July 21, 2003

Hatfield and Mr. Hyde

Some quick notes on an article about J.H. Hatfield that in Oxford American magazine. Some people who knew Hatfield were very taken back by this article. Admittedly, I only knew Hatfield for the last year of his life. Most of what I know about his life before was what he wrote about it or what he told me and that was very little. So I have to be pretty open minded about who or what he was. I can't be sure that the image I saw was a full, well-rounded picture. Is it possible I was completely taken in, and that the person I knew was really this dark, murderous creature as portrayed in this article?

Of course I know he had a criminal record for a very serious crime. I heard his side of the story, which I can't verify, but which is certainly nothing like what is portrayed in the Oxford article. But I know there is no excusing what he did, and he was quite clear about that himself.

On the other hand, I always believed it was important to separate that background from his work. I felt that the work had to be judged on its own merit, for better or worse. A criminal past did not mean a writer could not do good, even important work. Historically we would have lost a lot of great work if we had eliminated the writings of criminals.

I also felt that his criminal past did not make it impossible for me to be friends with him. Jesus consorted with criminals, why should I be so high and mighty? I know I am way out of the mainstream, but I consider George Bush and friends to be murderers. I don't place them in a higher category of human being than murderers who go to jail.

Furthermore, in today's America, in which the cultural messages are almost entirely controlled by the corporate elite who profit greatly from Bush's presidency, I can't take any media message on faith. I pretty much believe in the journalistic axiom: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." So while I keep my mind open to any possibilities as to whether Jim Hatfield was as bad as this article suggests, I can't forget for a minute that most of the media messages I am exposed to are impure messages, lies or distortions. I am extremely distrustful of anything I hear, and that certainly applies in spades to anything I hear regarding Jim Hatfield, because of the powerful drive to discredit him as a means of discrediting the widely circulated allegations that Bush was a coke head who once got busted for it and spent some time doing community service in return for getting the charge expunged from his record.

I've seen plenty on this already, so I am ready for anything. Skepticism is in order on either side of the story.

The article was a shocker in a way. It talked about a lot of things I knew nothing about. It augments my view of Hatfield's story, though I have to suspend judgment, because I have no way of knowing what is true and what the agenda of the writer or the magazine is. I want to take some time to look at the magazine's other articles to see where it is coming from.

The story has a feeling of veracity about it, but then so did Jim's own stories. So can anything, so can good fiction. Even if it is essentially "factual", it is also clearly from a point of view that I don't share. The first act in any "objective" piece is the selection of a fact.

William Goldman is an example of a biographer who could make brushing one's teeth sound like a sinister act. It took me a little while to catch on to his schtick. He wrote a biography of Lenny Bruce that was nauseating in its portrayal of Bruce. Even though it flatly contradicted other reports I had seen from Lenny Bruce's acquaintances as to his use of heroin, the book was compelling and believable. Later Goldman wrote a biography of John Lennon. It too made you want to vomit whenever you heard the name John Lennon. But it turned out Goldman drew almost all his original material from a creep who had worked for Lennon, and then stolen his notebooks. The source was as compromised as you could get. The rest was pieced together with information from the mainstream press. When you looked at the material that was in the public domain and saw how he spun it, you could get a feel for how Goldman distorted things to make the most ordinary acts drip with grime.

I saw Goldman interviewed on a documentary about pop music in the '60s, and as he spoke of the music, he seethed with contempt. I realized this man is not someone I trust when he discredits the icons of popular culture of the '60s. Goldman shows how well it can be done. There are plenty of lucrative opportunities for people who can do that and have no moral or temperamental inhibitions about it. This Oxford article is very compelling. It also has a strong spin.

If all of this is "true", I could still accommodate it into my vision of Hatfield without it all shattering. We all knew Jim had done prison time for a crime that was very serious anyway you slice it. We knew he had a shady side. Part of my fascination with the whole Hatfield legend is that here was a man who had something of the artist's spirit (which is on some levels interchangeable with the criminal mind, the shaman, the genius, the outsider). And this character was drawn fatefully to a head-on collision with the Bush family, who share some of those attributes.

The Bushes are people who do not play by the rules, they do not believe the rules of common people apply to them. They are Nietzschean supermen in their own minds, amoral, sociopathic. And as they pulled the wool over the eyes of more conventional minds, Jim Hatfield could see right through them. He was onto them in large part because he too had the capacity to think outside the margins of "normality" that inhibit most people to a greater or lesser extent.

