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Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 1999 /17 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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From the clip file -- THE MANILA FOLDER full of clippings and articles that absolutely, positively, immediately require comment has started to bulge. And collect dust.

By now, the folder is barely held together by one frayed rubber band. Soon it'll join the others in the bin with yesterday's news. Which is how today's utter outrage or sheer delight fades into gentle bemusement.

But some of the stories that were bemusing to begin with retain their flavor. Unlike that carton of milk even now souring in my fridge, they haven't gone bad:


Consider an item from The New Yorker, a magazine that's regressing in time and therefore getting better. Its always with-it editor, Tina Brown, has now gone on to other and lesser things, like Talk magazine. So one can now open the magazine without feeling the impulse to hold it at arm's length.

I am happy to report that The New Yorker is slowly returning to form, like a patient recuperating. One of its more charming foibles has always been a civilized disdain for those of us between the coasts, i.e., in America. As if we were more to be pitied than despised. It's not an unpleasant form of condescension; there is no malice to it. Indeed, it's kind of assuring, as provincialism often is.

Note the mild contempt and studied indifference for anything west of the Hudson when The New Yorker discusses natural disasters elsewhere, as it did a few weeks back:

"One of the pleasures of New York life has always been our cozy distance from natural disasters, those Biblical and televised occasions when a hurricane flattens a swath of South Florida, when a twister peels the roof off a sports arena in Salt Lake City, when a flooded Midwestern town becomes an artless Venice of floating stumps and Buicks.''

There's a nice, soothing rhythm to such sentences. They're the artful product of the magazine's promising new editor, David Remnick, and their sound brings to mind the lulling lap of waves ... at the front door. One is reminded of Wilfred Sheed's classic description of The New Yorker as "the spiritual home of the graceful writer with nothing to say.''

New York's disasters, unlike the Midwest's, tend to be decidedly unnatural -- like Son of Sam, the Dinkins administration, the latest banal outrage at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the whole Rudy-Hillary Senate race.

But as The New Yorker was quick to humbly note, "that was then. This is now: the long drought and the showers that followed roused into life a swarm of mosquitoes.'' And the fear of plague.

When three fatal cases of encephalitis were recorded, the sophisticated city took on the air of a bad 1950s sci-fi movie starring Kevin McCarthy and Terry Moore. As the spray trucks went into action, so did the politicians and editorialists, and kibitzers in general. Unfortunately, their verbal fog may not have had the same salutary effect as the spray trucks.

Perhaps the most mysterious contribution to the discussion, duly noted by The New Yorker's puzzled correspondent, came from Hillary Clinton. The first lady who would be a senator lost no time in responding to all the talk about encephalitis. "I have been concerned about malaria for many years,'' she said. Bless her heart, Mrs. Clinton might want to spend a little more time with her briefing book before responding to the next natural disaster.


The cleverness of others is so irresistible that I live in fear of expropriating it, a temptation known as plagiarism. Till now, when caught exercising almost a pride of authorship in others' witticisms, and even starting to resent them for trying to hog the credit, I've taken refuge in the explanation: "But I was just making a literary allusion.'

Now, however, thanks to a Scottish author named James Mackay, I now have a new explanation at the ready.

According to the New York Times, the prolific Mr. Mackay has written -- well, turned out -- 160 books by his reckoning. But he's been regularly accused of plagiarism. The most recent charge is that whole passages of his forthcoming biography of John Paul Jones were copied from Samuel Eliot Morison's earlier one, published in 1959. It's a problem.

You would think Mr. Mackay would have a sure defense in the rhetorical question, "Who on earth would want to plagiarize anyone as dull as Samuel Eliot Morison?`

But no, when the Times asked Mr. Mackay to explain how his book could contain whole passages that bear an uncanny resemblance to the earlier Morison biography, he replied:

"There are only a certain number of words in the English language.''

Beautiful. I'll have to remember that.

It used to be said by fans of mathematical probability that you could lock a dozen monkeys in a room full of typewriters, and eventually they'd be bound to duplicate Shakespeare. But Samuel Eliot Morison? No, surely only a human would make that blunder.


Dept. of Co-Conspiracy: The federal government, it has been duly reported, now has filed suit against those nefarious tobacco companies. But it has yet to act against a national organization that acts as the tobacco industry's accomplice, sponsor and partner.

This vast organization has even undermined the armed forces. It has retailed these same poisonous products in military commissaries (at cut rates), distributed cigarettes free of charge to uniformed personnel ("Smoke 'em if you got 'em''), and even passed them out in veterans hospitals.

This sinister outfit even subsidizes the production of the noxious weed with direct cash payments. There is no limit to its insidious reach. It collects a rake-off on every pack of cigarettes sold, and now its chief has proposed upping the take.

Janet Reno's Justice (sic) Department needs to expose this vast conspiracy against the public health. For its tentacles are everywhere. Congress, the armed forces, the executive branch ... they're all involved in this smoky conspiracy. Clearly, the federal government needs to file suit against ... the federal government.


This Just In: An assortment of European statesmen rushed to criticize the U.S. Senate when it refused to ratify the latest nuclear test ban. Among those lecturing the United States on how best to preserve the peace of the world were the British. And the French. And the Germans. Not to mention the Russians. When it comes to protecting the peace of the world, it is always good -- well, piquant -- to hear from Europe, that cradle of world wars. It has a proven record.

The one sure thing that can be said of such comments from abroad, as of certain lesser vintages, is that one is sure to find their presumption amusing.

Just in this decade, how long did this country stand aside and leave it to our European allies to put out the war in Bosnia? And how many victims were sacrificed in the meantime?

The distinctive European combination of aggression, lassitude, and condescension took its usual bloody toll in the Balkans. Only then did this country finally rouse itself and play the crucial role, one more time, in restoring peace.

Moral: Europe is much too important to be left to the Europeans, and so is the American nuclear deterrent.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate