Culture Wars: The Nation Hosts A Salon

The Nation magazine recently held a "Salon" to explore the question, What Will Become of Our Culture? A rewarding evening, overall, but I'm sorry it didn't occur during the current New Moon juggernaut, as that phenomenon may answer by half any questions about our culture's future.

And I'm willing to bet one of the Nation panelists would have offered a dandy conspiracy theory about how Bella and the vampires have diverted the citizenry while Goldman Sachs pillages the country.

The salon's panelists included Tony Kushner and Walter Mosley, along with no-show Toni Morrison (down with flu), who was replaced by Wally Shawn -- gamely joking he felt like Mickey Mouse filling in for Lawrence Olivier. The confab, held in an underground cabaret at Symphony Space, was moderated by personable, witty film critic Gene Seymour.

Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel kicked off the evening by noting that culture and politics have long been intertwined at The Nation, which has become "a narrative of the national spirit." Vanden Heuvel is beautiful, thin, and smart, but don't hate her, she's really nice. She also demonstrates that you don't have to come on like an Upper West Side balabusta in an Eileen Fisher tent and SAS shoes to be progressive.

Though always entertaining, the discussion yielded few answer about our culture's future. Typically, we were treated to stream of consciousness spiels that spoke more to personal idiosyncrasy than the topic. "I'm an opera queen like Giuliani," Kushner announced at one point. Oh, we needed you, Toni Morrison! I bet you would have forced the brilliant wordsmiths on stage to stay on message. Just looking at these cool lefty guys, though, I felt warm and fuzzy; their faces are so menschy compared to, say, Cheney's or Mitch O'Connell's.

One topic discussed: "The decline of the written word in the digital age." "I want to go with technology," Walter Mosley announced. "I hear Victor [Navasky, Nation publisher emeritus] has his Kindle now. That's cool." Shawn offered, hopefully, that "people's emails are getting more literary, they used to be cruder." Kushner, too, came out for the Kindle -- "let's go with the digital age. It's so different from the world of fifteen years ago." But he avowed "I'm worried about newspapers, maybe because I'm married to a journalist."

Shawn reminisced at length about the old, interminable articles in the New Yorker about some tribe in Kenya that "no one read" and that writers spent five years researching. Uh, your point, Wally?

What I mainly heard from the stage was a determination not to appear a Luddite and an old fart. Only Shawn admitted "It's confusing to get older. You don't know if you're disoriented by Facebook or really have something to say." Mosley added, "The older you are the more you live in the past." If any conclusions were reached, I missed them.

Next up was a question on whether the imagination has been under siege. Kushner said that in his darker moments "things feel apocalyptic and scary ... The imagination has been colonized by Madison Avenue so there's no more interior space."

Then all segues bit the dust in a free association free-for-all. Mosley really got the juices flowing when he went political, riffing on the fact that we object to Iran getting a bomb, when the U.S. has 10,000 bombs. The near-capacity audience appeared to agree.

Though Kushner claimed "I write for progressives, I preach to the converted," it somehow shook down so he came across as more centrist than his co-panelists. "I'm totally in love with the president," he responded to criticism of some Obama policies. The main downside for him is that the past administration furnished much material for cheap jokes. Kushner, who is so brainy his mouth can't keep pace with his thoughts, also described himself as "an apologist for the war in Afghanistan ... I don't believe an oligarchy runs America," he said, countering a statement by Mosley. "There a progressive possibility here." Looking around, he added, "I love everyone here. We're all landsmen."

When Shawn stated that what scares him most is you can't get an education in the New York City schools, Mosley jumped in. "Now white people have the same problems as black -- no one gets an education," he said to laughter. When one panelist praised the use of public space for pocket parks, Mosley dismissed that as crumbs for the masses. "There are people who literally own the earth. The fact is the earth is owned by just a thousand families."

"I have a negative view of America," Mosley continued, citing a litany of sins, starting with, "We didn't bomb the trains that went to the camps." Kushner objected Mosley was "creating a character you've named America that doesn't necessarily exist." But Mosley was on a roll. "America has systematically done bad things. We do some f ----d up shit."

The hors d'oeuvres following the panel were first rate.