There was an affinity there, sort of a prince-and-pauper identity that is endlessly fascinating to me. In the end Jim succeeded, in a sense, because he created a legend. He was one of those enigmatic, fascinating characters who had the capacity to take risks and to step beyond the boundaries of convention that protect most of us and keep us stuck in our lives of quiet desperation. He, on the other hand, was a flash across the sky and then gone, but not to be forgotten.

I still feel, as I have always felt, that the book must be taken on its own merit and must stand or fall within itself and not be judged according to whether Jim lied in his personal life, or even in his dealings with the book. I hold all those judgments in suspension. All the attempts to discredit the book have not yet succeeded in my view. I also hold all the information in that article in suspension, subject to further information gathering.

Like any story, the article focuses on some things to the exclusion of everything else. It's fair enough that the article focused only on Jim and didn't concern itself with Bush, although after a while it becomes strange that no one ever wants to look at the other side, which is a much more important question. Is the president of the United States a swindler and a liar? That question is of so much greater importance than the questions about Hatfield's character that one must consider the possibility that focusing strictly on Jim's crimes and shadiness is part of the agenda of diverting attention from the charges against Bush and discrediting those charges by focusing on Jim's crimes and only on Jim's crimes.

One hint of that kind of bias in one part stuck out to me. The first paragraph in the second column on page 46 quotes Sander Hicks, the founder of Soft Skull press who brought the book back to life after St. Martin had abandoned it, saying, "I wanted to do my part as an American, and as an independent media person to support freedom of the press and to get the truth out about the Bushes." etc. Then the author says that Jim Fitzgerald "counters" by saying "Hicks hated Bush and saw it as a political statement. Nothing else to it."

I don't see that as "counter." I see nothing contradictory in those statements. But a pro-Bush person would discredit the first by saying, "Aha! He claims to have those high-minded ideals, but his motivations are really political!" To the Bush-type Republicans, anything that opposes them is "political," by which they imply it's a personal attack without any other principle underlying it. They can't comprehend the view that people attack Bush on principle, because he's dangerous and corrupt. They invert it, as though the opposition is primary and the principle was just an excuse. But that's the way they operate, so they think that's how everyone else does. They can't conceive of anything else.

George Burt, who was Hatfield's accuser and a source for the article, was also an ex-con. That's how he met Hatfield -- in prison. But Burt is "an ex-con success story" in contrast to Hatfield, who Burt characterizes as "really a criminal." Well, okay, but we don't necessarily want to just take Burt's word for it. Did he have an agenda, an axe to grind? It's entirely possible that he did as an ex-business partner who took credit as a writer on some Hatfield books (though he didn't really share in the writing) and who had a falling out with Hatfield in that business.

In another section, Schone quotes an ex-girlfriend as saying, "He always wanted to be rich." Okay. How does that make him different from the vast majority of Americans? How about the Bushes? What about Carlyle? Yet in context the article makes Hatfield sound creepy for wanting to strike it rich.

Even without knowing a great deal about the magazine, I can see I do not share its world view. I don't share the strict categorization that places someone like Jim in a category of "criminal" apart from all the rest of us clean-cut, exemplary Americans, and certainly nowhere near the great and noble Bushes. Criminals are not separate from the rest of us. We are all a little criminal. And the Bushes are archcriminals, racketeers in nice suits. I don't share the idea that Hatfield's criminal tendencies discredit him as a writer. I don't share the rather infantile logic that if Hatfield was a criminal, then there is nothing more to investigate about Bush's past. Even if Hatfield lied about his sources and none of that information about the coke bust was true, it does not close the issue about Bush, although that seemed to have satisfied most reporters. There is really no logical connection.

As another example of its selection of facts, it glossed over completely Hatfield's column in Online Journal, writing off Online Journal as only a "leftie webzine" and dismissing the columns as only "increasingly vitriolic anti-Bush screeds." The actual material in the columns is never mentioned. In my opinion, the columns were great: very spirited, funny, informed and hard-hitting, when most writers were playing with kid gloves. His last column before his death in summer 2001 was almost a premonition in its mention of the bin Ladens business dealings with Bush and the protection of Bush in Genoa against the possibility of Al Qaeda craching airplanes into buildings, which the Bush administration later pretened to have never though about. I found the columns to be very good, and always kinder towards the Bushes than I could ever bring myself to be.

Whether or not the Oxford story deals in facts or fantasies, it doesn't change my view of the really important issues, which center around the character of the lunatic that is driving this country to destruction on many levels. Regarding Hatfield, I remain open minded and very skeptical.

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