August 14, 1997
For a long while I resisted the revisionist assessment
of Willie Brown's mayoralty as being unfairly premature. I say that as someone
who witnessed his inconsistencies up close, while a community organizer
in the Western Addition in the late-1960s, and who carefully read the tea
leaves denoting his chameleon transformation into corporate gofer as Speaker
in the 1980s. More recently, I got swept up in the mass flutter which willingly
accorded Brown the benefit of the doubt, awaiting his reentrenchment as
the urban-arriviste who still bore the imprint of the deprivations of Mineola,Texas,
however much he may have shaken off the dust.
The pounding upon Brown by an early contrarian like KGO's Ray Talliaferro I ascribed to Taliaferro's legendary enmity toward Brown, attributing invectives like "screwball" and "little idiot" to the mulch of late-night talk radio, where vituperation without an added edge means a loss of ratings.
The rest of us ought not mince words any longer, either. What we have in the present mayor of this city is someone apparently incapable of grasping the direction in which cities must proceed --- a rather fatal flaw in one who is acclaimed nationally as an urban Vishnu --- and specifically inept in understanding his own city and advancing its showcase reputation for the benefit of the country's other municipalities. But at the risk of being charged obscurant, I'll say it another way: Willie Brown doesn't have it, possibly he never did have it, and it's almost a certainty he never will. If the man's latest confluence of utterances, proclamations and artful management hasn't yet convinced you of that --- and I'm speaking merely of the past two weeks --- I suspect your conversion will not be long off.
One has to strain to be civil reacting to Brown's failure to respond to Ed Moose and other restaurateurs who offered to help save Fresh Start Farms' urban garden project and the jobs of the dozen homeless workers who have grown top quality produce for those restaurants for more than two years. Fresh Start paid its people $8 to $10 an hour and had sales of more than $100,000 last year, but found itself $50,000 in debt, a consequence, Moose believes, of the group's pricing its products too low (funny how the poor are so generous). Each of the restaurants was prepared to contribute to keep the program alive, and sought complementary city input. The courtesy of a response from City Hall would at least have been in keeping with neoliberalism's newest up-by-your-bootstraps advocacy, though in an odd way Brown's delinquency better expressed the New Democrat credo: have the decency not to die on our streets, you people.
What was it, $3 million spent on the June Conference of Mayors? Where our urban maestro halfstepped around in a tempest of fly jiviness and said nothing remotely pertinent about city issues. And how much is being spent on the Office of Protocol, or whatever it's called? It's $125,000 million, isn't it, to tear down the Transbay Terminal and replace it with a smaller, less efficient terminal no one wants, which will require commuters to walk further to get to their offices? (Brown's vetoing of Caltrain's downtown extension was phase one of this brilliant exercise in sustainable urbanism.) The social types with whom Brown publicly dines and consumes designer vegetables formerly grown on what were once rubble-strewn vacant lots --- are they concerned that their tax breaks from the congressional budget agreement might not cover the cost of that third sports utility vehicle? One last strained question, to close our segment in rhetorical politesse: Might it just be advisable to brand as contemptible leadership which lets a venture like Fresh Start go by the boards without lifting a dialing finger?
Brown has frankly stated that he intends to "cover every inch of the ground that isn't open space" in the city, which should more than adequately have confirmed our suspicions about his pro-development servility. His firing of Landmarks Preservation Board President Denise La Pointe now leaves no doubt. Brown's attempts to "clarify" the role of the Landmarks Board in response to LaPointe's refusal to truckle to the Planning Department over a raft of ill-considered proposals is in keeping with his singular ham-fistedness. He then chose Alicia Becerril, an attorney whose clients include the Redevelopment Agency, to replace LaPointe. Official impudence and cronyism of this sort are of course components of the swagger Brown is proud to exhibit to the public. (I dunno, but do you find it of interest that there are six portraits of this guy hanging in the mayoral environs?) There are other terms for this atmosphere of authority and manner of policymaking, and perhaps you already have one in mind (six letters, begins with a t; no, not tin god, that's two words).
