Originally published in The American Interest, December 9, 2014
In October, when I began reading Bill Cosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker, the 77-year-old comedian was enjoying a bit of a boom: a new television series in the works, a new special set to get the Netflix treatment, an exhibition at the Smithsonian of 62 works of African-American art collected by Cosby and his wife Camille, not to mention this grand review of the man’s long and eventful life, written by an esteemed journalist who had been managing editor of CNN and the top editor of Newsweek.
Now, Cosby’s reputation has plummeted with terminal velocity. During a performance on October 15th, a comedian named Hannibal Burress said that Cosby had the “smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches. ‘I don’t curse onstage.’ Well, yeah, you’re rapist.” Burress was referring to allegations made by several women that Cosby had drugged and raped them, accusations that had been public for several years but that were nevertheless not well known. But in the uproar that followed, more women stepped forward, bringing the number of accusers to 19. No criminal charges were ever filed, and the one accuser who sued Cosby settled out of court. But in their staggering number and incriminating similarity, in the emotional strength behind the stories told, the accusations have a cold credibility. Perhaps under cross-examination all these stories would blow away like fairy dust. But in this era of media-accelerated justice, where Donald Sterling lost his business in a week because comments made in the privacy of his home were surreptitiously recorded, the presumption of innocence is a flimsy thing. Cosby has been judged guilty in the court of public opinion of being a serial rapist. Any comeback that he might achieve at this point would rival the Resurrection.
Frank Rich interviewed Chris Rock this week in New York magazine. Rock was brilliant–creative, provocative, and enormously perceptive. He said things about race in a way that should change the discussion forever. Here is one comment:
“Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. . . . So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”
“All my life, I have loved music, and never in my life have I been the tiniest bit musical. Not only can I not sing in tune, I cause others to fall off key. Not only can I not dance, my dancing has often caused injury to others, most memorably on a St. Patrick’s Day in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, when at the conclusion of a dance I exuberantly dipped my wife-to-be and smashed her head into a door frame. I took guitar lessons for two years, giving up only when my teacher noted that inasmuch I had never been able to tune my instrument, or even tell if it was in tune, I would probably always—his word—stink. Clap in time? Forget it.
And yet, when I saw that the legendary progressive rock band King Crimson, in its eighth incarnation, was on tour again, I was reminded that there was one night, nearly thirty years ago, when I did play an instrument, in a band, before an audience, capably. And we were great. As much as anyone, the man responsible was Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s cerebral, brilliant, exacting, intimidating lead guitarist.”
Last week I had the pleasure of going to the theater with one half of my Loose Lips co-writers, the gemultlict Lisa Birnbach. What fun! We had dinner on Bond Street in a brick-walled basement level restaurant called The Smile, which had the atmosphere and trappings of the kind of archetypal Greenwich Village that Edna St. Vincent Millay might have known, except for the absence of candles in chianti bottles. After that we went around the corner to the Lynn Redgrave Theater to see a play called `Tail! Spin!’ The play, which featured terrific acting, was about the sexual shenanigans of former senator Larry Craig, ex-governor Mark Sanford, and ex-congressmen Mark Foley and Anthony Weiner. The text was cleverly assembled by Mario Correa out of bits of speeches, comments, texts,emails, statements and interview answers actually uttered by the actual parties. No wonder it caught the eye of former Lippers. Anyway, it was a lot of fun; we’ll have to see if something evolves out of it,
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Will.i.am for the September issue of Success. He was very different from most interview subjects–he was very relaxed, very confident, seemingly without any canned responses. He was quick to respond to my questions, but every answer was fluid and detailed. I was particularly drawn to one of his answers, where he said “I never wanted to be a leader of a group. I always wanted to be the ideas man, the one who said, ‘Hey guys, let’s try this!’” And from little up he played that role. It shows tremendous self-awareness, and a precocious grasp of group dynamics, to discern that role, and consciously pursue it. I thought this immediately identified him as an unusual intellect. It was a great pleasure to talk to him about his many interests and wide circle of fiends and associates. To read the entire article, click here.
