Dogma days

Religion is becoming an endless political distraction -- but cultural secularism is not the answer. Plus: The amazing Obamas! The return of Gennifer Flowers! And the lamest duck of all

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Is there a lamer duck than George W. Bush? Bumbling and fumbling even more than usual in his inability to finesse the embarrassing release of an intelligence report on Iran’s stand-down of its nuclear program four years ago, Bush has seemed moody and unnerved by his marginalization in the news, which is swamped by sharp primary skirmishes in both parties.

With Vice President Dick Cheney, our Styrofoam iron chancellor, having been rushed to the hospital the prior week for yet another heart scare, the U.S. government seemed to have an ominous vacuum at the top. But America’s enemies shouldn’t relax: Nothing is more dangerous than the reflexive lashing out of a regime in decline. Iran is still a mighty big target for an inept administration desperate for a legacy. Never mind the innocent Iranian civilians who will be slaughtered in a “surgical” aerial bombardment. Nameless, faceless, they don’t matter in the White House craps game of high-stakes Mideast strategy.

If the “surge” is really working in Iraq, all my fellow Democrats should rejoice, because it’s one more step toward getting U.S. troops the hell out of there. Let Bush have his face-saving claims of victory — who cares? Just bring this stupid, wasteful war to an end. Our brave soldiers and their families have suffered enough. And the toll in death, mutilation and trauma among hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis is obscenely high and will never be fully documented. I remain skeptical about long-term political prospects in Iraq, whose nationhood was a convenient British fiction after World War I and whose border territory may eventually be devoured by its neighbors, including Turkey and Iran.

Meanwhile, the thundering horses in the presidential sweepstakes have been neighing and nipping at each other as time grows short. Mitt Romney may have been breathtakingly presumptuous in commandeering the flag-bedecked forum of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library for his long-anticipated speech on religion, but on balance, I think the event was a success for him merely by demonstrating his idealistic, bouncily upbeat character. Rudy Giuliani, dogged by tacky ethics questions, seems in contrast like a shadowy, hard-bitten wheeler and dealer, like Hillary Clinton a ruthless pursuer of power for its own sake. True, Romney’s had a million positions on any question, but who’s counting?

Romney’s move may have been tactically necessary to counter evangelical Protestants’ rejection of Mormonism as a cult, but the speech wasn’t as conceptually developed as it should have been. As an atheist, I wasn’t offended by Romney’s omission of nonbelievers from his narrative of American history. On the contrary, I agree with him that the founders of the U.S. social experiment were Christians (even if many were intellectual deists) and that our separation of church and state entails the rejection of an official, government-sanctioned creed rather than the obligatory erasure of references to God in civic life.

But what does Romney mean by the ongoing threat of a new “religion of secularism”? The latter term needs amplification and qualification. In my lecture on religion and the arts in America earlier this year at Colorado College, I argued that secular humanism has failed, that the avant-garde is dead, and that liberals must start acknowledging the impoverished culture that my 1960s generation has left to the young. Atheism alone is a rotting corpse. I substitute art and nature for God — the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe.

But primary and secondary education, which should provide an entree to great art and thought, has declined into trivialities and narcissistic exercises in self-esteem. Popular culture, once emotionally vibrant and collective in impact (from Hollywood movies to rock music), has waned into flashy, transient niche entertainment. The young, who are masters of ever-evolving personal technology, are besieged by the siren call of materialism. In this climate, it is selfish and shortsighted for liberals to automatically define religion as a social problem that needs suppression or eradication. Without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs — including the tranquilizers that seem near universal among the status-addled professional class of the Northeastern elite.

Europe, which has settled into a comfortable secularism, is no model for the future. The great era of European achievement in arts and letters seems to be over. There are local luminaries but no towering figures any longer of the stature of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Ingmar Bergman. Europe is becoming a museum and tourist trap, as people from all over the world flock to see the remnants of Europe’s royal and religious past — the conservative prelude, in other words, to today’s slack liberalism.

