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LAURA AND DUKE—A HATE STORY

America generally accepted racism in 1871, even though the Civil War had ended six years earlier. A century later, bigotry stood officially condemned. Yet prejudice had its champions. Today, those champions have champions. 

On Laura Ingraham’s February 20 Fox News show, author/journalist Raymond Arroyo rebutted the furor resulting from the resurfacing of a 1971 Playboy interview with John Wayne. The Hollywood legend friends called Duke told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” 

Arroyo claimed that Wayne shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. Ingraham agreed and likened protestors to the Taliban and ISIS, who “don’t want any vestige of what was.” 

So, what “was” in 1971? Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act seven years earlier. Although millions of whites fought desegregation and equal rights, America officially took a new stance towards racial equality. It was inevitable. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against the concept of separate but equal schools. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. Before and after that decision, thousands of black Americans died for our country. Theircountry. 

Educated and responsible citizens? In the ’60s, I viewed my fraternity brothers Paul and Bob, my officer candidate school buddies Kent and Cliff, and L.M., starting center on the Fort Sam Houston post basketball team I coached for two seasons, as more than well-educated to the point of responsibility. Exemplary African Americans? No. Exemplary men.

Duke Wayne’s comments become more reprehensible because he stood as a symbol of American manhood. The symbol was false. His real name? Marion Morrison—although that’s not an issue. Until about the time of Wayne’s comments, Hollywood required actors to adopt short, Anglo-Saxon sounding screen names. These often mollified moviegoers uncomfortable with seeing “foreigners” on the silver screen. (Blacks played maids and train porters, Asians maids and gardeners.) Tinseltown disguised Jewish stars like Paul Muni (Frederich Weisenfruend), Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch), Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) and Judy Holliday (Judith Tuvim).

Wayne’s heroism? Celluloid myth. He played courageous cowboys and World War Two servicemenas an actor. During the war, the military rejected him because of his age and status as a father. To Wayne’s credit, that dissatisfied him. He made USO tours and visited wounded veterans in hospitals—worthy endeavors but hardly on a par with those who endured combat.

In the post-war years Wayne, a conservative, vociferously supported the red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC blacklisted many Hollywood actors, writers, directors and others for liberal and/or communist sympathies during the Depression years. It destroyed careers, damaged lives. 

Laura Ingraham’s giving a pass to John Wayne’s racist views helps maintain an environment of hatred that over the past three years has crawled out from the shadows. Recently, an Alabama newspaper editor called on the Ku Kux Klan “to night ride again.” And federal agents in Maryland arrested a white-supremacist Coast Guard officer with a large arsenal of weapons. They accused him of plotting to kill Democratic members of Congress, television journalists and others. 

Should today’s racists be exonerated because their views reflect those of a supposedly cherished—and deeply flawed—past? Should their views be accepted because they match those espoused by a current self-proclaimed hero who also never served in the military? The Laura-Duke hate story deserves no love.

For a detailed look at Washington’s Hollywood purges, read Victor Navasky’s 1980 National Book Award winner, Naming Names.

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THE BEYONCÉ FACTOR

Posted Feb 8 2013 by with 3 Comments

The superstar singer Beyoncé is popping up everywhere. She sang (okay, lip-synced) at President Obama’s inaugural. She starred in the halftime show at last Sunday’s Super Bowl. And she is mentioned and seen but not given thoughts or dialog—in Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist. That’s something to think about.

In an interview, Beyoncé once stated that her sexy performance character (seasoned by girlfriend-sister smiles) isn’t her. She sells an image. Like an actress who plays Lady Macbeth but who may be a tenderhearted polar opposite. Or a raunchy comedian who may be good-natured and mild-mannered offstage.

As a novelist, I get it. My characters reflect diverse aspects of human nature, not necessarily me. I’m not as greedy as Sheik Yusuf and the Ambassador in Slick! Nor as egocentric as Jesús Garcia-Vega and Adella Rozen in San Café. (Not that that’s saying all that much for me.) The Beyoncé factor—the adoption of a persona to meet specific objectives—comes into play.

Alas, Americans—as the rest of the world, because this is a human phenomenon—tend to mash up reality and fantasy. Politicians, artists, CEOs, athletes—anyone in the spotlight—profess the highest ideals then mock them by word and deed.

