The Breakfast Table

The Difference Between Cynicism and Realism

Sitting in Venice—not Venice-Venice, but the California one—and reading you rant against cigarette boats, the Monday morning garbage truck was passing at that very moment, and I was thinking about my clatter and your clatter, and it struck me—it really did—that the world is becoming more and more familiar and less and less knowable. I say this as someone who, like you, has spent time flying to far-flung places reporting on catastrophe, rage, massive unhappiness. Personally, I wouldn’t spend a quarter-mil on a boat like that; then again, as a smirking and self-important New Yorker, I never ever thought I’d live in California, no less Los Angeles—a place I despised the first time I visited. But here I am. Frankly, we all do a lot of stuff to extend our “penises” (and I’m not just talking about males). The noise is rotten, true. But Martha Stewart saves her own neck by dumping stock; George W. Bush doesn’t think much about how disconnected and dumb he might look fishing off a boat off Kennebunkport—why does any of this stuff surprise us any more? The latest CEO scandals are breathtaking, true, but they also read to me like Mad Lib inserts. The corruptions and crimes will be always the same—Shakespeare anyone? Josephus? The Bible?—and the only things that change are the name, rank, and serial number of the sucker of the moment. (None of us thinks we’ll get caught at anything.) I think, by the way (I’m anticipating your rebuttal), that there is a difference between cynicism and realism—though, yes, it’s blurry, and I’m still trying to hold it steady.

But, Michael, there is more to why the world hates us than the growling of cigarette boats. To begin with, it doesn’t. I remember having this conversation with you last November by satellite phone, while you were cold and hungry in northern Afghanistan and I was, well, eating kind of well (but still unhappy) in Islamabad, Pakistan. I had just interviewed a Taliban cleric who patiently, even benevolently, informed me that the architects of the  9/11 hijackings had merely been watching disaster movies made in L.A., that no one in his right mind in his part of the world could have come up with that on his own. But it was this—his comments were peppered with adoring references to movies and even individual actors in a way that made it obvious that while ranting to seething crowds by day he was renting Die Hard by night. He didn’t hate us. I don’t know exactly what he felt, but whatever it was he wanted more. (By the way, Musharraf had him arrested the next day.)

Something to consider—and consider hard—is America’s refusal to play ball over the International Criminal Court with every other nation on earth. I actually do get Washington’s complaint—that as the biggest dog on the block it will become the target for the equivalent of frivolous legal action by the likes of Saddam Hussein—and I also get the rest of the world’s. Stick an entire nation on a shrink’s couch and you’re likely to hear a lot of the same motivations for “acting out” as you would on Therapist’s Alley on the Upper West Side. But where America fails miserably—even criminally—is in the Cool Hand Luke “failure to communicate” department. And I’m not talking dropping leaflets (or peanut butter packets) in Tora Bora. I’m talking about simple things like keeping your word (Afghanistan) and not doing the incomprehensible (spending millions and millions of dollars protecting the oil pipelines in Colombia while others, well, starve while ducking gunfire).

But the thing that got me scratching my head over the weekend was the Monty Python-esque sight of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi sitting among the founding members of the new African Union, a thing that is constructed to stand for democracy and economic purity. Not too dissimilar, I thought, from our own president preaching corporate chastity to Wall Street one moment and defending his own corporate (shall we say) indiscretions the next. I’m not exactly sure which glass house I live in yet (I know I can’t afford W.’s), but we all of us (and I mean all of us) seem to live in them. (And still—and necessarily—the ground is littered with stones.)

But you’re also a screenwriter and journalist who has written about war, real and imagined, and human agony, real and imagined. I was just in Rwanda reporting something horrific beyond imagination and simultaneously writing a film script for a major star and studio, and the juxtaposition, the Hollywoodization of the misery in front of me, and my own life, was surreal, thrilling, troubling. What say you on this?