her publishing division to LA and the Times has not one news story (while The NYT, NY Daily News were all over the story).

John said that The LAT had the best Hollywood journalism of any outlet and that he reacted to criticism of his paper in the same way he'd react to someone telling him he had ugly children.

The other panelists (from the SPJ website):

* Peggy Jo Abraham, news director, E! Entertainment Television

* Tina Dirmann, former staff reporter for US Weekly

* Heidi Parker, West Coast editor, Playboy (former editorial director for Hollywood Life)

* Cynthia Wang, associate bureau chief of the LA office, People magazine

Peggy opened the discussion with a pious explication of E!'s lofty ethics. She said they never ran stories (particularly not unsourced stories from the internet) without first checking with the subject's publicist. Peggy indicated that if the publicist said the story was not true, E! accepted that unless the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming.

E! is a whole cable channel about celebrities and relies heavily upon celebrity cooperation. So they're not going to run news stories that ruffle celebrity feathers.

Save us the lectures about your organization's high ethics, Peggy, E! "journalism" means selling your journalistic soul in exchange for the privilege of becoming part of celebrities "publicity machine."

"Publicity machine" was Peggy's exact quote near the end of the evening and she'd come down from the Mount Olympus of E!'s purported ethics and admitted reality. "We tell you what movie to see and what's new on TV," she said.

From her remarks Monday evening, Peggy's chief concerns were with the placement of her camera crew at a premiere. It really ticked her off when the print reporters got better access because they don't need the moving pictures as much as she does.

Heidi Parker's chief job as the West Coast editor of Playboy is arranging for celebrities to disrobe in her publication. "Playboy builds careers," she said.

Dirmann was the most honest and self-deprecating of all the panelists (the rest of them spent the night patting themselves on the back).

Tina has had daily access to Paris Hilton. Tina says Paris pushed her porn video. That she reveled in its fame. That Paris calls Page Six (New York Post) to tell them she was drunk at parties.

That Tom Hanks is a rare actor who's built his career on his work rather than through personal scandal. That Jennifer Lopez built her career through getting divorced.

Cynthia Wang seems like a square. "Nobody ducks a camera faster," she claims.

I've seen her at least twice on these panels.

She seems totally grounded and with a strong knowledge of right and wrong. She'd be the last person I'd expect to be caught up in a scandal. I think she's been People's West Coast editor for a decade. She's fiercely proud of her work and gave no sign of experiencing much doubt over her ethical decisions.

She said that People spent $3 million on fact-checking.

In a revealing moment, Tom "I don't follow celebrity journalism" Clanin asked a panelist, "Without naming names... Or you can name names." A good moderator would've pushed harder for names and would've known the evening's topic better so he could push for names.

Peggy JO: "I want to get out of celebrity journalism" and do something worthwhile. "If people [read publicists] tell me something is not true, I try not to report is. Ours is not gossip. We're harmless. I don't feel like I'm ruining people's lives."

The crowd numbered about 20 (most of them were hot young women).

The program ran from 7 - 9:15pm and would never have taken questions from the audience if I had not rudely interrupted.

Afterwards, John Horn came over and named some recent story about producer Scott Rudin as an example of an LAT scoop. John said he read daily such as Internet sites as Defamer, FishbowlLa, Movie City News and a bunch of that ilk.

John didn't know why The LAT hadn't covered Judith Regan's move to LA. He said its Scott Rudin scoop was more important.

A day after The NYT, The LAT finally covers Arianna Huffington's new blog. The LAT article (by the mediocre James Rainey), as usual, fails to advance the story. Yawn.

As John and I walked out, we were both busting for a loo. I was going to invite him to join me in the bushes, but I figured his lofty ethics would not permit him, even if he wanted to.

* The panelist I'd most want to mother me: Peggy JO (she's got a lovely figure).

* The panelist I'd most want to father me: Tom Clanin (in pretty good shape for his age).

* The panelist I'd most want to hang with man-to-man and take a leak in the bushes with: John Horn (I'd feel safe, I don't think he'd be checking out my equipment) because we can both store our water and then release a long steady stream while carrying on a thoughtful conversation.

* The panelist who'd make the best kangaroo herder: the rangy John Horn looked like he could survive for a while in the Australian outback living off grubs and bark and the goodwill of the aborigines.

* The panelist I'd most want to date: Cynthia Wang ("If going yellow is wrong, I don't want to be right." Chaim Amalek).

* The one I'd most trust on an ethical question: Cynthia Wang (though the whole damn lot of them seemed super-moral except Tina Dirmann, who sounded like she could be a lot of fun in addition to being anguishingly introspective).

* The panelist who'd be the best Chinese wife (what Amalek says I need most): Cynthia Wang

* The one I'd most want to take to dinner and pick her brain: Tina Dirmann (slim package, dyed red hair).

* The one I'd most want to take to a dinner party to ensure lively conversation: Tina Dirmann.

* The panelist I'd most want to bang: I'm too religious and ethical to answer such a question but I give the answer away above (no, not Tom Clanin).

* The one I'd most want to arrange my nude photo layout with (if my religion did not prevent me): Heidi Parker.

There were many worthy points made Monday night about ethics and entertainment journalism. It's just that my daydreams lie elsewhere.

The panel alternately bored and intrigued me. Prosaic questions and answers about journalism equals boring. Anecdotes and unexpected insights equals interesting.


Tom Clanin: "One of the tenets of the SPJ is that you do not allow your sources or your employers or anyone influence you on how you shape the story."

That's a delusion. Every writer has to take into account the wishes of his employer and of his key sources.

Tom: "Another [tenet] is avoiding conflicts of interest and don't have any stake in the outcome. Don't accept gifts from sources."

Heidi: "I arrange for celebrities to pose for our magazine without their clothes. We pay them a modeling fee. The terms and conditions are completely different. I don't deal with a publicist. I deal with agents and managers. These people expect a softball story. It's become a problem. A lot of the time the actresses want copy approval and photo approval. I always have to tell them that it is not ethical [to give copy approval] and we would be laughed out of town if we let them... It's a big struggle because Playboy is so nice and accommodating to celebrities. They expect a lot more. They've asked us not to bring up relationships. There was a singing duo from Russia [Tatu] who is known for French kissing on stage at the MTV awards. I was doing a deal with them to do a shoot for us during the summer. Their lawyer said, 'We don't want you to bring up their homosexual relationship.' I laughed at him. I said this is ridiculous. He said no. You can't even write about it in a caption to accompany a photo from the MTV awards. If you do, we're going to pull out of the deal."

Tina: "Being a weekly entertainment magazine [US], the competition has become intense. US, Star, People, and In Touch are slugging it out for every bit of information."

Well, In Touch doesn't run negative stories.

Tina: "Ethics tend to be an afterthought in getting these kinds of stories. When you're trying to find something out that they might not want you to know, such as that they're in rehab, or divorcing or having an affair, then you don't go through the normal channels you use for a lot of other stories such as a publicist, who is going to deny, deny, deny. Reporters have made deliveries on set or cold-calling to say that you're trying to deliver flowers as congratulations for having a baby to confirm it... There's a lot of tricky stuff that if you're talking ethically, obviously that's questionable.

"Usually, once it is printed, I find it is true. It is the method that gets to be below the belt especially when the story is incredibly hot. I know one reporter who volunteered to get a candystriper uniform so they could roam the halls of a hospital. If you're standing there in the newsroom and an editor is screaming at a green reporter who doesn't have the wherewithal to say no, it is just appalling.

"Much of the time, it is after the fact, when you are sitting in a room and you go, that was ridiculous. Let's not see that again.

"In the heat of the moment, ethics becomes an afterthought."

Cynthia Wang: "You have a lot of cover stories that begin with a question. You don't even have to have an answer. If you tease something and simply say, are they pregnant? Are they divorced? You can write a lot of things when you just throw that out there. By being flexible in your text, it allows editors to think that reporters can be flexible in their methods."