Searching, for example, for online news about Italy in recent years, I’ve been dismayed by its near-total domination by soccer, with archaeological discoveries and the restoration of Old Master paintings coming in second. The pope flits hither and thither, but that’s it. Is there nothing new in post-Fellini Italian culture? It’s as if Europe, struggling to incorporate massive Muslim immigration, has retreated into a bubble where the beautiful artifices of the past float like a mirage. Secularism evidently cannot stimulate creativity as profoundly as religion does — whether in the artist’s soaring affirmation or angry resistance.

Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of religion in American politics is becoming a tedious distraction from urgent social problems like healthcare. I detest sanctimony in any form — from the unctuous piety of smarmy televangelists to ostentatious badge-wearing (such as the gold-cross necklace that Hillary Clinton was regularly flaunting around Capitol Hill). Religious protestations are now a rote formula for asserting family values and opposing moral relativism, with which the Democrats have been tagged since the hedonistic ’60s. One reason religion is so intrusive in the United States is because of the mammoth institutional power of our mass media, which is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Religion has become a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness against our Hollywood Babylon.

Meanwhile, my pessimism about the Democrats’ chances in next year’s presidential election vanished for an ecstatic moment when I laid eyes on a photo posted last week on the Drudge Report of the Obamas standing with Oprah Winfrey. I was electrified by the relaxed, genial Obama coupledom — what a vision of a future White House! It flashed through my mind that Michelle Obama would be the most graceful, stylish first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.

And she’s fierce! Michelle in combat goes straight for the jugular. There’s none of that bitter, self-pitying feminazi irony that Hillary indulges in — as in her smugly caustic reference in the recent CNN debate to the onerous “impediments” that women face. (Oh, right — men are to blame for the privileged Wellesley and Yale Law grad having failed her D.C. bar exam.)

Salon readers have been asking what my take is on the risqué gossip swirling on the Web about Hillary and her top aide Huma Abedin (and first reported three weeks ago in the mainstream press by the Times of London). I think the rumors are ridiculous. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about college-era bisexual adventures in the biography of any product of the 1960s, but I just don’t buy the crackpot right-wing hallucination of Hillary the whip-cracking bull dyke. On the other hand, there’s some mighty weird projection onto Hillary smoking up from her hetero female admirers. I think CNN anchorwoman Campbell Brown should have been fired after that misty look of submissive adoration with which she bathed Hillary during her pseudo question at the climax of the CNN debate. What a travesty!

Sticking to the erotic front, I enjoyed the reappearance of Gennifer Flowers on the national scene last week, when she made news by saying she’d consider voting for Hillary as a woman. Flowers was certainly the crème de la crème of the Arkansas ladies with whom Gov. Bill Clinton allegedly dallied, and not least, she seems to have kick-started copycat Hillary on the road to blondness.

My partner, Alison, and I had the great pleasure of meeting Gennifer Flowers in person at her cozy nightclub in New Orleans three years ago. (I was speaking about Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” at the annual Words & Music Festival.) Flowers strolled around amiably singing and greeting her guests. We were mesmerized. (Alison got a signed T-shirt for her father.) Even a quarter century after her Little Rock prime, Gennifer Flowers was one of the most radiant, charismatic people I have ever seen in my life. We were in no doubt about her hypnotic buxom appeal to the roving-eyed young Bill. Check out these photos from the year we saw her: Flowers is making a courtesy call on “BOOBS! The Musical.” Now y’all be sure to enlarge!

There was an excellent Op-Ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week about the urgent national need for technical education — which has been a recurrent theme in my Salon columns for a decade. Walt Gardner, who taught public school for 28 years in Los Angeles, calls for a “shift in our attitude to grant career and technical education the same recognition, respect and value that we reflexively accord academic education.”

