Real inconvenient truths

Our failed political dynasties, Pelosi's stylish appeal and George W. Bush as Queen Victoria. Plus: The hot air about global warming.

Topics: Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,

Reviving the format of my original Salon column, Ask Camille, each third column will be devoted to my replies to reader letters, collected at this mailbox. I am very grateful to the hundreds of readers who wrote to welcome me back to Salon and who posed fascinating and thoughtful questions. This month’s selection of letters follows.

Dear Camille,

What is your opinion concerning two people in one family running for office, as in the Bush and Clinton families? We already had a Clinton for eight years — do we need another one for another eight years? Same thing with George and George. We didn’t like the father enough to give him a second term, so how did we (America, not me personally) get stuck with the son? One per family unless we elect a king. That would help keep all the blowhards off TV — maybe.

Reguardi,
Rosina

There may be an atavistic longing for quasi-divine kingship that surfaces in unsettled times. Especially after 9/11, with its diffuse sense of peril, we should beware of the seductive dream of the strong man or clan who will shield us from harm. Democracy is predicated on sometimes chaotic cross-talk, not on governance by fiat, the whims of a hereditary elite.

Political dynasties are mythic foster families whose princes rise and fall like flaming stars. Does it signify democracy’s nostalgia for royalty? The irony is that authentic royalty, re-glamorized by Diana in the 1980s, has waned back into banality in England and everywhere else.

The American dynastic paradigm is of course the Kennedys, whose political ascendancy was engineered by their ruthless paterfamilias, Joseph P. Kennedy, a multimillionaire who financed his mistress Gloria Swanson at the peak of her Hollywood fame and who lived to see the start of the chain of tragedies suffered by his children. From its charismatic height in the truncated presidency of John F. Kennedy (whom I campaigned for as an adolescent), the Kennedy mystique has gradually dissipated — through the overrated, opportunistic Robert F. Kennedy and the scandal-plagued Ted Kennedy to the aimless JFK Jr., an amiable Adonis who finally succumbed to the family curse.



George W. Bush, as his father’s son, was certainly given the benefit of the doubt by the Republican power brokers who settled on him as their party’s 2000 nominee. His hearty, back-slapping persona seemed to promise gritty realism and populist outreach — an advance on his father’s Northeastern country-club effeteness. But George W.’s stunning managerial failures should warn voters away from repeating the dynasty error. Political savvy is clearly not genetic.

With the Clintons, in addition to the interesting gender difference, the dynastic link isn’t generational but spousal. It used to be alleged, on sketchy evidence, that Hillary had the more promising political career, which she put on hold to follow Bill back to his native Arkansas after they had met at Yale Law School. But though Hillary may have strong policy views, her gut-level political skills are erratic, and she has relied heavily on her husband and consultants in running her campaigns. The one program she has ever directed, National Health Care Reform, she bungled badly.

If women as a group are to advance, it is critical for female politicians as prominent as Hillary to mount serious campaigns for the highest office. So what Hillary is doing is important, even simply to draw a road map for future female aspirants. But it’s up to registered Democrats (including me) to decide whether Hillary is in fact suited for the Oval Office or whether her talents are more tailored for a Cabinet role, such as secretary of health and human services.

Dynasties can be a crucible of political education. For example, the young John F. Kennedy profited from the practical experience of his mother’s side of the family: Her father was a legendary mayor of Boston, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Running national campaigns in the United States, with its huge territory, is a complex business. Hillary has certainly benefited from her husband’s mastery of this process. But in trying to beat back the unexpected challenge from Sen. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton’s activities as a backstage advisor and fundraiser have become excessively aggressive and intrusive.

Is it in feminism’s best interests for a woman leader to be so overshadowed by a man? Shouldn’t the first woman president get elected and govern on her own? What that might look like was suggested last week in Nancy Pelosi’s controversial Mideast junket.

Despite legitimate concerns about whether a speaker of the House should be creating ambiguity about American foreign policy, I thought Pelosi looked fabulous — crisp, stylish, graceful and warm yet authoritative. It was a step beyond Condoleezza Rice‘s commanding but steely Amazonian aplomb. And it was a world away from Hillary’s stiff, guarded, sanctimonious unease, which her toothy smiles and barking laugh never quite conceal.

Pelosi is as hard as nails and is no man’s puppet. Whatever her affronts to diplomatic protocol (Democrats wouldn’t want a Republican speaker doing that to a Democratic president), she gave the best seat-of-the-pants performance yet of what a woman president might look like.