John Horn: "I'm inevitably going to sound elitist and a little bit appalled by some of the things I'm hearing. Fortunately, our paper does not have to write stories about whether or not Britney is pregnant, whether or not Brad and Jennifer are breaking up. We do those stories after they're announced."

So why is it so honorable to wait to take your cues from publicists?

John: "We have no competitive pressure [to publish those kinds of stories]. We face competitive issues about getting access to stories. We may be first in getting on the set of Peter Jackson's new movie. The discussion we have with studios and publicists is that we will agree to do this story, but you have to protect us and not give the story to The New York Times. That's the one publication that we worry about. Those discussions happen all the time, even though there are probably 50,000 who read both papers. But in the eyes of my editors and the editors of The New York Times, getting to a major story first is our competitive pressure.

"Our paper doesn't give photo or text approval. The shady area is placement."

John Horn: "The paparazzi as freelance journalist... If the paparazzi makes more money, the better story he has to tell which makes the story suspect... It creates a financial incentive [to make stuff up]."

Not at all. The National Enquirer and the like who pay for stories only pay after publication and after the story has been fact-checked. Publications are not going to pay for stories that get them sued. John Horn makes money from writing his stories. Why should his sources not get paid if they give him accurate information? There's nothing inherently suspect about paying sources.

US and People will pay six figures for an important picture such as the first ones showing Jennifer Lopez and Mark Anthony holding hands.

Peggy JO on studios and publicists: "The higher your ratings are, the more they will put up with." Entertainment Tonight has more pull than E! news (which is prerecorded at least two hours ahead of airing).

Tina: "If you have a salacious story on their client, they will make your client available to you [for an interview and possibly a photoshoot], if you will water it down. There were a series of covers that were just relentless on Jessica [Simpson] and Nick until her dad called the magazine and said, 'What will it take to stop that?' And they said, 'An interview with her.' And we got. And US magazine just had a party a couple of months ago and guess who were the official host? Jessica and Nick."

Tom: "Do you feel this violates your ethics?"

Tina: "I used to work for The Los Angeles Times. I used to cover hard news. It was very difficult for me to step into [celebrity journalism]. I was just appalled half the time. I walked around with my jaw open. Then you have to realize that I'm not covering anything earthshattering. I'm covering -- is Britney Spears pregnant or not? If you look at it from that perspective, the term 'Hollywood Journalism' becomes an oxymoron and that's the way you justify it to yourself. It's entertainment. It's not real journalism."

Tom: "Cynthia, is what you do real journalism?"

Cynthia: "It is real journalism. It's fact-checked. It's solid. I'm confident that every story I have ever reported has been done ethically. I could stand up in front of everyone and give details. I am not friends with these people, which is my ethical line. You will see a lot of celebrity journalists, particularly bylined writers for monthly magazines, who pride themselves on relationships [with celebrities]. You will see covers in Esquire where you read, 'When I was ordering lattes with [a certain A-list celebrity]...' I'm thinking, who's this story about? For those kind of writers, you walk an ethical line.

"If I write a story, let's say a happy profile, and that person thinks it is fair, maybe later when that person gets divorced or gets in trouble, when I make a queery, they'll know where I'm coming from. But I'm not one who wants to go out and have coffee with someone or attend a bridal shower unless I'm reporting it. You have to know your own ethical line. All the reporters I work with have a solid line about these things."

Tina says that green on-the-ground reporters face more difficult ethical challenges than editors. "When you are 22 and this is your first job and you are working for US and People and your editor says, go get me that story. You do whatever it takes."

All publications say they don't take junkets.

Tina: "Unfortunately, you have to have friends in this town. As often as you'd like to say, fine, I'm not working with that publicist. You accommodate them. I had this happen to me. I interviewed Paris Hilton after her infamous sex tape came out. The publicists at The Simple Life were furious. Reality TV was my beat at the time and they barred me from the set. We had to have another reporter cover The Simple Life, which was ridiculous because behind the scenes, I'm going to lunch with Paris. She's calling me every day. She's telling me this development and that development. I had a great rapport with her and her family.

"Paris said, it's funny but FOX executives are out there passing out copies [of the sex tape], they are so excited about this publicity. But we let another reporter cover the story [for US], something that would've never happened at The LA Times."

Tom: "Cynthia, have you been fired by a publicist?"

Cynthia: "No. I've been yelled at, but it doesn't stop the story from running. A lot of what they say is a knee-jerk reaction to the moment. I was so welcomed by the PR people when Drew Berrymore got married to Tom Green. After they got divorced, the lovely British tabs report that the reason for the divorce was that she was back to drinking, which I don't believe... I remember calling Pat Kingsley's cell phone over the weekend and saying, I have to follow-up on this. This was in the Sun. She said, 'What? Are you out to ruin this young girl's career?'

"I'm thinking, wait, young girl's career? She's been acting since she was prenatal. She's been in rehab and she wrote a book about it.

"[Pat Kingsley said,] 'You practice yellow journalism? Are you proud of yourself? Are you proud of what you do?' And they throw it back at you. And you just have to weather it and say you are doing fact-checking. They'll blow over it. I don't think Pat would recognize me in a crowd.

"They might say, I don't want you calling so-and-so, but they can't control that."

Luke yells out from the audience to John Horn: "How come you guys aren't more aggressive and get off your bums? Powderpuffs."

John: "I think we cover Hollywood better than any newspaper in the country. I don't know who you would say does a better job."

Luke: "Wall Street Journal."

John: "The Journal on a story-by-story basis does a very good job. It's like you're telling me my children are ugly. I'm very proud of my newspaper. We work hard. If the Journal or The New York Times beats us on a story, I don't think we take it professionally. We take it personally. We are highly competitive with them."

Luke: "When was the last time you guys broke a big story?"

John: "I don't have a list. Tell me what you think is a big story."

Luke: "The Judith Regan story was a good story and you guys didn't have anything on it except her Op/Ed in Sunday's paper. When did you guys move something forward?"

Tom interrupts and goes to another question.

Lewis Perdue's Case Against The DaVinci Code

Lewis writes:

Random House filed suit against me last fall to try and silence me. They asked a judge for "summary judgment" in an attempt to stop my attempts to expose the massive and systemic plagiarism of my works in The Da Vinci Code.

Random House is now pulling out all the stops to prevent a trial, to keep a discussion of all this from becoming public. Indeed, their most recent court filing is filled with falsehoods, distortions, misrepresentations, out-of-context statements and similar tactics that raise the question: if their case is so good, why can't they fight it with true, honest statements?

It's especially telling that they are not willing to submit an affidavit from Dan Brown attesting to his done the research claimed OR even having WRITTEN The DA Vinci Code.

Hmmmm smells like month-old lox left out in the summer sun to me!

One of the weirdest things about the news media and those who'd like to call themselves journalists is how they have sucked up to the whole DA Vinci Code phenomenon and written totally Uncritical pabulum, straight from the Random House flacks to your eyes and ears.

One of the most extreme examples of this began a thread at a blog from a prominent LA writer, Lee Goldberg. He points out that it is obvious bullshit that airport screeners let Dan Brown board an aircraft using only his DA Vinci Code jacket cover photo as identification. Yet, the NY Times reporter who wrote the story did not question this, did not try to confirm it.

That thread on Lee Goldberg's site is a choice one that SHOULD get the attention of everyone, but especially media critics and anyone who wants to see just how BAD a job that reporters can do.

The True Luke Ford

I am accused of doing many things that the real me would not do. I therefore urge my readers to concentrate on the deeds of the true Luke and ignore the false Lukes out there. Didn't that Jew Jesus warn his followers that there would come deceivers, wolves in sheep's clothing, who would pose as the Messiah but really be doers of iniquity?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And there are two Andrew Sullivans, too. The problem is that whenever I read Sullivan's blog, I can't get out of my head the personal ad he wrote asking for large black men to sodomize him. I'm willing to forgive a lot, but I do have limits.

Similarly, I was willing to ignore the...UNTIL.... That was a bridge too far.

