Eugene Linden
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PRESIDENTS OBAMA AND PALMER


Saturday November 08, 2008

By EUGENE LINDEN If ever there was a year for a Democratic president to be elected, this was it - a war without end, imploding economy, the most unpopular incumbent in living memory, etc. --but a black Democrat? Even given the revulsion over the mess the GOP has created, it's still hard to imagine any other prominent black politician winning the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. Jesse Jackson? Charles Rangel? Maxine Waters? Obama has more in common with someone like Colin Powell than he does with Al Sharpton. Like Powell, he came up through the establishment, not the inner city. Obama never had to have a photo-op with Tawana Brawley or pay lip service to the notion of reparations for slavery, or do any of the things that might pander to resentments in the black community, but at the price of completely alienating white and Hispanic voters. Yes, he attended a church where the reverend Wright on occasion inveighed against America, but the association never stuck, possibly because the contrast between Wright's demagoguery and Obama's thoughtful style only underscored that Obama was not of that school of politics. Rather, he's a charismatic, eloquent, and highly intelligent politician who happens to have a dark skin. Still, that probably wouldn't have been sufficient to get him elected in 2000 or even 2004 (had he been old enough). Americans needed a narrative that would help prepare the public for a different skin color in the White House. There have been articles in the press about the parallels between Obama's campaign and the story line of the last season of "The West Wing" where a Hispanic candidate played by Jimmy Smits ascends to the White House. The real narrative that made the prospect of a black president plausible, however, came not from the left, but more likely from the right, from the pro-torture, militaristic, and wildly popular television series "24." In President Palmer, Americans got to see Dennis Haysbert play the role of a strong, competent, intelligent, even inspiring leader, dealing with the most dire crises that the show's paranoid, right-wing creators could dream up. President Palmer did not deal with these crises as a black president, but as a president. His advisors didn't deal with him as a black politician, but as a president. Palmer's skin color was all but irrelevant to the high-tension story line. The show took for granted that a black man could function in the land's highest office, and I suspect that this low-key, almost subliminal message was far more effective than the preachy, self-conscious stereotypes that the entertainment industry seems to prefer when dealing with racial themes for mass culture. "24" offered a template for what we might want in any president, black or white, and Barack Obama fit that template perfectly. So for millions of "24" fans, Barack Obama's candidacy had a familiar reassuring aura. It's unknowable how much that helped, but it sure didn't hurt.

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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