I found your summary analysis of the Bush-Cheney relationship to be insightful, as well as your reporting of Bush’s mannerisms at the Latin American summit. What manner of conversionary event did Bush go through to be this way? His father and grandfather were elegant Eastern diplomats and proud of their fine schooling. [George H.W. Bush] previously had no less a life event than to have Japanese and American sailors racing to where he had been downed in the ocean, with the chance that the Japanese would execute or, worse, cannibalize him. (See “Flyboys.”)

GWB among anyone could be excused for his foibles, including his faltering style of speech. As we become more worldly, we grow out of our hometown accents. But W, after being in an upwardly mobile Texas suburb only since high school, carries himself around like a parody of Slim Pickens, talking of nothing more in front of the world stage than when they are going to have lunch and what will be served. Was W’s conversion out of a drunken nightmare, and did he then experience being shaken by Barbara, his mother, telling him, “You aren’t nowhere near gauche enough to be president?” And I guess then he had to prove them all wrong.

International diplomacy has unwritten standards of propriety. Given that Bush truly is a savvy individual, he must have a reason for wanting the Latin American crowd to dismiss him as an idiot. Perhaps his only remaining defense against such hostile crowds as he encounters everywhere he travels in the world that is not a U.S. military base is that the crowd will think that he couldn’t have had active complicity in America’s lack of cooperation with world opinion in all of its recent relations. Our psychosis is that we elected him because he is basically a good boy, and if he got out of line, his evil uncle would always be there to save him and us.

Daniel Helming

Thank you for this vivid overview of George W.’s rocky maturation. It captures why I pity rather than hate him (as so many of my fellow Democrats have no trouble doing). Bush’s swerve away from his father’s preppy patrician style has ended up, as you note, as a hammy caricature of B-movie clichés about the folksy, plain-talking Westerner. His Texas accent has bizarrely gotten more pronounced since he’s lived in Washington — a defense mechanism of reverse snobbery.

I think Bush genuinely wanted to challenge and critique the establishment assumptions of his heritage and Ivy League education, but he lacked the verbal skills to do so. And his problems were compounded by his ineptitude in making top appointments. He got not sound counsel but fantasy and folly from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — whose presence from the start signaled Bush’s slack and even masochistic deferral to his father’s administration.

Re: Bush & Cheney. Perhaps the simplest way to interpret this relationship is that Cheney (by controlling the VP-selection process and thereby scuttling his competitors) thrust himself into the Bush administration as its de facto prime minister, leaving GWB as the pathetic queen, a figurehead with not much to do or say but wave and speechify to the diminishing empire. Just note GWB’s foolishness in his recent Spanish-speaking-nations’ tour.

T. Disante

Thanks for the big laugh! You made me see Bush as a John Tenniel drawing of the aging, melancholy, reclusive Queen Victoria settled amid her voluminous skirts and crossly crocheting a doily. Not exactly John Wayne — Bush’s strutting ego ideal.

As to the war, isn’t the most important loss for the United States our — I don’t know what to call it — dignitas? We were the shining city on the hill. Fairness and habeas corpus. Introspective and at least embarrassed at our hypocrisy. Even with the dirty tricks, we came through the Cold War’s stalemate, and I think we got a pass in the 1990s. Then after 9/11 we had all but a blank check.

We used to be respected and could use our moral authority alone to move mountains. Now, after Iraq, we may be feared because of our weapons, but the U.S. is being compared to any other country with a corrupt political system.

Where do we go to get our reputation back?

TZ.

You’re absolutely right: the loss of American credibility and moral standing because of the Iraq incursion is a devastating tragedy. The damage will take several presidencies or more to heal, but some of it may be irreparable. A whole generation of radical young jihadists has been spawned around the world who see the United States as the Great Satan, an entrenched system of military and cultural oppression that must be attacked by any means.

Bombing the mountains of Afghanistan after 9/11 to obliterate terrorist camps was, in my view, good strategy and proper retaliation. But by stupidly making Iraq (ruled by a tattered despot with decaying infrastructure) the theater of war, the Bush administration has exposed American citizens to danger wherever they live, work or travel for decades to come.

I would like to know, precisely and specifically, why you think the mission in Iraq is unwinnable. What do you believe constitutes a win, and why is that goal is impossible?

