"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 14 September 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Reverso Converso


Some are born to greatness;

others edit greatness into their

bios. To which category scholar

and Palestinian advocate Edward

Said properly belongs is the

subject of one of those

controversies, the primary

benefit of which is to make both

camps seem like disingenuous,

preening jackasses.


In the September Commentary, the

contentious Justus Reid Weiner

charges that Said, born in

Jerusalem in 1935, falsely

represented himself as having

grown up there and as having

been forcibly displaced in 1947

with his family by Jewish forces

to Cairo. Au contraire, accuses

Weiner, who proudly admits

having spent three years to

determine that in fact Said

spent most of his youth in Cairo

and that the Jerusalem house

Said describes losing belonged

— brace yourself — not

to Said's father but to the

extended family. (Weiner

grandiloquently describes his

"fascinating adventure" combing

"five countries on four

continents" and examining

"sometimes obscure public

records." We'll venture he even

needed to use electronic

photocopying machines and

various sizes of paper.)


Said, Weiner charged, concocted

a refugee story to claim cred as

a spokesman, though how these

pop-gun revelations would change

Middle East history — or the

minds of anyone who doesn't

already subscribe to Commentary

— Weiner leaves to be

inferred. Said's supporters

countered that Said's past

comments (which in retrospect

seem to leave convenient wiggle

room) were honest and that

Weiner, furthermore, is a Jew

— um, that is, a "right-wing

Zionist" — with reactionary

sponsors who wants to imply that

the entire Palestinian nation's

claims of hardship are bogus.



To anyone who followed the

debunking of Guatemalan

Rigoberta Menchu this past year

— anthropologist David Stoll

found several whoppers in I,

Rigoberta Menchu, the story of

brutal government oppression

that made the young Indian a

Nobel Prize–winning

spokeswoman and dampened the eye

of many an alpaca-clad undergrad

in the 1980s — the Said

incident was no less deliciously

mortifying and no more

politically instructive. The

pattern's the same: One

researcher's Ahab-like pursuit

of biographical minutiae; a

creepy, insinuating attack of

motives; a creepy, insinuating

counterattack of motives; a

belated explanation that —

didn't you know? — certain

terms ("family," "me") were

being used in their

"non-Western" sense; selective

amassing of evidence; selective

refutation of same; and, in the

end, gaping holes of actual fact

that, both sides remind us, only

really matter because the other

guy wants to make a big deal of



In the end everybody's right and

wrong. It appears Said has at

minimum used Clintonian turns of

phrase to dress up his past for

effect. (Christopher Hitchens

defends Said's saying that he

spent the "formative" part of

his youth, however brief, in

Palestine as "a matter for him

... to decide" — curious

generosity from a man who's

underwritten a substantial part

of his bar tab these last few

years attacking just such

slippery locutions by the

POTUS.) It also appears that

Weiner at minimum was conducting

a hit, however accurate —

detractors note significant but

not damning holes in his story

— and did not even contact

Said for comment for the piece.



But the real villain here is the

audience: each one of us who has

deferred to someone else's

opinion simply because their

great-grandpa was born in a more

apt hovel than ours, who has

comfortingly agreed that it's

somebody else's thing and we

needn't bother trying to

understand. Thus Roberto Benigni

becomes a borderline anti-Semite

for crashing the Holocaust; thus

Warren Beatty becomes a silly

old cracker for daring to make a

movie addressing black folks. Of

course history makes such

legitimacy questions hairy:

behind the obeisances a Kid Rock

or Eminem must pay to get

permission to borrow the mike

are the ghosts of bluesmen with

hit records and $5 paydays. But

there's more to today's

attitude. As we've buried the

ideal of integration, Malcolm

has altogether trumped Martin,

and where ethnic issues are

concerned, you've got to be in

it to spin it. In the Interscope

era, it is no longer sufficient

that our public figures merely

create great works or advocate

wise policies. We need them to

have lived the OG experience.


