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Elizabeth Ely

The Banality of Love, or, Valentine’s Day at “Asswipe Central”

by Elizabeth Ely

To tell you about my Valentine’s Day this year, I have to tell you that I first met Ben back in ’91, at a political demonstration. It was right after the City of New York closed down Tompkins Square Park for that “refurbishing” to make it less convenient for homeless persons’ tents. The riots had already erupted a week before, so that weekend the protests were less violent.

As a bunch of us watched a ragtag bunch pause before a police barricade, someone cracked a cynical remark. I looked to my left to see a skinny 29-year-old in the Lower East Side uniform of jeans and t-shirt.

I should have seen it last week, he said. Some guy at the riot helped loot a store. Holding the cash register, he looked right at the poor storeowner and, just before smashing the register to bits, took a stand against capitalism. “This is what I think of your capitalist system.” Then – SMASH – down went capitalism.

At the peak of the frenzy before us, it rained. Anger gave way to ecstasy. The protesters danced and laughed, and – there in the center of it all – a couple began to kiss. The makeout session ended along with the dancing when the cops went in with billy clubs and shields.

I hadn’t seen Ben in a while, but three weeks ago, we met for a drink, mutually approved of our middle-age weight gain, and decided to see more of each other.

For Valentine’s Day, we visited the latest protest rally – Bono’s (AUCTION) RED at Sotheby’s to raise money for AIDS drugs for Africa. It was just like old times, two cynical kids making snide remarks about an earnest but misguided attempt to change things. This time I was armed with about $700 worth of brochures.

He asked me later what exactly had been going on inside, so I explained. They were auctioning off art donated by artists, to raise money to send AIDS drugs to Africa – drugs documented to cause anemia, cancer, dementia and the kind of “rash” that literally burns the skin off a person’s body.

“So you mean all that time I was standing outside Asswipe Central?” he asked, cynical as ever.

“Yes, exactly. Asswipe Central.”

The art had to be red or love-themed. They raised $40 million to buy nevirapine, AZT and other drugs described ignorantly as “lifesaving.” Damien Hirst’s painting of a big pink heart with dead butterflies stuck on it brought $3.3 million. I hold a mixture of disgust and pity for the poor soul who paid $7.15 million for Hirst’s medicine cabinet full of pills called “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way.” They’re going to feel so stupid when it comes out that those pills are killing people, and that “AIDS” is just a euphemism for the fact that Africans too often die of poverty, war and malnutrition – not for lack of Western pharmaceuticals.

No wonder Bono, revered lead singer of U2, had to get Hirst drunk on the Bono-yacht to get him to do it. The auction evoked the woozy haze of sloe gin and the absurdity of a college prank at 4 a.m.

The truth is already out, of course. It’s public. AIDS drugs cause anemia, dementia, cancer, wasting, and a “rash” called Stevens-Johnson syndrome that burns the skin off bodies, leaving patients vulnerable to fatal infections. What does HIV do, that has been proved? Mainstream AIDS research even admits it doesn’t know and that the drugs cause more death than they prevent. I can show you pictures of the rash. Ignorance of the matter is just interpretation, spin and wishful thinking, now aided by (RED) product licensing.

Some 20 artists reportedly refused to donate to this narcissism festival. Now why would anyone refuse all that publicity and market-making for their art? Who doesn’t want to see notables pay up to $7 million for works that would likely get nothing but laughs on the open market? Maybe they didn’t have any red pieces available in time, being in their “blue periods.” More likely, they didn’t approve of the project. Hirst won’t name names, but one of these refuseniks was reportedly Chris Ofili, the British artist known for his work in the hot new medium of elephant dung – yup, that’s right – shit.

I hope Ofili comes out with a new work made of shit painted a bright, cheery pink. He should call it “The Banality of Evil.” Hannah Arendt blamed some of the Holocaust on this because, as she saw it, evil doesn’t always go around baring its fangs, playing stacked chords on a pipe organ and laughing with sinister intent at its own evil-ness. Instead, like war criminal Adolf Eichmann (whom she was describing), it sits at a desk all day and rubber-stamps the names of people going to concentration camps and brags about meeting its monthly quota.

The banal person really believes he’s improving the world. He stands there with a figurative vacuum cleaner, sucking up all the proverbial filth and marveling at the theoretical beauty of a spotless room. He sees nothing but metaphor, even when the murder of human beings is before him.

Take Martha Stewart, for instance. I suspect that the jewel red color of the SUV she showed up in was no accident; appearances matter to her. I doubt she even knows what’s happening in Washington Heights, let alone Africa.

Dennis Hopper was downright insulted by my attempt to hand him the information. Elegant and distinguished, with a woman on each arm, he merely waved me away. I felt certain he would be concerned – if he knew.

The Banality of Evil is ignorance. What you don’t know, you cannot be responsible for. But I don’t excuse anyone for not knowing, willfully or not. These celebrities should know what their money is buying. They have all the more responsibility because they’re rich and famous.

Arendt’s Banality of Evil theory has fallen out of fashion because banality is back “in.” It’s what they’re wearing on the red carpet lately. So many aspire to it nowadays, like the people behind the velvet rope adoring Bono and hoping for a sideways glance through the windows at Christy Turlington talking with the paparazzi. At our level, we wear it on t-shirts and iPods.

The competing idea that the Holocaust was “unique” among genocides and anything but banal has caught on with an enforced moral fervor. I agree that the perpetrators were passionate about killing, not banal. I suspect, though, that the banality theory has lost to uniqueness for another, less lovely reason: Banality describes us. Something unique has nothing to do with us. We can always say, We just bought the t-shirts.

Back around Tompkins Square in the ‘90s, Ben and I laughed at the fashionably radical kids making out in the middle of a riot. This past Valentine’s Day, we kissed at a safe distance from the red carpet, still laughing, while inside Asswipe Central, somebody bought a Jeff Koons balloon-bunny for $2.035 million. My Ben and I are ordinary after all, but not banal. I hope we still have our edge, and a few sarcastic remarks to offer the circus in front of us.

The guy who used to deliver pizzas by bike in the East Village calls to tell me that he and his car are getting their first E-ZPass. Our hair has a tinge of gray in it. I fight the power, and he laughs at me, gently, kindly, my sweet, cynical Ben.