I will, however, struggle henceforth to discipline my mind and just concentrate on the "good" (intellectually deep, morally serious) Luke Ford.

Cathy writes: "Uh right, won't tell.... Also won't tell him you're.... Because unless I did, who could possibly guess?"

Attributing Quotes

In the latest issue of Jewsweek.com, Orthodox rabbi Mayer Waxman takes about twelve sentences of quotes Dave Deutsch gave me and fails to attribute the source of his material (my website).

I would never have noticed except that it was brought to my attention today.

Last year, I didn't notice when Bernard Weinraub plagiarized my ripping off of Jeanette Walls. Jack Shafer of Slate.com had to point it out.

I once failed to attribute quotes (in some Usenet postings in early 1997, I plugged in whole paragraphs of quotes given to others without attribution along with quotes I got myself) but have become stricter on myself when I noticed how annoyed I got when others, such as The Los Angeles Times, used quotes, without attribution, from my interviews.

I write the rabbi: "It says in the Talmud that he who quotes a source correctly brings redemption to the world. So why did you pull quotes Deutsch gave me without attributing them? I'm less annoyed than curious."

The rabbi replies:

I did attribute them - to Deutsch. I certainly meant no offense in leaving you out, nor did I intend to imply that the interview was mine [a reading which never occurred to me but which David suggested was inherent]. I also left out the name of the search engine through which I found the quote, as well as my Internet server. Yes, you are closer in the chain, but in your interpretation of the Gomorra, there is no clear end to the matter.

In my just-killed article on Josh Alan Friedman, I asked my editor if I needed to distinguish between quotes given to me and quotes I took from a documentary that was a major subject of my piece. The editor said yes and I did, even though I found it hurt the flow.

Donna B. writes:

Luke, I am so annoyed at this Rabbi writer ripping off your work! You are way too lenient on him, and I'm going to write to him, too. Geez, ask Andrew Breitbart if he'd mind if people quoted from his book - or ask yourself if he copied from your books- with no attribution. It's plain stealing. He is also depriving you of publicity and even the readers who might want to read more about Dave Deutsch on your site.

But in any case, your blog is the same as a book, and the sooner people get this into their sensitive skulls, the better. His stupid-ass remarks such as attributing the search engine, is the same as attributing the paper company for a book. No, just write professionally, that's enough.

I wish you could be as famous as you deserve to be.

Dave Deutsch writes the rabbi and me:

Let me try and make peace. I think Mayer was well intentioned originally, but should have simply apologized and not engaged in pilpul. The search engine is like a library--if you get a book from the library, you cite the book, not the library. As a matter of mussar, I'd simply say you weren't aware of what the SOP was, and you're sorry if you caused offense. In terms of Jewish tradition, Mayer is thinking that what matters is who gave the original teaching which is not invalid, while you think that what's important is your role in spreading the teaching, also perfectly reasonable. What he should have done, following time honored tradition, is said "there's a vort from David Deutsch, brought down by Luke Ford."

Another possibility, Luke, would be for you to review my book already, and include uncited material from Mayer's otherwise outstanding piece.

Bringing Down The Walls At The LAT

A reporter at The LA Times writes about my Michael Kinsley Dinner: "Very funny and illuminating entry on the Kinsley and Andres talk at Harvard and the dinner. Sad that we gotta turn to blogs to learn more about colleagues that work one floor down."

Blowing Smoke

I joined my friends Jackie, Antwoine, Cathy, Amy, Emmanuelle, Hillary Johnson, and Luke Thompson at the Directors Guild Thursday night for a screening of the independent movie Blowing Smoke.

There was a Polish Film Festival going on simultaneously. Cathy, Amy and Emmanuelle snuck in and got free eats.

We had a nice gossip about Richard Rushfeld snagging a position as editorial director of the LA Times website (reporting to Rob Barrett).

I said that someone called Richard a walking Friendster.com.

Cathy responded: "I know more people than Richard does."

I laughed.

Cathy: "Well, I do."

Cathy is flummoxed when Jackie says she's having lunch Friday with Robertson Barrett, head of The LAT's online division.

"I thought I was having lunch with Rob Friday," says Cathy.

Jackie lets her know it was her idea for Rob to invite Cathy along.

Cathy thought she was special.

I feared the movie was going to be a documentary about smoking cigars but when it turned out to be a feature (in color, with sound and a hot chick), I got all excited.

I was laughing uproariously through the first half of the film and Amy, Emmanuelle and Jackie (sitting behind me) laughed at my laughter.

After the screening, we were invited to dinner at the Havanna Club in Beverly Hills.

"They smoke cigars there," objected Cathy.

"No," I responded, "they suck -----."

"I'd rather do that," said Cathy.

Emmanuelle writes: "Hey Luke, I realize the movie was just a knee-slapper for you and that you must be too exhausted from laughing to post more about the evening. As for Cathy and I, we went to Schwab, ate French fries and drank Pinot Noir and talked about the magic of making out."

Cathy adds: "But not with each other, just for the record!"

Cathy blogs.

A Letter About Rabbi Mordecai Tendler

The following letter is an unpublished letter sent by Batye Seigel (Survivor of Rabbi Mordecai Tendler) to the Jewish Press as a response to one of their articles. The letter is reprinted with permission.

Dear Editor,

I was once again dismayed at the comment made in your editorial posted 4/6/05 posted in the Jewish Press regarding the latest Rabbinical abuse case.

Take note that in our present judicial system, there is not disclosure of the names of the victims. It is considered highly unethical and also illegal, as seen in such high profile cases, Michael Jackson, Koby Bryant, and the Catholic priests, to name a few.

I myself was a victim of Mordecai Tendler. I testified to the investigator of the RCA, the Rabbi's of the RCA, and some prominent and well respected Rabbi's in Monsey, NY I also spoke with several newspapers.

While in the process of trying to obtain my get, I was consistently and repeatedly sexually harassed by this rabbi over a period of many months. At a very difficult and trying time in my life with five small children, I also had to deal with refusing his aggressive sexual advances.

After the get was obtained, I cut off all ties with him.

A while back your paper printed an editorial stating that this rabbi was not part of the Bais Din for my get. I can't possibly remember which rabbi actually signed the papers, but I can assure you that this rabbi was present and pretended to play the "supportive" role.

Anyone who truly knows me, knows that I am forthright and brutally honest.

Your paper is choosing not to believe any of the women's accusations without speaking to any of us, or the rabbi's who have spoken personally with the women or the witnesses involved. Your paper's objectivity is in serious question, being that you obtained all of your information from this rabbi's supporters, perhaps because of a personal relationship between his family and your staff.

Part of the Jewish community is intertwined with politics and the other is truly "erlich", or so it appears.

This unfortunate experience with this rabbi had a profound and devastating impact on myself and my children, being that shortly after this, I and my children went off the derech.

However, being that I was always spiritually inclined, I still have a great love and reverence for Judaism, my Creator, and the authentic and genuine people I have encountered over the years.

Batye Seigel ( Rockland County, NY)

Smut: A Sex-Industry Insider (and Concerned Father) Says Enough is Enough

I interview author Gil Reavill (born October 17, 1953) by phone Thursday morning April 21, 2005.

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Gil: "A marine biologist. Then, as soon as I got my head straightened down, I wanted to be a writer."

Luke: "What kind of crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Gil: "This was the sixties. This was the hippie crowd."

Luke: "What were the expectations you were raised with?"

Gil: "The liberal family. I lived in what was officially, according to the 1970 census, I lived in the whitest metropolitan area in the United States. Wausau, Wisconsin. My parents were good liberals. They even subscribed to Ebony [magazine] because they wanted us kids to have a grasp on how other cultures were.

"We were WASPs. We went to a Unitarian church.

"I majored in English. I went to University of Wisconsin at Madison and then graduated from the University of Colorado (in 1979).

