Wednesday, January 03, 2007


A review by Frank Campbell of "American Vertigo: On the Road From Newport to Guantanamo" By Bernard-Henri Levy

I couldn't put this book down. I wanted to, desperately. But reviewers must do their duty. I'd picked it up with some enthusiasm. Bernard-Henri Levy, the French celebrity philosopher, is a household set of initials at home if not well-known abroad. A self-proclaimed atheist and "non- totalitarian" leftist, he appealed to me instantly. So did the project, no matter that every decade or so a Frenchman tries to interpret the US.

The idea was simple. The Atlantic Monthly sponsored a year-long road tour of the US in "the footsteps of Tocqueville". In 1831, aged 25, Alexis de Tocqueville toured the country, producing the seminal Democracy in America, still a revered text in the US. Alas BHL, as he's known in France, is no Tocqueville. Instead of insightful political sociology, we get the raucous rave of a conceited cockerel.

Repetitive, prolix and declamatory, he peppers every observation with endless questions like a hyperactive child. Sentences are often 10 or 20 lines long, each covered with a pox of commas. Just following the chaotic narrative is exhausting. "Are we nearly there yet?" I whined. I lay back and thought of Churchill. Levy is an opacity wrapped in an ego inside a Lincoln convertible.

But BHL knew he could cut through the cocoon and unravel the American enigma. A continent of 300 million, fissured by regions and groups, cultures and races? No problem. "I have my own radar. I have my personal instrument panel on which ... the signs that indicate the best and the worst begin to flash." Why, then, was my bullsh*t detector going off the scale?

His flashes of inspiration include the following: America is obese; LA has no centre; the prisons are awful; health insurance is a worry; the country is segregated into exclusive groups; guns are out of control and so is Creationism; malls are temples of hyperconsumption; churches are like the banks and banks are like churches; there are too many historical theme parks; and he loves Savannah to bits. Cliche after cliche. Which wouldn't matter if he had a new take on it all. Each brief random topic or encounter is a signal for a crescendo of rhetorical silliness. On Los Angeles: "An unintelligible city is a city whose historicity is nothing more than an eternal atonement. And a posthistorical city is a city, I fear, about which one can predict, with some certainty, that it will die."

Forget the earthquake: LA is doomed because it lacks a "historical neighbourhood". Not as doomed as the Kennedvs though. The Kennedys are "the brothers in fate of Oedipus. Achilles, Theseus, Narcissus. Prometheus. They are the tragic 'lining of a nation that thought it could do without tragedy. They are America's Greeks." No mention of Onassis, the god of yachts.

BHL found New Orleans memorable: 21 times in three pages he tells us "I'll remember ..." He's going to remember the jazz, the slowness, the languid tropic air, A Streetcar Named Desire, the exotic mixture of people, the ghostly swamps, the interesting fact that it's below sea level: just about everything listed in the motel brochure. American Vertigo may sound like an anti- American diatribe. Not at all. Levy has his cake and eats every crumb.

The "dumb, silent, infantile southerner" isn't so bad after all, BHL assures us, just as we fearfully crossed Dixie off our itinerary. His magic pudding device works every time. "Unsavory anti-Americanism" is a curse he, BHL, has devoted years to eliminating. How wrong Europeans are to belittle this optimistic, courageous, dynamic country. It has faults, yes, but what country hasn't?

Pure sophistry. On the one hand the message is that America is fat, paranoid, greedy and brutal. On the other hand, maybe it isn't really. Well, which is it? Cornered by his own contradictions, our logician escapes to the next topic with a wave of his favourite word: paradox. "This magnificent, mad country, laboratory of the best and worst, greedy and modest ... puritan and outrageous" and so on.

By simply opposing stereotypes and failing to reconcile or reject them, Levy wastes everyone's time. Finally, with surpassing fatuity, he summarises American society: "A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high - extremely high - symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one." It had to happen. Poof! The supple logician M. Levy disappears up his own conclusion.