A supine Board of Supervisors and a press corps still swaddled in kid gloves has facilitated Brown's self-ordained mandate (and, yeah, Moose and his pals should at least have mounted some token protest; the bicyclists plainly linked their own situation to Brown's blatant abandonment of mass transit concerns, revitalizing that quaint effrontery known as democracy). The ballot victory of the Hunters Point Mall has obviously emboldened Brown. As a manifestation of generic urbanism, it's a masterpiece of globalism's bent toward a single citizenship of consumption: poor kids (of color, need we add?) earning minimum wage, marginalized even further to the city's outer edges, selling chain-store trinketry and pop culture ideals. The erosion of intimacy, connection and community in privatized cities is a breeding ground for the mini-Versailles pols like Brown erect in homage to themselves. It shouldn't be surprising that Brown feels quite at home in this welter of spatial and esthetic obliteration; he is trained, after all, as a real estate lawyer, a fact probably insufficient to have sounded a tocsin about his eventual corporate submersion, but ample for future observation. More discernible was his expressed contempt for the poor in recent years, and certainly his sullen rebuff of city workfare recipients' efforts to unionize for pay equity last month was revelatory. In effect, what we seem to have in Brown is a Colin Powell, with none of the charm, and even less of the social conscience. (I would have said Colin Powell-in-whiteface, but that might unfairly muddle the mayor's identity, and be dismissed as the type of name-calling practiced by his sworn enemies like Mr. Taliaferro.)
* * *
And now for something genuine.
I wouldn't be surprised if, every night at bedtime, Buddy Guy got down on his knees and prayed he'd wake up as Luther Allison. That's how good Allison was. There have been but a few vocalists in modern blues and rock who could clamber inside a song and utterly own it, and he was decidedly among them. Technically you could hear echoes of B.B. King, Clapton, Stevie Ray and Ry Cooder in his guitar play, but he alternately fused and transformed those techniques into a spiny and fertile sound exquisitely his own.
He played Chicago-style, hard, raw and fully, and he knew what a city was.
In the narrative where our lives are played out,
we inhabit several parallel worlds. It's all done with mirrors, refracted
images of everyday reality cast large against a familiar landscape.
A little girl, groomed for beauty princess crowns, is discovered brutally murdered in her own basement. Discovered brutally murdered, in a white shirt with a sequin star on the front. Discovered brutally murdered, with a red-ink heart on the palm of her hand. With the release of each new detail over a period of eight months, she is murdered again, like the fond fantasy of a kiss, repeated over and over for the emotional release that comes with each meeting of the lips.
A woman jogging in an urban college setting is assaulted by a dark man in a ski mask. A woman walking her dog along a heavily traveled woodland trail is grabbed from behind and assaulted by a dark man in a ski mask. A woman crossing a crowded state university campus is dragged down a ravine and assaulted by a dark man in a ski mask. In every new report each woman is raped again, the thrilling rehearsal of all previous incidents heightening the implacable horror of the latest.
A dark-haired woman sits emotionless before a large wooden table. The TV camera tenderly traces her thin, tired face as a social worker, another tired-faced woman, discusses her future. Quick cut. A squad of exuberant men appear on the Capitol steps, shoulderpad to shoulderpad. Sound bite completed, they break formation. High fives prevail.
In this parallel world, Washington reeks of testosterone, like a high school locker-room. Snickers of successful seductions reaffirm can-do reputations. The formerly private --- a tiger-inscribed rump; other well-hung, easily identifiable meat --- has become a mere initiation fee to an exclusive club. But much of the collective snorting and pawing of the earth that goes on there is wasted. When manhood wants proving, the bedroom is a poor second to a battlefield.
Here Hollywood, the supreme manipulator of mirror magic, rushes to the rescue, with wars to suit all political predilections. A man can test his valor against Middle Eastern insurgents, if he likes, or the IRA, or giant space bugs. Or in the company of other would-be warriors, he can participate in the supreme trial by ordeal, a fight-to-the-finish between the President of the United States and fanatical freedom fighters from Kazakhstan aboard Air Force One.
* * *
I did. Let me take you inside the contours of my head and show you the distorted images projected there.
