DECEMBER 4, 2002: Following the Lileks case again, through a new phase of illness.
Sigh. Duty forces me once again to parse the Bleats of James Lileks. As I have often noted, he is a writer of great skill and, when the spirit moves him, warmth, wit, and charm. But his war writing is appalling and often, it grieves me to say, quite mad. And he has been of late on a very bad patch.
On Monday, Dec 2, prompted by "a depressing piece in the Weekly Standard about anti-American sentiment in Europe," Lileks wonders, "How long until America is hit by European terrorists?" A modest joke; let it pass. But not so fast -- Jimbo has many speculative grafs to go before he sleeps.
After 194 words of set-up (Stupid Europeans! They hate Jews! That hate McDonald's!), Lileks asks, "What would be the European response" to (I shit you not) a French terrorist attack on New York?
Back up, Jimbo, one finds oneself saying, we get the gag; leave it be, return to home base, play with Gnat, regale us again with stories of underprepared salespeople! But one might as well be shouting into the corn-scented prairie wind.
Then ensue 352 words entailing an elaborate fantasy denouement of Continental betrayal ("Sincere Regrets, of course... But we'd hear the same vicious pleasure the European left-wing press spit out in the months after 9/11"), American liberal-media fecklessness (they will "murmur encouragement to carry on the struggle to reform America without giving credence to the acts of the Bove Brigade"), and, finally, a majestic swipe of disdain for accursed, duplicitous Europe from the American Eagle: "Should their bacon need saving -- bacon from pigs fed only non-GM feed, hand-trimmed by butchers to EU specs -- then the American response would probably be a short bark of humorless amusement: as if."
But Jimbo, one might reason: America, as represented by you and your colleagues, feels that way about Europe already, without the imaginary exigency of an physical French attack. Why then invent such an involved, ludicrous backstory to justify it?
In reply, all one may expect is a short bark of humorless amusement -- and perhaps (if we may engage in a brief Lileksism) the author's finger placed solidly against his own skull, and the words: because it's there.
The following Wednesday, news that Russians may have shovel-passed some smallpox to Al Qaeda (linked to ABC, but attributed to Matt Drudge) provokes a new scenario: the case of the nervous New Yorkers.
"If we do face a smallpox outbreak after we attack Iraq" -- whoa, never mind as if; how about "very BIG if" -- then all kinds of yapping will ensue: from "Women Against Military Madness," Indymedia, the Village Voice. Count on them to blame America first -- but Lileks, prescient soul, blames New York media firster:
"I don't need Maureen Dowd freaking out. I don't need New York-based columnists and reporters hauling out the anthrax template and sounding as though they are soiling their drawers as they report the stories. They've prospered for years by magnifying small events into national significance..."
One gasps: Is this the same James Lileks who dreamt aloud of New York's devastation, who indeed dreamt of his daughter's murder and his own smallpox infection, telling us now that he doesn't need Maureen Dowd freaking out?
"If there's a riot at a Manhattan inoculation center, report it," barks Lileks. "But if the vast majority of the country is queuing calmly in school gyms and armories, baring an arm, cracking nervous jokes, expressing fears with the brittle laughter you find in the Midwest when people are hard up against it, tell that story, and tell it often."
Notice the new Lileks reality. While we New Yorkers were pulling ourselves up out of chaos and getting back to work, he was painting Technicolor holocausts on a daily basis. But suddenly the sod-buster laughs in the face of danger -- and it is the effete urbanites who blanch!
Here follow 276 words of advice to Big Media ("Filter, distill, report. And spare us the fellow from the Economic Institute of Economic Economists... forget your training. It has no use here. Talk to us"), and a coda of (to longtime followers) breathtaking implications:
"It's interesting how a year ago the very notion of smallpox made my bowels loosen; now I'm thinking about the proper approach the media should take. It's going to be an interesting Christmas."
Hear that, America? Before, Lileks was (he is man enough to admit) a mite scared; but now it is Maureen Dowd and her liberal brethren that quake and gibber, at least in the fortress of his imagination. So don't you worry about James Lileks. He's doing just fine.