So what was it all in aid of, this chauffeured drive around the US? (BHL can't drive.) What use were the "vigilant assistants"? Dropping in on a few celebrities and functionaries, rarely talking to ordinary people and never listening to anyone, Levy checked out the predictable tourist attractions (Mt Rushmore, Randolph Hearst's castle), peeped into a brothel, visited Las Vegas and the Mall of America, and sampled the Amish. Perhaps typical America was just too dull to examine. Maybe Main Street and suburbia were short on paradox. Or was it all just a marketing exercise, turning a national treasure into an international treasure, literally and figuratively?

BHL, he of the exposed chest and bouffant hairdo, could in theory be the darling of the US chattering classes. He's French (don't worry, we're all surrender monkeys now), gorgeous to matrons (a decade ago he'd have a Gauloise stuck to his lower lip, but even logicians have to move with the times), and he lavishes praise on the US while castigating fat and other bad guys.

Well, The New York Times was having none of it. It sooled that retailer of small-town hokey, Garrison "the Grocer" Keillor, on to the French poseur. Keillor, bard of the flyovers, chainsawed him until only the roof of his hairdo was left. They found the poor chap's severed paradox later, a block away. Enraged, BHL's mate Christopher Hitchens threw his scotch over the Grocer (so you knew he was serious). Where will it all end? Is this evidence of intelligent design? Does it matter? Am I starting to sound like BHL?

The above article appeared in "The Australian" on December 30, 2006

Out of the shadows, the Big Love women who want the right to share a husband

Mormon wives are coming forward for the first time to defend their plural marriages and help to root out the abuse of young girls

Dressed in her sharp pinstripe suit, her dark brown hair elegantly coiffed, Vicky looks every inch the archetypal young working woman after a day at the office. But there are things she does not talk about at work. Things such as the house she grew up in with her 39 brothers and sisters. Things such as the 21 children, six of them her own, who run around the house she lives in now. Things such as the two other “sisterwives,” one of them her blood sister, with whom she she shares her husband, taking turns to spend the night with him in strict rotation. “It’s not a thing we generally publicise,” she says shyly.

Now, however, Vicky is going public, although she declines to use her last name. As high-profile cases of child sex abuse among secretive cults unsettle and anger the larger polygamist community, women like Vicky are stepping forward to lobby in defence of a woman’s right to be a plural wife without fear of prosecution. “We live good and decent lives,” she said.

Going public on polygamy has long been a risky business in Utah, where an estimated 40,000 polygamists live below the legal radar. For the past 50 years Utah has had a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards the practice, a felony punishable by up to five years in jail. The policy was prompted by a raid in 1953 on a polygamist community that ended with hundreds of children taken into care and parents jailed, causing a public relations disaster.

Some groups retreated into compounds. Those living among the wider community kept their mouths shut and their heads down. Parents avoided taking their children to the dentist or doctor, fearing the discovery of their secret. Children were warned not to bring friends home from school – if they were allowed to go.

Murmurs persisted of dark acts among some of the many splinter groups of Mormon fundamentalists, the umbrella term for those who broke away from the main Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints over the practice 100 years ago.

Then in 2003, in a direct challenge to prosecutors, Tom Green, a polygamist, began appearing on television shows to argue his right to his five wives.

“I’d never really thought about prosecuting polygamy,” said Mark Shurtleff, a mainstream Mormon who had been elected Utah attorney general the year before. “But it’s a felony and he’s out there flaunting it.” Investigators discovered worse: Mr Green’s youngest bride was only 13 and had borne him a child – proof of a sexual relationship. Mr Green was charged with child rape and polygamy.

The case opened up a Pandora’s box for Mr Shurtleff. Emboldened, escapees from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the closed cult led by Warren Jeffs, came to tell their stories. “The stories were horrendous,” he said. Carolyn Jessop, who escaped with her eight children, told him of forced child marriages, the abuse of young boys and girls and threats to slit their throats if they left.