David Walton

“Victory”– a word constantly on President Bush’s hopeful lips — cannot be achieved in an amorphous insurgency or in a vast land with indefensible borders that is splintered among ancient sects and tribes. There is no distinct enemy, only a welter of saboteurs hiding among the population, whose loyalties cannot be assessed by a foreign force embarrassingly lacking elementary knowledge of local culture and languages. Our troops are being asked to convert, pacify and reconstruct even while waging war and hence are constantly being put in exposed positions where they can be killed or maimed with simple roadside devices.

What victory is possible in such a scorpion-filled labyrinth? Bush will just stubbornly let the carnage of brave soldiers and hapless civilians go on until he’s helicoptered off the South Lawn of the White House on Inauguration Day 2009. Blood is Bush’s legacy.

The liberal hatred of President Bush has had the ironic effect of driving the president further to the right. When Bush was running in 2000, my superiors at the Christian Coalition (I was the “Jewish lawyer” there) kept warning each other, “They’re moderates.” Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is basically big spending and big government with occasional bursts of conservative-sounding rhetoric. If liberals had not been so hell-bent in hating Bush and opposing him, they might have wooed him over and cut him away from the right-wing. Instead, Bush ended up with nowhere else to go. Liberals hate him, and conservatives are unhappy because of the continued growth of government and spending.

One of the major sins of the Clinton administration was its total failure to adhere to proper procedures. Too much effort was spent on appearances and not enough attention was spent on the details of actually getting anything done. You may strongly disagree with President Bush’s policies, but there is no denying that all of his actions have been taken with appropriate attention to the procedural details. How many times have we had “scandals” because of memoranda from the Office of Legal Counsel or from Capitol Hill — memos that only exist because the administration is following the proper procedures for the actions they seek to take. Contrast this with the Clinton administration, where these procedures were ignored and where memoranda were self-serving CYA often prepared after the fact.

If Senator Clinton becomes president, we will see a return of many the same individuals to the executive branch along with all their failings. Do we really want to see Sandy Berger as national security advisor again? For that matter, why is Lawrence Libby being grilled by an aggressive prosecution for allegedly lying about leaks that the White House personnel did not make, when Mr. Berger gets off with minimal punishment for destroying government archive documents and lying to investigators about it?

Hugh Greentree

I appreciate your insider’s perspective on the rifts in the conservative base. I agree that liberal hatred of Bush has verged on the irrational and threatens to become counterproductive.

I also agree about the fiasco of Sandy Berger’s tenure as national security advisor — a crucial and ultra-sensitive post for which he had shockingly weak credentials. The nation has paid the price for that botched appointment in our lack of preparation for 9/11 — whose likelihood was signaled by the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, an ominous episode that the Clinton administration largely ignored.

I was livid about Berger’s theft of documents from the National Archives and appalled by Bill Clinton’s laughingly blowing it off on the David Letterman show as everyone knowing how “disorganized” Berger’s desk was at the White House. Good lord, this was Clinton’s high-level appointee! The failure to levy due punishment on Berger for his brazen theft, while the book is regularly thrown at working-class felons, is symptomatic of a corruption in our system of justice that should concern all Americans, regardless of party.

Both sides have always criticized one another, but it seems to me that it became a professional sport with the Clintons. Every criticism became a right-wing conspiracy. It’s only escalated from there. I recently figured out that I am a neocon (I always assumed it was just another liberal insult for conservative until I actually heard the definition) with a more liberal social attitude. (I firmly believe in gay marriage and am pro-choice.) I’m frankly sick to death of the way liberals portray anyone who disagrees with them, especially those of us in “flyover land,” as Neanderthals, racists, poorly educated rednecks or Christian fanatics. There are fanatics on both sides, and they all deserve condemnation, but liberals refuse to look in their own mirror. What Sean Hannity is doing is exactly the same as what Al Franken is doing. I think they’re both nuts.

I’m not sure the war has been fought in the most effective manner, and I don’t believe that our military took into account the outside forces that would stream in to undermine our efforts, but I really believe that there are larger issues here that we have to address sooner or later — the threat to our Western style of life by a culture that doesn’t believe in the equality of females, religion or class. The Iranians, Saudis and Syrians, among others, who are trying to destabilize Iraq, are fighting a larger war. They don’t want a secular way of life established anywhere. This is a war between their culture and ours. They’re just waiting for us to blink. Bin Laden referred to this in his speech concerning our debacle in Somalia. Whether or not we should have invaded, our success or failure will determine their next course of action and how hard they fight us elsewhere.