Like the President's plane, the theater showing the film was a male arena. I instinctively slouched guy-style in my seat --- feet planted flat and wide apart, head thrown back, hands hanging loosely from the armrests --- hoping that body language would aid comprehension. But to no avail. The heroics depicted on the screen far exceeded my amateurish attempts at imitative flattery. Nor did the camera do justice to their deeds. These modern knights, wearing suits instead of medieval armor and seeking the new grail of support for the status quo, needed the Riefenstahl touch. (Poor Leni, whose eternal shame is not that her films gave unwitting assistance to the Nazi cause but that she, an independent and creative woman, could be used by the Nazis for their own self-aggrandizement.)
The dilemma posed by the film is classic: how does an honorable man choose between mundane personal loyalties and duty to a higher abstract principle? Agonizing in its empathic power, this dramatic device can valuably promote ideological purposes, as the Japanese government of the late-nineteenth century acknowledged when it conscripted playwrights and acting companies into its service. The result: weeping audiences watched in understanding anguish as, one after another in play after play, a larger-than-life hero from the past killed his own son to save the child of his lord; drying their tears, theatergoers vowed to offer an equal sacrifice for the sake of their born-again nation.
Less neat but more attuned to multiple markets, Air Force One waffles. Only the have-it-all ending can explain Limbaughland's characterization of the film --- which in fact espouses no political position beyond a Kristol-clear commitment to policing the world --- as part of the Clinton liberal agenda. Nevertheless, the implication is that real men don't eat crow, even to save their family. In a Cabinet-level constitutional debate to decide whether the Vice President should take charge as Acting President, the clinching argument holds that the incapacity of the commander-in-chief is obvious: he has abandoned his official role and is behaving as a husband and father.
Old themes, new trappings. Unlike the war flicks of the 1940s, this one is full of chicks. I tended to identify with them, providing yet another prism for their already diffracted images to pass through. There are only five of them. Pause the flailing fists and flying bullets for a moment, and take the time to meet them.
The Wife appears first in her public guise, as sexless as a Sicilian grandmother, her hair pulled back in an ice-maiden French roll, dressed in funeral black (to attend the ballet?). Once within the haven of her husband's airplane, she literally lets her hair down and slips into something more comfortable. She's a quiet one, saying almost nothing but smiling supportively or reassuringly, as the situation requires.
The Daughter enters stage right, mugging for the press. Still young, she is allotted more lines than her mother, notably a feisty speech to the head hijacker and a role-reversing word of encouragement to her father as he tries frantically to fly his large plane. She's her daddy's little girl, complaining to him with great seriousness about being excluded from a visit to a refugee camp. In response, he rather sweetly confesses --- as fathers often do when their daughters ask for equal opportunities or equal rights --- that he was trying to shelter her from the world's unpleasantness.
The Chubby Little Office Worker, perhaps in a symbolic nod to female communication skills, operates the fax machine at a crucial moment. An African American, she is the adoring mammy who keeps the 1990s plantation running smoothly. We last see her in midair, feet dangling, properly rewarded for faithful service, as she parachutes to safety.
Even more embarrassing is the Young Career Woman, a kittenish press secretary who diffidently ushers the disguised hijackers into the president's entourage. Singled out for execution, the captors jam a pistol into her throat and mock her niceness. She falls apart, filling her final minutes with feeble whimpers. In contrast, the National Security Advisor, a suit, is awarded a proper soldier's death, quick and clean.
But the greatest ignominy is reserved for the Vice President. Square-jawed, wearing a severe gray suit, her stoic reserve remains unshaken despite the ad feminam taunts of the hijackers and the dismissive power plays of her colleagues. To her is given the most highly charged moment of the film when, hearing of the President's deliverance, she picks up the sheet of paper that would have made her Acting President and tears it to shreds. Her relief is almost palpable: the real man is back where he belongs.
In this parallel world, illumined by reflections from thousands of defective mirrors, women exist to be attacked or protected by the men around them, thereby in either case reinforcing male superiority and their own inferiority. It's time to smash the mirrors and replace them with clear glass. In the coming millennium, white men are going to need all the help they can get. And I, for one, have my hammer ready.