"I worked at daily newspapers in Colorado. I moved to New York in late 1980. In 1981, I answered an ad in the Village Voice that didn't name the publication but I remember the ad saying, 'Controversial village weekly.' That's where I met Mr. Al Goldstein and I started working as his ghostwriter at Screw [weekly]. I did his 'Screw You' column up front and then we started doing a lot of freelance stuff for Playboy, Penthouse. I did a lot of op/ed stuff for him."

Luke: "Did you go into those joints and write reviews of massage parlors?"

Gil: "Sure. This was before the [AIDS] plague. I dove into the commercial sex world. I was fairly innocent and naive (politically and sexually). I experienced everything that New York could throw at somebody in the early eighties, which was quite a bit. It was the Wild West. Yeah, I did it all."

Luke: "How did you meet your wife?"

Gil: "In a poetry workshop."

Luke: "When did you guys get married?"

Gil has to think about it. "In 1987 maybe?"

Luke: "She wasn't disturbed by your writing for Screw?"

Gil: "Ahh, I can't speak for her."

Luke: "Was it an issue in your relationship?"

Gil: "No. It was part of the package. It was a go-go time in New York City. The attitude was the feast in the midst of the plague. It's a medieval term. When the plague hit, they used to barricade themselves and concentrate on hedonistic pursuits."

Luke: "What's your relationship to monogamy?"

Gil: "At the present time?"

Luke: "Answer it any way you want."

Gil: "It's not monogamy I mind. It's celibacy. I burned through my philanderings. I love my wife. It may not be for everybody but I think it is a good thing for a lot of people."

Luke: "When did you become a father?"

Gil: "I was 38. 1990."

Luke: "What did you love and hate about your time writing on commercial sex?"

Gil: "I love the down low, declasse, louche energy of it. The flip side of the squeaky clean American coin. Times Square. There's a subversive energy to it. I think I grew out of that. I still appreciate it but I tend to put it into some sort of perspective after I became a father. I've changed in other ways too and I think the world has changed."

Luke: "How has having a daughter affected your view of the commercial sex industry and how society should relate to it?"

Gil: "The easy answer is that becoming a parent has changed everything. But that's not really true. Even back in the eighties, back when I was working for Al Goldstein, I strongly believed that sexual material should be kept segregated. Goldstein believed that. There was a disclaimer right in front of every Screw magazine sold that this material was of an adult nature, not intended for minors, who may not purchase it or view it or obtain it in any way. I believe that. I believe that this material should be available to consenting adults.

"My book is about sexual material you don't ask for and don't want and don't consent and you get slapped in the face with it. Yeah, I'm offended for my daughter. Yeah, I'm offended for people who don't want this stuff, but I'm also offended for myself because sometimes I am not in the mood. I find it reprehensible. Maybe I'm projecting on to other people... I've seen it all. I just have this gut feeling that a lot of material presented in this culture, and the way it is presented, represents a form of sexual abuse of children. Not physically. But when you are confronting children under ten years old with adult sexuality, that's reprehensible.

"Our culture does it in all sorts of different ways. The porn industry isn't the major problem. It's the mainstream media who are taking their cue from the porn industry and dishing stuff up in venues where people don't have any choice.

"I was downtown recently and I heard a three-year-old singing that 50 Cent song about 'I take you to the candy shop, I'll let you lick the lollypop, Go 'head girl, don't you stop.' Ok, it probably didn't cause any lasting damage, but a lot of people, including me, don't need a lot of psychological studies. It just doesn't seem right to expose young children to adult sexuality."

Luke: "Any particular thing triggered your writing of this book?"

Gil: "No. A couple of things went into this. The Janet Jackson episode. And just sitting down and watching MTV for two weeks straight for two-or-three hours a day. My daughter is to the age where she's watching MTV a lot. I wanted to see what was going on. The golden age of music video is over and a lot of these things are witless. The casual sexism on display is breathtaking. The sexual content is moronic because it is so obsessive."

Luke: "What do you mean by sexism?"

Gil: "It's a world of pimps and hos. There's only one role for men and only one role for women. Even back at Screw magazine in the 1980s, there were a lot of different roles for women and for men. Everybody recognized it was a fluid thing. But not in this reductive media atmosphere where we are presented with the two basic models of humanity."

Luke: "Do you feel any contrition for your work as a writer on commercial sex, which implies that commercial sex is fine?"

Gil: "No. If you took all the magazines I ever worked on, it still wouldn't address the problem -- that sometimes people want these things and sometimes they don't. There should be spaces in our culture kept clear of them. I believe in different standards for private expression and for public expression. I don't think that makes me a hypocrite. I think that makes me civilized."

Luke: "Do you think pornography exacerbates the male tendency to sexually objectify women?"

Gil: "Yes, but I don't think that's its major purpose or effect."

Luke: "Do you honestly believe that pornography can be an island that only consenting adults [can visit] when they choose to?"

Gil: "I think we can do better. I don't think it's a question of government control and law. We need to voluntarily reshape our culture. The example I like to use is the example of the family newspaper. There is no code of ethics imposed by the government on newspapers. But you don't see nudity in American newspapers. You don't see certain words in American newspapers. The code of what is acceptable isn't even written down. It's purely voluntary. It's passed from the newsroom veteran to the newsroom cub.

"That is the model. What if the Internet had something like that? What if Hollywood had something like that? What if other realms of media had that sort of idea of what's acceptable and what's not."

Luke: "When I ask pornographers if what they're doing is morally licit, the primary answer I get is that it is legal and therefore OK For most people, legality equals morality. By effectively legalizing pornography, that makes it OK for millions of people."

Gil: "I don't agree with that at all. There are plenty of things that aren't illegal that aren't cool. I'm with Hannibal Lecter. I think that rudeness is a cardinal sin. The world that we constructed at the beginning of the millennium is rude. It's in your face. And it doesn't have to be. It's people acting out. People insecure in their place in society and they feel like they have to thrust themselves into other people's affairs. I'm offended by that.

"I know a lot of people in the commercial sex biz and they are not the evil monsters, the evil geniuses, that some people portray them as."

Luke: "Are they engaged in an honorable livelihood?"

Gil: "That's between them and their conscience."

Luke: "What's your view?"

Gil: "I certainly felt I was engaged in an honorable enterprise when I was working for Al Goldstein. I thought I was a crusader for the First Amendment and a firebrand for freedom."

Luke: "And you still hold by that today?"

Gil: "I still believe in those values."

Luke: "Do you still believe that you were a crusader for the First Amendment and a firebrand for freedom when you were writing for Screw?"

Gil: "No. I think that was a load of bull. After I got to know Al Goldstein, I realized he didn't care about anyone's freedom except his own. It was a cynical manipulation of the idea of freedom. Freedom doesn't mean total abdication of responsibility."

Luke: "Do you think it is honorable to make your living trafficking in the flesh of 18-year old girls and commercially distributing that product?"

Gil: "I'm going to have to say once again that that is between them and their conscience. I would certainly scruple at that personally."

Luke: "Why wouldn't you then extend that to others?"

Gil: "Because I'm all about a libertarian approach to solving social problems. That there should be a collective consensus of what's appropriate and what's not appropriate. People who deviate from that -- I don't think that government action is the way to correct it."

Luke: "Yeah, but you're not even willing to say that they are morally doing wrong. Trafficking in 18-year old flesh."

Gil: "Yeah, I know. It troubles me deeply. I don't want to assume the role of somebody who says that this is OK and that is not OK

"I'm saying in my book that we can do a better job, not with these black-and-white judgments but with the grey areas. I can imagine that there exists in the world today an 18-year old girl who has the capability of and judgment of deciding for herself what she wants to do. I believe there might be somebody like that in the world."

Luke: "Is the cumulative on average net effect on an 18-year old girl who does 30 porn films negative?"

Gil: "I think it has been well demonstrated consistently that there were a lot of dysfunctional people who came into porn... If you read [Jenna Jameson's book] How To Make Love Like A Porn Star... By the same token, there were some who didn't fit that profile.

"What is the accumulative effect on an 18-year old girl? Well, 99.9% of the time it's probably horribly injurious. I just can't give you a categorical..."