Last Friday night, Bill Murray appeared at an audience Q&A session at the Toronot Film Festival. As reported in the Vulture column of New York magazine, the night’s final question was “What’s it like being you?” Here is Murray’s answer:
“I think if I’m gonna answer that question, because it is a hard question, I’d like to suggest that we all answer that question right now, while I’m talking. I’ll continue. Believe me, I won’t shut up. I have a microphone. But let’s all ask ourselves that question right now. What does it feel like to be you? What does it feel like to be you? Yeah. It feels good to be you, doesn’t it? It feels good, because there’s one thing that you are — you’re the only one that’s you, right?. So you’re the only one that’s you, and we get confused sometimes — or I do, I think everyone does — you try to compete. You think, Dammit, someone else is trying to be me. Someone else is trying to be me. But I don’t have to armor myself against those people; I don’t have to armor myself against that idea if I can really just relax and feel content in this way and this regard. If I can just feel, just think now: How much do you weigh? This is a thing I like to do with myself when I get lost and I get feeling funny. How much do you weigh? Think about how much each person here weighs and try to feel that weight in your seat right now, in your bottom right now. Parts in your feet and parts in your bum. Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere. There’s just a wonderful sense of well-being that begins to circulate up and down, from your top to your bottom. Up and down from your top to your spine. And you feel something that makes you almost want to smile, that makes you want to feel good, that makes you want to feel like you could embrace yourself.
“So what’s it like to be me? You can ask yourself, What’s it like to be me? You know, the only way we’ll ever know what it’s like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can, and keep reminding yourself: That’s where home is.”
Last year I did some work for Marlo Thomas on a thoughtful, encouraging, positive book called It Ain’t Over. . . Till It’s Over about women reinventing themselves at mid-life. For some reason, the odious Rush Limbaugh decided to shit all over this book, somehow charging that when Thomas encourages the impulse to better oneself, she is being a hypocrite, because she is also a critic of income inequality. Thanks to colleague Bruce Kluger for swinging back at the nasty buffoon in a column in USA Today. “America has always been a place of reinvention,” says Bruce. “From the first explorers to settle on this soil, to the colonists who crafted our government, to the modern wave of entrepreneurs who now help drive our economy, ours is a citizenry that rejects complacency. This is why we’re called the “land of opportunity.” We never stop trying to seize new destinies. And yet Limbaugh denounces the women in Thomas’ book for exercising this freedom. At one point in his screed, he predictably characterized them as “elite,” caustically asking, “Why did they want more?”
My latest piece is an exciting tale of greed and desperation. “The Lost Silver of Cabalos Bay” is about six daring and resourceful navy divers, pulled from Japanese prison camps outside Manila, who were dragooned into helping Japanese soldiers try to recover a fortune in silver coins dumped in Manila harbor by the Philippine government. It’s a remarkable tale, a manly man’s story, and my first for WW II History magazine.
The Oscars will be presented tomorrow night, and right now smart money for Best Picture is on Gravity, an engrossing and technically advanced film about one of the oldest plots in the book, that of the marooned person who is running out of time and resources. It’s a fine film, very well directed, featuring two ingratiating performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and like most Republican Vice Presidential nominees, it has, well, no gravity. Next to Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street, it is wafer-thin and value-free.
The Wolf of Wall Street speaks to the crisis of our times, namely, the control of the economy by finance and the yawning wealth gap between rich and poor. It is a film that responds to the financial crisis, which is odd, because it has nothing to do with the financial crisis per se, and everything to do with the attitudes that fueled the meltdown. Wall Street today operates in a morality-free zone where anything you can get away with is right, and the film nails its subjects to the wall. Critics have chided The Wolf of Wall Street for celebrating the the excesses and emptiness of the traders. I don’t think it celebrates that life at all. I think it exposes its shallownes, its valulessness.