“Here’s what I had to decide,” Mr Shurtleff explains. “We had to do something. How are we supposed to prosecute all the polygamists, 20,000 people? It can’t be done. So we decided ‘We’ll go after child rape, child sexual assault. We’ll make it about that, not religion’.”

A warrant was issued for Mr Jeffs’s arrest on charges of aiding child rape instead of polygamy. He went on the run but was recaptured in August. The shocking testimony of a former child bride at a hearing earlier this month convinced a judge to send Mr Jeffs to trial. The hearing is set to begin in April. The stories of Mr Jeffs’s church horrified many other polygamists who regarded his actions as an abuse of God’s law. To them polygamy is a religious duty that they must undertake to reach the highest level of heaven.

Anne Wilde, the widow of a high-profile polygamist, decided it was time to save the reputation of the community as a whole. She began collecting the oral histories of plural wives to publish in a book and created a website for her organisation, Principle Voices. She launched a pro-polygamy magazine, Mormon Focus, and recruited Vicky to pose with her two sisterwives and their babies for the inaugural cover, taking lessons from same-sex marriage advocates to argue their right to an “alternative lifestyle”.“It was also easier for me because I was no longer a plural wife,” Ms Wilde explains. “For those others, it was a brave thing to do.”



A reader writes:

"I know that your information came from mainstream media, but one item keeps getting mentioned in news sources that is patently untrue: "For the past 50 years Utah has had a strict 'don't ask, don't tell' policy towards the practice, a felony punishable by up to five years in jail."

While polygamy is illegal, these so-called "fundamentalists" can't be prosecuted for violating the law against polygamy because they haven't violated it. In order for the state to prosecute someone for "polygamy" they have to demonstrate that the person has entered into more than one legal marriage. These people only legally marry one individual -- their extra "wives" are people they cohabit with but aren't married to. If the government starts prosecuting these people for living together, it wouldn't pass a constitutional challenge because they're not the only people living together without the benefit of marriage. Selective enforcement of laws against fornication and adultery would simply target one sector of the population on religious grounds.

That's why Utah prosecutes these people for welfare fraud and child sexual abuse. The laws can be consistently applied to all of the population. Interestingly, when the US government tried to eradicate Mormon polygamy, they faced the same problem. They weren't willing to acknowledge plural marriages legally, so they enacted legislation for "unlawful cohabitation." The statutes were written so that if a man had sex with someone other than his wife, he could only be prosecuted if he counted her as a wife. He could evade prosecution if he was willing to consider his plural wives as mistresses or prostitutes, but not wives. That's how the US congress got around prosecuting Mormons while at the same time establishing a prostitution district within view of the US Capitol building. They weren't opposed to extra-marital sex, just extra-sexual marriage".

Poll: 85pc of Australians support English test for migrants

Public support for a citizenship test that requires a basic grasp of English has risen since the proposal was unveiled three months ago, with four out of five Australians now backing the plan. The Australian can reveal that the ability to read safety signs in the workplace will be the standard of English required to pass the language component of the Howard Government's citizenship test.

Under a proposal put forward by the Government, migrants who have lived in Australia for four years can apply for citizenship, but must sit a test on "basic aspects" of Australian society, including an English language component. Prospective citizens must also agree to defend Australia "should the need arise".

A Newspoll survey, conducted exclusively for The Australian on December 15-17, shows more than four out of five people - or 85 per cent of respondents - agree that English should be a requirement for migrants who want to become citizens. The result is an increase on the 77 per cent of Newspoll respondents who backed such a test in September, shortly after Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs Andrew Robb released a discussion paper on the issue. The support for making knowledge of the English language a requirement of citizenship was strongest outside the capital cities, where 90 per cent of respondents agreed. Older respondents were marginally more supportive, with 86 per cent of respondents older than 50 backing the plan, compared with 82per cent aged 18 to 34. Support for the proposal was strongest among Coalition voters, at 93 per cent, compared with 79per cent of Labor voters. Overall, only one in eight respondents, or 12 per cent, were against the proposal. Almost two-thirds of respondents - or 64 per cent - were strongly in favour of the proposal.