Luke: "That's an answer -- 99.9% of the time injurious is an answer. That's a blunt answer."

Gil sounds uncomfortable on the other end of the phone.

We take a pause.

Luke: "Did you have to personally struggle with stuff to write this book?"

Gil: "Oh sure. I've been on the other side of this question for a long time. I wrote a proposal, which is how you sell nonfiction books. You write 50-pages and you go to a publisher and say, 'Do you want to hire me to write this book?'

"When I wrote that proposal, I showed it to my wife and she said, 'There's nothing in here that is not you.' She's my best sounding board.

"I still believe in the American ideal of creating the widest arena for expression. I'm still a member of the ACLU. I still believe in their work. I'm just saying we can do better at segregating material intended for adults."

Luke: "Do you support the decriminalization of prostitution?"

Gil: "I'm going to take a pass on that one."

Luke: "I assume that 20-years ago you did support it?"

Gil: "I worked for a rag that was filled with ads for prostitutes. Generally, yes, from a libertarian point of view, government regulation so often backfires. It so often does the exact opposite of what it intended to do."

Luke: "So, rather than taking a pass on the question, why not say you support the decriminalization of prostitution?"

Gil: "These are big ol' thorny questions and not totally germane to what I'm talking about in my book."

Luke: "Decriminalization of drugs?"

Gil: "I think we can do better. The war against drugs has created a whole underculture in the prisons in this country."

Luke: "So therefore you support decriminalizing cocaine, heroin and the like?"

Gil: "I'm going to have to take a pass on that one too.

"What I feel like you're trying to do is pin me down to black and white positions. I've worked on stories about DEA agents, for example. I did a lot of true-crime stuff. I've worked a lot with police and criminals. I've come to realize that there are humans on both sides of the fence. That means fallible humans on both sides of the fence. I would think that would be true for prostitutes too.

"I don't think America as a culture is ready to decriminalize either prostitution or drugs although Nevada's experience... I went out there for Elle and lived in a whorehouse for a week. I talked to all the women. The story I produced for Elle, maybe one aspect of my experience there, these were just human beings. They had a lot of different reasons why they were there. When they are presented in the media context -- oh, a hooker at the Bunny Ranch -- that's just one aspect."

Luke: "Yeah, but it is the one aspect that is going to overwhelm in most minds any other aspect?"

Gil: "I know that to be true."

Luke: "Do you think that reveals some fundamental human truth about sexuality?"

Gil: "I've been guilty of this and I've certainly seen this on the part of other people -- of a need to mythologize sexuality and place it in some transcendent context. In the book, I quote Lenin's mistress who says that sex should be like drinking a glass of water. It should be that ordinary and devoid of all this..."

Luke: "Transcendence."

Gil: "Of all this incredible weight we put on it. The realm of commercial sex isn't the primary guilty party here. Hollywood wants it this way. It loves it. It loves to present sex as some sort of transforming act, but every time I've done the deed, I've woken up the next morning. I still have to deal with myself."

Luke: "Why do you support viewing sex as a transaction like drinking a glass of water rather than something with transcendent meaning?"

Gil: "I just don't think that it works. I'm looking for transcendence just like everyone else., but from all the heavy lifting I've done in this area and people trying to make it something other than it is, I've never seen it really work. I've only seen people deluded."

Luke: "You think it is a delusion to ascribe transcendent meaning to sex?"

Gil: "Right. I think the only transcendence there is in this world is love."

Luke: "So you're fine with decoupling sex from love?"

Gil: "Well, you know... It's great when they coincide."

Luke: "Do you think society has an interest in coupling sex with love?"

Gil: "Society has an interest in decoupling sex from love and twisting sex in a hundred different ways like it was a gumby toy and trying to make something of it that it isn't. I identify it as reverse Puritanism. If you take a Puritan as someone who believes in no sex, reverse Puritanism is all-sex-all-the-time. Puritanism and reverse Puritanism are related and they are both idiocy."

Luke: "So how do you decide what is right and wrong?"

Gil: "In this field there's a question of social consensus. There's a tremendous amount of frustration out there at the tone of our culture.

"I don't believe in imposing an idea of right and wrong. I do believe in a social consensus. Take the question of nudity in America. Nudity in Europe is a much different deal. There are nude beaches all around. There are topless women on page three [of The Sun newspaper in London]. America has a different tradition. You can say that one is right and one is wrong but that's like trying to stop the river from flowing. I'd like to honor our own culture. There's a vast agreement on what's appropriate. Poll results are overpowering that there's a widespread sense of frustration that the tone of the culture doesn't match the expectations of people in the culture. That offends me. It's undemocratic."

Luke: "So if I was to ask you what is the source of morality, you would say social consensus?"

Gil: "I think that's, you know, a good sort of rule of thumb."

Luke: "So if we had a society where the social consensus was to murder Tutsis or Jews, does that mean that such killing is right?"

Gil: "Consensus is informed by some sense of human ideals."

Luke: "Where are those derived from? What's the source?"

Gil: "Philosophy."

Luke: "Which philosophy?"

Gil: "Religion."

Luke: "Which?"

Gil: "Morals. Moral philosophers."

Luke: "Which moral philosophers? They disagree."

Gil: "They do disagree but I don't think you can really trackdown a social philosopher that really has a name that supports genocide."

[Gil writes later: "In the case of the Nazis and Hutus, that wasn’t social consensus, that was a small group hijacking social consensus and pursuing their own unconscionable ends. But there has been a consensus, down through history, about social justice. And most moral philosophers, all major religions, and modern progressive political thought has the same basis: for the weak, and against the strong. And who is the weakest element in society? Children. They are without voice. They have to depend on adults to give them their voice. So that’s what I feel is fundamental here: for the weak, and against the strong."]

Luke: "The Greeks and Greek philosophers were fine with leaving deformed children on hillsides to die."

Gil: "Things change. These are thorny issues we are talking about here. There's a great deal of goodwill in the world and we should harness that more and insist upon creating a world we feel comfortable in. Right now we've created a world where people feel uncomfortable. With a modicum of restraint, good sense, and discernment, we can do better. We're doing poorly now at protecting our children and people who are offended."

Luke: "Do you feel a tension between your libertarian ideals and the reality of parenting?"

Gil: "My own private household is not a libertarian realm. We've got rules."

Luke: "But more than that."

Gil: "I feel a huge tension in any libertarian viewpoint. Take an example of child labor laws. If you ever want to talk to a libertarian and bring him down to an elemental question, ask him about child labor laws. Of course I support child labor laws. Is that a violation of my libertarian ideals? So be it. There are some aspects of this book that are anti-libertarian. But contradiction is part of the human condition."

Luke: "Maybe you are moving away from libertarianism to?"

Gil jokes: "Fascism."

Luke: "No. To something. Maybe you realized libertarianism sounded fine in theory but I'm not sure you want to decriminalize prostitution, decriminalize drugs, eliminate child labor laws."

Gil: "Exactly. I think you're right."

Luke, stealing from Michael Medved: "Which phrase do you more resonate to? 'Express yourself' or 'Do your duty.'"

Gil: "I'm a writer so I'd have to say -- express yourself.

"This has been a hard book for me to write in that I have a lot of friends who were very much against it. They told me I was dancing with the devil. I tend to think of this as telling truth to power. A lot of powerful interests are interested in perpetuating a type of culture that is not acceptable to a lot of people that live in America."

Luke: "Do you have a strong need to not to say you were wrong in the stuff you used to do in the eighties? Or you are just A-OK with everything you did in the eighties?"

Gil: "Yes, I am. Because I was a twenty-something male, I was harnessed to this idea of rebellion, transgression. That's a tremendously effective idea when you are looking for your place in the world and you feel ignored and neglected and nobody's paying any attention to you.

"I was the young prince of my family. Then you go out into the world and that and a buck fifty will get me onto the subway.

"I know that me and the boys who used to work at Screw definitely subscribed to tweaking the bourgeoisie."

