Today, for the first time, I felt at home in Los Angeles. I interviewed the writer Lionel Chetwynd, who lives way up in the Hollywood Hills. His house is one of those marvels of LA design – you walk a mile up a mountain, enter through the garage, and then take a lift a mile back down to the living-room. He grew up in London and did a year at Oxford; he even turned out to be the brother of Claire Reyner, the British agony aunt. But it wasn’t Lionel’s spookily good impersonations of Hackney folk that made me feel at home. O no. It was the fact that he offered me a cigar. It was a sweet, spongy Dominican, four inches long with a brazen black nipple.
In most US municipalities there is a fascist guerilla war against smoking going on. People will honk their horns if they see you doing it in public. In a few years time we can expect cigarettes to be banned, yet marijuana will probably be compulsory. In the absence of any decent bars, I’ve taken to relieving the strains of Hollywood-living by smoking one Dunhill a day. I love shocking the Angelinos by hanging around on street corners blowing smoke rings at cars. My favorite place to do it is outside the Scientology Celebrity Center at the bottom of my street. Angry eyes glare out at me from under the blinds: I’m sure I once spotted Tom Cruise giving me the bird from the fifth floor. I don’t know why the Scientologists worry so. Doubtless, L Ron’s mind could lung cure cancer as easily as it could break breezeblocks. I wonder, how many Thetans can dance on the head of a pin?
The cigar threw me into a patriotic state of mind. I’m halfway through my research trip and it’s usually at this point that I start to feel a little homesick. The past few nights, I’ve indulged in a James Bond marathon as a way of getting by. I’ve just completed Goldfinger in half-hourly installments. Of course, these movies are a loving reminder not of Britain as it is – but Britain as it was. The series starts with Sean Connery in a hat (bravo, Sir!) taking on the world with nothing more than a magnetic wristwatch and a potato peeler. It was a better age, in which real men drank in the afternoon and when it came to convincing women to have sex, “no” apparently meant “yes” on the fourth try. By the end of the 1980s, Bond had morphed into Roger Moore – a geriatric superhero giving Mother Russia one for the lads. The first of these movies that I ever saw was Roger’s last: A View to a Kill. To me, Bond will always be a 73 year-old man looking terrified as a naked Grace Jones bears down upon him. After that movie, it was all downhill. Britain was gone and into the wasteland strode a series of Ken Dolls to play its once-archetypal hero. Don’t even get me started on what they’ve done to Dr. Who, which is now Queer as Folk in Space.
In the course of re-exploring the charms of the Old Country, I stumbled upon a very British rebellion going on at Cambridge. The university is electing a new chancellor. As is tradition in post-Thatcher/Blair/Brown/Richard Branson Britain, the post is going to the highest bidder. Barron Sainsbury is the favorite because, frankly, he’s donated a lot of money and promises to give more in the future. Academia desperately needs the cash, so the choice is logical. But some former students have decided to resist the walkover by offering up an alternative candidate. Of course, the rebellious instinct is global; it’s their choice of candidate that is uniquely British. They’re putting up Brian Blessed, a character actor and amateur mountaineer.
Only in Britain – only in Britain – would such a worthy cause by championed by such an eccentric figure. It’s as if they chose to fight the War on Terror with selected readings from AE Houseman, or to reduce global warming with hand fans. And yet, Blessed’s nomination makes a certain sense in the British context. He’s beyond politics, so he won’t alienate conservatives or liberals. And he’s fondly remembered by the kids of baby boomers for chewing up the scenery in almost every TV serial going. Blessed’s ridiculous swagger has a touch of the epic. One can imagine him playing the part of a chancellor in a way that Sainsbury could not. Barron Moneybags may well be a very talented entrepreneur, but he looks like an accountant from Surrey.
The question is, should I make the effort to go to Cambridge to vote for Blessed? It’s probably a boring, complicated procedure that involves wearing a gown and kissing a swan. And so, in that very British way, I shall only make my voice heard on this vitally important issue if there’s the promise of an open bar. If that’s in the offing, then Blessed will get my vote. My only real regret is that Roger Moore isn’t on the ballot.
That same degree of bloody-mindedness causes me to sympathize with Andrew Breitbart, the man who broke the infamous Anthony Weiner scandal. I had lunch with him this week in fashionable Westwood. He arrived high on adrenaline after thirty days of storming the media, insulting and being insulted in equal measure. He looked like a prophet, a plumper Russian monk with wild white hair and wide-blue eyes. I told him that I had enjoyed every minute of his journey from madman to martyr. I too thought he was insane when he first told the world that Congressman Weiner had been sending women pictures of his genitalia. His claims seemed too elaborate and too many. He reminded me of McCarthy at Wheeling crying “I have a list of a hundred, nay a thousand names! A Communist in every household!” When Weiner denied it all, I believed him. How could something so ludicrous be true? And when Breitbart stormed the stage at Weiner’s final press conference to demand an apology I – like every other lame-duck journo watching – thought the poor man had flipped his lid. Then Weiner took the podium and said, “It’s all true … and I owe Andrew Breitbart and apology.” And, in an instant, so did we all.
Breitbart and his internet revolution pose two challenges to the mainstream American media. First, Breitbart insists that he doesn’t want to promote one worldview; he just wants to make it possible to openly express as many opinions as possible. The division of ideas into acceptable and “off limits” is regrettable and has reduced a great deal of public discourse to a witch-hunt. Conservatives have to constantly battle inferences that they are racist, sexist, homophobic, or insane. I think that Breitbart and many others see Weiner’s confession as validating the grander libertarian argument for total freedom of information and expression. One man’s sexual disgrace might be an unusual vehicle for that, but seeing the extraordinary energy that it has poured into Andrew Breitbart, I can understand why it might feel like a watershed moment in the battle of ideas.
Second, he wants journalists to be more honest about their politics. It is true that liberals often disguise their liberalism as objectivity – “I’m just giving the facts rather than pushing a political agenda.” In contrast, conservatism is often presented as the product of intellectual bias or base cultural prejudice. One movie producer told me that he was critical of extremism of both left and right, except to say that the left is all the time and everywhere factually accurate. Such opinions – that social democracy is as reasonable a deduction as gravity or evolution – are common in Hollywood and shape the way news is presented. But there really is no objective truth when it comes to politics – just competing claims to the truth. Breitbart is refreshing in that he doesn’t even want to be seen to present disinterested facts. He wants to be a moral crusader, and he wants other journalists to compete with him on equally honest terms.
It occurred to me, as Breitbart darted back and forth between our conversation and his IPad, that he is a genius of the internet age. The mass proliferation of ideas and information, the preference for opinion over cold facts, the triumph of the amateur … all of these have found their culmination in this moment. It was a crime committed by Twitter, leaked by an email, and prosecuted over the internet. But I wonder if the unreality of the process extends to the punishment? Personally, I think that Weiner has committed a form of existential sexual assault. If he had jumped out of a bush and exposed himself to these women, he’d be in jail right now. But the internet lends distance to events, rendering them virtual – like the money we use and the politics we play. As each year passes, our grip of reality loosens. And that, I suspect, caused Weiner to do what he did in the first place. The pixilated little sex pest.