What can I do? I'm not perfect, alas," bravely admitted the New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka, a.k.a. LeRoi Jones, in discussing the negative reaction to his brave new work, "Somebody Blew Up America," in which he bravely asked, "Who know who decide / Jesus get crucified? ... Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And cracking they sides at the notion... Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israel i workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?" Okay, yes, a little raw, a little outré—but isn't that the whole point of art?
Courage. Candor. Frankness. It's that sort of time. Nothing low or dishonest about this decade, at least so far. Plain people speaking plain truths about the world they see around them and, more, about their very own selves. That is the way it is now, especially in New Jersey, where Mr. Baraka does not stand alone in his penchant for soul-searing self-appraisal.
"In public life if you actually seek more than satisfaction for yourself in the things you achieve, you will always be frustrated," admitted the too-honest-for-his-own-good Senator Robert G. Torricelli, as he announced that he was abandoning his bid for reelection. Polls showed his relative standing plummeting after the release of government papers revealing that federal prosecutors who had declined to indict him did, in fact, believe he was guilty of accepting illegal gifts—this following a savage admonition by the Senate Ethics Committee. "Somewhere today," Torricelli said, "in one of several hospitals in New Jersey, some woman's life is going to be changed because of the mammography centers that I created for thousands of women. Somewhere tonight in Bergen County, if a woman is beaten, [if] she fears for her child, she'll spend the night in a center that I created for abused children so they can be safe ... Some child in Bergen County will play in a park that I funded and land that I saved. Somewhere all over New Jersey some senior citizen who doesn't even know my name and nothing about what we're doing today will live at a senior center that I helped to build. That's my life. Don't feel badly for me. I changed people's lives... I've done my duty for my country."
But why should it all be give, give, give? Can't there be even a little room for some take, take, take? As the senator so unflinchingly asked, "When did we become such an unforgiving people?" You spend a lifetime truckling to the shrieking demands of blue-rinsed bats, and toothless Veterans of Foreign Wars, and God knows who else—and you ask for nothing—nothing—in return, except an occasional Italian suit or Rolex or large-screen TV. And yet the bastards turn on you. And, anyway, did you ever claim to be perfect?
Well, sort of, alas. But that was then. We aren't like that anymore. We're all Torricellis now. We look at ourselves and we say the truth about what we see, warts and all. "I am a member of al Qaeda and I pledged to Osama bin Laden; I am an enemy of your country," said the British citizen Richard C. Reid (who has a fetchingly frank and candid and self-aware way of making his eyes big), pleading guilty to trying to shoe-bomb a jetliner. We admit our past errors and confusions. "I have never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism," said John Walker Lindh, on the occasion of his accepting twenty years in a federal penitentiary for his small role in the recent heavily armed misunderstanding known as the Taliban.
The old, pettifogging ways are gone even in the courts. Today's lawyers speak truth in the interests of justice. "It was a bad choice," acknowledged the attorney Steven Rosen, of his self-admittedly imperfect client Madelyne Gorman Toogood's decision to administer what appeared on a security video to be a vicious beating to her four-year-old daughter.
In diplomacy, too, the new way is blunt, fearless, damn the torpedoes. "I have nothing but hatred in my heart for him," the former American President George H.W. Bush said of the man who tried to blow him up, Saddam Hussein. "I haven't seen him for a long time," French President Jacques Chirac said of the man he once called his "personal friend," Saddam Hussein, to whom he provided a nuclear reactor that he could never have guessed might be subverted to provide the Iraqi regime with the fissile material required in its very nearly successful effort to build a nuclear bomb. "He's probably changed since; so have I," added the fearless Frenchman, in what The New York Times called "a striking departure," although without saying from what, exactly.
In a related striking departure, and in today's spirit of truth-telling and self-awareness, North Korean officials acknowledged (after U.S. diplomats confronted the officials with powerful evidence, and after a no doubt merely reflexive spasm of denying everything) that, actually, North Korea, Iraq's personal axis-of-evil friend, was in fact—and not entirely in keeping with its assertions to the contrary under the 1994 agreement with the United States to abandon all nuclear weapons in exchange for light-water nuclear reactors and some fuel oil—conducting a major nuclear-weapons program. You might say that this development suggests North Korea is not, alas, perfect—but (and this is what counts) North Korea knows this about itself. And it is not afraid to admit it. The heart thrills to live in such a time.
The new truth is everywhere in politics. In an unusually candid expression of its views, the Democratic National Committee put on its Web site an animated cartoon in which George W. Bush, saying "Trust me," shoves two people (one an old lady) in wheelchairs down a jagged slope meant to symbolize the falling stock market. Leading Republicans asserted, candidly, that they found this depiction of the President to be tasteless. The DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri explained, with equal candor, "It wasn't tasteless. It was amusing." You will notice that Ms. Palmieri made no claim that the cartoon was perfect—perfectly fair, perfectly fitting, perfectly appropriate, perfectly conducive to that climate of enlightened inquiry that Ms. Palmieri joins all political professionals in striving to foster. Ms. Palmieri admits, as we all do, the truth implied by the poet Baraka: politics is not perfect, alas. But if it is amusing, isn't that enough? When did we become such an unforgiving people?
"Why do [White House reporters] have to have everything spoon-fed ahead of time?" said the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, in a moment of exemplary honesty that will surely be forgiven by a press corps that is always the first to admit its imperfections. "There's a tendency by reporters to wildly exaggerate the trauma they go through so they have better excuses for their editors for why they don't have a story."
George W. Bush has "a natural poise, like a ballet dancer," said an openly admiring Norman Mailer, who wrote a novel called Tough Guys Don't Dance, but who in the new spirit of the age is not afraid to honestly address his more intimate feelings for men in leotards. "Never before have I seen an American President who moves so gracefully before TV cameras. Everything he does seems to have been choreographed, even when he feeds his dog."
Bush as ballet dancer, Mailer as ballet critic, Fleischer as media critic, Torricelli as conscience of a nation, Baraka as state poet. Why, it is all perfect. And with 100 percent of the vote in Iraq counted, Saddam Hussein has won with 100 percent of the vote. Perfect.
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