To me, those who want to believe that all people want peace, and if we just stay out of their business they will leave us alone, are naive. Classifying me as a racist for that belief just makes it easier to dismiss me without looking into why I believe what I do. I work for the military and I’ve been to Saudi Arabia. I know what it’s like to not be allowed to drive or ride in the front seat of a car, to be forced to wear a long black robe and be concerned about being detained by the religious police. I’ve also flown in planes full of women who, once they leave Saudi air space, race to the bathroom to put on their Western-style clothes. Don’t tell me that these women are truly happy to be subjugated.

We have a large Arab population here in Dearborn, Mich. Last year the newspapers had stories about the growing problem of honor killings here. Liberals seem to believe that all cultures are valid and should be celebrated. What’s to celebrate about an honor killing? What’s to celebrate about a guy being killed because an Arab girl chose to fall in love with him and not the Arab boy that she was promised to? How can we go from public lynching in the South to honor killings in the North, decrying one but not the other? This isn’t happening in some far-off land, it’s happening in our own backyards.

I’m worried that you and other powerful liberal voices will ignore the negative in order to avoid facing the harsh task of dealing with this growing threat to our way of life. I don’t have a problem celebrating “Muslim History Month” or asking my children to learn about Arabic culture. I do have a problem with being told that any woman in this country should not be equal or that I have to sit idly by while liberal politicians decide which foreign ethnic groups deserve to be saved and which deserve to be sacrificed, based on what’s politically expedient for them. People like me aren’t happy to spill blood: we’re looking to save our grandchildren from what we think is a real threat.

Victoria Pizzo Madden

You make a powerful statement about the very real crisis faced by the West. It is true that there is a peace-at-any-cost wing of the Democrat Party, but I do not belong to it. Some members of that wing still adhere to the 1960s hippie credo (descending from Jean-Jacques Rousseau) that people=good, society=evil, and (as the Beatles said) all you need is love.

I wrote a 700-page book (“Sexual Personae”) disputing that notion and asserting, as did Nietzsche and Freud, that aggression is a natural impulse inextricably intertwined with the formation of human identity. Conflict and war are cyclic and inevitable, which is why a strong military will always be needed.

But I strongly disagree that the invasion of Iraq was an intelligent response to our security threat from terrorist cells dispersed around the globe. Nor has the resentment and hostility it has incited among Muslims everywhere helped make Western culture more appealing. If we are in a clash of civilizations, it’s because fundamentalist religions are gaining in this era of glittering technology but empty materialism. The West is no longer defended by most of its intellectuals.

The transition from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages remains my master paradigm for historical analysis. Greco-Roman humanism became so weakened by its own cosmopolitanism and hedonism that it collapsed in the face of fervid, fundamentalist Christianity, which is still thriving. Out of the Mideast at the dawn of medievalism would also come Islam, which spread through North Africa into Spain and nearly conquered Europe.

We’re at that point again. I see this not as a Manichaean battle of good versus evil but as a Darwinian struggle in social evolution. Which culture will be more confident, vital and creative? There is certainly an inherent incompatibility between Islam and Western feminism in regard to women’s rights. It remains to be seen whether liberals, deeply committed (as I am) to multiculturalism, will face this impasse forthrightly.

But do conservatives really see war as the ultimate solution? There are over a billion Muslims in the world. If the West is to win, it must be by art, culture and persuasion and not by the sword.

Do you love the way Dianne Feinstein sat as head of the Senate military appropriations committee and directed billions of dollars to her husband’s companies? She makes Cheney and Halliburton look like pikers. You should check out the Pulitzer-quality exposé written by Peter Byrne in, of all places, the San Jose Metro, a left-wing liberal smut rag.

Pax,
BD

Thank you for forwarding this riveting article. As I have repeatedly said, I am a fan of Senator Feinstein and have contributed small sums to her campaigns. My interest in her began in 1978 with her cool poise under pressure when, as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she had to announce to the horrified press corps that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated in their offices by a disgruntled former supervisor. Feinstein’s long-term conduct as mayor and senator remains for me the closest approximation we have yet had to that of an ideal woman president — sober, centered, knowledgeable, deliberative, dignified and knife-edge shrewd.

