Alon Preiss Reviews the Web: Nicholas Kristof, Spike Lee and Running Out of Toilet Paper

A few thoughts I jotted down this week about stuff I see on the web.

Nicholas Kristof Makes an Unusual Admission

Here is my view on the Gaza War: when Israel was attacked, its leaders should have taken a breath, thought a bit about the best way forward for the country and the hostages, and then consulted with the U.S. and the UN. The UN might well have condemned Hamas. The U.S. should have turned to its allies, including Qatar and Turkey, which in turn should have made every effort to retrieve the hostages and bring Hamas leaders to justice before a single shot was fired.

Now it’s the same old thing.

I believe this would have been my view if I lived in Israel. I believe it would have been my view especially if I were an Israeli whose loved ones were hostages in Gaza’s tunnels.

Nicholas Kristof is predictably opposed to the Gaza War. In his column, The Things We Disagree on About Gaza, he makes a number of sensible criticisms of the Gaza War and a number of not sensible criticisms of the Gaza War, which I won’t debate here.

Then he says this: “The attack on Oct. 7 was particularly savage, and no doubt my perspective would be different if I had been on the receiving end.”

He does not say, I understand why an Israeli, at this moment of anger and trauma, would take the wrong position.

He says, If I myself, educated and sensible and correct Nicholas Kristof, were Israeli, my reasoned and sensible and correct determination of what would be in my best interest and in the best interest of my family would be different: I would favor the Gaza War.

As an American, he opposes the Gaza War, because he is thinking about America’s role in the world. If he were an Israeli, he would favor the Gaza War, because he believes it is needed to keep Israelis safe. This is an amazing thing to admit.

Articles I Did Not Read Dept.

In Slate, Fortesa Latifi has an article headlined, “I Almost Never Run Out of Toilet Paper, Conditioner, or Coffee Beans. Here’s How.

Maybe this is a really excellent article. I don’t know. I didn’t read it.

It’s so easy not to run out of those things, ever.

When you are down to just one roll of toilet paper, buy more, order it on Amazon for next-day delivery if you can’t get to the store. Do it while you are sitting on the toilet, since you always have your phone in your hand while you’re on the toilet.

If you grind your own beans, always have a little jar of instant coffee for when you run out of coffee beans, and when that happens, buy more.

I never run out of toilet paper or coffee. 

I’m nearly bald, and I don’t need conditioner, so I cannot advise on that.

Fortesa Latifi doesn’t say she never runs out of toilet paper, conditioner and coffee beans. Sometimes she runs out of toilet paper, conditioner and coffee beans.

If she never ran out, she would say that; she didn’t. She said she almost never runs out.

So her system isn’t perfect.

In other words, she sometimes is completely out of toilet paper, and she just can’t wipe.

This really doesn’t seem good.

I don’t want to take advice from her. This sometimes totally unwiped woman is not someone I would even want to stand behind in a bank teller line.

Furthermore, she frequently runs out of shampoo, aspirin, laundry detergent and laxatives; otherwise, she’d be bragging about those too.

The only things she has even some control over is toilet paper, conditioner and coffee beans. She’s sometimes or even often running out of printer ink, pencil lead and legal pads. There are times that she runs out of money, and she can’t pay her electric bills. She frequently runs out of gas. Just driving the car, she runs out of gas, and she’s stuck on the side of the road for hours.

But she generally  — not always  — has toilet paper handy to wipe herself. Not always.

Usually she wipes herself. She doesn’t always wipe herself. Almost always.

So I didn’t read her article. I didn’t think it would be helpful. Also, I don’t have a subscription to Slate, and I already hit the paywall for this month.

Antisemitism Anti-shmetism

In my contrarian view, Spike Lee is a visionary who has directed at least two great movies, He Got Game and BlackKKlansman. The Brooklyn Museum’s Spike Lee exhibit has been extended till February 11. The exhibit, which includes art from Lee’s personal collection as well as memorabilia from his films, is sweeping and stunning, and you should see it. Another great exhibit from this great outer-boro museum.

In a way, it arrives at a bad time, though.

There’s never a good time, exactly, to celebrate antisemites, but this is an especially fraught moment, and to secure the exhibit, which is undoubtedly a moneymaker as well as artistically satisfying, the Museum had no choice but to ignore Lee’s history.

