Where Are Our Courageous Reporters?

Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

The late 1960s were a bad time for the United States. We were in a fiercely unpopular war in Viet Nam. I had gotten radicalized and joined the Resistance, which not only protested the war but attempted to interfere with the draft induction process. I returned by draft card to the Selective Service System in Cleveland and told them politely what they could do with it. Running for president that year was Richard Nixon for the Republicans, with Democratic candidates to be chosen later in Chicago.

Reporting on that convention was Norman Mailer, who within a short time became like a god to me. (So he went off the rails a bit later: He was human after all.) Mailer had come out with a number of nonfiction books that I read and re-read religiously. They included:

  • Advertisements for Myself (1959)
  • The Presidential Papers (1963)
  • Cannibals and Christians (1966)
  • Armies of the Night (1968)
  • Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968)

I just finished re-reading Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which made me shake my head sadly that there was no such quality reportage during the ongoing train wreck that is Trumpf. Mailer died ten years ago, and the only other candidate—Hunter S. Thompson—blew out his brains two years earlier. There are thousands of voices raised against Trumpf, but they seem tinny in comparison to what Mailer and Thompson were capable of.

Take this prophetic quote from Mailer’s description of Nixon’s convention win in Miami:

Of course, Republicans might yet prove frightening, and were much, if not three-quarters, to blame for every ill in sight, they did not deserve the Presidency, never, and yet if democracy was the free and fair play of human forces then perhaps the Wasp must now hold the game in his direction for a time. The Left was not ready, the Left was years away from a vision sufficiently complex to give life to the land, the Left had not yet learned to talk across the rugged individualism of the more Rugged in America, the Left was still too full of kicks and pot and the freakings of sodium amytol and orgy, the howl of electronics and LSD. The Left could also find room to grow up. If the Left had to live through a species of political exile for four or eight or twelve good years [try 50!], it might even be right. They might be forced to study what was alive in the conservative dream. For certain the world could not be saved by technology or government or genetics, and much of the Left had that still to learn.

Perhaps the biggest lesson they had to learn was unity. The Left is known today as a circular firing squad, wounding itself repeatedly over minor issues and leaving the major ones to the Right.

Chicago Riot Police 1968

The conservatives of 1968 were nothing compared to the Alt-Right, the Ku Klux Lan, and the other fascist forces brought into prominence by Trumpf’s 2016 victory. I will write what I can, when I can, but I am far from being either a Mailer or a Thompson.

And in this, our time of maximum danger, the media have failed America by bowing instead to the wishes of their corporate overlords.

 

“I Hate That Kind of Guy”

Emile Griffith Kills Benny Paret in the Ring on March 24, 1962

Emile Griffith Punches the Life Out of Benny Paret in the Ring on March 24, 1962

I have just finished Norman Mailer’s essay for Esquire about the third Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston match on September 25, 1962. It was entitled “Ten Thousand Words a Minute.” As Patterson was knocked out a couple of minutes into the first round—so quickly that there was widespread disagreement about the number of punches that connected—Mailer wrote mostly about the coverage of boxing by the press and other matches.

What I remember most about the essay was Mailer’s description of an earlier match, between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret in March of that year. There was a lot of bad blood between the two boxers. Paret was on record as saying “I hate that kind of guy. A fighter’s got to look and talk and act like a man.” At the weigh-in before the fight, Paret touched his opponent’s buttocks and called him a maricón, in English:  a “faggot.” Griffith was enraged.

Mailer ruminated on the confrontation:

The accusation of homosexuality arouses a major passion in many men; they spend their lives resisting it with a biological force. There is a kind of man who spends every night of his life getting drunk in a bar, he rants, he brawls, he ends in a small rumble on the street; women say, “For God’s sakes, he’s homosexual. Why doesn’t he just turn queer and get his suffering over with.” Yet men protect him. It is because he is choosing not to become homosexual. It was put best by Sartre who said that a homosexual is a man who practices homosexuality. A man who does not, is not homosexual—he is entitled to the dignity of his choice. He is entitled to the fact that he chose not to become homosexual, and is paying presumably his price.

In fact, Griffith was bisexual. He designed women’s hats. But at that particular time and place, he was inhabiting his own closet. He came into the ring for blood, and in the twelfth round, he took his revenge:

In the twelfth, Griffith caught him. Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin….

And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.

Paret was rushed to the hospital in a coma, where he died ten days later without ever regaining consciousness. You can see the climax of the fight on YouTube:

War Games and Random Play

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

As I read the words, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising. The book was Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968), about a demonstration against the Pentagon against the Viet Nam war. At the time, I was also under the political influence of another Norman, my late friend Norman Witty, who was very active with the Los Angeles draft resistance movement.

This is a good look at the sort of thing that influenced me some half a century ago:

On a day somewhat early in September, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up. That was not characteristic of Mailer. Like most people whose nerves are sufficiently sensitive to keep them well-covered with flesh, he detested the telephone. Taken in excess, it drove some psychic element of static ino the privacies of the brain; so he kept himself amply defended. He had an answer service, a secretary, and occasional members of his family to pick up the receiver for him—he discouraged his own participation on the phone—sometimes he would not even speak to old friends. He had the idea—it was undeniably oversimple—that if you spent too much time on the phone in the evening, you destroyed some kind of creativity for the dawn. (It was taken for granted that nothing respectable would come out of the day if the morning began on the phone, and indeed for periods when he was writing he looked on transactions vis telephone as Arabs look upon pig.)

To this day, I still feel that way about receiving telephone calls. Was it Mailer’s influence? Or is it some ornery impulse that makes it all right for me to make a call, but a damned imposition to receive one?

I was so impressed by Mailer writing about himself in the third person, with his occasional wry asides, that for many years I thought of him as America’s best essayist. Curiously, to this day I have not read any of his fiction, even his famous WW2 novel, The Naked and the Dead. Well, maybe later.