Mr Robb welcomed the Newspoll figures yesterday. He said setting the test's standard of English at a level where candidates could read safety signs at work was reasonable. Opposition citizenship spokesman Tony Burke said Labor supported the standard adopted for the test. He said he was not concerned by the lower level of support for the English requirement among Labor voters. "Seventy-nine per cent is still an overwhelming majority," Mr Burke said. "The Australian community knows how important speaking English is to successful integration."

But the proposal has many opponents, including former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser and former governor-general William Deane. Their criticisms include concerns the test could exclude migrants who would make a contribution and that it stigmatises ethnic and religious groups. John Howard will move to formalise the proposal this year, but faces party opposition


Australia: An ostrich policy towards refugees

Cabinet documents from 1976 reveal then prime minister Malcolm Fraser ignored warnings about accepting Lebanese Muslim refugees deemed unlikely to have the qualities required for successful integration.

He was not the only PM to ignore such warnings. Paul Keating went against the advice of immigration minister Chris Hurford and over-ruled warnings from intelligence agencies to accommodate a request for permanent status for the controversial Sheik Taj el-Dene Elhilaly.

According to the Cabinet documents released yesterday, the Fraser cabinet was told that many of the Lebanese Muslim refugees were unskilled, illiterate and of questionable character. Those shortcomings are still reflected by a number of members of the community which has gathered around Hilaly at the Lakemba mosque and are highlighted by the statistics on employment and welfare and in the crime rates.

History has shown Fraser, who stood by as Indonesia consumed East Timor, to have been a rather hollow man.... Faced with the reality that the temporary relaxation of immigration standards opened the doors to a number of undesirables, he told The Australian he rejected such a conclusion and disingenuously blamed more recent governments for alienating modern Muslim youth by failing to help them integrate.

It might seem a no-brainer to suggest that Australia should only accept refugees willing to make an effort to integrate - that is surely what was needed then, and now. Most refugees are more than grateful to the nations which offer them shelter. For whatever reason, significant numbers of Lebanese Muslims feel they are entitled not to join the wider community while accepting the hospitality of those whose taxes funded their flights to safety. Prime Minister John Howard has recognised the problem, saying: "I do think there is this particular complication because there is a fragment which is utterly antagonistic to our kind of society and that is a difficulty."

However, in response to direct pleas from the UN High Commission for Refugees, Australia is now receiving members of another group who are showing a reluctance to integrate - from war-torn Somalia and the Sudan. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph last Friday, Mr Howard acknowledged that things were "hard" for African refugees because "the cultural differences are great". That's all well and good and, while most refugees acknowledge that they have some responsibilities and obligations to the nations which provide them with asylum, Australians have also learnt from tragic experience that there are some who don't feel any obligation to respect the culture and traditions of their hosts.

There is also an unhealthy fifth column in academia and legal circles which argues against Australian customs in favour of cultural statements antagonistic to our Anglo-European heritage. Thus we have seen it argued in our courts that young Muslim men are culturally averse to the equality of women. More recently, West Australian magistrate Colin Roberts was faced with an 18-year-old Sudanese man who police allegedly caught lighting fires. It was suggested to the magistrate that the alleged offender may be suffering a mental condition and he was remanded in custody.

Rightly so. But the previous week, The Australian reported that young African refugees may have become habituated to violence because of their experiences at home, and might find it difficult to accept that carrying weapons is unacceptable in Australia. True, but as we have seen from the violence wreaked by members of a minority within the Lebanese Muslim community, we have imported such problems in the past. What are we doing to ensure that we are not importing similar problems for the future? We should not have to wait another 30 years to set this matter right.


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