Pegging your right to represent

on a scrupulous presentation of

your life story can be a

hazardous business (by some

accounts, it was a secret shame

at having attended a

touchy-feely school for the

performing arts — where he

no doubt wore leg warmers and

joined in the spontaneous

lunchroom musical numbers —

that later helped drive Tupac

into total thug-life immersion,

with unhappy results for all

concerned). More important, it

makes for a dull read. Menchu

and Said's defenders claim,

rightly, that any fibs on their

heroes' parts don't ultimately

change history. But only a

dimwit would believe it wasn't

Menchu's personal story that

helped warm those frigid hearts

in Oslo. Even if we accept her

defense that she was writing a

testimonio — through which

one represents the group's

experiences as one's own —

what does that tradition mean?

It means generations have judged

that someone else's experience

is more compelling if you tell

it like it happened to you. And

on that point, West and East and

North and South agree. It's just

that other cultures are more

sophisticated. Where we waste

energy discrediting our Binjamin

Wilkomirskis and Jerzy

Kosinskis, they simply invent a

new genre for them.



It's only fitting that Jerry

Seinfeld, who spent most of his

prime-time reign effacing his

and his cohorts' Jewishness

(viz., the transethnicized

paisans of the Costanza family),

should have definitively nailed

the subject when he finally

broached it. In one of the last

great episodes of the series,

Jerome is offended — "as a

comedian" — when his dentist

converts to Judaism "for the

jokes," using the change as a

pretext to start telling

rabbinical howlers. Seinfeld

recognizes that we still want to

see a blood test before granting

permission to wax Catskillian,

while also exposing the

silliness of that instinct. For

the supreme metafictional beauty

of the episode is that the point

— that one's retrofitted

ethnicity should have nothing to

do with comic cred — wasn't

made so much by the surface plot

as by the fact that the message

came from a multimillionaire who

had won the love of the goyim by

deracinating his own show. For

the jokes. (Curiously, the

strongest attack on Seinfeld's

ethnic transgressions came from

performance artist Danny Hoch, a

fellow member of the tribe who's

made a career of adopting Puerto

Rican and b-boy personae

onstage. Through a confluence of

events unique to the era of

identity politics — Seinfeld

asked him to play a Latino role

Hoch found offensive — a

Jewish guy from New York emerged

as TV's most famous persecuted

Hispanic since Juan Epstein.)


Given that there's so much to be

gained from a little borrowed

blood, is it any surprise we're

seeing the greatest Converso

Culture since the inquisition?

Since Madeleine Albright's

bizarre outing as the descendant

of converted Jews after her

accession to secretary of state

— a discovery that created

speculation about her role in

Middle East dickering, even

though the baffled diplomat was

raised about as Jewish as a

Smithfield ham — we've now

seen Hillary Clinton discover,

after her "Palestinian state"

gaffe, but just in time for her

New York Senate race, that she

reads right to left via a

grandfather by marriage. Tom

Stoppard bar mitzvahed himself

in the premiere issue of Talk,

and even Hitchens, to whom

colleague Said's own birth story

is so irrelevant, discovered his

ancestral Hebritude publicly

over a decade ago, presumably

delighting supporters who could

now say their Hitch knows from

land rights.



We may even start seeing double

Conversos — figures who

manage two advantageous ethnic

leaps in one lifetime. During

the past summer's NAACP blow-up

over the lack of minorities in

prime time, NBC shot back at

critics that, after all, it had

cast in the upcoming White House

scenery-chewer, The West Wing,

one Ramon Estevez, an actor who

for decades has been living la

vida gringa under the handle

Martin Sheen. If the irony of

suddenly being commanded to

macarena by the same industry

that had de facto required his

anglicization was apparent to

Señor Estevez, he had the

good grace not to offer the

proper response — "You're

stuck with this white boy, vato"

— and instead gamely said,

"I'm Hispanic by birth and I'm

Irish by trade."


What gives NBC's gambit even

more cojones is that the

president it tried to pass off

as a member of La Raza has the

straight-outta-Cambridge moniker

Josiah Bartlet. Then again, in

this heyday of reverse passing,

that's sounding more and more

credible. Before long, at least

one politician with another

ethnic weak spot and a flexible

past may be sitting down at her

ancestral home in Chappaqua to a

photo-op dinner. Lukshen kugel

and cuchifritos, anyone?

courtesy of Jerzy Seinfeld

[Purchase the Suck Book here]