Our Man In L.A: The memorial that betrays itself

Click to follow

For years, I've been hearing good things about the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It has been lauded as one of the most innovative museums in the world, making ingenious use of state-of-the-art interactive tools to force visitors to confront their own prejudices and make them feel, not just understand, what it is like to be on the receiving end of rank bigotry.

It is a favourite destination for school field trips, politicians wishing to flash their PC credentials, and liberal-minded movie stars looking for a good cause to endow. Recently, a judge in Orange County made a mandatory visit to the Museum of Tolerance part of the punishment he meted out to a white miscreant who had physically threatened his Iranian boss.

Since the museum is about to open branches in New York and Jerusalem (the latter in a building designed by Frank Gehry), a visit seemed long overdue. So I went earlier this week. Only instead of the great educational experience I was expecting, I was bewildered, even angered by what I found. The exhibits, from start to finish, were manipulative, ideologically loaded and politically partisan in ways that utterly belie the museum's ostensibly disinterested educational purpose.

First of all, there's the name. The museum chronicles slavery, race-baiting, blanket discrimination, murder and genocide - not only egregious instances of intolerance, but events which by their nature are also intolerable. Who exactly is supposed to tolerate what here?

Then there is the museum's in-your-face presentation. Right at the start, visitors are invited to choose between a door marked "Prejudiced" and another marked "Unprejudiced", depending on the way they regard themselves. But the door marked "Un- prejudiced" is kept locked at all times - because, as the museum guide explains, there is bigotry in all of us. This is merely a harbinger of the hectoring tone to come - a tone that presupposes we all need to understand how hateful thoughts can lead to hateful words, and hateful words to hateful actions. The message wouldn't be so objectionable if it weren't so facile, if it weren't so far from a satisfactory explanation of why genocide occurs, and if it weren't rammed down your throat during the carefully orchestrated tour. At times I felt as if my group was being huddled together and bludgeoned into thinking: "You will be more tolerant! You will be more tolerant!"

The museum's driving mission becomes clear as the panels and video screen displays devoted to the Ku Klux Klan, the 1992 LA Riots, the Rwandan genocide and the Yugoslav wars of secession fall away to make way for the subject that truly excites the passions of the curators, the Holocaust. Since the museum is run by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, whose LA headquarters are across the street, it is hardly surprising the Holocaust looms large. As a subject, it is of course entirely legitimate. But this is the Holocaust retold from a very specific pro- Zionist, religious Jewish perspective, and the politics become intrusive enough to seem both dishonest and downright vulgar.

In the museum's over-simplistic version of events, no Jews were collaborators with the Nazis and all Germans were. The rest of the world is divided between the "righteous among nations" (who lobbied for the creation of the state of Israel after the war) and the ignominious others. Palestine is referred to as "the Jewish homeland", without regard for the Palestinians. The rise of Nazism is explained, in absurdly ahistorical terms, as the result of an anti-Semitism that "is never far beneath the surface when times are hard" - the implication being, as all pro-Israeli groups like to argue, that it is as dangerous now as it was then.

I yearned for the more reflective, unabashedly moving Holocaust narratives of a Viktor Frankl or a Primo Levi (neither of whom, incidentally, feature in a bookstore filled with titles such as Meir Wagner's The Righteous of Switzerland and the inevitable Schindler's Ark). This is a museum that ignores its own purported message of tolerance, preferring to tell you what to think at every turn. As such, it betrays its own historical mission and reduces the deepest of human tragedies to mere propaganda. Its visitors deserve much better.

Love is...surviving a flop

Apparently, there is accounting for taste in Hollywood after all. Last weekend saw the arrival on US screens of Gigli, a film said to be so bad that the studio marketing department's best hope was for audiences to get their kicks from its sheer, stinking awfulness. It was conceived as a showcase for the real-life lovebirds Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, who star as a pair of low-life gangsters falling in love against the odds - she's a lesbian, he's an idiot, you get the picture.

For once, though, audiences didn't fall for the celebrity hype, and the film came in a dismal eighth in the box-office chart on its opening weekend, bringing in enough money to cover the San Pellegrino expenses but little else. Stung by the poor notices, Affleck and Lopez have apparently vowed never to work together again - an inauspicious omen, one might think, for their upcoming nuptials. As James Verniere wrote in his review in the Boston Herald: "I can't be the only person wishing Affleck and Lopez would just skip the wedding and go straight to the divorce, thereby sparing the lives of thousands of innocent trees."

Presidential screen test

A new television documentary, meanwhile, gives an insight into the films most often screened by presidents at the White House. Jimmy Carter liked Midnight Cowboy, while George Bush is crazy about Saving Private Ryan. But the most popular title over the past several administrations is High Noon. The television columnists have all waxed lyrical about Fred Zinnemann's classic and the lonely burden of high office, but what I want to know is: do US presidents fancy themselves as Gary Cooper, or do they just like the idea of Grace Kelly as first lady?