Gardner predicts severe dislocations for the college-educated middle class over the next two decades: “Auto mechanics, plumbers, and electricians will be earning a comfortable living and deriving deep satisfaction from their work, while many graduates from marquee-name colleges will find themselves unemployed when their jobs are off-shored.”

Exactly! And as a career college teacher, I want to insist yet again that the general education offered by American public high schools and even elite colleges and universities has become blatantly mediocre and not worth the price. Soaring tuition costs are a national scandal that the presidential candidates have failed to systematically address. Families and students themselves have incurred monstrous debts in their deluded search for brand-name cachet, which only marginally relates to a quality education. The college admissions race in the United States is a gigantic marketing scam that most mainstream journalists, desperate to get their kids into the overrated Ivy League, have shamefully neglected.

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Al Gore got the Nobel Prize this week for his role as chief propagandist in spreading global warming hysteria into every nook and cranny of credulous minds. I expect that this baseless panic, like all fads, will evaporate when apocalypse doesn’t arrive on schedule. Meanwhile let’s focus on legitimate practical issues — such as the grotesque volume of pollution belched by big-rig trucks, which in the absence of an efficient interstate rail system in the U.S. are absurdly carrying freight for thousands of miles from coast to coast. Exhaust from family SUVs is nothing compared to the environmental damage wrought by trucks, whose massive weight and deadline-driven high speeds also constitute an unacceptable risk to passenger vehicles on the highway.

For a gander at nature’s pollution in action, behold this striking video of Mount Etna erupting in Sicily six years ago:

Those poison gases are no slouch. The massive, chattering booms give one some idea of how terrifying volcanoes were to ancient peoples and how eruptions were thought to be messages from an angry god in his gloomy underworld. Nature is not our victim but an awesome, uncontrollable force.

Don Imus’ return to radio last week (after eight months in exile following a racial slur) unfortunately meant the destruction of the popular and long-running “Curtis and Kuby” show at New York’s WABC. Ron Kuby, a radical criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, protested his termination in a scathing piece in Newsday that denounces the national syndication trend for its stifling of dissenting local radio voices.

I was a regular listener to Kuby’s always lively show, and I’m not happy with Imus’ low energy and somnolent pace, which isn’t tailored to urban drive time. Curtis Sliwa often got on my nerves with his adolescent bravado, mockery of Muslim names, and trafficking in degrading Italian stereotypes. But Ron Kuby is a mensch — one of the most intelligent and articulate men in American broadcasting. Plus he loves beer! I will miss him.

I was sorry to read about the death of Jane Rule, an American writer who became a Canadian citizen. Her 1964 novel, “Desert of the Heart,” is a moving, slightly claustrophobic lesbian romance that was made into a sensational 1986 movie, “Desert Hearts,” brilliantly directed by Donna Deitch. According to my records, I saw that film 11 times in theaters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey between May and October of that year. Those were the days!

I could go on and on about the riveting performances and inventive bits of business by Helen Shaver (as a repressed college professor) and Audra Lindley (as a crusty Reno dame). It’s unfortunate that Patricia Charbonneau (as the swashbuckling local lesbo) had only a middling acting career afterward. Part of her magic in “Desert Hearts” is coming from hormonal glow — she had just found out she was pregnant, and she was evidently sick on the set. In “Sexual Personae” I said that the lanky, spirited, mercurial Charbonneau would have made a perfect transvestite Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

What happened to that mini-renaissance of smart, empathic women directors in the ’80s? Deitch never repeated her success with “Desert Hearts.” And neither did Susan Seidelman after “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), Madonna’s major-release screen debut. Both those romantic comedies are so wonderfully crafted and character-driven that they can sustain repeated viewings more than 20 years later.

Seidelman’s success clearly didn’t transfer to the musical version of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” a critical flop that is closing this week in London. Maybe they’ve overdosed on Madonna over there — she’s in their backyards and now dyeing their sheep. Is this what’s driving Amy Winehouse mad?

