Jewish World Review March 26, 2003/ 22 Adar II 5763


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Consumer Reports

Fancy Turns to War: Pass the bong, comrade | Early last Saturday morning, before most businesses opened, I walked along Duane St. in Tribeca to the City Hall Kinko's. Except for a panhandler or two, no one else was in view, but while hoofing the five blocks east, there was an uplifting sight. Every third storefront, it seemed, featured an American flag in its window. Several months after 9/11, the dizzying array of patriotic displays downtown gradually faded, save in the immediate vicinity of ground zero. It was a welcome reminder that not everyone in New York whose City Council shamefully passed an anti-war resolution was in lockstep with the academic and arts communities, not to mention most of the media.

Just three hours later, outside a nearby deli I saw five tourists, one of whom was taking a photo of her companions, including two children. Apparently they were in town for the afternoon march that wound up at Washington Square Park, and were filling backpacks with provisions. I nearly choked on my coffee when the woman directed the four subjects to look straight ahead and say, "I hate Bush" instead of "cheese." It didn't surprise me one bit when one of the chubby adults muttered, "I think I overdid it on the foie gras and wine last night. Anyway, we'd better get on the subway if we don't want to be late."

There's a spooky feeling in Manhattan this spring, an irreconcilable riot of opinions about war, Saddam Hussein, President Bush, television's hyperactive coverage of the "shock and awe" offensive in Iraq and the presence of cops and national guardsmen at potential terrorist sites. On the one hand, I don't need to hear the word "embedded" ever again; on the other, it's about time Manhattan has visible protection at the tunnels, bridges and train stations.

Along with my three brothers, sons, a nephew, niece and sister-in-law, I was at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, watching the Knicks come from behind to defeat the Detroit Pistons 97-93. A military band played the national anthem before the game, and at least half the spectators put hand to heart as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was mournfully performed. Across the court, I could see Spike Lee seated with Alec Baldwin in the first row, and Mayor Mike about 50 feet away from that unholy pair.

It's not hard to imagine what the trio was thinking. Lee was probably upset that the few moments of overt patriotism was delaying the game; Baldwin was no doubt daydreaming about the Oscars and whether he'll ever be up for an award at that annual orgy of celebrity worship.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, who looked distracted even as Latrell Sprewell saved the Knicks from further disappointment, had to be going over reams of figures in his head. How many companies announced plans to leave New York today? What was the level of bankruptcies compared to a year ago? Could he get away with passing more penurious taxes on a citizenry already far too strapped by government confiscation of wealth? What kind of support could he expect in, say, Brooklyn, in the 2005 mayoral election? And was this job worth all the aggravation?

In Saturday's Times, Jennifer Steinhauer wrote an article trying to explain how Bloomberg, "who generally prefers a low profile to omnipresence," was setting an example for New Yorkers who are understandably apprehensive about another terrorist attack. I don't give any credence to the antiwar diplomats who insist that the U.S.-British assault on Baghdad has made such an occurrence far more likely; anyone with an ounce of intelligence has been on low-level alert since the Trade Center collapsed and crumbled. Although Mayor Mike ended his day at the Garden, earlier he rode the R and N trains, got his shoes shined, wandered around the theater district. Steinhauer didn't note that he was sitting courtside at the Knicks game, which isn't quite congruent with his pose as a straphanger.

We had a lunch date with my brother and his 11-year-old at Mickey Mantle's sports bar - awful food, excellent memorabilia hanging on the walls - at one p.m. on Saturday. It was lucky we hailed a cab at noon to ride up to Central Park South, for the traffic was at a standstill because of the protest hoopla. Along the way, on 8th Ave., we saw hundreds of participants walking to Times Square, some dressed in silly costumes and carrying signs like "Impeach Bush," "Regime change in Washington" and the ubiquitous "No blood for oil." Not a single banner questioned France's Jacques Chirac's oil deals with Iraq, not to mention Vladimir Putin's, but thinking beyond getting revenge for Al Gore's defeat is a tall order for irrational juveniles. There were a few graybeards in the crowd, but most were youths taking advantage of an unseasonably warm afternoon and the opportunity to simultaneously shout trite slogans and participate in a moving block party.

But don't take my word for it. Salon's Michelle Goldberg, no protege of Paul Wolfowitz, wrote an account of the 150,000-people throng that was headlined, "Why are these people smiling?" Goldberg's despondent dispatch began: "Saturday's peace protest in Manhattan was so jubilant, you'd never know there was a war going on... [W]hile recent protests abroad have been marked by militancy - with people throwing stones, fake blood and, in Athens, Molotov cocktails at American embassies [neat!] - the march in New York was overwhelmingly peaceful and strangely cheery. For all the rhetoric of atrocity, it felt like a street party."

Goldberg must've left the hoedown before nearly 100 people were arrested and a dozen cops were injured, but why quibble when there's a movement at stake, especially one that's having zero effect on the administration's policy? She was contemplative in the article, far less hysterical than the usual pap that Salon, along with publications like the Nation, usually runs. Goldberg asked several people about the contradiction of Iraqis greeting soldiers with joy in Safwan, but most insisted it was the American media that staged such footage.

My favorite anecdote gathered came from Erika Bernabei, a 22-year-old nonprofit worker who chanted "We're queer! We're cute! We're antiwar to boot!" Responding to the reports of Iraqi citizens rejoicing at the upcoming liberation from one of the world's most vicious dictators, she just didn't believe it. Bernabei said: "What I believe is that they're being complacent because they're so [darn] afraid. I have no doubt they'll smile at soldiers with huge guns. I really truly doubt the people are cheering bloodshed." I really truly doubt Bernabei has an original thought in her queer, cute head.

Most stable men and women do not like bloodshed. But has it crossed Bernabei's noggin (and the thousands of political novices like her) that perhaps, after years of torture, starvation and humiliation on the orders of Saddam, that most Iraqis might not equate Bush with Hitler?

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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