Luke: "And now in retrospect?"

Gil: "I think that impulse is fine and suitable for twenty-year-olds. But I don't think that impulse should be enshrined at the center of the culture the way we have done so. Western Civilization is the only culture that has done so. We've made it the coin of the realm. I was twenty-something then. I'm fifty-something now. Do I deny myself and say I was wrong then and I'm right now? I see it as a continuum. I wasn't thinking about these things then. I wasn't a deep social thinker, not that I am one now.

"I was all too easily gulled by someone like Al Goldstein into thinking I was going to the barricades for the First Amendment."

Luke: "There are going to be some middle-class people who went to college and responsible boring jobs, led conventional lives where they held a strict rein on their sexual impulse and other impulses, who are going to pick up your book and say, 'Hey Gil, you were part of the problem that created this problem.'"

Gil: "You could burn in the public square every magazine I've been with and that would still not address the problem.

"I believed back then in keeping sexually-oriented materials away from children. I wrote a New York Times Op/Ed piece for Al Goldstein [July 3, 1984] that articulated that stance. It's reprinted in my book Smut. Those are my words. Al just told me to attack mainstream media for showing horror films."

Luke: "But to adapt John Donne, surely you realize that no porn is an island. It inevitably bleeds into the general culture. It inevitably gets into the hands of children. It inevitably affects the way people treat children and men relate to women."

Gil: "That might be true, but I think we can do better with our barriers and our islands and our moats and our walls. I have no interest in living in a G-rated culture. But I do want a culture where there's choice. In this culture, there is no choice."

Luke: "Have you lost friends over this book?"

Gil: "Yeah. I hope the bridges will be repaired in the future but I've got a lot of people disgusted with me. It's an indication of how polarized this issue is. You can not venture forth with a mitigated approach (consenting adults anything goes, for children and people who aren't interested in it, there should be more attention paid to keeping this material out of their hands and out of their faces). There's an element of rubbing people's face in transgressive material, not only sexual material. If you feel like your buttons are being pushed in this culture, you're right. It's intentional.

"I remember sitting around an office meeting with Al Goldstein and we weren't articulating it in that particular way -- let's push buttons -- but that's precisely what we were into."

Luke: "Do you have disgust for Al Goldstein?"

Gil: "On a personal level, yes. The man is... I can't even articulate what kind of reprehensible person he is.

"I talk about in the book how there are two Al Goldsteins. There's the Al Goldstein for public consumption. Goldstein the symbol. And the Al Goldstein that I knew. The Al Goldstein who hurt everybody he came in contact with including me. I don't think there's a bridge in that man's life that he hasn't burned."

Luke: "Didn't you realize he was a monster when you were working for him?"

Gil: "For some reason, I was spared. He never directed his anger at me until the very end. I was doing a lot of other things. I wasn't only writing for him. I had a career as a playwright in off-off-off-off-Broadway theatres.

"I accepted it for what it was. It was tremendously exciting in the beginning. As a writer, somebody pays you to run off at the mouth. It was incredible."

Luke: "Weren't you a hit man for Goldstein? Weren't you taking after people he wanted to hurt?"

Gil: "Yes. I guess the way I rationalized that was that a lot of times these were corporate CEOs and powerful people such as Carl Icahn. From a twenty-something point of view, that was perfect."

Luke: "But in retrospect, you realize that many of the people you were hurting didn't deserve it?"

Gil: "The choke on his shotgun was very wide. In his later days, he attacked some people, his secretary, for example. It was beyond the pale. He was always beyond the pale. He lived beyond the pale. I thought that was groovy. Not only in retrospect, but during my experience of working with him, I was often charmed and entertained by him, but the dominant reaction I had to him was disgust."

Luke: "Have you ever considered apologizing to any of the innocent people you savaged on his behalf?"

Gil: "Well, I can't really think of any innocent people. Carl Icahn, the corporate raider? I realize there's the twelve-step program where you go back to apologize to everybody."

Luke: "Not everybody. Just innocent people you hurt."

Gil: "Nobody really stands out. I once wrote an editorial against myself. He told me I was screwed up. I ghostwrote an editorial against myself.

"In his public persona, he was right on much of the time because he was attacking self-righteousness. We can all get mileage out of that... I realize today that pointing a finger at somebody and saying you're a hypocrite, like Al often did, is like pointing a finger at somebody and saying, 'You're breathing.' It's not that big of a claim to make.

"In the way he treated people in his personal life, it was a spectacle of awfulness."

Luke: "Were you an enabler?"

Gil: "Maybe. Not in that sense, but maybe in his public persona. I was a hired gun. I was gunslinger. Gunslingers don't really care if they work for the sheepherders or the cattle barons. I was having too much fun in New York in the early eighties to really think too much about who I was working for. I agreed with him targeting people like Carl Icahn."

Luke: "Do you believe that we have a soul that lives on after we die?"

Long pause.

Gil: "I don't know if I am prepared for this level of discussion.

"Let me see. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't."

Luke: "Are you concerned that this book might cost you writing gigs for Penthouse and other sexually-oriented publications?"

Gil: "It already has. Maxim gave me the boot. I was a consulting editor and a contributor (a dozen stories over three years). I didn't write social commentary for them. I wrote true-crime and investigative reporting. I've got a lot of friends there. When I sent them the galleys, they spiked a story I was preparing. It wasn't acrimonious. They weren't cursing me out.

"Again, the only problem I had with something like Maxim was their display policy. The problem isn't somebody reading Maxim in the privacy of their own home. The problem is that when I'm cruising through the airport and I'm confronted with a vast display of Maxim covers... I want to choose. I know there are a lot of other people out there who want to choose. That was the substance of my beef with Maxim and they couldn't accept that. They've been assailed on that account a lot. Maxim magazine has to sell a million copies off the newsstand to meet their circulation goals."

Luke: "Why did you send them galleys of your book?"

Gil: "I have friends there. I don't want them to suffer because I was going to ambush them."

Luke: "Do you think you'll be able to keep writing for Penthouse?"

Gil: "Yes. Peter Bloch, the longtime managing editor, is another friend of mine. He read the book. He was amazingly evenhanded about it. We left it at that.

"...They have to find an explanation for why a member of our side would flip over. This has nothing to do with selling my parenting book. That's still in print but on the remainder shelves.

"I've always had strong feelings that this stuff is not appropriate for children and not appropriate for me every minute of the day. But in this polarized environment, if you breathe a word, uh, no thanks to Janet Jackson, I really don't want to see your breast on the half-time show, or Nelly who was on the same show, I really don't want to see that dirty dancing right at this moment, oh, you're in the other camp. That's moronic. People are capable of holding both ideas at the same time. It's the same on the Right. They have this zero tolerance approach to smut. Sorry, it's not going to work."

Luke: "Do you think Times Square is better or worse today than in the early eighties?"

Gil: "Using the utilitarian gauge of the most good for the most people, I think there’s no question that Times Square today is a better place. But I will always cherish the days of Hubert’s Flea Circus."

Luke: "This has been awesome. Thank you."

Gil: "Thank you. I can't believe the depth and personal attention."

Jeff writes: "Very fine interview with Gil Reavill, if too long. I like the way you kept coming at him, refusing to accept his facile answers about morality and the source of ethics. His answer: communal consensus reveals a true lightweight who who have made a wonderful member of Hitler Youth. After all, the communal consensus in Germany at the time was, well, kill all the Jews. The interview is a great document that reveals the nothingness at the core of classic liberal so-called thought."

Girlie Theology

Evan Gahr writes:

Boxers or briefs?

The question, famously put to Bill Clinton during an MTV forum, and Clinton's willingness to answer was deemed emblematic of the country's cultural decay.

But another question about something even more below the belt might have been far more illuminating and much less crass: Snipped or unsnipped?

Circumcision, the ancient rite of passage for Jews in which a new born baby's foreskin is cut off 8 days after birth, has survived into 21st Century America, even among Jews who otherwise have long since dispensed with far less gruesome customs as antiquated and useless.

