"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 June 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Sibling Rhapsody



Remember Billy Carter?


Billy was the most embarrassing

brother of the 1970s. Back then,

embarrassing your siblings was

easy. All you needed was a

drinking problem and a few

ill-advised visits to Tripoli.

Sneakily inviting over a handful

of Libyan pals could distress

your brother and even cause

national duress.



Not so anymore. Embarrassment

standards have shot through the

roof. Siblings need go farther

than ever to torment one

another. Today our most

notorious pair is the brothers

Kaczynski, whose mutual sense of

humiliation has reached biblical

proportions. Ted and Dave.

Suspected Unabomber and

Established Judas.



Unabomber and Unabrother have

shown us that in an era

oblivious to any uniform

standard of ethics or etiquette,

an ill-chosen deal, associate,

or word is just not enough to

annoy your siblings. Now getting

on your brother's nerves means

you have to send bombs by

express mail, explode various

individuals, and incite an

extensive federal manhunt. And

to provoke you back, he can't

just turn the other cheek or

tattle to Aunt Sylvia: he has to

turn you into the FBI.



How did things get this way? In

the more innocent epoch of the

Carter administration, sneaky

siblings could be enjoyed, even

admired, as in the popular '70s

epigram, "Pretty sneaky, Sis!"

(That more American citizens can

identify the source of that

phrase - the "Connect Four"

commercial - than the source of

the line "I have not yet begun

to fight," is at the heart of

the educational crisis as we

know it today. But that topic

will be covered later, in the

related essay, "Embarrassing

National Problems.")



Embarrassment was simple then,

and clearly one-sided. Billy

embarrassed Jimmy, Donny

embarrassed Marie: it was never

the other way around.

Ironically, Donny took the role

of Joseph in the current

national tour of Joseph and the

Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a

show he must identify with as it

embraces the ancient and disco

world ethic of forgiving your

siblings no matter how horrid

they are, all the while chanting

"We are Family."



The tide began turning in the

'80s when Shirley Maclaine began

writing books and throwing into

question who was embarrassing

whom. For years her brother,

Warren Beatty, had embarrassed

her by being the family rake.

But now she was turning into the

family flake. Hanging out with

spirits. Chatting with a

35,000-year-old Cro-Magnon

warrior channeled by a Tacoma

homemaker. Conversing with a

contemporary of Jesus Christ's

who managed to learn English

before he had to appear on ABC

with Shirley. All this was

weirder than phoning starlets

at three in the morning, or

making love proclamations to

Joan Collins (an apparent serial

seducer and mortified sibling in

her own right). Observers were

taken aback. If the Shirleys

could embarrass the Warrens,

what could happen next?



Siblings around the nation were

pushing the envelope of mutual

embarrassment. In 1984, when

Roger Clinton was indicted on

five counts of distributing

cocaine, it seemed even more

humiliating than his brother,

the governor, distributing

political favors to the

bureaucrats of Little Rock. Yet

the tales told out of Arkansas

were hard to sort out: certain

prominent Arkansans, unlike

certain prominent Libyans,

turned out to be pals with both

brothers. Now the whole family,

even Virginia, had cause to be




The distinctions between

mortified and mortifier kept

collapsing as moral barometers

everywhere went on the fritz.

These days, embarrassing

siblings make us wonder: which

is which? Is Roger more

mortifying to Bill, or Bill to

Roger? Michael to LaToya or

LaToya to Michael? How to

compare a few drugs to a heap of

hubris and policy blunders? A

900-number to a coterie of

pre-pubescent sidekicks?



Newt and Candace Gingrich are at

the fore of sibling

embarrassment. It is painful to

watch how one continually

undermines the other. Each of

them obviously experiences a

great deal of anguish. It is

difficult to imagine what they

must go through: He must wish

that she would stop being a

lesbian. She must wish that he

would stop being a jerk.



And it is hard to begin to fathom

the pain of the Kaczynskis.

David's sense of shame was

surely too much for him to bear.

"Here is Ted," he must have

thought, "someone who is related

to me and shares my passion for

vegetable gardening, and yet he

looks so much like that guy who

has been blowing up science

professors and technology

moguls. What if he is that guy?

Our clan will be dishonored, and

my Rousseauian lifestyle will be

called into question. Oh why

couldn't he have remained

another harmless weirdo teaching

math at Berkeley? Why did I take

him to see Blow Out when we were




But David has nothing on Ted.


"Here am I," Ted surely thought,

"as unhappy about modern life as

the next person, trying to do

some freelance writing, maybe

using a little extra pull to get

my op-ed pieces published. But

not afraid to act on my

convictions. Other people

complain about email, but no one

else cancels their Internet

accounts and writes letters to

Mexican peasants in Spanish.

Others move out of the city to

get some fresh air, but no one

takes a real stand against

industrial-era muck. I become

the most wanted mastermind

criminal of our era in order to

fight against the technology we

both despise, while all David

can manage to do is build a hut

in upstate New York. And then he

adds insult to injury by turning

in his flesh and blood."



The root of sibling anguish is

that this sinister person could

have been you if a sperm had

made a wrong turn, if your

organic vegetable crop had

suddenly failed, or if you had

attended the wrong Ivy League

school at the wrong moment. It

is sobering to think what you

might have become, if fate

hadn't twisted your arm. And

strange to have that twist of

fate on public display.



So it is that the decline of

traditional values, the ascent

of embarrassment standards, and

the you-could-have-been-me

syndrome jitters have brought

sibling relations to a new level

of discord. Only dastardly and

extreme acts can do what a faux

pas could once accomplish, and

even those cut both ways. In

a culture delighted with the

sound of its own moral

relativism, sibling

embarrassment has hit a new

historical high: it is now

terribly acute, and always


courtesy of Emily Toast