Every few years, in the world of sport, someone ascends to the most rarefied of all levels—the one at which it becomes news not when they win, but when they lose. It must have been like that in the early Fifties, when a tubby Italian called Alberto Ascari was stitching together nine Grand Prix wins in a row, a record not even Fangio, Clark or Senna could match. Or when the great Real Madrid side of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas won the first five European Cup finals, between 1956 and 1960. Or when Martina Navratilova dominated Wimbledon's Centre Court, winning nine ladies' singles titles in thirteen years. The current Australian cricket team is in just such a run at present, having just completed nine consecutive victories, putting them four wins away from establishing an all-time record. And then there is Tiger Woods.
The 'medium' is unaware of its attractiveness, that's all. Everyone loves comics. I've proven this to my own satisfaction by handing them out to acountants, insurance brokers, hairdressers, mothers of children, black belts, pop stars, taxi drivers, painters, lesbians, doctors etc. etc. The X-Files, Buffy, the Matrix, X-Men - mainstream culture is not what it once was when science fiction and comics fans huddled in cellars like Gnostic Christians dodging the Romans. We should come up into the light soon before we suffocate.
It would be nice to think that the menacing aspects of North Korea were for display also, that the bombs and reactors were Potemkin showcases or bargaining chips. On the plane from Beijing I met a group of unsmiling Texan types wearing baseball caps. They were the 'in-country' team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, there to inspect and neutralize North Korea's plutonium rods. Not a nice job, but, as they say, someone has to do it. Speaking of the most controversial reactor at Yongbyon, one of the guys said, 'No sweat. She's shut down now.' Nice to know. But then, so is the rest of North Korean society shut down—animation suspended, all dead quiet on the set, endlessly awaiting not action (we hope) or even cameras, but light.
The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is a city consecrated to the worship of a father-son dynasty. (I came to think of them, with their nuclear-family implications, as 'Fat Man and Little Boy.') And a river runs through it. And on this river, the Taedong River, is moored the only American naval vessel in captivity. It was in January 1968 that the U.S.S. Pueblo strayed into North Korean waters, and was boarded and captured. One sailor was killed; the rest were held for nearly a year before being released. I looked over the spy ship, its radio antennae and surveillance equipment still intact, and found photographs of the captain and crew with their hands on their heads in gestures of abject surrender. Copies of their groveling 'confessions,' written in tremulous script, were also on show. So was a humiliating document from the United States government, admitting wrongdoing in the penetration of North Korean waters and petitioning the 'D.P.R.K.' (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) for 'lenience.' Kim Il Sung ('Fat Man') was eventually lenient about the men, but not about the ship. Madeleine Albright didn't ask to see the vessel on her visit last October, during which she described the gruesome, depopulated vistas of Pyongyang as 'beautiful.' As I got back onto the wharf, I noticed a refreshment cart, staffed by two women under a frayed umbrella. It didn't look like much—one of its three wheels was missing and a piece of brick was propping it up—but it was the only such cart I'd see. What toothsome local snacks might the ladies be offering? The choices turned out to be slices of dry bread and cups of warm water.Nor did Madeleine Albright visit the absurdly misnamed 'Demilitarized Zone,' one of the most heavily militarized strips of land on earth. Across the waist of the Korean peninsula lies a wasteland, roughly following the 38th parallel, and packed with a titanic concentration of potential violence. It is four kilometers wide (I have now looked apprehensively at it from both sides) and very near to the capital cities of both North and South. On the day I spent on the northern side, I met a group of aging Chinese veterans, all from Szechuan, touring the old battlefields and reliving a war they helped North Korea nearly win (China sacrificed perhaps a million soldiers in that campaign, including Mao Anying, son of Mao himself). Across the frontier are 37,000 United States soldiers. Their arsenal, which has included undeclared nuclear weapons, is the reason given by Washington for its refusal to sign the land-mines treaty. In August 1976, U.S. officers entered the neutral zone to trim a tree that was obscuring the view of an observation post. A posse of North Koreans came after them, and one, seizing the ax with which the trimming was to be done, hacked two U.S. servicemen to death with it. I visited the ax also; it's proudly displayed in a glass case on the North Korean side.
At least two important conservative thinkers, Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, were unbelievers or nonbelievers and in any case contemptuous of Christianity. I have my own differences with both of these savants, but is the Republican Party really prepared to disown such modern intellectuals as it can claim, in favor of a shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity?Perhaps one could phrase the same question in two further ways. At the last election, the GOP succeeded in increasing its vote among American Jews by an estimated five percentage points. Does it propose to welcome these new adherents or sympathizers by yelling in the tones of that great Democrat bigmouth William Jennings Bryan? By insisting that evolution is 'only a theory'? By demanding biblical literalism and by proclaiming that the Messiah has already shown himself? If so, it will deserve the punishment for hubris that is already coming its way. (The punishment, in other words, that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson believed had struck America on Sept. 11, 2001. How can it be that such grotesque characters, calling down divine revenge on the workers in the World Trade Center, are allowed a respectful hearing, or a hearing at all, among patriotic Republicans?)