Meanwhile, scores of gentiles opt for the procedures, albeit without the formal ceremony known as a bris and conducted by a specially trained "mohel" who is some kind of combination of a rabbi and a surgeon.

Enemies-- That's the beginning. Now I just need to makes some calls and get some facts to finish this cutting edge piece. Suggestions?

(Faggy does not mean literally those who swing from the other side of the tree It means being a sissy, and plenty of heterosexuals fit that category. Chief among them might be, in my opinion, National Review Managing Editor Jay Nordlinger. When Chimpgate started (I'm not sure if I should be gratified or frightened that so many journalists at major papers understand the chimp reference) I sent him a belligerent email asking pointed questions. He wrote back that it's hard to respond because my tone is so nasty. Nasty? It was tame compared to the stuff Michael Kelly would write about the Clintons. And if it was nasty why not respond in kind?)

I don't know if it works this way in Los Angeles but in DC and NYC men don't carry their belongings to work in brief cases anymore. Instead they use these fag bags as I call them that they strap over their shoulder as if it's too taxing to bring your stuff to work in a briefcase. This definitely false under the faggy category.

My cage (apt) is in Rosslyn VA which is near the Pentagon and has lots of military offices. Sadly, even the military men come to work with fag bags. I've seen ONE briefcase in the last two days.

Fun counterpoint to see what employees of gay rights organization bring their stuff to work in.

Linda Chavez: Hello
Evan Gahr: Hey, Linda, those are great jobs your sons got. Were there any other candidates?
Linda Chavez: click

The other week, [Paul] Weyrich said I desperately need love in my life. Probably meant it in part as antidote for all the hatred I deliberately confront. I used to think the best proof for the existence of God was nubile girls in short skirts. And it was obvious God created women because if a regular guy did it he would have been a pig and gone overboard and made a woman with three breasts or something like that. (Each Size FFFF). Did you ever see one of the early Woody Allen movies (Everything you want to know about sex but were afraid to ask) in which this giant breasts escapes from a laboratory and roams the countryside.

At the risk of sounding like Old Man Gahr I can't believe how much more slutty the outfits girls wear these days compared to 10 years ago. Mini-mini are de rigeur And spilling out of their shirts with lingerie as outerwear.

Also, heterosexual intercourse seems like it was designed by a greater power; the way one thing goes right where it belongs.

Am I An Arab-Penis-Receiving-Homo?

I was telling a friend: "You keep people at a distance instead of creating intimacy."

He told me what I could do with myself, called me a "faggot," and added: "You arab-penis-receiving-homo."

Straight Talk About Talk Show Hosts

Burt Prelutsky writes:

Speaking of being genuinely witty, that’s exactly what Dennis Prager is not. He believes he is, and has said as much more than once on his own show. Which makes him slightly wacky, I suppose, but not really funny. He is, in spite of all that, an excellent host. He’s extremely intelligent -- although a bit pompous -- unfailingly polite to even the dumbest of his callers, and he covers a wide spectrum of fascinating topics 15 hours a week.

He does raise one question, though: Is there a point when a radio personality risks his credibility by hustling everything under the sun? A couple of weeks ago, I began keeping track of the products and services Prager personally pitches -- and, at last count, the score was a baker’s dozen. The man shills for everything from cameras to cars, clothes to cruises. One day, he had just finished telling his audience that the tree-huggers were, as usual, exaggerating the dangers of water pollution when a certain commercial came on. You guessed it -- there was old Dennis telling us about this expensive water system he’d installed in his own home. It seems he was concerned not just about the water his family drank, but even the water in which they showered and washed their clothes!

My Dinner With Michael Kinsley

I began Wednesday evening in a sulky mood. Yes, I was going to the Michael Kinsley (LA Times Opinion Editor) and Andres Martinez (Editorial Page Editor) at the Harvard/Radcliffe Club at the LA Athletic Club. Downside. The program was scheduled to begin at 6pm (when I could meet with all the hot brainy chix) but my date Cathy said we should arrive at 7pm.

I absolutely must arrive on time to events or I get all out of kilter.

So at 6:52pm, I walked up the Club carrying my book -- You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. If anyone asks me why I've got a book with me, I'm gonna say it is just in case the evening is boring. That will let the world know how ticked off I am and these Harvard types don't impress me.

I call Cathy Seipp on my cell phone and say I'll meet her at the entrance. Seven minutes later and no sign of Cathy, I call her again. She's already in the program. I'm waiting outside like a fool for a woman who'll never come.

It's the same old story.

The panel is well underway as I walk in. There are no spare seats near hot chix and it would be rude of me anyway to seize one as I already have my date Cathy.

Finally seats are brought to the back and side. I'm feeling happier because I didn't have to spring for the entrance. Thanks to Jim, our host.

The panelists are mumbling and muttering under their breaths. They avoid the mic and it doesn't even matter because they have nothing to say.

Just as I'm ready to open my book, Mike Kinsley (wears a couple of days' growth of beard, maybe he observes Judaism's proscription against using a razor) knocks off a few good lines. Then Andres resumes the mumble about nothing and the moderator (Steven Arkow, works at DOJ as a federal prosecutor) in his tenor voice shuns the mic and I'm ready to write some nasty stuff about cutting the balls off of people who won't speak into the mic because they sound like eunuchs anyway.

Then I realize that this sort of writing would not endear me to Cathy who had warned me to be on my best behavior.

Kinsley says there are 14 on The Times editorial board. There were no lawyers when he came aboard. Now there are three. He wants more lawyers because they are systematic thinkers. LAT Editor John Carrol disagrees.

The moderator's voice reminds me of Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy birthday Mr. President" to JFK.

I fight to keep myself in my seat when my soul wants to jump up and yell, "Have you guys ever considered publishing something interesting? Just as a change of pace, mind you."

The LA Times has long been the most boring, and the most predictably and reflexively liberal of any major newspaper. I'm not sure it is any better under Kinsley.

I've been reading Michael since I was a teenager. I think The New Republic was at its best under his leadership (though his reign over Slate left much to be desired because almost all his writers were uniformly and predictably liberal, unlike the vibrant TNR).

Michael has brought in a bunch of pals from the Northeast, including dull regulars such as Margaret Carlson. Snore. How about some fresh LA voices Michael?

Kinsley describes David Shaw as The Times "Ideas" columnist. Cathy and I break into laughter.

An insistent woman in the front row, without any prompting from the moderator about opening things up to the floor, badgers Michael about Shaw and other Times shortcoming. I immediately know its Amy Alkon, AdviceGoddess.com.

Five minutes later, Cathy asks me, "Who is that speaking?"

"It's Amy," I say.

"Oh," Cathy responds, chagrined. "I wondered why her voice sounded so familiar."

"Newspapers are establishment publications," says Kinsley.

Martinez describes The LAT as "freewheeling" compared to The NYT editorial page. He says The NYT's "history and tradition is almost oppressive."

Looking around the audience, nobody seems to care what Andres says. But they're glued to Kinsley who keeps trying to share the spotlight with Andres.

A man with a heavy Mexican accent makes a three-point speech about the late Frank del Olmo, the first Latino editor at The LAT.

The man is ticked off that The Times hasn't replaced him with another Latino editor. He praises Frank for being the only journalist to make a solid stand against the Mexican Mafia.

"As opposed to what?" wonders Cathy. "Other journalists support the Mexican Mafia?"

Though the room is filled with Harvard/Radcliffe graduates, many of them are idiots. They ask lengthy ponderous questions.

Kinsley praises the promising accomplished Latino voices at The LAT. The man in the audience wants them to further Frank Del Olmo's racial activism.

That's exactly what's needed in journalists -- more racial activism. Martinez and Kinsley suck up to his racial platitudes rather than slamming them down his throat as he deserves.

What kind of reaction would a man praising activism for the white race get in this crowd? He'd be shown the door. But when it comes to Latinos and Blacks, you can never be too racially active without the wimpy liberals at The LAT stepping into line behind it.

