October 10, 2003, 3:35 p.m.
The cool winds of fall blow, blowing away celebrated persons and mere celebrities. Like the autumn leaves beginning to fall in America's east and midwest, names drop upon the obituary page.
I paused when Johnny Cash passed on, the likeably grim and plain-spoken musician with a guitar and simple songs, unable to last long beyond the death of his beloved June Carter. A fine moment of teleivision populism was his 1969-71 TV show, where Cash hosted younger musicians Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. These favorites of suburban and urban college and highschool boomers affirmed the influence upon them of country music like Johnny's, then the underacknowleged music of the nation's working class on the other side of town, a genre below the radar. Perhaps a comparable public role a generation before — maintaining the integrity of the strummed song beside a Hollywood script — was negotiated by 1930s cowboy actor and singer Tex Ritter, whose work remains more interesting than that of his just-deceased television actor son John.
Though I might find myself humming Robert Palmer's hits while shaving, or remember the blank stares of the fashion models decorating their videos, I lament his role as a rock singer who yanked rock style from the Punk 1970s into Ronald Reagan's conservative 1980s. When during a semester away, a studious anti-Punk girlfriend called me from our college excited about this handsome guy in elegant dark suit who had played there, I feared a sea change coming. Stuck in an airport with Palmer and his entourage during a summer thunderstorm grounding all planes, he looked so angry at missing a lucrative gig that I kept my distance.
Skinny, snowy-haired George Plimpton also died, gentleman journalist and well-born editor of The Paris Review, its very name suggesting a cultivated and transatlantic perspective. A documentary shown to my undergraduates on the Andy Warhol circle elicited most interest in fashionable and short-lived ingenue Edie Sedgewick, about whom Plimpton once wrote a book. Some readers remember his bestselling sports book Paper Lion, yet in recent years he was most visible as a small-part actor, reporting for his cameo role. Gore Vidal, his contemporary in letters, seems to now relish this activity as well.
Most significantly, Edward Said died. A quarter-century ago, his work Orientalism traced the prevalent history of wrongheaded and imperialistic ideas about the middle east in European and American thought. Subsequent writings exposed the one-sidedness of most American mass-media coverage of the area and its conflicts. Some found his nuanced analysis undercut by his failure to support a two-state compromise permitting the co-existence of an Israel and a Palestine. One of the final images Said left us was of him throwing rocks at Israeli guards, playing the Intifada kid. For a mature academic to do so must be some kind of Palestinian equivalent of Punk defiance. Said probably could have as effectively stood there and said to the cameras "Ariel Sharon, I hurl a rock at your obstinate head and your settlements" for equal international impact, an intellectual speaking his truth to power rather than a frustrated old guy with a tired arm driven by nostalgia for his comfortable boyhood home.
Whatever the contradictions in Edward Said and his work, the grievous loss is the silencing of the Palestinian voice in mainstream American political discourse, in the New York Times and the evening television news. The networks may now purposefully find as the face of that people someone more difficult for the American public to hear behind its prejudices, someone darker, mustachioed, with a thick accent and all its connotations of Saddam and Osama; a dreaded Boris Badenov from Ramallah. This speaker would be deprived of the credibility carried in the demeanor of the urbane Said...but that's Orientalism for you. Or, rather than anoint one or more thoughtful successor to Said (Hanan Ashrawi?), the networks might simply not bother with asking a Palestinian anything about that people's concerns. And this chill will be more constricting and ultimately damaging than anything the autumn weather can bring.
Mike Mosher teaches art and multimedia, and is a member of the team that produces Bad Subjects.