Elizabeth Hardwick’s death, like Norman Mailer’s, marked the passing of an era. (I’ve written a tribute to Mailer for Rolling Stone’s end-of-year coverage.) As an arch-insider of the East Coast literary world, Hardwick was a superb role model for women writers — cultured and sophisticated without being pretentious; learned without being turgid and academic.

I thought quite a bit about Hardwick as I was writing my commentary on Robert Lowell’s “Man and Wife” for “Break, Blow, Burn.” The poem is a harrowing ode to Hardwick, who nursed her manic-depressive husband through crisis after crisis. I met her on just one occasion in 1974, when she came to speak at Bennington College, my first teaching job. Then chairman of the speakers committee, I was trying to repair my reputation after the fiasco of Susan Sontag’s visit the prior year. (See “Sontag, Bloody Sontag” in “Vamps & Tramps.”) Hardwick could not have been classier or more gracious to her student audience — what a contrast to the entitled attitude of the surly, snobbish Sontag.

Reading in her obits about Hardwick’s central role with the New York Review of Books gave me a gust of déjà vu. Oh, I remember the New York Review of Books — it’s something I subscribed to faithfully in the 1970s and ’80s. I had to jog myself to recall that it’s still being published. The NYRB is now a fringe periodical that I never see anywhere and hardly hear mentioned. When one of its articles ends up posted by chance online, my eyes cross at its dreary, archaic verbosity. What a small, incestuous world its readers and writers inhabit.

Of course, I could say that about the New Yorker too — another publication I literally never see anywhere except in airports. I’ve never been a fan of the New Yorker (except for its cartoons) in any of its incarnations. All that precious, fussy, gassy prose. I listen to real American voices all day long — on sports radio, political talk radio and 24-hour news. And ever since the birth of Salon in 1995, I’ve been a creature of the dynamic Web. Those people at the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are living in an airless cultural void.

On to something far more exciting — it’s Pattie Brooks singing that disco classic, “After Dark,” from the soundtrack of “Thank God It’s Friday” (1978). What silky vocal lines and rapturous lyrics: “The moonlight, the music, and you … The night has fallen, and the moon is shining near … The music is you.” Those thunderous, drilling, midpoint congas! That exquisite, soaring, farewell glissando with the silvery, tinkling chimes!

Now here’s Pattie Brooks last year introducing a new remix of “After Dark.” She looks fabulous — showing a ton of leg and a veritable ripe-fruit basket of bosom and butt. Whew! But what’s happened to the song? It’s been given the standard current gay club treatment — an impersonal, mechanistic pounding. All the lyricism, romance, attunement to nature, and artistic touch are gone. Are we hearing the baleful influence of crystal meth on the gay male world? An obsessive focus on hard partying and status display? Just asking.

Let’s end with a bang. A Salon reader in Germany who signs himself Bougle Fragts sent this amazing video of Sandra Bernhard and Tom Jones on Bernhard’s 1992 HBO special, “Sandra After Dark.” (WARNING, as per Perez Hilton: If you are easily offended, then do not click here!)

Fragts says of the clip, “This is like when sex was provocative instead of being a given, and Bernhard still is. So much so, Tom Jones can’t keep up and looks too slow.” Bernhard’s parodic, scantily clad, randy showgirl turn is a mind-boggling demonstration of sheer sassy athleticism.

I asked Sandra for permission to use the video here. (I’ve known her for years and interviewed her onstage this fall at the University of the Arts, where she was a smash success.) Giving her imprimatur, Sandra mused about “Sandra After Dark”:

can you imagine that now? with all the dumbed down, crystal methed, paris hiltoned, britney speared, one note american idol deal or no dealed fucked up shrunken world view people wandering around in some prescription stupor

i want sexy upscale fun angie dickinson, burt bacharach martini whispering in red velvet banquetted steak houses burt reynolds in the centerfold of cosmopolitan magazine

oh i’ve got to slow down before i freak out!

Mega-dittos from me in Philadelphia!

Camille Paglia’s column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

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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