While this exposé, if accurate, does raise disturbing questions about possible impropriety in Feinstein’s committee work, I’m not sure I see a smoking gun. The article is superb, however, in the way that it chronicles the sickening interconnections of government business with big corporations in the United Stats and abroad. Like many other Democrats, I’ve been dismayed by the glaring contradiction between populist liberal ideology and the actual behavior of liberal politicians and journalists, who too often kowtow to power and nakedly pursue their own self-interest.

I know you are a Democrat, but you certainly have very strong libertarian opinions. I was wondering where you stand on the Second Amendment. I’m a registered Independent who, the older I get, leans more toward libertarianism. Ideally there would never have been a Bill of Rights, and all freedoms would be understood to be the rights of every American. But since we have one, the rights listed, to me at least, are sacrosanct — all of them, not just the first and third through the tenth!

I am pro-gun ownership. I have never been arrested, and the sum total of my criminal activity amounts to a pair of moving violations when I was still in my 20s. However, since I live in New York City, I need to either be rich and famous or navigate a confusing legal process if I want to acquire a permit.

We are always reminded, not least by Mayor Bloomberg (whom I generally like and voted for) that illegal guns kill. The problem is, there is no real means to get a gun legally, and those in the world who are anti-gun want to make it harder. The thing that leaves me scratching my head is when people say, Mayor Mike among ‘em, that we need stricter laws to crack down on illegal guns! Exactly what needs to be in place to make an illegal gun more illegal!

I know there are bigger issues right now facing our presidential candidates, but this speaks to personal freedom as much as any other issue. Just wondering how you see it.

Dave Hunt
Brooklyn

As a Salon columnist (dating back to the founding of Salon in 1995), I have tried to provide a forum for defenders of the Second Amendment to make their case. The Northeastern major media, which remain heavily liberal, rarely permit these voices to be heard.

I do not own guns and have no interest in them. (Swords, those Homeric and chivalric emblems, have always attracted me more.) But as a libertarian, I read the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights as granting to private citizens the right to bear arms against the potential abuses of a government turned tyrannous. Furthermore, should police authority evaporate after a cataclysm of storm, flood, earthquake or terrorism, citizens have a right to defend their families and property against criminals and looters. If food and water are in short supply over a protracted period, expect predators and violence.

The horrendous problem of illegal guns now rampant among the urban underclass cannot be solved by depriving all American citizens of their Second Amendment rights. Major cities must address their internal problems, which include improving public education and vocational training, creating job-rich public works projects, and instituting on-the-street neighborhood policing. The major media, concentrated in their metropolises, should stop extrapolating their local issues to the nation as a whole.

Just wondering what your thoughts are on the global warming issue. Have you seen the Al Gore movie? Any thoughts on the current debate on climate science?

Many thanks,
April
Vancouver

Oh, great, here comes the hornet’s nest!

As a native of upstate New York, whose dramatic landscape was carved by the receding North American glacier 10,000 years ago, I have been contemplating the principle of climate change since I was a child. Niagara Falls, as well as the even bigger dry escarpment of Clark Reservation near Syracuse, is a memento left by the glacier. So is nearby Green Lakes State Park, with its mysteriously deep glacial pools. When I was 10, I lived with my family at the foot of a drumlin — a long, undulating hill of moraine formed by eddies of the ancient glacier melt.

Geology and meteorology are fields that have always interested me and that I might well have entered, had I not been more attracted to art and culture. (My geology professor in college, in fact, asked me to consider geology as a career.) To conflate vast time frames with volatile daily change is a sublime exercise, bordering on the metaphysical.

However, I am a skeptic about what is currently called global warming. I have been highly suspicious for years about the political agenda that has slowly accrued around this issue. As a lapsed Catholic, I detest dogma in any area. Too many of my fellow Democrats seem peculiarly credulous at the moment, as if, having ground down organized religion into nonjudgmental, feel-good therapy, they are hungry for visions of apocalypse. From my perspective, virtually all of the major claims about global warming and its causes still remain to be proved.

Climate change, keyed to solar cycles, is built into Earth’s system. Cooling and warming will go on forever. Slowly rising sea levels will at some point doubtless flood lower Manhattan and seaside houses everywhere from Cape Cod to Florida — as happened to Native American encampments on those very shores. Human habitation is always fragile and provisional. People will migrate for the hills, as they have always done.