When accused accurately of using antisemitic caricatures in the form of the corrupt “Flatbush brothers”, in his film, Mo’ Better Blues, Spike Lee responded that he was not an antisemite, and he has never wavered, never faced his own racism.

As Caryn James noted, in the New York Times, every film critic, or nearly every film critic, watching the movie reached the same conclusion.  

“In his review in Newsweek,” James wrote, “David Ansen called [the Flatbush brothers] ‘Shylocks.’ In Newsday, Mike McGrady said they are ‘craven’ caricatures. Garry Giddins in his review in The Village Voice labeled the roles ‘undoubtedly anti-Semitic,’ but went on to say, ‘Don’t let that lapse keep you from seeing’ the film…. I described the Flatbush brothers as ‘money-grubbing, envious, ugly stereotypes with sharks’ smiles’ … so loaded with despicable traits typically used to disparage Jews that they might have been invented by someone in the Racial Slur Montage…. [T]he Flatbush brothers are the film’s villains, their greed inseparable from their Jewish identity. And because there are no other Jews to offset them, they become tokens of an entire ethnic group.”

The Anti-Defamation League said that the Flatbush brothers “dredge up an age-old and highly dangerous form of anti-Semitic stereotyping.”

Lee responded, essentially, that even the idea of an antisemitic film was a contradiction in terms, that such a thing is by definition impossible, for three reasons: a cabal of all-powerful Jews would never allow it; attacking Jews isn’t antisemitic, it’s just truth-telling; and what about that racist guy over there? look at that guy over there, what about him?

Lee argued:

Mo’ Better Blues couldn’t have been anti-Semitic.

“I couldn’t make an antisemitic film,” Le said, since Jews run Hollywood, “and that’s a fact.” There is no such thing as an antisemitic film; therefore, his film isn’t antisemitic.

There is nothing antisemitic about Jewish stereotypes.

“If critics are telling me that to avoid charges of anti-Semitism,” Lee wrote in the New York Times, “all Jewish characters I write have to be model citizens, and not one can be a villain, cheat or a crook, and that no Jewish people have ever exploited black artists in the history of the entertainment industry, that’s unrealistic and unfair.” Since it isn’t antisemitic to load a film with antisemitic stereotypes, without a single redeeming counterexample, then there is no such thing as an antisemitic film.

Since other people have also made racist movies, his films should be above criticism.

In a horrible display of that last refuge of scoundrels, whataboutism, Lee concluded his New York Times defense by listing other racist movies, as though the existence of other racists somehow absolves him of guilt. Since other movies are also racist, his film cannot be racist. The existence of other racist films means that there is no such thing as an antisemitic film.

“Do [film critics] write long, critical articles every year about the art house and film festival revivals of Birth of a Nation…?” Lee protested. “Has anyone written about the racist images in Walt Disney films like Song of the South and Dumbo?”

Well, the answer to that is (and was then) yes and yes. Song of the South was acknowledged as racist for so long that it was never released on home video in the United States. (Did Lee want equal treatment for Mo’ Better Blues?) And Birth of a Nation is never viewed without disclaimers about its racism.

But even if Lee were correct at the time that no one has ever criticized Birth of a Nation, the existence of other racists didn’t make Lee any less antisemitic.

This is not to argue that Lee should be canceled, or that the Brooklyn Museum should not have held the exhibit. We don’t cancel The Great Gatsby or Prufrock, and Lee is an artist on an equal footing with those greats. But we do acknowledge their creators’ bigotry, something the Brooklyn Museum didn’t do in its Spike Lee exhibit.

Lee’s great film BlackKKlansman has been hailed for many things; one of the great things in the film is Adam Driver’s portrayal of Flip Zimmerman, the very first favorable portrayal of a Jewish character in a Spike Lee film.

Spike Lee acknowledges that there is at least one good Jew in the world, and this is progress. And a source of hope.


Alon Preiss writes fiction set in the 1980s. He is the author of In Love With Alice (2017). Available NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or from ANY BOOKSTORE IN ANY TOWN OR CITY IN AMERICA

Image by Iliescu Victor / Pexels

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