Kinsley's talk about the bright promising Latinos at The LAT reminds me of those who talk about "articulate Blacks."

Andres grew up in Mexico but he has no Mexican accent, yet many people of Mexican ancestry who grew up in California speak with a Mexican accent.

The man wants to know what editorials The LAT has published that would make Frank del Olmo proud. Instead of telling him to jump out the window, Andres lists a variety of pro-Latino editorials, including one for giving CA Drivers License to illegal aliens (thereby destroying the DL as a valid ID device for a US citizen).

A middle-aged black woman says her 20-year old niece doesn't read newspapers, doesn't know who John [R.] Bolton is, and that this therefore must be the fault of newspapers.

"Your niece is a moron," says Cathy, and Kinsley says the same thing, though in more polite language.

Kinsley stammers a lot, repeating the same word up to six times before he can move on.

Mike says he's been an opinion journalist all his life and he doesn't feel like he's influenced anything.

Cathy leaves at 8:10.

Jim invites me to dinner with the panelists and a dozen other elites.

Kinsley sits down opposite me. His first question is what year did I graduate Harvard. I confess I'm an interloper.

I quote chapter and verse from things he wrote 20 years ago. He says he doesn't know whether to be flattered or frightened.

Kinsley says Mickey Kaus with his blog has a bigger influence (due to his immediacy) than the LAT editorial and opinion pages. Kinsley was used to the immediacy of Slate (which was slow in web time). He'd send off an article, take a shower, and return to his computer to find his article online. Now at The LAT, he turns in his column for Sunday on Tuesday.

Kinsley says newspapers are doomed. He wants to do more blogger/interactive things on The LAT website. He's excited by The LAT's new head of Internet operations -- Rob Barrett, the husband of Ruth Shalit.

I quote back to Kinsley an article he wrote 18-years ago on his two-weeks in Australia. I asked him how much Australia's kindliness was due to the racial monotony of its population (98% white). He said that he pointed out in his article that Australia's dynamism was substantially due to its opening up to asian immigration.

Kinsley waxed lyrical about racial and sexual-orientation diversity on Miami's South Beach.

I asked him about the higher crime rates that result from racial (and other types of) diversity.

Kinsley didn't see any connection between high crime rates and diversity.

So I shut up on this sensitive topic.

I ask Kinsley if he had any Republicans writing for him at Slate (I don't recall any being on staff). "Oh sure," Michael says.

"Who?" I ask.

"Jack Shafer," says Kinsley.

"Jack's not a Republican. He's a libertarian."

"He voted for Bush [senior and junior]," said Michael.

Not convincing. Slate was almost pure liberalism with a smattering of libertarianism (as far as staffers).

Jack Shafer replies to my inquiry: "I ain't never voted for no Bush."

Shafer says he has never voted Republican for president and that the one word that best describes his political beliefs is "libertarian."

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a registered Republican who was a staff writer for Slate.

Kinsley says the Outfoxed documentary was crap.

Kinsley remembers Stephen Glass as a nice kid at The New Republic who worked as a secretary. Kinsley felt bad he couldn't get him writing gigs.

Glass went on to fabricate information in about 40 articles for TNR.

Kinsley had the same reaction to the Stephen Glass movie Shattered Glass as I did -- it was superb, though too reverential towards TNR.

Kinsley has long hated fact-checkers. He thinks reporters should be their own fact-checkers and having fact-checkers on staff makes reporters lazy.

I asked Michael what was the most perceptive article written on him. He mentioned one in Vanity Fair by a famous 20/20 correspondent who wrote that the man who doesn't blink (watch Kinsley on TV, he rarely blinks) blinked (when he accepted and rejected the editorship of New York magazine within 24-hours, during this same time he received his diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, which he only made public when he left Slate about two years ago).

I remind Kinsley that he never got to edit Literary Editor and incoherent blowhard Leon Wieseltier who's long had a snug relationship with former TNR publisher Marty Peretz that leaves Leon exempt from editing, even though he desperately needs it.

Three years ago, Michael married his former boss at Microsoft who now runs the Bill Gates charitable foundation.

Kinsley splits his time between LA and Seattle.

I ask Michael and the group if they've heard of Air Supply. Nobody has. I tell them that I learned about love through the prism of Air Supply songs. They look at me mystified.

These are Harvard graduates. What exactly do they teach there? Obviously no Australian Music Appreciation.

I sit next to a beautiful woman I knew a decade ago. Now she's married and has two kids in addition to a thriving career.

I'm reminded again of how far I lag behind my peers in the things that are most meaningful.

Kinsley scoffs at how the Washington Post carefully labels satirical articles as "satire."

I regale the group with tales of my five hours of live radio debate with Paul Cambria on this. Paul thrashed me (I took Kinsley's position on satire -- that if you label it, it is no longer funny, and the inherent material should reveal whether something is satirical or literal).

Kinsley and Kaus (both graduates of Harvard Law School) wanted to start a magazine that would have a big disclaimer on the front that some of its contents were invented. They thought this might serve as a protection against libel suits but they were quickly dissuaded. If an average person could read something you wrote or published and believe it was true, then you are on the hook for libel if you maliciously publish falsehoods.

Unlike Mickey Kaus (who has a thing for zany right-wing blondes), Kinsley has never dated Ann Coulter nor known her in a Biblical way (not implying that Mickey has known her in that way).

I ask Michael which magazines he most looks forward to reading. He says The New Republic. He says The Atlantic is the magazine he feels he ought to read (but rarely does).

Whenever I stop talking, the Harvard/Radcliffe types quickly revert to discussing odd architecture in various obscure Harvard buildings. Jolly lucky for these folks that I came along to liven up the party (and I didn't even have to demonstrate, even though I was about to at times, the traditional Australian art of ----- puppetry).

Cathy Seipp writes:

Most the audience's questions, some in those superior, East Coast preppie accents that grate on my Spicoli-raised ears but which I also find strangely fascinating, had to do with the awful, evil, "McCarthyite" voices on the editorial pages: Max Boot, George F. Will, and especially cartoonist Michael Ramirez: "Why do you keep him on?" one guy wailed, in tones that suggested he was wearing a monocle while peering at a cockroach.

Kinsley patiently explained that the Times hasn't run Will's syndicated column in years (presumably some readers still suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome from the horror -- the horror! -- of the memory) and that a left-leaning editorial board needs to be balanced by some right-leaning signed columns. Regarding Michael Ramirez, he added: "This is the question I get more than any other: Michael Ramirez, how can I kill him?"

...I thought it was funnier when Kinsley tactfully described David Shaw -- the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic, fantastically pretentious wine connoisseur and all-around albatross -- as "the ideas correspondent."

Then a woman said that she has a 20-year-old niece "who lives with me, and it drives me crazy -- she doesn't know who John Bolton is. She says she doesn't read newspapers because they're just so biased one way or the other." Couldn't papers serve young, impatient readers, the woman asked, by running both points of view side by side?

"I think that's a bit of an excuse," Kinsley said carefully, about his earnest questioner's ignorant young relative. He was being polite, of course. Obviously, the poor woman's just got a stupid niece.

Jane writes: "I loved reading your Michael Kinsley piece. He’s my favorite opinion writer – brilliant writer – but I remember seeing him on Crossfire and being horrified. Every time he was attacked he looked like he was about to run home and tell his mommy. I’m curious if he was better in a non-confrontational setting?"

It was a terrific experience having dinner with him. A lifelong dream fulfilled and far more wholesome than many of my other dreams.

Janice writes: "Had I but known--you should have taken me to hear Kinsley. As a grad. of Yale, I always feel slightly superior (or actually, vastly superior) to Harvard types. They're so nerdy, whereas Yale was the alma mater of Cole Porter. And recently, I interviewed a guy who grew up in a religious sex cult. Of course, he has huge gaps in his knowledge of pop culture. For example, he told me that he had no idea that it was considered dorky to admit to liking Air Supply."