Who is impious enough to believe that Earth’s contours are permanent? Our eyes are simply too slow to see the shift of tectonic plates that has raised the Himalayas and is dangling Los Angeles over an unstable fault. I began “Sexual Personae” (parodying the New Testament): “In the beginning was nature.” And nature will survive us all. Man is too weak to permanently affect nature, which includes infinitely more than this tiny globe.

I voted for Ralph Nader for president in the 2000 election because I feel that the United States needs a strong Green Party. However, when I tried to watch Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” on cable TV recently, I wasn’t able to get past the first 10 minutes. I was snorting with disgust at its manipulations and distortions and laughing at Gore’s lugubrious sentimentality, which was painfully revelatory of his indecisive, self-thwarting character. When Gore told a congressional hearing last month that there is a universal consensus among scientists about global warming — which is blatantly untrue — he forfeited his own credibility.

Environmentalism is a noble cause. It is damaged by propaganda and half-truths. Every industrialized society needs heightened consciousness about its past, present and future effects on the biosphere. Though I am a libertarian, I am a strong supporter of vigilant scrutiny and regulation of industry by local, state and federal agencies. But there must be a balance with the equally vital need for economic development, especially in the Third World.

Here’s a terrible episode from my region that made the news just last year. A bankrupt thermometer factory in Franklin Township, N.J., vacated its building in 1994 but ignored a directive to clean the premises of residual mercury toxins. There was a total failure of oversight and follow-through at the state and local levels. The result: In 2004, a daycare center opened in the renovated building and for two years subjected children and pregnant women to a dangerously high level of mercury vapors from the contaminated site.

The degree of permanent health effects on those children is still unknown. This kind of outrageous negligence should not be tolerated in a civilized nation.

As an incurable Australian, I admire Ann Coulter’s rugged individualism (a rare treat in your country’s incestuous liberal-majority media) and her willingness to take real hits and throw good punches. Was she born in an Australian pub?

Seriously. Coulter’s “Slander,” for example, is a real classic — and a blow to the establishment press. Come to think of it, I also admire your penchant for breaking rules too.

The printing and dancing classes across the States are just cashed-up hippies — and the really exciting news, for some, is that the author of “Godless” is a clever goddess with more tricks up her long sleeves. She is power in black and white. Trust me, there is more to come.

Questions: Do you think your fellow Democrats are underestimating her skills? And what draws you to a party with so much baggage? Do you believe you can shake things up in your own camp and bring home some “reality” to the chattering classes? Also, will the American elites be the last people on earth to learn that our most-read columnists are laughing at Al “I have a 10,000-square-foot, twenty-room, eight-bathroom, McMansion” Gore?

Ben Terpstra
Geelong, Australia

What a wonderful blast of Australian energy! It’s very diverting to see American politics from your sharp outside angle.

My problem with Ann Coulter is not the subjects she tackles, which are always substantive, but her carelessness of research and argumentation. She has frankly admitted that she now writes her books as if they were e-mails to her friends. I like her boldness and vigor, but I see no excuse for such indifference to craftsmanship.

Ideas, whether of the right or the left, deserve respect. But Coulter increasingly treats them like throwaway lines. The rapier thrust of true wit is not the bump-de-dump of a bad joke. But evidently Coulter can no longer tell the difference.

I am writing to ask if you ever met Norman O. Brown. I spent some time with him at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the early 1990s. He was a great admirer of and advocate for “Sexual Personae.” You may know that, but in case you did not, I thought you would like to know.

Best wishes,
Bill Carpenter

Speak of knocking one’s socks off! No, I had no idea that one of my major culture heroes had read, much less liked, “Sexual Personae.”

Of course, this probably isn’t surprising, considering the enormous impact on me in college of Brown’s great books, “Life After Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History” (1959) and “Love’s Body” (1969). I was also intrigued by his “Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth” (1947). If Brown was picking up his influence on my thinking, he was right!

How lucky I was that radical and profound thinkers like Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Norman O. Brown were the public luminaries of my formative student years. They were true humanists — erudite, expansive and daringly imaginative.

And how unlucky the next generation, which was forcibly subjected to the pretension and cynicism of poststructuralism and postmodernism — those gooey scramblers of far too many promising brains.

Jean Baudrillard recently passed away. Do you have any thoughts or opinions about this influential French thinker. I’m especially interested in your opinion of his idea regarding hyper-reality.

Conor Ryan

I suspect Dante designing his Inferno would have had a very special little hot spot for poststructuralists and postmodernists (see above letter), who distorted language with self-important opacity and who inflated small ideas into giant, groaning bladder-bags.

