"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 April 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
She Will Always Love Us



We all have our own horror stories of being poked, prodded, delayed, and damaged by officious US Customs martinets while returning from overseas with a simple bottle of slivovitz or pound of alkali. But customs officials can't really target everyone, as much as everyone might deserve it. And breathe easy, white man with contraband-filled balloons floating breezily down your alimentary canal: Not surprisingly, the General Accounting Office found last week that black women were twice as likely as white men and women to be given intrusive strip searches at customs (though, strangely, they were three times as likely as black men to suffer this indignity). Customs, panicked by the suppositions of racist targeting, now swears that as of 2000 black women are the least likely to be searched.

You'd think intrusive officials at airports might have learned their lesson last year, after überdiva Supreme Diana Ross gave a pat-down grope of her own to a Heathrow Airport harridan who dared touch the Presence when she set off a metal detector (undoubtedly the machine was simply thrown off by Ross' solid-platinum megastardom). But it has ever been thus: From Uncle Tom's Cabin to the Lonesome Death of Shirley Hemphill (The woman who gave What's Happening its sassy zing died recently, little noticed nor long remembered, relegated in her latter days to working as a billboard pitch woman for low-rent phone services), it doesn't take an Al Sharpton to notice that The Black Woman rarely gets her proper regard and respect in modern America. Customs may be extra careful under Congress' eye right now, but as the recent attempted martyrdom of Whitney Houston shows, the black woman doesn't long get an even break.

Whitney has been one of America's favorite songbirds for a decade and a half now, and she has always faithfully returned our love — indeed, is she not saving all her love for us? Is her love not our love? Is she not our baby tonight? Will she not always love us? Sadly, nowadays, her legacy of song is being drowned out by a chorus of offstage carpers muttering that Our Whitney has lost her way.



The very nature of some of her accusers and their accusations says more against their case than these poor words can muster. Are we to believe that not appearing at an Oscar awards show "salute to Oscar-winning music" is somehow a sign of worse judgment and a career going down the tubes than actually participating in such a dismal display? And is Garth "Chris Gaines will be the new millennium's pop star" Brooks really the man to tut-tut that, "She tried her best, but she was so sick, and we'll just leave it at that"? And is Burt Bacharach, the Oscar ceremony's musical director, last seen in public frantically trying to resuscitate Elvis "Declan MacManus" Costello's putrid corpse really to be relied on for judgments about singers' stability or ability? The questions answer themselves (fortunately). But Brooks and Bacharach have a prerogative that allows them an all-access laminate for foolishness that Whitney is denied: They are men.

The "show business tragedy" should be an oxymoron. The only tenable contribution popular entertainers can make to the public weal is as antiheroes in a stumbling morality play, reminding us that there but for the grace of God (and an absurdly high paying job that requires little in the way of probity or sensible behavior) go we. Sad clowns enacting painful pratfalls for our education and delectation, they should be stage-hooked away from the public eye if they don't manage a high-profile no-show or a narrowly escaped pot bust or two.

Indeed, the widely-bruited story that launched this Whitney pile on is a clever example of how on the ball our diva still is. Whitney was caught in an airport with half an ounce of marijuana. (Few living Americans have ever dealt with this substance, illegal since 1937; but the quantity in question, considered rather large by "booheads" — a term marijuana eaters use to refer to themselves — is said to be sufficient to meet normal personal use needs for about as long as The Bodyguard soundtrack graced the Top 10.) Thinking faster than her husband could drive from flashing police lights during a typical DUI incident, she managed to slip away from the airline searchers and get on a plane before Dan-o could slap her in leg irons. This is a woman out of control? Diana Ross, give or take a Supreme, was somewhere singing Whitney's praises.

But take a narrowly escaped pot bust, add such inexplicably out-of-control behavior as appearing at a Jane cover photo shoot late (we'll give Whitney a bye on the bad judgment of participating in any way with Ms. Jane Pratt's latest attempt to fail upwards to the highest echelons of American media), singing to herself, playing the air piano, and referring to a Manhattan jeweler as a Jew, and suddenly you've got Whitney as a madly careening drug addict.



But it's ever thus — a man's, man's, man's world, where a woman can't show the slightest sign of slipping from the straight and narrow without being assumed an hysteric, a disaster. Fiona Apple cuts short one New York show and is snickered at as a flighty, whining quitter by critics the World Wide Web over. Rod Stewart has cancelled literally dozens of shows throughout his career because of stomach problems caused by an overdose of semen and is thought of as just "one of the boys." Sinead O'Connor tears up a picture of the Pope on national TV, gets ordained years later as a renegade Catholic priest, and is dismissed as an erratic flake. John Travolta plays straight-man to Gabe Kaplan on national TV and comes back years later to make a movie based on Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard's unreadable science-fiction epics, yet he remains one of America's most beloved stars. Halle Berry hits one pedestrian and drives away, and the press labels her a menace, a reification of hoary and unfair jokes about female drivers. Jason Priestley drunkenly smashes into numerous objects — power poles, trash cans, a parked car — in the Hollywood Hills and is thought clever for finally disproving that canard floating around that the post-90210 hunk couldn't get arrested in Hollywood anymore. Women seem to earn a dollar for every 59 cents in public contempt and ridicule for their off-center antics.

The modern paradigm is the reputation differential between upset-stomach-suicide Kurt Cobain (canonized as the saint/king of modern rock) and his dear widow Courtney. Kurt kills himself and gets pity and continued high regard. Courtney survives dalliances with Trent "Nine Inch" Reznor and Evan "Who?" Dando — better reasons for snuffing out one's life than Kurt ever came up with — gives interviews displaying wit and intelligence, learns how to dress herself, branches out into a successful new career, and makes a better album (Celebrity Skin) than hubby managed . . . and becomes synonymous with "lunatic shrew." It is not, and has never been, fair.



But Whitney will live through this. She's had to learn to be strong, like all women; you can bet hubby Bobby Brown would break under the pressure if the media treated him the way they treat his wife. (Unless, of course, the careerless '80s boy band vet just wept with joy for being recognized.) Whitney's already begun her public redemption, defying all expectations by actually showing up at a nationally televised ass-kiss to Clive "Don't Let the Door Slam on the Way Out" Davis, one of the music industry's celebrated corporate geniuses who has most assuredly not gone broke underestimating either the American public's stupidity or its appetite for Santana (if there's any difference). Clive is dear to the heart of many female artists. He is perhaps the only capitalist whom Patti Smith — last heard singing a 10-minute-plus paean to Ho Chi Minh on her latest chart-sinker, Gung Ho (a move that would have prompted pundits to call out the men in white suits if Smith's status on the cultural radar were slightly more prominent) — doesn't want to see choked to death with the intestines of the last (non-Buddhist) priest. But no Clive Davis, not even the always-trenchant Rex Reed, can really understand how badly the media treats your every slip when you're a lady. It's hard to be a woman, harder still to be a black woman. But it's hardest of all to be a black woman who smokes pot and uses the word "Jew" in normal conversation. And that's something we too often forget.

courtesy of Eugen von Bohm Bawerk
picturesTerry Colon

Eugen von Bohm Bawerk