Is this voraciousness such a new thing? Wasn’t this behind the Crash of ’29, the insider trading fever of the late eighties? True enough, greed always has been part of business. Moreover, it’s hard to say that modern business does anything as immoral as slave trading, or using children, or endangering the lives of industrial workers. But the amorality of marketism, the Reagan-Greenspan idolatry of free markets that fight regulation, and wring every cent our of workers and consumers, and use the superpowers of computers to profit from minute fluctuations of the stock market in ways unrelated to productivity or investment, add up to theft on a grand scale from the workers of the world.
Wall Street today is no longer about making money. It is about becoming super rich. In the Times in January, a former trader named Sam Polk wrote about his “addiction to money” that developed after he went to work on Wall Street. “At the end of my first year,” writes Polk, “I was thrilled to receive a $40,000 bonus. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to check my balance before I withdrew money. But a week later, a trader who was only four years my senior got hired away by C.S.F.B. for $900,000. After my initial envious shock — his haul was 22 times the size of my bonus — I grew excited at how much money was available. Over the next few years I worked like a maniac and began to move up the Wall Street ladder. I became a bond and credit default swap trader, one of the more lucrative roles in the business. Just four years after I started at Bank of America, Citibank offered me a “1.75 by 2” which means $1.75 million per year for two years, and I used it to get a promotion. I started dating a pretty blonde and rented a loft apartment on Bond Street for $6,000 a month. . . .Still, I was nagged by envy. On a trading desk everyone sits together, from interns to managing directors. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet. Nonetheless, I was thrilled with my progress. . . .[W]orking elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. I’d think about how my colleagues could buy Micronesia if they wanted to, or become mayor of New York City. They didn’t just have money; they had power — power beyond getting a table at Le Bernardin. Senators came to their offices. They were royalty. I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million. But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.” I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had. From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.”
That need for ever-increasing amounts of money is what The Wolf of Wall Street dramatizes: Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of the title who is played by Leonardo di Caprio, is hooked on making money. No moral paragon to begin with, he grows more destructive of his family and friends and himself as his need to make money keeps growing, Although he mouths the traditional Wall Street moral spin about investment, Belfort’s game is all about taking the investor’s money, no matter what line of dishonesty is necessary. Scorsese identifies a kind of animal rapaciousness that lives within each of us, a spirit that Wall Street not only unleashes, but provokes to more audacious predations.
In an early scene in the film, above, young Belfort is tuned into this spirit by a mentor played by Matthew McConaughey. It’s a funny scene–McConaughey is kind of over-the-top, but as the film progresses we see that is as prescient as John the Baptist. He is the one who introduces the animal appeal at work here.
By the final sequence of the film, we see that Belfort has infested this spirit in hundreds of others–despite abundant evidence that such greed is manifestly injurious to us. In this masterful sequence, we see Belfort just as he has determined to act against the wise advice of his father and his lawyer, and reject a plea-bargain that would have cost him his firm but preserved ill-gotten his wealth. Instead, he summons the spirits–“the animal spirits” that John Maynard Keynes recognized?–and defiantly rejects the government’s deal. He cannot stop himself.
And what happens? He sort of gets away with it. He receives a a three-year stretch at a country club prison, surrenders much of his money but remains quite rich, and maintains the ability to earn. We see the poor honest FBI agent (an excellent Kyle Chandler) going home on the subway, we see the little people of the world leading their sad and dismal lives, and we see that Belfort remains a rich, widely admired pig. In a masterstroke of understatemnt, the film ends looking into the faces of a room full of aspiring salesmen, people who covet wealth and want the extravagantly indulgent life of Jordan Belfort. As we see their eager faces, the music comes up. Scorsese, not known for his subtlety, picked a a jazz instrumental. The title of the piece is `Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”