I never encountered a single sentence by Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan or Michel Foucault that drew or held my interest. As for Baudrillard’s dizzy maunderings about mass media, they made no sense whatever to me as a professor of media studies or as an American who grew up on pop and whose vibrant patron saint was Andy Warhol.

Good riddance to that whole crew!

Is the Met overly sanitized?

I had some time to kill recently on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and decided to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I remember from my childhood as an unfathomably huge and awesome temple to human culture and history. After paying the $20 “recommended” entrance fee (which feels, by the way, sort of like giving charity at gunpoint), I wandered over to the Greek and Roman galleries.

I was shocked at what I saw, or rather what I didn’t see — not a single erection on any vase! I went through all the galleries twice, because I couldn’t believe my eyes. And also, there was no reference to Greek homosexuality in any of the textual information on the walls. And honestly there weren’t even that many butts exposed — most of them were turned to the wall, to make space for another case of priceless, meaningless shards.

Every other collection of Greek pottery I’ve ever seen has demonstrated the full range of Greek sexuality, both in its collection and its education material — for example, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If they really want young people to get excited about studying the Classical world, then they are just shooting themselves in the foot as educators by denying themselves the most effective teaching tool imaginable: human sexuality. I almost had a very “Camille” moment when I almost yelled across the room at the museum tour guide explaining the labors of Hercules to a bunch of bored 13-year-olds, “AND THEY ALL LIKED TO FUCK BOYS TOO! A LOT!!”

Honestly, what gives? Do you know what’s going on with this museum’s puritanical curatorial policy? There were signs up around the gallery announcing a reorganization and expansion of the Classical wing due for a month or two from now. Maybe we could start a campaign to get them to start representing the realities of ancient life and its representation in art. Many other visitors must share my sense of personal disappointment and scholarly outrage. I mean, what’s a shy bookish gay lad to do when he can’t even depend on the museums for flirtation material?

Yours truly,
Wink L. Mann

Thank you very much for this alarming bulletin! I hadn’t realized that the great Metropolitan Museum of Art (whose Egyptian collection mesmerized me as a child) has been censoring its curatorial materials.

Perhaps the new Greek and Roman galleries (which open April 20) will be franker about sexuality — or at least about boy-love, which in its most idealistic Athenian incarnation did not necessarily have a physical correlate. In Plato’s “Symposium,” for example, Socrates admits he is in love with the beautiful young Alcibiades but declines sexual gratification.

But Greco-Roman art is a riot of boys, boys, boys — from athletic Attic kouroi to the divinized super-glam Antinous, whose melting androgynous looks would reappear in Donatello’s sly, slithery David (see the chapter on Italian Renaissance art in “Sexual Personae”). Every few years, a delicious bronze boy, lying amid the cargo of an ancient shipwreck, snags the nets of fishermen off Greece or Italy.

Salon readers: please support marine archaeology!

On your assessment of John Lauritsen’s new book about the authorship of “Frankenstein”: just wanted to bring to your attention the 1973 TV movie, with a great screenplay by Christopher Isherwood.

The homoerotic undercurrents of the work are on display here, and it’s indeed a magnificent film, to which Isherwood brings an added gothic sensibility by injecting a perverse Bride of Frankenstein storyline. It’s all done in a very welcome “realistic” way, which makes the story all the more monstrous.

The leads are good, and the cast in general spectacular, including Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Margaret Leighton and James Mason as Dr. Polidori.

Juan Meyer
Mexico City

Wow! I’ve never seen this. Thanks so much for the tip! Isherwood was of course the author of “The Berlin Stories,” a memoir of his sexual odyssey in Nazi-era Berlin that was made into “I Am a Camera” and “Cabaret.” He later lived in Los Angeles, where he studied and wrote about Buddhism.

What is your view of the revelations about Susan Sontag’s death by her lover — the photos and details of her final days?

Helen

Last fall, I was astonished at the inert lack of response by cultural commentators to Annie Leibovitz’s gross publication of her photos of Sontag’s corpse, as well as of the bloated Sontag hospitalized before her death.

When Newsweek posted the weird corpse photo online (to accompany its Oct. 2, 2006, cover story on Leibovitz), I could find very little intelligent reaction on the blogosphere — which is one reason I decided it was time to return to Salon.