Mass shootings take place with horrible regularity? Let’s arm ourselves to the teeth—no weapon left behind. Abortions kill the innocent? Let’s kill people who perform them and muzzle those who counsel women to make their own decisions. Democracy’s threatened overseas? Let’s send American military forces anywhere, anytime—multiple deployments are just a fact of life—and run the table on our national budget. Congress is deadlocked? Let’s keep poor and minority Americans away from the polls. They vote for the wrong candidates.

As to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: The Army brings home from Iraq the survivors of a heroic squad. They engage in a two-week tour of the U.S. to be lauded and applauded. And raise support for the war. The tour concludes—and this constitutes the novel’s setting and time frame—at the Dallas Cowboys’ old Texas Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears.

Admiration drenches the squad like the sleet penetrating the opening in the stadium’s roof. Team officials, their guests and fans continually ask, “We’re winning, aren’t we?” But these young kids—their squad leader is twenty-two—have no strategic view. All they know is blood, death and lingering fear. They’re being sent back to Iraq.

Beyoncé’s appearance represents a cultural reference as do the Barbie Doll-style Cowboys cheerleaders—controlled sexual imagery in a repressed, evangelical milieu. Fountain peels away the Beyoncé factor from the big shots and ordinary folks surrounding his confused protagonists, unmasking the pretensions with which we seek to disguise ourselves.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is serious stuff. That’s why Pleasant utilizes satire loaded with humor. And doubtless why he includes references to Beyoncé—whoever she may be.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

THE REAL HALL OF FAMERS

Posted Sep 30 2011 by with 4 Comments

America is big on halls of fame. Walls and walks of fame, too. But we’re missing one hall, and it’s more important than all the others combined. Yet we’ll never build it—it would honor too many people and so be way too costly. But these folks should be acknowledged.

By way of explanation, I just spent a week with three friends on a road trip from Boston to Cleveland visiting several sports halls of fame. We started in Boston where we took in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. The next day we arrived at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. I loved shooting hoops on their court, and I can say scoring two on a peach basket isn’t easy. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York was terrific. We enjoyed the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canistota, New York—small but interesting. Then it was off to Cleveland for Indians’ baseball at beautiful Progressive Field, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in nearby Canton and, for good measure, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame fifteen minutes’ walk from our hotel. Fabulous!

We got a good taste of how this nation reveres athletes and rockers. And there’s nothing wrong with that—to a point. In truth, many hall inductees’ personal lives don’t measure up to their professional feats. So while gambling may keep Pete Rose out of Cooperstown and juicing steroids eliminate the entry of some home run record setters and power pitchers, abuse of other drugs and alcohol along with rap sheets generally don’t bar the door. Halls of fame don’t celebrate attaining the pinnacle of human values. But let’s not sell ourselves short.

It’s important that we also honor ordinary Americans involved with family, jobs and community while upholding the law: The Unsung Heroes Hall of Fame. And we don’t need an expensive building and handsome plaques to do it. A little acknowledgment would do it.

I saw some of those heroes on my trip. They looked like baggage handlers and flight attendants, reception clerks and housekeeping staff, ticket takers and ushers, wait staff and cashiers. These ordinary people were extraordinarily friendly, helpful and patient. They worked hard, and they cared.

I was particularly impressed by how the folks in Cleveland are trying to restore their city. Cleveland lost ten percent of its population in the last decade. Its 1940 population of 878,000 dwindled to 433,000 in 2008. Yet Cleveland not only built new baseball and football stadiums (which of course draw money from the suburbs) but also the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame designed by famed architect I.M. Pei. I saw new life in the old Warehouse District, too, with condos and apartments served by a number of really good restaurants. And the city also serves as home to the notable Cleveland Clinic.

Yes, Cleveland has a long way to go as America’s industrial heartland attempts to reinvent itself. But residents will tell you, “Cleveland rocks!” What really rocks is that they still give a damn. America’s problems are severe. There’s no way around that. But we live among millions of Hall of Famers giving it their best shot and determined to both adapt and succeed. Let’s treat each other—and this missive goes double for Washington—with the respect we all deserve.

For all of you observing Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—may 5772 bring you health, prosperity and shalom—peace.

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