For Leibovitz to use those photos to sell a new book seemed callously exploitative to me — though I have been one of Sontag’s most outspoken critics. (See “Sontag, Bloody Sontag” in my 1994 essay collection, “Vamps & Tramps.”) The major media, presumably cowed by Leibovitz, raised no questions about long-standing reports of a bitter ending of her relationship with Sontag years before. Were no red flags raised for editors or journalists at Leibovitz’s sudden candor and exhibitionism when Sontag was safely dead?

Nor did anyone seem to blink at Leibovitz boasting about buying Sontag an apartment in Paris and helping maintain Sontag’s lifestyle in her private Manhattan penthouse with a gigantic wraparound terrace (pictured in the book; Leibovitz lived elsewhere). In 2005, Sontag’s New York apartment was listed for sale at $3.75 million. What does it say about so prominent a leftist intellectual that she was being effectively supported by Vanity Fair magazine (Leibovitz’s employer)? — whose orientation is toward an entertainment and celebrity culture that the public Sontag ostentatiously opposed.

And what does it say about PBS that it allowed a documentary on Leibovitz in its prestigious “American Masters” series to be filmed and directed by Leibovitz’s sister, Barbara? — a broadcast that was carefully timed to publicize Leibovitz’s new book. Does PBS, with its public funding, feel no responsibility for neutrality and objectivity?

And as long as I am lodging complaints, what about the excessive number of friends and acquaintances who were allowed to write Sontag’s major obituaries two years ago? Their personal anecdotes were naively vain enough to unintentionally reveal what a party animal she was. Parties were Sontag’s element: It was there that she played the philosopher queen bee, dazzling with her Delphic pronouncements and curtly giving the cold shoulder to the unworthy. And it was there that she embedded herself with the powers that be in the publishing and literary world, which closed ranks around her. (In contrast, I avoid parties wherever possible and have even declined my publisher’s offer of book parties.)

Over time, Sontag’s reputation will stand or fall not on her compulsive socializing and networking (which should raise doubts about her putative seriousness) but on her writing. Others will make those judgments. I myself feel that Sontag was a serial name-dropper who made gestures at subjects rather than saying something new, true or memorable about them. Except for a few early essays, when she was a witness to the surging avant-garde scene in downtown New York, Sontag rarely delivered what she advertised.

Anna Nicole was “a big, strapping, good-natured Texas gal”? Please! She was a whore!

The only way she ever got anything she ever wanted was by fucking for it, because that was the only thing she was ever really any good at! Do you really think Hef made her Playmate of the Year because of her “radiant” personality? Do you really think Howard Marshall married her because of her “comedic charm”?

And what’s this? “Never mind the pills”? Excuse me, but didn’t the pills likely have just a wee bit to do with her death at the age of 39? In fact, if I’m not mistaken, her last words went something like this:

Hoowwwwaarrrrdddd….I’m huuuunnnngrryyyyyy….feeeeeeed meeee, I want some buffalo wiiiinnnggsss….get them NOWWWWWWW…

Hoowwwwaarrrrdddd….the roooomm is spinnnniiinnngggg….make it ssssstopppppp…..

Hoowwwwaarrrrdddd….I’m baaaarrrfiinnnngggg…..fixxxx iiitttt…..

Hoowwwwaarrrr…glurg…hchohch kack ralph bluuuurrrrgggg gag wheeze…………….rattle

So I wonder if Elton John will write a song about her now?

“…and it seems to me,
you lived your life
like a Bimbo in the Wind…”

Signed,
Bonehead

This is hilarious! It’s fiendishly difficult to reproduce voices in print, but you’ve done it beautifully.

As the weeks have passed in Anna Nicole’s endless posthumous saga, I’ve simply become more confirmed in my view of her as a populist heroine. There has been an avalanche of testimonials, with pictures, of Anna Nicole’s warmth and generosity to her fans. And the sometimes squalid home videos that have surfaced (of her staggering around in garish clown makeup or collapsing in a snit on her Bahamian lawn, etc.) have chillingly illustrated the impaired state of free-floating decadence through which she dreamily channeled Marilyn Monroe.

Anna Nicole, like a druggy, doomed Warhol superstar, lived in her own private Hollywood. And frankly, it was a hell of a lot more interesting than the real Hollywood on display in February at that excruciatingly lifeless Academy Awards show!

Congratulations to the long-suffering Larry Birkhead, that sweet-tempered fan favorite, for having been officially proved to be the father of Anna Nicole’s baby daughter. I cheered and applauded at the news.

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.

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